Historical Fiction, Thy Name Is Fun

I am a child of the Cold War. My father actually settled on the spelling of my first name, Nikolas with a “k,” not a “c” or a “ch,” when he saw the spelling of Nikita Khrushchev’s name. My father was far from being a Soviet fan, but he was eclectic in his tastes and felt the “k” gave the name a uniqueness.

When I set about penning Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files, it was a contemporary espionage thriller with some historical flashbacks. But life happened along the way and the story was buried for more than twenty years. When I pulled the project back out and rewrote it, I recognized it as a period piece, but never thought of it as historical fiction.

When one dreams of publishing a book, one seldom thinks about the actual marketing that will need to be done for readers to find it. Most authors I know write for the love of writing, not for the opportunity of putting together and executing a marketing campaign or business plan. But the truth of publishing, either traditionally or as an independent, is that it is a business. If one is serious about it, one will have to go to market. Thankfully, I live in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, an area with strong support for the independent authors.

Soon after publishing, I was able to line up signing engagements at local libraries. These libraries typically have a collection of books from local authors they display separately. [Click here to check out this fun video I did about my inclusion in the Virginia Beach Public Library.] All they ask is that you donate your book so they can vet it for quality before they include it in their catalog. It was as a result of this that I got my first glimmer of the fact that I had published a piece of historical fiction.

Below is a snapshot of the book’s information in the online catalog for the Chesapeake Public Library.

CPL Listing

Historical fiction, who would have thought! Though I have always admired historical fiction writers—James Clavell and Ken Follett come to mind—it wasn’t a type of writing I ever thought I could do. After all, it requires extensive research, attention to detail in order to avoid anachronisms, and a compelling story. Compelling story I felt I could pull off, but the rest? The rest happen to be things I actually enjoy.

Enter The Valley of Wolves, my next novel in my Gypsy Spy series. What I had envisioned as a contemporary espionage thriller has grown into a historical fiction spy thriller epic. Over the past year, I have been devouring history books and newspaper archives in preparation for writing about what happens to Carlos de Leon—a.k.a. Rat-gêló, a.k.a. Gavin Leoppard, a.k.a. you’ll have to wait and see—next. I have found writing in a historical context to be inspiring and much more fun than I expected.

America’s war with Communism began shortly after World War 1. President Woodrow Wilson actually sent ground troops into Russia to help the White Russians in their civil war against the Red Russians. We didn’t return to an earnest struggle against them until the conclusion of World War 2. These are the roots of the Cold War.

In my research of the Gypsy experience during the Nazi terror, I have been following the trail of the Reich’s policy of genocide toward the Roma. This research turned into a Photoshop project. The names and sentiment are historically accurate. This edict will be one of the chapter epigrams in Valley of Wolves.

Pfundtner Memo crop

I could not find the actual verbiage of the memo from Pfundtner, only what it pertained to. His memo became one of the corner stones that led to the incarceration and industrial murder of Roma under the Reich.

I chose Book Antiqua as the font because it came closest to mirroring the typeface of Nazi Germany documents. The layout is consistent with declarations from the regime. The Nazi eagle and Pfundtner’s signature were found through Google image searches of documents of the era (public domain images). I assembled the components in Photoshop. I used the eyedropper tool to match the paper color with the background in the eagle emblem. Using the brush tool, I cleaned up around the signature to make it appear as a natural part of the document.

Marketing your work involves many aspects in today’s publishing landscape. Our age demands an online presence, and to be present in social media in this day and age requires us to be visual. Pictures and videos are a must. Thankfully, there are powerful tools available even to novices such as myself that can render near professional results. One also gets the benefit of enhanced creativity, always a plus for any writer.

The Hook

I gravitate toward the long form. When people ask me where I’m from, I ask them if they want the short story (I was born in California) or the long story (I didn’t grow up there). I find the long story to be much more informative and entertaining. I stink at short stories and am amazed at the skill of those who can pull them off.

Gypsy Spy is an epic espionage thriller composed of three novel-sized acts. I didn’t set out chasing a word length, I simply wanted to tell the story. When it was done, I was left with a work that was destined for independent publishing as the traditional market wouldn’t touch my word count with a ten-foot pole. It could certainly be cut back a bit—after all, what work couldn’t use a little more editing—but to get it to traditional length would require as substantial loss of story or the breaking apart of the acts. Neither option was attractive to me.

