Why I write in first person…

If you’ve read any of my fiction, you’ll see that a surprising percentage is written in the first person. That’s a lot of “me” I grant you, and that’s a mixed blessing. Of course, I’m not really a 10 year old half-caste kid in the 12th Century (Lucca the Louse in Acre’s Bastard) nor a first generation German-American from 1920s Milwaukee (Willie Braun in The Count of the Sahara) and I’m certainly not a 1950s Korean Vet car salesman (my latest short story on Scriggler. Check it out.)

It’s really not an ego problem. I don’t set out to be the center of attention (shut up!). In fact, I never noticed I was actually writing so much in that voice until someone in my writer’s group pointed out that the same curmudgeonly middle-aged loser keeps showing up in a lot of my stories. For the record, he’s not the same guy (the anti-social railbird in On the Rail, and the eaves-dropping alcoholic in Through the Arbor Vitae,) but I suspect they’re closely related and may have gone to the same middle school.

They’re also not me, although my own appreciation for cigars makes it easy to describe a lazy smoke on the deck and my experience as a comedian and professional speaker certainly influenced the way I captured De Prorok’s barnstorming tours. But just because I use “me” and “I” doesn’t mean they’re my thoughts and actions.  In fact, I’ve been judged pretty harshly by the thoughts and comments of some of my characters. What can I tell you, people used different words to describe people 75 years ago. I sometimes blush writing them. (My work should have a disclaimer that the opinions of the characters are not necessarily those of the management.)

So why do I do it? Truthfully, it’s an accident.

I’m not a 10 year old Syrian boy…. but I play one in Acre’s Bastard

I always start with a character who is another person. Ramon Pachecho is a Puerto Rican boxer I invented, and I was able to maintain that distance throughout the story. Lucca Le Peu was born when I saw a news picture of a Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance after his village was bombed. Willie was a simple way to narrate the story of Byron de Prorok from a neutral standpoint—I needed an innocent observer. Somehow, they go from “the old guy at the cigar lounge” to “I”. How come?

First person allows me some advantages as a writer. One of the comments I got from “Arbor Vitae” when it posted on Scriggler was from a fellow author who appreciated the way I do interior monologue. That only happens because I put myself so deeply in the character’s place. Inevitably it starts with “why does he/she do this?” and eventually becomes “if it were me, why would I act that way?” At that point, it’s just easier to capture those thoughts and expressions in their voice. Maybe I’m just not that good a writer.

First person for me is an exercise in empathy. I was taught early to put myself in the other person’s shoes (fortunately I have small feet). While I’m wide open to charges of “cultural appropriation” or telling stories that aren’t mine to tell (I’ll pour the anejo and we’ll have it out in person,) I also believe it gives me deeper insight into character. That’s where you find the humor, the emotion and the tension. Something is far more dramatic if it happens to you than to someone else. Watching someone’s horse die isn’t the same as having your own pet’s life drain away in front of your eyes. (Spoiler alert?)

For me, insight comes from within. Even going back to my standup days, I was more of a commentator than an observer. Some comics can neutrally observe from outside (Jerry Seinfeld is the ultimate example.) I usually found the humor in how I react and process something, and hoped the audience would relate. I’ve never taken an old man to a cockfight, but I suspect if I did I’d sound a lot like the narrator in Tio Fernando’s Field Trip. It’s just funnier.

I don’t set out to write everything in first person, it just usually works out that way. I hope you check out a couple of the examples and keep reading.

 

 

“Last Good Cigar Day of the Year” was Scriggler’s Story of the Day

 

My little writing exercise, “The Last Good Cigar Day of the Year” was the “Story of the Day” on Scriggler.com. You can read it on the Scriggler site, along with the kind comments from total strangers. Yes, my neurotic need for approval from complete strangers is in full roar right now as I search for a publisher for my new novel. I’ll take this gladly….

scrigglercigarday

Now you can read it on my site with the rest of my smaller pieces. Look under Short Stories or click here

Finding the Right Voice for Historical Characters

When I was writing The Count of the Sahara, the hard part was taking facts that were well known, but making the characters more than just a regurgitation of what was already known and their own writing. How do you make the dialogue real, and the people involved come alive?

