Thomas Jefferson’s Literary Advice

The most valuable of talents is never using two words when one will do. – Thomas Jefferson

An Example: The Declaration of Independence, First Paragraph

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Granted, Jefferson’s sentence is longer that those most twenty-first century authors write. It’s eighty-one words. Despite its length, though, every word is strong and counts toward clarity. The sentence length is just part of his literary style. That’s what being concise means: using strong words that make it easy for readers to understand a writer’s message. In other words—CLARITY.

Modern writers do well to abide by Jefferson’s sound advice. For tips on how to do this, visit my blog series, “Cut the Clutter.”

The Creek War (1813-1814): Part Nine, Fort Mims Aftermath/Andrew Jackson Gets Involved

During the massacre at Fort Mims, Chief William McIntosh wasn’t idle. The Indian agent to the Creeks, Benjamin Hawkins, sent him to the northern part of Alabama to recruit Cherokees to join the war. McIntosh succeeded in his task.

One consequence of the massacre at Fort Mims was that the Choctaw chief, Pushmataha, traveled to Mobile with George Gaines from St. Stephens, where he offered his warriors to General Thomas Flournoy, commander of the Seventh Military District. At first, Flournoy refused the chief’s offer. Enraged, Pushmataha headed back to St. Stephens with Gaines when a courier overtook them on the road and said the general had changed his mind. At a council, Pushmataha gave an impassioned speech to some five thousand braves.  He’d lost many friends at Fort Mims. He said they needed to avenge their deaths. Almost all of them responded in the affirmative – war! So now, the Americans had another ally.


Credit: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1964

When word of the massacre reached Nashville, demands for vengeance spread throughout Tennessee. The month before, the federal government had authorized the governors of Tennessee and Georgia to raise troops to fight the Red Sticks, and the Nashville Courier used Fort Mims as a reason to “exterminate the Creek nation.” Soon, four armies took to the field.

Armies and Commanders

Andrew Jackson: West Tennessee // John Cocke:: East Tennessee

John Floyd: Georgia// Ferdinand Claiborne:   U.S. Army regulars & militiamen

Allies: Friendly Creeks, Choctaws, and Cherokees

Jackson Marches South

One of Jackson’s closest friends was John Coffee, in command of his cavalry. In October Colonel Coffee’s men rode to Huntsville, in north Alabama. A few days later, Major General Jackson and his militia joined him. They built two supply depots, one of them at the end of the fifty-mile road they cut in six days. Then Jackson continued his march south, determined to destroy every Red Stick village he encountered and cut a highway through their country clear down to Mobile.

For a time, his march stopped on the Coosa River, where he built Fort Strother. Upon learning of a nearby Red Stick town, Tallushatchee, he dispatched Coffee and their Cherokee allies to destroy it. To distinguish themselves from the Red Sticks, the Cherokees wore white feathers and deer tails on their heads. The future hero of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, also participated in this battle.

In the predawn hours of November 3, Coffee’s nine hundred troopers and the Cherokees advanced on Tallushatchee within a mile, and then surrounded it. Detachments of scouts were sent in to draw the Red Sticks out.

The Red Sticks took the bait and charged out of their village, where Coffee’s men caught them in a crossfire. Remembering this fight, Crockett reported that he and others chased forty-six warriors into a house. He wrote: “We shot them like dogs, and then set the house on fire, and burned it up with the forty-six warriors in it.”

Within a mere half hour, 186 Indians were killed, including women and children.

Coffee regretted the deaths of the women and their children, saying in his report that killing them had been an accident due to the warriors fleeing into their homes.

A few days later, Jackson received word from a friendly chief that Weatherford’s 1,000 warriors had surrounded, and was besieging, the village of Talladega some thirty miles from Fort Strother. To slip through Weatherford’s lines, the chief had disguised himself as a hog—put on hogskin, grunted, and walked on his hands and feet in the evening till he made it through the Red Sticks’ camps.

