American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction, Resources and Events for Writers

Ford’s Theatre After Lincoln’s Assassination

After President Lincoln was killed, the government shut down Ford’s Theatre and imprisoned owner John T. Ford for over a month. By the time he was released, arsonists had tried at least twice to burn the building down. When Ford announced plans to reopen the theater, he received so many threats that the government took over again, in the name of public safety, and decreed that it would never be a playhouse again.

Ford's Theatre in April 1865, after Lincoln's assassination. Note the guards at the entrance and the crepe draped from the windows.
Ford’s Theatre in April 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination. Note the guards at the entrance and the crepe draped from the windows.

The building was gutted on the government’s orders and all the furnishings carted away. James L. Swanson, in “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” wrote:

By late November 1865, a little more than seven months after the assassination, the once beautiful theater had been defaced beyond recognition and relegated to a drab, three-floor office building.

Swanson said the government finally bought the theater from Ford, and in true bureaucratic fashion, “the excessive load of tons of documents and office equipment caused all the floors to collapse [in June 1893], crushing twenty-two clerks to death and crippling or injuring sixty-eight more.”

Ford’s Theatre was restored in the 1960s and is a working playhouse again—and a museum to both the assassination and the assassin. It’s well worth a trip if you’re ever in Washington.

Researching Historical Fiction, Resources and Events for Writers

Science and the Afterlife


I’ve experienced a series of losses this year, which have me thinking about what happens to our loved ones when they die and will I ever see them again? Greg Taylor’s “Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife” is an attempt to examine the scientific evidence that consciousness survives death, and it’s a refreshing approach that is free of religion. I had no idea that so many researchers have been tackling this topic for years.

Taylor cites examples of death-bed visions of a beautiful afterlife, near-death experiences in which people formed memories of what was going on around them despite the absence of brain function, and out-of-body experiences — and researchers’ attempts to verify them by placing objects on top of furniture where only floating spirits would see them. Those were the most convincing chapters in the book.

He also spends a great deal of time on spiritual mediums and the efforts of the Society of Psychical Research around the turn of the 20th century to prove (or disprove) that mediums were genuinely communicating with dead people. I was more skeptical of this “evidence.” Although some of it is quite compelling, I found myself not wanting to be taken in by mere parlor tricks. (And part of me thinks that if such communication is possible, why can’t I get a message to, say, Mattie Blaylock or Wyatt Earp — to say nothing of my friends and family members who have died?)

By the end, I think I was right back where I started — still wondering and hoping. When a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with a terminal lung condition, she told me she had a vision in which her dead husband and friends told her not to be afraid and a beautiful life awaited her on the other side. It gave her a great sense of peace. She also had hallucinations later (when she was on morphine) of adorable animals clambering around on the furniture, and she knew they weren’t real. Still, she said, “I wish you could see them.”

In the words of Fox Mulder, I want to believe. But I suppose I won’t be certain until it happens to me.

Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

What We Talk About When We Talk About Plot

E.M. Forster defined the difference between story and plot this way: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.”

Some writers visualize their plots as suspension bridges, with the towers representing key turning points. Photo by abarndweller.
Some writers visualize their plots as suspension bridges, with the towers representing key turning points. Photo by abarndweller.

Plot is about cause and effect, how an event or another character’s action affects our hero and everyone else in the story and leads to new actions, which create their own effects — all of them building toward some climax in which the hero confronts his or her antagonist and triumphs in some way, large or small.

Many best sellers and virtually all mysteries and thrillers are plot-driven books. Some of them value plot at the expense of character development or any semblance of literary art, but I would argue that the best books find a happy balance among those elements.

The truth is, the most marketable books — and by that I mean the ones readers most want to read — have a recognizable plot.

Unfortunately, how to craft a good plot is rarely taught in creative writing programs — unless you study screenwriting. Those writers know the value of plot.

In fact, novelists can learn a lot by reading books on screenwriting. My favorite is Syd Field’s “Screenplay.”

