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History vs. Genealogy vs. Historical Fiction

“History and genealogy…are two radically divergent views on the past.  The first says ‘This matters.’ The second says, ‘This matters to me.'”  John Sedgwick in the New York Times

History, Genealogy, Historical Fiction

Historians such as John Sedgwick tend to scoff at genealogists’ efforts to track down their ancestors by pouring over demographic records and old newspapers, using on-line services to trace family connections or spitting into DNA collection tubes. Historians have a “so what?” attitude. Until, as Sedgwick reports, he learned that an ancestor of his, was involved in a historic event for the Cherokee Nation. Then the civil war which erupted over the issue of the Cherokee Nation’s removal to the Oklahoma Territory became not just something that mattered historically but something that mattered to Sedgwick personally.

Writers of historical fiction see an obligation to present their stories in an accurate historical context and frequently do extensive research to learn the accurate details, scenes and key events of the historical time. Having done this extensive research, writers become engaged and committed to the historical context of their story. This sometimes tempts them to provide several pages of historical description and background which fascinates them but which tends to bore the reader. Historical fiction writers, then must continuously ask the question, “Does this background matter to my story?”

Here is an example of a slice of history that mattered in the pioneer West, mattered in the search for information about my grandfather and mattered in the development of my story.

Mattered to Me

As a lover of history, an amateur genealogist and a writer of historical fiction, I find these questions of “what matters” intriguing. In my genealogical research looking for information about my shadowy grandfather, I was searching for potential reasons why he might have abandoned his wife and family and where he might have gone. I hoped that information might give me clues about where I might find him in the public records. What mattered to me was finding places to look in public records in Texas; information about the “overland outfit” he worked for in the Dodge City area and how he might have ended up in Wyoming to marry my grandmother.

Historic scene, hand loom

Mattered to the Story

Unfortunately, I did not find my grandfather in the public records during a period of thirteen years. I could not find information to help me understand his disappearance nor how he got to Wyoming to marry my grandmother. I decided to write the story as fiction. I would need to creatively develop the story of my grandfather’s disappearance. I had a hypothesis that he joined a cattle drive and headed north from Texas based on clues in a deposition in which he said he “worked cattle.” Using that hypothesis, I researched the social and economic events of the longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City. What mattered to my story then were the perils of the cattle drive and the lawless character of Dodge City . Yet neither of these events had mattered to me in my genealogy research.

Mattered in History

In the history of the West, the cowboys leading cattle drives north and the lawlessness of Dodge City were infamous for a short period of time. They mattered in the history of settling the West, but they were soon diminished by the impact of the settlers claiming free land, often called “nesters,” cattle quarantines and the civilizing influence of families and women. These events historically had a much larger impact in the settlement of the west and really didn’t matter to me in my genealogy pursuit or in writing my historical novel.

Sedgwick says that as a historian he couldn’t take the story past the facts but as a genealogist he could imagine the feelings and physical encounters expressed in the conflict he describes. In my own experience, both the events of history and the documented facts of births, deaths and census rolls of genealogy are fact based. I found the facts are without the emotions of fear, sadness, frustration and joy or the insight from learning the motivation for abandoning a wife and family. Imagining emotions, motivations and creating dialogue makes a story more engaging to the reader looking for opportunities to understand history and identify with characters who made a difference in their time. It has been both a way to learn more history and to identify and understand my ancestors.

Exploring an example from my novel, Sarah’s Secret shows how history, genealogy and historical fiction are intertwined. I needed to use ideas from all three.

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3 Apr
2018
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Book Review: “The Boleyn King” by Laura Andersen

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen

I love historical novels, and I needed a distraction during a cross country flight. The book The Boleyn King offers creative alternative history by imagining that Anne Boleyn actually gave Henry VIII a son who became king. Within the historical context of a threatening war with the French and Catholic unrest at home, the fictional William trusts only his older sister, Elizabeth; his best friend, Dominic who serves as his counselor; and Minuette, who was raised by his mother, Anne Boleyn and serves as Elizabeth’s Lady in Waiting.

The story moves at a good pace providing intrigue and romance which is only increased with the discovery that both William and Dominic are in love with Minuette. This love triangle kept me reading but, I wondered if the character of Minuette could realistically exist in the royal household. Although the book provided the needed distraction on my flight, the story lacks depth and seems to be written for a younger audience. On the other hand, it is an innovative alternative to history and will easily provide a light distracting read perhaps for your summer vacation.