The cover of The Count of the Sahara available now on Kindle
The cover of The Count of the Sahara available now on Kindle

As I explain in this interview on Lavinia Colins blog, I had one of those aha moments writers love to blab on and on about. You can read the interview here,  but basically the desert scenes between Alonzo Pond and Byron de Prorok came alive when I found the analogy: It was “Amadeus in the Desert.” Read the article and find out why.

I remember standing in the archives at the Logan Museum of Anthropology when I had the epiphany.  The Logan’s exhibit on this expedition is opening soon, and if you’re in the area check it out. Meanwhile,  you can read the article on Lavinia’s site.

Full disclosure, Lavinia is a fellow writer for our publisher, TheBookFolks and a very good writer of Arthurian fantasy.

Troy Kechely- A Man, A Dog and The Great Depression

Historical fiction takes many forms. In this case, the story of a dog on a ranch in 1930s Montana

When I think of Historical Fiction, a couple of things come to mind. The first, are great events in history and epic time periods. Second, I think about tales of great passion: war, or romance, (and whether those are the same or different, you may discuss among yourselves) but they paint with a broad brush. Yet there are quieter stories as well. Troy Kechely has taken a fascinating period of American history (The Depression of the 1930s) and a great setting (the mountains of Montana) for an intimate story of a man and the healing powers of a dog and brought them together in Strangers’s Dance

 

Okay, so what’s the Troy Kechely story?

Most people  like to use the word ‘complex’ to describe me.  This is because how I came to be who I am is not a simple tale but I’ll summarize as best I can.  I was conceived out of wedlock to a young woman in Elmira, New York.  She left the U.S. to study for a semester in West Berlin, Germany (yes back in the cold war days).  She was unaware that she had a stowaway but learned quickly after arriving.  While carrying me she looked into having an abortion but was turned down because it was illegal after a certain stage of  pregnancy.  She instead chose to put me up for adoption by a U.S. Army officer and his wife who were stationed in Germany.  So by God’s grace I grew up not in upstate New York or Germany but on a ranch at the base of the Continental Divide west of Helena, Montana.  Something I am very thankful for. 

Troy and one of his rottweilers, Bradum
Troy and one of his rottweilers, Bradum

My day job is  a CAD manager for an engineering firm.  On the side I’m a canine behavior instructor and author as well as the founder and current board member for a non-profit rescue group dedicated to finding loving homes for Rottweiler’s.  What sets me apart from some is that I have no college degree and only nine fingers after an accident four years ago. This resulted in me having to relearn typing so Stranger’s Dance was a big test for me and my editor.  

Sounds like that’s a pretty good story waiting to be told. What about Stranger’s Dance?

In 1930s Montana, no one kept dogs as pets.  Unless a dog happened to be a darn good herder and happened to wash up on a sheep ranch, dogs were pests.  Chicken killers that ought to be shot. 

Who could afford to give scraps to a stray?  The high ranchlands were spared the worst of the Dust Bowl, but most families still had to take work off the ranch to make ends meet.  That’s why Frank Redmond carved tombstones on the side.  Even with such work—both lucrative and in steady supply—he and his small family struggled to keep up with their loans.  Frank was ready to call it quits, walk away from the ranch, his wife, his father, the creditors.  Then the dog showed up. 

Stranger’s Dance is a novel about death and infidelity and how people learn to strike truce in the presence of hard things.  That stray dog, the one Frank wanted to shoot, eventually endears himself to Frank’s father, then to his wife, and slowly to Frank.  Over time, the land and its creatures bind the frayed human relationships.

What is it about this story that intrigued you?

Our world is so full of technology and distraction, the simplicity of rural ranch life in that era appeals to me.  Having grown up in the region and on a working ranch I know how hard it can be to keep a ranch running and the idea of doing the same work but without the luxury of tractors and electricity made it a good setting for the story. It allowed me to focus on true life struggles that people faced every day. Unlike now where we worry about our WiFi connection, people in that time often lived hand-to-mouth.  Given that animals were rarely viewed as pets but as coworkers or pests to be shot, the involvement of a dog in that struggle allowed for a unique perspective and window to that time.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to interview people who were alive back then and living at the location of where my book was set so I got firsthand knowledge of what it was really like. This definitely helped with solidifying my decision on the time and location of the story.

