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A writer’s decision October 10, 2012

Posted by Jenny in fiction, professional editing and writing, serial fiction.
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Many of you know that I am the author of a murder mystery, “Murder at the Jumpoff,” that was published this past spring. I have been working on a sequel, or at least some other novel, since around that time.

“Jumpoff” was conceived in a moment of inspiration and completed within about seven months. It was fun to write and went fairly painlessly—I only mention that because I am a person who can make easy, simple things into complicated, tortured affairs.

The sequel didn’t come so readily. At first I tried for a very straightforward followup to the first book. Its title was to be “Murder at Tricorner Knob,” involving the major characters of the first book and intended to be the next installment of any number of mysteries set in remote corners of the Smokies.

Somehow, as I went along, I felt I was pulling marionette strings—making things happen artificially to fit a formula. I decided to keep some of the material but do something deeper. I would keep those characters but shift them to the background and explore themes of grief and the often awkward development of relationships.

I’m not even mentioning some other totally different things I tried out along the way—a historical novel set at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (a longstanding interest of mine), and something unrelated, an account of a one-night experience inspired by Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (except mine was set on the Chesapeake Bay). None of these flounderings seemed to work.

In the meantime, I was getting involved in the promotion of  “Jumpoff.” I had quite a few book signings, book readings, and discussions about off-trail hiking from around April through June. I attended writer’s festivals. I will say, quite simply, that overall I hated the experience, although I did have some rewarding moments, such as the group talk at Highland Books in Brevard, a discussion at Union Ave. Books in Knoxville, and a reading and talk at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. I am truly grateful to the folks who showed up for those and other events and participated. Thank you!

At the same time as these relatively positive experiences with some of the  independent bookstores, I was trying to get the “CRMs” (community relation managers) at the chain bookstores to schedule signings for my books. I met with huge indifference. I would call back again, and again, and again—figuring this was normal for this situation—only to have nothing come out of it. I’m not crying for sympathy—this is just the name of the game. The major exceptions were Books-A-Million in Pigeon Forge/Sevierville and Hastings Books in Maryville.

Another part of my experience was becoming better acquainted with the literary scene in western North Carolina. “The Read on WNC” is a widely read blog, affiliated with the Asheville Citizen-Times, that covers that world—for example, Ron Rash (author of Serena) is a star. I established a page on the blog but quickly sank without a trace. I hope this doesn’t come across as whining. I intend it not as a complaint but just as a description of the actual circumstances of being a first-time novelist in a saturated market.

My publisher, Canterbury House, was always very pleasant and supportive. Their main concept is to produce mystery novels in a regional setting, creating a series and building a loyal readership. Nothing wrong with that, but I began to see a divergence between this sort of readership and the readership for “Jumpoff,” which was hikers as much or more than mystery followers. Also, I could see that I had unfortunate literary ambitions that clashed with the concept of workmanlike writing that would appeal to a specific group. I do not scorn that concept. I respect the ability to write for a certain market in a way that will win those loyal fans. That is certainly better than a failed literary effort that no one will enjoy.

I estimate that I’ve spent close to 1500 hours working on what was originally a straightforward sequel to “Jumpoff” and morphed into what I started thinking of as merely a “linked novel.” I am very satisfied with parts of it and not at all with others. Today, something crystallized—I realized that I had three distinct, significant problems relating to the plot. This was clearly symptomatic of a deeper problem, which is that I’m not convinced that I’m a novelist, and I’m not sure anyway that I want to add another tome to the groaning, bloated output of the literary world.

I mark the fourth anniversary of “Endless Streams and Forests” this month. Every day, I look at my statistics. I generally get more than 200 visits a day from countries ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe. This seems valuable to me. I have made some contacts through this blog incredibly important to me, the most notable going from here around the Smokies over to South Africa.

I’ve gotten some feedback about this via email and comments, so I’m going to add a few words of explanation: The majority of views come from Google searches that lead people to past articles. Over time, blog posts I’ve done about, say, a certain place in the Smokies or a certain battle in the Boer War have risen sufficiently in the Google analytics that people see my post listed. Some of my items are specific and obscure enough in their topic that my post is right at the top of the search results. Posts that do not have an obvious factual topic, such as my current series based on my grandmother’s memoirs, do not get Google search results.

There is no financial benefit for me in this (although I’ve had a few offers involving ties to companies that I opted not to do). But I have decided that this is my best future, not to load yet another novel onto the teetering stack of the literary world, but just to continue what I do here, and have been doing here for a few years, and try to do it better. And try out a few new ideas as well. Pieces of what I created in those 1500 hours may appear in different form.
Thank you, blog readers.

