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.

How to Build a Book Trailer Indie Style

Writers write. That is our wheelhouse. If you are a writer, you know the burden of story. An idea grows into a narrative that drives the imagination and begs to be written down. We sit before the blank slate and pour out words to frame the sequence we’ve dreamed—or so we hope. The angst of the writing process is proverbial.

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” George Orwell[1]

“Writing is easy. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Walter Smith[2]

Wordsmiths to the bone, these men aptly described the labor pains of birthing a brain child. I was with my wife when she delivered all seven of our children. Orwell’s observation comes close to the experience.[3] Like new parents, writers become authors only to find that their work has just begun. This is especially true for indie authors who must directly tackle multiple aspects of the publishing industry.

Marketing—that dark art of separating people from their hard-earned cash—has to be mastered if we have any hope of the world appreciating our beautiful child. Enter the flood of ad copy designs, book blurbs, e-commerce considerations, social media manipulations, and SEO coding. It can be daunting, but take heart. The creative marketing tools may not be in the top tray of the writer’s toolbox, but they most certainly can be found in the deeper bottom well.  The familiar framing tools all reside there giving weight to the crafter’s panoply: vision, narrative, story arc, intrigue. All these are essential in producing your book trailer. You had all these when you wrote your story. Let’s think through how to bring people to it.

Decide what type of trailer you want to produce.

Trailers come in all flavors, from coming-soon announcements to vignettes. Think about what you want to present. Do you want to tell people how the idea came to you? Then do it. Check out indie author Aiden L. Bailey’s trailer “What Is the Benevolent Deception.” Aiden used a decent camera with a good microphone and tools housed on most PCs: MS PowerPoint and MS MovieMaker. I did my Coming Soon video using a GoPro camera and GoPro native software. Start with what you have.

Dream through your visuals.

Authors work in the world of the thousand words that build a picture’s worth. Have this picture in mind when you go mining for your graphics, still frames, and footage. There are a host of royalty free content sites offering stock sound effects, audio, pictures, and footage. Two of my favorites are 123rf and Pond5. Aside from selection and ease of use, their terms are straightforward. Subscriptions aren’t required. You can buy in bulk or by piece. Pond5 even allows you to dial in your price range in your searches as well as the length of music and footage.

Drop the elements into your work environment.

Outlining and storyboarding are very helpful at this point. Regardless of your production software, having a roadmap for your trailer on paper will save you loads of time in assembly. Whether you are working out your transitions in MS PowerPoint or Adobe Premier Pro, having most of the sequence worked out will lend to better production flow. Knowing where I was going kept me motivated when I ran in to my inevitable ignorance obstacles. YouTube is your friend here. For great cinematography tips and Premier Pro technique tutorials, I relied heavily on Peter McKinnon, Surfaced Studio, and chinfat. You can click on their names to check out their YouTube channels.

Audio plays a critical role at this point, particularly if you’ve decided to add voiceover. I recorded a rough track (and I do mean rough as I had a nasty cold when I did it) read through of the Prologue to Gypsy Spy as a timing guide for the needed length of visuals and the transition placements. Once the sequence was set (and my voice was better), I recorded the read through again using my Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Studio USB audio interface. The interface with microphone and headphones came packaged with Cubase Elements 6 software, which is what I use for the primary sound editing. I used this set up because it is what I had. You can probably get what you need with a decent iPhone at half the hassle cost.

If you shoot the footage using a GoPro camera, GoPro Studio (the app is free and fun to use) offers some great video editing features and includes a selection of free music you can use. I built most of Gypsy Spy Trackdown using this app.

Edit, Export, and Upload

Editing is as important for your trailer as it is for your writing. But don’t get stuck in a perfectionist trap. In our world of Facebook Live, Periscope, Snapchat, Skype, and YouTube people are consuming amateur videos by the millions. A little effort and a slight polish can go a long way here. If you use titles, captions, or graphics make sure they are error free. Have several people watch it before you upload it to ensure that the sound is clear and the sequence works.

Once you are satisfied with your editing efforts, export the video into a format usable on YouTube. MP4 works well here. Watch the video several times once it has been exported before you upload it. Sometimes things get lost in translation and what might have looked great in your video editor previewer may appear less than good in its final MP4 version.

Though there are other video sharing sites, not uploading your trailer to YouTube would be like not listing your book on Amazon. Setting up a channel is fairly painless and worth the effort. Once your video is uploaded, you can share the link on your web site, blog, Facebook page, etc.

Enjoy the Payoff

Though I’ve encountered anecdotal evidence from other authors on how book trailers have helped them increase sales, I have no empirical data to share on this score. Regardless, I see no downside. Even if the trailers didn’t help me sell books (which they have), I would do them anyway because they stretch and exercise my creative muscles. And above my considerations and concerns about their marketing use and value, I build them as a gift of gratitude for those who have willingly invested their time to live in my fictional world for a while. A hearty thanks to all those who have traveled with the Gypsy Spy!

[1] http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw, accessed on July 30, 2017.
[2] Often incorrectly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, the phrase is best ascribed to sports writer Walter Smith. See http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/09/14/writing-bleed/, accessed on July 30, 2017.
[3] I say “close” because neither my wife nor I ever considered the process horrible.

I received word of a public sighting of Carlos de Leon in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I’m on the case!

This is the first book trailer video that I have produced. I used 123rf.com for the stock photos and Pond5.com for the music. Elements were created and assembled using the Adobe Creative Cloud (the learning curb has been steep!). Video production was done inside Adobe Premiere Pro. Some of the transitions didn’t translate into the mp4 format as well as I would have like (they looked better in my video previewer), but all in all I am very happy with the end result. I look forward to your feedback in the comments section.

Paperback and Kindle editions are available on Amazon.com.

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