M.M. Bennetts Finalist Review and Interview – 3

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Winged Horse cover

My next review and interview is with C.P. Lesley, author of The Winged Horse. The Winged Horse is part of a larger series called “Legends of the Five Directions”; C.P.’s previous book, The Golden Lynx, was the first book in the series.

The books take place in the 1500s in what is now Russia. The Winged Horse focuses on intrigue, romance, and war in the ethnic group known as Tatars. Familiar names appear in this novel – Russia, Lithuania, Crimea, Poland – but their context is entirely different. In this era, they were warring kingdoms constantly seeking advantage over each other; the Tatars, nomadic Muslim tribes that were loosely allied by kinship and heritage,  were pawns in their game as well as significant players themselves.

The main characters of The Winged Horse are two brothers, Ogodai and Tulpar, and Firuza, who is betrothed to Ogodai but coveted by Tulpar. The brotherly rivalry extends far beyond who will marry Firuza, as the young men are also rivals to become khan of their horde (and yes, “horde” is an organizational term here, not just a general descriptor).

There’s a second plot involving their sister, a Tatar princess named Nasan, who has been married into the Russian court and finds herself involved in the intrigues between the Russians, Crimeans, and Tatars as well. I will confess that when this plot came into the story, I was thoroughly confused for a while as a whole new cast of characters came into play. But having read descriptions of The Golden Lynx, I now realize that Nasan was the central character in that book, so I imagine that readers who come to The Winged Horse from The Golden Lynx will have a much richer and more seamless experience. I’d recommend starting with The Golden Lynx and then moving on to The Winged Horse.

Once I got over the “foreignness” of the novel (distant place, distant time, different culture), I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Firuza in particular grew on me as the book progressed. At first I found her indecisiveness frustrating and a little forced, but the farther I went the more sense it made. After all, she’s a young woman in a patriarchal warrior society, with very little leverage over her own fate. But once she settles on a suitor, she’s there for good.

You can learn more about C.P. Lesley from her Facebook page, Twitter feed, Pinterest page, or Google Plus page…..and here are some purchase links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes.

CP Lesley

C.P. Lesley

SW: C.P., thanks for participating in this interview! Could you start by giving us a little background about The Winged Horse and how it came to be? Your original inspiration for it?

Thank you for inviting me! In short, it grew out of my research. I’m a historian specializing in 16th-century Russia. With fiction, people say “write what you know,” and what I know is this wonderfully obscure but fascinating time and place. In 2008 I began working on The Golden Lynx, which precedes The Winged Horse. I needed a heroine who could be competent with a sword and a bow, and in 16th-century Russia elite girls lived very restricted lives. So I made her a Tatar who had grown up in a nomadic camp. The more I learned about Tatar culture, the more interested I became—and my readers wanted to know more, too. So when I started book 2, I decided to set it entirely among the Tatars, mostly in the steppe but also in the city of Kazan.

SW: I see that this novel is part of a larger group of novels, Legends of the Five Directions. What’s the bigger picture into which this book fits?

The series covers the years 1534 to 1538, or thereabouts. It was a challenging time for Russia, because the father of Ivan the Terrible died unexpectedly in December 1533, leaving a three-year-old son, a young widow, and two power-hungry brothers ready to take the throne. Most of Russia’s neighbors saw rule by a child as their chance to take back whatever territory they had lost during the previous reign. Against this backdrop my series tells the tale of Nasan, the daughter of a Tatar khan; Daniil, the Russian nobleman she marries against her will; and various members of their families as they strive to survive amid the cut-throat politics of the Russian and Tatar courts.

SW: This novel deals with such a distant time and place to most Western readers. Were you concerned about making the story and characters relevant to modern English-speaking readers?

The lives of medieval women can be difficult for modern readers to appreciate, because women were supposed to be submissive and long-suffering and content with serving their husbands and children. But the truth is always more complex, and each of my female characters copes with those expectations in her own way. I think what’s important is for a writer to show what triggers a character’s emotions. Emotions themselves don’t change, but the triggers do. Sixteenth-century Russia and Tataria were honor cultures. Characters go ballistic at perceived slights that today wouldn’t cause people to bat an eyelash, but so long as readers understand the character’s reaction, it’s relevant in the moment. Isn’t that part of why people read historical fiction: to experience varying outlooks on life?