When Jackson learned of this threat to Talladega he, due to his sick and wounded which had depleted his force, first wanted to be reinforced by John Cocke’s men but then decided he couldn’t wait. So, while leaving a token force to guard Fort Strother, Jackson marched to Talladega’s rescue and defeated Weatherford in a decisive victory using Coffee’s tactics. Jackson’s men also captured a Spanish flag at Talladega–evidence of Spain’s alliance with England in supporting the Red Sticks, some seven hundred of whom escaped Jackson’s army. So, the fighting continued.

After this battle, Jackson spent the winter doing battle on a different front: the hunger his troops suffered, many of them now mutinous, and a massacre led by General Cocke’s men that made life ever more difficult for him.


Bunn, Mike and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. First Printing. Charleston: The History Press, 2008.

Griffith, Benjamin W. Jr. McIntosh and Weatherford, Creek Indian Leaders, Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Benefits of a Five Second Courtesy

“Ready.” James looked at his stopwatch then glanced up at Harold and raised his finger. “Get set. Go!”

“Thank you,” Harold said, grinning.

“Ah, now that wasn’t so hard was it., Harold?”

“Nah! It took less than five seconds to say it.”

James put his arm around his friend’s shoulders and steered him toward the snack bar. “Exactly.”

Obviously, James believes saying “thank you” is important. And he’s right! Those two little words carry lots of power. What makes them so powerful?

  1. They express appreciation for whoever we’re thanking and tells them we don’t take them for granted. This feeling of worth is a good motivator for a person to continue doing good deeds for others.
  2. From a business perspective, it can also open doors for wonderful opportunities which may not have opened otherwise. Saying “thank you” is so rare these days, those who say it stand out from the crowd. People remember the “thankers” easier than they do the ungrateful.
  3. Saying “thank you” helps people live happier lives. When we speak these words, we’re focused on others instead of ourselves. Cultivate a habit of gratitude. According to scientific research, those who say “thank you” have better mental and physical health.

So, thank you for reading this short blog. Remember, words of gratitude only takes five seconds.

The Creek War (1813-1814): Part Eight, Fort Sinquefield

Josiah Francis self-portrait, 1815

Like Fort Mims, Fort Sinquefield was a hastily built stockade on an acre of land with just one blockhouse. Unlike Fort Mims, just a few families sought refuge in it when the war broke out. Two of these families – the Ranson Kimbell and Abner James families – left the fort after the Fort Mims massacre in the mistaken (and fatal) belief that the Red Stick threat had ended.

On the afternoon of September 1, a party of Red Sticks attacked Ranson Kimbell’s home where these families had relocated. With the exception of Abner James’s daughter Sarah Merrill and her infant son, all who were present were killed. Other family members avoided death because they weren’t present during the attack. Although Sarah was scalped and left for dead and her son severely injured, she managed to make it back to the fort with him, survived her scalping and her son eventually survived his wounds.

The next day, September 2, some ladies went to a spring about three hundred yards from the stockade to wash clothes when, suddenly, Josiah Francis and one hundred whooping, painted warriors rushed them and the fort. Had it not been for Isaac Hayden’s hunting dogs, all of these ladies might have been killed. When he turned his hounds loose, they sprinted out the fort’s gate and into the attacking Red Sticks, which bought time for them to flee back into the fort. Only one lady was killed in this episode.

With its gate closed, Fort Sinquefield’s residents put up a stout and effective defense. After a two-hour battle, they repulsed the Red Sticks with only one man killed.

Young Jeremiah Austill, who’d soon gain a measure of fame, was sent to General Claiborne’s headquarters at Mount Vernon to deliver a report of the victory.


Bunn, Mike, “Fort Sinquefield,” Encyclopedia of Alabama. Updated September 26, 2018. Fort Sinquefield | Encyclopedia of Alabama

Bunn, Mike and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. First Printing. Charleston: The History Press, 2008.

Halbert, Henry S. and Timothy H. Ball. The Creek War of 1813 and 1814. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry, 1895.

