An interview with Robert Kofman – author of General Meade: A Novel of the Civil War

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It seems fitting to follow Diane C. McPhail’s interview about the writing of The Abolitionist’s Daughter with Robert Kofman, author of General Meade: A Novel of the Civil War. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on writing, Robert.

Why did you choose to write historical fictionI’ve had a lifetime passion for history and seriously considered pursuing a doctorate before opting for law school. When I retired after a forty-year legal career my first trip was to the Gettysburg battlefield. I had been to Gettysburg before but never for more than two days. On this trip, I spent a week immersing myself in the great battle. Prior to the visit I reread Michael Sharra’s brilliant novel Killer Angels and was again awed by how he brought the battle of Gettysburg to life. That week in Gettysburg planted a seed in my mind that I could pursue a second career as a writer of historical fiction. I decided to start with a novel set in the Civil War.

What drew you to the world of this particular novelDuring my research, I read The Life and Letters of General George Gordon Meade which contains hundreds of letters Meade wrote to his beloved wife Margaret. His letters offer exceptional insights into the turbulent politics and dysfunctional leadership that swirled around the Union’s largest fighting force, the Army of the Potomac “AOP”. I realized there was a dramatic story that could be told through Meade’s eyes. Known as the Old Snapping Turtle for his fierce temper, Meade fought in every AOP battle as that star-crossed army confronted its arch nemesis, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln made Meade Commanding General of the AOP just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg. Meade was the AOP’s fourth commander in eight months [the three preceding commanders had been sacked by Lincoln for their inability to beat Lee]. At Gettysburg, Meade defeated the seemingly invincible Lee in the largest, bloodiest and most dramatic battle of the war. After the Battle of Gettysburg Meade was subjected to a vicious smear campaign that falsely claimed he had wanted to retreat, had poorly managed the army and disaster was avoided only because of the brilliant work of his subordinates. The effort to disparage Meade was led by a General he had offended, Dan Sickles. That former Congressman had gained fame before the war for having murdered his wife’s lover and been acquitted in the first case recognizing the defense of temporary insanity. Great efforts were made in Congress and the press to have Lincoln sack the Victor of Gettysburg but Lincoln never did and Meade was still leading the AOP when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

Can you tell us how you did your research and any surprises you discovered along the wayI read historical works on every battle Meade fought in, visited the battlefields on multiple occasions and attended a Civil War reenactment in Gettysburg. I contacted the General Meade Society in Philadelphia and communicated with its President, Professor Andrew Waskie. He cordially invited me to visit Philadelphia which I accepted. During that visit, Andy gave me a tour of the City’s Grand Army of the Republic Museum and I attended the annual celebration of Meade’s life that is held on his birthday, December 31. I read numerous biographies on all the historical figures including Meade, Lee, Lincoln, members of his cabinet and all the Union generals [and many of their subordinates]. The vicious politics of Washington was on display in many books including those on the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War which investigated Meade based on Sickles allegations of his generalship at Gettysburg. I researched Lincoln’s prodigious output of jokes and yarns and the President recounts many of his humorous stories the book.

One surprise was the importance of the 1840’s Mexican War in forming lasting bonds of friendship between so many of the key officers on both sides of the conflict. Meade, Grant, Lee and many others fought together in Mexico. Those close ties allowed senior officers of the Union and Confederate armies to promote reconciliation and begin the healing process that would reunite the country after four years of bloodshed that saw 600,000 soldiers perish.

Which authors have inspired your writing? Can you tell us why? Great historical fiction transports the reader on a journey to a different time and place and educates while often provoking serious thinking about parallels to modern society. Two of the best that I admire are James Michener and Ken Follett. Michener explores civilizations and captures the clashes of cultures in many of his works. I feel like I’m in a graduate history course when I’m reading one of his books. I have always been fascinated with the Second World War and loved Follett’s first book, Eye of the Needle, a fictional story of a Nazi spy being pursued by British intelligence. Follett has written many fine novels since and, similar to Michener, captures history with a broad canvas.

Three writers inspired me in writing about the Civil War, Michael Sharra, his son Jeff Sharra and Ralph Peters. They are the standard setters in Civil War military fiction.

