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 Gestation of Gypsy Spy

Some people live under the adage “Publish or Perish!” I live with the reality of “write or wilt.” I have had seasons in my life when I have wandered from the discipline of writing – or at least the craft of creative writing. But whenever I have returned to it, I am immediately reminded that without it, I am a paler shade of myself. Running out of ink in my pen is more frustrating to me than running out of gas in my car. I can walk without gas. I’ve been tempted to draw blood when the inkwells ran dry.

Were it not for my brother John, I don’t know that I would have ever thought to write a spy story. When I was a newly minted teenager, he prodded me to expand my reading horizons beyond the science fiction and fantasy books that were the mainstays of my fiction diet. In my seventeenth year, he gave me a paperback copy of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. I would remain a Ludlum fan for years to follow along with Follett, Morrell, Van Lustbader, and Travanian.

It was in July of 1983, while living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that I typed out the first outline that would become Gypsy Spy. Originally conceptualized as El Gitano – Spanish for “the gypsy” – it was a mere five pages of character descriptions and chapter plot points. The following month, I moved to Richmond, Virginia to do college campus evangelistic outreach. I met my future wife that year. Ministry, work, and marriage kept me occupied. The story remained in the incubator of my mind, but the demands of my Bible teaching schedule and the poems for my bride got most of my writing attention.

Two years into our marriage, I decided to get serious about fleshing the story out. I began reading about the gitanos in Spain and Gypsy culture in general. I filled small steno pads with copious research notes and story ideas. In February of 1988, I grabbed a legal-sized note pad and my trusty Cross mechanical pencil (another boon from brother John) and started writing. I love to type, but I reasoned that if I wrote it by hand it would slow me down some and allow me to think more about what I was putting on paper. Also, I could carry the notepad and pencil wherever I went. And carry it I did: to jobsites, waiting rooms, dinner tables, road trips, house sitting assignments, and anywhere else I had been formerly accustomed to carry a book and read. I would eventually fill nearly twelve notepads – six hundred and sixty-seven pages – with the narrative ark of one Carlos Javier de Leon Velveloz, a.k.a. Rat-gêló. It took me three years. Then the real work began.

I started the first major rewrite in March of 1991. We had purchased an Amiga 3000 for our business and I picked up a Word Perfect® package to go along with it. I would lug the computer home on the weekends and sequester myself in my home office to transcribe and rewrite away to my heart’s desire. Writing is about writing, not about having written. The medium is always fluid, subject to change and in need of improvement. When I got to the last double-spaced, typed page – number 1,052 to be exact – two more years had gone by. Then the tax man came.

At the time, it ranked as one of the most devastating days I had ever experienced. I’ve had much worse since. But this day is still a hall-of-famer. I finally had a novel I could market. I did my research, wrote my pitch letters to publishers, dealt with silence and rejection. But ultimately, I got a solid line on a reputable agent in New York City and an offer from a real publishing house out West. On the day the tax man came, my ongoing negotiations with the publisher came to an end. We weren’t seeing eye-to-eye and in my frustration I told them to forget the whole deal and to send me the manuscript back. Shortly thereafter, I received a call from the agent. She was very encouraging and complimentary, but in the end she didn’t feel like we were a fit. No publishing contact, no literary agent and moments after hanging up from the phone call from New York, the IRS came into our office and threatened to shut us down. I went home and cried like a baby.

After drying off my wife’s shoulder and taking stock of all the blessings I had in her and our children, I rolled up my sleeves and knuckled down for the hard work ahead. Nearly twenty years would go by before I worked on the novel again.

While packing for our impending move last spring, I came across the floppy drives that housed the electronic copy of the novel. I asked my friend Aland if he could transition the text into an MS Word® file for me and put it on a thumb drive. He did me more than one better. He produced a Word document, a pdf, and he read it. In the middle of a literary conversation months later, he mentioned that he had quite enjoyed my story and encouraged me to investigate putting it out as an e-book on Amazon. His encouragement led me to the latest rewrite.

As I worked through the story again, I was very thankful that I didn’t manage to get it published in 1994. I was younger then with twenty less years of life experience and writing practice. The novel that got bound in 2016 is a much better story than the manuscript I marketed in the 1990s. Additionally, Romani language helps that were not available when I first wrote it are now much more accessible. Gypsy culture is opening up to the gazhikano world like never before in history. They are making their oral language known in written form. This has allowed me to standardize the Romani words, expressions, and proverbs that are salted throughout the story with much improved results.

To date, I’ve gone through three galley proofs of the novel. I think their spines look quite handsome and am looking forward to revealing the front cover soon. But beyond that, I am very pleased to finally be able to share Rat-gêló’s story of redemption with the reading public in true book form. The title will be available soon on Amazon. Follow the blog for updates, insights, and more back story.

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