February 1: I will be attending the Southern Christian Writers Book Expo at Lakeside Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The Expo’s hours will be between 10 a.m and 3 p.m. I’ll have a book table and will be autographing books. If you’re in the Birmingham area, come by for a visit!
In all my years of writing historical fiction, I’ve found one thing to be the most challenging, yet also fun. It’s writing a character’s biography.
We writers must write our characters’ biographies, at least all the major characters’ stories, in order to get to know them better. Oftentimes their personalities will surprise us, as well as their motivations, education, strengths, weaknesses, and so on. The more time we spend with them, the more they become our literary “friends.”
What is challenging, at least for me, is writing their backstory. Why? Because their backstory must be believable within its historical context as well as contribute to the character’s personality, motives, and so on.
Let me use my home state, for example. If I write a story set in 1850s Mobile, Alabama, and use a character’s backstory (or even a flashback) set in 1817 Alabama, I cannot have a significant event happening to him in Montgomery, Alabama in that year, nor could he reach Montgomery by train.
Why not? For two reasons: (1) Alabama didn’t have railroads in 1818. He’d have probably traveled on horseback, in a wagon or carriage, or maybe a stagecoach, a common mode of travel during this era. (2) Montgomery wasn’t a city in 1817. In fact, it consisted of several small settlements. My character could visit one of these settlements and have a few critical events happen in his life there, but not in Montgomery. However, he could visit Montgomery in 1819 after two of the settlements incorporated to form the town.
To sum up, research the history, inventions, modes of travel, and so forth that surrounded our characters’ pasts as thoroughly as we do their present events. Because if their pasts aren’t historically accurate and believable, we’ll certainly lose readers.
As a writer of historical fiction, one of my favorite primary sources are letters and diaries. We can learn so much about an era through reading them. The way people talked, games they played, food they ate, issues people faced and what they thought about certain events of their times …the list could continue for pages.
Regarding Southern history, I own many such sources from my chosen era, the nineteenth century. Among them, The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon. This diary is unique in two ways: Clara was Jewish, and she came from a middle-class family.
Another excellent source I own is The Civil War Diary of Sarah Morgan. And, if you share my interest in naval history, her brother James Morris Morgan wrote Recollections of a Rebel Reefer. He served in the Confederate Navy.
I own other published diaries and letters, too. I don’t think we can ever have enough of these memories published.
Thankfully, my late father left me written memories of his experiences in the Pacific Theater during World War Two. I also interviewed him about his wartime service before he died, which I recorded on a cassette. I realize we have lots of published memories of these veterans out there, but World War Two was the greatest conflict of the twentieth century and the greatest generation fought it. In the near future, I’ll be culling through my father’s recollections and working on his memoirs. It will require lots of work because he left me with so much, thus, I don’t have any firm date for its release yet. Though subject to change, the memoir is tentatively titled: Memoirs of a Pharmacist’s Mate in World War Two. It will be my second non-fiction book.
Squire, A Mascot’s Tale, a dog story set during America’s Civil War, is now available for purchase at Amazon in both paperback and Kindle.
Synopsis: At the outbreak of the Civil War, and against his wife Rachel’s pleadings, Captain Jesse Webb takes his beloved dog Squire to war as his regiment’s mascot. By 1863, they’re posted in Port Hudson, Louisiana. Here Jesse encounters his old rival for Rachel’s hand, Colonel Hampton Lafayette Marsden, who’d killed Jesse’s brother in a duel a few years earlier. Here, too, Squire kills a fighting bulldog in self-defense.The bulldog’s owner, Aaron Blevin, conspires with Marsden against Squire and Jesse. In exchange for Squire, Blevin’s daughter Giselle promises to have an “affair” with Jesse, designed to ruin Jesse’s honor and marriage as Marsden’s revenge for losing Rachel to him. When Rachel unexpectedly arrives at the garrison and Blevin captures Squire, trouble for both of them ramp up. Squire’s life hangs in the balance; Jesse’s marriage is on the line. Will Rachel forgive Jesse’s “affair” and for losing Squire? Will Squire survive his ordeal and find his way home while the Union army battles the Rebel garrison?