SW: I’m curious about the culture of the Tatars, which is the ethnicity of the main group of characters in the novels. How would you describe Tatar culture to a novice reader? What do you find interesting about them?

What interests me most are the contrasts. Babur, the Tatar prince who conquered India, spent his life at war, yet he most valued his accomplishments in poetry, architecture, and gardening. Tamerlane could raze a city to the ground before breakfast and commission an exquisite mosque in the afternoon. Tatar culture is actually not monolithic, which is another element I explore in The Winged Horse. The nomads lived as steppe pastoralists, in small groups that moved their herds between grazing areas on a regular schedule. They supplemented herding with plunder, raiding the settled lands to the north and east. In the 1530s, they had converted to Islam but retained many animist beliefs. And although elite nomadic Tatars had harems, it wasn’t a bad place to be a woman. Nomadic life requires active women capable of defending themselves, their families, and the herds when the men are away. Women shamans were even considered to have exceptional spiritual power.

The urban culture of Kazan and Crimea was quite different: more conventionally religious, more restrictive for women, more stratified in terms of wealth and stature, but also much more luxurious—better food, more goods of all sorts, international connections, basic schooling, medicine. The urban Tatars, like the Mongols before them, made their money off the Silk Road; they had links to China and Persia and India. They were very much part of the larger world.

SW: The political situation at the time of the novel is pretty chaotic. Is there a contemporary analogy to the kind of situation the Tatars find themselves in?

The Middle East leaps to mind, although it’s probably a false analogy. The western part of the Mongol empire had disintegrated by the 1530s, and the successor states (including Russia) were fighting over the spoils. But these were huge entities with developed governments, not failed states. The real connection to today’s global politics is the Russian annexation of Crimea, which I did not anticipate when I set out to write The Winged Horse. Nonetheless, the novel will help readers understand the remote background to the Crimean saga, or at least the absurdity of Putin’s claims that Crimea has “always been Russian.”

SW: What element of your writing are you most happy with? And conversely, what element do you find most difficult?

I am a plot-first writer by nature. I can spin endless reams of ideas for what my characters might do. But figuring out why the characters would want to do those things (other than for my convenience) is a struggle. Fortunately, I belong to an excellent writers’ group that hauls me up short when I get over-focused on plot at the expense of story.

SW: Do you have any writing tricks or habits that you use to get your creative side flowing?

I edit what I’ve written, if I have anything. If not, I sit down and start writing, no matter how bad it is. I can always go back and delete the dreck.

SW: What’s next on your agenda?

I’m a third of the way through The Swan Princess, book 3 in the series. Daniil has been at war for almost eighteen months, and Nasan is getting pretty ticked-off at life in Moscow. When her mother-in-law develops heart trouble and decides that her dying wish is to see her childhood home in the north, off they go into the woods, where danger lurks behind every tree…

SW: Best of luck with The Swan Princess! Thanks for spending time with us!

M.M. Bennetts Award Finalist Review and Interview – 2

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The next novel on the M. M. Bennetts Award finalist list that I’ll be reviewing is Hand of Fire, by Judith Starkston.

First, a confession. I’ve never been as captivated by the story of the Trojan War as a lot of people. I’ve read The Iliad and The Odyssey in translation, The Odyssey more than once, and admired the epic art of them, but the war itself has always seemed to me like a dreary Bronze Age episode of spearing and whacking, a couple of warring tribes whose quarrels would have long been forgotten were it not for the artistry of the bards and storytellers who gave their warfare an immortality that their actions hardly deserved. So I approached this book with some caution, thinking, “Not another swords-and-shields piece.”

I was surprised and delighted! Hand of Fire takes a character who is barely given mention in The Iliad, Briseis, and makes her the center of an original but familiar story. Briseis is the daughter of the king of a small tributary city allied with Troy, and she is also the priestess of the goddess Kamrusepa, which gives her powers of healing and divination. Briseis’ father hopes to keep his city out of the larger conflict, but as is often the case in war, his hopes are dashed. When the town’s warriors (including Briseis’ brothers) are called to fight, and a large party of Greek raiders arrives to attack the city, Briseis is forced to embark on a journey of self-reinvention that takes her through some very grim places, but from which she gains wisdom about life, love, and fate.

