Writing For A Cause

Troy D. Smith is from Sparta, Tennessee. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, and teaches U.S. and American Indian history at Tennessee Tech. In addition to history, he writes short stories of all stripes, has written for several magazines, published poetry (but not lately), and writes western and mystery novels.

It’s a funny thing about writers. Sometimes, when we go about our life’s activities, especially if those activities involve worthwhile charities or causes, we forget about the wellspring of contributions we have access to as authors. Those contributions include both our own well-honed talents and those of the network of colleagues most of us are connected to.

In my day job, I am a history professor at Tennessee Tech University, specializing in Native American Indian history. In that capacity, last year I was asked to serve on the board of directors of a new project: the Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center. At the time, it existed only as a concept: a center located in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee, which in the colonial and pre-contact area had been a trade and diplomacy crossroads of sorts between several different tribes, that would eventually house a museum, an educational program offering various classes to the public, and fund indigenous cultural events and –someday –perhaps fund one or more scholarships to nearby TTU for American Indian students.

We’ve come a long way in a year, but we have a lot further to go. Most of all, we need to find funding –we had hoped to procure grants and so forth, but the continuing economy doldrums have dried up many of the sources we could normally have turned to. We have been brainstorming ways to reach potential donors who might be able to help –we tossed around ideas about fundraisers and outreach activities. That’s when it hit me.

I’m a writer. I write westerns. Lots of my friends write westerns.

Westerns are often about Indians.

Why not a fund-raising short story collection?

So I put out the word –and am putting it out now.

I will be overseeing the publication of Tales from Indian Country, under the aegis of Standing Stone American Indian Cultural Center (SSAICC). Authors are being asked to donate a story (keeping their own rights to said story, other than for this publication) –either an original tale or a previously published one they have the rights to –featuring American Indian protagonists and/or Indian themes. We do ask that they be well researched for cultural accuracy. There are no minimum word counts, though there is a 10,000 max. All royalties (beyond printing fees and other costs) will go to the SSAICC. The book will be available in both paperback and digital; if there is enough interest from writers, there may be more than one volume. With the potential long shelf life of books in this new digital age of ours, there is a chance our anthology (or anthologies) will continue to benefit the center as it grows (with the understanding that, if SSAICC should dissolve, the royalties would be diverted to a similar Native American Indian educational project.)

I would never have considered the possibility of editing such a volume if I had not spent the past year editing Western Fictioneers’ Wolf Creek series (and by the way, the fourth book in that series –The Taylor County War- just came out). Several of my colleagues from that series have already offered to pitch in for Tales from Indian Country. Like me, they are delighted to have a chance to use their unique skills for a greater good.

I encourage you to also think of ways to use your fearsome and formidable powers for some noble cause. And, if you write about Indians, or have done so, please consider pitching in to our cause, as well. You can email me at tdsmith at tntech dot edu for details. You can also learn more about SSAICC –including just what the “Standing Stone” of the title refers to. You might also want to check out the SSAICC Facebook page (or make direct financial contributions to their Fundrazr page).

Predicting the Past

Lucia St. Clair Robson was born in Baltimore, Maryland and raised in South Florida. She has been a Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela and a teacher in Brooklyn, New York. She has also lived in Japan, South Carolina and southern Arizona. After earning her master’s degree in Library Science at Florida State University, she worked as a public librarian in Annapolis, Maryland. She now lives near Annapolis. The Western Writers of America awarded her first book, Ride the Wind, the Spur Award for best historical western of 1982; it also made the New York Times Best Seller List and was included in the 100 best westerns of the 20th century. Since then she has written Walk in My Soul, Light a Distant Fire, The Tokaido Road, Mary’s Land, Fearless, Ghost Warrior: Lozen of the Apaches (finalist for the 2003 Spur award), and Shadow Patriots, a Novel of the Revolution. Western Writers of America awarded her latest novel, Last Train from Cuernavaca, the 2011 Spur for Best Western Long Novel.

One of the slyer ironies of writing about history is that making up stuff doesn’t always mean it’s not true; and declaring something to be fact doesn’t guarantee that it is. Now and then someone will say he only reads non-fiction, to which I reply, “You think you’re reading non-fiction.”

