Tag Archives: historical fiction

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.

Finishing Book Projects Top of My New Year’s Resolutions


It’s a new year, and a time to reflect and make resolutions. For me, 2016 will be the year I finish my book on moving to Atlanta and my historical novel. Both of these projects are special for different reasons. I last wrote a book in 2005, after losing my mother to lung cancer.

 From Mother-Daughter Memoir to Moving Guide to Historical Romance

A Breath Away: Daughters Remember Mothers Lost to Smoking, my anti-smoking memoir, was A Breath Away cover (hi-res)written while grieving the loss of my own mother as I was becoming a mom.  I find myself saddened that many of the daughters in my book have been stricken with cancer, including my friend  Jackie Graff, who passed away last month from lung cancer.  At the time my book was independently published, and it it didn’t benefit from today’s social media environment, where you can create an author platform and connect with your readers.

My next book is called Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide, It came about by a chance meeting with Newt Barrett, publisher of Voyager Media in Estero, Fla. We met through a mutual friend right before my family’s move back to Atlanta this past June. I learned that Newt, a fellow Ohio buckeye, was a successful publisher of city moving guides, mostly in Florida and other Southeastern cities. Why not Atlanta?

High Res M2A coverWe agreed that I would be able to tackle this since I was moving back to a city where I’d lived for 16 years — and also the place where I had met my husband, had a family and started my writing company. I’ve enjoyed researching what makes Atlanta such a cool place to call home…and have met and interviewed some amazing Atlantans along the way, including Ryan Gravel, the visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline.  

I included a spotlight on key intown and suburban communities, where I interviewed residents on what makes their neighborhood unique. I believe these firsthand accounts set my book apart from other guides. Expect to see Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide on bookshelves this spring.

Author Page Header

I also intend to finish my historical novel, Torrential, set in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, at the time of the 1913 flood. The last year of relocating to one city and coming back made it difficult to do the final editing of this turn-of-the-century love story focused on an Irish seaman who survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic only to find himself facing a catastrophic flood after moving to Dayton to start a new life.

I fell in love with this story, partly because it was loosely inspired by my grandmother’s family, who owned a boarding house in Dayton at the time of the flood. My grandmother met and fell in love with a boarder, a theme that I bring to life in Torrential I wrote this manuscript in 2013 and 2014, received feedback from numerous advance readers and even had it evaluated by a professional editor. Many people think this story is made for the Big Screen, including a screenwriting coach who I’ve consulted with. I will begin the final content edits for Torrential this month.

One thing the last few years has taught me is that I am happiest when I can write stories about people and events that resonate and inspire me. Atlanta is fertile ground for this exercise, and so is my historical novel.  What a great time to be a storyteller!

Author Bio

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Anne Wainscott-Sargent moved to Atlanta in 1998. She is a writer, blogger and strategic storyteller specializing in the tech and education sectors. An avid history buff and movie-goer, she loves following Atlanta’s growing film industry, connecting with other writers in the Atlanta area, and enjoying the natural beauty of the Chattahoochee River’s many bicycle paths.  She and her husband live in Roswell with their two children. She hopes to finish her first novel, a work of historical fiction, in 2016.

Visit Anne’s consulting website at: http://annewainscott.com/writing-consulting-services/ or her blog, The Writing Well, at: http://annewainscott.com/blog/. Connect with her on Twitter: @annewainscott.

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.

Spring Mini-Blog Tour: Four Writing Qs Answered

Today on The Writing Well, I’m taking part in a mini-blog tour! It’s fun to share a little bit about my writing process and to recognize three other writers.

Thanks to Dr. Carol Cooper, a talented London “chick-lit” writer and The Sun’s newspaper doctor, for inviting me to be on her blog, , last Monday. Her blog is filled with wonderful tidbits about parenting, health and her journey writing romantic women’s fiction.

The tour involves each of us answering four questions about writing. The same questions are then passed on to three new writer-bloggers. Be sure to check out the blogs for Sharon, Megan and Shane, who I introduce below, and who will carry the blog torch forward next Monday. Now, it’s my turn!