Judith Starkston writes with a scholar’s depth about this ancient era, and her detailed descriptive passages give the book a slower pace at the beginning than some readers may be used to. But stick with it – those descriptions are giving you the feel of what it was like to be a princess-priestess in the late Hittite era. And if the phrase “Hittite novel” has never occurred to you before, don’t worry. The passions, jealousies, lusts, and struggles of the characters have plenty of modern parallels. The tone of the novel is unusual, as the characters’ beliefs in the power of the gods and of their fate cause them to face situations with a degree of resignation that we’re unaccustomed to in contemporary characters. But in doing so, they are true to their times. The result is an appealing novel with a rich sense of place and era. You can learn more about Judith Starkston at her website, her Facebook page, her Goodreads page, or her Twitter feed.

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Judith Starkston

SW: Judith, thanks for agreeing to this interview! Could you start by telling my readers a little bit about yourself?

I write fiction set in the Bronze Age world of the Trojan War and the Hittite Empire. Most people know little about this time and place, so my job is to build an engaging and accurate world for my readers, along with telling a good story. I wanted to write a novel that readers would enjoy even if they’d never read the Iliad. My degrees are in Classics so I have the academic background for this fun job. I taught high school English, Latin and Humanities. I live in Arizona with my husband and my golden retriever, Socrates.

SW: Your novel shows a great deal of passion for the ancient civilizations of what is now modern-day Turkey. How did you come by this interest?

As an undergraduate studying ancient Greek, I fell in love with Homer, the poet who tells us the Trojan War in the Iliad, which is set on the western coast of what is now Turkey. The Iliad became the perennial favorite among my students, so I had many opportunities to bring this ancient civilization alive for others. I’d always had a question about Briseis, the woman in the Iliad who sparked the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, two of the Greek kings. One of the few details we learn about her is that she is sad when forced to leave Achilles—she apparently loves him. Since he’s killed her husband and brothers and destroyed her city, this always struck me as puzzling. My search for who she might have been led me deeper into the world of Bronze Age Anatolia (modern Turkey). Remarkably, history, as recorded in the huge cuneiform clay tablet libraries of this world, revealed a woman who had some very good reasons for loving a half-immortal hero like Achilles—from this arose my novel that combines legend and history.

SW: The main character, Briseis, is mentioned only in passing in The Iliad, but you’ve created a full-fledged character out of her. What did you find stimulating about Briseis?

The Iliad is a patriarchal epic. Women are sometimes vividly depicted, but they take second place and only briefly. The captive women, especially, are largely voiceless. The famous Helen has had many novels and artistic depictions, but rarely did Briseis get to tell her story and never on the foundation of what we now know about her world, knowledge that has come to light only in the late 20th C. I wanted to return a voice to this resilient character who was so central to the epic but so silent!

I was prodded by that question I mentioned above and that got me digging into her motives and character. That turned out to be only a starting point. As I explored this ancient world—dominated by the Hittite Empire, of which Troy was a semi-independent ally and cultural cousin—I found powerful women, both priestesses and rulers. Not what you expect, but there they were. The details of the rites and responsibilities of one particular kind of priestess, who shouldered the well-being of her society from the flocks to the fields to women’s fertility, had been recorded on clay tablets. Those rich details gave me a fascinating foundation to tell Briseis’s story. I didn’t expect, quite frankly, to have found such a strong woman who really did match up to the mythic Achilles.

SW: Briseis is a priestess and a healer, and thus engages in rituals and practices that a contemporary reader might find quite strange, such as snake divination and the lifting of curses. How did you keep Briseis true to her era while also making her sympathetic to the modern-day audience?

We sympathize with each other by recognizing our common emotional responses—grief, fear, joy, etc. It is always complicated to climb into the mind of an ancient woman. The unconscious temptation to make her think like a modern woman is tricky to resist. But human emotions don’t change nearly as much as our thinking does. So a mother’s grief for her child is absolutely recognizable throughout time. And a novelist can use those commonalities to create sympathy. But Briseis’s thinking is quite foreign—and thus fascinating—to a modern reader. That she faces the uncertainties of the future by performing a snake divination seems strange to us (or that she considers this rite a way to heal a sick person!) The intellectual underpinnings are positively weird, but the desire to know what lies ahead is easy for us to understand. So there’s a process of balancing emotions, which the reader shares with the ancient character, and thinking or procedures, which the reader finds new and startling. I think it’s an appealing combination.

