Sunday, June 28, 2009

Awakening the Muse

I’ve begun serious work on book 4, Crucible of War, and in addition to researching the actual historical facts, I’m thinking about theme, plot, and characterization. At this month’s meeting of my local writers group, Middle Tennessee Christian Writers (MTCW), we focused on Debra Dixon’s book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, which I found very helpful in jump-starting the process.

Honesty, I’ve kinda been dreading diving into the long, intensive process of writing another volume in this series. So I was excited when this study provided some welcome encouragement and guidance. Because all good stories revolve around the characters who inhabit it, thinking about what drives them, and specifically about what drives my series characters in this particular volume, awakened the dormant muse with a vengeance. Good thing too because I was just about to give her a good hard kick in the hindquarters. LOL!

Deciding which historical events will be covered in Crucible of War was the easy part. Obviously there are the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and a fleet of battles during the summer of 1777 that followed. In this volume I also want to delve more deeply into the political wrangling of the period by involving Elizabeth with the Continental Congress and real-life people like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. But what about my characters’ personal lives? How am I going to weave their individual stories into the real happenings in a way that keeps readers flipping the pages and looking forward to the next book?

And btw, boy, do I have a cliffhanger in store at the end of this one. It’s gonna be wrenching, to say the least! LOVE to torture my characters!

But back to the subject. Thinking deeply about my characters’ goals (what they want), motivation (why they want it), and conflicts (what’s standing in the way of reaching it) has me excited all over again. I’m basically a seat-of-the-pants (SOTP) writer, which means that carefully outlining the plot in detail before I begin to write doesn’t work for me. I’m too impatient to leap into the world of my characters and see what happens next. I want the characters to drive the story. They’re in the midst of certain life-changing historical events, interacting with the real people who lived through them and in many cases caused them. How do my characters react to all that? What events of their own lives intersect with the real historical events? That’s where goal, motivation, and conflict provides clarity, not to mention plot points.

In my next post, I’m going to talk more about each of my main characters—Elizabeth Howard, Jonathan Carleton, and Charles Andrews—and their individual goals, motivations, and conflicts. Of course, this is a work in progress, so parts will remain sketchy until I get deeper into the story. And as the story progresses, like it does for real people, some of their goals, motivation, and conflicts will change as they grow and mature. That’s what makes a well-told story so fascinating: It reveals hidden depths in our own hearts that inform our understanding of who we are and why we act as we do and enables us to change too. Hopefully in positive ways!

Now I’m looking forward to discovering what 1777 has in store for Elizabeth, Jonathan, and Charles. And I’m glad you’re joining me on this journey! I promise it’s going to be a bumpy, but exhilarating ride!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Reader Feedback

I thought I’d share several recent reviews posted on Amazon.

“Being a Civil War buff, I wasn’t sure I’d like anything from the Revolution. But as the characters in Daughter of Liberty came to life with visceral detail and emotional investment, I could not turn my back on them. The tension between determined and independent Elizabeth Howard and the complex and delicious Jonathan Carleton turned the pages like bacon curling in the sear of a frying pan. Even minor characters’ depictions take on three dimensions and add a realism very difficult to achieve. The complexity of intrigue and historical developments keeps the pace between lively and riveting. The last quarter of the book was a true climax and resolution—one of the best I’ve ever read.

“I have been to Boston three times in my life, briefly, and I have to say that Ms. Hochstetler’s period recreation of the town and outlying geography is remarkable. The current labyrinth of man-made landmarks all but obliterates the topography, but she depicts it in such a convincing and authoritative way that time rewinds and the reader experiences the innocence of the country’s birthing.

“The author’s command of history goes beyond impressive. Events, names, places, military accoutrement, and even clothing saturate this read with authenticity. I MUST find out more about Jonathan Carleton. He made a deep impression on me as a reader and now, a fan. On to Native Son, the second one in the series!”
—Kathleen L. Maher

“J. M. Hochstetler is able to bring history to life with her exceptional prose and attention to detail. If you want a Last of the Mohicans type adventure with a hearty dose of romance and realism, buy these books! My only regret is that she doesn’t write fast enough and there aren’t enough books like hers! Wonderful, inspiring, educational reading! Bless you, J. M.! I use your books for my own research!”
—Laura Frantz

“J. M. Hochstetler takes us in her time machine and transforms poster-stamp names in history, such as George Washington, John Hancock or Samuel Adams, into real characters we can see, hear and at times even smell, like or dislike, depending on their moods or deeds. She helps readers reconnect to the “pluck” that built her nation’s love of freedom and independent enterprise. In these difficult economic times, Americans need to be reminded of the resourcefulness and courage of their forebears, of the united spirit that rescued them from poverty and tyranny, and to show them that once again they can rise to overcome oppressive conditions.