The most talented and conscientious historians don’t know what really happened before they were born. And even if they were around for the excitement, anyone who’s attended a high school reunion knows what a trickster memory can be. Same class, same teacher, very different recollections.

When writing about the Apaches I consulted John Cremony’s entertaining memoir. Cremony was on the Boundary Commission surveying the new border after the Mexican War of 1846-48. He reported a particular rifle being used to send a bullet across the nether end of the Apache leader, Delgadito. Delgadito thought he was out of range and he was doing what Apaches so often did. He was mooning the soldiers pursuing his raiding party. The fight was called on account of laughter, and historians report that Delgadito didn’t sit down for a while.

When I gave the manuscript to a gunsmith friend to vet he said the rifle in question wasn’t produced until two years after that moon shot. In the fifty years between experiencing the event and writing about it, Mr. Cremony must have forgotten the exact make of the gun. The question then becomes, what other details did he mis-remember?

Historical research is like interviewing witnesses at the scene of an accident, except that the accident happened a hundred years ago. Also, the witnesses don’t speak your language, someone was shooting at them at the time, and they have a vested interest in protecting the good names of the drivers. The best we chroniclers can do is collect as many reference points as possible, then triangulate on the truth.

I’m not claiming that historical novelists should be given the sort of credence accorded academicians. We are professional liars, after all. But I see the relationship between fiction and non-fiction as symbiotic. I depend on the work of historians for facts to weave into my stories. On the other hand, novels often motivate readers to seek out more information on the subject, if only to see if the preposterous events described actually happened.

I wish I could remember who said, “I never let a story get in the way of good facts,” but well-written historical non-fiction can be as compelling as fiction. Generally speaking, though, novels have more potential for connecting with readers on an emotional level. And if history isn’t about emotions, what is?

A well-researched historical novel gives an added dimension to facts. The reader and the novelist make an unspoken pact. The reader says, “I know you’re lying to me, but I’ll suspend disbelief on the chance that together we’ll arrive at some greater truth.”

Historical fiction explores the consequences and motivations of human nature. It allows readers to absorb the sense of another time. Novelists must do more than report events. They have to re-create the world in which those events took place.

Novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” It’s not enough for a novelist to know who the generals were, how their troops were deployed, what they carried, and what they wore.

What technology was available? What were the current medical advances? What did people talk about in the taverns? What slang did they use, what jokes did they tell? What sort of hanky-pank did they engage in? (I’m always amused by people who are horrified at the notion of our ancestors engaging in hanky-pank).

There are times when a generalist such as a novelist uncovers more information than a specialist because she casts a wider net. In a used-book store in San Antonio the owner asked if he could help me find anything. I told him I was writing a novel about the Mexican War. “I have just the book for you,” he said. “It lists all the books that have been written about the Mexican War.”

I thanked him, and said I had quite a few books on the subject and was looking for other sorts of information. He took umbrage.

“How can you write about the Mexican War if you don’t know everything that’s been written about it?”

I told him I needed to know how to cheat at monte, how to fool a sucker into buying a horse with glanders, what the soldiers used to polish their brass buttons, and what the cure for cholera was in 1848. I think I had him at cheating at monte, but he also found me a good book on horse trading.

Now and then I stumble across information that historians have missed. A Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of a biography of Andrew Jackson mentioned that Will Rogers was related to Sam Houston’s Cherokee wife, Tiana Rogers. Other writers picked up on it and mentioned it in their own books, but it wasn’t true. Two men named John Rogers lived among the eastern Cherokees and both moved west about the same time. One was Hell-Fire Jack (Tiana’s father), and the other was Nolichucky Jack. The award-winning biographer mixed them up, which was understandable since the Cherokees were a sidebar to his main subject.

On occasion imagination has come closer to reality than could be expected. This is when stuff that’s made up turns out to be true. One of Hell-Fire Jack’s descendants telephoned me one day. She introduced herself and said the family wanted to know where I had gotten some of the stories in Walk in My Soul. I told her I had read them or made them up. “No,” she said. “Those are stories only the family knows.”

Another reason I like to write fiction is that I can go where historians can’t, or shouldn’t… into the back alleys of speculation. That’s not as irresponsible as it sounds. A lot of it is common sense and the linking of disparate pieces of information. For instance: male alligators are aroused by B-flat. We know this because someone asked a French horn player to serenade his captive gators. B-flat sent them into courtship mode and they converged on the hapless musician to see if they could score.