SW: It’s interesting to see Achilles show up as a novel character rather than as the mythological figure we’ve come to know him as. Was the well-known mythological Achilles a help or a hindrance to you in characterizing your version of him?

I actually started including Achilles in the novel in the form of iambic pentameters (my English version of Homer’s hexameter poetic lines) because he felt too mythic and over-sized to fit into my novel in the ordinary way. So I guess you could call that a hindrance! Eventually through the poetry and through Briseis’s understanding of Achilles, I began to understand Achilles’ inner vulnerabilities and his personal voice, as opposed to the mythic persona. Then I was able to write him into scenes in the usual way and cut all the poetry. He still never behaves or feels like a “normal” human being. His half immortal side is always the elephant in the room, so to speak. But Briseis came to terms with him, so through her I was able to. I used to think when authors talked about their characters as if they lived somewhere independently that this was more than a bit insane, but I’ve come to realize that characters do just that. I’m not sure what we writers tap into, but a far richer sense of a human being gradually comes to light than I would have thought possible and I don’t always feel like I’m the one directing that process.

SW: I was struck by the detail and richness of your descriptions at several points. What was the key for you in creating such vivid sensory description?

A great deal of research and travel. There was no way this book was going to work unless I could put the reader into that world without any effort on the reader’s part. That meant I had to know intimately what my characters pick up, wear, eat, see, smell. I did everything I could through archaeological research to know with precision what the physical details would have been. I also was lucky enough to be able to travel extensively through the areas I set my book in, so the physical setting is quite vivid in my own personal experience. That really helped. I had to “build” every city from ruins I’d observed, but the waterfalls, shorelines, mountains remain to be lived. There are changes in plant life and sea levels and that sort of thing, but for the most part, those lived sensory experiences can transfer directly into the writing.

SW: I see that Hand of Fire was your debut novel. What’s next on your plate?

I’m in the editing stages of a historical mystery set in the Hittite Empire and then will send it out to agents. While researching Hand of Fire, I met the remarkable Queen Puduhepa. Had she not been, quite literally, buried by the sands of time, she’d be as much a household name as Cleopatra or Elizabeth I. We have her letters, treaties and judicial decrees, and I felt she’d make an excellent “sleuth” while ruling her empire for over 60 years. I’m hoping to popularize Puduhepa with a series. I’m also writing a sequel to Hand of Fire. Briseis’s story has many directions left to pursue.

Missouri Arts Council Feature

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The Missouri Arts Council‘s feature this month is on Missouri artists and the Civil War – painting, music, and spoken performance. I’m grateful to be the featured writer in this piece! Here’s the link.

And while I’m on the subject of writing about the Civil War in Missouri, let me shout out some other novels that everyone should read who’s interested in the subject:

Morkan’s Quarry, by Steve Yates

Its sequel, soon to be published….The Teeth of the Souis

Agnes Canon’s War, by Deborah Lincoln

And a little older and for those who like their Missouri Civil War history with a supernatural horror twist…..A Fine Likeness, by Sean MacLachlan

M.M. Bennetts Award Finalist Review and Interview – 1

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Liverpool Connection cover

My first review and interview of the other M.M. Bennetts Award finalists is of Liverpool Connection by Elisabeth Marrion.

If you’re familiar with John Boorman’s classic film Hope and Glory, you’ll immediately appreciate the social setting of Elisabeth Marrion’s novel Liverpool Connection. The setting is Liverpool, not London, but the theme of finding hope amidst deprivation is the same. Liverpool Connection tells the story of a working-class family before, during, and after the Second World War, and the hardships, love, loss, and far-flung connections they encounter during those years.

I was struck by the realism of this novel. The characters are believable, with their struggles and sufferings portrayed faithfully. These characters lead lives of hardship that to most of us today seem intolerable, but they manage to find love and friendship in the tiny spaces left them by their daily battle to earn enough to feed themselves and their families.

