Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reviews that Confuse

I understand that negative reviews are to be expected in the business I’m in. All artists understand that. Not that we especially like it, of course. After all, who likes being told by others that you did a poor job at something you poured your heart and soul into? But I accept that not everyone is going to love my books. Some are going to hate them. That’s par for the course, and it’s a huge comfort to know that many readers love the books I write.

But have you ever gotten a review or a criticism that just plain puzzled you? I’ve gotten a couple recently that have me scratching my head. Following is the first, which is actually a wonderful 5-star review titled: Amazing book by a great author.

“This is an amazing book about the Revolutionary War. It has spies, romance, exciting battles, and interesting historical facts. Be forewarned that this is a continuing seven book series. I have read the first 4 books and now have to wait over a year until the 5th book is published. The reader is left dangling with the heroine in a very perilous situation in the fourth book. This is very disappointing and had I known I might not have started this series.”

I greatly appreciate the very kind, positive comments about the series in the first couple of sentences! It’s wonderful feedback like this that keeps me writing on days when I feel like it’s all worthless. What has me puzzled is the rest. It makes me wonder whether readers have any concept of how expensive it is to publish a book and especially a series. The worst part is that the reviewer is essentially telling readers not to read the series until all the books are published. If all readers did that, publishers wouldn’t publish any series at all, and the American Patriot Series wouldn’t exist.

I hope most readers understand that it’s sales that keep series going. If book 1 doesn’t sell enough copies to be profitable, no further volumes will see the light of day. That’s the reason Zondervan and I parted company years ago. Daughter of Liberty and Native Son didn’t get high enough sales figures for them to invest any more money in the series. If I hadn’t believed in it so strongly and felt the Lord’s direct leading to found a small press to publish it and the books of a few other authors in the same boat (and been blessed with the means to fund that endeavor), the American Patriot Series would have ended with book 2. How many series that readers would have loved have completely disappeared because their authors couldn’t afford to do the same?

In addition, ending each volume on a cliffhanger is actually necessary if subsequent books in the series are going to sell. If everything is tied up in a neat package at the end of each volume, what would cause readers to eagerly anticipate the next installment of the story? (The exception is series that feature a different hero/heroine in each book.) Authors have to build suspense at the end of each book or readers are going to forget about the series by the time the next volume comes out. I certainly would—in fact, I have stopped reading series I initially liked for that very reason. I just forgot about it or wasn’t motivated to continue. It’s like Christmas Day. The anticipation that builds up over the year is what makes finally opening all those beautifully wrapped presents under the tree so exciting.

Another issue the reviewer alludes to is the length of time between books. I apologize for that, but I’m by nature a careful and methodical writer. And as anyone who writes fiction, particularly historicals, knows, it takes considerable time to write a story that’s not only entertaining and inspiring, but also historically accurate. With all the research necessary to dig out the historical facts and develop a plot that puts my characters believably into the midst of the real action where they interact with the actual people of the day, not to mention creating deeply conceived, realistic characters in the first place . . . well, there’s simply no shortcut to accomplishing that. And for me it’s not worth writing anything less.

The second review puzzles me even more. It’s generally negative, and it really has me pondering. I need feedback on whether it’s correct about how I handle spiritual issues—what the reviewer calls the “overly drippy religious aspect”—and what the “real” story of my series is. If this reviewer is right on those points, then I clearly need to change things. Or quit. I’ll share that one in my next post.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts about series and cliffhangers? Have you ever been criticized in a way that genuinely stumped you? Did you change anything as a result, or did you believe in what you were doing and how you were doing it and continue?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

And the winner is . . .

Drum roll . . . Sharon Timmer! Congratulations, Sharon! Please email your shipping address to me at jmhochstetler at msn dot com, and I'll get that copy of Yankee in Atlanta out to you right away. I know you're going to enjoy the story!

Don't forget that all 3 of the books in the Heroines Behind the Lines Series are still on sale through tomorrow in ebook format for only $2.99! For those who didn't win, you can score the entire series at a terrific bargain!

Thank you so much for stopping by and entering the drawing, everyone!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Introducing Jocelyn Green!

Today I'm honored to feature author Jocelyn Green and her newest historical release, Yankee in Atlanta, Book 3 of the Heroines Behind the Lines Series! You’ll find Jocelyn’s fascinating guest post on Confederate schoolbooks below, followed by details of our drawing, plus information and links for all three titles.