What is your writing process? I do extensive research and prepare a timeline of events to be covered before beginning to write. I work eight to twelve hours a day until I produce a first draft. Thereafter I do revisions until I am satisfied that I have written a good story that flows smoothly and moves crisply.

What is the subject of your next novel? I have begun researching for a novel set in the European theater of World War II. Similar to General Meade it will include leading political and military leaders such as Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Dwight Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, and Charles De Gaulle.

Many thanks, Robert. I love novels that show the complexities and tragedies of war. Your next one reminds me of Citizens of London by Lynne Olson.

General Meade: A Novel of the Civil War by Robert Kofman ~~ As the Civil War rages on, President Lincoln desperately seeks a commander to defeat the seemingly invincible Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, whose army has invaded Pennsylvania. Lincoln turns to the Old Snapping Turtle, General George Meade—a courageous man with remarkable integrity and a fiery temper—to save the Union during its greatest time of need. Just three days later, Meade confronts Lee’s troops at Gettysburg, resulting in the bloodiest and most dramatic battle of the war. Delivering a glorious victory, General Meade vanquishes the Confederate Army, forcing a retreat south. But for Meade, the battle is far from over. At first heralded as a hero who turned the tide of the war, he falls victim to a nefarious smear campaign that threatens to ruin his reputation and his career. The general is forced to muster all his strength to persevere against an onslaught of political attacks, all while leading the Army of the Potomac and serving his superiors: General Ulysses S. Grant and President Lincoln. A compelling work of historical fiction, General Meade: A Novel of the Civil War paints an engrossing picture of an unsung American hero. Filled with primary sources, including letters written by Meade himself, the narrative uses firsthand accounts to reveal fascinating details of life in a nation dangerously divided.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

On Writing Fiction with Carolyn Kirby – author of The Conviction of Cora Burns

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Carolyn Kirby‘s debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns, a Victorian crime thriller, was begun in 2013 on a writing course at Faber Academy in London. Welcome to the blog, Carolyn.

Can you tell us a bit about your background? And how you chose writing as a careerI worked as a manager in public housing and taught English as a foreign language whilst raising my daughters. Although I always imagined that I would one day write a novel, I wrote no fiction at all from the age of 14 to 44! By then however, I felt that if I was ever going to do it, the time had come to give writing a try.

Why did you choose to write historical fiction? Imagining the past is for me, the main reason to write at all. My childhood love of history came largely from fictional sources and although I went on to enjoy academic study (for my history degree at Oxford University), historical fiction is my first love.  The great early 20thcentury historian GM Trevelyan summed up the root of my fascination when he said; “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone.” This quote sums up my thoughts about how imaginative historical writing can provide not only a window into vanished lives but also a deeper understanding of our own human condition.

Researching the world of asylums must have been challenging. Can you tell us how you did your research and any surprises you discovered along the wayThere is fierce debate amongst historians about the reasons behind the rapid growth of asylums in Britain and North America in the late 19thcentury. The ‘multiplying of the mad’ may be to do with an industrialised society having less tolerance for deviant behaviours, or being less able to care for the mentally ill in a domestic setting. The explosion in the numbers of ‘pauper lunatics’ in asylums at this period is, however, not in doubt.

As part of my research, I looked at 1880s casebooks from a local asylum. These handwritten logs provide a detailed record of the condition and treatment of each patient. I was struck by the doctors’ earnestness and thoughtful concern for their patients. Many of the treatments that were recommended such as bed-rest, quinine or even ‘additional custard,’ seem harmless and possibly therapeutic.

It was also clear from the records that whilst some patients remained in the asylum for very long periods (sometimes until they died), the majority were there for stays of months rather than years. It seemed to me that the lives of the 19thcentury poor were so deeply stressful that perhaps a few months of rest and nourishment in an asylum might have proved genuinely beneficial for many people suffering mental distress.

Clearly, harsh ‘treatments’ (such as cold baths and isolation) could also be used in asylums at this time but doctors’ options were limited. The most barbaric surgical and chemical interventions for mental illness came later during the 20thcentury. This research certainly revised my view away from the brutal stereotype of the Victorian asylum.

Which authors have inspired your writing? Can you tell us why? This could be a really long list! But the authors I admire and try to emulate are those who write with authority about the past without alienating contemporary readers. They also produce beautiful prose to tell stories with a beginning, middle and satisfying end. My top few include; William Boyd, Sarah Waters, Philipp Meyer, Helen Dunmore, Margaret Atwood and Michel Faber.