The central character of the novel is Annie, who emigrates from Ireland to Liverpool as a young woman, motivated partly by the need to relieve her family of the burden of another mouth to feed. She trades one hardscrabble life for another, only now as a wife and mother, and there are times when I wondered whether Annie would make it through her troubles, especially once the bombs began to fall. But somehow she does, and the book takes an unexpected turn when the point of view shifts to that of a German family experiencing the same kind of hardships at the same time.

The ground-level view of life during wartime appealed to me. The characters are both acutely aware of the war – it alters everything about their lives – and only dimly aware of the sweep of strategy. Young men sign up for the Africa Corps while barely knowing the location of Africa on the map.

I do have a few complaints about the book. I found it dialogue-heavy and wished for more description at times, and at other times I found the editing less than satisfactory. But overall I admired the grit of these characters as they coped with the many difficulties handed them, and when I learned in the interview below that English is Elisabeth’s second language, some of my complaints about the style lost significance in that context.

You can learn more about Elisabeth Marrion and Liverpool Connection at her website, Facebook page, and blog. Here’s an article by Elisabeth and a purchase link, too!

Elisabeth Marrion

SW: Elisabeth, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Could you start by telling us a little bit about what inspired you to write Liverpool Connection?

Steve, first of all I would like to thank you for asking me to take part with an interview  for your Blog.

Maybe I have to tell you the story from the beginning. I started the ‘Unbroken Bonds’ Series with my mother’s story. As soon as I wrote it, I knew it had to be a trilogy, but in a way that the books can be read as a series, or as stand alone books. Whereas the first book tells us about Hilde’s life before and during WW II in Germany, Liverpool Connection looks at the life of Annie, her friends and her family in England covering the same timespan. Amazingly family life on both sides of the War was very similar. My mother was German and lost her officer husband on the Russian Front. My father, from Liverpool, was in the Royal Air Force, later stationed in Germany where he met my mother. Both sides of this conflict share similar experiences and this I needed to tell in Liverpool Connection.

SW: One thing I found striking about the book was its depiction of the poverty that the main characters endured, not just before and during the war, but after it as well. Do you think contemporary audiences grasp just how hard conditions were during that time?

I believe that because of media, books, television and movies, Audiences now have a much better understanding about the hardships and poverty before, during and after WWII. Readers are eager to learn what life was like in Europe at the time.

SW: What was the most difficult part for you in writing this book?

The most difficult part of writing books about WWII, is that I am German! German people do not speak about the War. That is still the case today, 70 years after it ended. My German family was very much against me writing  the story, And not only did I write about them, now Liverpool Connection views the War from the other site. The German version will only be released in Germany Autumn 2015. Oh dear.

SW: The term “war novel” tends to summon up certain associations in people’s minds – great feats of courage in crisis, battlefield confrontations, and so forth. Are you comfortable with referring to Liverpool Connection as a “war novel”?

I can not see any problem with the definition of ‘War Novel’ for  Liverpool Connection. I believe the publisher has expressed in the book cover the spirit of the book wonderfully. The reader is drawn to the book by its cover and realises, this is about family life and not only about horrors on the battlefield. Maybe on this occasion it is a case of ‘judge the book by its cover’.

SW: Did you need to conduct a lot of research for this book, or was most of the material already known to you through personal sources?

I knew my mother’s and my father’s story. It is true that the generation who lived through the war speak about it very little. But since the father of my German brothers and sisters did not return to see his children grow up, my mother made true on his wish in the last letter she received from the front. ‘Tell the children about their father, live your life and through you and the children I will also live,’ he said.  I listened carefully to everything my mother told us. Later she came to spend many months with me in England and together we started the project. My father’s story was not that dissimilar. He however did not want to go into too many details. What I did not learn from my family I researched, especially times, dates, speeches, I really did learn a lot and I enjoyed the research very much.

SW: My readers are mostly American, and of course they have an American picture of the Second World War, based on what they have read and learned from family members who went through it. What do you think American readers will find most surprising about the war from the perspective they would get from Liverpool Connection?

I receive a lot of comments from American readers. Most of the readers enjoyed reading about the war viewed from a family life. You are right when you say hardly anybody realised the poverty before, during but especially after the war. Ration coupons were issued until the early 50’s, something which is hard to believe now. Sweets were the last items to be rationed and ended on February 5th 1953. Immediately the shops had plenty of stock and children queued for hours. Toffee apples were the most popular sweet on that day.