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31 Jan
2018
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Book Review: “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

Book reviewed by Bev Scott

The Sympathizer Book Review by Bev ScottThe Sympathizer tells the first-person story of a communist spy embedded in South Vietnam during the “American War.” He serves as a loyal aide to “the General” of the South Vietnamese army at the same time he shares information with his communist handlers loyal to North Vietnam. He evacuates with the General when the U.S. pulls out of South Vietnam and ends up in California as an immigrant. Continuing his close connection to the General as well as his relationship with his handlers, he ultimately returns to Vietnam in a futile attempt to infiltrate North Vietnam and is captured and held prisoner. Held in isolation for a year, he is required by the “faceless” Commandant to write his confession before he is freed. This confession is the first-person story of the book.

I began reading this book as part of my preparation to travel to Vietnam last December. The author, Viet Thanh Nguyen has won a Pulitzer Prize and several other prizes for this book, but I found it very hard to read. The focus switches from description to dialogue, from one location to another, from one character to another without punctuation or explanation. Despite the gripping, wry and historical nature of the story, and what many consider brilliant writing, I had to force myself to continue to read it.

I did finally finish it and valued the Vietnamese perspective it provided. I gradually adjusted to the writing style. I agree that it skillfully draws the reader into the mysteries of Vietnam’s political intrigue. I also appreciated learning more about the impact of selfless commitment and passion to a political cause. The book raises evocative questions regarding the interplay of morality, power and a strong belief in a greater cause while also revealing multiple views on the subject. I am glad I read it.

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12 Oct
2017
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Book Review: “The Underground River” by Martha Conway

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

The Underground River by Martha ConwayMae Bedloe is the seamstress and all-around support for her more famous cousin Comfort Vertue. In 1838 they are in search of new opportunities in the theatre for Comfort who has booked them on the steamboat Moselle headed to St. Louis. After six days on board the Moselle, it sinks on the Ohio River.

While Comfort is hired to give lectures for an abolitionist, Mae ultimately finds work with a struggling acting troupe that performs on a floating theatre. Mae makes a place for herself with the troupe helping with costumes, ticket sales and other support tasks. As she takes on more assignments, and finds acceptance from members of the troupe, her confidence grows. I enjoyed the character development as Mae moves from a quiet and reserved subordinated cousin to an independent competent young woman taking risks to ferry slave babies to freedom.

The story is engrossing and a “page turner.” What a surprise when Mae boldly steps on stage putting the acting troupe in danger in order to take morally correct but illegal action. I found myself cheering Mae for her boldness and moral commitment at the same time I worried about her survival. The author, Martha Conway provides a well-researched historical context of another divisive time in our history which foreshadows the bitterly fought Civil War a few decades later.

I highly recommend this book.

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25 Sep
2017

A Book Tour Experience…Virtually

 Old BusBook Tour Virtual Blog "Sarah's Secret"

 

Marketing my Own Book

“Where are you going on your book tour?”

Friends and strangers often ask about where I am going on my book tour when they learn about my new historical novel. Those interested but not involved in the publishing business may not be aware that authors are increasingly expected to take responsibility for marketing their books, even those traditionally published. Independently published authors like me have to become our own marketing “firms.”

Book Tour or Virtual Book Tour?

Arranging a book tour to physical book stores is daunting and requires ingenuity, persistence and a lot of work. In the pre-Internet days, an author might work with a publicity agent who would then arrange for broadcast interviews, personal appearances at bookstores, and also pump the local press for feature articles or mentions. The book signing at a book store would be a central event with good marketing and sales opportunities. Travel to locations was part of the grind.

Vintage BaggageAs we know, the world has changed and brick and mortar retail is no longer king. Sales and distribution have largely shifted to e-commerce and online platforms. Thus, to be present to an audience increasingly means, being visible and find-able on the Internet. I am still a fan of the local bookstore as are many other readers and authors; yet marketing only in that space is unrealistic and limiting. Fortunately, there is an easier and simpler option on the Internet – Virtual Book Tours which can provide a platform to get your book in front of hundreds of readers without traveling.

 

How It Works; How I Did It

Of course, you can arrange your own virtual tour by contacting blogs who focus on your genre or topic. But I took the easier option and hired an expert, Amy Bruno who is a long-time member of the blogging community. She has established relationships with fellow bloggers and writers and knew which ones would be a good match with my book. Through her business Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, she could tailor the tour to my needs. She arranged book reviews, interviews, excerpts, articles and a give-away contest for my book, Sarah’s Secret with fifteen blog sites whose followers have an interest in historical fiction.

