Thursday, March 12, 2015

Visualizing Characters

French commander in American Revolution
A few days ago I ran across a picture that’s so close to how I visualize one of my characters that I’m almost giddy! Take a look at the beautiful portrait at the left. It portrays Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, who was commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force that embarked from France in 1780 to fight with the American Continental Army against British forces.

Carleton’s maternal uncle, le comte de Caledonne, a French admiral who’s very influential in the court of Louis XVI, is mentioned a number of times in Crucible of War. He’ll finally make an appearance in Valley of the Shadow and will have a bigger role in book 6, Refiner’s Fire. So I was delighted to find this portrait of Rochambeau because he’s almost a twin to Caledonne! The portrait was not only very helpful when I wrote Caledonne’s description, but I also referred to it often as I wrote his scenes. It gave me a better feel for the character.

I’ve collected a number of portraits that are reasonable facsimiles for some of my characters. One of these days when I’m between projects, I intend to add pages to the series website where I can post pictures of both fictional and real characters who appear in the series. This will definitely be one of them.

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.

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!