Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Some Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

     All of my published works are tied in, somehow, to the history of the ancient world.  Two of them are directly set in the First Century Roman Empire, and the other two (about to be three) involve archeologists discovering relics from that time period.  I am also a historian by trade (Master's Degree from East Texas State University in European History) and a history teacher by profession. So being both a producer and a consumer of historical fiction, I've become rather picky over the years about some of the flaws I see in that genre.  That being said, I also recognize my own works aren't free of such mistakes!  But I have tried to improve as I have gone along, and I am a big believer in sharing lessons learned.  So here are some pitfalls you might want to avoid and habits you might want to cultivate in the field of historical fiction:

ONE:  This is the single most important point - know your history!  Know the time period you are writing about.  Read some of the primary sources, but be aware of what modern scholarship says about them also. Study historical maps and artworks.   If major historical figures show up in your work, take the time to read a biography of them - more than one, if you can.  Know the political structure of the time, and portray it accurately. (I am still smarting that I had Pontius Pilate elected Urban Praetor at age twenty-six when he should have been running for Aedile at that young age!) Immerse yourself in the world you want to write about -  I read multiple histories of ancient Rome as well as some of the better historical novels set in that period before I ever began writing my first book.

SECOND: Change your mindset!  People in the ancient world did not think like people in the 21st century.  They operated by a different values system, one that often did not place the same value on human life and dignity that we do.  A medieval character would not likely be appalled by brutal capital punishments; in fact, he might well take his children to watch the next hanging.  A Roman of the First Century AD is unlikely to be opposed to the concept of slavery, because it was a part of the very fabric of every culture of the ancient world.  The slave might resent losing his freedom, but he was not likely to question the morality of the institution itself.  Their attitudes towards gender were also very different from ours.  As tempting as it might be to create a "liberated woman" in the 1100's, the fact is, unless her name is Eleanor of Aquitaine, she probably won't ring true!  Many talented writers of historical fiction still manage to produce characters with modern mindsets in otherwise correct historical settings, and it always rings false when they do.

THREE: Avoid anachronisms!  Make sure the technologies and instruments your characters use are appropriate to their time.  For example, in THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, my second novel, one of Pilate's prized possessions is a Greek telescope.  I wanted to use it in the plot of the story, but at the same time, I wasn't sure such instruments existed in Pilate's lifetime.  A simple Google search showed me that a brass telescope was found in a Greek ruin dating to the first century BC, so such instruments would have been known (but rare) in the time period I was writing about.  Google is your friend, use it to find information, but also be sure to check the source the information comes from and make sure it is dependable.

FOUR: Watch your dialogue!  I was reading a work set in the New Testament era in 2012 and the author had the Apostle Paul, speaking to one of his companions, say "OK!" Now, I realize that Paul and his companions likely spoke Greek to one another, and that rendering their conversation in English is going to make use of words that did not exist in Paul's time.  But seeing that bit of American slang in the middle of a conversation taking place in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago just took me right out of the story and slapped me in the face!  Make your dialogue fit the time period you are writing about; you don't have to write in Elizabethan English, but at the same time, don't use ghetto-speak between two characters living in Elizabeth's time.  One other note here: If you decide to render something in an ancient language, Google Translate is a good initial source, but you really ought to get it checked by someone who is proficient in that language before publication.  In THE TESTIMONIUM, I wanted to render the first three paragraphs of the ancient Pontius Pilate scroll in Latin, so I simply typed it out in English and then translated it using Google.  For 95% of my readers, that looked pretty impressive, but the handful that could actually read Latin caught a couple of real groaners in there, and did not hesitate to let me know about it!

FIVE:  Artistic license is one thing, but wholesale fibbing is another! Dan Brown's monstrous stretching of the truth regarding the origins of the New Testament is a prime example of this offense.  Wherever your story touches real history, try to render that history as accurately as possible.  A little bending of events is fine, but unless you want to label your work as "alternative history" - a cool genre in and of itself! - stick to the script of the events as they really happened.  If your story requires you to diverge from real events too widely, then include an explanation within your story itself.

