Monday, March 2, 2015

Of Sagging Middles and Family Feuds

family feuds
By the time I finished writing Crucible of War, I’d been pondering over and scribbling down notes for Valley of the Shadow for some time. Although I had a number of ideas about what was going to happen following Carleton’s attack on British-held New York Harbor, I was really afraid that it would all be an anti-climax and that the middle would sag. Readers tend to check out of a story when that happens, and, since this is a series, if they do, they won’t read the next volume either. Or the next.

That brought up another issue. I’m now past the middle of this series (at least I hope so!). And there’s also a danger of the middle of the series itself sagging, especially with one this long. My goal is to keep the full sweep of the story so enthralling, the characters so believable, and their fate so gripping that readers keep coming back for the next installment until everything’s finally resolved in the end. That’s a big challenge when you’re talking about 7, maybe 8, volumes—or even more, which some authors have accomplished.

So how am I doing so far? That’s for readers to decide, of course. But as far as Valley is concerned, they’re definitely not going to encounter a sagging middle. Once I dug deeply into the historical context, I discovered more than enough material to keep things moving along at a nail-biting pace as far as the factual side of the story is concerned. And my characters are certainly doing their part to keep things cooking on the fictional side too.

On a personal level, I really hate conflict. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid it unless I’m backed into a corner. But with my characters—well, I LOVE it when they argue! There’s just something about a good, cathartic dog and cat fight that makes me laugh. And I’ve been doing a whole lot of that the past few weeks as a couple of major confrontations that have been simmering in the background suddenly came to a full boil. It’s so much fun to write zingers, and, boy, in the middle of this story, everybody is giving everybody else the back of their tongue.

Except for Elizabeth and Jonathan, that is. In the midst of all the chaos, the lovebirds are still doing their thing—or at least trying to.

You do know that reality is going to impinge at some point, of course. But I’m not giving away any spoilers. You’ll have to read the book to find out about that, and if I don’t get busy, I’m not going to make the pub deadline. But in the meantime, be sure to check back here from time to time for updates on how the various altercations are going!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

At Last—Book 5 Cover Image!

I’m ecstatic to announce that we’re going to be able to use Theodore Gudin’s gorgeous painting La Bataille d’Ouessant en 1778 for the cover of Valley of the Shadow, which releases in September! This is the one I really wanted, but I hadn’t been able to find a licensable print-quality image anywhere and was about to give up and settle for another painting I wasn’t really happy with.

J. M. Hochstetler

Enter my totally amazing designer, Marisa Jackson, who found an image of the painting that’s suitable for print. And better yet . . . not only is the painting in public domain, the digital image she found isn’t copyrighted! We can use it for free!!!

But the best thing about this painting is that not only does it work well to illustrate Carleton’s raid on British-held New York Harbor that opens this volume, but also, since the battle depicted occurred less than a year after the naval battle described in Valley, it’s completely period correct.

Marisa’s schedule is totally slammed right now, but she promised to get to work on it in April. As soon as we have the full front, we’ll post it here, so be sure to check back. And if you haven’t caught up with the series yet, now’s the time to do it! On the sidebar you’ll find hot links to the series that go directly to the listed retailers.

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!