Prose and Verse World

"Words ought to open windows and lift souls."

Posts tagged Sissy

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What title do you choose for your novel?

This is a difficult question to answer because it’s a combination of a personal emotion for the author as well as something that will capture the reader’s imagingation.  For a nonfiction book (especially a how-to) it’s easy enough to come up with something. If you want to teach others how to build your own house, titles such as “How to Build Your Dreamhouse” or “Housebuilding Made Simple” or “Building a House for Dummies” come to mind.

For novels, however, it’s a different situation entirely. If you’re already a highly visible novelist such as Stephen King, it doesn’t matter what you call it, although I don’t believe Mr. King would slap on any old title.  It would have to be one with which he felt comfortable.   I can tell you how I selected the three titles for each of  my three books in a trilogy.  With “Sissy!” I heard the name of a child calling out for her guardian angel.  With “All Parts Together” I used a portion of a Walt Whiman line (“Sure as life holds all parts together, death holds all parts together). For my third book, I used “Angels at Sunset” originally because I felt it had a beautiful feel to it. I really didn’t think much about the reader at all. After all, Sissy is the name of a girl, All Parts Together would only be familiar to someone who was intimate with Whitman’s poems, and Angels at Sunset sounds like a story about angels.  If you really need to let people know what your story is about, you can put a short subtitle under your mail title, such as “Dumbo”—“Sometimes an elephant can fly”

I guess if your only intention is to make shoppers stop to stare at your title, you can put something sexy like “Who is Wearing Jane’s Panties?” or “Jim Unzipped” or “I Was Shocked To Find My Was a Man.” But if your book doesn’t deliver on its promise, you’re sunk.

I think maybe the choice of title isn’t as important as the combination of the title and the graphics that go with it. I think it’s better to have a so-so title with great graphics and eye appeal than to have a fantastic title with extremely poor graphics. I do all of my own covers and the one I loved the best was the cover I did not “Angels at Sunset.” The title is quite visible ten feet away—and who can no like the natural beauty of a Kansas sunset? And I think there’s a connection between the word “Angels” and the woman standing in the field holding a “Votes for Women” sign.

If you want to get a copy of “Angels at Sunset” simply call toll-free at 1-800-BOOK-LOG  The price is only $16.95. (I think that’s less that the price of three lattes at Starbucks.)

I have no magic formula on how to come up with the best title for your novel. In all of my fiction, I always had the title in mind before I wrote the book, but that’s how I did it. This might not work for you.

All I can say is that a title is in the eye of the beholder (or is it “beauty:?)

Please visit my OTHER blog.  I am sure you will enjoy that one as well.

Filed under Tom Mach angels at sunset book cover book title novels sissy graphics

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How do you write a sexy scene without being “over the top”?


There are times when your novel dictates that you must have a sexy scene in it but you don’t want to sound like you’re writing porn. I found this to be extremely challenging for me. Many Christian writers use the “closed door” approach, That is, a man and woman are kissing each other passionately and then they retire to the bedroom, usually closing the door behind them, leaving what happens next entirely to your imagination. On the other hand, there are novelists who give you a detailed description of exactly what happens in the bedroom, including naming every vital part of the anatomy several times. To me, this latter kind of novel is a definite turn-off. I am not building a house where I need step-by-step details.The former way of writing such a scene wherein the bedroom door closes shuts off any romance that takes place while they are “doing it.”  There surely must be a middle ground where the reader uses some of her imagination but also has enough description so she can get emotionally involved with the characters in that scene.

In all of my adult novels I do have scenes where some sort of physical intimacy is going on. However, being a devout Christian, I don’t want to write with such detailed description that I cause someone to sin, so this is a very difficult area for me personally. My only objective in creating a sexy scene is to make it realistic enough for the reader and to show the raw emotions which stem from such an experience.

I struggled, for instance, on how to describe a scene in my novel An Innocent Murdered, where a 46-year-old former nun named Susan has not only ever had intercourse but she’s never even seen a naked man. After all these years, she yearns for that experience and she asks Matt, a good friend, if he could help satisfy her curiosity.

After he turned to face her, she moved her hands to the front of his legs and gazed at his penis. “It’s quite small, isn’t it?”

He gave a nervous laugh. “Henry shrinks after I take a bath.”


“That’s what I call my pecker. Henry, please meet Susan. Susan, meet Henry.”

“Glad to meet you, Henry,” she said, still crouching as she used her thumb and forefinger to move his flaccid penis up and down like a handshake greeting. She examined the opening to his penis and giggled like a schoolgirl. “It looks like a small mouth.”

“I suppose it does. If I had a marking pen, I could entertain ex-nuns with it by drawing a nose and a couple of eyes and using it as a puppet.”

Her face turned crimson as she stroked his penis while touching his testicles. “I’m sorry, Matt. I’m probably embarrassing you by doing this.”

“No, not all.”

She looked up at him. “From what I’ve read, these testicles create the sperm while the penis ejaculates it into a woman’s vagina to create life. It’s wonderful the way God designed man for procreation. Isn’t it?”

“I can’t argue with that.”

She noticed his penis beginning to grow as she fondled it. “I mean, God produces human life from life. We’re all participants in the act of creation.”

“If feels as if I’m in a religion class right now.”

“Sorry. I can’t help but see God in everything. It’s a shame my parents never talked to me about sex.”

Susan can’t help but let her religion interfere with her desire for sexual intimacy. The scene closes with Susan having doubts as to whether or not she wants to go through with it. (I could have expanded this scene to show Matt entering her and how she moaned until she finally experiences her first orgasm, but I thought it would be better to make the reader guess what happened after she had her doubts.)

In another part of An Innocent Murdered, Matt has a romantic relationship with a woman who gives him a shocking revelation: she’s a lesbian who still likes men….

After they both undressed, she put on a CD that played something by Mozart. “You told me you enjoy classical music. This is his violin concerto.”

“I like it. When I first met Susan I tried to get more familiar with country and western.”

She climbed into bed. “Do you still see her?”

“Off and on,” he said, joining her. “She’s a pleasant woman.”

“When a man says a girl is pleasant it either means she’s not particularly attractive or he hasn’t yet scored with her.”

“I’d certainly like to score with you.”

“I hope you like the woman on top position. I enjoy taking the lead when it comes to sex.”

He grinned. “I like a woman with initiative.”

After fifteen delicious minutes flew by, they climaxed almost at the same time. Matt lay next to her in bed, stroking her hair and feeling her breast.

Heather turned toward him and giggled.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

 “I hope Cassandra’s not going to be upset when I tell her about we’ve just done.”

 “Cassie? What’s she got to do with us?”

“I suppose I should have told you sooner. She and I have been sleeping together for the past five years.”