Confederate Schoolbooks During the Civil War

Caitlin tucked her feet beneath Rascal’s warm body, the rag rug that had formerly been under the workroom’s table now in a tangle of sewn-together strips on the table in front of her. Twisting them tightly, she dipped them into a bowl of liquid beeswax, rosin, and turpentine. The days were only getting shorter, and there were no candles to be had unless one made them at home.

Ana sat across from Caitlin at the work table, elbows resting on the First Reader for Southern Schools open in front of her. When the wax had cooled enough, Caitlin carefully pressed the warm waxed strips around a glass bottle, from the base to the neck.

 “Why don’t you read aloud, Ana.”

The girl sat up a little straighter. “All right. Lesson Twenty-nine. ‘The man’s arm has been cut off. It was shot by a gun. Oh! What a sad thing war is!’ ”

“That’s enough.” Ragged crimson memories from the Battles of First Bull Run and Seven Pines exploded in Caitlin’s mind. Horrific scenes that had been engraved on the parchment of her soul. Certainly it wasn’t good for Ana to dwell on such things with her own father in the army. “Let’s read something else for your lesson. Do you know where Robinson Crusoe is?”

The above scene is an excerpt from Yankee in Atlanta, where we find Caitlin McKae, formerly a Union soldier, a governess in Atlanta for the daughter of a Rebel soldier. (If you’re scratching your head about that one, I promise the Prologue and Chapter 1 of the novel will clear it right up.)

One of my most fascinating discoveries while researching this novel was that of Southern textbooks. Since Caitlin is teaching her seven-year-old charge at home, I had the opportunity to include some fascinating excerpts, such as the one above, which is verbatim from its original source.

During the Civil War, scores of primers, readers, and arithmetics emerged from Southern presses, borne out of a widely held perception of northern textbooks’ anti-southern biases. In The Children’s War, historian James Marten says:

In fact only a few antebellum publications specifically attacked slavery, and they were all published prior to 1830. A few school histories provided factual information, limited mainly to laws and compromises related to the institution. Although slavery was virtually never mentioned as a sectional issue, schoolbooks increasingly provided examples and excerpts that highlighted the intrinsic value of the Union. Spellers used sentences such as “Stand by the Union!” and “In union there is strength,” while readers offered stories that showed the benefits of union and emphasized the institutions and customs common to all of the United States.

The most popular readers, McGuffy’s, studiously avoided controversial issues. Even versions printed in 1862 and 1863 did not promote one side or the other, but did include stories and poems showing the hardships of war.

Still, Southern presses in cities from Richmond to Mobile to Galveston produced nearly 100 schoolbooks for both patriotic and economic reasons (think blockade). Some left the war entirely out of the content. Others didn’t.

In a Confederate arithmetic by L. Johnson, long lists of story problems feature war situations. In one a merchant sells salt to a soldier’s wife, in another students are asked to imagine rolling cannonballs out of their bedrooms, and in another they are to divide Confederate soldiers into squads and companies. Johnson also included these famous problems: “A Confederate soldier captured 8 Yankees each day for 9 successive days; how many did he capture in all?”; “If one Confederate soldier kills 90 Yankees, how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?”; and “If one Confederate soldier can whip 7 Yankees, how many soldiers can whip 49 Yankees?”

Mrs. M. B. Moore’s Dixie Speller had a horrifying lesson, which I just had to use in the novel.

This sad war is a bad thing. My pa-pa went, and died in the army. My big brother went too, and got shot. A bomb shell took off his head. My aunt had three sons, and all have died in the army. [I hope] we will have peace by the time I am old enough to go to war. . . When little boys fight, old folks whip them for it; but when men fight, they say ‘how brave!’ If I were a grown-up, I would not have any war if I could help it. [But if forced to go] I would not run away like some do. . . I would sooner die at my post than desert. If my father had run away, and been shot for it, how sad I must have felt all my life! . . .This is a sad world at best. But if we pray to God to help us, and try to do the best we can, it is not so bad at last. I will pray God to help me to do well, that I may grow up to be a good and wise man.

Of course, the Civil War touched children in ways far more scathing than textbook lessons. For a more complete picture, I encourage you to check out Marten’s The Children’s War (University of North Carolina Press, 1998). Or, if you’re like me and prefer to learn while being entertained with a novel, Yankee in Atlanta shows the variety of hardships Ana faced while her father fought to defend their home.

Jocelyn Green is an award-winning author who inspires faith and courage in her readers through both fiction and nonfiction. A former military wife, she offers encouragement and hope to military wives worldwide through her Faith Deployed ministry. Her novels, inspired by real heroines on America’s home front, are marked by their historical integrity and gritty inspiration.