SW: I see from the Epilogue that this novel has considerable basis in your own family history. Was that an asset to you in the writing of the book, or an obstacle? I’m thinking about how much freedom you felt in shaping the plot, creating characters, and so forth.

My family history was certainly an asset and an inspiration to the story. I was concerned at the beginning how my family would react and worried about the characters and their names. At the end I decided, that this is my family history and I have all right to talk about it. Mind you I did change some of the names. I really enjoyed shaping the plot and developing the characters. I hear from readers who tell me who are their favourites in Liverpool Connection and for whom they have no sympathy at all. It is really nice that the reader takes it on board.

SW: I see that Liverpool Connection is part of a trilogy, with the third book scheduled for release this spring. Can you give us some more information about that book?

‘Cuckoo Clock – New York’ is Esther’s story. Esther and Ibrahim are separated after the Burning of the Synagogues in Germany in November 1938. Ibrahim is taken to Dachau. Esther tries to keep her promise to him and flee to England and later to New York. In England she meets Anna Essinger, who is instrumental in saving German Jewish children by arranging, what is now referred to, as ‘The Kinder Transport’. Again there is a connection between the first and second book.

SW: Thanks so much for your time! Best wishes on your next book!

An Honor and a Challenge

I recently learned that This Old World is a finalist for the M. M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. This award was established to honor the longtime book critic for the Christian Science Monitor, who went on to write two highly regarded historical novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. More about M. M. Bennetts here.

Needless to say, I am thrilled at this honor. As I looked over the list of other finalists (there are 12, counting myself), I was struck by the diversity of the nominees. There are novels from several different countries and novels about eras all the way from ancient to modern. And that’s when I decided to give myself a challenge.

I am going to try to read and review all the other finalists’ novels, and to interview each finalist. I’d like to have them all read and reviewed by the date of the announcement of the winner (June 27), but admittedly that might be an over-ambitious deadline. But I’ll read as many as I can by then and finish up the rest later.

I have contacted the other finalists and so far have heard back from ten of them. And I’ve already finished one book! Check out my blog soon for the review and interview.

Awesome resource for local history buffs!

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How did I not hear of this before! The Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Company of Brooklyn, New York, compiled maps of towns all across the United States so that insurance companies could evaluate risk levels and price their services accordingly.

The Library of Congress made duplicates of these maps available to research libraries from the 1950s through the 1970s. In Missouri, the recipient of the Sanborn map collection was the University of Missouri in Columbia.

This rich treasure trove, now available in digital form, contains 1,283 maps of cities and towns across Missouri created from 1883 to 1951. They are incredibly detailed and provide a wonderful image of what a town was like at a particular time, all the way down to what type of business was housed at a specific location, whether the buildings were made of frame, brick, or stone, and even whether a factory had a watchman! For map geeks such as myself, this collection is an irresistible magnet. Goodbye, many future hours of my life. I’m diving in.

Favorite Ozarks People – 8

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Leon Fredrick

Leon Fredrick

Leon Fredrick gave me my first job, when I was about 19, and then fired me from it ten weeks later when it became clear that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

He was a classic old-time newspaper editor, and when I knew him he had purchased the Mountain Echo in Ironton from Isla Armfield, the widow of Richard Armfield, the previous owner. They were an interesting pair in themselves and perhaps I’ll write about them one day.

Leon was a big guy, probably 6’6″, and rather intimidating. He had hired me to write feature stories, and I cranked them out like crazy. I wasn’t very good at hard news, though, and was far too shy at my age to walk up to people and start asking questions. If I had an introduction to someone, I could interview and write a story with ease; but generating my own story ideas was beyond my adolescent brain at this point in my life.

I remember one memorable day when a mansion just south of Ironton burned down. I dashed out the door, camera in hand, and spent the afternoon taking photos and scribbling notes. When I returned to the Mountain Echo office, I handed off the camera to Leon and started typing up my story. He emerged from the darkroom about twenty minutes later with my roll of film in his hand – utterly and completely clear. I had failed to load the film properly into the camera and had been snapping away all day with the film still in its canister. The look on his face was something I will never forget.