Planning the Tour

We began the planning over two months before the tour was scheduled. Once the blog sites were identified and the type of posting requested, I provided complimentary copies of Sarah’s Secret for the bloggers and the give-away contest as well as the requested excerpts, articles or interviews. The actual tour took place over a three-week period with one or two postings each week day. In addition to the visibility which Amy gives each tour from her website and Facebook page, announcements went out from my own Facebook and LinkedIn pages as well.

Upsides and Downsides

Of course, the downside of touring virtually is that I didn’t have an opportunity for face-to-face interaction as is possible in a physical book reading but I was happy with the experience. My positive outcomes include some great reviews, an opportunity to submit my book for review in the UK and an increase in sales! And it was a lot easier than arranging it myself or physically traveling.

If you have done a virtual book tour, I’d love to hear about your experience.

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9 Aug
2017
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Book Review: “Rosette: A Novel of Pioneer Michigan” by Cindy Rinaman Marsch

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Book Review, Historical Fiction, Rosette by Cindy Rinaman MarschThe book opens in 1888 with Rosette’s reflection on her decision to leave her marriage two years earlier, abandon her children who are mostly grown and take the train from Michigan to Dakota Territory to live with her oldest son. This reflection written by the author, emerges from the fragment of a journal entry where Rosette has crossed out her description of her wedding day and inserts “Unholy and Unhappy bonds of marriage” and describes her feelings as “sincerely DETEST and ABHOR.”

Marsch then takes us back to an earlier life, introducing the journal of Rosette Cordelia Ramsdell in September 1856. Rosette is an amazingly literate woman, school teacher and accomplished seamstress living in rural Michigan. The story follows Rosette through the courtship, marriage and births of her children and introduces us to members of her family. Marsch uses the brief excerpts from Rosette’s journal to provide authenticity to the story.

Marsch presents a story consistent with the journal, which she found and translated, and continues much of the language from it, inventing facts in the story only when necessary. Confessing that she is “fascinated by books that reveal whole persons by unearthing and sometimes embellishing the primary source materials,” she has offered a gift to the memory of Rosette and her family. Other than the journal, she found only scraps of information. Rosette and her husband Otis have disappeared into history.

Although I wished for a little more mystery and drama as I read the story, I admire what Marsch has accomplished and followed the story to the end. Rosette gives us an authentic picture of rural life in Michigan in the last half of the 1800’s. That makes it fascinating for those of us interested in history. Book Website

 

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6 Jul
2017
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Book Review: “Nicola’s Leg” by Natacha Pavlov

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Book Review by Bev Scott AuthorThis book is the true life story of Nicola, told from the perspective of his leg. Nicola is taken when his parents flee the Russian Revolution to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. Although his father, Nikita, is captured and presumed shot during their flight, his mother, Natacha continues and ultimately finds refuge at the Russian Orthodox Convent on the famous Mount of Olives. The story follows when Nicola as an adolescent he is encouraged by Natacha to go visit relatives in Eastern Europe; during his military service in Egypt in World War II; to his marriage to Maura and his role as a father to five children. He is imprisoned and tortured during Israel’s Six-Day War. His injuries result in the loss of his legs. It is this tragic loss that is the basis for the unusual title, “Nicola’s Leg.”

The author, Natacha Pavlov, writes a very engaging story about Nicola who is her grandfather. She uses the omnipotent voice to describe the travails and joys of Nicola’s life including his deep religious faith. The omnipotent voice is not as popular a style today as it was in the past and thus is unusual. It took me a few chapters to get used to it. However, Pavlov uses it well and draws the reader into Nicola’s story. I also enjoyed learning from a more personal level the impact of events in the first half of the twentieth century.

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10 May
2017

Interview with “Sarah Martin”

“Sarah Martin” is the key protagonist of my novel. Some readers have posed questions wanting to learn more about Sarah. Curiosity is good, and I’m pleased that readers are engaged enough in the story to wonder a little more about my character’s background.

To answer the questions raised by readers, I’ve conducted a “virtual interview” with Sarah, whose story is based on my real grandmother’s life. I hope this interview will reveal some of the back story and satisfy readers’ curiosity. Sarah’s answers below are as close to the real-life situation as I know.

Since this is historical fiction, you can choose to think of other ways that the character Sarah could have answered the questions! When you read the interview, imagine someone like Sarah and see if you think my interview captures what such a person might say in reply to my questions. People were much more private back then, and it was easy to hide secrets. Of course, this was a key premise of the book!