I recently attended a prominent writer’s conference. One of the greatest opportunities offered at serious writer’s conferences is the chance to actually pitch your work to agents and editors. Traditionally published and independent authors both have to pitch and market their work if they have any hope of ever selling a book. The difference between them is that the independent doesn’t have to go through the entire process of putting a proposal together, sending out query letters, and having a one-sheet. Frankly, until I was preparing for the conference, I had never heard about a one-sheet.

Think of the one-sheet as the resume for yourself and the work you are presenting, the short story version of who you are and what you wrote. As if boiling down your life and art to a one page synopsis wasn’t daunting enough, experts suggest that it is essential for your one-sheet (and for your marketing efforts in general) to write a hook for your novel.

The hook for a novel is analogous to the tagline for a movie. It is meant to encapsulate the theme and essence of the story while at the same time drawing the reader in. Tagline’s are great, a bit of marketing genius that challenges even Twitter’s brevity. As brilliant as Alfred Hitchcock was, his star doesn’t outshine the cleverness of the ad men.

Psycho “Check in. Relax. Take a shower.”

The Birds “… the next scream you hear may be your own.”

Ridley Scott’s team took a riff from The Birds tagline to promote perhaps the most intense science fiction horror film of all time, Alien. “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

Taglines run the gambit from straight promotional (“greatest film ever”) to funny. The tagline for Shrek was “The greatest fairy tale never told.” A funny tagline for a hilarious movie. The movie The Men Who Stare at Goats was also funny, but in a different way. And unlike Shrek, it had a basis in actual government research programs. Even so, its tagline is classic humor: “No goats, no glory.”

Dramatic films have their taglines as well. The tagline for the film Momento is effective because of its intrinsic contradiction: “Some memories are best forgotten.” The tagline for The Prestige encapsulates the entire essence of the film: “Are you watching closely?” If you haven’t written a hook for your novel, I trust these examples from the movie industry have given you some good ideas.

When I was composing my one sheet, I had just come off an intense, near 12-hour shift at the day job to finalize my preparations for the conference—not the best circumstances for creativity. Writing a hook seemed an impossible task. How was I to take a 280,000 word novel and boil it down to a sentence? It took some doing, but by the grace of God I was able to get it done in six words.

“One orphaned Gypsy against two Superpowers.”

If you have a favorite tagline or have a hook for your novel, please share it in the comments.

Meme Monday – What Is a Story without Love?

I suppose some stories can be pure action or intrigue. Others are all about romance. I prefer to mix it up. Love and fear are two prime motivators. A fear story without love would be horror. A love story with no fear or risk would be pure syrup. All love has risk. The greater the love, the bigger the risk, the better the story.

You can find Gypsy Spy high-stakes love here.

 

Meme Monday – Plotting

I have been wrestling for weeks over a particular plot point in Valley of Wolves, the next Gypsy Spy novel. Finally, after much contemplation, it fell into place and subsequently provided support for other parts of the intended narrative. I was excited enough to do a little celebration jig and build a meme on the experience.

While Valley of Wolves is under construction, dive into the Gypsy Spy epic here.

Meme Monday – Story Stacking

Toothpick Meme

Far from perfect but loaded with fun, this image had to be built because I couldn’t find its central component on any stock image site. Inspired from a scene in the novel, which you can read here, it required stacking up round toothpicks. The tower fell numerous times during assembly.

Building the final image in Photoshop was also challenging. Consisting of ten different layers and various effects, it took me several hours to put together. Photoshop wizards could probably have done it in a fraction of the time, but they still would have had to build the tower. Have you ever tried stacking round toothpicks without using glue to keep them in place? No easy feat!

Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files is available at Amazon.

Meme Monday – Movie Time!

Cinematic reading

This MPAA spoof trailer header only shows for four seconds on the YouTube novel trailer, which you can view here. A still frame gives the opportunity to actually read through it.

I have heard that sleep cycles (and interpersonal relationships) have been interrupted because of this novel. Read at your own risk!

Meme Monday – License to Edit

Gypsy 007

Let’s face it, all work needs editing even visual work. I used this concept a while back in the post “A Meme with no President.” Adobe Creative Cloud still challenges me, but I am getting more comfortable in it. The original meme was built using MS Publisher. This one I did in Photoshop. I think it’s better. Compare the two and let me know what you think.

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