“This fictional trilogy set in the American Revolution is not only a thoroughly entertaining Five-Star read but also belongs in every library across the country, especially from middle schools to universities. As required reading, it would certainly make history the exciting study it truly is and give back to Americans pride in their heritage.”
—Bonnie Toews

I’m working hard to make this series not only accurate and authentic to the time, but also a great read. Receiving this kind of reader validation makes all the effort worthwhile. Thank you, ladies, for your kind comments! You keep me going!

My next post will be about constructing book 4 of the series, Crucible of War. I’m going to have plenty to share about that in the coming months since it’s scheduled for a fall 2011 release. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Adding Audio

When I created the One Holy Night video, I realized that adding an audio line would make the trailer a lot more effective. I originally wanted to use Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 cut on the Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme album “Silent Night/7 O’clock News,” which would have been terrific background audio for this particular story. But the chances of getting permission, even for a prohibitive fee, were too slight to waste the time trying. I figured if they actually allowed me to use it, I wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway. So I resigned myself to doing a search on sites where you can download audio files.

I quickly stumbled across audiosparx.com, where I found a track of wind blowing softly that I wanted for the trailer’s beginning and end. After doing considerable searching and comparing versions, I also snagged a recording of “Silent Night” with a lovely, haunting female voice at an affordable price. Good enough. That became my soundtrack.

For the Wind of the Spirit trailer, I wasn’t sure what kind of soundtrack would work the best, but I wanted something extraordinary. I’d decided the introduction would be the rolling growl of thunder at a distance. After listening to a bunch of versions on audiosparx, I settled on one that had just the effect I wanted. That took up about fifteen seconds, but the trailer was running about a minute and a half, so what about the rest of it?

I studied my images and began searching on sound effects and Indian chants that might fit. I found some hysterically funny files of stuff like an arrow being shot and thunking into a target, which sounds nothing like you’d imagine. I envisioned a long, hissing swish as the arrow arced through the air, followed by a satisfyingly solid clunk as it sliced into the target. Forget that. None of them lasted more than a couple of seconds, and they sure didn’t sound like a shaft hissing through the air. But I did find the sound of fire burning and some interesting Indian chants. They were all really cheap, so I bought them, while wondering how I was going to stitch them all together into a coherent soundtrack.

Then I decided to see if I couldn’t find a better Indian chant. I wasn’t really satisfied with the one I’d found, so on the off chance there might be something better that I hadn’t run across yet, I searched on Native American chant again. And this time as I worked my way down through the list of results, listening to each in turn, I hit the jackpot.

The first couple of seconds assured me I’d found my theme song. By the time it finished, I had goosebumps. It wasn’t an Indian chant at all, but a movie-style intro theme, and it absolutely blew me away! I was thrilled . . . and then I looked at the price.

$179.00. No cheaper personal use rights, either, just professional.

I got real close to the screen to make sure I wasn’t reading it wrong. Nope. I wasn’t.

I sat back, thinking rapidly. Okay. This is a book trailer, for Pete’s sake, not a movie trailer. Sure this theme is better than anything I envisioned in my wildest dreams, but get real. I’d already plunked down a larger chunk of change for my must-have absolutely perfect Native American images than I’d planned, and $179 more just wasn’t in the budget. I’d make do with something less expensive.

Except . . . this one was perfect!! And now I was going to be terribly disappointed with anything else. Oh, bummer. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I decided it couldn’t hurt to put it into my shopping cart so I wouldn’t lose it. Then I’d think about it for a few days. I could always come back and purchase it if I won the lottery. Of course, that would mean I’d have to start playing it, and I don’t gamble, sooooo . . .

So I clicked on the buy button. A screen comes up that asks you what rights you want to purchase, and there was a list of professional rights ranging from small business on up to movie and TV. Naturally I clicked on small business and was then deposited in the shopping cart. Not expecting anything, I glanced at the amount before closing out.

$23.90.