Q. What am I currently working on?

I’m in the editing phase of my debut historical fiction novel, Torrential. Set in Dayton, Ohio, in 1912, Torrential follows Irishman Kieran Gregor who survives the Titanic’s sinking paralyzed by guilt. He begins a new life in Dayton, taking a job with his uncle and letting a room in a downtown boardinghouse. There, he meets Hannah, the beautiful 17-year-old daughter of the house’s proprietors. He denies his growing attraction for Hannah, who is expected to marry Dayton’s youngest city engineer. Soon, Kieran must confront his past and his feelings for Hannah when a horrific flood hits Dayton and puts the boardinghouse’s inhabitants in peril.

My book is now with a professional editor, who will help me refine my manuscript in preparation for pitching it to agents and publishers this summer.

Q. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Rendering of the Titanic sinking.

Rendering of the Titanic sinking.

Two things come to mind – first, the story line. I believe I’m the only author to bookend a novel around two disasters that struck within a year of each other – the RMS Titanic’s sinking and the 1913 Great Dayton Flood.

Second is the degree to which I intermingled my fictional characters with historical figures in Dayton. These men, including John H. Patterson, the controversial yet brilliant founder of N.C.R., played heroic roles in the disaster and the city’s remarkable recovery.  I was able to draw upon a rich reservoir of historical research to recreate Dayton in the early 20th century, as well as the flood and its aftermath.

Beyond just the usual newspaper archive material, I interviewed a journalist who has covered the flood for 30 years, two family members of Arthur Morgan, the engineer who designed Dayton’s permanent flood control system, a national weather historian and Dayton’s chief water conservancy engineer. I believe all this research lends a level of detail and authenticity to my novel.

Q. Why do I write what I do?

I love history, I love place and I love stories of heroes who overcome adversity and triumph.  If I can bring all these elements together, then it’s a win-win for me and my readers.

Q. How does my writing process work?

I begin with an idea or a spark that gets my creative juices going. For Torrential, it was my

My grandmother and great-parents in Dayton, circa 1911-12.

My grandmother and great-grandparents in Dayton, circa 1911-12.

grandmother’s stories of her family surviving the flood when she was a small child. They lived in and operated a boardinghouse in downtown Dayton. Her recollections included the heroic role of the carpenters at the nearby National Cash Register Company, who built boats that saved trapped residents. She witnessed one of these boat rescues of an elderly neighbor from an upstairs window.

From there, I sketch out my main characters and the supporting figures who will move the story along, and the key plot line. Then I just pour the story onto paper. After a while, my characters become real and they speak to me. Two years into this, they sound like part of the family. The editing phase of my writing is the hardest. It’s difficult to cut, and that’s where a good editor and advance readers come in.

* * * * * *
Introducing Three Dynamic Writers

Now, here are three fellow authors, who will showcase their writing process next Monday.
Megan HeadshotMegan Cutter is a professional writer, editor, and social media strategist with over 18 years of experience in the field. Her expertise includes manuscript and article editing, as well as copy writing for websites, newsletters, magazines, and social media campaigns.  Together, Megan and her husband Barton, published their first memoir, Ink in the Wheels: Stories to Make Love Roll, highlighting their relationship as an inter-ability couple.

Her newest memoir, Leaving Traces: Diving from the Nest, will be published in 2015.

A. Shane Etter, a supernatural thriller writer, has penned two novels, Bottom Dwellers and Mind ShaneEtterDwellers. Both books follow a team of talented individuals as they battle a global community of powerful mutants who can read their minds and communicate telepathically.
Shane is a native son of Mississippi. He is proud of the great literary heritage of his home state and that some of the finest 20th Century authors, like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, John Grisham and others have called it home. Shane has taken a number of writing workshops and classes by such noted authors as his mentor and two-time Pulitzer nominee Jedwin Smith, author/literary agent Nancy Knight, Mary Helen Stefaniak and Kaylie Jones, daughter of the great James Jones (From Here to Eternity),

Shane is a member of the Atlanta Writers Club and he makes his home in Warner Robins, Georgia.