A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 10: Time warp for Jack and Wilbur April 12, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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Festival Hall, St. Louis Exposition, 1904

Dear Readers: I have done some simple computations and arrived at the conclusion that it would take me over a year on this blog to complete the story of Jack Brown of St. Louis, his experiences of the Boer War, and his return to the U.S. I have greatly enjoyed producing the series to this point. It has been a lot of fun taking the historical information and making up a story to fit the events. There is a chance that I will tackle this as a regular novel, but I am unwilling to start such a project until I find out whether my novel Murder at the Jumpoff will be published. Someone is at least nibbling at that now.

Below you will find a synopsis of the rest of the story. All the names mentioned other than Jack and Wilbur are actual historical individuals. Obviously, this will be a spoiler if you want to take the chance that I will eventually actually produce the novel. So, you must decide for yourself whether to read the material below.

Stereoscopic view entitled "Explosion of an ammunition wagon" from the reenactment of the Battle of Paardeberg at the St. Louis Exposition

Jack and Wilbur stay on with De Wet’s commando, experiencing such dramatic successes as the ambush at Sanna’s Post. However, despite the ingenuity of De Wet and the doggedness of the Boers, the overwhelming numerical superiority of the British army leads to the occupation of the two Boer capitals: Bloemfontein in March 1900 and Pretoria in June.

The British expect that the Boers will surrender at this point. But much to the contrary, the Boers determine on a course of guerilla warfare. The British will eventually win the war by June 1902, but only after they have resorted to burning down the Boer farmhouses, putting women and children in concentration camps, and reducing the Boer fighters to starvation, forced to wear rags or old grain bags for clothing.

Jack and Wilbur are with De Wet in August 1900 when his commando is nearly trapped on the north side of the Magaliesberg range near Pretoria. It is 2,800 burghers against about 40,000 English, in the first of what would come to be called the “De Wet Hunts.” Wilbur is killed here as he makes a heroic attempt to oppose the British at the rear while the commando makes a seemingly impossible escape up over the rocky crags. Jack sees his friend die. He is seriously wounded in the leg himself and becomes separated from the commando by the advance of one of the converging enemy columns.

He manages to stagger to a nearby farm, where he finds a family that cares for him. But since this region is one of the first affected by Kitchener’s “scorched earth” policy, the family realizes that their farm will be burned down and they arrange for Jack’s removal to a house in Pretoria, where he recovers over a period of several months.

In November 1900, he is well enough to go back to fighting. He joins up with the commando of General Ben Viljoen and soon enjoys a tremendous symbolic success at Helvetia. He becomes good friends with a burgher named Roland Schikkerling, who has a great resourcefulness and a wonderful sense of humor. They soon discover that they share an interest in the Ruritanian novels of Anthony Hope.

General Ben Viljoen

Viljoen’s commando engages in constant fighting in the eastern and northern Transvaal. They are able to cause the British many headaches, but once again the unequal numbers mean that the Boers can do little more than nip at the heels of the enemy, then dash back for cover. They do what they can, mainly in the way of blowing up British trains. By September 1901, they have been pushed back to the little town of Pilgrims Rest, where the mountainous terrain makes it possible for them to evade their foes. They emerge every now and then to attack a garrison or lay dynamite on the tracks (there was a special technique involved), but in reality they have mainly gone into hiding.

An odd sort of social life emerges in this town. Jack and Roland get to know some of the local civilians, with whom they hold dances and “smoking concerts” out in the middle of nowhere—a nearly surrealistic phase of the war. Jack falls in love with an attractive young lady who lives in the area. In January 1902, Ben Viljoen is captured and sent to St. Helena.

In May 1902, Jack and Roland hear that peace negotiations have started. On May 31,the treaty of Vereeniging is signed. The Boers are now British citizens. Any who do not agree to pledge loyalty to King Edward must leave the country. Roland reluctantly takes the pledge, wanting to return to his family, and Jack decides to return to the U.S. He asks his new lady friend if she will marry him and go with him to St. Louis, but she turns him down, much to his disappointment.

He makes his way back to St. Louis by the end of 1902 and resumes his job with the town newspaper. He soon learns of plans for a massive “Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” often referred to as the St. Louis World’s Fair, to be held in his own town. Even more surprising, he learns that part of the sprawling spectacle will be a reenactment of scenes from the Boer War—with actual Boer fighters.

Before the end of 1903, a contingent of Boers arrives—including both Piet Cronje and Ben Viljoen. It is, in fact, one of the few good employment opportunities for war-weary burghers. When the fair opens in April 1904, Jack goes regularly to watch the performances of the bombardment of Paardeberg and a dazzling escape by De Wet that includes a horse jumping rather hazardously down a waterfall. Although the real Cronje is present, the real De Wet is not—he has long since returned to his home in the Free State. Jack enjoys socializing with the Boers, but in the end he finds the performance depressing.