I let out a whoop that could have been heard from here to Nashville and raced to grab my credit card! All righty, then!!!! I was in business!!!! I downloaded that sucker in a heartbeat and immediately pulled up the trailer. I hadn’t gotten the timing right yet and not all of the effects and transitions were in place, but what the hay. I dropped that puppy into the audio line behind the thunder and fired her up.

The effect was jaw dropping. All of a sudden the entire video came together and flowed like silk!! It just swept me along from beginning to end, and hopefully does other viewers too. If you haven’t watched it yet, be sure to take a look and let me know what you think.

Because the theme is just barely over a minute long, I ended up having to splice it. That’s not too difficult in Movie Maker—couldn’t be if I managed to do it without even reading the directions. You can see the sound waves in the audio line, which helped me figure out where to make the cut. I pulled the track back from its end to cut off the conclusion, plunked the file in a second time, and pulled that one back from the beginning to leave only the end. Then by lengthening and shortening each segment bit by bit and running the video across the splice each time to test it, I was able to adjust it until I found a spot where the transition sounded reasonably natural, and where the two pieces together went all the way through the credit roll. So far nobody who’s listened to it has been able to tell where the splice occurs.

After I’d gotten all the transitions and effects the way I wanted them, I adjusted the length of time each image is onscreen to coordinate it as much as possible with the audio line, and it was finished. That’s all there was to it. If you haven’t tried putting together one of these videos, give it a try! It’s a tremendous amount of fun. It’s almost as much of a blast as writing the story in the first place, and if I can figure out how to do it, anyone can!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Finding Elizabeth and Carleton

Finding images to represent my hero and heroine turned out to be a lot more difficult than I’d anticipated. Because the story is set during the American Revolution, I had to have models who were costumed consistently with the era. The Native American frames, which I’d thought would be my greatest challenge, were taken care of, as were all the rest. How hard could it be to find a couple of 18th century portraits that would do?

First I tried a quick search on my old standby, istockphoto, to see whether I might be able to score real-life models more along the lines of Philip Winchester. Umm . . . no. Searching for both male and female models netted me faces that looked way too modern, even when no costume was visible in the photo. Dear Philip pretty much ruined me for the men, and hardly any were blond anyway. Don’t even get me started on the subject of the women who turned up, especially their hair styles. And every one of the people in their small selection of American Revolution images either had their backs turned or their heads cut off. Sigh. A general search on male models turned up . . . well, let’s just say I don’t want to go there.

Obviously, the only way I was going to find models in authentic costume was to locate 18th century portraits that fit my characters. I searched until my head swam and eventually came up with Sir George Kneller’s portrait titled Lady in a Green Dress. I was immediately enchanted. She’s lovely, and she IS Elizabeth! In fact, I’m thinking I may hire an illustrator to recreate her in the proper context for the Daughter of Liberty cover when we publish a revised version next May. Happily, although the portrait dates to 1703, the model’s costume is neutral enough in style to be acceptable—and it’s green, Elizabeth’s best color.

One down, one to go.

Finding Carleton was an entirely different matter. I soon discovered that most male portraits from that period are of men who are considerably older than Jonathan’s 33 at this point in the story. Undoubtedly that’s because they had arrived at a station in life where they merited and could afford to commission a portrait. I found a few of younger men . . . but how can I phrase this delicately? Umm . . . judging from the sample I found, British men of the period were, shall we say, not what most of us would consider model material. And there were very few blonds. It was mainly a choice of dark hair, red hair, or white wigs. Alas, Jonathan is decidedly blond.

I spent so many hours online searching for just the right man that I began to seriously consider just going with the photo of Philip Winchester in his Crusoe persona. But there was no getting around the copyright issue, alas. Not to mention that he’s way to recognizable, and a movie/TV star is not what I wanted to portray my character.

Back to the search. I scoured numerous museum Web sites, searching on well-known artists such as Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, Joshua Reynolds, Jonathan Singleton Copley, and others. And this time I finally came up with a couple of possibilities. The leading contender quickly became a portrait of Captain George K. H. Coussmaker painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1782. There were several issues with this image, however. First, George is just too young. And he’s too pretty-boy pouty to be quite right for Carleton. Worse, he’s dressed in British uniform. Admittedly, Carleton was a British officer at the beginning of the series, but he was in the 17th Light Dragoons, not the First Regiment of Foot Guards. Helmet, not cocked hat. The uniforms are also different, though most viewers won’t know that.