What is your writing process? I plan. You can just write, but it will take much longer. Believe me on this, I have tried both methods! As my plan grows, I turn it into a chapter by chapter synopsis which allows me to keep a clear overview of the whole story as I write. As the writing process goes along, I am constantly revising this long synopsis with new ideas.

At the end of a full draft that I am reasonably happy with, I get a paperback copy printed (eg from lulu.com). This allows me to edit the draft with a blue pencil on the page. I find this process much more effective than editing on screen. Keeping the different drafts of the same novel in paperback form is also a great record of how each story has evolved. And sometimes it is useful to go back to early drafts and resurrect elements that had been discarded. Finding ‘lost’ passages is much easier in a real book than a digital version.

What is the subject of your next novel? I am just finishing book 2, an adventure and love story set between England and Poland during the second world war. This novel will be published in the UK next year by No Exit Press and I am hopeful that it will find a North American publisher soon.

If any of your readers are interested in finding out more about the historical background to my novel The Conviction of Cora Burns, there is a lot more information on my website carolynkirby.com.

Many thanks for offering your perspective on writing and the research that went into your debut novel, Carolyn. By the way, I share your thoughts about writing with an outline!

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby ~~ Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside of her. Does this temperament come from the mother she never knew, a convict who gave birth to her in jail? Or is Cora a product of her harsh upbringing in the workhouse, where her only light was a girl named Alice Salt, so like Cora that they were almost sisters.

Just released from Birmingham Gaol, Cora sets out to find Alice. But her memories of Alice are hazy, entangled with the memories of a terrible crime: the murder of a little boy in the workhouse. Her sole clue is a bronze medal cut in half, engraved with the word SALT.

Cora finds work as a servant in the home of Thomas Jerwood, a gentleman-scientist obsessed with the study of hereditary criminality. Here Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment into upbringing and character. But are there two identical girls called Violet? And is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora? As the secrets of her past unravel, Cora must decide if her own scarred nature is an unalterable product of biology or if she has the strength to change.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

An interview with author Diane McPhail

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Diane McPhail is the author of THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER – a novel of the Civil War South, which is based on true events and rooted in family history. Diane is an artist, writer, and minister who lives in North Carolina. Welcome to the blog, Diane.

Why did you choose to write historical fiction? That is such an interesting question for me. Interesting, because it is unexpectedly challenging. After much thought, my answer is that I think historical fiction chose me, rather than the other way around. The reason becomes clearer in answer to your next question.

What drew you to the world of this particular novel. The story of what is dubbed the “Greensboro feud” has haunted me since early childhood. My parents were both from Webster County, where the conflict occurred. In truth it was not a feud, but a single deadly incident of individual, family, and community violence lasting hardly more than a day’s time. I have a vivid memory of my aunt taking me to visit the “ghost town” when I was five and discovering only an abandoned graveyard. Where were the empty storefronts and windblown dirt streets depicted in the movies of the time? I was sorely disappointed as only a child can be.

My mother died soon after I was born, so I knew little about her—only that she loved to draw and sew and laugh a lot. As an adult, I found myself hungry to know more about her. I sought out my uncle and was listening to his delightful stories of their childhood, when I turned the page of a photo album to find an old newspaper article about “Bloody Greensboro.” I remarked how I could not understand the motivation toward such violence and, in the aftermath, how those women managed to live on with such trauma. He sat forward and said, “Don’t you know who that young woman was who buried all the men closest to her?”

Of course I had no idea. “That was our grandmother,” he said, “your mother’s and mine.”

That revelation astounded me. How had no one ever spoken of such a relationship? How had that young woman raised my own grandmother? As frequently as I had heard this tale, no one ever connected it to my family. As a therapist, I found myself in the grip of trying to understand the depths of this story. My novel, a fictionalized exploration of my questions, is the result.

Can you tell us how you did your research and any surprises you discovered along the way. Since all of the family who might have had any information were gone, I depended on two primary sources that were immensely helpful. A family genealogy surfaced, thanks to a cousin of mine, and that information led me to the archives at Mississippi State University, where the family papers were preserved. These two sources were a treasure trove of unexpected revelation. It was through those sources that I discovered how the judge had attempted to free his slaves, although it was illegal to do so. I had no idea that manumission became illegal after about 1853, as part of the compromises involved in the free/slave state negotiations prior to the Civil War.