So, in writing a novel about the Second Seminole War, I described General Winfield “Fuss and Feathers” Scott’s campaign to surround and surprise the hostiles in the Florida swamps. For a guerrilla war in a quagmire he brought along a military band and to boost his troops’ morale he had the band play a concert after dinner. The Indians attacked and I imagined the poor musicians taking cover behind their tubas and trombones. But I also imagined the band hitting B-flat and the area coming alive with horny saurians.

I noticed that at least one historian wondered why the Mexicans would have called on St. Jerome in the battle that gave Geronimo his name. St. Jerome, the historian said, was a scholar. Because I had written a book about the Catholics of early Maryland I happened to have a few books on saints. One of them mentioned that there were two St. Jeromes, one of whom was a soldier. I don’t know if that had anything to do with Geronimo’s Mexican name, but it’s a possibility.

In recent years, charges of revisionism have been leveled at writers of historical fiction and non-fiction alike. Maybe that’s true in some academic settings, or in history books written to stir up controversy on the talk-show circuit. But let’s face it, people have been revising history, either deliberately or inadvertently, since the first cave man exaggerated the size of the saber tooth tiger that got away.

They say history is written by the victors, but that’s only half true. Much of our past was chronicled by Victorians as well. I call those accounts wishful history or proto-revisionism. A lot of clap-trap has been passed off as history— George Washington and the cherry tree, the line in the sand, Osceola driving his knife into the treaty. My personal favorite is the army report that referred to a Comanche leader as Buffalo Hump. According to one book on the Comanches, he was named after an entirely different part of a male bison’s anatomy.

History is messy and sexy and smelly. It has odd angles and sharp edges. It’s not easy to wrap up in neat packages with pretty paper and ribbon. To try to imbue the past with present-day sensibilities is bone-headed; but correcting myths, errors, and misconceptions is not revisionism.

As for errors of fact that creep into my novels, I can’t take all the credit for them. I either found them in non-fiction sources and was fool enough to believe them, or when triangulating on the truth I didn’t allow enough for windage.


Jason Heller is a Denver-based writer who contributes regularly to The A.V. Club and Alternative Press. His debut novel, Taft 2012, and his Pirates of the Caribbean tie-in, The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook, were published by Quirk Books.  Heller is also the nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld Magazine.

In my alt-history novel Taft 2012, a fictional scholar named Susan Weschler—America’s foremost expert on William Howard Taft—is given her dream job: being an advisor to Taft after he wakes from a magical, hundred-year slumber and runs for president in 2012.

I wish I could say there was something of myself in Susan. But there isn’t. Before writing Taft 2012, I didn’t know a damn thing about Taft.

I did research, of course. As it turns out, Taft is one of our least chronicled presidents. That was part of the reason I was drawn to him as a subject. Unlike so many of his fellow presidents—including his immediate predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, and his immediate successor, Woodrow Wilson—Taft is not considered important. That’s speaking relative, of course. He was still a president. But the fact that most people had only the haziest image of Taft—you know, the boob who got stuck in the White House bathtub—made it that much easier for a layman like me to write about.

That said: At no point in Taft 2012 am I writing about the real Taft. It’s alt-history. Fantasy. A folktale. In my version of events, Taft disappears in 1913, on the day of Wilson’s inauguration. In most alt-histories, such a huge event—the disappearance of a president!—would change the course of history. Not so with Taft. Barely anyone notices. In real life, Taft had an impressive post-White House career, including becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (Did you not know this? Don’t feel bad. Neither did I.) To underscore, or perhaps caricature, Taft’s unimportance in the grand scheme of our collective consciousness, I chose to make him a forgotten figure. Most of his history, as we know it, never happened.

Which made it pretty convenient for me to muck up that history.

What did I get wrong? What elements of my character, William Howard Taft, contradict the actual, flesh-and-blood president, William Howard Taft? Good question. I wouldn’t know, right? Okay, I’m trying to be cute. I learned quite a lot about Taft as I did research in preparation for Taft 2012. I learned he was a Yalie, a Unitarian, a Progressive Republican (back when before the species became extinct), and a man deeply influenced throughout his life by two women: his beloved mother and his devoted wife. I tried to get to the heart of the man, the root of the guy. What was his motive? His lack of motive? His hopes? His fears? His faiths? His appetites?

