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Historical Novels: Their Importance

 

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“Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.”

Louis L’Amour (2008). “Education of a Wandering Man”, p.15, Bantam

Mister L’Amour’s words have proven true in my life. My three favorite genres have always been history, historical fiction and biographies, even as a child.

The historical fiction books I read during my growing-up years, such as The Horse Soldiers (Harold Sinclair), The Black Arrow (Robert Louis Stevenson), and The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) spurred my youthful hunger for more knowledge about these books’ eras. Getting lost in the past was, for me, sheer joy.

Sadly, many people today have little knowledge of the past. They learn their history from “historical” movies, most of which aren’t entirely accurate. It’s become easier to watch a film than it is to read.

So, we historical fiction writers have a challenge. Our writing must be at the “top of our game.” Not only must we write well, we must also keep our facts accurate. Our books may not win a Pulitzer Prize write like Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, about the Battle of Gettysburg, but if our historical novels get more folks interested in learning about the past, our time and labor is worth it. 

Research, write, and read! Till next time, friends. Have a great week.

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When the World Turns Against You

 

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While David, his men and their families fled King Saul, they escaped to the Philistine city of Gath for protection. Here he and his men joined forces with Gath’s King Achish. After establishing a base at Ziklag, David raided such peoples as the Amalekites, the Geshurites, and the Girzites. Then, in order to gain Achish’s confidence, he told the king that he’d raided Judah.

One day, during a march from Aphek against King Saul, none of the Philistine commanders, except Achish, trusted him.  Soon they forced him to leave their army.

Three days later, David and his men arrived in Ziklag. Horror and anger shot through their veins. The Amalekites had burned it and kidnapped everyone in it, including two of David’s wives and the wives and children of his men.

Consequently, his men turned against him. To quote one of my favorite Old Testament passages: And David was greatly distressed; for the people spake of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and for his daughters: but David encouraged himself in the LORD his God (1 Samuel 30:6, KJV).

Not only did David feel alone, he was distressed and alone. His men who’d been with him throughout his ordeals now wanted to kill him. Have you ever been in a place where all your friends suddenly turn on you, or where it feels like the whole world has turned against you? I know I have. Loneliness, and the feeling of it, is no fun.

Unfortunately, in this “me-centered” society we’re living in., encouragers are rare these days. That’s why I like this verse. David shows us what to do when no one’s around to give us comfort and encouragement during difficult times. He encouraged himself in the Lord.

Next time you feel isolated and alone, try it. Encouraging yourself in the Lord works, and that’s a guarantee.

NOTE: This article is based on 1 Samuel 27, and 29-30.

 

The Author Who Lived in His Pajamas

What do you do when you’re wearing pajamas? Do you go to bed, as I do, or do you go to work in them? This question may sound stupid, and the answer obvious. But such is not the case for one famous author—Shelby Foote.

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Mister Foote once told The Paris Review that he lived in his pajamas. In other words, he wore them almost all the time at home. Another peculiarity about this famous twentieth century writer and friend of William Faulkner—he wrote with a dip inkwell pen.

Oh, he’d eventually type out his manuscripts, but when he whipped out his first drafts these pens were his preferred writing tool. He considered himself a novelist. And he was, having written five novels in five years. The French and Italians loved his books, all of them bestsellers in their respective countries.

However, in the United States, he wasn’t well-known until late in life. Thanks to his famous trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, he’s recognized in the States as a historian. He spent twenty years living in his pajamas while writing this massive series…with a dip inkwell pen.

What brought him to literary prominence in the States? Ken Burns’s television documentary, The Civil War (1990). In this series, Foote provided major commentary. His physical appearance and Mississippi drawl…It was as though he’d fought in that war himself and then stepped through a time machine to tell us “moderns” about it. Because of his “stardom” in this documentary, sales of his trilogy soared.

He passed away on June 29, 2005, at the age of eighty-eight.

Source

Coleman, Carter and Donald Faulkner and William Kennedy. “Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158.” The Paris Review, Issue 151 Summer 1999, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/931/shelby-foote-the-art-of-fiction-no-158-shelby-foote.