KD HoskinsSharon KD Hoskins has been a communication specialist for more than 20 years. Her first novel, To Handcuff Lightning, was a 2010 Eric Hoffer Award finalist. She is currently working on her third book, Polishing Up Heaven. All her stories are told with humor, candor, and the expectation that love will eventually show up.

She is a member of the Atlanta Writers Club and enjoys reading literary and historical fiction, contemporary humor, and mysteries solved by a cat. Read her blog here.


Ariel Lawhon on Premise, Plot and Pacing

Part III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference

ArielLawhonToday, The Writing Well concludes its three-part recap of the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference with author Ariel Lawhon, co-founder of the online book club, She Reads, whose debut novel, The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, will be published in January.

The mother of four admits that she is addicted to research (“For me, it’s a way to procrastinate,”) she teased the audience. Her highly engaging talk covered the three Ps of writing: premise, plot and pacing.

How do you define premise? It’s “your story described in one line.”

Why is it so important, you may ask?

Ariel noted that it’s the seed from which your story grows, explaining that creating a strong premise line helps you focus on your story and also to quickly explain it to anyone, whether it be a journalist, an agent or a publisher.

“Writing a premise line forces you to think about the most important parts of your story — what is the story about? What does she do? What happens in the end?  You can’t really move forward unless you know this. You know your story innately so you’re not wandering.”

TheWife,TheMaid,The MistressAriel shared her own premise line for The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress: “My story is about three women who know the truth about a judge and they choose not to tell,” said Ariel.

Set in New York City, her novel reconstructs one of America’s most famous unsolved mysteries – the disappearance of Justice Joseph Crater in 1930 – as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best. On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulated about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, Judge Crater stepped into a cab and vanished without a trace.

Ariel offered a simple formula for creating a strong Premise line:   Character + Action = Outcome, and then shared three contemporary examples:

         The Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family (character) takes revenge on men who shot his father (action) and becomes the new Godfather (outcome).”

         Harry Potter: “A boy discovers he has magical powers and attends a school for magicians.

         The Help: “Three women write a book about domestic servitude and expose a system of racism.”

JohnTrubyAnatomyofStoryAriel then addressed plot – defined as what happens in your book.  A good novel, she noted, must include seven structural components. These key steps of story structure, from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, are:

  1. Weakness – hero cannot be perfect; he must be hurting someone at the beginning of the book
  2. Desire – what your hero wants
  3. Opponent – the person who keeps your hero from reaching his goal
  4. Plan – how the hero goes about achieving his goal
  5. Battle – the final conflict between hero and opponent
  6. Self Revelation – when the hero sees his moral weakness
  7. New Equilibrium – when the hero returns to normal – but changed – his desire achieved

 A story’s plot creates a lot of different questions. Pacing, advised Ariel, is the rate in which you answer those questions for your reader. A great guidepost for pacing? Begin your scenes with a bang and end them with a cliffhanger to keep your readers off guard, Ariel said.

“The key to pacing is that as soon as you answer one question, you need to ask another so the story doesn’t sag and the reader is motivated to keep reading,” she added. All the small questions must be connected to the big question.

“It’s all about withholding – parceling out information in small pieces,” she said.

game-of-thrones-season-4During the Q&A, she fielded questions such as “Is there such a thing as too much conflict?” She cited George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, Game of Thrones as an example of a story with a lot of conflict among a huge cast of characters.

“Conflict has to be planned. It’s important when writing to be very specific with who is in conflict and why,” she concluded.



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.


Novel Inspiration: Remembering Dayton’s 1913 Flood

 The April 2, 1913 edition of The Dayton Daily News.

One hundred years ago today, my hometown experienced its worst-ever natural disaster. On March 25, 1913, unprecedented storm systems and resulting rainfall caused Dayton’s Great Miami, Mad and Stillwater Rivers to flood, laying waste to the city. Some nine to 11 inches of rain fell from March 23-25 on ground already saturated from an early spring thaw.

By the time the waters — which reached as high as 24 feet in some areas — receded a few days later, more than 360 residents and 1,400 horses and mules had perished. Entire blocks were decimated from water and out-of-control fires. The region’s losses totaled $100 million, or more than $2 billion in today’s dollars.