Leon’s wife, Nadine, was cheerful and upbeat, the opposite of Leon, who was all business. She provided a counterbalance to Leon’s rather sober demeanor, although I always got the feeling that she was just as focused on the business as he was and only showed it in different ways. After selling the Mountain Echo, the Fredricks pursued other journalistic business ventures, finally retiring to Branson, near where they had grown up. They’ve both passed away now, but they were certainly a memorable introduction to the world of small-town journalism for me. I’ve still got clippings of those feature stories, and they’re still pretty good.

Time for the “Historical Accuracy” Debate!

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With the Academy Awards coming up this weekend, and a bundle of movies based on historical events up for Best Picture – including Selma, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and even American Sniper if you want to count the Iraq war as “history” this soon after the events of that story – everyone’s in a snit over the historical accuracy, or lack of accuracy, of their representations.

For those of us who include real historical figures in our storytelling, this is familiar territory. Here’s my take:

I have included historical figures in my work, both as significant characters (the Missouri guerrilla Sam Hildebrand) and as cameo players (William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Nordhoff). Actual events play meaningful parts in the plot. I’ve always felt that it was all right to fictionalize around the edges of a character or event, but not to distort the essence. Thus my Garrison meets with fictional people, and says made-up things, but I was careful not to put him in a location where he had not actually been or to have him express himself in ways that I thought were contrary to what I had read about him. I have the Battle of Fredericktown occur at the time and in the location it actually did, but I felt free to have a completely fictional skirmish take place in association with that battle involving my characters.

Some authors and filmmakers feel much more free to take liberties with real figures than I do, and I have no argument with them. They’re engaged in a different kind of story-making than I am. The issue comes when readers or viewers believe the fictional version to be the “real” one. We all know that there are multiple perspectives to any event, so claiming one perspective as the “real” one is an error. In Selma, the controversy stems from the movie’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. But let’s face it, by all accounts Johnson was an extremely complicated man who acted from a variety of motives both selfish and noble, and any portrayal of him is going to simplify him. So I don’t think the criticism of Selma‘s version of Lyndon Johnson is especially persuasive.

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When I was a kid, my parents drove us out to visit our relatives on the home place pretty much every weekend, and sometimes during the week as well. My grandparents lived on what everyone called The Old Home Place, and my uncle Bill and aunt Gina lived down the road on why my folks called “Bill’s Place,” but which I understood in the sort of dim way that kids do that it was also part of the Home Place. Not to be confused with the River Place, where my mom had been born, now uninhabited but still part of the farm.

We passed other places – the Thurman Place, the old Kessler Place, the Graner Place (Graners long gone, now occupied by McCreerys, and in the slow process of becoming the McCreery Place). In between were mere houses, occupied by people we didn’t know, or by people we knew but who were yet too brief in their occupancy to merit a Place.

When you had a Place, you were somebody. You were probably just as poor as everybody else – my grandparents’ place was tiny – but people knew who you were, and where you lived. Your Place didn’t change much. Maybe an addition when extra children necessitated it, but the essential plan didn’t change. The house, the barn, the sheds, the pond, the pastures, all existed in a slowed-down version of time, one in which change happened, but on a different rhythm than the rest of the world. Change was more measured, deliberate, its implications considered more broadly. Other farmers considered my grandfather pretty innovative in his time; he was an early adopter of terracing and other practices advocated  by the county agent. But certainly no one would ever have called him hasty.

Needless to say, I don’t have a Place, and at this point in my life probably never will. The contemporary world, and my adjustment to it, doesn’t permit that. But I know that this is a trade and not an unalloyed gain.

I Haven’t Been Blogging . . .

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. . . and I don’t care! (Sung to the tune of “Jimmy Crack Corn.”)

I haven’t been blogging lately because I’m deep into the next book, and that work has been taking all my concentration. I don’t know how many writers are like me, but I find that once I’m in the zone of concentration required for sustained fiction writing, I don’t like to get out of that zone for other types of writing. I dislike it so much (I would say “hate,” but that’s too strong a word) that I resort to all sorts of procrastination strategies to avoid other forms of writing.

When I worked in newspapers, back in days of old, we used to joke that you could always tell it was time to drop a columnist when that person wrote his or her column about how hard it was to write a column. So this blog entry is not to be that same self-justifying whine about how hard it is to blog. It’s just a notification that I’m still alive and plan to be back blogging soon.

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