Squire, A Civil War Dog Story, To be Released Soon by Ashland Park Books
At the outbreak of the Civil War, and against his wife Rachel’s pleadings, Captain Jesse Webb takes his beloved dog Squire to war as his regiment’s mascot. By 1863, they’re posted in Port Hudson, Louisiana. Here Jesse encounters his old rival for Rachel’s hand, Colonel Hampton Lafayette Marsden, who’d killed Jesse’s brother in a duel a few years earlier. Here, too, Squire kills a fighting bulldog in self-defense.
The bulldog’s owner, Aaron Blevin, conspires with Marsden against Squire and Jesse. In exchange for Squire, Blevin’s daughter Giselle promises to have an “affair” with Jesse, designed to ruin Jesse’s honor and marriage as Marsden’s revenge for losing Rachel to him. When Rachel unexpectedly arrives at the garrison and Blevin captures Squire, trouble for both of them ramp up. Squire’s life hangs in the balance; Jesse’s marriage is on the line. Will Rachel forgive Jesse’s “affair” and for losing Squire? Will Squire survive his ordeal and find his way home while the Union army battles the Rebel garrison?
Clasping his boat’s anchor, Luke Lowery waded through Mississippi Sound’s gentle surf, dragging his long wooden boat behind him. His friend Henry Edwards sloshed ahead, up onto Bugle Island’s sunbaked sand. Fiddler crabs scurried into their holes; salty air flushed his sinuses. The cackle of gulls, the splashing of leaping mullets and the waves washing ashore, nature’s aquatic symphony, nudged his worries to the cold, dark recesses of his mind.
Anticipation rolled through him. A weekend of camping, floundering, and fishing awaited, his favorite summer activity during his rare weekends off. This sure beat getting kicked around at work. Most important, though, it granted him the time he needed to consider switching occupations. If he didn’t reach a decision by Monday, he’d lose the opportunity for a pleasanter desk job.
Two days ago, his potential employer promised him the weekend to consider his new job offer. Was it worth the decent money he earned, though he got shoved around, or should he quit and accept this new job offer with its leaner paycheck? Desk jobs could be boring, but—
“Luke!” Henry yelled. “Toss it to me!”
Luke tossed the anchor toward him underhanded and continued wading through the warm surf to the beach.
Henry, a short, wiry man who sported a neat, waist-length red beard reminiscent of a Civil War soldier, jammed the anchor’s flukes into the sand. With his right foot, he pounded them in deeper.
Luke’s gaze followed an osprey circling a white cabin cruiser that rode at anchor some twenty yards east. A man whose bulging muscles practically burst apart his red tee shirt stood in its stern watching them through binoculars. He wore an out of the past haircut—a flattop.
“That guy dropped anchor a few minutes ago,” Henry said.
“I saw him.”
“You know the guy?”
Though the man looked familiar, Luke shook his head. “Don’t think so.” It couldn’t be him, not after all these years. Could it? He hoped not. High school memories. Bad memories. Growing up in Theodore, Alabama had been no easy task for him. “Let’s get our gear and make camp. Then we’ll do some fishing.”
Henry followed him back to their boat.
Sitting cross-legged on a dune while rummaging through hooks and lures in his tackle box, Luke found his stringer for his catch.
Henry sauntered to water’s edge where the beach turned moist and dark due to the inbound waves. He made a practice cast as the surf receded from his ankles. “All set?” He reeled in his line.
“Ready.” Luke stood and stuffed his stringer into his jeans pocket. He picked up his rod, tackle box, and metal bait bucket full of shrimp they’d caught by trolling a net on their way here.
Before they turned to go, a deep voice boomed from a dune behind them. “What’d you think you’re doin’, Lukey baby?”
Luke’s heart drummed hard. So it was him on that cabin cruiser. “Fishing, Chuckey.”
“Hey, buddy. Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Luke did so in no great panic. He slouched, trying to appear indifferent to Chuck Bates’s arrival. In reality, he wished the big ox hadn’t showed up. Now his trip was ruined.