The Classic Three-Act Structure

Writers visualize their plots in a variety of ways, including suspension bridges, circus tents and Aristotelian diagrams. But they all share certain key elements:

  • Act 1 introduces us to the main character and his or her world as it exists now. We get a sense of what the hero values and wants and what type of story we are about to read.
  • Act 1 leads to an event that threatens to upend our hero’s world — variously called a disturbance, a hook or an inciting incident.
  • In Act 2, our hero begins to respond, but so do the forces that oppose the character. The plot thickens, as they say. Some writers think of the transitions between the acts as doorways or refer to those changes in direction as plot points.
  • By the end of Act 2, the hero has the final piece of the puzzle or the final bit of information needed to take on his or her adversary.
  • In Act 3, our hero finally confronts his or her antagonist head-on, and their conflict is resolved in some satisfactory way. Loose ends are (mostly) tied up.

Larry Brooks advocates a slight variation by splitting the second act into two parts. The man is a bear about structure, for the simple reason that a good story well told is the key to selling books. He published a series of blog posts that went into great detail about how many scenes and pages each act should be and how to move effectively from one “milestone” scene to the next. I can’t find the series now, but he covers a lot of the same material in his book “Story Engineering.”

There is a whole lot of room to be creative within a three-act or four-part structure, but by following certain storytelling principles, you’ll increase the chances that agents, publishers, editors and (most important) readers will devour your book and tell their friends about it.

This post is a variation of one I wrote for Possibilities Publishing Company’s blog.

Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

Rewriting: How to Begin

Once you’ve written a complete draft of your story or book, you’re ready for the next stage of the process: rewriting.

The complexity of the revision process mainly hinges on whether you’re the sort of writer who creates a detailed outline before you begin or someone who makes it up as you go along, by the seat of your pants. (Sorry, you so-called pantsers, but your job will likely be much tougher.)

In an 1878 letter to his brother Orion Clemens, Mark Twain wrote, "You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it."
In an 1878 letter to his brother Orion Clemens, Mark Twain wrote, “You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it.”

Either way, you’ll want to keep some general principles in mind:

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American Indians, Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction, Resources and Events for Writers

My Kingdom for a Horse

It’s impossible to imagine the Old West without horses. Impossible to imagine cowboys, outlaws or lawmen making their way across the plains without them.

I recently volunteered to help with a 30- and 50-mile endurance riding event to learn more about the sport, and in the process, I learned a lot about horses, which naturally got me thinking about their role in the Old West.

A hardworking cowboy on his trusty horse, circa 1888. Photo by John C.H. Grabill of Sturgis, Dakota Territory; courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A hardworking cowboy on his trusty horse, circa 1888. Photo by John C.H. Grabill of Sturgis, Dakota Territory; courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Both rides were broken up into multiple loops of 10-plus miles, and after every loop, the rider had to let the horse recover for 45 minutes. A vet checked the horse’s pulse and a number of other indicators, and if the horse failed any of them, the rider was not allowed to continue.

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Chart of the American Civil War
American Civil War, Resources and Events for Writers

The Civil War in one spectacular chart

Lest you think complex infographics are a modern invention, numerous websites have resurrected a century-old chart with a mind-boggling amount of information on the Civil War.

Chart of the American Civil War
Click on the image for a closer look.

The Comparative Synoptical Chart Company submitted its creation to the Library of Congress back in 1897. You can still see the faint red stamp by the library’s Register of Copyrights dated Dec. 11, 1897. J. Kellick Bathurst compiled the information.

The so-called historical time chart notes that “this history of the Civil War is drawn to a time scale of months, and the location of all events is entirely governed by this scale.”

It is so densely packed with information that you could spend days poring over the details. Some of the things that jumped out at me: The war cost the federal government $3.4 billion and cost the Confederate government another $3.5 billion — and we’re talking about 19th century money. The cost to local governments in the Northern states was a further $735 million. Unfortunately, many Confederate records were lost, so there is no corresponding dollar amount for the cost to Southern states.

Chart of the American Civil War
Click on the image for a closer look.

And it was interesting to see that New York state contributed the most men to the federal army, followed by Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The chart is a marvel. I would love to know whether it found a wide audience back in 1897. Perhaps history teachers hung it on classroom walls as a sort of visual CliffsNotes guide for young scholars.

You can find an image of the full chart on

Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

Banned Books Week: Sept. 22-28

Freadom bannerBanned Books Week is the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read. It is sponsored by a bevy of fine organizations, including the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Library Association, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Project Censored.