“What!” he exclaimed, jerking up to a sitting position.

“Relax. Remember my telling you that sometimes a lesbian will make love to a man? This is one of those times.”

Again, I leave it up to the reader to determine what might happen next.

I experience a different sort of challenge in a scene I wrote for my Civil War historical novel, Sissy! In this particular scene, Lazarus, a 15-year-old former black slave who is now a Yankee soldier visits a prostitute named Rose. Lazarus knows people in Nashville hate him because he’s a Yankee and a Negro, and he has second thoughts about being here. When Rose discovers he’s a virgin and is extremely nervous about the situation, she calms him down….

“This your first time?” she asked, stroking his neck.

“Yes, ma’am.” How did she know?

She moved to the edge of the bed and sighed. “There’s always a first time for everything.” Her eyes focused on him with an intensity that made him uneasy. “How old are you, Lazarus?”

He didn’t care to lie anymore. “Fifteen.”

“Fifteen? That’s about the age I was when I lost my virginity. C’mon, sit next to me and relax,” she said, patting the mattress.

He lowered himself next to her, feeling her soft thigh pressing against his. “Why did the other ladies walk away from me, ma’am?”

“Don’t you know?”

“Because I’m colored?”

“Of course, honey. They probably figure you got some kind of disease or you’re a runaway slave or something. They only like to fool around with white men.”

Lazarus’s blood boiled. When will people stop treatin’ him different?

 “Know why I didn’t walk away?” she asked, drawing her face close to his.

He wondered about that himself. “Why?”

Just then, Emmett’s voice roared through the closed door. “Listen woman, no nigger Yankees here. Understand?” It sounded as if he were shouting at his wife.

Lazarus felt his pulse thumping inside his arms. Gots to leave. White man angry.

“Get outa here!” Lillian screamed. Then footsteps banging down the steps. An object hitting a downstairs wall.

“I’ll be back, woman!” Emmett shouted just before the outside door slammed like a thunderbolt.

Lazarus’s heart raced. He looked at Rose. She don’ look scared. Maybe it’ll be fine.

Rose, with a smile that seemed forced, ran her fingers over his body. “Good. He’s gone. That Emmett’s a little crazy at times.”

Lazarus took a deep breath. It be quiet now. “Ma’am, you were sayin’ about why you didn’t walk away—”

“Because I know what it’s like when people hate you,” Rose said. “People call me Miss Scarface because that’s the first thing they notice about me.”

Lazarus looked away for a moment. He didn’t want her to think he was staring at her. He knew what it was like for people to judge you by your skin.

“But,” she continued, “I’m still a human being, and I have feelings. It’s too bad people find me disgusting because they don’t like my face.”

Lazarus put his arm around her waist. “I don’t find yah disgustin’, ma’am.”

“Thank you for sayin’ that. Means a lot to me. Sometimes I think for a lady like me to look like I do is probably worse than being colored.”

Lazarus was about to disagree with her when she asked him to lie on his back. “I think you’re ready, Lazarus.” She knelt over him, cupping her breasts with her hands. “These are swollen with milk and they’re tender. So before we start foolin’ around, I want you to promise to be gentle.”

The slave woman he had seen six years ago flashed into his mind.

“I don’ want yah to die, child,” she had said, opening the top of her dress.

No, Lazarus thought, I now fifteen, I be a man now. Need to make love to woman. I be a man.

“It be milk for mah own child, but mah child gone now, so you drink from me.”

Lazarus’s mind darted from thought to thought. Did he want to make love to a woman? Or did he want the love of a woman?

He wanted the love, he reckoned, like the love he got six years ago. If he could only relive that moment in the barn with that woman—a complete stranger, escaping from her master.

“I loves you and wants you to live. Drink, lil’ boy. I gives you love’n food.”

Lazarus closed his eyes, trying to recapture that memory. Forget bein’ a man fer now. Be a boy again. Remember how sick you was? She gave you life. All comin’ back now. The hunger. The cold. Her smile. Her breast. Her words. The warmth of her milk on his lips.

Lazarus looked at Rose. “Ma’am, would it be proper for me to—?”

She frowned. “To what?” A smile formed on her face, and she shook her head in disbelief. “Well, I’ll be! Is that what you want?”

He nodded, embarrassed. This was a stupid request. He shouldn’t have made it. After all, he wasn’t a little baby, and women only nursed babies, didn’t they?

“Well,” she said, the look of surprise still in her eyes, “I guess there’s no harm in it, even though it is a little peculiar.”

“I understand, ma’am. Sorry I asked.”

“Wait. You’d be doin’ me a favor—but promise me you’ll be gentle.”

“I promise, ma’am.”

Rose patted his head as he drew in the warm, white fluid. It was like being nine years old again. In a cold barn, hungry, and the slave woman offering him her breast so he could survive. Her words came back….

“Your momma done get taken back. I wish I could be your momma, honey child.”

Rose pressed him closer to her. “You’re too young to be shootin’ with the men, aren’t you, Lazarus?”

He looked up at her. “I just play the drums, ma’am. But I really wants to fight. If I’m gonna die, I’d like to do it fightin’ rather than drummin’.”

“Truth be told, honey, I’m a Yankee at heart,” she whispered. “I don’t want slaves, cause I’m one myself, in a way. But you’re lucky, Lazarus.”

He looked up at her. “What yah mean by that?”

“Lazarus, you already got some of the Yankees fightin’ for your freedom. I ain’t got nobody fightin’ for mine.”

The fact that Lazarus wants the prostitute to feed him with her breast milk should not be taken out of context. As a child, Lazarus was saved from starvation when a pregnant woman offered him her milk-filled breast so he could live. I  had to bring out the details of this in the above scene so the reader could fully comprehend the tragedy of this situation.

I urge you to buy a copy of An Innocent Murdered,to discover ways I had to treat some delicate issues—like the molestation of a child or how the true murderer of the priest tried to seduce a detective by offering him her body.

Sex is one of the most powerful natural forces we know. It can be a beautiful thing, it can reveal our own struggles, and it can show how our emotions can overwhelm us when we participate in the act. It can also make us transform the real beauty of the naked form it into something dirty.  As a writer, I don’t mind showing how some misuse the power of their sex to dominate others, but I really would love to show readers the true beauty of a nude human being and the sexual pleasures that God Himself meant for us to enjoy in conjunction with His plan.