In yesterday’s Dayton Daily News Sunday feature marking the centennial of the flood, columnist Mary McCarty observed that the flood is “part of the region’s DNA, an unforgettable event that forever stamped Dayton as a place where greatness can happen.”

My grandmother, Emma Wainscott, was only five years old when the flood waters swamped her family home on Van Buren Street. Within hours, the house took on 13 feet of water, leaving the family marooned on the upper floor of their two-story home. She watched as men in NCR flat-bottom boats rescued her elderly neighbor from an upstairs window. Before it was over, National Cash Register had built 300 boats used in rescue efforts. My grandmother’s recollections inspired my soon-to-be completed novel, Torrential.

My narrative opens on Good Friday, with a group of Dayton boarding house residents living on Van Buren Street (an area known today as the Oregon District).

Technically a work of historical fiction, Torrential nevertheless features many colorful true characters, including John H. Patterson, NCR’s indomitable founder, and Arthur Morgan, the son of a Minnesota surveyor, who devised Dayton’s permanent  flood-control solution.

Patterson, a man who knew about Dayton’s tendency to flood from his youth collecting tolls for the Miami and Erie Canal, galvanized his factory into a massive relief operation. His quick actions saved the city from an even more significant loss of life. Patterson had a lot on his mind that spring — five weeks earlier he and other company officers had been convicted of Sherman anti-trust violations and faced a year of jail time.

I began my book research last spring when I stayed in the Oregon District, a block from my grandmother’s childhood home. In addition to a visit to NCR’s Historical Archives, I interviewed the chief engineer at the Miami Valley Conservancy District, one of the U.S.’s first major flood-control districts and the brainchild of Morgan.  I have since interviewed two of his grandchildren, including Faith Morgan, executive director of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. She described her grandfather as an avid outdoorsman with a strong sense of right and wrong, who analyzed problems from all angles.  

“I remember him saying he had been to Europe, looking at the high water marks of prior floods. It took a long time for him to study what to do about the problem — I think 15 years. He was deliberate but creative.”

Sarah Jamison, a Cleveland-based National Weather Service meteorologist, detailed for me the rare weather systems that converged to cause the widespread flooding on that long-ago Eastertide. She noted that on Good Friday a severe wind storm with gale-force winds hit Dayton from the Great Lakes.

“By Easter Sunday people were thankful that they had a roof over their heads.” But, then the rains came, and about six months of runoff fell in a few days.  “The ground couldn’t absorb anything after a while,” says Jamison. “The conditions that formed that rain event were not completely unprecedented – it certainly could happen again.”
National Weather Service photo.

On March 25, Ohio Governor James Cox declared Martial Law in Dayton, appointing Adj. General George H. Wood as the city’s military governor. Interestingly, Wood, a Dayton native who eventually would command 3,000 Ohio National Guard troops, had as his base of operations NCR Building No. 10.

Many people today don’t realize that back in 1913, there was no flood insurance or FEMA. Americans hated the idea of accepting charity, as noted by NCR employees who rejected Patterson’s offer of a free hot lunch; they insisted on paying for their meal.

Within ten days of the disaster, Daytonians, many reeling from their own losses, raised $2 million for a flood prevention fund.

When the American Red Cross arrived on the scene to help care for the stricken residents, staff were so impressed with the city’s dignity and perseverance that they lowered their flag as a sign of respect.

Torrential carries readers through the flood and the rebuilding of Dayton, including the remarkable work of  Morgan. At its essence, Torrential is a love story — told through the eyes of two main characters — Hannah, the boarding house’s eldest daughter, and Kieran, an Irish boarder working for his uncle at NCR’s Wood-Working Department. Along the way, another kind of love story has emerged — one of a city’s indomitable spirit in its darkest hour.
Anne Wainscott-Sargent anticipates completing her historical fiction novel, Torrential, in 2013 and will be seeking a publishing home for the book. Check back at this blog often for details on her experiences bringing Dayton’s worst natural disaster to life on the page.

Links to read more: