Category Archives: Travel & History

Talking Story with Flight of Dreams Author on the Anniversary of the Hindenburg Disaster

Flight of Dreams

By Anne Wainscott-Sargent

Seventy-nine years ago today the German passenger airship the Hindenburg disintegrated in a fiery crash in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The disaster killed 36 passengers and 61 crewmen, and became the stuff of legend due to gripping newsreel coverage, photographs, and Herbert Morrison’s radio eyewitness reports from the landing field.

But, it’s Ariel Lawhon’s 2016 re-imagining of the doomed airship that has put a fresh lens on the story and with good reason: Lawhon knows how to blend real events into a compelling tale of what might have caused the explosion. It kept me turning pages well into the early morning hours.

Flight of Dreams tells the story of the Hindenburg from the vantage point of three actual crewmembers — a navigator, stewardess and cabin boy — and two passengers –a journalist and businessman. “At every page a guilty secret bobs up; at every page Lawhon keeps us guessing. Who will bring down the Hindenburg? And how?” writes The New York Times Book Review, while People Magazine described Flight of Dreams as “an enthralling nail-biter…[E]verything points to the inevitable disaster – but you’re still on the edge of your seat.”

Below, Ariel shares her journey recreating the last moments on board the Hindenburg, her love of history, and the one thing every aspiring writer needs to do.

Anne: As a lover of historical fiction, I am a big fan of the subject matter for both your first book, The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress, and Flight of Dreams. What is it about historical events that appeals to you as a storyteller?


Ariel: Oh thank you so much! I’m always glad to find another fan of historical fiction. I think that The Wife the Maid The MistressI’m drawn to those moments in history that remain unsolved. Whether it’s a missing judge as in my first book, or a disaster like the Hindenburg. I’m looking for those moments that have settled in the public consciousness but still have lingering questions. I enjoy exploring those events and coming up with my own theories as to what really happened.


Anne: What research sources did you draw upon to give your story authenticity and to put people in the time period of the Nazi Reich’s rise in the 1930s and to feel as though they were on board the Hindenburg?


Ariel: I primarily looked to survivor accounts (almost all of the people who survived that crash Hindenburg An Illustrated Historywent on to write about it at some point in their lives), biographies like HINDENBURG: An Illustrated History, and hundreds of pages of biographical information about the passengers and crewmembers. With a project like this, the key is to immerse yourself fully in the subject as you work. I have to become a short-term expert. The good thing is that I love this type of work. I love to learn about different time periods and moments in history.


Anne: Point of view and characters are really critical components of telling a powerful story. Which character (and point of view) do you think is the most compelling in Flight of Dreams and why?


Ariel: That’s a great question! And while I don’t think any of the five points of view in Flight of Dreams is more important than another—I put them all there for a reason and they each have a purpose in the story—I can say that I related most to Gertrud Adelt. She was a bright, young, brash journalist who had just lost her press card. She was a mother. She was scared. She was madly in love with her husband. I understand all of these things and developed a deep affinity for her in particular.


Anne: In a previous Writing Well interview, you talked about plot and pacing, saying that the key to effective story pacing is to ask a question and as soon as you answer it, ask another so the story doesn’t sag and the reader will be motivated to keep reading. You also said that the little questions also have to support the “big” question. Do you think you did a good job following that approach with Flight of Dreams? What is the big question thatHindenburg_burning underscores your story?


Ariel: What a great memory you have! The central question to Flight of Dreams, the question asked on the very first page is “What caused the disaster?” Every scene in the entire book builds to answering that question. Was it sabotage? Was it accident? Was it simply a tragic mistake? I want the reader to ask that question over and over in different ways as they read the novel. And I have to admit that I’m very satisfied with how I answered that question in the end.


Anne: How was Flight of Dreams easier/more difficult/different than your first book?


Ariel: Every book is so different. But I can say that this was the first novel I wrote under contract. And somehow knowing that the book would be published gave me a confidence that I didn’t have with my first novel and I do think that shows on the page. That said, writing under contract also brings a great deal of pressure and if you don’t learn to set that aside in the morning when you sit down to work it can stomp out your creativity. Also, this subject is so well documented that the research was easier.


Anne: The buzz for your book has been phenomenal. Are you getting interest from Hollywood to option your book for film? 


Ariel: Flight of Dreams has been shopped widely in Hollywood but so far no one is interested in making it into a film. To me the reasons behind the disinterest are fascinating. I wrote a novel about the people on board the last flight of the Hindenburg. But producers have universally rejected the idea because they want no part of telling the story of an infamous German airship. Even though, in reality, the story is not about an airship at all. It’s about the people who were caught up in one of history’s most well known tragedies. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.


Anne: What advice do you have for other authors, who are looking to tackle larger-than-life historical events in their novels? Any advice?


Ariel: The same advice I always give. Write the book. There is no agent without the book. There is no editor without the book. There is no career without the book. I find that most people get caught up in the small things like research or plot questions or an agent search. In reality all of those things sort themselves out. Having a finished book that has been revised and edited and rewritten countless times until it sparkles is the only important thing.


Anne: What’s next on the horizon for you — next book or other creative projects? Are you still blogging?


Ariel: I blog when I can. But with four children and a very busy life I often skip the blogging in favor of working on my next book. Which, in this case, is a novel tentatively called, I Was Anastasia. It’s a dual narrative about the last days of Anastasia Romanov and the woman who became her most famous imposter.

About the Author

Ariel Lawhon2Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of the popular online book club, She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She’s the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS (Doubleday, 2014) and the upcoming FLIGHT OF DREAMS (February, 2016). She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus) and a black lab who is, thankfully, a girl.  Follow her on Twitter @ArielLawhon or on Facebook.

Read her tips on premise, plot and pacing on The Writing Well shared at the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference.

Experiencing SpaceX ‘s First Launch of 2016 Live with NASA Social


SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sits on its launch pad on Friday awaiting liftoff at Cape Canaveral.

The Writing Well celebrates storytelling in all its forms, and I am thrilled  to post a unique blog  with some of the social media “storytellers” invited by NASA to observe and report online during the April 8th SpaceX  launch of its Dragon Falcon to the International Space Station, SpaceX’s first launch of 2016.

Of course, it was SpaceX’s experimental drone ship landing  of the first phase — a feat that had been attempted before but succeeded for the first time last Friday — that created just as much excitement and with good reason: it paves the way for developing reusable, lower-cost spaceflight since future missions in deep space will depend upon a sea-based landing.

“It’s another step toward the stars,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk during a post-launch press conference at Kennedy Space Center.

For those of you who are not space enthusiasts, take note:  NASA and private-sector space innovators are entering into a new and exciting chapter, one that fosters collaboration and hopefully successful outreach beyond low earth orbit to Mars and beyond.

Anne_SpaceX_Clock - Copy

Here I am at the countdown clock a little over an hour before launch.

Vehicle Assembly Building

Inside NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building, which is 520 feet high.

I was one of several bloggers and tweeters invited to take part in a “NASA Social,” a special behind-the-scenes opportunity sponsored by NASA’s social media team to experience the launch, tour key facilities and talk to some of the space agency’s best and brightest.  On Friday afternoon we found ourselves on the NASA Causeway  a little over two miles from the launch pad as the Dragon rocket roared into a perfect blue sky – and made history minutes later with the historic landing at sea of its first phase.

View 5 Stories High

A breathtaking view of Cape Canaveral and the launch pads from the roof of the VAB.

Before the launch we had the opportunity to tour Kennedy Space Center’s famed Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, where engineers assemble large space vehicles. We headed several stories up to the roof where we enjoyed a breathtaking view of Cape Canaveral and took video and pictures of the launch pad.

NASA Crawler

NASA Crawler

We also got up close and personal with NASA Crawlers, the 50-year-old giant transporters that have carried shuttles and rockets since the Apollo era from the VAB to the launch pads at Launch Complex 39. We learned how they are being upgraded to handle the additional weight requirements of future launches.   We also heard from scientists, engineers and astronauts who are shaping NASA’s next chapter and the future of space exploration.

We gained a richer appreciation of the agency’s focus on supporting private partners like SpaceX to build the capability to support space exploration beyond low earth orbit. Who can’t wait to see the first launch of Orion in 2018 and follow its mission to take human exploration to Mars?

Below is a snapshot of a some of the bloggers, tweeters and YouTubers from across the country who I met and who are helping tell the new story of NASA and SpaceX to an increasingly excited public.


Accuweather sponsored Brian's attendance at the NASA Social event.

Accuweather sponsored Brian’s attendance at the NASA Social event.

Brian Lada, Meteorologist and Journalist for Accuweather

City: State College, PA

Social platform of choice:    Twitter  / @wxlada

“I loved space as a kid. Growing up I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved watching all the rocket and shuttle launches on TV, but when it came time for college, I decided to go for meteorology because my other passion is the weather.  Fortunately, I can pursue my passion for astronomy as well. I help to manage our astronomy Facebook page and I talk about space all the time on my Twitter. Down here I am fulfilling my childhood dream of seeing NASA, meeting NASA, watching a space launch while still being in my weather world. I was sponsored by Accuweather and am reporting live from the ground for the company.”

“The one message I want to leave with my social media followers is Just how much weather can affect launches. I’ve been nervous the last few weeks about the winds and the probability of postponing the launch. Everyone is down here for this one day and if the weather is wrong, a lot of people are going to miss out. Fortunately, it is looking good.”


Matt2 - Copy

Matt plays video games for a living. Here, he’s streaming live on his Twitch channel during our briefing at the VAB.

Matt Anderson, Live Broadcaster, Twitch Interactive, Owner, Bad News Gaming

City: Dallas, TX

Social platform of choice: Twitch   @thebadnewsbaron

“What excites me most is seeing people get excited about space.  It’s been amazing. There’s been so little energy around the space program for a long time in the U.S. and it seems like that’s starting to come back again. SpaceX is starting to kick that into gear again a little bit, and a lot of entertainment media has brought that back, and what we saw with the Orion project I think will be absolutely astounding when it’s finished.”

“The one message I want to leave with followers is that the future of the space program is so incredibly bright – there is so much to look forward to with the technology that they are working on.”

KelleyRowe_MadisonChildrensMuseumKelley Rowe, Data Integration Specialist, Madison Children’s Museum

City: Madison, Wisconsin

Social media platform of choice: Facebook

“The most exciting part about being here is just getting to see the rocket launch in person and also I’ve heard that the roar from the engine you can feel even at this distance is kind of indescribable and can’t be experienced in any other way than seeing and feeling it for yourself.  That being said, everything we’ve done – the exclusive access to  the Vehicle Assembly Building, everything we’ve seen on our tour,  getting to go on the rooftop, getting to see the crew module being worked on for Orion, how can I pick a favorite from these really incredible and amazing experiences?”

“My one message to my followers is that I hope that they become aware of what’s out there – of the opportunities that especially STEM presents of what the U.S. and our space program is capable of, what they are capable of.  We’ve had some amazing interviews with NASA staff people who talked about dreaming of being involved in the space program since they were 5, 8, 10 years old. I hope our followers who are children are exposed to maybe something that they didn’t realize existed before, or hadn’t understood the scope of before and that somehow galvanizes or inspires them.”


Kayla, 19, has always dreamed of being an astronaut. Her tattoo by Martin Buechler includes the Neal Armstrong quote: "Humanity is not forever chained to this planet."

Kayla, 19, has always dreamed of being an astronaut. Her tattoo by Martin Buechler includes the Neil Armstrong quote: “Humanity is not forever chained to this planet.”

Kayla Robinson, College student majoring in engineering /insurance agent

City: Virginia Beach, Virginia

Social media platform of choice:  Instagram  @kaylajdr

“My dad had me into space since I was a kid. This is what I want to do. It’s been great, meeting different NASA workers, getting the inside scoop on what it takes to work here in the future.  For the past few months I’ve been thinking about going to school around here. Just being in this area and around this kind of environment makes me want to come even more.

“It’s really important for the general public to get into space and science – the American people are the ones who will be funding the federal program and will support all the private industry efforts—and that kind of broad support is going to get us to where we want to go.”

Jake Counselbaum

Jake Counselbaum, social media consultant

City: Chicago, Ill.

Social media platform of choice: Twitter /@jakecbaum

“What excites me most about space is the thought that we are not alone! Being at the SpaceX launch was an incredible opportunity to see the next generation of space travel, sustainably, reusability and exploration.”

“The one message I’d leave with my followers is this: keep using social media to impact people, not to just impress them.”


Brandon carrying a model of a Dragon rocket sent to him from a former engineer with SpaceX.

Brandon carrying a model of a Dragon rocket sent to him from a former engineer with SpaceX.

Brandon Thonen, Photographer, Disney Digital Marketing

Orlando, Fla.

Social platform of choice:    Twitter   /  @HipeRFin

What excites me about space is [the idea that] we have yet to reach the farthest we can go. There’s always going to be a further point.  The best part about being here today is being the closest I’ve even been to a previous launch. I usually watch from the crew ships.”

“My one message to social media followers is how impressive and massive every different part of NASA Kennedy Space Center truly is – no matter how many photos I take, it will never make up for it.”

Ashley Demers - Copy

Ashley, a NASA software developer and new hire, is spending eight weeks with groups outside her department. She was lucky to be assigned to the social media team and be part of the NASA Social on April 8th.

Ashley Demers, Software developer, Application Development Branch, IT, NASA Kennedy Space Center

City: Titusville, Fla.

Social Media Platform of Choice: Twitter /@ashley_demers

“What excites me about space is the ability to inspire and the ability to do research that you can’t physically do on the ground, the ability to learn more about our universe – there’s nothing you can’t love about space exploration.  I am very excited to be a part of this group, see the launch and go on the Vehicle Assembly building roof. Going on the roof is not something employees can easily do.

“The message I want to leave with my social media followers is that NASA is active, alive; we’re doing amazing things and all the science that’s going to be accomplished on this payload is going to be amazing. We’re doing really cool things.”


Jeff Dunn, Education and Outreach Manager, Google

City: Mountain View, Calif.

Social platform of choice:   Google+ / @googleforedu

“The best  part about space is it’s our future whether we like it or not, and there are both for-profit companies and governments working together to develop an actual future that we can all live in and keep us safe and not extinct.

“The best part of being here is that I got to meet a lot of interesting people both from NASA and via social media — I look forward to keeping that conversation going. Just seeing the passion from everybody has been overwhelming…you see it on webcasts, you see it on hashtag chats, but it’s nothing like seeing it in people jumping up and down as a rocket blasts off in front of you.

“My one message to social media followers is to get excited about the new opportunities for invention and exploration.”

Carter, 18, hopes to study computer science in college.

Carter, 18, hopes to study computer science in college.

Carter Dempsey, High school senior

City: Orlando, Fla.

Social platform of choice:   Twitter /@carterdemp

“What excites me about space is Just the idea of people living there every day and the possibility of being to another planet and just being self-sustained and getting to the point where there’s constant missions back and forth.  The commercialization of space is really cool — seeing people get more interested in space.

 “My one message to my social media followers is that I hope they would be more interested in the future of space – and just in science in general.”


Scott with his telescope equipped with a custom software program he developed for closed-loop tracking of moving objects, including satellites and rockets.

Scott with his telescope equipped with a custom software program he developed for closed-loop tracking of moving objects, including satellites and rockets.

Scott Ferguson, Neuroscientist, software developer and astronomy hobbyist

City: Tampa, Fla.

Social platform of choice:   YouTube

“I grew up in Titusville and saw a ton of launches.  I’ve seen some bad launches and some good launches.  I was sitting on my front lawn when Challenger exploded. That was a bad day, but today was a great day. It was the best launch I’ve ever gone to.  Another highlight was getting to stay on top of the VAB – I’ll probably never get to do that again. That was an incredible experience.  That was just an amazing view – words can’t do it justice. 

“In terms of social media, I hope to inspire young people to pursue math and science, and show what human effort can accomplish – and what we can accomplish when we work together. I think [the launch shows how far America can push the space industry and push forward with new innovations – when we unleash unbridled capitalism into the space program. What’s SpaceX is doing is really incredible and [their latest launch] proves they are really leading the competition in lowering space costs and that’s going to change the whole ballgame, I think, for spaceflight in the future.”


NASA Social Group

The April 2016 NASA Social Group (photo courtesy of NASA Social)

More Reading

Check out my blog Q&A interview with “Orphans of Apollo” filmmaker Michael Potter.

Read my Via Satellite article on the ‘SpaceX effect’ in the launch vehicle market.

Check back with The Writing Well for more insights from my time at NASA Kennedy Space Center.

Storm Storyteller: A Q&A with New York Times’ Bestselling Author Kim Cross


Kim Cross Book Cover

The day I spoke with Alabama author Kim Cross, it was on the one-year anniversary of her first book being published. The Alabama native and contributing editor with Southern Living Magazine wrote What Stands in a Storm, her riveting New York Times’ bestseller published by Atria/Simon & Schuster.

The book captures the true story of love and resilience in the worst superstorm in history – a three-day storm  in late April 2011 that unleashed 349 tornadoes in 21 states, destroying entire towns.  Alabama was ground zero for the disaster, where on April 27 alone a total of 62 tornadoes raked the state. The storm also claimed 324 lives, most of them in Alabama, which now leads the nation in tornado deaths.

Kim Cross, her son in the background, at the Roswell Reads Literary Luncheon held on March 12.

Kim Cross, her son in the background, at the Roswell Reads Literary Luncheon held on March 12.

Kim and I spoke by phone as she was driving to Roswell, Georgia, where today she was honored as the featured author for the Eleventh annual Roswell Reads Community Read program.  Having finished her book in two days, I can attest to its power. The story was impossible to put down – it pulsates with tension as I experienced the love of friends and neighbors, parents and children, in  the tension-filled moments leading up to the storm and its aftermath.

Ron Powers, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and coauthor of Flags of Our Fathers said it best: “…the terse dark poetry of this debut book explodes from every page.”

As a Dayton, Ohio, native who remembers as a child hearing the tornado sirens from neighboring Xenia, Ohio, in 1974, I was keen to talk to Kim. I also have been working on my own disaster story – the retelling of a historic flood that destroyed Dayton 100 years ago, I found reading her book and learning her writing process incredibly helpful and inspiring as I edit my own work.

What Stands in a Storm is Kim’s first book, but it doesn’t read like it.  Her narrative was born from a magazine story she wrote with Alabama native son Rick Bragg for Southern Living.  Rick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, was living in Tuscaloosa at the time. He and his family made it through the storm, but their street was hit “really bad.”  Kim asked him to write something from the heart of what it meant to be in this storm and he agreed.  His intro paired with her reporting along with fellow staffer Erin Shaw struck a chord in people. According to Kim, “We got hundreds of messages from readers, who said, ‘That it was the first time I ever cried while reading Southern Living.’ I realized it was touching this emotional place inside of people… I felt like that story needed to be told.”

Isaac's StormThe Perfect Storm“I started to look around and I realized that we have epic bestselling books about hurricanes and floods and Nor’easters (The Perfect Storm), but we didn’t find a book like that about tornadoes that really did it well. I wanted something like Isaac’s Storm and The Perfect Storm. I don’t know if I was aiming too high but that’s what I was hoping to do,” she said.

I think Kim met that standard of excellence and exceeded it with her phenomenal storytelling. Below is our expanded conversation.


Q. Where were you on April 27, 2011?

Kim: My husband and I were sitting on our couch [in a suburb of Birmingham] with our son who was 4 at the time, watching weatherman James Spann as the tornado went through Tuscaloosa.

It was awful. We knew the town so well. I had gone to college twice in Tuscaloosa and we had lived there. There is this moment where you watching it and it feels like a movie. It reminded me when we were all watching TV and the Twin Towers fell. I remember feeling, ‘Is this real?’ Then you have this moment when you realize, ‘I’m watching people die right now’ and it’s a horrible feeling.

Then the Tuscaloosa EF4 started making its way toward Birmingham and it actually got a little bit bigger as it came. From what we could tell we were right in its path. At some point the power went off and we lost TV. I watched live Twitter feeds from my phone, watching Jim, who knows the neighborhoods so well. At one point he called our neighborhood and that’s where it got really scary. My husband is an Eagle Scout – he’s Mr. Prepared. He was the one who had us put on bike helmets before it was widely done.  Studies show that a helmet would have saved a lot of lives because of flying debris.

Waiting out a tornado is one of the few times in life where you have time to think about impending death.  Usually you get a lot of time to think about it because you’re sick or there’s no time to think because it happens so fast.   When the tornado passed – we didn’t see much of anything in our neighborhood but seven miles away a neighborhood of Birmingham was just flattened. It came within two or three miles of downtown Birmingham.”’

Q. I always thought that tornadoes mostly struck the central of the country – Kansas.

Kim: People think of Oklahoma and Kansas having a larger volume of tornadoes, but  Alabama and the South – the so-called Dixie Alley — has more of the big ones, more of the EF4s and EF5s, so the numbers are a little deceptive. The other thing is Oklahoma and Kansas are flat, there aren’t a lot of trees and it’s not real humid so you can see the tornadoes and get out of the way. The chasers go there and that’s where they get filmed. Tornado chasers don’t generally chase in the South because we have a lot of hills and a lot of trees, and the roads are windy — they don’t go in a grid. It’s really hard to see the tornado across the landscape.

Q. I was impressed with the degree of research you had in your book. How important was research in writing What Stands in a Storm?

Kim: It was everything. I probably spent 80% of my time on research and 20% of time in an outright panic trying to get words on a page. There was so much research that went into it because it wasn’t this straightforward narrative in the sense that the central characters are all victims… There are so many stories that deserved to be told but you can only tell a few without confusing and losing the reader.

I started by getting the weather reports and the tornado tracks and see what towns were hit and then I went to all the newspapers in those towns to look up who was lost and who they were and who was left behind. I felt pretty strong from the beginning that Tuscaloosa was going to be one of my focused towns — one it’s the one people remember. People outside Alabama know Tuscaloosa because of Crimson Tide. It was well documented and also because it was one of my hometowns – I knew it very well.  But I also wanted to tell the story of a small town and a volunteer fire department — a community that didn’t have the well-funded, well-equipped fire department / rescue squads that a town like Tuscaloosa would have. That represents most of the towns in Alabama and most of the towns in the country. They are saving people just the same as people who are paid a full-time salary.

Q. You did an amazing job introducing readers to some of the Alabamans whose lives were forever changed by the storm. What story resonated most with you on a personal level?

Kim: The story of the three college students — Danielle, Will and Loryn. I could relate to all of them in a different way. They were all working so hard to get through school and they were from a small town and close to their families. I felt a great emotional investment in each of them. When I look at my son I think of Will – Will was a brunette little boy who loves his mom. I think about Danielle and how much she just busted her ass to put herself through college, to work, and to fight for her grades. I liked her feistiness and her pragmatism.  She wasn’t going to let anyone bully her sister. I like Loryn’s spirit and the fact that she was just wide open – she had a great head on her shoulders and was the kind of girl who was comfortable in a dress or cowboy boots.

I wanted you as a reader to not know who lives or dies until it happened  for the reason that if you know who is going to die, you keep them at arm’s length and you don’t allow yourself to care about them too much. I wanted you to paint your own faces on these characters.  That’s why there are no photos in the book so that when you did lose them, you really felt like you lost someone you cared about.  My editor was the one who insisted on no photos.

Q. Your description of the destruction from the storm was almost its own character. How were you able to do that so vividly?

Kim: I got my hands on every video I could –so I could feel like I was there. There were some riveting videos. If you go on my website there is a little playlist I created. I read fictional accounts – including Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. She did a wonderful job of describing a hurricane. I studied the heck out of her verbs. I tried to figure out “how did she do that? What did she do there?” I read and re-read The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm.

Q. How did you get your book published by a major imprint?

Kim: I had an agent, Jim Hornfischer, who I met at a literary non-fiction conference in Dallas. I always wanted to write a book and had gone to grad school and wrote a book about two nuns. It just wasn’t the right first book [I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a religion writer]. I met Jim and I just knew he was the one — a straight shooter. We started batting ideas around for a book. I said, what about this [a story about the storm]? A lot of magazine stories evolve into books. I feel like the emotional response from readers in Southern Living shows how much people needed this story.  When something horrible happens (like a tornado), you’re in just one little spot. I thought it might be helpful and healing for people to understand the magnitude of what happened but also the beautiful things that came from the brokenness. I think it turned out to be the perfect first book. I love science – taking something really complicated and esoteric and trying to make it come alive and be understandable for a lay reader.

Q. If you were going to advise someone who is writing that first book, what pearl of wisdom would you share that you learned from this experience?

Kim: To study structure in other books. Structure is the hardest thing. I didn’t understand structure when I wrote my earlier [unpublished] book – I’m going to have to go back and rewrite it.  I also didn’t understand how book publishing worked. If you are a fiction writer, you write the book and then you find an agent who likes it and the agent helps you revise it and get it into shape and he or she sends the entire manuscript to publishers.

With non-fiction, you don’t write the book – you write a proposal, which is a 60 to 70-page document that lays out a blueprint of your book, including why this book is different. It has a 35- or 40-page chapter outline and you have to explain who your audience is and what your marketing plan is because it’s not enough to write a good book, you have to sell it. Publishers want to know if you have a platform and social media followers. The harder you work on the front end to get the proposal great, the easier it will be on the tail end to both write the book and sell it. You have to chip at it every day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Also, you never feel done and you can never fact check it enough. I didn’t realize …magazines come with a staff of fact checkers who go behind you and they call your sources and make sure everything you’ve written about them is correct.  Book publishers don’t have that, so if something is wrong, it’s all on you. I actually sold a beloved a mountain bike so I could pay for a National Geographic-trained fact checker.  I ‘m glad I did it.

Q. How many places did your agent send out your manuscript?

Kim: I think my agent sent it out to 10 to 12 big New York imprints of publishing houses. I had two bid on it, including an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The rejections were so nice – they said we love the writing; we love the idea. The flaw they saw is that they didn’t see the characters [because I hadn’t fleshed them out yet], or they said that the story was going to too many places.

Q. How has the book done?

Kim: So far no one has come forward to come forward with a correction. Regionally it’s done well but I can’t get it on the national radar. The other thing I’ll say – this whole NY Bestseller List is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It did well enough in the first two months that it got on one of these narrow sublists of The New York Times – adventures, disasters and expeditions. The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm are still on that list so I imagine it is not that big of a category. But, when that happens you get to put it on the paperback.

Q. How important is social media if you want to reach readers for your book?

Kim: I feel it’s an evil I have to deal with. Honestly it’s one of the hardest things we as authors have to deal with because most authors are introverts and in order to promote a book, you have to put your extrovert hat on. For social media – so much of it feel not very authentic… I’m torn about it.  I feel like you can’t afford to not be on them unless you are Rick Bragg who has never been on them and people don’t expect you to be on them. I enjoy Instagram – I think that’s my favorite of the social channels.

One positive [aspect of Twitter] is you get to dialogue with readers. It’s an interesting reporting tool. You want to hear how people are interacting with your work.  I put out something on all the social channels – where I’m looking for people who had a certain kind of Schwinn bike when they were a kid.  People are posting pictures of their bike. The other way I use it is to put out some of my process of writing. When I went on a writers’ residency where I had to churn out 1,000 to 2,000 words a day, I shared that with my followers. Some days it came easy other days it didn’t. I think people need to see that writing is a lot of work. This is what the process looks like – it’s messy; it’s hard.

Author Bio

Kim CrossKim Cross is a contributing editor for Southern Living and a feature writer who has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of American Travel Writers, and the Media Industry Newsletter. Her writing has appeared in Outside, Cooking Light, Bicycling, Bike, Runner’s World, Parade magazine, Popular Mechanics, The Tampa Bay Times, The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, USA TODAY, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and She lives in Alabama.  Connect with her at





Andrea Boeshaar on Writing Christian Romance Set during the Civil War

ATSF cover

Today, The Writing Well turns from horror and zombie apocalypse writing to the polar opposite genre of Christian romance writing set against the backdrop of the American Civil War.

We examine the latest work of Andrea Beshaar, a veteran romance novelist, writing coach, grandmother of five, and co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers.  Her newest book, A Thousand Shall Fall: A  Civil War Novel, opens in autumn 1864 in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a 50-mile swath of fertile land situated between the Alleghenies to the west and the Blue Ridge to the east.

The book explains the significance of the Valley, whose rich stores of grain earned it the name the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” Of equal importance was the Valley’s role as a crucial transportation network for the South (General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson once said, “If the Valley is lost, Virginia is lost.”)

The book’s heroine, Carrie Ann Bell, shows plenty of pluck as a protective older sister and aspiring journalist eager to follow in her father’s footsteps. She is trying to keep her papa’s newspaper alive after he leaves to chronicle the war for the Confederacy,  She and her two sisters and her mentally unstable stepmother are forced to move into a disreputable inn and to work as servers for their board and keep when they come upon hard times. While there, Carrie Ann meets Colonel Peyton Collier, an injured Union cavalry officer, whose gentlemanly conduct moves Carol Ann to provide medical care in spite of their divided loyalties.

Months later, Carrie Ann learns that her younger sister has run off, so she disguises herself as a Yankee soldier to find her.  The last thing Carol Ann expected was to run into Colonel  Collier, who immediately arrests her for impersonating an officer, but,remembering her kindness to him, shields her from worse punishment. As the two spend more time together, Carrie Ann and Peyton begin to fall in love.  But, things aren’t quite as simple as they seem, as Carrie Ann struggles to reconcile her feelings for the cavalry officer with loyalty to family and her best friend,  Joshua, a major and Confederate spy.

There were times while reading A Thousand Shall Fall that I would have liked more romantic tension and struggle between these two characters, even in the context of this being a Christian love story, but overall it was still a compelling read.

I thought the author’s  secondary characters, particularly the colonel’s spinster aunt (who takes a lot of heat from her neighbors for being an abolitionist with Northern sympathies) and the aunt’s old rival, Mrs. Monteague, a pampered and stalwart defender of Old Virginia, were well crafted and engaging.

I would have liked to have seen a similar amount of depth devoted to the narrative around Carrie Ann’s family– as a reader, I didn’t feel vested in the missing younger sister because I never got the sense that the sisters were close.


John S. Mosby, the “Gray Ghost”

What was well developed was the battle scenes (including the horror of war as experienced by civilians) as well as the historical detail. I applaud Andrea for weaving in historic military figures such as  Union General Philip H. Sheridan and the elusive Confederate Calvary commander John S. Mosby, the Gray Ghost.

Below, The Writing Well, asked Andrea about her writing inspiration and what she hopes readers get from her latest work. I for one highly recommend this story, especially for fiction lovers of Civil War history. A Thousand Shall Fall is set for release on Nov. 27.

Andrea Kuhn Boeshaar

Andrea Kuhn Boeshaar

THE WRITING WELL: What draws you to Christian romantic fiction as a writer and to the Civil War time period specifically? Is that your favorite time period to write about?


Andrea Boeshaar: I used to love reading secular romances when my sons where young. In the 1980s, I decided to try my hand at writing secular romance. However, after I became a Christian, I felt personally convicted about writing stories that didn’t honor the Lord Jesus Christ. I began reading novels published in the Christian market. At the time, there weren’t many out there. The market has grown by leaps and bounds!


As for the Civil War – my father was a CW enthusiast and as a child I remember walking through the Vicksburg Battlefield. I didn’t appreciate that trip until I was older. My father was still alive when my first novel was published in 1994. He read it, although as an associate professor at a local university, Christian romance wasn’t his cup of tea. However, I think my father enjoyed the amount of historical facts I blend into my stories. So many Civil War novels skirt the war, specifically avoiding battles. I decided to tackle the time periods. When I do research, I become engrossed in it and my characters evolve from it. I’ve written novels and novellas in all different time periods, including contemporary fiction, but it’s always here in the United States because my true passion is American history. In the same vein, I read all sorts of Christian fiction – and some secular fiction too.

THE WRITING WELL:  What character do you most identify with in A Thousand Shall Fall? What techniques do you employ to give your characters their unique voice?


Andrea Boeshaar: I identify with Aunt Ruth. She’s a little quirky and manipulative, but she does what she does out of a fierce love – and out of spite for her next door neighbor. Personally, I’ve got the quirks, but I’m not manipulative. However, I love my husband and sons fiercely and my daughters-in-law could probably tell you a few interesting tales about tangling with me.

THE WRITING WELL:  The setting and historical references in your novel really put me as a reader into the time period of the Civil War. I especially admired how you exhibited the animosities and loyalty of people who were neighbors, friends etc. before the war but who now were fighting on opposing sides of the war. How important is research to getting the atmosphere and details right to make this kind of novel authentic to history buffs?


Andrea Boeshaar:  It’s extremely important! As I mentioned above, I get an idea for a story and immediately begin researching it. My characters evolve from it. I’ve read Mary Chestnut’s diary and Sarah Morgan’s diary and then I got a feel for how people spoke and wrote back in the 1860s. I read Shelby Foot’s books on the Civil War and James McPherson’s book, “What They Fought For.” All the while, the idea of my novel percolated in my brain. The same system works for any time period I choose to write in. But what is essential is to visit the location (if possible) as I’m writing. When I do that, my entire story comes alive to me.

THE WRITING WELL:  I loved Aunt Ruth – do you have plans to write a “prequel” to A Thousand Shall Fall that captures some of her story and that of her loyal servant Tabitha and rival and neighbor, Frances?


Andrea Boeshaar:  I’m glad you liked Aunt Ruth. At this point, no, I don’t have plans for a prequel, but that doesn’t mean I won’t eventually write one. I think it would be fun!

THE WRITING WELL:  What do you want your readers to get out of this story – and your other novels?


Andrea Boeshaar:  My prayer is that readers see the transforming power of God in my characters’ lives. Jesus wants us to come to Him as we are, in humility and brokenness. We can never be good enough to come to Him. Jesus, Himself, said that He came to save the unrighteous, not the righteous. So that’s what I hope – I hope this story is faith in action.

THE WRITING WELL:  What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?


Andrea Boeshaar:  Currently, I’m writing book two in my Shenandoah Valley Saga. It will release, God willing, November 2016; book three in November 2017. I also signed a three book contract with Prism Book Group to write three shorter contemporary romance novels. In addition to my writing, I own a corporation called Pink Ink, Inc. I’m an Avon Representative, which is proving to be so much more than selling lipstick to my neighbors. It’s becoming a ministry! And I operate Steeple View Coaching and Writer’s ER. So…I’m busy and staying out of trouble.

Q&A with Pam Jenoff, Author of The Kommandant’s Girl

Kommandant's Girl

I recently asked prolific historical fiction author Pam Jenoff how she does it all.  The Cambridge-trained historian, law professor and mother of three has written eight books beginning with her breakout novel,  The Kommandant’s Girl, in 2007.

“Poorly,” jokes Jenoff, who takes inspiration from her favorite quote from Anne Lamott, “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”  She adds, “You just have to shut out all the noise and do it. The truth is I love all of the things I do: writing, teaching as a law school professor, the kids. If I hit Powerball I would still do all three, just a bit slower. But until then I have to make it work.”

Many of Jenoff’s novels are set in Poland during or after WWII. Jenoff, an expert on Poland and the Holocaust, is the former vice-consul for the U.S. State Department in Krakow.  I discovered Jenoff reading an Amazon review of the The Kommandant’s Girl, a story of a 19-year-old Jewish newlywed who is separated by her husband, a leader of Poland’s resistance, when Nazi tanks thunder into her native Poland. She eventually is smuggled out of the Jewish ghetto, assuming a new identity as a gentile. She then faces risks to her safety and heart when she becomes the reluctant assistant to Krakow’s enigmatic kommandant.  Jenoff’s writing, pacing and all-too-real characters were so compelling I couldn’t put the book down from the opening paragraph to the tension-filled conclusion.

Below, Jenoff shares more about her journey as a storyteller and her next novel set to come out this July.

Q&A with Pam Jenoff on her Writing Journey

 Pam Jenoff

Q. What kind of stories are you drawn to? Did you always want to write?
I always wanted to be a writer but all through my many years in school and living abroad, when I had plenty of time to write, I never really got started. The turning point for me was 9/11: I became an attorney and began to practice on September 4, 2001- exactly one week before 9/11. That tragic day served as an epiphany for me that I did not have forever; if I had been one of the 9/11 victims I never would have realized my dream of being a novelist. So I took a course at Temple University night school called “Write Your Novel This Year.” And that’s just what I did.

I’ve been drawn to many kinds of books, but historical fiction has always had a strong hold on me. But as a child I just loved great storytelling in general, everything from Lord of the Rings to Mary Poppins.

Q. Your work with the US State Department in Poland was the impetus for your first book, The Kommandant’s Girl. What was it about the Polish community you met in your travels that made you want to capture their spirit in a novel?

Jews being marched out of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943.

Jews being marched out of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943.

I was sent to Poland by the State Department as a junior diplomat and spent 2 ½ years in Krakow. It was a unique moment in time when Poland was dealing with many issues from the war that had never been resolved during the communist era. I found myself involved in issues such as preservation of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism and restitution of property. I also became very close to the community of survivors who became like grandparents to me. My time there was both rewarding and challenging, both personally and professionally and I came out of those years moved and changed by what I had experienced. I knew I wanted to write a novel reflecting that.
Q. You really brought to life the internal demons, fear and heroism of your characters, especially Emma Bau, the young Jewish wife caught up in the Nazi atrocities in war-time Poland. Did real people inspire some of your characters — especially Emma, her husband, her husband’s aunt and the Kommandant?

All of my characters are fictitious. But while I was writing The Kommandant’s Girl, I learned the true story of the Krakow Jewish resistance – a story I had never learned in all of my years of living in Poland because everyone who was a part of it died during the war. That story became the inspiration for The Kommandant’s Girl.
Q. What do you consider the strongest element of your brand of storytelling? What do you want your readers to get from your writing?

I like to explore the way that ordinary lives are changed by extraordinary circumstances – say a young girl who but for the war would have lived a traditional life but now finds herself tested and put in remarkable situations. I also like to explore the gray areas in people and test reader’s preconceived notions. So, for example, my Nazis are real people, my Jewish characters are flawed and my Poles are everywhere in between. This comes from my time in Poland when I found so many of my notions of what had happened during the war tested and redrawn.

Q. You have gone on to write several other novels. What lessons have you learned along the way that you wish you’d known when you first started?

Oh goodness, I am still just figuring it all out. But I’ve learned a few really valuable things: first, that there is this amazing community of writers out there and if you reach out and support others you receive that support back a hundred-fold. It makes the whole thing so much less lonely. Second, the greatest thing about the internet age is the ability for readers and writers to connect and develop sustained on-going relationships. Not just me sending out an e-mail once a year saying “Hey buy my new book” but for us to have meaningful conversation. There is nothing more sustaining when I wake up in the predawn hours to write than a message from a reader saying hello. I love hearing from readers and skyping with book clubs. Please find me on Facebook, Twitter or wherever you hang out.

Q. I know you have a new book coming out in July 2015. Can you tell us about it and whether it is a departure from your earlier books?

THE LAST SUMMER AT CHELSEA BEACH will be out in late July. It is the story of Adelia Montforte, a Jenoff_LastSummerat ChelseaBeachyoung Italian Jewish immigrant who comes to America alone and falls in with the neighboring four Irish Catholic Connally boys at the shore right as American enters the war and everything changes. I am so very excited about this book, which is a huge departure for me in that it is set on the home front while keeping with the WWII era that is so beloved to me and my readers.


Q. Any final words of advice to those who are still working on that first novel?

Don’t quit your day job! Kidding, though the road to publication is long and it helps to have income and a support network. But I think three things have made the difference for me in publishing. First, discipline, the ability to make that writing time for myself (because no one else will do it for me.) Second, tenacity. For a long time it did not look as though my first book was going to be published and the ability to keep knocking on that door until it opened was huge. Finally, I think the ability to revise – to take someone else’s feedback and make it your own – is key.

(Jenoff adds that she recently completed the 100 Days of Writing Challenge where she worked on her current book every day.)  “Sometimes it was just a half an hour but it felt great to touch the paper or keyboard everyday, so much so that I have just started my second 100 days. Also I don’t believe in writer’s block and I have developed systems to avoid it, like taking notes the night before so that when I’m bleary eyed at five am I have prompts from which I can start writing,” she says.

About the Author

pam-jenoffPam Jenoff was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.

Following her work at the Pentagon, Pam moved to the State Department. In 1996 she was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. It was during this period that Pam developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. Working on matters such as preservation of Auschwitz and the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, Pam developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community.

Pam left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for several years as a labor and employment attorney both at a firm and in-house in Philadelphia and now teaches law school at Rutgers.

Pam is the author of eight novels. Her first book, The Kommandant’s Girl, was an international bestseller and nominated for a Quill award. Other novels include The Winter Guest, The Diplomat’s Wife, The Ambassador’s Daughter, Almost Home, A Hidden Affair and The Things We CherishedThe Kindle version of The Kommandant’s Girl is presently on sale for just $1.99 on Amazon.

Historical Novelist Tracy Groot on Writing, the South & Andersonville Prison

groot_tracy_01Tracy Groot, a Michigan native, found out early she loved to write.  But it’s the topics she’s tackled that make her so intriguing:  faith and finding your moral center against the backdrop of history.

“I am drawn to stories with a lot of darkness in them, because I want to find out where the light shows up,” says Tracy.

Her debut novel, The Brother’s Keeper, based on a play she penned, explores the story of James, brother of Jesus.  Later, she tackled another Biblical story in Madman, a story about the Gerasene demoniac.  After signing with Tyndale Publishers, she found her niche: writing stories set against historical events—“the small hinges, Winston Churchill once said, upon which history turns,” as she describes it in her author bio. In Flame of Resistance, she weaves the Biblical story of the prostitute Rahab into a tale of a young French woman who survives the Nazi occupation of France.

Sentinels-of-AndersonvilleIn her latest book, The Sentinels of Andersonville, to be released Feb. 1st, Tracy delves into the infamous Confederate prison where 13,000 Union soldiers perished in only fourteen months. In this riveting retelling of a tragic chapter in the Civil War, three young Confederates and an entire town come face-to-face with the prison’s atrocities and learn the cost of compassion, when withheld and when given.  The book has already earned high praise from the likes of James M. McPherson, who calls it “a poignant, heartwarming story of how human kindness and the willingness to take risks can make a difference.”

Below, she talks about her journey to Andersonville and her own discovery of what it meant to be a southerner at that time. Tracy also offers her own view of the state of publishing and being a writer today. Reach Tracy on her website or connect with her on Facebook.

Q. What inspired you to write The Sentinels of Andersonville?

I saw a movie when I was a kid called The Andersonville Trial, directed by George C Scott. I was horrified to learn that donated food had been turned away and I wanted to find out why.

Q. Do you have an interesting Civil War family history?

No, but my husband does. Jack’s cousin, Jim, has a grandfather who, believe it or not, fought in the Civil War. Jim is around 60 years old and his father had him when he was around 70 years old and his father had him when he was around 70 years old. So, if you add it up, Jim was born around 1950, his father was born around 1880 and his grandfather was born around 1795. So, his three generations actually span four centuries!

Tracy Root on a research trip to the site of  Andersonville Prison in summer 2012.

Tracy Groot at the site of Andersonville Prison, 2012.

Q. What did you find most challenging about this story compared with your earlier books?

To write accurately from a southern point of view, I needed to understand what independence meant to a southerner. Searching to understand that was critical to the story. I was also challenged to get the details right for Andersonville prison, because this is a piece of our American history.

Q. Which character do you most identify with? Why?

I identified with so many, but in my heart I’d have to say Dance. Why? Because he was judging others for what they were not doing and I sometimes do the same.

Q. I know research was an important component to making this story authentic and for my part, I found your recreation of the horror inside this overcrowded and disease-ridden place raw and haunting. What was most helpful to you in the research phase? Anything surprising or unexpected emerge?

The most helpful were the original accounts of the prisoners through diaries, letters and writings

Capt. Wirz was the only Confederate soldier charged with war crimes in the Civil War. He was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865.