Filed under An Innocent Murdered Sissy breasts lesbian pornographic pornography sex sexy scene writers writing writing fiction penis nude nun novelist novels novel writing story sexual intercourse intercourse Christian

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W. W. Norton: First Lines from New Books Out Today: August 1, 2011


“Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man.”
Busy Monsters: A Novel by William Giraldi

The Sand Speaks
“I’m fluid and omnivorous, the casual
kiss. I’ll knock up your oysters.
I’ll eat your diamonds. I’m a mutt, no


As an aside, I would like to mention that I have six new books out myself and maybe someone from Norton would want to take a look at them. They are Ebooks with the following titles:

Sissy! by Tom Mach (a historical novel of 1862-1863)

An Innocent Murdered by Tom Mach (an unusual mystery whodunnit novel

All Parts Together by Tom Mach (a historical novel of 1863-1865)

ADVENT by Tom Mach (thriller—with two conflicting scenarios about earth’s final demise

STORIES TO ENJOY by Tom Mach (a collection of 16 short stories with O. Henry-like twists)

HOMER THE ROAMER by Tom Mach (a delightful story about a cat who got an adventure he didn’t want)

Filed under Norton publisher Tom Mach Sissy All Parts Together Homer the Roamer An Innocent Murdered Stories to Enjoy Advent new books books Ebooks

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What in the world do you do when you get a great book review

I suppose that’s a silly headline. We all know what to do when (or if) we get a great book review. But the one I received today was totally unexpected as I didn’t even ask for a review. Emily Hill, herself a novelist ( ) informed me that she had reviewed my novel Sissy! and posted it on Amazon.

I guess what you do with a good book review is you study it to see whether you can replicate this in your next book. If you did something particularly well, take note, because you want to continue with that.  But if something did not work out, use this as a learning tool the next time around. However, bear in mind that a reviewer is always giving her own opinion about a book. It could be that another person might be in total disagreement. A successful writer named Irwin Shaw once said “All writers are the same—they forget a thousand good reviews and remember one bad one.”

Okay, here’s the review Emily Hill gave me today on my novel Sissy! (If you want to read more about this book, click HERE)

Tom Mach’s handling of `Sissy’, an impeccably researched Civil War novel is remarkable. The smooth character development and plot pacing of this novel points to a writer who is committed to publishing a professional quality timeless, classic.

Mach is able to put the reader smack in the middle of history’s panorama as his characters, Jessica, Lazarus, good-hearted Samaritans, and cold-hearted Raiders dance and weave through their story lines.

The research invested in the novel, “Sissy”, is rich and irrefutable. It rewards the reader with its expanse. In some circles this period of sesquicentennial observance brings to the forefront the challenge of reconciling the perceptions of the past with the political emotions of the present. Mach’s novels will undoubtedly go far in adding to the speculation of why brother fought brother in the most dramatic war this country has faced.

As a fellow Civil War novelist, I give `Sissy’ two thumbs up; a well worthwhile title, with all the potential of becoming a classic.

Read E-Books? Click on: tom mach on your device when you shop for a book and get a list of his superbly enjoyable stories.

Filed under book review reviews novelist Sissy Emily Hill reviewer writer novel

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Historical novel about a Civil War angel—FREE 1st Chapter of SISSY!

I’d like to introduce you to a historical novel covering the Civil War area of 1862-1863 that is so historically accurate, I was invited to give a presentation on it for a Kansas University history class.  Posted below is the first chapter of my novel SISSY! that concludes with the devastating raid of William Quantrill on the town of Lawrence, Kansas, resulting in the deaths of almost 200 innocent men and boys. If you would like to read the rest of this novel, I invite you to click on and order it directly from me—AND if you mention you saw this chapter on my blog I you will get a 40% discount off the retail price.

Here, then, is the first chapter of SISSY!  Enjoy!

                                           SISSY! by Tom Mach

                                              —Chapter One—

                                       ©2006 by Tom Mach

June, 1862    Lawrence, Kansas

"Thank you, but I’m not helpless," nineteen-year-old Jessica Radford said when the stagecoach driver offered her his hand after she opened her door.

The man narrowed his eyes in surprise as he dropped his hand. “Sorry, ma’am, I was only askin’.”

Jessica hoped she didn’t sound rude, but men shouldn’t assume all ladies were helpless. After all, she used to plow Pa’s field and chop wood at home, didn’t she?

She whisked away strands of her blond hair before lifting her two bags, one containing her college textbooks. A ragtag band played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” outside the four-story, eighty-room Eldridge House. The magnificent red brick hotel, displaying a great deal of red, white, and blue bunting, together with that hypnotic “Glory-Glory-Halleluhah” refrain, reminded her of this insane war. When would it finally be over? Six years earlier, border ruffians had burned this same building to the ground when it was called the Free State Hotel, and Kansas bled long before the first shot was ever fired at Fort Sumter. However, war was now being raged not only over here in Kansas but everywhere.

The red summer sky was yet another reminder of this senseless massacre. At Carlotta College, a private woman’s college she attended this year, the War between the North and South was practically all the students talked about. Some of the young ladies even engaged in heated arguments over it.

Could she escape from it here, at home? After all, the major battles were being fought east and south of Kansas. Still, there were those awful stories about civilians… residents at Shiloh, Tennessee, killed by Union forces… a child hit by musket fire at Fort Pulaski, Georgia… an innocent bystander slain while he observed a battle in Yorktown, Virginia….

How was her family doing here in Kansas? She hadn’t heard from them in weeks. Could something have happened? Those awful stories about civilians. No. That dream she had last night could have meant nothing. Maybe she was just tired. The three-day steamboat ride on the Missouri from St. Louis to Westover, combined with the six-hour journey over bouncing corduroy roads to Lawrence had plumb wore her out.

Jessica waved off a stranger who offered to carry her bags and looked around at the throng of people on Massachusetts Street—once a road so wide there was room to spare even with three wagons driven alongside. Today, all she saw was a street crowded mostly with Federals on horseback and women in their Sunday best waving goodbye to their men.

Everything looked the same as she remembered it…the cabinet shop at the northwest corner of Winthrop and Massachusetts, Allen Farm Implement and Hardware to the northeast, and the Simpson Bank directly across from the Eldridge House. But no sense wasting time looking, Jessica thought. Picking up her bags, she forced her way down Winthrop Street. She tried not to think about a young pregnant woman in tears whom she had just passed. It was indeed possible that woman’s baby would never see her father return. All this pageantry and hoopla about uniforms and military balls and such, and no thought whatsoever about being killed…and guns made it all so easy….

It was an accident, Claire. 

She shivered, ordering herself not to think about that again. It happened three years ago, and she’d best forget it. She headed for the Eldridge Stables on Vermont Street a block away. Once there, she dropped her bags and leaned against a hitching post. The odor of hay on the stable floor wafted through the still air. A black stallion neighed. A squirrel climbed up a locust post across the street, jerking its head back and forth in search of enemies.