The exact source of the family conflict—I had only heard it as “land greed”—became intriguingly complex. The death that led to that conflict revealed a fascinating mystery in itself. The more I delved into the family papers, especially the judge’s, the more intrigued I became. And the more enchanted by such details as an inventory of his cows, each charmingly named. An extensive inventory of goods conscripted by Union forces led me to research Grierson’s raid, a diversionary tactic to engage Confederate forces away from Sherman’s drive for control of the Mississippi River.

At the urging of my teacher and mentor, Jane Smiley, Pullitzer Prize winner for A THOUSAND ACRES, to take my research even deeper, I realized the major role weather played in the Civil War. I arrived at an astonishing, little known revelation that the war occurred just at the end of the Little Ice Age, during a period of global warming that brought deadly extremes of weather and temperature much like we are experiencing today. I am continually fascinated by the timeliness of history.

Which authors have inspired your writing? Can you tell us why? Perhaps I am most inspired by the writing of Cormac McCarthy. My writing is not like his, though I might wish it were. Two things in his work stand out to me: his ability to convey through language things that are almost beyond language and his refusal to gloss over that which is most painful to face. I am also profoundly drawn to Kazuo Ishiguro, especially his book, NEVER LET ME GO. There is something in his depiction of pure humanity that moves me deeply. Mary Doria Russell has inspired me with her scope, and specifically her exploration of how the best intended actions can lead to dire unintended consequences, as happens in my novel. And to Ursula Hegi, I am indebted for her depiction of the collapse of community and even family under harsh political pressures.

What is your writing process? I am what is commonly called a “panster”—that is “writing by the seat of your pants.” I find it almost impossible to follow an outline. I never know what a character may do or think next, or what may show up around a corner in the plot. I love the unknown of exploration and discovery in writing. My first writing teacher, Madeleine L’Engle, had one foundational premise: the work knows more than you do and you must trust it to lead where it knows to go.

Of course, writing in this way can lead you into chaos and a good bit of “after the fact” organization. Another great mentor, Darnell Arnault, taught me a wonderful technique. Every scene or character description goes on a 5” x 8” card. These can be shuffled, arranged, collected in groups, and laid out in varying narrative lines. I also covered a full sheet of plywood with a surface for dry erase marker. With this addition to my office, I could tape the cards, draw out character and narrative arcs, then shift and experiment. I can’t imagine writing any other way, although I now have an actual outline, very general, for my next novel. Who knows?

What is the subject of your next novel? My novel-in-progress is again historical fiction, involving a minor character from a sub-plot in THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER. Although this character plays a minor role, the beginning of her story is also the trigger that sets off the narrative in my first novel. I found that she simply did not want to let me go unless I committed to tell her story—a story I had absolutely no way of knowing. I simply felt that she would manage not only to endure a major catastrophe, but to flourish and find her true self as a result. Already the research has led to incredible surprises. I’m just waiting for the next!

How fascinating to have discovered and explored your family history, Diane. I wish you great success with your writing.

The Abolitionist’s Daughter by Diane C. McPhail ~~ On a Mississippi morning in 1859, Emily Matthews begs her father to save a slave, Nathan, about to be auctioned away from his family. Judge Matthews is an abolitionist who runs an illegal school for his slaves, hoping to eventually set them free. One, a woman named Ginny, has become Emily’s companion and often her conscience—and understands all too well the hazards an educated slave must face. Yet even Ginny could not predict the tangled, tragic string of events set in motion as Nathan’s family arrives at the Matthews farm.

A young doctor, Charles Slate, tends to injured Nathan and begins to court Emily, finally persuading her to become his wife. But their union is disrupted by a fatal clash and a lie that will tear two families apart. As Civil War erupts, Emily, Ginny, and Emily’s stoic mother-in-law, Adeline, each face devastating losses. Emily—sheltered all her life—is especially unprepared for the hardships to come. Struggling to survive in this raw, shifting new world, Emily will discover untapped inner strength, an unlikely love, and the courage to confront deep, painful truths.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.