Sunday, May 31, 2015

Just Read: Neverhome, By Laird Hunt

Well-researched historical fiction about a woman fighting for the Union army during the American Civil War?

Yes, please.

"I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic."

Thus begins this gripping tale, told in the protagonist's unfussy, matter-of-fact, earthy voice. In completing his extensive research to write this novel, Laird Hunt reviewed the first person account of a woman who had disguised herself as a man so that she could join the ranks of soldiers and fight in the Civil War on the Union side. Although the protagonist in Neverhome is entirely fictional (and the story is cleverly structured around the narrative of The Odyssey), Mr. Hunt clearly went to pains to bring as much historical authenticity to his account as possible. Everything from the details of diet, the layout of roads and towns, forgotten turns of phrase, social conventions of the time, to historic battles and the worse details of the war that nearly tore our country apart forever resonate with time-shifting detail.

But this story runs much deeper than that. Behind the battles, the violence, and the gore, another story lies submerged like the outlines of a forgotten city beneath the waves. This story is much more sinister, and its violence ultimately eclipses the war altogether.

Neverhome is a fairly quick read, suggested by my book club partly for that reason (we'd had an unusually long run of unusually long books). Given my predilection for stories about strong women, I was thrilled to discover this book. Like its main character, the prose is unadorned and direct, yet subtle and layered. And I have to give a double thumbs up to Mr. Hunt for choosing to write this story from a woman's perspective. The main character could just as easily have been a man, but by making the protagonist a woman, additional themes and conflicts were available for the author to explore--and he does so deftly. Mr. Hunt also refrained from employing most of the usual cliches about strong women, which I was also happy to see.

One of the members of our book club posed an interesting question to the women readers about whether we thought the fact that the author was male affected how he told the protagonist's story; i.e., would a woman have written it any differently. It was an interesting question. I believe anyone can have a go at telling any person's story, if they try to do so faithfully, regardless of how vast the gulf in space and time, or in anatomy and social norms, between the author's own experiences and those of their character. Having said that, when my reading partner asked this question, I realized that there were details about Ash's work at disguising herself that were left out, most notably having to cope with monthly menstruation while concealing her gender. This did not detract from the story, but given the amount of attention the story gives to the physical strains of her time away from the farm and the efforts she undertook to conceal her gender, monthly cramps and bleeding warranted a mention.

Overall, a highly worthwhile read and a cleverly crafted story in the best of the storytelling tradition.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

You Can Do THAT With a Sword?

Sword vs. Belgian FN rifle: sword loses, right?

Not necessarily.

In this brief but extremely informative video, lindybeige, one of my two favorite YouTube sources on the correct use of and defense from a variety of non-firearm weapons, demonstrates how a scimitar sword could be used effectively in close quarters against heavily armed opponents. As he points out, part of the problem for the Belgians was the extreme power of the weapons their soldiers carried, which would have penetrated not only their attackers, but also multiple innocent bystanders. The soldiers were simply not armed correctly for the conditions that they were in.

Watch the video and see what you think. I invite your comments below.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why Not Invest in Your Own Writing?

That's a snap of one of the inspirational pictures, quotes, drawings and other bits that I have hanging around my desk to keep me going when I want to say, it's too hard, maybe no one wants to read my stories, maybe I'm fooling myself, maybe my stories are just ... not that good. The route of the self-published author is paved with self-doubt. We don't put the self-doubt into our tweets ("5* on Amazon!") or our FB posts ("Check out this great review from BestReviewerEver...") or on our Goodreads bios ("[Author name] loves to write stories that inspire...."). But it's there, nagging us, giving us sticky feet and toes, whispering in our ear that it's all for naught.

But I'm here to tell you, it's real, it's a thing, and it can affect your writing in the most fundamentally negative way: by sucking the joy out of the thing you love the most--telling stories.

I have my first novel out (woohoo!), it has received uniformly positive reviews from readers (WOOHOO!), and now that I'm writing the sequel, I find myself facing deeper self-doubt than when I wrote the first book.

So I hired a professional support network.

That's not what they call themselves, but it's what I call them. They cheer me on, navigate the ever-shifting world of self-publishing, keep me up-to-date with the current sales platforms, make my book gorgeous, and cheer me on some more.

I didn't get into this business to become a whiz at social networking. I'm not now and never will be a master of marketing. I can bang out the formatting and layout requirements to a manuscript with the best, but I can't make it look like the pro's do. I'm a writer. I tell stories. I spend hours and hours on the research, and then it has to soak for a bit while the story starts to take shape, and then I research some more and start to write. After that, I need to hand it over to the professionals.

I felt bad--really bad--about hiring my support network. And then it occurred to me that this is exactly what the pro's do. Publishing houses put a real investment into their books. Some make it big, some barely make a ripple, and that's just the nature of the business. Why had I had it in my head that I should be able to achieve success while literally nickle and dime-ing myself? I read posts on the author networks and blogs bragging about not spending any up-front funds on getting their books published, and I think, why is that a great thing? Are they really achieving the success they want? Is that what they figure their book--their future career as a writer--is worth?

I read an article recently (got to run pick-up the kids but I'll post a link to it in an update) saying that the days of self-pubbed authors being able to just show up without a marketing plan and a professional team of helpers are over. I believe it. I have learned a lot going through this process with my support team, but I'll be honest: part of what I've learned is the power of choosing to respect myself and my work as a professional. Of course the self-doubt is still nagging me, sometimes even more insistently now that I have real "skin" in the game, but didn't I already? And isn't my future worth giving the best shot I can? Good lord, what did I invest in graduate school in my first career before it began to pay off?

So, here goes, stronger than ever, and yes, the sequel is on its way. Success is a twisty twisty road, but I'm hanging on.