Where was Pa? He said he’d be here, unless…the nightmare that had jerkedher awake last night returned… “They’re all dead, rebels got ’em”… Jessica yanked the memory from her consciousness.

“Jessica!” a familiar voice called out to her.

Jessica turned, relieved to see her father, a man with bushy eyebrows and long beard, sitting in the shay and waving to her. He wore a black derby, light brown satin waistcoat, and dark brown trousers. He ought to dress up more often, Jessica thought as she smiled and moved toward him.

“Pa!” Jessica exclaimed, hugging him tighter than she ever had before. “I was so worried about you and Mom and Nellie, with thewar’n all.”

“Pshaw! Nothing to be concerned about, Jessica. C’mon. We’ll talk on the ride back to the farm.”

But Henry Radford said nothing even after he took the reins and drove his shay down Massachusetts Street, past familiar places—the Kansas Tribune, Duncan & Allison Dry Goods Store, Ward Meats, Danvers Ice Cream Parlor, Brechtelbrauer’s Saloon. He turned west on Henry Street, passing a few more shops and a tree-lined ravine, until only small farms surrounded them.

When Pa headed north toward a grassy field fronting the Kansas River, Jessica decided to break the silence. “How’s Ma?”

“Oh fine, and fit as a fiddle. She’s helpin’ out tryin’ to raise money for gettin’ uniforms and supplies and such. She’s also doin’ all she can for her church, with bake sales and helpin’ out in the sacristy and things like that.”

“I assumed both you and Mom would be here today.”

“Foolish woman,” Pa grunted. “She plumb thinks she’ll go to hell if she misses Sunday Mass. That’s why she ain’t here.”

Jessica stared down at her hands, fighting her disappointment. Nellie wasn’t here either. Didn’t that girl know how much she missed her? Maybe it was Ma’s fault that Pa didn’t bring Nellie with him to the station. Didn’t Ma say, more than once, that Nellie was an embarrassment at times? It wasn’t that the girl was so terribly uneducated. It was that Nellie was a Negro girl, three years younger than herself, and people would always ask the same question about Nellie—is she slave or free?

Jessica shifted in her wooden seat. Truth was, Nellie was a slave child whom a courageous white man named Otto Heller had discovered on the bank of the Missouri River five years ago on Christmas Eve. “You have to take her as your own,” Otto had pleaded with Pa. “She’s crying her eyes out for her mama, and her mama can’t hear her cries. She’s been taken by the slavers. If you don’t take the child in, she’ll surely die.”

But why didn’t Nellie come to the Eldridge House with Pa to meet her today?

As if reading Jessica’s mind, Pa added, “Ma took Nellie with her to church. Wants that poor child to be a papist like herself.”

His abrupt comment stopped Jessica from going further with this line of questioning. Her parents had never agreed about religion. Ma would always be a fervent Catholic, and Pa’d always be an occasional Methodist. Sometimes Jessica wondered if they believed in the same God.

“Any news about Uncle Adam, Pa?”

His face fell a little, but he kept his eyes on his horse. “Didn’t yuh get our letter?”


“Well, maybe it got lost or something.”

“But what about Uncle Adam?” she asked, not hiding her impatience.

“I got the news ’bout three weeks ago. Still can’t believe it…” His voice trailed off.

Jessica put her hand to her mouth. “Oh no, Pa!”

He turned his head for a moment. There was a tear on his rough cheek. “He was at Shiloh with the Eleventh Indiana Volunteers. Gave up runnin’ his medicine and drug company so’s he could fight them rebels. Killed at close range with a shotgun. Died right quick they say, but your ma didn’t take no comfort in that.”

Jessica closed her eyes for a moment, agonizing over her uncle’s death and wondering why people made killing so easy. It happened three years ago, but her hysteria after the gun went off still haunted her….Please, Claire. Please, please, wake up! But Claire Silas, her seven-year-old cousin, had never recovered.

“Y’know,” Pa continued, “how your uncle was always wantin’ to help others? By thunder, that’s why he even gave Ma enough money to put you through college for this year.”

Yes, she thought, and Uncle Adam had intended to have her manage the firm he owned, the Silas Drug Company, after she graduated. He was the only man she knew who believed women could hold an equal position with men in business. She often wished Pa were like that.

Pa ran his hand over his beard. “Shot a deer yesterday. Right from my bedroom window I did. Eight-point buck. Used a handgun, too, by golly.”

Jessica visualized Pa pointing his pistol at the animal. It was different than the Colt .31 caliber pocket revolver hidden in her luggage. Uncle Adam made her promise she’d keep this weapon, the one that a kind stranger insisted she take after saving her from Sam Toby three years ago….

 * * *

She’d never forget that stranger’s face. It was broken with lines of worry. But his stern jawbone and eyes of steel spoke volumes of his determination to face danger without fear. Heoffered her the Colt revolver. “This here’s Sam Toby’s weapon. Picked it up from the ground in the cornfield after he took off. Nice small revolver. It’s yours now, young lady.”

“It’s not mine,” she had said. “I don’t want it.”

He ran his bony finger down his long white beard. “For your own protection, ma’am, you ought to have it. We’re livin’ in a dangerous world.” He forced the gun into her reluctant palm and glanced down at Nellie. “Want me to see to it that this here slave girl gets further north? I can get her over to Illinois.”

“It won’t be necessary. My family already took her in as one of our own.”

 * * *

Uncle Adam…how could he be dead? She took a handkerchief from her dress pocket and dabbed her eyes. Dead? No, it couldn’t be. He was the only man she knew who understood her love for literature, even though he was also a shrewd businessman. She still cherished the book of poems he had given her, poems penned by an obscure writer named Walt Whitman. But he also gave her something she never wanted—shells for her Colt revolver….

“No use just having an empty pistol,” Uncle Adam had said. “You need these, too. You never know when you might come face-to-face with a rebel.”

“But I don’t want these shells,” she answered. “I don’t even want this gun.”

“You may need it someday. Promise you’ll always have it with you.”

How could she tell him who had shot his daughter Claire with this revolver? That the one responsible for Claire’s death wasn’t Sam Toby, but it was—”

He grabbed her hand. “Promise?”

“Yes,” she said, struggling with her awful secret.

As she listened to the rapid klip-klop-klip-klop pace of the horse pulling the shay, Jessica brought her attention back to the news about Uncle Adam’s death. “Pa,” she asked, “how did Ma take the news about her brother?”

“Pretty hard. Before he left for Shiloh, he gave Rachel a chest full of his valuables. ‘Jest in case something happens to me,’ he said. She didn’t open that there chest yet. And she didn’t get her brother’s body back home so she could bury him proper. Yuh know what I mean? The whole thing has busted her up pretty bad.” He turned to Jessica for a moment. “Yuh know, of course, this means no more money for college.”