Okay, so his appetites weren’t that hard.

My point, though, is this: My Taft wasn’t going to be our Taft. Awakened in 2012, armed with today’s knowledge about dietary needs, the food industry, and the psychology of self-image, he was going to struggle with his weight in a way that was—hopefully—far more profound than how he struggled back in his day. And struggle he did; a stress-eater, in today’s parlance, he gained a large amount of weight after entering the White House in 1909, and he lost much of it after he left. He was an unhappy, reluctant president pushed into the office by his wife, who had always dreamed of being First Lady, and his mentor, Teddy Roosevelt, who had pledged not to run for a third term, and hoped to install Taft as his surrogate.

The more I learned about Taft, the more complex of a man he seemed. Complex and sympathetic. I wanted the reader to latch onto that feeling. How would a man who seemed to be always out-of-place—in his own skin and station—react to the 21st century? I asked myself that question every day as I sat down and wrote Taft 2012.

In doing so, I’m sure I fucked up.

Did I exaggerate Taft’s progressive tendencies? Perhaps. Then again, wouldn’t any good politician—and Taft, in his own idiosyncratic way, was an excellent politician, and don’t let history tell you otherwise—adapt and keep up with the times? Even if those times were a hundred years in the future? The bottom line is, I didn’t feel to guilty about exercising artistic license in my reimagining of Taft. Plucked from our native habitat—our native century—and left with almost no living links to our past, would we necessarily act the exact same way we do now?

Taft doesn’t. Taft wouldn’t. After all, Taft 2012 isn’t about his past. It’s about his future. A future he would never, could never know. In other words: At its best, my book is a decently informed piece of bullshit. I say that proudly. Even though I know for a stone-cold fact that Susan Weschler would vehemently disagree.

Horse Magic

Lucia St. Clair Robson’s best-selling debut novel, Ride the Wind, won the Spur Award for best historical western of 1982.  Since then she has written  Walk in My Soul, Light a Distant Fire, The Tokaido Road, Mary’s LandFearless, Ghost Warrior: Lozen of the Apaches, and Shadow Patriots, a Novel of the Revolution. Her  most recent novel, Last Train from Cuernavaca, won the 2011 Spur Award for Best Western Long Novel.  Robson lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

The Chiricahua Apache chief, Victorio, called his sister Lozen his wise counselor and his right hand. He said she had the “strength of a man” and was “a shield to her people.”

General George Crook wrote, “The Apaches are the tigers of the human species,” but even in a society possessing extraordinary courage, endurance and skill, she was unique. The Apaches believed that when she was young, the spirits blessed her with horse magic. They also endowed her with the gift of healing and the power to see enemies at a distance. In the Apaches’ thirty-year struggle to defend their homeland, they came to rely on her strength, wisdom, and supernatural abilities.

Because of her gift of far-sight, she rode with the warriors and fought alongside them. After her brother Victorio’s death, she joined Geronimo’s band of insurgents. With Geronimo and fifteen other warriors, she resisted the combined forces of the United States and Mexican armies, and

the heavily armed civilian populations of New Mexico and Arizona Territories. She and the sixteen warriors, and seventeen women and children held out against a total of about nine thousand men.

Lozen is the heroine of Ghost Warrior, my seventh novel. I’ve been researching people and events from history for thirty-three years now, and a thought occurred to me as I started writing this about Lozen. It’s a thought that gives comfort in troubled times, and let’s face it, all times are troubled thanks to our species’ capacity for mischief and mayhem.

The thought is that even in the worst of situations, individuals with extraordinary strength of character appear and leave a legacy that persists. How fortunate we are that other people made note of them and left a record for the rest of us.

The Apache Wars certainly qualified as the worst of times. Many of the names of the leaders who waged those battles are familiar — Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio. Lozen was as exceptional as any of them. One Apache I spoke to referred to her as their “Joan of Arc.”

Reading about what Lozen and her people endured puts my petty problems into stark perspective. And it strikes me as amazing that the spirit of someone who died 120 years ago can influence what I think and feel now.