Capt. Wirz was the only Confederate soldier charged with war crimes in the Civil War. He was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865.

featured in various historical documents. I wanted to go directly to the sources. I read through over 100 of these sources and the amazing thing is that these and many more are still out there. Several history books about Andersonville were also very informative, as were documentaries and film. A few unexpected things emerged.

  • First, I wanted to hang Captain Wirz all over again when I initially embarked on my Andersonville research; when I finished my research I was surprised that he was no longer my target. I came into the project with ideas that changed as the research progressed. The culpability for Andersonville could not possibly fall on one man, although in my opinion General Winder should have faced the scaffold sooner than Wirz.
  • Second, I began to understand and appreciate what independence meant at that time to a southerner.
  • Third, I was amazed to discover that a neighbor of mine’s great-great-great grandfather had been a prisoner at Andersonville. We were on the subject of research for the book and when I told him what it was about, he told me about his grandfather. Later he came over with a transcript that had been published in an Indiana newspaper with his grandfather’s account.

Q. A major theme of your story is the role of individual action – doing something, no matter how small, to help those in need can make a difference. Do you think that is a message that has relevance today?

With all my heart. We have a shopping cart in our foyer at church where folks can put something in to help the needy through the Food Pantry. Every week I have an opportunity to put something in that cart to help someone out. Since writing Sentinels, I don’t miss that opportunity—and I no longer get annoyed if I think others are not giving or don’t care; I make sure that I am.

Q. Any advice to aspiring historical novelists given all the changes in the publishing industry?

Here’s what hasn’t changed: calling, purpose, and desire. 

Q. What is your view of traditional versus self-publishing, the role of agents, the importance of social media, etc. What should writers do to find an audience for their work?

Everyone’s publishing story is going to be different. For some, traditional works, for others, self-publishing is the route to go.  Same deal with agents. Given the state of the publishing industry today, I don’t think there’s a wrong or a right way to do things. You have to feel your way, find your way. The number one thing a novelist must do, the new non-negotiable, is to stay connected with social media. These days, an author is both novelist and bookstore and there’s no getting around it. For myself, I give a certain amount of time to investing in social media daily, and call it good. People need to know your book is out there. Goodreads and other book sites do that. Of course, the most important thing to do is make sure you have something to market; write a good book. All starts there.

Wharton: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield

Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg in 2003. (Robert London / The Baltimore Sun)

Reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg in 2003. (Robert London / The Baltimore Sun)

As an organizational storyteller and a history buff, I’ve seldom tackled a more fascinating writing assignment than this: chronicling Wharton Executive Education’s program that brings lessons of leadership from actual sites of major historical battles.

The unique learning engagement has taken business leaders from the fields of Gettysburg, to the beaches at Normandy and the Italian Peninsula to understand and learn from the commanders who led military forces and fought in these locations during the Civil War and WWII.

Rather than relying on classroom lectures from imminent historians, program participants actually toured the hallowed ground where blood was shed, and, in the case of the WWII locations, heard from surviving eyewitnesses.

For the past decade, Wharton has hosted scores of alumni through the fields of Gettysburg to recreate the critical decision-making moments and their outcomes of the most famous battle in the Civil War and widely considered its turning point.

In the case of Gettysburg, Wharton participants studied Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s less-than-clear strategic intent to his commanders in the field, notably Gen. Ewell. Wharton also showed the initiative and innovative actions early on by John Buford, a Union cavalry commander who first arrived at Gettysburg before the Confederate army was concentrated for battle. He quickly grasped the significance of the high ground south of the town, galvanizing his cavalry to hold back the Confederates until Union reinforcements could arrive.

General Mark Clark entering Rome in 1944.

General Mark Clark entering Rome in 1944.

This past September, Wharton also hosted a three-day trip to Italy, where 24 global business leaders retraced the steps of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, leader of the 5th U.S. Army in Italy, through a series of battles along the Italian peninsula begun in September 1943. Clark was tasked with disrupting entrenched German forces in preparation for the Normandy invasion the following June.  The path forward for the Allies was daunting given German fortifications and central Italy’s narrow and mountainous terrain with high, barely passable trails, open valleys and rivers.

“The reason we decided to go to Italy was because it’s an example of multiple failures of leadership – failures in strategy, failures indecision making,” recalls Todd Henshaw, PhD, director of Executive Leadership Programs at The Wharton School and former director of leadership and management programs at West Point, where he served as a key author and designer of the Academy’s leadership programs.

Todd Henshaw (photo courtesy of Wharton)

Todd Henshaw (photo courtesy of Wharton)

Henshaw elaborates, explaining how Clark failed to set the conditions for his commanders to succeed by not providing enough resources and support; he also didn’t give his subordinates “clear missions that were achievable.” The disastrous outcome for allied troops attempting to cross the Rapido River in October 1943 is well summarized in John Reardon’s blog post, which details the unnecessary loss of life, especially for the 36th Infantry division from Texas. The river was one of four stops the Wharton participants visited. Another was Monte Cassino, a historic hilltop abbey that was almost completely destroyed by allies. Participants heard from a Benedictine monk, who was 15 at the time of the battle and who was thankful for Allied action.While the bombing of

Present-day Monte Cassino, where allies met tenacious German defenses during WWII. Photo courtesy of: Wharton

Present-day Monte Cassino, where allies met tenacious German defenses during WWII. (photo courtesy of Wharton)

the monastery resulted in significant civilian casualties, it ultimately resulted in Germans being pushed out of the area, the monk stated.

Woven into the on-site experiences was a full day of classroom lectures, where participants explored their own personal leadership styles and reviewed a Harvard case of the May 10,1996 Mt. Everest disaster, where  eight climbers died after a fast-moving storm hit the summit, trapping climbers on the mountain. The 1996 disaster, which claimed the lives of competing team leaders Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, remains the worst loss of life on the mountain on a single day.

So, what’s been the impact of the most recent program? Feedback from the Italy participants has been universally positive. Many attendees said eyewitnesses really brought the leadership challenges to life for them. The vividness of learning about leadership breakdowns rather than leadership successes is helping them better understand their own styles of decision making and how to be better leaders to their own teams.

“A lot of choices and decisions leaders make on a battlefield are not dissimilar to what we face in a corporate environment every day,” observed Wharton’s custom client for the Italy trip. “It’s all around understanding the markets that you are in, the competition that you’re dealing with, the resources in terms of people and time that you have — there are parallels that are very easy to make.”

According to Henshaw, two common learning themes emerged:

  • One, How do I set conditions and shape the environment so my people can be successful?
  • Two, How do I bring innovation back into my workplace? How do I allow it? How do I build a climate for it? How do I ensure I share the best thinking across the team and across the organization?

Concludes Henshaw: “The stories and case studies are very rich and are crafted to meet the learning needs of our clients, whether it’s risk management, transformational leadership, strategic thinking, or innovation.  Participants live the story — and it’s learning that lasts a lifetime.”

Transformation & Redemption: A Conversation with Civil War Storyteller Robert Hicks

Book_WidowoftheSouthAfter a long hiatus I am delighted to feature author Robert Hicks on The Writing Well.

Writing about history – especially the Civil War – takes more than just an encyclopedic knowledge of battles and the generals who led the soldiers in the blue or the gray; it takes a passion for both history and storytelling. Those are two qualities not in short supply for Robert, acclaimed author of two engaging books about the war and its aftermath:  

         The Widow of the South — the tale of Carrie McGavock, a headstrong wife and mother dealing with her own tragic losses when the war lands on her front step. The devastating one-day Battle of Franklin in November 1864 is widely considered as among the five bloodiest hours in the entire war.  Carrie, whose plantation home is converted into a field hospital, later oversees the reburial of 1,500 Confederate dead on her land.

         A Separate Countrya novel set in New Orleans in the years Book_ASeparateCountryafter the Civil War, focuses on the life of John Bell Hood, arguably one of the most controversial generals of the Confederate Army–and one of its most tragic figures. The story delves into Hood’s arrival to New Orleans after the war, and his marriage to a girl from one of New Orleans’ better families. The story opens in August of 1879, and is told through a fictional memoir left behind by a dying Hood, the confidential diary of his wife Anna Marie, and the notes of Eli Griffin, an orphan of the war first introduced in The Widow of the South. We learn about Hood’s struggles as a husband and father, as he confronts the demons of his past while dealing with issues of racism, honor, forgiveness, poverty and disease.  In this rich tale, we come to appreciate Hood the man, and to see beyond his physical war wounds to the much deeper spiritual scars that haunt him to the end of his life.

As a history buff who can trace my family on my father’s side back to one of the generals who led Pickett’s Charge, I was already a captive audience for these stories. But as a writer myself who has spent the last year researching my own historical novel, Robert’s approach to making “place” a character and his ability to breathe life into his fictional and historical characters make him a novelist worth studying. Modest to praise for his writing ability, Robert tells me, “If I do have a talent – it is storytelling.”