Crutch Words

We writers all have little words we tend to overuse. In literary lingo, these are called crutch words. They’re trite, uninteresting, and are usually the first words that come to mind in a rough draft. Although writing them in a rough draft is fine we must, in our revision, try to limit their use. I’ve listed a few here to watch out for, but it is far from exhaustive,

A Few Crutch Words


















The Creek War (1813-1814), Part Seven, Massacre at Fort Mims

1858 Engraving of the Fort Mims massacre. Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

When I first saw this picture in a 4th-grade history textbook, it sparked my interest in this conflict. So, I’ve had an interest in it for a very long time

On August 29, 1813, two slaves owned by Josiah Fletcher were dispatched from Fort Mims to check on Samuel Mims’s cattle, but they weren’t gone long. They ran back to the fort and reported seeing Indians. However, when Major Beasley sent out a patrol to investigate, none were found. Consequently, he whipped one of the slaves for giving a false alarm.

The next morning, a similar thing happened. Fletcher’s slave, the one who’d been whipped, was sent out with another slave to check on the cattle. But instead, Fletcher’s slave went to nearby Fort Pierce, two miles southeast of Fort Mims and closer to Mobile. The other slave returned and said he’d seen Indians too.

Soon after this James Cornells, a métis, galloped into the fort alerting the garrison that the Creeks were on their way. Beasley, according to Cornells after the war, was drunk and said, “You saw red cows, man.”

At noon, Weatherford’s warriors attacked from the north, south, and east. They poured through the east gate, killing Beasley when he vainly tried shutting it. A militia company, guarding the gate, was wiped out.

Warriors from the northern sector rushed through the open west gate but encountered a locked inner gate. Upon capturing its guardhouse, they scaled the pickets and occupied the blockhouse.

From the south, warriors dominated the southern pickets’ rifle holes, felling one person after another.  

Along the northern sector, however, Captain Dixon Bailey, the garrison’s most competent officer, put up a stout defense. None of his pickets’ loopholes were captured, and his men were well-disciplined.

Then, suddenly, the Creeks retreated because some of their prophets, who’d boasted that no bullet could kill them, had indeed been killed. During this lull, Weatherford’s warriors conferred at a nearby house regarding their next move. In the meantime, Captain Bailey took command of the fort.

At the Red Stick conference, Weatherford advised against a renewed attack, but no one listened. So he and his slaves rode to his half-brother David Tate’s house not far from the tragic scene. He’d had enough of the fighting and bloodshed for the day. No one listened to him. Women and children had been killed. He knew what would come next. He hated it.

About an hour after their withdrawal, the Indians resumed their attack, slaughtering and scalping, and burning Mims’ house and surrounding buildings. When it was all over, 250 people inside the fort were killed and about 100 were captured.

A few defenders, however, managed to escape the carnage. Some went to Fort Stoddert. One of them, a slave named Hester, found a canoe on the Tensaw River. Despite being shot, she managed to row to the fort, the first person to bring news of the disaster.

This massacre led Andrew Jackson, up in Tennessee, to get involved. We’ll discuss his role in a later post.  


Bunn, Mike and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. Fourth Printing. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.

Gregory A. Waselkov, “Fort Mims and Massacre,” updated January 11, 2018, Fort Mims Battle and Massacre | Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Waselkov, Gregory A. A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814, Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2006.

Stop, Look and Listen

Photo by Pixabay on

Many writers tend to be introverted, but I don’t know if a person can say that about me. Well, maybe to a certain degree when I’m in strange crowds, but I reckon I’m actually somewhere between the two extremes. After all, I often got in trouble in school for being the class clown, even though nobody, especially teachers, thought I was funny.

As writers, however, we need to be willing to crawl out of our literary shells from time to time and get around people. Early in my career, I often visited shopping malls. There, I’d sit on a bench, observe and listen to shoppers. I’d even have a notebook with me on occasion and took notes. Some may consider this a waste of time. Even strange. It wasn’t. I was studying people – how they walked, how they talked, their body language, and their reactions to different situations. It came in handy later on when I began writing fiction.

How does studying people come in handy? Let’s look at one example. If we observe how a person gets angry, we can then use the way he/she demonstrated anger for one of our story’s angry characters. Not everyone yells when they’re angry, not everyone stomps their foot, and so on. Everyone is unique and thus, everyone shows his/her emotion in different ways. So, observation is one way we learn to improve our craft.