According to the event website:

Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982.

That’s around the time I sent an outraged letter from college to the principal of my middle school, which had decided to ban “Huckleberry Finn” from the library because some grown-ups found it offensive. To add insult to injury, the name of the school was Mark Twain Intermediate.

The 10 Most Challenged Titles of 2012 include “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison.

Be reckless this week and read something forbidden.

Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

Highlights from the 2012 Fall for the Book Festival

FallfortheBook_logoIn case you still haven’t made up your mind about attending this year’s Fall for the Book Festival, here are some of the things I learned last year.

I was drawn to two panel discussions that had to do with genre fiction (which includes historical fiction).

From the festival’s first-ever panel on romance writing, with Diana Cosby, Tina Glasneck, Nara Malone, Laurin Wittig and Leah St. James:

  • Romance writers sold $1.4 billion worth of books in 2011. And they are among the friendliest, most down-to-earth and marketing-savvy writers you are ever likely to meet.
  • E-books don’t categorize writers as narrowly as printed books because they use keywords and tags instead of assigning one label or genre—and Amazon’s e-books were the most flexible.
  • Good advice for writers in any genre: Go to a big bookstore and describe the book you’re writing to a salesperson. See where he or she takes you and imagine putting your book on the shelf in the appropriate (alphabetical) place. Look at the five books to the left and right of where your book would go and note the publisher, agent and editor of those books.

From a panel on genre vs. literary fiction, with Louis Bayard, Julianna Baggott, Alma Katsu and Mark Athitakis:

  • Since the 1940s, there has been a wall between literary and genre fiction that is difficult for books to break through. However, in the past 10 years, that wall has started to crumble a bit. Among the examples the panelists cited: China Miéville’s “Railsea,” a sci-fi take on “Moby-Dick”; Colson Whitehead’s zombie book “Zone One”; and Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.”
  • Literary fiction is illuminating or offers a revelation about life, while genre fiction offers an escape from life.
  • Julianna Baggott said writing any kind of novel has its challenges and burdens, like carrying a sack of stones: “The weight of the stones is the same whether you’re writing literary or genre fiction.” For her, writing is like whispering the story in one person’s ear, and it’s all about the urgency of the telling.
  • Louis Bayard said readers want story, they want to go on a journey. Genre writing “frees me from ponderousness,” he added.
  • And this one really stuck in my head: Baggott said that rather than looking for genre fiction that transcends its genre (a favorite refrain of reviewers), she is looking for literary fiction that transcends its genre.

Almost all of the events offer you the opportunity to talk to the writers afterward, and the smaller sessions are especially conducive to informal chats. In my experience, everyone has been very approachable.

You never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet. Check out this year’s program and maybe I’ll see you there!

Resources and Events for Writers

Fall for the Book Festival, Sept. 22-27

2013_Fall_for_the_BookLast night I sat down with my calendar, my trusty yellow highlighter and the program of events for the 15th annual Fall for the Book Festival.

Every year I look forward to visiting the George Mason University campus in the crisp fall weather to hear writers discuss their books or talk about writing in general. Last year I ventured farther afield and discovered new historical and community sites.

This year, Dave Barry will receive the festival’s Fairfax Prize for literary excellence, the first journalist and the first humorist to win the award, and thriller writer David Baldacci was chosen for the Mason Award. Along with poet Sonia Sanchez (Busboys and Poets Award) and memoirist Cheryl Strayed (Mary Roberts Rinehart Award),

these headliners are just the beginning of the nearly 150 novelists, poets, journalists, historians, children’s book authors and more who will be entertaining audiences this year at nearly two dozen venues throughout Northern Virginia, D.C., and Maryland.

The festival is an excellent opportunity to find out about new writers or meet some of your old favorites. If you are anywhere near the D.C. area, check out the festival program. There truly is something for everyone.

Creativity and Productivity, Resources and Events for Writers

The science behind writer’s block

Around-the-Writers-BlockWe’ve all experienced it, that feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach when you sit down to write. When all the negative feedback you’ve ever gotten and the prospect of the hard work ahead of you is overwhelming to the point that you’d rather do anything — vacuum, alphabetize your book collection, clean out the garage — than write.