He is currently writing his third novel about Mariah, Carrie McGavock’s ex-slave and confidante first introduced in The Widow of the South. He also is compiling a collection of essays on why the Civil War still matters, a topic he explored in a New York Times’ essay last July in observance of the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Below, he talks about his experience becoming “a reluctant novelist,” why America’s war with itself 150 years ago continues to be important to our nation, and who inspires him as a writer.  Read more about Robert and his novels on his website or follow him on Twitter.



Storyteller Robert Hicks

Q. You grew up reading books, but did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

A. Our house had two libraries – it had a library on the first floor and it had a library on the second floor and I remember when I was in the eighth grade, my best friend and I were up in the upstairs library and we wrote down a list of titles of books we’d write someday. There must have been something in me that thought I was going to be a writer. With that said, none of those books will ever be written.


Carrie McGavock

When I decided to write The Widow of the South because of my involvement with Carnton Plantation and trying to figure out a future for it, I was deluded enough to believe that I could write.  I actually tried to get other people to write the book before me. I had a real job I never had taken creative writing courses; I didn’t have that drive to be a writer. I wanted to find someone who would be as driven by this story as I was that they would write it under their own name.  

 The Widow of the South was written because Carrie’s story – the story of that place – needed to be told.

Q. What is it about the American Civil War that holds such a fascination for you?  

My grandfather was born in Madison County, Tennessee, in 1860, a year before the Civil War started. He had vivid memories of the war; his father fought in the war. He can remember when Grant’s army came to their farm when he was a child, and consequently, when my father was a child in the early 20th century, my grandfather would say, “Do you see over that hill? I saw Grant’s army come.” Then in the 1960s, my parents had us in a station wagon, traveling through that area, and my father would say, “You see that strip mall over there? That’s where your grandfather saw Grant’s army come.” It was like I grew up in a world of layered history — I could see the McDonald’s and the Burger King but I also could see what had been there before.

I believe that the American Civil War is at the base – good and bad – of everything that this nation is, and without it, we don’t become this nation that people strive to come into.  

I’m not always convinced the Civil War had to be fought — I waver on that. When I can look at every other nation that could have slavery and they were able to end it without a war, I sometimes shudder to think it didn’t have to be fought. Whether it had to be fought or not, what comes out of it is that nation that we strive to be. It’s at the base of who we are – it’s when we stopped being Floridians and New Yorkers, Georgians and Tennesseans, and we become Americans.


The Confederate Cemetery at Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tenn.

Q. You live in Franklin, the setting for The Widow of the South.  How did you get involved with the renovation of Carnton?


Carnton Plantation was saved by a handful of people in Franklin who persuaded the last owner to donate 10 acres to be preserved. Somewhere along the line I got involved in it. So, I wanted to know the story. I wanted to know why we had one of the largest private military cemeteries in our backyard. And, that was really the nucleus of it all. It was simply trying to find the story. The house was sort of falling in on itself – it was in a long period of decline. It was my need to understand the story that got me on the path to the book.

Q. Why was the Battle of Franklin so significant? 

Five of the bloodiest hours of the American Civil War were fought in Franklin – only an afternoon at Antietam was bloodier. Also, more American generals were killed there than at any other battle in American history, on any continent in any war.

When I moved to Franklin, I was told it was a totally futile battle, but I discovered that was far from the case. Both the town of Franklin and the South have convinced you and me and everybody else that the battle had no significance, but yet you have people like Arthur MacArthur say that Franklin’s importance was second only to Gettysburg.

What’s important about the battle is what didn’t happen. After Vicksburg, I don’t believe the South

Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood

Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood

had the ability to have a military victory in a war. And, so after Vicksburg splits the South in two, it’s only a matter of time. The South is now trying to keep the war going as long as possible. Before Atlanta, there is still a very good possibility that the South can have a political victory – that Lincoln can be defeated. Lincoln thinks he can be defeated in 1864 himself and so, if that happened, then the South can do what it wants to do.  Let’s say instead of the Union Army getting past Hood and the Confederates at Spring Hill and landing in Franklin that Hood had his day at Spring Hill. If that had happened, I think there was a good chance that the war could have gone on for another four to six months. At the rate we’re going that’s probably another 100,000 dead. That’s the effect of the Battle of Franklin – that another 100,000 were not killed.

Q. How long did it take you to write your two novels?

The Widow of the South came out at the end of 2005 and A Separate Country came out in 2009.  I already had an agent for The Widow of the South even though I didn’t have a book written, just an outline. My agent told me, “You have to write it. You have to take the outline you’re trying to get other people to write from and do it.” I had it divided into three sections.  It took about a year to the write the first section. When I handed that in to him, he came back and said, “You’re a writer.” He actually pitched the story on a Friday and had a book deal on a Monday. When that happened, I had to finish the book, so it took me another year and a half.  It was about two and a half years of writing.

In some ways The Widow of the South was an easier book to write since so much of my research had been done while trying to understand the house and the place after we brought in scholars to restore the house. We brought in the same scholars who worked on places like Monticello and Mt. Vernon. I knew so much about Carrie McGavock before I ever sat down to write this book.

Q. Of the historical characters you’ve brought to life on the page, who do you most admire?

That would be like asking a parent who their favorite child is. There are aspects of Carrie McGavock’s personality that I totally admire. In some ways, my voice felt closest to Cashwell and Eli. There’s a part of me in all of the principal characters in my books.

Q. Did anything surprise you during the experience writing and getting a book published?  

Everything surprised me. I had no clue. I think what surprised me on the biggest level was simply how important of a role everyone plays, whether it be your publisher or your editor, your agent. There was all this supporting cast of people. I had the good fortune of having an amazing agent, Jeff Kleinman. I feel so connected and grateful for him. I can say the same thing about my two editors –Amy Einhorn, who edited my first book, and Deb Futter, who worked with me on my second book and will edit my third. They got what I was trying to do and really gave me the chance to try to do it.

Q. Your writing really puts the reader into the time and place and especially into the emotional mindset of your characters.   What was your process for understanding these characters?  

I read everything I could read about the characters and the time period. With Carrie McGavock, I knew that house. We’d done so much scholarship on the house that I knew the quirks of that place. I began with what I did know about her, and I tried to see how she would respond to the events of history. How is she going to respond to this battle that shows up on her front lawn, her back lawn and in her house when she is for all intents and purposes, clinically depressed? 

I find it annoying when people say that these characters “speak to them.” Once you know these characters, after a while, you know how they respond to these events.

Q. What devices or techniques do you rely on most for your brand of storytelling?  

First and foremost is to always know the place of where the scene is taking place. When I was writing I used a series of maps that had come out in the 1870s. In New Orleans I could walk down the street and tell what the smells would be like in every corner because of the Sanborn Maps telling me where the coffee was being ground and where the butchers were working.  Knowing the place is the most important and then, when you have these characters that you know, then hopefully – on a lucky day – it all comes together. 

One day my publisher and I were talking about my third book and she said, “Let me tell you about what this book is about.” She said it was about transformation and redemption. She was right. “Robert, it’s all you write about,” she told me.

Transformation and redemption are the most important issues in this world. Whether you are caught in war or peace, everything in our lives is about being transformed and being redeemed. I think it’s all that really matters.  

In A Separate Country New Orleans was almost a character in your book.

That was my goal. New Orleans has always been a part of my life.  And, so when I showed up after

A perfect rendering of the French Market at the end of the 19th century. The market figures in several important scenes in A Separate Country.

A perfect rendering of the French Market at the end of the 19th century. The market figures in several important scenes in A Separate Country.

Katrina (to promote The Widow of the South), people weren’t buying books; they were barely buying groceries. I really wrote A Separate Country first because I wanted to write about New Orleans. So, then afterwards, I fell in love with these people.

Q. You use different points of view in both your books – why is that important to do that?

It’s important to do that because I never took a creative writing course so I don’t know how to write in a universal voice. It is the way that seems logical for me to write. In truth, I don’t write about how a woman is affected by the death of a child; I write about how a person is affected by the death of a child. I try to write about how human beings are affected by good and bad.

 Q. What advice can you offer writers out there with a passion for historically based stories?  

You need to be reading history; you need to have a grasp of history, you need to have a passion for it. You have to love it. I would hope that writers who delve into history can remove their own prejudices about it and really try to tell the story – good, bad, indifference – whatever it is. That’s the most important thing. What I would say to writers is to just do it. I don’t know it will make you have an instant gift, but I am the best example of someone to strive for it, and you may fall on your face and I often do in my work.

I had a long outline with The Widow of the South. One of the reasons my agent said I could do it when I was trying to get an author to write this story, but when I finally asked my agent why he thought I could even do this. I had character studies in my outline. He said I think you can turn a phrase; I think you have more passion for this place, these people, than anyone else out there. I did know I had passion for them. I had written in this outline I’d written these character studies, there wasn’t any real dialogue, there was descriptive writing and that is what he saw.

 Q. What book are you currently reading?

I’m reading a piece of history – a book called Georgiana (by Amanda Foreman).  It’s a story of the Duchess of Devonshire and the huge role she played in British politics. The book is incredibly well written. I’m not sure where it’s leading me in my writing; I picked it up to have an escape.