Listening is also important, especially for dialogue.  In addition to reading, study dialogue in movies and television. Movie scripts are, after all, primarily speech. Just as in novels, good dialogue is one of the hallmarks of a good movie or television show.

Of course, when we’re around people we can learn dialogue by engaging them in conversation. What are some unique expressions people use? Do they talk fast, speak slowly or use clipped sentences? Try to imitate these and other patterns in your characters’ dialogue. Also, observe peoples’ body language. Our stories will be all the better for it.

So take time to get out among the crowds. Take time to stop, look, and listen.

The Creek War(1813-1814), Part Six, Prelude to a Massacre

This diagram of Fort Mims is called the Claiborne Map, but in truth, we don’t know who drew it. It was probably drawn by one of General Claiborne’s men who came to bury the dead after the massacre.

The Settlers

When Samuel Mims moved to the Tensaw Region in 1780, in what would become the Mississippi Territory, he settled near Lake Tensaw just north of Spanish-held Mobile. Here he built his wealth. By 1811, he owned lots of land and cattle and a profitable ferry that crossed the Alabama River. In addition to this, he owned and sold slaves. Befitting a man of his means, his house was an expensive, one-story frame structure with ten outbuildings—not the more common log houses most pioneers lived in.

When hostilities broke out at Burnt Corn Creek, Territorial Governor Thomas Holmes ordered General Ferdinand Claiborne’s Mississippi Territorial Volunteers to the Tensaw and Tombigbee settlements.

The settlers, though, weeks before the battle, had already begun building stockades. In total, there were fifteen. After he arrived at Fort Stoddert, General Claiborne reduced this number to five and put Major Daniel Beasley in command of Fort Mims, the largest of them. Its timber pickets (sharpened stakes) enclosed Mims’ house on 1¼ acre of land. Settlers poured into it and nearby Fort Pierce. So crowded had Fort Mims become, and so close to swamps, that disease afflicted many of its inhabitants.

Prior to the Creek War Beasley had served in the Mississippi Territorial Legislature (1811-1812), and had also served as a sheriff and a justice of the peace. But he had a drinking problem too – a poor choice of a commander on Claiborne’s part.

After an inspection on August 7, General Claiborne ordered Beasley to build two more blockhouses in addition to the one already partially built and to strengthen the fort in other ways.  Beasley failed to do this, grew complacent because of numerous false reports about Red Sticks lurking nearby, and doubted he’d be attacked. He even left the main gate wide open. Over a period of time sand (or more likely clay) built up around the gate, so hard and thick, that it couldn’t be moved. This would play a major role in the fort’s demise.

The Red Sticks

In late August, after many days of hard rain, Red Stick war parties assembled on Flat Creek on the Alabama River under the overall command of William Weatherford. One thousand strong and coming from thirteen towns, the chiefs and prophets had asked him to lead the attack on Fort Mims because it had been his idea.

A small part of this army, under command of the prophet Josiah Francis, broke away from Weatherford’s force and headed to another fort, Fort Sinquefield.

Weatherford, with seven hundred warriors, proceeded to Fort Mims. On the evening of August 29, they camped near it undiscovered. With two other warriors, he scouted it out in the evening, sneaking right up to its pickets undetected. He heard the people inside it carrying on as usual. He noticed that the pickets’ rifle holes were made about four feet from the ground, which made them easy to capture. And its gate was wide open. Weatherford was convinced that no one inside expected a thing. Tomorrow, August 30, catching the fort by surprise was certain.

Upon his return to camp, it’s believed that he told his warriors to spare the women and children, but instead, capture them and make them slaves. “Only kill warriors,” he is said to have told them, referring to the white and métis males.

Sadly, tragically, no one would heed his words.


Bunn, Mike and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. Fourth Printing. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.

Waselkov, Gregory A. A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814, Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2006

NEXT WEEK: The Massacre at Fort Mims

Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue

Well-written, effective dialogue is not real conversation, but it should sound like it.

A Bad Example

“Hey, Jane. How are you doing?” Bob said.

“Pretty good,” Jane said. “And you?”

“Just fine.”

“Are you on your lunch break?”

“Sure. Are you?”

