10. April 2013 · Comments Off on Stories · Categories: Random Book and Media Musings · Tags: ,

I am not one of those given to assume that just because a lot of people like something, then it must be good; after all, Debbie Boone’s warbling of You Light Up My Life was on top of American Top Forty for what seemed like most of the decade in the late 70s, although that damned song sucked with sufficient force to draw in small planets. Everyone that I knew ran gagging and heaving when it came on the radio, but obviously a lot of people somewhere liked it enough to keep it there, week after week after week. A lot of people read The DaVinci Code, deriving amusement and satisfaction thereby, and some take pleasure in Adam Sandler movies or Barbara Cartland romances – no, popularity of something does not guarantee quality, and I often have the feeling that the tastemakers of popular culture are often quite miffed – contemptuous, even – when they pronounce an unfavorable judgment upon an item of mass entertainment which turns out to be wildly, wildly popular anyway.

The popularity of the movie 300 appeared as one of those wildly popular things, for which the intellectual great and good had no explanation. This amused me very much when that movie premiered, because I had some kind of explanaition. The story of the Spartans at Thermopylae was one of those stories which has kept a grip on us in the West for nearly three thousand years. Courage, honor, duty, clear-eyed self-sacrifice in a cause, for the lives of those you hold dear, for your city or your country; those are values that hold, that define who we are and what we stand for. I referred to it in Daughter of Texas, when Race Vining recalled the story of Diekenes, with reference to the seige of the Alamo in 1836.

Because you see, it’s all about stories, and our human need for stories; stories about other people, stories that explain, that make things clear for us, that inspire us to great deeds, to set an example or spell out a warning. We need stories nearly as much as we need oxygen. And we will have them, bright and sparkling and new, or worn to paper thinness in the re-telling. We will have stories that have grown, and been embellished by many narrators, with heroes and minor heroes and splendid set-piece scenes, and side-narratives, like one of those sea-creatures that collects ornaments to stick onto its’ shell any which way, or a bower-bird collecting many brilliant scraps and laying them out in intricate patterns. A longing to hear such stories must be as innate in us, as it is to those creatures, for our earliest epic, that of Gilgamesh may be traced back to the beginnings of agriculture, and towns, and the taming of animals, and the making of a written language. It may go back even farther yet, but there is really no way to know for sure what those stories were, although I am sure the anthropologists are giving it the good old college try.

Our values are transmitted in the stories that we go back to, over and over. A long time ago, I read this book, which recommended, rather in the manner of the old Victorians, that children be given improving books to read, that their minds be exercised by good examples. I was initially rather amused – and then I went over the reading list in the back of the book. I realized just then how many of those books the author cited I had read myself, and how many quiet demonstrations of honesty, courage, ethical behavior, loyalty to family, friends and community, of doing the hard right as opposed to the easy wrong had been tidily incorporated into such books as the Little House books, or Caddie Woodlawn, or All of a Kind Family, or Johnny Tremain. We imbibe all these values from stories and lest we think that these sorts of moral lessons are obscure and tangled things, best suited for a long theoretical discussion of the life-boat dilemma in some touchy-feely ethics seminar, the author (or someone that he quoted – it’s been a long time since I re-read the book) brought up the old black and white movie A Night to Remember – the movie account of the sinking of the Titanic. The whole story of the unsinkable ship is laid out, based on research, and with the aid (at the time it was filmed) with many still-living survivors; running full-tilt into an ice-field, hitting an iceberg, loading the relatively few lifeboats while the band plays, and the ships engineers keep the lights and power going, of husbands putting their wives and children into the boats and stepping back to leave more room, knowing that the ship is doomed – of steerage passengers taking matters into their own hands and finding their way up to the boat deck, and deck-hands trying to launch the very last boat as the seawater rises to their knees. Twice a hundred stories, and at the end of it one has a pretty good idea of who has behaved well and honorably – and who has not.

Stories. We need them, and we’ll keep coming back to them. And to the best ones, we will come back again and again.

20. March 2013 · Comments Off on Up to the Minute: The Lady Spy and Library Action · Categories: Book Event · Tags: , , , , ,

First up – I have a post up at the Unusual Historicals website, as part of their series on women in war. My post is about Elizabeth van Lew, the Union’s lady spy in Richmond, during the Civil war.

And on Saturday, March 23rd, I’ll be one of thirty or so local authors at the Bedford Public Library as part of their “Romancing the Books” event. I’ll be doing a reading from one of my books – and many of the authors will have their books for sale. Check it out, if you are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area this weekend!

So not being really a romance writer, and having pretty much washed out of the lists of matrimony personally, I still have managed to write about romance … mostly by pulling in a little bit of inspiration from here and there from real-life couples. For instance, the main romantic couple in my first book, Dr. John and Elizabeth in To Truckee’s Trail were inspired by … you’ll never guess. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning! A married couple, wildly, passionately, crackers-in-love with each other after twelve years of marriage – why not? The romance doesn’t and shouldn’t end at the altar, but it should go on. I rather liked the Victorians, by the way – they weren’t nearly as prudish as they’ve been painted, nor were their emotions quite so stifled. Robert fell in love with her through reading her published poetry – and lest that sound rather stalker-ish, it worked out. They married blissfully, although she was an invalid and several years older than him. They went off to Italy and were more or less happy for the rest of their lives together, just as I imagined Dr. John and Elizabeth to have been. Men and women alike poured out their souls in letters and poetry, and they weren’t ashamed or repressed in the least, especially when it came to a good manly weep or putting down on paper how they really, really felt.

I didn’t particularly have a literary model for the central romance and tragedy in the Adelsverein Trilogy – that between Magda Vogel, the immigrant German girl, and Carl Becker, the former soldier and Ranger. I did think at first that it might be one of those sparkling Beatrice and Benedict-type confections, where they poured witty scorn at each other, and only later realized that they were in love. There did have to be a romance, of course – between the daughter of an immigrant family, and a representative of the country they were coming to – bridging the two worlds, as it were. But I just couldn’t make it work in that way; Magda turned out to be rather humorless and stern, and Carl was just too reserved. I did recycle the Beatrice and Benedict angle for the romance in the third book of the Trilogy; with Peter Vining and Anna Richter. They both had a sense of humor, and were quite aware that their sharp teasing of each other amused the heck out of anyone who had the luck to be in the vicinity.

Another great historical romance happened between two very real people, and which I put into Deep in the Heart; the marriage between Sam Houston and Margaret Lea Houston, which initially horrified her family and dismayed his friends. Some of them gave it six months, tops. He was twice her age, twice and disastrously married before, had a reputation of being a drunk, a rake and a reprobate, and being the hero of Jan Jacinto and the President of an independent Texas  just barely made up for all of that. Marry a gently-bred Southern girl barely out of her schoolroom? Everyone confidently predicted disaster – and everyone was wrong. They were devoted to each other. She had a spine of pure steel, unsuspected under those fashionable Victorian furbelows.  For the rest of their lives, whenever they were apart – and they were often separated, since Sam Houston spent much time at his official duties as a senator in Washington DC, or campaigning for office – they each wrote a letter a day. Margaret Lea bore and raised a large family of children, made a comfortable home for him whenever he was there to enjoy it, made him stop drinking and eventually to be baptized. His very last words included her name.

And my final real-life romance inspiring a romance between a couple of my characters is that of the painter Charles M. Russell, and his wife, Nancy – who, like Margaret Lea, was very much younger than a husband who had a bit of a reputation. Half his age, a bit prim and self-contained, Nancy also had steel in her spine – and she was a much better marketer and business agent than her carefree cowboy artist husband. C.M. Russell lived for art, and likely would have been no more than locally known as a wrangler-cowhand who had a talent with a paintbrush, but he made a partnership with Nancy, and she put him on a wider artistic scene. And that is the angle for one of the romances in the current book – between a young prospective professional artist, and a woman with a head for business. Because it all isn’t just love – it’s a partnership between a woman and a man, each filling in each other’s lacks and supporting each other in a mutual endeavor called life.

21. November 2012 · Comments Off on Weekend at the Weihnachtsmarkt · Categories: Book Event, Random Book and Media Musings · Tags: ,

All the other authors and publishers whom I talked to over the three days of the Christmas Market agreed – as an author, and none of us being of the NY Times best-seller class – it is profitable and much less dispiriting to do an event like a Christmas craft fair in company with a bunch of other authors. Much less foully dispiriting than doing a single-author event at a book-store, which is usually total ego-death-onna-stick. First and most importantly of all – customers with money and the intention of spending it are plentiful at a craft fair or a similar community market event, especially in the holiday gift-giving season. Trust me; many of them can see books as the perfect gift, and they are inclined to buy. Secondly – it’s a venue where one is in completion with vendors of a wide variety of consumer items – not every other published author on the shelves. And thirdly – in the slack times, there are other authors to talk to.

Seriously, nothing quite beats the tedium of sitting alone at the Dreaded Author Table in a not-very-well-frequented bookstore, and watching the occasional customer slink into the store trying to avoid your eye. Or worse still, at a large and popular chain bookstore, observing them heading into the computer games or DVD movie section. Which is the trouble with the Hastings chain, as I experienced and other authors concur; the staff are wonderfully helpful, great about ordering and stocking the books, but alas, the client base usually is there for the games, the music and the movies, eschewing the printed word generally. Not even libraries are proof against this; another author told me of participating at a local author event staged at a big public library. He and the other hopeful authors watched as a large crowd assembled out side the library, every one of them anticipating that they would have a wonderful and author-life-affirming event … only to see that every one of those in line headed straight for the library computers.

Yes, the Author’s Life (especially as a not-very-well-known indy author) is full of little kicks to the ego as this – but an event that sells out half the stock of books that one arrived with, is indoors, well-publicized in advance, and mostly-well-attended (although Sunday afternoon slacked off considerably) and having the organizers being quite generous and helpful – this is one well worth recollecting with fondness and returning to again. The good volunteers for the Weihnachtsmarkt even had a vendor’s lounge, stocked with coffee and ice water and all sorts of home-made pastries and baked delights. New Braunfels is Little Germany – they DO that kind of thing here! The whole event is to benefit the local historical museum, the Sophienburg – and it did draw a good crowd. My daughter was afraid that I had pretty well tapped out the market for the Trilogy in New Braunfels; not so, as there were a fair number of fans who came and bought the follow-up books (Daughter of Texas and Deep in the Heart), or asked impatiently about the next book, and even two who bought the German translation as a gift for friends and family who would appreciate a German translation of the first of the Trilogy. In between all these high points though – I spent time studying the interior architecture of the New Braunfels Civic Center, briefly wandering down the hallway to other author tables and the occasional quick foray into the main sales floors. The shops set up in the main ballroom and the annex all featured a great many lovely things that I just cannot quite yet afford.

Ah, well – someday.

The creation of characters is one of those miracle things. That happens in a couple of different ways. The ones who are historical characters are easiest of course; people like Sam Houston, or Jack Hayes, or John O. Meusebach, all of whom make appearances in the various volumes of the Adelsverein Trilogy, and in Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart. There are biographies, and historical accounts of these characters, so it is simplicity itself for me to get an idea of what they were about, how they looked and spoke and what background they came from. This does have its distractions; I was waylaid for a whole week reading biographies and letters of Sam Houston, just to write his brief appearance in The Sowing, on the eve of the Civil War.