SIX:  Have fun!  In the end, not many of us will make a living from our literary efforts (not that I have given up trying!).  So don't waste time and patience and pages trying to please your critics.  Write a fun historical novel or short story that you will enjoy, and chances are your readers will enjoy it too.  People can tell when someone takes pleasure in their work, and your joy will be contagious.  Now, sit down, open up that hole in the keyboard, and fall through to another time and place, where your story can begin . . .

AND - if you'd like to check out some of my own historical fiction, here's my Amazon link.  All purchases are greatly appreciated!

Sunday, February 18, 2018


   I started writing my first book, THE TESTIMONIUM, in March of 2012.  I finished it in November of that year, and it was published in August of 2014. Since then I have published three more novels, with my fifth, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, coming out this May.  I still haven't hit that big break - my novels sit around on Amazon, selling a copy or two a week most of the time, and I still lug boxes of books to civic groups, bookstores, and churches, giving talks and trying to gin up a few sales.  I dream about that big endorsement or review that will boost my sales into the thousands, or of that elusive movie contract that will let me retire to a life of luxury.  Those are my dreams, but in real life I've made a little money and learned a good bit about the trade, and I thought that I would share some things I wish I had known when I sat down and started writing THE TESTIMONIUM way back in 2012.  Here are the ground rules of writing in the 21st century:

1.  A WRITER WRITES, ALWAYS!  (Yes, that line comes from "Throw Momma From the Train,"
a great little film about two aspiring writers, among other things.)   Let NOTHING that I've written below keep you from putting your words down.  If you have a story to tell, tell it!  Hop on board that beast and see where it takes you.  It's OK if you don't know how the tale ends when you begin it - stories have a way of spinning themselves out.  If you like poems, write poetry.  If you like short stories, write them!  If you have issues with spelling, get someone who has a strong English background to proofread for you.  If your first story sucks, write another one!  If you can't figure out how to finish your novel and it just grinds to a halt, start another project.  You can always come back to it later, or realize that maybe that story just wasn't that great to begin with (I started one novel in high school and another during my Navy years, and didn't finish either).  The bottom line is simple: You will NEVER become a writer if you give up on writing!

2.  DON'T GIVE UP ON GETTING PUBLISHED!  It took me about a year and a half from the time I typed THE END at the conclusion of my first book until I finally found a traditional publisher willing to take a chance on it.  I shopped it around to agents, and had zero luck getting one to rep my story.  Then I started going down the list of publishers who accepted works in my genre (Christian-based adventure stories).  These days, most of them won't even send you a rejection slip.  Their website simply says something to the effect of: "If you don't hear from us in six months, then assume that your work does not fit our present publishing criteria."  It's a bit hard not to take that personally, but remember, there are thousands and thousands of people out there dreaming of becoming writers.  Publishers see a ton of manuscripts and most of them stink.  Keep plugging!  And, if you can't find a traditional press to take an interest in your work, that brings me to

3.  AVOID VANITY PRESSES!  There are hundreds of publishing firms out there that will publish your book for a fee.  Most of them try to tell you that they are actually publishing your book for free, and that the $3000-5000 that they want you to spend is for promotional purposes, to help market your book.  DON'T BUY THAT FOR A MINUTE!  They will give your book an ISBN and get it listed on Amazon (something that you can do for free if you self publish), and maybe give your book a mention on their website or social media page, and then pocket your money.  One of the most predatory vanity presses, Tate Publishing, went out of business last year.  But one of their favorite hooks was that they would fully refund your $3500 "publicity fee" as soon as your book sold 1000 copies.  The problem is, their books were badly edited, overpriced, and not stocked in stores.  From what I read on several authors' forums, even those writers who did manage to sell a thousand copies of a book published by Tate had a hard time collecting their money.  You should never have to pay a third party to publish your book for you! Vanity presses are vultures who feed on the hopes of aspiring writers.  Don't become their next victim!
4.  SELF PUBLISHING IS ALWAYS AN OPTION.  Fortunately, I had a traditional publisher take an interest in my works, so it wasn't an option I had to resort to.  But Amazon and a number of other sites offer self-publishing services that are inexpensive and give you the basics: access to professional editing, an ISBN and listing on the major online platforms, and cover art design.  Honestly, it is easier than ever before to publish your own book, and that leads me to

5.  GET USED TO COMPETITION.  Amazon lists over 100,000 new titles every MONTH.  There are LOTS of aspiring writers out there competing with you for sales, and you aren't going to break into the top 100 or the top 1000 or even the top 10,000 sales rank just because you wrote a book.  If you just write your book and stick it out there online and wait for people to buy it, you're in for a long wait!  That's why #6 is SO important.