On the plus side, he’s posed with a bay horse—white blaze, not black like Devil, but nevertheless, it’s a nice touch. And even though his hair is frizzy where Carleton’s is perfectly straight, it is light enough to be considered blond, especially once I did a color correction in Microsoft Picture Manager. Okay, so you can’t have everything. He does look mighty good in those tight white breeches and knee-length black boots. And considering that I couldn’t find anything else remotely acceptable, and most museums—the Met again in this instance—grant usage of images for non-commercial and/or educational purposes, I decided I’d agonized over this video long enough.

It turned out that once he was in place, George was small enough within the portrait’s context that the details were less noticeable. The whole worked well enough that I quickly became reconciled to losing Philip.

That left one last detail: the audio line. More about that tomorrow.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Constructing the Video

A video trailer requires many more images than a book cover. I’d need an image for each frame as well as a soundtrack. So in my script I noted where the audio line would come and, and then, beside each line of text, the kind of image that would best illustrate that segment. This is how the script looked after I added general image descriptions and indicated where the audio line would come in:

Audio: rolling thunder

1. Wind of the Spirit [cover background scene]

2. The American Patriot Series Book 3 [black background]

3. by J. M. Hochstetler [black background]

Audio: sound effects and/or music

4. A spy for General Washington [portrait of Washington]

5. Elizabeth Howard is drawn into the very maw of war [portrait of beautiful young woman]

6. Where disaster all but ends the American rebellion [RevWar battle scene]

7. Yet her heart is fixed on Jonathan Carleton [portrait of handsome man]

8. missing more than a year after he disappeared into the wilderness. [forest]

9. Now the Shawnee war chief White Eagle, [cropped cover]

10. Carleton is caught in a bitter war of his own [Native American image]

11. against white settlers encroaching on Shawnee lands [Indian battle scene]

12. the tender love of the beautiful widow Blue Sky [beautiful Native American woman]

13. and the schemes of the vengeful shaman Wolfslayer [Native American man]

14. Can Elizabeth’s love bridge the miles that separate them [distant vista]

15. and the savage bonds that threaten to tear him forever from her arms? [Native Americans]

16. The nation’s epic struggle for freedom continues . . . [black background]

17. Book cover

18. Credits

I had the full image of the background for the book cover for the first frame and easily constructed frames 2 and 3 directly in Movie Maker. An online search yielded the portrait of Washington I wanted on the Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site, with permission to use it for private non-commercial and educational purposes. Then in searching my old standby, istockphoto, for Revolutionary War images, I found a video clip of reenactors enacting a battle that would work perfectly for frame #6.

For the time being, a photo of Philip Winchester in his Crusoe persona at left that I copied off NBC’s Crusoe Web site stood in for Carleton very nicely in frame #7. His features are a bit more rugged than I envision Carleton’s, but he’s amazingly close, plus he’s dressed in a costume that is close enough even though it’s probably a decade off. The cropped Wind of the Spirit cover focusing on the Native American image went into frame #9. I also found a haunting image of misty woods that worked perfectly for frame #8 and a vista taken in upper New York state that beautifully supplied #14.

In addition to images for Elizabeth and Carleton, that left the Native American images I would need for frames 10, 11, 12, 13, and 15. I wasn’t very confident that I could find exactly what I needed, and I was (unhappily) prepared to make compromises if necessary.

Thankfully it occurred to me to do a search on Native American stock photos. I had no idea whether there were any sites that specialized in those, but I hit the jackpot immediately with Native Stock, which offers a wide range of images searchable by tribe. What a treasure trove! I’m sure I’ll mine this site again for future projects. Among the Shawnee images I found several of members of the Shawnee nation dressed in historic costume for a production about Tecumseh. It was even set in Ohio! They were perfect for my purposes, and I was pretty excited!!

Ultimately, my greatest challenge turned out to be finding images for my hero and heroine. The script required images for both Elizabeth and Carleton, but finding authentic-looking stand-ins for these two characters turned out to be hair-pullingly frustrating, made worse because I’d already found the rest of the images I needed and had them in place. And they looked great! I finally began to think I’d never be able to complete this video!