Jocelyn graduated from Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, with a B.A. in English, concentration in writing. She is an active member of the Christian Authors Network, Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, American Christian Fiction Writers, and the Military Writers Society of America. 

To enter the drawing for a free copy of Yankee in Atlanta, please leave a comment on this post. I’ll announce the lucky winner here on Wednesday.

And in case you don’t win, all three of Jocelyn’s novels are on sale for only $2.99 in ebook format at online retailers from now through August 28, so you’ll be able to get the entire series for a fabulous price!


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Cast of Characters, Part 2

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a post on Jonathan Carleton’s very complex geneology going back to the Vikings, but for today I’m going wrap up how I named my characters in this series. In comparison, it was a piece of cake for Bob and me to name our cast for Northkill since all except a couple were real people. The only essential characters we didn’t have names for were the mother of the family and the baby daughter, both of whom were killed in the attack. How we settled on the most plausible names for them is described on the Characters page on the Northkill website. Regretfully I did have to overrule Bob’s vote for naming the mother Tiffany, though for a moment I was sorely tempted.

But I digress. Back to our topic. I’m including several portraits so you can get an idea of what these people look like to me. Someday I’ll have a page up on the series website with portraits for all of the major fictional characters and some minor ones too.

Abby Howard
During the colonial period, many people, especially in New England, bore biblical names. It made things easy to distribute the names of some of my favorite Bible characters among my cast. Joseph was already taken by one of the real characters, Dr. Joseph Warren, so I settled on Samuel for Elizabeth’s father. Although it’s not exactly biblical (though Anna is), I’ve always liked the name Anne, which feels elegant and graceful, but also warm and loving, and that became her mother’s name. I wanted to name Elizabeth’s little sister Abigail for Abigail Adams, thus her nickname, Abby.

Naming Samuel’s sister, who has an important role in the series, was harder and I agonized over it for a good while. Another non-biblical name, Theresa, kept coming back to me, and the nickname Tess felt just right, so Aunt Tess she became. That left the maternal side of Elizabeth’s family. For some reason the surname Stern popped up very quickly. I liked its . . . well . . . stern tone. Joshua is another of my favorite biblical characters, and accordingly Elizabeth’s maternal uncle became Joshua Stern or Uncle Josh. We needed a William, a common English name of the time, and that nicely fit Joshua’s oldest son, nicknamed Will. And then the younger son arrived fully formed as Levi.

Jemma Moghrab
An indispensable sidekick and guardian for Elizabeth, who appeared with the second chapter of Daughter of Liberty, turned out to be a free black man who works for the Howards. I knew right away his name was Isaiah, my favorite Old Testament prophet. For a long time he didn’t have a surname—what in the world do you name a former slave who escaped as a child and lived with the Delaware Indians for years before showing up in Boston? But by book 2 he had to have a last name, so I went through a stack of National Geographics I’d horded over the years, looking up every African surname I could find. His mother had told him his African name before he was sold away from her and managed to escape, and he’d never forgotten it. So Isaiah became Isaiah Moghrab. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, lent her name to Isaiah’s. They named their oldest son Samuel, nicknamed Sammy, for Dr. Howard, who bought her out of slavery. Their younger son adamantly declared himself to be Pete. No idea why, but he refused to change it. The youngest child of the family, a daughter, was Jemma from the beginning, which is fitting because she is a true gem.

Charles Andrews
Then I needed a name for Jonathan’s sidekick. As I recall, I’d recently run across the name Andrews somewhere—a surname I’d always thought sounded cool—and in mentally filing through first names common to the time, Charles seemed to fit the best with it. Then his and Jonathan’s servants popped up out of the blue, thankfully both with names attached: Stowe and Briggs. As third-level characters they didn’t actually acquire first names until fairly recently—James Stowe and Henry Briggs. Stowe’s physical description came along with his first appearance, and although I have no idea what contrary muse is responsible, I totally love it! To my surprise, he’s also developed unexpected talents and made himself so indispensable over the course of the series that I’ve come to value him as highly as Jonathan does.

Dr. Pieter Vander Groot
I know I’ve left out several important characters, such as Dr. Pieter Vander Groot. But before I write an unwieldy tome on this subject, I’m going to stop here, though I’m including this portrait, which comes the closest to how I visualize him. At another time I may go into how I found names for the Native American cast in the series, which at times was an ordeal because I didn’t want to duplicate names of real people of the time. It’s an interesting and lengthy subject in itself.