 Q. Who are your favorite writers?  


Once I learned how to read him, Faulkner. It was tough – it was like learning Flemish or something. It’s a language – the way he constructs. Shelby Foote had a real profound role in my life in persuading me to write my first novel.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is one of my all-time favorite books.  The Russian writers are some of my favorite writers of all time. 

In preparing to write The Widow of the South – one of the things I did out of nervousness, was I went back and read all the Russian novels that I claimed to have read in college. These writers were dealing with that theme of transformation and redemption — the human struggle.  

There are some parallels between the Russian writers and the great Mississippi writers — specifically you have a population that is overwhelmingly illiterate yet you have some of the best writers the world has ever known coming out of there. They are telling these moral stories about these men and women who are struggling to find their way in this world.  It’s hard to beat Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a book I’ve come back to several times.

I’m very obsessed with storytelling. That’s so much of who I am as a person and as a writer.


Exploring America’s Colonial Past

Behind the Governor’s Palace, home of the Virginia colony’s royal and post colonial governors.
This weekend my family and I returned from a fun-filled week in Colonial Williamsburg and surrounding venues in Yorktown and Jamestown.
All three of these places, which form the Historical Triangle, took us back in time to understand our country’s history. Williamsburg, with its authentic buildings and memorable storytelling, gave us an appreciation for life as a colonialist under British rule and forces that led to our nation’s struggle for independence.
A Virginia regimental officer signs my daughter’s book.
I wouldn’t hesitate to repeat this adventure; the week of July 26 was ideal timing – we escaped Hotlanta for a noticeably milder climate, and experienced only one afternoon of heavy rain, which we mostly avoided by touring the Governor’s Palace.
Williamsburg, the home to the College of William and Mary, is a history buff’s dream destination. Beautiful museums, refurbished colonial homes,  businesses operated by silversmiths and other skilled trades people, a printer and post office, and taverns serving period fare – all allowed us to go back in time and experience America with 18thcentury eyes.
The apothecary served as a pharmacy and doctor office all in one.
We learned that much of colonial Williamsburg’s restoration was due to the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who, along with his wife, Abby, restored this town to its colonial roots beginning in 1926. Over the course of the project, some 720 Williamsburg buildings were demolished and rebuilt. Missing Colonial structures were reconstructed on their original sites during the 1930s. Others were restored to estimates of 18th-century appearance, with traces of later buildings and improvements removed.
George Washington
Yorktown Victory Monument
We spoke with authentically dressed reenactors depicting both everyday citizens and key revolutionary figures such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. In heartfelt debates and chats with “citizens” of Virginia, these figures were fully immersed in the time period, never stepping out of their roles. I chatted with the milliner, wig maker and operator of an apothecary, as well as bantered with a military chaplain and a second lieutenant in the Third Virginia Regiment. “George Washington” addressed us twice; as a successful planter a year before war broke out when the colonies were not yet in open conflict, and a second time on horseback when he was commander of the Continental Army on the eve of leaving for Yorktown and the definitive battle of the war.
A National Park Ranger tour of Yorktown provided us historical context into the strategic value of the city (with its deep waterways), and the allied strength of Colonial and French troops led by George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau. Yorktown proved to be the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War. What I didn’t realize until touring the city was how pivotal a surprise move over land coordinated with a French naval blockade was to Colonial and French success against the world’s greatest military power of the time.
A replica of the Susan Constant bound for Jamestown.
We toured the Indian village and fort carefully recreated near the sight of the original Jamestown Colony. We walked aboard replicas of the three small English ships that arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in 1607. The ships’ 105 passengers and 34 crew members later christened the land “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen, the beloved English matriarch who had passed away in 1603. 
I added to my historical book collection with some compelling revolutionary reads, including Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, and Signing their Lives Away, an account of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, who literally signed their death warrants by openly defying King George III, and the many strange fates that awaited them. 
My husband and I shared the story of Patriot spy Nathan Hale to our children, as well as the story of the Indian princess Pocahontas. We bought a biography of Benjamin Franklin, a narrative about Thomas Jefferson’s women, and the history of Jamestown Settlement, among others. It was a great trip, and one that I hope to take again.
In closing, here are a few memorable quotes from the patriots who debated and dreamed of a future without tyranny, and who willingly sacrificed their livelihoods and their safety to pave the way for American independence.
“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!Patrick Henry
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  Thomas Jefferson
“Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance; they are the peoples’ liberty’s teeth.” – George Washington
“When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.” — Thomas Jefferson
I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” — Nathan Hale
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” — John Adams
 “Where liberty is, there is my country.” – Benjamin Franklin  

Healing Soldiers: Civil War Devotional Back in Print

Mathew Brady portrait of Rev.
C.T. Quintard sometime between 1855 and 1865.
“If it be true that — ‘They also serve, who only stand and wait,’ surely
they serve who suffer and endure.”
                 — Balm for the Weary and the Wounded by Charles Todd Quintard
The Fourth of July inspires many Americans to look back on their national story.
For me, it always brings to mind the most trying moment in our nation’s history: the Civil War. The losses on both sides of the conflict were staggering – costing our country 1.1 million casualties and claiming more than 620,000 lives.

Much has been written about the conflict by eyewitnesses, by presidential biographers and historians, and by crafters of family memoirs. I came across a rare spiritual manuscript from that era thanks to Dr. Bill Nisbet, a retired Army Reserves chaplain who serves as an assistant pastor at my church.

A Regimental Doctor and Chaplain

Bill Nisbet with the devotional.

The Confederate Soldier’s Pocket Manual of Devotions, published in 1863, was compiled by Nisbet’s great-great-great grandfather, Charles Todd Quintard, a medical doctor and chaplain of the First Tennessee Regiment, who later became the Episcopal bishop of Tennessee. Throughout the Civil War, Quintard didn’t hesitate to care for the physical needs of soldiers as a hospital field surgeon. But, according to Nisbet, his primary calling was to nurture souls. As a chaplain, he counseled and comforted privates and generals alike.

Mercer University Press reprinted the devotional in 2006 and included a foreword from Nisbet. The first part of the book draws heavily from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, including 44 beloved Christian hymns. The last part of the manuscript is a reprint of Quintard’s Balm for the Weary and Wounded.

That portion of the manual most moves Nisbet. “I know soldiers who have, as he wrote, ‘exchanged active service of the field for the wearying service in the hospital in the bed of sickness and pain.'”

Ephemisms for the Scars of War

The physical wounds were an all-too-common sight from historical photos of Civil War anniversary remembrances, and the vast number of amputees from both the North and South.
Observes Nisbet: “It’s only been with the generation coming out of Vietnam that we’ve focused on the scars of war that are more internal than external.”

Nisbet notes that mental trauma of war has gone by many names over the years — in World War I it was shell shock, in World War II it was battle fatigue. In post Vietnam to present day it is called PTSD.

“During the Civil War, they used the phrase, ‘He’s seeing the elephant.’ These euphemisms have been used to describe people who have been incapacitated mentally by war or by any kind of trauma, so the fact that Quintard began talking about soldiers who have served not only in battle, but also those who continue to serve while wounded, he was honoring that service – it was just as real and just as important to him as any other service.”

Nisbet has encountered veterans and active servicemen and women throughout his career. A member of his first church included a survivor of a gas attack of World War I.

“He had lived his whole life with breathing problems,” recalls Nisbet. “I always had a deep interest in those people (who had such wounds) as a minister and as a chaplain.”
Quintard’s Legacy as a Unifier
He thinks his great-great-great grandfather’s biggest legacy was as a unifier and priest in the Episcopal Church after the war. He helped heal the divides that tore apart many denominations during the war. Catholic and Episcopal churches were among the few denominations in America that didn’t divide based on their allegiances to North and South. “The Episcopalians were lucky in that way. But they also had guys like Quintard. Many Southerners were actually Northerners. Quintard was in the Confederate Army but was born and raised in Connecticut,” Nisbet says.According to Nisbet, his great-great-great grandfather was never in favor of secession, but when Tennessee left the union and his parishioners asked him to be the unit chaplain, he went with them. He had by then married a Southerner, adopting the Southern culture.

Early biographical accounts note that while in Memphis, Tennessee, Quintard decided that “a man’s soul was worth more than his body so he became a priest.”

“That’s one of the reasons he wrote the second volume. As a doctor, he saw the suffering but he had a spiritual understanding of what it was about,” says Nisbet.

After the war, the Diocese met and elected Quintard as the next bishop for Tennessee.

Following in Quintard’s Footsteps

Nisbet has followed somewhat in his ancestor’s footsteps in the ministry and serving those in uniform. After 9/11, he spent eight years on active duty at Ft. McPherson, where he ensured that every National Guard and Army Reserve unit that mobilized deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq with its authorized chaplain and assistant chaplain.The credo of the Army Chaplain Corps, first used in the 1980s, could well be his great-great-great grandfather’s epitaph: 

Nurture the living.

Care for the wounded.

Honor the dead.