Chuck’s beady black eyes flashed from his weathered face. “This is my fishin’ spot. Got that?” Chuck raised his ham fist, strode down the dune, and brushed it across Luke’s face. “You and your l’il pal get to the other side of the island.”
Luke blinked, his nemesis’s knuckles practically touching his nose. “Henry and I are going. We’re leaving our boat where it is if that’s all right with you.”
“Yeah, Lukey baby. Just so you ain’t fishin’ in my spot.”
“Now don’t you go worry your ugly little head about that none. We ain’t fishin’ in your spot.” Henry spoke sarcastically.
“Shut that smart mouth of yours, l’il man. I’m headin’ back to my boat for my fishin’ gear, and if I see either of you here when I get back—”
“Yeah, yeah. We’re going.” Luke waved him off.
“Reckon you do know him, then.” Henry followed Luke over the dunes toward the island’s Gulf side.
“Wasn’t sure at first, but yeah, I know him.”
“Why’d you take that business from him?”
Luke kept his eyes straight ahead. He had his reasons. Nobody’s business why he took it from him. “Maybe we’ll catch more fish than Chuck.”
“You’re not going to answer my question?”
Ten minutes later, on the island’s opposite side, they baited their hooks, waded into the Gulf thigh-deep, and cast their lines.
Luke debated whether or not he should accept the job offer. His mind chugged through and around every angle, the plusses and minuses of each job. But every time he neared a decision, Chuck Bates’s image jumped onto his mental rails and smacked his train of thought right off its tracks. Obviously, though they were both in their forties, Chuck never outgrew the bully stage. Pity the people who made him angry.
In high school, Chuck called him worse names than Lukey. He’d accused him of stealing his gym clothes, something he did not do, which resulted in Chuck failing physical education. He became a laughing-stock for that “F.” Despite Luke’s denials, Chuck cornered him against the lockers one day after school.
“Meet me at the park,” Chuck said, his breath so foul Luke wondered if he’d brushed his teeth.
At the park, fists flying, they went at each other. Within minutes, Chuck almost pummeled him senseless.
“Looka, Luke! I got one!” Henry’s excited voice jerked Luke out of his musings.
Henry reeled faster, till his catch dangled mid-air off his hook.
“He’ll fit the frying pan,” Luke said.
“My frying pan.” Henry lowered his rod and started working the fish off the hook.
Luke reeled in his line. “Whatever.”
Once they caught their legal limit Luke and Henry, weaving over and between dunes, pounded sand back to their boat. Luke dragged his stringer-load of fish behind him. Atop one dune, amidst sea oats, their stride broke at events below them. They gasped. Two men faced Chuck. A beanpole of a man aimed a pistol at him. A short, muscular man’s filet knife pointed at Chuck’s stomach.
Chuck waved his fists and shouted something unintelligible at them.
The pistol man closed in, then slapped his face.
Luke and Henry swapped glances.
“What’s going on?” Henry asked.
Luke dropped his stringer.
“Maybe we should call the police.” Henry pulled his phone from his shirt pocket and took it out of its waterproof case.
“Yeah. Do that.” Luke assessed the situation. Despite having as much love for Chuck as he did a rattlesnake, his sense of honor trumped his ill will toward his childhood foe. “Stay here, Henry.”
“But—” Henry tapped in the marine police’s number.
“Stay here, I said. Come running if it looks like I need you.” Luke proceeded toward Chuck, cupped his hands around his mouth, and yelled, “You fellers caught any fish today?”
The armed men swiveled toward him. Cruelty contorted their bronze countenances.
Luke grinned at the man holding the pistol. “Hey, mister, what’s with your Nerf gun?”
“Shut up, Lukey.” Chuck quivered, fear and rage rumbling through his husky voice.
Luke gestured at the shorter man’s knife. “I caught my limit today. May I borrow your knife to clean ’em?”
“You’d better shut up.” Chuck’s voice was even-toned. “Mario ain’t playin’ no games.”
“Oh? You’re Mario?” Thumb up and forefinger extended like a pistol, Luke aimed it at the beanpole man. “Bang.”
“You’d better listen to your friend.” Mario’s pistol targeted Luke’s chest.
Luke eyed the gun. “Guess I’d better listen then, eh, Mario?” Then he leapt into the air, his left foot slamming Mario’s ribcage before his gun discharged skyward. Mario staggered backward; his pistol dropped from his hand. Luke’s ninety-to-nothing follow-up punch crumpled him, unconscious, on the sand.
The knife-man slashed at him. Luke dodged then planted another foot in his ribcage followed by a one-two knockout punch for good measure.
Chuck’s jaw went slack. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
“Took up martial arts after that day you beat the daylights out of me. I kept it a secret in case you tried something again. Go get a rope out of my boat. We’ll tie ‘em up before they come to.”
By this time, Henry joined them. He slid his phone back inside his shirt pocket. “The police are on their way.”
Chuck’s expression softened. “I’m indebted to you, Luke.”
Luke kicked a piece of driftwood. “No big deal. Who are these guys?”
“They claimed they were runnin’ from the cops when their boat broke down on the island’s west end. They wanted my keys so they could swipe mine.” Chuck sauntered to Luke’s boat and returned with two thin white ropes, which he and Luke used to tie the criminals’ hands behind their backs.
“Guess it appears I’ll keep my current job.” Luke studied the unconscious criminals sprawled face down. “In times like these, it pays to get kicked around.”
Chuck scratched his head. “Kicked around? What’d you talkin’ about?”
“A karate school in Bay Minette. I’m an assistant teacher there, and I’m also a blackbelt. Was going to change jobs, but kids need to know how to defend themselves. You taught me that after you scrambled my brains. Got tired of letting those kids kick and punch me during practice, but well, I guess what happened today proves it’s worth it.”
Chuck laughed, as did Luke and Henry.
Roaring motors caught their attention. The marine police must’ve been looking for the bad guys in the area because their two patrol boats approached the beach at top speed.
Luke extended his hand. “If it weren’t for what you did years ago, I never would’ve learned how to fight.” Grips firm, he and Chuck shook hands.
Copyright 2019 by John “Jack” M. Cunningham, Jr. All Rights Reserved
During my high school years, I ran cross-country. It took me several weeks of hard work before I could run several miles without stopping. I’d arise before sunup with my teammates, and each day I’d set a personal goal. First, I ran to a certain telephone pole, stop for a breather, then resume my run toward the next goal. For a couple or three days, I did this, then I’d set a more challenging goal, pushing myself hard till I reached it. Of course, I’d stop for breathers. Before long, I reached the point where I could run several miles at a stretch.
To be a successful (and productive) writer, we need goals, too.
First, a writer needs short-range goals. Such goals should be reasonable and achievable. If the goals are too high, and we don’t achieve them, it makes room for discouragement to settle in. These short-term goals should be daily goals. For example: “I’ll write three pages a day,” “I’ll write five hundred words a day,” or something similar.
Mid-range goals are weekly and monthly goals. Short-term goals should target mid-range goals. If we’re working on a 2,000 word short story, for instance, make an achievable goal of writing five hundred words a day and by week’s end, the story will be written. In the case of my novel writing, I tend to write in scenes. I have a goal of writing at least one scene a week. I write my first draft in a manner most writers don’t—I revise while I write. However, writing books and writing teachers generally discourage this. Since this method works for me, though…hey, I do it!
Which brings me to long-range goals. These are goals writers hope to achieve within a few months or a year. They set short-term and mid-range goals toward achieving their ultimate objective. Want to write a book? Take small steps toward that goal. Determine to write at least one page every day, and by the end of the year a book will be written.
What happens if short-term and mid-rage goals aren’t met? Professional writers understand that things happen. On days when they don’t reach their goals, they plow ahead the next day. They refuse to let discouragement get the better of them.
Finally, writers use a daily planner and write down their writing goals for each week, or if not this, they use other scheduling methods such as bulletin boards, white boards, or planners on their computers. This helps them track their goal-making progress.
So set some writing goals today, and move forward with your craft!