——————————-

Grandma Scott, portrait

The real Grandma Scott served as inspiration for “Sarah Martin.”

Imagine Sarah Martin at seventy, petite, dressed in a cotton house dress, with a shawl over her shoulders. She takes each step with care and caution as she moves toward the rocking chair. Her gait is uneven as she favors one knee. She wears special shoes to accommodate her crippled feet. Before she looks up, she lowers herself into the chair and smooths her skirt over her knees.  She looks directly at me with a tentative smile and then she looks down.

I begin:

BAS: “Thank you, Mrs. Martin, for agreeing to be interviewed. The readers of “Sarah’s Secret” have asked questions about the background of the story and what happened in your life after the story in the book ends. Do you mind answering a few questions?”

Sarah Martin (SM): [She pulls out a lace trimmed hankie from her sleeve and fingers it in her gnarled hands.] “I’ve never been interviewed like this before. I’m nervous.” [She takes in a deep breath, lifts her head, and smiles.] “Please call me Sarah.  What would your readers like to know?”

BAS: “Let’s talk about Sam. What attracted you to a man who was so much older than you were?”

SM: [Leaning forward in her chair and rocking slowly, her hands quiet in her lap, she smiles.] “Well, he was a very handsome man and I was a spinster school teacher. He was very kind, interesting and a good conversationalist.” [Pausing as if she might be considering her next words] “Of course, now, I don’t know how much he was pulling my leg sometimes.”

BAS: “What do you mean, ‘pulling your leg’”?

SM: [With the firm confidence of a teacher] “That is an expression we use when someone exaggerates and tells stories.”

BAS: “So he didn’t tell you the truth about his life before you met? What did he tell you?”

SM: [Sarcastically] “Not much that was true”.

BAS: “And you accepted enough of what he did tell you to marry him?”

SM: [Slumping in her chair and lowering her eyes, toying with her hankie] “Yes, I trusted him. It turned out I was naïve. I thought he would be a good husband and father. I wanted children of my own. He did give me five wonderful children.” [She stops rocking and straightens her back. With wide eyes and defiance] “I have never told them the truth about Sam. And I don’t want you to either. I want them to feel positively about their father.”

BAS: “Don’t worry your children aren’t around anymore. They won’t find out. But, why didn’t you want them to know the truth?”

SM: [Sounding defensive] “I didn’t want my children to be as embarrassed and humiliated as I was.”

BAS: “Did you know he came from Indiana? And that his father died when he was four? His mother died in the poor house with no one to support her. I think Sam had essentially abandoned his mother to the poor house.”

SM: [With sarcasm] “Abandoning women in his life seems to have been a habit!” [Rocking again in an even voice) “He never mentioned his roots, only that his family was gone and he wanted to create his own family with me. I wanted children too. He was a good husband. My family approved of him although they wondered why he had never been married before.” [Her eyes wide and she lets out a short laugh.) “It turns out there was reason to wonder.” [Suddenly sharp and irritated] “I don’t want to spend time talking about him anymore.”

BAS: “You were left destitute when your husband died. How did you manage?”

SM: [Patiently explaining] “I had hoped to get the Widows Benefits from Sam’s service but that didn’t happen. I went back to teaching. I had been a teacher before we were married. Of course, the older boys helped to support us and we lived very simply.  I have few needs.”

Old-time Classroom Scene

BAS: “But I thought school boards frowned on hiring married women. How did you manage to get hired?”

SM: “Well initially, I was a replacement for my nephew who went into the army. Also, because Sam was gone they accepted me as a single woman. It helped that my family had homesteaded the area and my father was a respected judge. Of course, he died before I could get back to Nebraska. So, he wasn’t any help in dealing with some of the hostile town folk”.

BAS: “Why were they so hostile?”

SM: “There was one man in town who was angry with my family because of a disagreement over water rights.  He vowed to get even so he spread rumors about me and Sam.”

BAS: “Does that have anything to do with why you didn’t get Widows Benefits?”

SM: [Offended] “No, that was a government decision.”

BAS: “But why didn’t you get them? What reason did they tell you? And why didn’t you ever tell anyone”

SM: [Sharply] “That is something I have never discussed with anyone. It was too humiliating.”

BAS: “You were school superintendent of Thomas County. Are you proud to be possibly the first woman school superintendent in Nebraska?”

