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 – 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 – 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.

The Plot Thickens

One of the most encouraging comments I have received from Gypsy Spy readers has been, “What happens next?” I am thrilled to be working on the answer. After months of research, reading, and dreaming, I am finally plotting out the story arc of Valley of Wolves.  The story picks up not long after where we left off. With the original time line of Gypsy Spy spread out in front of me along with my stack of research notes and my idea journal, I spent the better part of the day outlining the path into the Valley of Wolves. It promises to be wild ride.

 

 

Finding the Valley of Wolves

I am a firm believer that if one does one’s due diligence in research, the writing almost takes care of itself. Embedding fictional characters and technologies in the real world requires an understanding of that world, particularly if one has opted to leverage an entire ethnic group as a literary device.

When I began writing Gypsy Spy decades ago, there was no internet, no Amazon, and no easily accessible tomes on Romani language. I made do with popular histories, encyclopedias, and personal experience.

Gypsy Spy research.2

Thankfully, Romani grammars were available when I began the final rewrite of Gypsy Spy in 2015. These allowed me to standardize the Romani phrases that are salted throughout the work, increasing the story’s authenticity and connection to the real world.

My most recent research tool find is the Google Newspaper Archives. Containing scanned images from newspapers published as early as the 1860s and as recently as a few years ago, this site is a treasure trove of possibilities. The headlines have given me a story frame to house the next adventure for Carlos de Leon, a.k.a. Gavin Leoppard, the Gypsy Spy. Happy hunting!

Target #8: Claude Renault

Some characters are crafted with the express purpose of being casualties. After all, it’s difficult to write a story about an assassin without at least having one target that is destined to be eliminated. In The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, former CIA operative Robert Baer lists “the bastard has to deserve it” as Law #1. Seeing that Carlos de Leon is an atypical assassin, it stands to reason that sooner or later he would disregard this cardinal rule. Just when you think you have the plot figured out, the twists keep coming all the way through to the end. This vignette comes from Chapter 37 – Confrontations.

¤

He held his breath as he wheeled his cart to room 342. The guard didn’t even give him a second glance as he pushed the door open and stepped in. What he found was shocking. The room was large enough for two patients. But the other bed had been cleared out to make room for the life-support equipment. Why hadn’t they put him in the intensive care unit? Drake wondered.

Renault lay on the bed, motionless. His head was wrapped in heavy bandaging. Only his left eye and nose remained exposed. A blue, ribbed tube sprouted out of where Drake supposed Claude’s mouth to be and ran all the way into a hissing respirator. The mechanical accordion rose and fell in counterpoint with Claude’s chest. He had an IV in each arm. The bags dripped their liquids down the clear tubes in timed precision. His right hand was in a splint; his thumb, index, and second fingers taped to the metal stabilizers. A plastic bag hung on the bed rail, slowly collecting the urine brought to it by the catheter. The smell of disinfectant mixed with the odor of excreted medicine made Drake ill. He hated hospitals. “What have you done to yourself now,” Drake said, shaking his head.

He went into the bathroom and turned the water on as a covering sound. Going back to Claude’s bed, he inspected the patient more thoroughly. He lifted the bed sheets and examined Claude’s body. Not a burn mark on him. He picked up the chart and did his best to read the French medical mumbo-jumbo. Head injury caused by a shotgun blast, he read. Then his cronies must have released the fire injury to cover up the suicide attempt. It wouldn’t do to have the public know that their mayor elect had suicidal tendencies. They would ask him to resign before he was even able to take office. Smoke inhalation? He read it again. Yes, he had suffered from smoke inhalation. What happened?

“Claude,” he said into the man’s bandaged ear. “Claude, it’s me.” The left eye opened and swiveled about. It rested on Drake, then closed again. “Claude, what happened?” he asked. Claude opened his eye again and rolled his head from side to side. Drake placed a clean page of the chart on Claude’s lap and pressed a pen into the man’s left hand. “What happened?” he asked again. The hand moved slowly, deliberately.

“Kill me.”

“I can’t. What happened?”

“Pull plug!!”

“Tell me what happened,” Drake said.

“The Devil,” Claude wrote and dropped the pen. The Devil? What did that mean? Drake wondered. Claude pawed for the pen. Drake found it in the folds of the sheet and put it back into the injured man’s hand. “Will take Swenson,” he added to the line. The Devil will take Swenson?

“The Devil? Who?” Drake asked. In a swift motion, Claude jabbed the pen into his respirator line and pulled it out. The hiss grew louder. “Crap,” Drake said and placed his hand over the hole. It was no use. Claude’s left eye bulged slightly as his brain fought against his mind for life and tried to find air. A monotone replaced the background blip in the room. Drake looked up at the heart monitor. Flat line. Cursing, Drake slapped the blue button above the headboard.

Alias

What does Carlos de Leon, a.k.a. Rat-gêló, have in common with Prince Richard of England, a.k.a. Norman of Torn, or Townsend Harper, a.k.a. Jack, a.k.a. Number Thirteen? What? You haven’t heard of Norman of Torn or Number Thirteen? Well, what about John Carter, a.k.a. Dotar Sojat, or John Clayton III?

Surely you have heard of John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke? Oh, maybe you are more familiar with his other name, Tarzan. Having decided that he could write at least as bad a pulp fiction as what he had been reading, Edgar Rice Burroughs began spinning tales that would carry his readers from the Arizona desert to the rugged landscapes of Mars, from English manor houses to the darkest jungles of Africa, from the Sahara sands to the center of the Earth, from the South Pacific to a land that time forgot. No one would deign to classify Burroughs’s writing as “literature,” least of all himself. But he was a master storyteller who became a corner stone to the science fiction genre (ever heard of Star Wars or Avatar), action adventure (ever heard of Raiders of the Lost Ark), and even plied his pen writing Westerns and historical fiction.

Burroughs’s protagonists were all supremely optimistic, noble of heart, and deadly at arms. The women they rescued weren’t helpless, just outnumbered. Ray Bradbury said, “Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.”[1] I know he made me feel that way. A true mark of good story—and by good I mean that it calls us to a better self—is fictional characters that can inspire you. When Tarzan is tied to a post and the current horde of enemies is lighting the fire at his feet and he utters, “So long as there is breath, there is hope,” young boys take courage. I know I did. His stories taught me that ladies are to be treasured, that goals outweigh difficulty, that tenacity wins the day, and that evil is to be vanquished.

It was my Aunt Jeanie who got me hooked on Burroughs. One Christmas, she sent us a graphic novel version of Tarzan. The artwork was exquisite, the story like none other I had ever read. I devoured his books after that. Tarzan, The Princess of Mars, The Moon Maid, Pellucidar, The Outlaw of Torn, I Am a Barbarian, The Monster Men, The Efficiency Expert all at one time or another had my nose prints in them. He was entertaining, engaging, the master of circumstance and switched points of view. Story trumped all and he never let the pressure off, not even in the end. The cliff-hanger was his stock-in-trade.

I may owe Robert Ludlum for my sense of plausible plot twists. To Stephen King I owe the threatening overtones of the supernatural and the literary sleight of hand offered by an altered state of mind. But to Edgar Rice Burroughs I owe the pace and progress of story and the sheer adventure of it all. He was born on this day, September 1, in 1875. He came to writing late but stayed at it long. And his legacy lives on in writers and filmmakers to this day. Happy Birthday, Edgar!

[1] http://thejohncarterfiles.com/the-influence-of-edgar-rice-burroughs/, accessed September 1, 2017

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