Then there are the ones which I made up: I start with a requirement for a character, a sort of mental casting call for a certain sort of person, usually to do something. It can be, to continue the movie imagery, anything between a starring role, down to just a short walk-on, bearing a message or providing some kind of service to the plot. I usually don’t get caught up in describing everything about them – which is a tiresome tendency I will leave to romance writers and authors who have fallen in love with their own characters. Just basic age, general coloring, tall or short; a quick sketch rather than a full-length oil painting. I also don’t bother with describing in great detail what they are wearing – that’s another waste of time. Just the basics, please: work clothes, or dirty, or ragged, or in the latest fashion, whatever is relevant. And it’s really more artistic to have other characters describe them, or mention key information in casual conversation. That way allows readers to pull up their own visualizations of the characters, which seems to work pretty well and keeps the story moving briskly along.

On certain occasions, that character has instantly popped up in my imagination, fully formed. One moment, I have only a vague sort of notion, and the next second, there they are, appearing out of nowhere, fully fleshed, named and every characteristic vivid and … well, real. Vati, the patriarch of the Steinmetz-Richter clan appeared like that: I knew instantly that he would be absentminded, clever, loving books and his family, a short little man who looked like a kobold. His family would in turn, return that affection and on occasion be exasperated by him – but he would be the glue that held his family together. Another middle-aged male character also appeared out of nowhere, Daddy Hurst – technically a slave in pre-Civil War Texas, but working as a coachman for another family.

His character emerged from the situation of slavery as practiced in Texas, where there were comparatively fewer slaves than there were in other Confederate states. Many of those so held worked for hire at various skilled trades, and also seem to have been allowed considerable latitude, especially if they were working as freight-haulers, ranch hands and skilled craftsmen. Daddy Hurst is one of them; I like to think he adds a little nuance to the ‘peculiar institution’. The only trouble with that kind of character is that if they are supposed to me a minor one – they have a way of taking over, as I am tempted to write too much about them. This was becoming a bit of a challenge with the final part of the trilogy, The Harvesting.  If I had explored all the various characters and the dramatic scenes they wanted – in fact, all but begged for – it would have easily been twice the 500 pages that it eventually turned out to be. In the name of all the trees that might have been logged to print it – I had to say No, not now. But I did take note; many of those characters, with their back-stories appeared in Daughter of Texas and Deep in the Heart – the Menchaca brothers, for instance, or will appear in the continuing chapter of the Becker and Vining clans, in The Quivera Trail.

Where was I? Oh, characters, the third sort, evolution of – got it. That’s the other sort of character – the ones that I have started out with a certain idea of them, winging it a bit as I sketch out a scene for a chapter. Right there, they evolve, in defiance of my proposed plans for them. In my original visualization of their characters, as the romantic couple in the first book of Adelsverein, Magda Vogel Steinmetz and Carl Becker were supposed to be one of those sparkling and amusing Beatrice and Benedict couples, striking romantic and witty sparks off each other in every encounter, like one of those 1930’s romances of equals. Didn’t work out that way – he turned out to be very reserved, and she to be almost completely humorless. Beatrice and Benedict was so not happening! Within a couple of chapters of having them ‘meet cute’ when he rescues her niece from almost drowning – I tossed that concept entirely. I did recycle it for the romantic of Peter Vining and Anna Richter. He was a Civil War veteran, an amputee and covering up his apprehensions and self-doubts with a show of desperate humor. She was the clever woman who saw though all those defenses, calmly sized him up as the man she thought she could live with and come to love – and asked him to marry her, never mind the exact particulars. It makes amusing reading, just as I had planned.

The pivotal character of Hansi Richter is the most notable of those evolving characters. He started off as a stock character, the dull and conventional brother-in-law, a sort of foil to the hero. A rejected suitor, but who had married the heroine’s sister as a sort of second-best. That was another one of those initial plans that didn’t quite turn out as originally projected. A supporting character in the first two books, in The Harvesting,  he moved front and center; had developed into a stubborn, ambitious and capable person, quite likeable in his own right – and carrying a good deal of the story forward as he becomes a cattle baron, in the years following the Civil War.