Jessica felt a twinge of guilt as she inwardly admitted it was true. She had hoped to graduate some day. Maybe then she’d manage her uncle’s firm. Better still, she’d write important books. Now those dreams were shattered. And… and… Uncle Adam was dead. She felt awful about that, and she knew if she let herself cry, she would. “I don’t care about the money,” Jessica lied. “How’s Nellie been?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Oh, Nellie’s same as always. Sometimes slow ’bout some things, like her mind’s asleep or something.”

Yes, Jessica thought, an uneducated sixteen-year-old girl who still played silly little girl games. That’s at least how Uncle George described Nellie in his last letter. But the Radfords loved the little Negro child they had taken from Otto on that cold Christmas Eve in Missouri. “I will try to be a real mother to her,” Ma had said when she brought Nellie to their new home in Kansas. But as far as Jessica was concerned, Nellie was sweet, even though she still acted like a child most of the time.

“Does Nellie understand what this war’s all about?” asked Jessica.

He smiled for the first time. “I reckon so. But she’s not afraid of it. Y’know, that there girl’s got more spunk than all of us put t’gether. Yeah, she’s not afraid of nothin’. Believes God will take care of everything. Y’just have to believe in Jesus, she thinks. Keeps tellin’ me the stranger who saved you’ n her from Sam Toby surely must be in heaven now for all the good he’d done.”

In a flash, Jessica recalled her last conversation with the stranger….

 * * *

“I appreciate your kindness, sir,” she had said, “and I want to thank you for your help. But I don’t even know your name.”

The man paused, his face as solemn as a cemetery. “Ma’am, perhaps you’ve heard about me and the Underground Railroad,” he said calmly. “My name’s John Brown.”

Jessica pressed her fingers around her neck. What good had come out of John Brown’s hanging? People still owned slaves.

Pa stroked his beard and glanced at Jessica. “Collar too tight?”

 “No,” she said, dropping her hand to her lap.

“Say, I’m sure glad yer back—I guess for good now. Sorry Ma and I can’t ’ford to send yuh back now that Adam’s gone.”

“I’m not concerned about that, Pa.” There was no use telling him her hope for a better life and Ma’s dream for her were both shattered. “I guess I could work, but I don’t know if anyone here would want to hire a woman for anything except cooking and cleaning.”

“Well,” Pa said, “yuh kin help us out with the chores. By golly, yer the best field hand I ever had, with the way yuh can shoe a horse or drive a mule. Hope that college of yers didn’ make yuh afraid to use your muscles.”

“I’d like to use my brain muscles for a change.”

“What’s that?”

“Never mind.”

“Yuh know,” Pa said, “in the fall, yuh kin even do some teachin’. Don’t need no diploma to do that, I reckon. Why, yuh kin even get one of them certificates if yuh kin jest read and write.”

“I know that, Pa.”

“Heck, most girls your age never even seen the inside of a college.”

“Ma almost did,” Jessica said, recalling how Ma used to tell her how wonderful it had been meeting Mary Lyon, the founder of the first woman’s college. Back then, Ma wanted to earn a degree and teach college in Massachusetts. Instead, she became Pa’s mail-order bride.

“If your Ma would’ve got college learnin’,” Pa said, “she wouldn’a met me. And then where would yuh be?”

“But Pa, if I had a diploma, I could do a lot more things. Maybe run a business like Uncle Adam wanted me to. Or maybe even become a famous writer. Just think, my book would be in libraries, next to such names as Longfellow, Shakespeare, Bacon, and—”

“I like my bacon with eggs,” Pa laughed, slapping his free hand against his knee.

Jessica let it go. Good thing Ma had pressured him to let her attend Carlotta College in St. Louis. Pa thought education was a waste on women.

By the time they arrived at the Radford homestead, the rim of the sun nestled itself on the roofline of the barn. Cows stood like statues in the field, while Haley, the Radford’s collie chased a jackrabbit toward the creek. Jessica swept her eyes over the homestead, inhaling the memories of her childhood. She and Nellie had helped out in the field while Pa and his farm helpers plowed the ground or harvested the fruit of their labors. Other times they’d rest, enjoying the sunflowers, making mind sculptures out of cloud formations. But one day Sam Toby, a former trusted field hand, had cornered Nellie, Claire, and Jessica in the cornfield when Pa wasn’t around….

Jessica instantly recalled how Ma and Pa used to tell her Nellie would always be a child. It didn’t seem to bother her any, Jessica thought. Maybe she was afraid to leave the new world she had discovered here in Kansas. A safe world. A world where she didn’t have to worry about some cruel slave owner.

“I’ve always liked this spot,” Jessica said, getting off her horse. “Gives me peace of mind just listening to the water rippling down the stream.”

Nellie joined her at the bank. “We used t’go fishin’ here, you’n me. You remember? Done never catch nothing.”

Jessica nodded. “Pa told me later there were no fish there. Made me think there were bass and pike and all kinds of fish in that creek.”

Nellie returned a guarded smile. “You mean your Pa tol’ yah a lie?”

“I wouldn’t call it a lie. He just wanted us to believe in things.”

“Henry says I gotta believe in some things. Like this here pretty medallion he gave me last year.” Nellie removed from around her neck a silver chain that held a round reddish-brown metal object. She showed it to Jessica. “Pa says it’s his favorite Psalm.”

Jessica held the heavy bronze object in her hand. It was plain except for something which was engraved on it. There was just enough light from the setting sun for her to make out the words:

For He has given His angels charge concerning thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.

Jessica was about to return it when Nellie asked her to look at the back of it.

On the other side of the half-dollar-sized object was inscribed the name “Nellie Radford.” “Looks like Pa wants to think of you as his own daughter,” Jessica said, smiling as she gave her back the medal. “I guess this makes you an official member of the Radford family.”

Nellie put the chain back on her neck. “He tol’ me that this will keep me from harm. Is believin’ in this a lie, too?”

Jessica gave her a reassuring pat on her leg. “No, we all have to believe in something.”

“Like Jesus? Do you believe like your Ma that if’n we try real hard to be good, He’ll take us to heaven?”

“I don’t know. Pa thinks all we got to do is believe we’re saved and that’s it.”

Nellie smiled at her. “What d’you believe, Jessica? You don’t talk much about God. D’you believe in Him?”

Jessica didn’t have the heart to tell her she didn’t know what she believed in. Maybe Reverend Lightfoot was right. If she read more of the Bible, maybe she’d know for sure. “Well, you know, Nellie, I’m real glad you believe in Jesus. At college, I learned we sometimes have to believe in things we can’t see firsthand, things like beauty and love. We can’t see them, but we know they exist.”