“Yes, I am.”

What’s wrong with my example? Four things.

  • It has zero conflict.
  •  It’s boring (just basic chit-chat).
  • It doesn’t reveal anything about the characters’ personalities and/or interests.
  •  It doesn’t drive the story forward.

A Few Tips

  • Every line of dialogue must have a purpose. If it doesn’t contribute to characterization and advance the plot, delete it and/or revise it till it does.
  • A character’s dialogue must fit his/her personality, education, and emotions. A few examples: (a) If a character is uneducated, give him/her a limited vocabulary. Let the character use simple one and two-syllable words as well as bad grammar. (b) If a character is a narcissist, show it in the way he/she talks. Let that character talk about himself/herself a lot, brag, put down others, etc. In other words, talk and act like a narcissist. (c) If a character is well educated, give him/her a strong vocabulary and let him/her use a few long, multisyllabic words, at least occasionally.
  • Characters don’t always have to respond to another character. Sometimes, silence speaks louder than words.
  • Use contractions. People often use contractions when they talk, so these are a great device to make our characters’ dialogue sound natural.
  • Know your characters. The more we know our characters, their personalities and what motivates them, the easier it becomes to write their dialogue. Even so, writing it effectively is still hard. Getting to know our characters takes time and work. Writing character sketches and their biographies is a great help.
  • Train yourself to listen. Wherever you go, watch people and listen to how they talk. Television and movies are great ways to learn. After all, movie and television scripts are mostly written in dialogue. Spend some time analyzing the actors’ words, how what they say conveys their characters’ emotions and actions.
  • Study other writers’ dialogue. Learn what makes it work, or why it doesn’t work.

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As one can see, lots of work goes into writing effective dialogue, but the time and effort spent learning is worth it. I hope some of my tips have proved useful in your writing. Till next time!

The Creek War (1813-1814), Part Five: Burnt Corn Creek, The First Battle

Reenactors “fighting” the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek, not far from the site of the actual battle. Photo Credit: The author of this blog.

In the spring of 1813, the Creeks’ civil war was drawing to a close with the Red Sticks on the verge of winning. Meanwhile, the United States was fighting Great Britain a second time and Britain’s ally, Spain, threatened settlers from West Florida. Though Mobile was now in American hands, the Spanish still held Pensacola as West Florida’s capital. Along the Tensaw, Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers, settlers began building stockades.

The Red Sticks, encouraged by their prophets and the earth’s tremors Tecumseh had prophesied would hit their land,[1] raided the farms of those who opposed them. A party of hostiles under the leadership of Peter McQueen, head warrior of Tallassee, headed for Pensacola, the second such party that went to that town. On the way, when McQueen’s warriors burned plantations owned by métis planters Sam Moniac and James Cornells, word spread like a forest fire—the Red Sticks were going to get ammunition from the Spaniards to fight them!  

Colonel James Caller, commander of the region’s territorial militia, called his men to action. Six companies of riflemen and Captain Dixon Bailey’s thirty métis from the Tensaw, a total of 180 militiamen, marched to find the enemy.

On July 26, they encountered McQueen’s men returning from Pensacola with their packhorses.  At eleven o’clock, during the Creeks’ meal, Caller mounted a surprise attack.

McQueen’s warriors fled across Burnt Corn Creek into a marsh, but then counterattacked while the militiamen plundered what they’d captured. The undisciplined volunteers scattered. Not long after this, they disbanded.

Not many casualties to report in this brief battle but because of Burnt Corn Creek, panicked settlers fled into their stockades. One of these was built on an acre of land around the home of Samuel Mims. His fort, aptly named Fort Mims, would go down in history as one of America’s bloodiest massacres … and the bloodiest one in America’s Old Southwest.


Bunn, Mike and Clay Williams. Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812. Fourth Printing. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.

Waselkov, Gregory A. A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814, Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2006

[1] This was the New Madrid earthquake that hit New Madrid, Missouri in December 1811. It was a coincidence, and it frightened settlers and Indians alike. Tecumseh also prophesied about a comet, something he knew would come because British scientists in Canada had told him he and others would see it. It came over Alabama in September of 1811.