 

 

 

 

Indie versus Traditional Publishing: My Thoughts on the Subject

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cat and booksMany years ago, what I often call those “typewriter days,” I taught a writing class where I often warned my students about subsidy publishers. I always advised going the traditional route. What is a subsidy publisher? It’s a company that promises huge royalties (such as seventy percent of the retail price) and makes its authors pay thousands of dollars to be published. It’s not illegal, because these companies do follow-through with their publishing commitments.

However, no bookstores stock their books, which explains why they can promise huge royalties. Why don’t bookstores carry their titles? Because, so long as authors pay them, they publish every manuscript submitted to them regardless of the book’s literary quality. These publishers make money off the author, not off the few customers who buy their books.

As for traditional publishers, their royalty payments usually start at ten percent of a book’s retail price. Also, they don’t accept every manuscript that crosses their editors’ desks. Always on the lookout for well-written, marketable books, nowadays these publishers also consider the size of an author’s platform.

For some traditional publishers an author’s platform is the first thing they consider, something I recently learned at a writers’ conference. During the typewriter days, these publishers usually looked at an author’s literary background and bylines first. Oh, how things have changed!

Balanced Publishing

Fast forward to the “internet days.” Along came Amazon, Book Baby, Lulu, and similar self-publishers. Now anyone can have their work published. Because I’ve been published both ways, traditional and indie, I see advantages and disadvantages to each approach. So, why not go both routes? I would, and I do. Let some books find a traditional publisher, and let others be indie-published. This is a good balance between the two, I think.

What I love most about being indie published, though, is its freedom. Freedom to write what I want, and freedom from worry about query letters, synopses, outlines, searching for agents, etc. I know my book will be published…by me! Thus, I can focus even more on the quality of my writing. And herein lies the main problem I see with numerous indie books—so many are poorly written.

It’s imperative that we indie authors produce quality material written at a professional level. Amateur writing not only reflects badly on us, it also reflects badly on the self-publishing industry, and it hinders our chances that customers will purchase our future books.

Read the next section for tips on how to be a good indie author.

How to be a Good Indie Author

1. Study hard. Just because it’s become easier to get published doesn’t mean everyone    should do it. Study the craft, practice the craft. Take writing classes, subscribe to writing magazines, read websites that discuss writing. We must learn everything we can about it.

2. Work hard. Revision holds the key to literary excellence but unless we know what things to look for, which comes through study, we won’t know what to change. Never be satisfied with a first, second, or even a third draft. Once we’ve finished our work, put it aside for a few weeks then return to it. It always surprises me how many things I catch that need fixing when I do this. Input from those in writers’ groups also helps.

3. Get bylines. What’s a byline? It’s the author’s name on a published work. When we reach the point where we can sell our work to traditional magazines and such, we know we’re starting to write at a professional level. It is then that we should consider going indie. This, of course, is my own opinion.

4. Find professionals. Once we’ve honed our manuscript to the best of our ability,  hire these three professionals for the final touches: (1) Freelance editors, (2) cover designers, and (3) interior formatters.

Freelance Editors–If spelling and grammatical errors riddle our prose, our book   shouts “amateur” at the top of its lungs. Another benefit of good freelance  editors?  They’ll offer us honest feedback that will help us improve our work.

Cover Designers–Don’t underestimate a book cover’s importance. Good covers prompt potential readers to open our book and consider purchasing it.

Interior Formatters–Finally, if the book’s interior formatting is shoddy, “amateur” once again sounds loud and clear.

Where’s a good place to find these professionals? I recommend upwork.com.

Well, much more could be said on this subject. I may have more to say in future posts. Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on this subject?

Till next time, folks. Have a great week!

The Rule of Ten

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Do you want to sell more articles and stories? Well, the answer’s obvious, of course. The more manuscripts we submit to editors, the greater the chances are that one of them will find publication.

That said, let me share a tip I learned early in my literary career. It’s called “The Rule of Ten.” The idea behind it is this: By constantly keeping at least ten manuscripts circulating to ten different publishers, at least one of them will likely find a home. Every time we sell an article or receive a rejection, submit another one to take its place. Ten, always keep ten in circulation.

This doesn’t mean we write poorly, but it does mean we must keep our creative juices flowing so we’ll have those “extras” to submit when needed. 

When I tried this, I learned it served me well! Another benefit? It softened the blow of rejections. Hey, so what if an editor didn’t like my article or story? I had nine more making the rounds, and another tenth one about to go in the mail. Or as we say nowadays, “about to be e-mailed.” 