Nellie moved her hand over her braids and cocked her head. “Yer so smart, Jessica, goin’ to college and book learnin’ and everythin’.”

“You don’t have to go to college to be smart. Look at Aunt Penelope. She’s sold her own business in Toledo and is looking for an opportunity to buy another. I don’t feel as smart as that, although I did learn a lot about literature and history.”

“What’s history?”

“History is the story of all of us, going way back. Sometimes, they get it wrong, though. Like I think the students got it all wrong about John Brown. They say he was a murderer and an outlaw. But he saw Negroes as human beings with souls and not as animals that can be sold for money.”

Nellie leaned toward her. “If someone wanted to hurt me, would you kill’im with your gun?”

“That’s a foolish question,” Jessica said. She got up and walked toward her horse. “C’mon. We’d best be going. Getting late. It’s already dark.”

Nellie mounted Blister about the same time Jessica got on Leroy. Blister neighed, and Nellie petted his mane. “Y’know,” Nellie said, “you’re an awful lot like your Ma. She reads a lot. She hates guns like you do.”

Jessica moved her horse closer to Nellie. “I know. Ma made me promise something when she got real sick that time. Remember when the doctor said she might have pneumonia and die? Well, she made me swear that if she passed on, I would never kill anyone because killing is a big sin and we have no right to take a life that God gave. No right at all.”

“But you tol’ me that John Brown gave you Sam Toby’s gun. You aim to keep it?”

“I don’t know.” She pulled out the Colt revolver from the pocket of her dress. “I still got this with me because maybe I’ll need to use it some day. But I don’t want to use it. Not ever. I’m scared even holding it like this.” She put the gun back in her pocket. “Besides, maybe Ma’s right. I don’t want to be responsible for another person dying on my account.”

Oh, dear Claire! I’ve killed you!

Jessica choked. “You’re the only one, Nellie, who knows what really happened that day. You’re the only one. I made you promise not to tell.”

Nellie squinted. Her carefree, pudgy face became serious. “I done keep my promise. But you didn’t mean to kill Claire. You made a mistake.”

“It was an accident,” Jessica corrected. “I know that. Still, I don‘t ever want to use this revolver. Ever.”

“I shore appreciate Sissy savin’ me from Mastah Toby.”

“Nellie! You’re only three years younger than me, and you act like a child. Sissy’s not real!”

Nellie still wore her frightened mask and looked as if she were going to cry. “But she is real. She is! She was there when he had my dress off and she—”

Jessica turned Leroy around. “No good talking about this, Nellie. Happened long ago, anyway. It’s over, and I want to forget it.”

Nellie moved Blister alongside Jessica’s horse. “Jessica, are you mad at me?”

“No, course not. I’m just mad about the way things turn out sometimes. I think we ought to be getting back, though. I don’t want Ma and Pa to think we ran away.”

Nellie laughed. “Yeah, but might be fun if we did.”

They came to a narrow trail and Jessica let Nellie ride ahead of her. Tomorrow, Jessica thought, she’d have to figure out what to do with her life now that she wasn’t going back to school. Pa was right about being able to get a job teaching. Didn’t pay much, but it’d be something. Maybe it’d also give her ideas for writing stories.

She thought she heard men shouting in the distance. Maybe they were jayhawkers making their way to the border, or maybe they were celebrating something. Whatever it was, it needn’t concern her.

A shot rang out, and Blister reared from fright. “Oh, no!” Nellie screamed, kicking the animal with her boots. Blister moved at full gallop, Nellie yelling at the horse to stop. He ran like a runaway train, with Nellie hunched forward, holding the reins.

Jessica raced to catch up, screaming at Nellie to stop. Another shot sliced through the night air.

The nightmare exploded in her mind again, and this time she couldn’t shake it off—

“They’re all dead, rebels got ’em”….

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What happens next will astound you. The Civil War will become as real to you as if you were actually there. More than that, SISSY! will add a touch of softness to an otherwise brutal conflict. If you will check all the reviews in Amazon you will find reviewers who thought this novel was outstanding. SISSY! also won the J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. Please go to and order a copy of this book & get a 40% discount off the retail price if you mention you read the first chapter on this blog.

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Is Stephen King right about NOT plotting a novel?

For more than a year I delayed reading Stephen King’s book entitled “On Writing” thinking it would not give me any fresh ideas. However, yesterday on a six-hour-long car ride I listened to an audio version of Stephen King’s book. I was surprised that his book was not just another series of points on writing—many of which I had heard at writing conferences before. It was a combination of his memoir and what he learned about writing in the process of writing.

One thing he said in his book struck a nerve with me. Here is an excerpt of what he said about how he writes a novel:

"I want to put a group of characters…in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to HELP them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down."

I was stunned because this had been my experience in writing my three novels: Sissy!All Parts Together … and a third novel—which is currently in search of a publisher. Many writing books tell you to write a detailed synopsis before writing your novel. I did that with Sissy! but I found out that after my main character (Jessica Radford) was faced with a situation, she and other characters also came to life to complicate the situation and as I wrote my story was intrigued by how it unfolded. Years earlier I made an attempt to write a different novel and tried to manipulate my character to act in a certain way and perform certain tasks so that a certain situation might be resolved. I had written and rewritten that novel at least five times and it still lies dormant, lifeless.

I guess what I’m saying is, yes, you should have some idea as far as where you’d like your story to go, but don’t hold the reins on your story too tightly. If your characters are flesh-and-blood real to you, let them handle the job of complicating the crux of the problem while they attempt to solve it—even if your story goes in a totally different direction than you expected. You may be quite surprised at the outcome!

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How I Came To Write My First Historical Novel—Part 3

In this third part of the discussion, I’d like to focus on the accuracy of the history and the portrayal of historical figures in the context of a novel. You will note that I show a copy of Sissy! upsdie-down. This serves as a warning to wannabe historical novelists not to turn history upside-down by fabricating events that either are not true or that would not likely happen.

In Sissy!, for example, I describe a scene in Perryville, Kentucky where Union General McCook is talking to his aide and wondering when General Buell is going to send in reserves. He’s worried about Confederate General Cleburne. McCook speaks first…

"You say Cleburne's already crossed  Doctor's Creek?”

"Yes, sir."

"Hope our artillery holds out against Cleburne on those slopes. Good position for us. But I’m worried about Lytle’s men on Mackville Road. They’re taking quite a beating from the rebels. C’mon, let’s see if Gilbert’s coming in with reinforcements. We’ve gotta stop Cleburne.”