6.  HUSTLE YOUR BUTT OFF.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  There is no silver bullet, no magic formula, other than simple self-promotion.  Radio ads don't sell that many books, neither do TV ads.  What sells books is name recognition, and name recognition comes from putting yourself out there.  Schedule book signings - that can be hard, brick and mortar bookstores are going away at an alarming rate.  B. Dalton, Walden Books, Hastings, and Family Christian have all gone belly up in the last decade or so.  But find what bookstores you can and get yourself in them.  Jump through whatever hoops they place in front of you.  Fill out forms, keep on pestering the book managers, simply walk in with a copy of your book and ask to talk to someone.  Above all, do personal appearances and social media.  Those are the two main venues that move books.  Start a blog, do a podcast, start your own YouTube Channel, accept every friend request you get on FB (except hot girls in bikinis who write English with a foreign accent and ask you to come visit their webcams!), and keep it up!  Speak at banquets, at libraries, at civic groups, any place that will let you come in the door and set up a book table.

7.  This is the hardest lesson of them all. IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW GOOD YOUR BOOK IS.  I have four novels that have all gotten marvelous reviews from their readers.  I will stack them against any novels in their genre, but the fact is that I see a lot of books that are not as good as mine reach the bestseller list because they were by established authors.  "The enemy of the new author is obscurity," I forget who told me that but it is a tough lesson I've had to learn.  You want sales?  Build your brand.  Especially, I will add this - if a traditional publisher accepts your work, then it's good.  They have LOTS of submissions, and if they picked yours out of them all, it's because your book IS  worthwhile.  But that being said, it doesn't matter how good your work is - if you just stick it out there and expect people to buy it, you are going to be disappointed. This brings me, last of all, to this -

8. Don't quit your day job.  Writing is fun, and being able to say that you are a published author is a source of great pride.  I hoped (and still hope) to turn my novels into a retirement income.  But the truth is, right now they are bringing me about $2000-3000 a year in profits, no more.  I am still working all the time to establish my brand and get my name out there, but it's an uphill climb.  So relax, have fun, enjoy the little bit of extra income your books bring you, and keep on plugging.  The dream is still out there.  Obscure writers today become famous writers tomorrow.  One of you - or maybe it is me, who knows? - is the next John Grisham, the next J,K. Rowling, the next Stephen King.  Keep chasing that dream, and remember, a writer writes - always!

So, if ANY of this has helped you in any way, and you would like to do a small favor for the blogger who encouraged you - or if you would simply like to read a stirring historical novel about the Roman Empire and the dawn of Christianity, or perhaps a moving tale of faith, archeology, romance, and terrorism - well, here is the link to my books on Amazon.  Please, go buy one, read it, review it, and recommend it to friends!!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

My Newest Writing Project: TR: THE MUSICAL!

   Last week, a friend of mine sent me a short stanza from an imaginary musical about Theodore Roosevelt.  It was intended as a joke, a jab at my passionate love for HAMILTON.  However, as I read it, I thought, if there was ever anyone in American politics whose life was so epic it deserved a full on musical, if not an out and out opera, it would have to be Theodore Roosevelt!  Tragic young love, loss, a stint as a Western rancher, police commissioner of New York, assistant Navy Secretary, war hero, governor, vice president, president, mighty hunter, explorer, diplomat - the list goes on and on!  So that night I started writing my own musical - except, well, I don't write music, so for the moment it's really more of a long poem or series of poems.  Will I ever do anything with it?  Who knows?  But for the moment, I am having fun writing it, so here, without further ado, is a song from:

(Street setting; two policemen are on patrol, coming to the door of a brothel) 
COP #1: Now listen to me, rookie, you’ve got a lot to learn! 
Being a New York policeman is not a job to spurn. 
We break up fights, catch the killers, and keep riffraff away – 
And sometimes, when the price is right, we look the other way! 
This here job don’t pay much, at least not on the record, 
But if you’re smart and play the game right, your path will be checkered, 
With plenty of chances to line your pockets and get some nice freebies. 
You’ve just gotta know when to be tough and when to be quite easy. 
Take Miss Danvers’ place here, it’s a house of prostitution – 

Such enterprise, illegal, under New York’s constitution! 
But her clientele includes a number of our betters, 
If we were to bust this place, it’s us who’d be in fetters! And so Miss Danvers pays us a monthly sum that’s ample – 
Not to mention, when things are slow, the occasional free sample! 
(He knocks on the door and a girl in a short skirt and bustier gives him a roll of bills and a kiss on the cheek) 
Cop #2: (wide-eyed) 
Holy cow!  Wait a minute! Is any of this even legal? 
We’re supposed to be officers of the law – all things being equal! 
This seems like rank corruption, and I want no part of it! 
Cop #1 (pats him condescendingly on the head) I once was just like you lad, but I quickly learned to love it! 
It’s been thus since the dawn of time, since centurions policed Rome; 
The rich do what they’re gonna do, and we keep the mobs at home. 
After all, we keep the peace, and keep the wheels of commerce turning; 
Without corruption to grease the wheels, this city would be burning. 
Now here is Mister O’Malley’s bar, a fine old Irish establishment – 
He pays us off once a month, to keep the Dagos from trashing it! 
We keep New York’s gangs in line, so war doesn’t hit our streets; 
Each to his own territory, and we cops get a slice of pie to eat! 
(He knocks at the door of O’Malley’s, and the bartender hands him a bundle of bills and a bottle of Scotch) 
TR: (Coming up unexpectedly behind them) 
By Jove, man, what is this I witness?  An officer taking bribes? 
Shameful! Indecent! Unworthy of the most barbarous tribes! 
What’s your name, Officer?  Mahoney?  Save your lame retort! Come by my office at City Hall – you’re officially on report! 
Cop #1: (indignant) 
Who the bloody blazes are you, young fellow? For you really ought to know – 
I’ve been a cop for twenty years and have friends from high to low! 
Forget your silly charges, lad, the police chief’s my dad’s dear friend; 
If you try to get me fired it’ll be your own career he’ll end! 
TR: (laughing) 
The Police Chief works for me now, you will find no bigger fish – 
My name is Theodore Roosevelt, and I’m your new police commish! 
I might have cut you a bit of slack, if you hadn’t tried to cadge – 
But for your threats, Mahoney, I’ll now have to have your badge! 
As for you, young fellow, spread the word to all and sundry – 
TR’s in charge of New York’s cops, there’ll be no more easy money! 
Chief Detective Byrnes: (walking through the NYPD headquarters) 
We have a bit of a problem here; our Mayor wants to do some cleaning; 
And not a token gesture, he demands reform with meaning! 
We New York cops police ourselves; we don’t need no outsiders, 
Nor do we want long exposes from enterprising writers! 
So now Strong’s gone and saddled us with a lad all high and mighty, 
Theodore Roosevelt, the new Crusader Invader of NYC! 
Was ever a city as big as this run without corruption? 
We do our jobs well enough, we don’t need this interruption! 
A little bit of honest graft keeps our kids from going hungry, 
And gives the swells a chance to live larger than all and sundry. 
We’ve got to get rid of this guy; he’s the biggest problem I see; 
Things were going just fine before the Crusader Invader of NYC! 
(sees Mahoney, cleaning out his locker) 
Here’s a fine example, an officer long in good standing, 
Stripped of his job for taking a cut – from a long-term understanding! Roosevelt doesn’t get it – this is how we run our city! 
Does he want our police officers to live off of charity? 
Buck up boys!  This will not last, I promise, if it’s the last thing I see, 
I’ll find a way to rid us all of the Crusader Invader of NYC!