Give this principle a try. It may work for you, too.  

Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Historical Fiction Research: Newspapers

Scan_20170116 (2)These photos were taken by my father, Dr. John M. Cunningham

Many years ago, while four friends and I traveled to Tennessee during a Labor Day break from college, my car struck a huge concrete culvert head-on at sixty miles per hour. My engine erupted into flames like what we often see in the movies, and we were nearly killed.

Upon my father’s arrival at the hospital where we were recovering, he handed me a local newspaper that “told what happened.” I put this in quotes because the reporter got most everything wrong. The major thing he got wrong? He said we were sideswiped by a truck. Though in pain, I chuckled. Ours was a single-car accident due to careless driving. A passing truck driver was the one who rescued us. I learned then not to believe everything I read in a newspaper. Journalists are people; they do make factual errors.

I carry this knowledge into my historical research. Like today’s newspapers, old newspapers’ facts are sometimes either outright wrong or twisted, and they’re also biased just like our modern newspapers. Though studying old newspapers can be helpful, my motto is this: “Researcher, beware.”

What value, then, do we find by using newspapers as a source? Since my specialty is the nineteenth century, let me share some useful things we can glean from them and incorporate into our historical fiction. I’ll be using as my source The Daily Ranchero, a newspaper once published in Brownsville, Texas. I’ll be using various issues of this paper, all from the year 1865, after the Civil War ended.

1. We can learn the prices of goods sold at the time. On one of The Daily Ranchero’s broadsheets, we find a list of items that would be sold at auction along with their prices. Here’s a sample: star candles ($18-$20), quinine ($1.50 per ounce), rip saws ($1.35), etc. The list is way too long to reproduce in its entirety.

2. Weather reports for a particular day are often found in these newspapers. This helps keep our scene’s weather accurate if we’re writing about a specific day in history.

3. Advertisements in these old papers are great! Not only do they tell us which businesses were around in the era we’ve chosen, they often give street names and specific addresses. We can learn the names of restaurants, hotels, and stagecoach lines, such as Arnold & Wheeler’s, in The Daily Ranchero.

4. What kind of medicine did they use in 1865? A drug store advertisement gives us an idea. The Brownsville Drug Store advertised the arrival of new stock: citrate of magnesia, seltzer aperient, etc. It added, “Prices very much reduced in accordance with times and market.”

5. What about standard news articles? We can and should also use them, of course. However, as I mentioned earlier, “Researcher, beware.” Study these articles with a critical eye, watching out for bias and errors of fact and similar things. Always double-check these articles with other sources before using the information in our work.

Well, I hope this has given my readers a few ideas on how to use newspapers in historical research. Till next week, friends, keep on writing!

Let’s Have a Conversation

 

Placeholder ImageHas anyone ever told you that  you write like you talk? That’s a great thing to hear if they did. Indeed, it’s a compliment, because good writing carries with it a conversational, natural-sounding style, whereas poor writing is stilted and sounds forced. Stilted writing bores readers, whereas conversational writing pleases them, thus encouraging them to keep reading.

What is stilted writing?

1. Stilted writing sounds formal. It uses formal words instead of the everyday words most people use.

2. Stilted writing doesn’t use contractions.

   a. Stilted sentence: “I am sorry I was late.”

   b. More natural sentence: “I’m sorry I was late.”

3. Read your prose aloud. Better yet, read it into a voice recorder, then play back what you’ve read. Does it sound like natural conversation? If so, great! If not, more work needs to be done.

As writers, then, let’s aim for a conversational style. It should sound like we’re talking to readers from an easy chair, telling them a story. To achieve this requires lots of work and lots of practice. Here are a few tips that’ll help.

1. Use contractions. Why? Because people use contractions in their everyday speech.

2. Vary sentence lengths but be concise. Good writing makes every word count toward the reader’s understanding of a sentence no matter what the sentence’s length. If a word or phrase doesn’t contribute toward understanding a sentence’s meaning, if it’s just hanging out there serving no purpose, get rid of it.

3. Vary our sentence structures. Since sentence structure is beyond the scope of this post, I recommend finding and studying a good grammar book that discusses it.

Till next time, friends, keep on writing!