I did a considerable amount of research before I could create the above dialogue. Cleburne was indeed threatening the Union forces and Buell was late with reinforcements while Gilbert was hoping filling the gap with additional troops. There is no recorded transcript of this conversation, so I was free to create a fictional dialogue, but one based on fact. I not only checked the facts, I went to the Perryville battlefield myself and checked out the location of the two-story house where McCook was stationed. Physically being there, I imagined seeing what McCook saw in that valley and because I studied the man himself, I knew what he looked like and learned was his brave, defiant attitude was toward the rebels.

One trick in writing a historical novel is to make your historical characters as believable as your fictional ones. For instance, in Sissy!, just before William Quantrill and his 448 marauders attacked Lawrence, Kansas on August 21, 1863, Quantrill surveys the town….

Wanting to be sure he wasn’t entering a trap, Quantrill sent his five best horsemen ahead to trot up Massachusetts Street to see if all was quiet. While he waited for their return, some of the men grumbled among themselves about the wisdom of shooting up the town. “We should just rob a few stores”…”Could be armed soldiers out there.”…”Maybe they heard we’re coming.”…”I don’t want no part of any outright killin’.”

Quantrill and Greg paced on horseback up and down the line, telling the men if they were cowards they could leave now and there’d be no repercussions. A few did leave but most stayed on , waiting for the return of the scouts.

Within minutes, the five horsemen returned to their leader, giving him a sign indicating all was quiet. “Damn it!” Quantrill shoute. “I’m going in—follow me! Rush on to the town!” All at once, the guerillas bounded forward, yelling and screaming their rage: “Kill ‘em. No mercy! Damn ‘em all! Remember the jail! Remember Osceola! Remember the Redlegs!”

The actual coversation Quantrill had with his men is close to what history records as to what he probably said. I stayed with that conversation, but the buzz words some of the men uttered in questioning whether they should attack Lawrence were words I had invented. But while Quantrill sounds and acts like a fictional character, he did indeed exist as do the deeds mentioned in my novel. Blending historical fact with storytelling is an art that takes practice.

I sometimes hear others complain about writer’s block. I used to have writers block whenever I felt uncomfortable with a story I was writing. I couldn’t visualize the characters, couldn’t care less what they did, was conscious of the fact I was pushing myself on a writing project, concerned that I created scenes which were not believable to me, and was comfortable with the nature of the characters (ie., I didn’t understand them). I used to try forumlas such as writing a detailed outline and making sure I followed that outline rigidly. I filled out biographical forms that described everything about a character I wasnted to create. I measured my way to two-thirds of a novel where I’m suppose to have the climax of the story occuIr. Yet I never felt at ease with my manuscript, I would start and stop in fits…and often have a severe writers block in the middle of my novel, at a loss as to whether I could contnue the darn thing.

I didn’t experience that with Sissy! Everything came together and I only stopped writing when I had to dig for more research that would be helpful to me for a scene. It was a joy to write Sissy! and it was an even greater joy to rewrite it—which I did at least six times if not more.

Plot and setting and characterization all go hand in hand in writing a historical novel. While I believe that great characters can move a plot, I think the writer neds to have at least a general idea where the story is going. I knew while writing Sissy! that the story would begin with 19-year-old Jessica Radford returning from a year at college (paid for by her rich uncle) in 1862, experiencing the slaughter of her parents, fighting Confederates while disguised as a Union soldier, and enraged when she meets one of the murderers during the Quantrill raid of Lawrence in August of 1863. That was my basic plot but my story unfolded like petals of a blooming rose as I wrote it. A good writer “says” to his characters: “Okay, here’s the basic plot, here’s the role I’d like you to play—now surprise me by showing me what you’re going to do.” And in the case of Sissy! my characters did  indeed show me what they were going to do. And yes, they certainly suprised me.

In the future, I want to share with you what I learned while doing my second book of the trillogy of Jessica Radford, entitled All Parts Together. I discovered other insights when writing that book and I think you will be fascinated by what I have to say about it.

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How I Came To Write My First Historical Novel—Part 2

What I found I had to do if I had to write Sissy! was to get totally absorbed into 1862 and the town of Lawrence, Kansas. To do this, of course, I had to research everything I’d probably need to know. I did have the advantage of living in the same town where the beginning action occurred in the novel but obviously the town of 1862 was radically different than the town of 2002. I had to look at things such as street names, store fronts, the kind of clothes people wore, how they talked, what were the important topics of the day, mannerisms, etc. I was fortunate to know my protagonist very well. If I had artistic ability I could paint her on canvas. I knew how she talked, how she interfaced with others, what her faults were and what her good points were. She was someone I thought about day and night. I tell folks I knew her as well as I would know my best friend. I felt the same way about other characters in my novel—Matt Lightfoot, the half-Cherokee Methodist minister who tried to romance her but whose ideas of what a woman should be conflicted with who Jessica was. He’s a clumsy romantic who is polite but believes his primary duty is as a lieutenant for the Union, as shown in the following quote from Sissy!—

“Tell you one thing, Miss Radford, you’re real good with words.”

Jessica paused. “What are you holding there?”

Lightfoot followed her gaze to the carbine he held in his right hand. “Oh, this? This here is a Sharps breechloading cabine the colonel gave me. Thought it’d be easier for me to use than one of them old-fashioned muskets.”

Her mouth soured. “It’ll make killin’ much more efficient, I suppose.”

“Shucks, Miss Radford. I don’t condone—”

“That’s quite all right,” she said, folding her hands in front of her. “I’m glad you were able to find me. Like I say, I haven’t been writing much. Course, in this war, there isn’t much of anything good to say. Not much to sing about either, is there?”

“Slaves sang about hope in Jesus all the time.”

Jessica glowered at him. “I wouldn’t rightly know that, seeing as how I never owned any slaves.”

Matt rubbed his hand over his chin. “Well, I best be goin’.”

“I reckon so.”

He turned, walked to his horse, and stopped. “Jessica,” he said, looking at her with sad eyes.


“Never mind.” He got on his horse and rode away.

There is much conflict between Matt and Jessica.  There’s the different attitude they have about slavery. Matt used to own a slave named Tinker but doesn’t have a problem with slave ownership as long as you were fair with them. Jessica was an abolitionist. Matt felt strongly about the Christian religion, which Jessica was rather indifferent. Matt believed in the war; Jessica abhorred it. But yet there was a connection between them. She admired his strong, rough ways and his ability to make decisions and, of course, his strong masculine features.