There is frustration inherent in any artistic pursuit, but it seems to be especially pronounced in writers. Hundreds of books and articles are written about writer’s block, but you don’t see the same attention paid to painter’s or sculptor’s or basket weaver’s block.

I suspect it has something to do with the verbal nature of our work. (And maybe writers are a little more neurotic than other artists, but that’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum.) I recently found myself having a harder time than usual sitting down to write, so I picked up “Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance” by Rosanne Bane looking for some useful strategies. Bane has a wealth of them, and I was fascinated by her explanation of how our brains work.

She says resistance is part of the writing life, and it reveals itself as:

  • Freezing — the most obvious form of writer’s block, when our minds go blank and we start to panic.
  • Fighting — including self-criticism and refusing to hear others’ suggestions for revision (who hasn’t been there?).
  • Fleeing — giving in to distractions, overscheduling or overcommitting to other priorities, procrastination in all its forms.

When you’re writing, you rely on your cerebral cortex, which handles problem-solving, language and numbers. It’s what allows you to create and motivate yourself. In other words, it’s the part of your brain that cares about writing and has the tools necessary to do it.

You have to be relaxed for the cerebral cortex to be in charge. As soon as you feel that first prickle of anxiety about writing, the limbic system (your fight-or-flight response) takes over and engages the amygdala, which releases stress hormones. The limbic system is solely focused on the need to stay alive and safe, so it naturally sees creativity as a waste of time and energy.

Unfortunately, the cortex is not good at knowing when the limbic system has taken control — and the latter system lacks speech. Think about that: The part of the brain that’s in charge is incapable of putting anything into words. It’s the worst possible situation for a writer.

In its frustration, the cortex tries to explain your inability to write in those circumstances, and it comes up with: “I’m lazy. I’m undisciplined. I’m afraid of failure (or success). I don’t really want to write.” Sound familiar?

The good news is that you can overcome writer’s block. Bane offers lots of concrete techniques and strategies for outwitting resistance, some of which I have already put to good use. More on that next time.

Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

Screenwriting for novelists

I was familiar with many of the concepts and terms Larry Brooks uses from having studied Syd Field’s “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.” I wound up turning to Field—and his book is a fantastic resource—when I couldn’t find the nuts-and-bolts guidelines I needed to whip a novel into shape. And it’s often much easier to see the structure of a movie than a book—not to mention a whole lot faster.

Resources and Events for Writers, Writing/Rewriting

Circus tents and story structure

Larry Brooks
Larry Brooks

The snapshot of my “treadmill” journal in my previous post has a reference to “circus tent plots.” That’s worth explaining.

I took a Writer’s Digest webinar in March led by Larry Brooks. The webinar focused on making sure you have a compelling premise for your book, but Brooks also talked briefly about a novel’s structure being like a circus tent. I went to his website later and found a series of posts under the category of Story Structure. I was blown away by the level of detail he offers.

In a nutshell, Brooks says a novel should have:

Four parts [with] four unique contexts and missions for the scenes in them. Two major plot points and a midpoint. Call them plots twists if you want to…. A compelling hero’s need and quest. Formidable obstacles. A couple of pinch points. A character who learns and grows, someone we can empathize with and root for. Scenes that comprise connective tissue between them all.

Beyond the function of each of the four parts, he tells you roughly how many pages and scenes each part should be. Once you figure out what your “milestone” scenes are, “you will, at any given moment in the process, be writing toward them and/or from them, setting them up and then being propelled forward because of them.”

A glimpse of Larry Brooks’ four-act novel structure
A glimpse of Larry Brooks’ four-act novel structure

To say I have been craving that sort of direction would be an understatement. It is liberating and energizing to have such a clear, practical insight into structure. Maybe other writers come to it intuitively, but I definitely needed help.

Brooks emphasizes that he’s not saying that you have to outline your book. Instead, he is offering guidelines and principles for making your story as compelling as possible. In a passage aimed at writers who prefer to figure out their novel’s story by writing multiple drafts, he wrote:

If you’re a drafter instead of a blueprinter…the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages again does that to a writer.

That hit me right between the eyes.

Check out his website at If you’re looking for help with structure, you won’t be disappointed.

You can also click here for a PDF of the full circus tent poster referenced in the image above.