Not to make this about me, but I had a farm dog, Rover, get shot for sucking eggs when I was a kid, so I know what you mean. Where can folks learn more about you and your writing, as well as your work with dogs?

The best place is my website: http://www.troykechely.com/

You can find me on  Goodreads

or on Amazon

And on Facebook

 

Carmen Stevens and the Slums of London

Sometimes, historical fiction is about people living inside a specific historical event.  Other times, the period is primarily a backdrop to personal stories that just happen to occur then. Such is the case with Carmen Scott’s “Anne”. Rather than the heroine being swept up in history, the times serve as the backdrop for this intimate story of one woman making her way in 18th Century London.

Anne is the story of a young woman's struggles and ambition in the maelstrom of  18th Century London Carmen Gross, pen name Carmen Stevens, was born in Fargo, ND, March 1992. She currently resides in Detroit Lakes, MN, where she is a recent college graduate and works part-time. Carmen published her novel “Anne” in July 2013-an exciting, richly-written historical work about a young English girl who makes many bad choices throughout her life and then struggles to find redemption.

In a nutshell, what’s Anne’s story?

‘Anne’ takes place in eighteenth-century England. The plot revolves around a haughty, homeless, orphaned girl and her struggle to achieve a life that is much better than her present one. Anne is hardened by a sense of self-preservation and very strong-willed, and she is willing to do anything to fulfill her dreams.

You’re a nice mid-westerner. What is it about that time period that intrigued you?

I really like the fashion of this time period, though maybe not the corsets. But I think the dresses that the well-off women wore were unique and quite lovely. I dislike the class structure, however. But I’ve always been very interested in old England and the way that this country used to be, especially within its large cities like London. I love the history of the country. I’ve never physically visited England, but I’ve researched it so extensively that I feel like I have been there. When I decided that I wanted to write a novel, the setting of old England came to my mind right away because I have such an interest in the country, and hope to be able to visit there someday.

That’s true for a lot of us. Writing is a way of traveling places we’ve always wanted to go. Without giving away spoilers, what are a couple of scenes you particularly enjoy?

It think it’s the small, poignant scenes rather than sweeping historical events. The first scene involves Anne visiting a person whom she once loved, but now hates,in an awful place. The young man whom Anne visits bitterly confronts her because of what she did to him. Anne remains calm and cold throughout the confrontation, displaying no remorse, for what she did to the young man she did to achieve her dreams.

The other touching scene is actually one of the last scenes of the novel. Anne has a long chat with another young man, but her demeanor and composure are completely different than the other scene. Also, the young man in this scene listens to Anne carefully with an attitude that is also different than the other man’s. Within this scene, the themes and morals of the overall story are vivdly described.

 

 

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Chinese History and Intrigue with Tony Henderson

One of the really fascinating periods in history for me is the early 20th Century in China, Shanghai in particular. I’ve come across a new acquaintance who shares that fascination and, more importantly, has done something about it.

Tony Henderson is living the British ex-pat life in Spain and writing books about China. Nice gig.
Tony Henderson is living the British ex-pat life in Spain and writing books about China. Nice gig.

Quick, what’s the Tony Henderson story?

Born near London, and since leaving home as a teenager I’ve lived more than half my life overseas, in Spain and Hong Kong. I earned my living designing computer systems, but on retirement ran a Spanish estate agency with my wife for eight years. I spent a couple of years researching my family back to the 18th century and found ancestors with the British Army fighting in the Opium Wars in China, the Crimea, India, and even fighting with the Spanish against Napoleon. So I was far from being the first in my family to travel to the Far East and Spain. I now write novels to keep my brain ticking over, and play golf badly to try and keep fit. The third novel is now released under the series name, ‘Chinese Circles’, but the first book is The Shanghai Circle..

With a series, I always like to start with the first book. In a nutshell, what’s it about?

Briefly, The Shanghai Circle can be summarized as – Taipan meets Triad in Pre-war Shanghai.

Davina Guest, a young and feisty Taipan, must help steer the family trading house through tumultuous times in 1936. The imminent Japanese invasion and the rise of Communism threaten her beloved company, but unbeknown to her another deadly menace lurks in the shadows.

As heir to the Sung Society, Joseph Cheung must learn the ways of the triad. Vice and violence dominate Shanghai’s criminal world, but for Joseph, a personal vendetta remains unfinished business. Irina, a young beautiful stateless Russian woman, unwittingly falls into the clutches of the triads and fights to escape.

What is it about that time period or character that intrigued you and motivated you to write about it?

My ten years living in the Far East was one of the best experiences in my life, so I chose Shanghai in the 1930’s as a city with all the ingredients for a fascinating

Shanghai Circle is the first in the Chinese Circles trilogy
Shanghai Circle is the first in the Chinese Circle trilogy

story. My life in Asia meant I experienced working for an old British trading company, living among 6 million Chinese, being in frightening typhoons, but especially what it was like to be an expatriate in a Chinese environment, with all the noise, smells and the amazing colourful people who live in this magical part of the world.

Why Shanghai? The authoress, Stella Wong, said of Shanghai, “no city in the Orient, or the world for that matter, could compare with it. At the peak of its spectacular career the swamp-ridden metropolis surely ranked as the most pleasure-mad, rapacious, corrupt, strife-ridden, licentious, squalid and decadent city in the world.” When I researched this amazing city I found she was right.

Without giving away spoilers, what’s your favorite scene or event in the book?

Probably writing about the actual typhoon which hit Hong Kong in 1937, killing 11,000 people including one of my characters.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are some links to find Tony and his work. Just don’t bother him on the golf course.

Web Site and blog

 http://www.tony-henderson.com/

 

Facebook Page

Goodreads Author

 

Amazon Author

 

Sharon Cathcart and “Fin de Siecle” Paris, History Building on Literature

sharoncathcart
Sharon Cathcart lives and writes in Silicon Valley, but her heart is in Paris before the First World War.

I’m used to reading books that take real historical characters and build stories around them. But Sharon Cathcart has done something fascinating. She’s taken a fictional character and placed him…and his descendants… in the real historical world.

Her newest book–an omnibus of her stories set in Paris, London and San Francisco in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–In The Eye of The Beholder, In The Eye of The Storm, and the award-winning Through the Opera Glass is now available in paperback.  This new edition includes expanded glossaries and historical photographs.

I think building on a world someone else created, then bringing it into the real world is a heck of a thing to tackle. What’s the book about? 

The books tell the story of three generations of the Le Maître family, crossing Paris’ Belle Epoque, the modern art movement, the San Francisco Earthquake and World Wars I and II. It’s a mix of short stories and longer pieces that create that world.

You get extra points if you remember that Erik Le Maitre was the real name of the “Phantom of the Opera”.

What is it about that period of time that fascinates you…. and we might find interesting as well?

I’ve been an ardent Francophile since my high school years.  My French teacher, the late Lois T. Sato, instilled in her students not only a love of the language but also of the culture.  I learned so much in the process of researching these books that it just deepened my fascination.  My first visit to Paris was not until 2013, but I felt like I knew every street where I strolled.

I know how you feel. I’m itching to get to the Sahara after writing “Pith Helmets”…Any other time periods you’re intrigued by? 

Seen Through the Phantom's Eyes is a fascinating collection of stories inspired by Phantom of the Opera and through the early 20th Century.
Seen Through the Phantom’s Eyes is a fascinating collection of stories inspired by Phantom of the Opera and through the early 20th Century.

I’m very fond of the Victorian era in general.  There were so many innovations happening during that time that still impact our daily lives today.

That’s kind of odd coming from someone living in the heart of new technology….makes you wonder what people will write about us a hundred years from now, doesn’t it?

You can contact and learn more about Sharon at

Twitter:  @SharonCathcart