Tinker was another fascinating character for me. He had strong feelings about right and wrong, he was faithful, he was very humble—accepting his role in a bigoted white society. He had a deep respect for Jessica and a fear of Matt. Tinker was a contradiction—he wasn’t afraid to fight for the Union in battle but when he went face to face with enemy he lacked the courage to kill. In the following scene In a way he’s a coward, and in a way he’s not. Here’s an example where T’inker comes across a rebel as he skirmishes through woods:

Tinker drew his gun as he approached the man, who apparently was either asleep or drunk. The man’s black hair resembled a nest that encircled his large head. His skin was leathery, his eyes were closed, his gun tucked in his belt. By his side was a broad-brimmed gray hat.

Tinker pointed his gun at the man’s  head. “On yer feet, mistah!”

 “What the—” The man’s dark eyes flashed back at him. He reached for the gun in his belt.

 “Yer a dead man,” Tinker shouted, “if yah go for that dere gun.”

 “Whatever you say,” the man responded, both hands pressed against the ground. “But I don’t think you’re gonna pull that trigger. You’re a coward. All men of your kind are cowards.”

 “What’s yer name, mistuh?” Tinker asked, both hands on his gun.

 “Mr. Saul Tobin to you, nigger.”

Tinker flinched. Name sounded familiar, like that feller Miz Jessica said killed her folks. He wanted to pull the trigger right there, but couldn’t. “Get up’n turn around. Where’re Colonel Cockrell’s men?”

[Note: After the two men engage in further conversation Tinker hears a crashing sound. He turns away but Saul Tobin seizes the advantage and wrestles him to the ground.] 

Tinker reared back, punching him in the eye. Saul strengthened his grip on the gun,and Tinker used all his force to push the barrel away from him.Saul swore, spitting on him, but Tinker bent his hand back.

[Note: The gun goes off and as Tinker moves away, Saul screams at him: “Don’t leave me like this. I don’t want to die.”]

 At first Tinker walked, then ran. He didn’t want to think about the man back there. He didn’t want to hear his cries for help.

How did I create these characters? This is hard for me to explain. I didn’t follow the rules  for creating characters by doing a biographical sketch of each one. I tried that before and it didn’t work for me. I found that if I did that, the characters still wouldn’t come alive. Mine came alive for me because I had such an overwhelming sense of them in my head I felt that as they came across a page, they’d establish the finer details of their own personality and they did.  In fact, one of these characters was a former slave named Lazarus.

Lazarus, of course, is the name of the man whom Jesus raised from the dead. There was something special about the Lazarus in Sissy! and I could see him in totally reality as I wrote about him. Lazarus was a timid soul, a young lad of 15 who wanted to fight for the Union and had to undergo severe humiliation before the recruiting sergeant. Lazarus had already seen his momma being beaten for talking back to a white man, so he kept his resentment to himself. While stationed in Nashville, he visited a prostitute named Lillian but was confused because he didn’t know if he wanted to make love to a woman or whether he wanted the love of a woman….

He wanted the love, he reckoned, like the love he got six years ago. If he could only relive that moment in the barn with that other woman—a complete stranger escaping from her master.

“I loves you,” the woman said to a starving nine-year-old Lazarus, “and wants you to live. Drink lil’ boy. I gives you love’n food.”

Lazarus closed his eyes, trying to recapture that memory. Forget bein’ a man fer now. Be a boy again. Remember how sick you was? She gave you life. All comin’ back now. The hunger. The cold. Her smile. Her breast. Her words. The warmth of her milk on his lips.

Lazarus looked at Rose. “Ma’am, would it be proper for me to—?”

She frowned. “To what?” A smile formed on her face, and she shook her head in disbelief. “Well, Ill be! Is that what you want?”

Rose pressed him closer to her. “You’re too young to be shootin’ with the men, aren’t you, Lazarus?”

He looked up at her. “I just play the drums, ma’am. But I really wants to fight.If I’m gonna die, I’d like to do it fightin’ rather than drummin’.”

I found inspiration for the above scene from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, where an old man dying of hunger is save by the breast of a pregnant woman. Movies as well as books and music inspire me. I saw the Ken Burns special on the Civil War at least six times and the part that really got to me was where a week before the Bull Run battle in the Civil War a major writes to his wife: “Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again…” The major died a week later, and every time I hear that letter read I can’t stop from crying.

Emotion. True genuine emotion that personally felt by the writer and conveyed to the reader. I think that’s what makes a novel great. I’ve got more to say about my experiences in writing my first historical novel.  Look for Part 3 of this blog: “How I Came To Write My First Historical Novel.”

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How I Came To Write My First Historical Novel—Part 1

History has always held a certain fascination for me. While I admit I didn’t have a passion for it when I was in school, I found myself plowing into literature—stories as well as nonfiction—that dealt with historical themes. The question that continually popped in my mind was: What was it really like back then? This was followed by a second question: How would my life be change if I were living during those times?

I had always wanted to write. In fact I wrote a novel when I was 17 years old and still in high school. But I never really considered writing a historical novel until I came to Lawrence, Kansas in 2002. It was there that I learned about a horrific raid by a gang of marauders led by William Quantrill in 1863 which devastated Lawrence, killing approximately 200 innocent men and boys. Since this took place during the Civil War (one of my most favorite historical eras) I wanted to know who and why this took place. The more I dug into the facts, the more shocking things I learned about this raid.

The result was my novel entitled Sissy! which was published in 2003 and won the J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. One of the questions people ask me about this book is how did I come up with this strange title? Actually, it came to me when I was half asleep. I saw this young Negro slave girl calling out the name “Sissy” in desparation and somehow I knew Sissy was the name of her guardian angel.  Right there I though it would make for an interesting title.

The protagonist’s name in my novel was Jessica Radford and it was also a name that just popped into my head. I know it sounds spooky, but I felt if I were taking dictation and I was told that was her name. I envisioned Jessica as a strong young woman who had a mind of her own, and I tell others that she is a 21st century woman living in a 19th century woman. Right out in the first paragraph I describe her character:

"Thank you, but I’m not helpless," nineteen-year-old Jessica Radford said when the stagecoach driver offered her his hand after she opened the door.

Right there I knew Jessica would surprise me in the way she would behave throughout the rest of the novel—a high-spirited, stubborn woman who spoke her mind and got into trouble with men who felt women should be more genteel.

Now that I look back at Sissy! I find it rather surprising that I wrote this 345-page novel without any writer’s block. I, of course, put a ton of research into this book, but I found the research enjoyable as well as challenging.  I wrote a synopsis for this book, but I kept having to change it as the story grew. Sometimes characters would go in an unexpected direction and it was up to me, as the author, to determine if I really wanted that to happen. For me, writing this novel was like taking an exciting vacation. I kept writing because I myself wanted to find out what new development lie ahead, what secrets might be uncovered, what kinds of difficulty would might characters find along the way.

There is much I want to say about this experience, so I will continue this discussion in Part 2 of “How I Came To Write My First Historical Novel”

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