SM: [Frowns and looks confused] “Proud? I was proud that I did the best job I could. I made some mistakes. I learned how to deal with the problems…but I don’t have any thoughts about being proud to be the first woman. That would be unseemly to feel that way.” [Pausing before she continues] “I had to leave after a few years because my illness got worse. I took my two youngest children to live in Wyoming near my middle son who homesteaded there. They graduated from high school. I am very proud that they went on to college and ultimately graduated. They each supported themselves working to pay for school so it took a few years. All of my children were very good to me and helped support me into my old age. I am proud to have sixteen grandchildren.” [Wistful] “I haven’t even met all my great grandchildren.”

SM: [Quiet, seemingly lost in her memories. Then, abruptly] “That’s enough.  I don’t want to answer any more questions.”

END

Blackboard "History"

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14 Apr
2017

Launch, Crunch, Oh My! Introducing Sarah’s Secret to the World

Airplane banner Sarah's Secret

A Time to Celebrate

The room was bubbling with conversation, laughter and congratulations. The book cover was fabulous and everyone loved the title. I felt energized and pleased. When I read suspenseful excerpts from the story, the audience wanted to know what happens next. Many of my guests engaged me with questions about the story and my journey as an author. I had finally held my very first book launch event, in January 2017.

Despite several guest cancellations due to a winter rain storm of epic proportions, I had an overflow crowd. I autographed and sold many books which was gratifying. Thus, I looked forward to the second launch party in February. But that was not to be. On the last day of January, I tripped and fell, breaking my arm near my wrist.

 A Time to Step Back

Since I needed to have surgery on my arm, I was forced to cancel a week’s vacation in Hawaii and the second book launch party. I solicited help to complete the publication on Amazon Kindle and Ingram Spark; friends came to visit and brought me meals. I had to learn to let go and let others take care of my needs. Once I accepted this slight twist of fate, I felt deep gratitude for the supportive community that surrounded me.

Journey of Independent Publishing

I’ve experienced quite a journey of research, learning how to write historical fiction, writing many drafts and deciding how to publish. Although this was my first novel, writing and editing were familiar from my prior work in non-fiction. But I had no idea what was in store when I decided to self-publish. I joined the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) and learned a lot from the generous and experienced members. Publishing tasks and promotion tasks piled up on my to-do list. Even so I didn’t know about the promotional advantage of scheduling the “Cover Reveal.” I missed understanding about fixing the launch date far enough in advance to have time to send out advance reader copies for review and to set up a pre-order process.

Who’s Coming to the Party?Plan A B C

As I planned the book launch, I was thrilled to have a friend offer a venue for a second launch party. So initially, I sent out invitations via an online event management program for guests to choose one of two dates. That turned out to be complicated and some people overlooked the need for an RSVP to get the venue address resulting in much confusion and frantic emails.

This reminded me that coordinating any sizable event, with RSVPs, is still a big undertaking despite the software and apps that supposedly “simplify” the process. I learned that many people still do not respond to or are a bit baffled by e-invite systems. I had to keep updating my “e-list” manually and respond to emails sent to me directly. I felt anxiety because my invitees were good friends, colleagues and family members. What if I inadvertently had left someone out or forgotten to follow up?

Lessons Learned

Still, despite the challenges and the weather, the first launch party was a great success. Now as we begin to re-schedule the second book party, I look back on what I learned about launching my book:Magazine with Sarah's Secret

  • Most importantly, given my goals for the book, I don’t need to rush to meet anyone else’s expectations or schedules. Stressful deadlines are not worth it. I have enjoyed my slower pace.
  • It is important to plan extra time for key first time tasks that are likely to take longer than expected.
  • There are many ways to promote and launch a self-published book; and all of them don’t necessarily fit for my book.
  • Simplifying the invitation process makes it easier on both the guests and the host.
  • Appreciate colleagues and friends who provide support and laughter for the milestones.
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9 Feb
2017
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Book Review: “Colorado Dream” (The Front Range Series) by Charlene Whitman

 

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Colorado Dream by Charlene Whitman, book reviewed by Bev ScottMy first book by Charlene Whitman kept me engaged through most of the story to the happy ending.  The writing is excellent and the story line is unique, a young Italian girl comes from New York to commission a violin from an exceptional violin maker in Greeley, Colorado in 1877.  Of course, Angela meets a handsome cowboy, Brett.  Although she is drawn to him she rejects him as uncouth, uncultured and dangerous.  Brett falls hard for her but believes she is too sophisticated and cultured to care for a cowboy.  He is sure she rejects him and will return with her new violin to New York.  A sweet romantic story, but I found the constant description of the physical and emotional attraction between the protagonists as way over-done.  Consequently, I lost interest toward the end.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

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