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.

A Writer’s Journey

Though my father was quite eloquent, it is to my mother that I owe the writer’s bug that has afflicted me most of my life. I recall a particular day when she was reciting to company her latest composition. The short tale, typed out double-spaced on her Olivetti Underwood mechanical typewriter, was full of drama and intrigue. A housewife was having a conversation that could be construed as a poignant plea with a paramour. Her husband mustn’t know. How shall we hide the evidence of the crime? If he finds out, he’ll kill you. You can’t do it again. As it turned out, the object of her melancholy affection was the family dog who had had the temerity to kill and eat one of their chickens. She had me hooked. I couldn’t have been much older than five.

We moved to Spain not long after. Major family correspondence soon took the form of audio tapes. My father was an audiophile and though we had sold or abandoned most of our worldly possessions in the move, he had his high-fidelity system shipped over as soon as we were settled. Among its components was a reel-to-reel tape recorder/player. We would sit in the living room of our flat as he narrated our latest adventures into the microphone as lively as if his audience were present. We then each took our turn recording our greetings and adding whatever commentary came to the mind of children. Mother may have planted the writer’s seed in my soul, but to my dad I owe my lifelong attempt to become as well versed in oratory and engaging in story telling as he always was.

As most people with older siblings know, we younger ones learn as much (if not more) from them as we ever did from our parents. As the youngest of seven, I was under constant tutelage. Reel-to-reel soon gave way to the convenience of cassettes. Not only were the tapes easier to handle, the recording platform was compact and portable. My brothers, sister, and I entertained ourselves for hours on end recording stories and sound effects for our own amusement. It was a living laboratory of creativity at play.

I was eleven when I first confessed my desire to be a writer. My sister – a more generous soul one would be hard pressed to find – no doubt knew of it long before that. She had spotted my affinity for all things writing years before. I have in mind a particular birthday, my eighth or ninth, when she bought me a cardstock fan folder filled with tools of the trade: spiral notebooks, pocket notepads, pens, pencils, and rulers to help keep my stories straight. Near the end of the fifth grade, now back in America and having grasped the basic workings of English under migratory duress along with the wonders of the school library, I was exposed to one of the greatest tools of discontentment known to man: the catalogue.

Catalogues can make the most contented soul acutely aware of material desires heretofore absent in the human heart. A fulfilled and happy person can suddenly turn into the downtrodden disadvantaged by pretty pictures and artful descriptions. I was not immune to its devices. This one in particular, distributed in our classroom, was filled with descriptions of books. Library or not, I needed to own some.

I sat on my sister’s bed and showed her all the books I would buy if only I had the money. She encouraged me to check off the appropriate boxes on the order form. After we tallied up the total, she handed me some of her hard-earned cash from her tip stash and sent me off to school a happy boy. It only stands to reason that it was to her that I first confessed my dream of being a writer. I already had a project in mind, a grand adventure story of storm-blown Vikings surviving in North America. Never wrote it, but I kept on dreaming.

At thirteen, I produced my first serious effort. It was a novella of sorts, a thirty-something paged science fiction/fantasy yarn I hammered out on Mom’s Olivetti with a fierceness that left my index fingers blistered as I jabbed the keys to strike ink on paper. I was in love. The machine chunked its drumbeats into our dining room table. As the type hammers slapped the paper, the platen marched left as language filled in to the right. Ding! Hit the carriage return and begin anew. It had a rhythm and tune no keyboard can approximate. Centering headlines required math, aligning paper took care. The fever of story was tempered by the necessities of form, line ends and paper changes creating unavoidable pauses for reflection.

By the time I walked into my ninth grade creative writing class, I was ambitiously expanding the bare bones of that story into a trilogy. Is it o.k. if I just write chapters of my novel into my composition notebook for the writing assignment requirements, I asked my teacher. She had no complaints, though she did dutifully supply her red-penned critiques. God bless her!

The following year, the love of verse and rhyme took hold and I fell into a feverish pool of poetry I would not soon come out of. I had a close friend who loved to play piano. He would come over to the house and make our upright sing while I typed away on the Olivetti working out my rhymes in an attempt to find reason. It was in that bohemian gestalt that the stirrings of the story that would become Gypsy Spy began. Character sketches, story outlines, false starts and stops sputtered forward and then stalled.

I moved. I married. We worked. We loved. We dreamed. I had a story, but I wasn’t writing. Encouragement can come from strange quarters. In my case, it came from Larry Donner, Billy Crystal’s character in the 1987 film Throw Momma from the Train. His portrayal of a blocked writer is brilliant. But it was his line, “a writer writes”, that stuck in my craw and eventually moved me forward.

Abandoning my typewriter, this one a sleek Smith Corona electric with a daisy wheel set in elegant Pica 10, for the more organic and portable pencil and paper, I filled page after page and legal pad after legal pad. The story emerged; the characters put on flesh and began to breathe. A young boy loses his father as Europe begins to shrug off the weight of the Superpowers. Gypsies beg and dance, bleed and spy.

Decades have gone by and the story has come of age. Gypsy Spy: The Cold War Files, now available on Amazon, is a major milestone in this writer’s journey. Look for sample chapters, vignettes, and more backstory in posts soon to follow. If you like what you read, share it with your friends. Comments are more than welcome.

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