I’ll talk more about the hunt tomorrow.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Developing the Script

Some people recommend keeping trailers to under 1 minute. I knew that was going to be way too short to effectively tell this story. My goal was to keep the running time right around 1 ½ minutes. That’s about what the One Holy Night trailer came in at, and that felt not too long and not too short. To accomplish it, I needed to grab the high points of my copy, keeping in mind the images I’d need to illustrate them. After I condensed the wording somewhat, while adding a couple of important story elements, I ended up with this raw text:

“A spy for General Washington, Elizabeth Howard is drawn into the very maw of war where disaster all but ends the American rebellion. Yet her heart is fixed on Jonathan Carleton, still missing more than a year after he disappeared into the wilderness. Now the Shawnee war chief White Eagle, Carleton is caught in a bitter war of his own—against white settlers encroaching on Shawnee lands, the tender love of the beautiful widow Blue Sky, and the schemes of the vengeful shaman Wolfslayer. Can Elizabeth’s love bridge the miles that separate them and the savage bonds that threaten to tear him forever from her arms? The nation’s epic struggle for freedom continues . . . ”

After adding the introductory and concluding text, I created 18 frames:

1. Wind of the Spirit

2. The American Patriot Series Book 3

3. by J. M. Hochstetler

4. A spy for General Washington

5. Elizabeth Howard is drawn into the very maw of war

6. where disaster all but ends the American rebellion

7. Yet her heart is fixed on Jonathan Carleton

8. still missing more than a year after he disappeared into the wilderness

9. Now the Shawnee war chief White Eagle,

10. Carleton is caught in a bitter war of his own

11. against white settlers encroaching on Shawnee lands

12. the tender love of the beautiful widow Blue Sky

13. and the schemes of the vengeful shaman Wolfslayer

14. Can Elizabeth’s love bridge the miles that separate them

15. and the savage bonds that threaten to tear him forever from her arms?

16. The nation’s epic struggle for freedom continues . . .

17. Book cover

18. Credits

The text for a couple of the frames was a bit long, but I was pretty sure they were still short enough for viewers to read easily if the frame didn’t speed by too quickly. I knew I’d need to keep an eye on that.

Now that I had a script I was satisfied with, the next step was to determine the images I’d need for each frame. Most of them fell into place pretty quickly, but finding a couple I had to have gave me major fits. I’ll describe the process and the results tomorrow.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Creating a Video Trailer

Video book trailers have become so popular that it seems as if just about every recent release has come equipped with one. Authors and, in a few cases, publishers are racing to get one up on YouTube and other sites by the book’s pub date. There’s a lot of variation in quality, I’ve noticed, with some that look pretty amateurish and some that could qualify as professional movie trailer productions.

Even though I’ve been, as usual, so covered up it’s ridiculous, the temptation to get a trailer into the running finally ended up being too hard to resist. Admittedly I’m late jumping into the game since Wind of the Spirit released in March, but better late than never, right? And I’d done one for One Holy Night back in November, in the process learning a lot about using Windows Movie Maker, so I was up to the challenge. I don’t have PhotoShop, so I can’t create some of the nifty effects I’ve seen in other videos. But the OHN trailer got really good feedback, and I figured that, now that I had some experience under my belt, I could make this one even better. (To take a look at the result, click on the link at right, or scroll down to the bottom of the page where the video is posted.)

The most important thing I learned from my previous experience was that if you don’t start with a great script, you’re going to end up with a lackluster trailer. The script is a road map or bible for the production. It tells the story in as few words and images as possible (speed is of the essence in our attention-deficient culture) and also tells you what images you’re going to need. So I decided to resurrect some advertising copy I’d adapted from the book’s back cover copy and see what I could do. Here’s what I began with:

“Elizabeth Howard’s assignment to gain crucial intelligence for General Washington leads her into the very maw of war at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, where disaster forebodes an end to the American rebellion. Yet all the while her heart is fixed on Jonathan Carleton, whose whereabouts remain unknown more than a year after he disappeared into the wilderness. Carleton, now the Shawnee war chief White Eagle, is caught in a bitter war of his own. As unseen forces gather to destroy him, he leads the fight against white settlers encroaching on Shawnee lands—while battling the longing for Elizabeth that will not give him peace. As the patriot cause falters, can her love bridge the miles that separate them—and the savage bonds that threaten to tear him forever from her arms?”

That was a promising start, but I knew a bit of tightening up was in order. Join me again tomorrow for a rundown on how I developed this into a focused, compelling script.