Do you have a favorite fictional character—or two—whose name you especially love? Perhaps it fits the character perfectly in some way or you just particularly like how it sounds. One of my very favorites is Jane Eyre. Jane is a plain, common name that gives the impression that this character will be plain and common as well. But the surname Eyre is highly unusual and catches your attention. It has a light, open feeling because it sounds like “air.” Paired, the two names hint that, although this character is plain on the surface, subtle and unexpected nuances lie below that will keep your—and Mr. Rochester’s—emotions deeply engaged.

What character names do you love, and why?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Cast of Characters

Did you ever wonder where the names of the characters in your favorite novels came from? If you’re a writer yourself, you undoubtedly have a number of inventive ways to generate names. But even for writers, coming up with names that uniquely fit the people who inhabit their stories can be a mysterious, and even torturous, process.There are numerous baby name sites on the internet, which can be a great help in coming up with first names. If you write historicals, as I do, however, you need names appropriate to the period you're writing about. I often resort to my wide range of research resources, using the index to glean names from the period.

I’ve found that some characters actually come with names attached. When that happens, I mentally do a little caper of glee because that’s one I won’t have to agonize over. Unfortunately, I’m not always that lucky. The names of the main characters naturally require the most intensive thought because they’re the most important actors in the story. I want my hero/heroine to have names that signify their social position and character, then names I especially like and names that are sympathetic and will appeal to readers. They might also be symbolic of some deeper meaning or aspect of the character; Charles Dickens was particularly good at this. Creating a history for the characters and their families helps immensely in this process because family relationships and histories are often taken into consideration when it comes to naming babies.

It took a lot of effort to come up with Jonathan Carleton’s name, for instance. Jonathan wasn’t too hard—John was a very popular and common name in the 1700s, and since I wanted his to be distinctive, I decided to expand it to Jonathan, with the nickname of Jon, which I really like. But I struggled over his last name. It had to sound high-class British, but none of the various names I found quite fit. Most, of course, belonged to well-known people of the time, which raised the spectre of family relationships that would have to be accounted for. However, I kept being drawn back to Carleton, the last name of the governor of Canada, Sir Guy Carleton, which had a distinctive sound. I also liked the history of this name, which fits my extended history of Carleton’s family, combining Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman branches. In England, the name is most highly concentrated in southern Scotland. Below is an excerpt from an article found on The Internet Surname Database.

“This interesting surname, of combined Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon origin, is a locational name from any of the numerous places called Carlton or Carleton found all over England, but particularly in the north and east parts of the country, where there were many Scandinavian settlements. The placename means “the settlement or village of the free peasants”, derived from the Olde English pre 7th century word ceorlatun, which became Scandinavianised to karlatun. The component elements of the name are the Olde English ceorl (Old Norse karl), free peasant, villein; and the Olde English tun, village or settlement.

“Locational surnames were developed when former inhabitants of a place moved to another area, usually to seek work, and were best identified by the name of their birthplace. Early examples of the surname include: Geoffrey de Karlton (Bedfordshire, 1273) and Anabella de Carleton (Yorkshire, 1379). Mary Carlton, aged 23 yrs., who embarked from London on the ship Bonaventure bound for Virginia in January 1634, was one of the earliest recorded namebearers to settle in the New World. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Reginald de Karleton, which was dated 1272, in the Lincolnshire Hundred Rolls, during the reign of King Edward 1, known as “The Hammer of the Scots”, 1272–1307.”

I finally decided that the name fit Jonathan too well, and, hey, it’s a big family, and Jonathan can be Guy’s (very) distant relative. So I went with that, and if you’ve read the series, you’ll remember that this relationship is mentioned a couple of times in passing.

Elizabeth Howard’s name was a less torturous to create. My youngest daughter’s middle name is Elizabeth. I loved the character Beth in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and really liked the idea of that being her nickname. And I’d watched a TV series on the six wives of Henry VIII and did a bit of research into the subject. The surname Howard and their history stood out to me, so decided to use it for Elizabeth’s family and have her be descended from that family line.

I find second- and third-level characters much harder to name. In upcoming posts, I’ll delve into what it took to come up with names and histories for Elizabeth’s and Jonathan’s extended families—some of which, thankfully, did come with names attached—as well as Charles Andrews, the cast of Indian and French characters, and others. Currently I’m slogging through the process of generating names for the personnel aboard 3 of Carleton’s privateers: Destiny, Liberty, and Invictus. For them I need French and Spanish names and possibly a few Dutch too, since those countries were generally hostile to Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries.

If you write fiction, how do you come up with names for your characters? If you’re not a writer, I’ll bet you’ve had occasions to name someone, whether a new baby or a new pet. How did you settle on the names for each one? Share your naming experience!