Program for Anglo-Boer War performances at the St. Louis fair. Roberts at lower left, Cronje at lower right.

From the time he’d arrived in New York in December 1902, Ben Viljoen’s plan had been to buy land in Texas or New Mexico. The St. Louis fair is only a money-making diversion. Over these immediate postwar years, there is a general movement of Boers to the Southwest: Wilhelm Snyman starts a colony of Boers in Chihuahua State, Mexico, and former Free State president Francis Reitz tours Texas in 1902 and 1903 with the idea of starting a colony there. Reitz becomes homesick, however, and resigns himself to swallowing the bitter pill of British citizenship and returning home. Boers settle in the Americas in places as remote as Patagonia rather than become members of the Empire.

Jack decides to join Viljoen in the Mesilla valley of New Mexico, northwest of El Paso. Viljoen is a complex and intelligent individual, one who’d been much admired by Schikkerling and others in the commando, and Jack is fond of him. He settles in New Mexico nearby Viljoen’s newly adopted home, marries and starts a family. Some years go by, and in 1911 Viljoen decides to get involved with the Mexican Revolution in support of Francisco Madero, rebelling against the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship.

Jack considers joining in this effort, but finally realizes that his days of fighting are over. However, his wife and two daughters have died from a flu epidemic. Jack decides to go to Yosemite, a place he has long heard about, and seek work as a park ranger. A Yosemite National Park had been created in 1890, and Yosemite Valley was added to the park in 1906. He has decided, over years of losses and hardships, that the wilderness can provide the consolation he seeks.

Yosemite Valley

A tale of St. Louis and the Transvaal – 9: Dark red clouds of destruction April 9, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, serial fiction.
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Surrender of General Piet Cronje to Lord Roberts

This is the continuation of a good old-fashioned piece of serial fiction about Jack Brown, who is from St. Louis and has gone to South Africa to fight with the Boers. The time: February 1900. The serial starts here.

De Wet’s taking of the British position at Stinkfontein had opened up a possible escape route for Cronje and his 4100 burghers. Cronje’s people were hunkered down in the banks of the Modder River, in the dark, muddy fox holes they’d dug amidst the destruction of their wagons and the stench of their killed oxen and horses.  The dark red clouds kept rising from the bombardment, the English guns kept pounding relentlessly. Yet there was still a way out. De Wet later wrote, “It is true that [Cronje] would have been obliged to leave everything behind him, but he and his burghers would have got away in safety.”#

Jack said to Wilbur, “I heard that some of the men have their wives with them, and they don’t want to put them at risk.” Wilbur said, “Yes, but if they could just get away quickly at night, they’d find a way out. These rooineks will fall flat on their faces in the dark.” He had adopted one of the Boer slang words for the English soldiers, “rednecks”— meaning not, as in the U.S.,  one who habitually stays out in the sun all day but a pale-skinned person unaccustomed to the blazing sun of the veld. Since he was unable to roll his “r’s,” the Boers enjoyed his funny pronunciation.

The next day the British attempted to dislodge De Wet by surrounding his men. De Wet promptly divided his burghers into three positions, shifting the Krupp and the Maxim-Nordenfeldt to defend the left and the right, and prevented the British from outflanking him. However, a strong British attack on the center forced the Boers to retreat from one of their positions that night.

The shift in position caused a slight misunderstanding. The English cheered as they moved forward into the abandoned position. A Commandant Spruit, who thought it was his own men cheering, walked forward and called out, “Hoe gaat het?”— “How goes it?” He was immediately answered with “Hands up!” The British cheered all the more loudly when they looked at papers in his pocket and realized they’d nabbed an officer.

The next day, the ammunition for their two guns ran out. The situation was simple. If they stayed where they were, they would be surrounded along with Cronje. The only good news was that they received reinforcements from Bloemfontein. De Wet proposed a last-ditch attack on three positions—because of the widely spread numbers of khakis, it was three positions now. Not just the single one at Stinkfontein.

Jack, Wilbur, and Japie were assigned to a force under General Philip Botha. They arose before dawn and advanced, but things seemed to be getting behind schedule. It seemed to Jack that the sky was turning light over the blue morning hills of the veld, exposing De Wet’s men pitilessly—wouldn’t it be better to find a suitable ridge to fire from in face of the severe numerical inequality, or was he only being a coward? But he realized that, oddly enough, he did not feel afraid this time. It was only that he didn’t see how they could succeed.

Into a tremendous racket of British riflefire and artillery, a group under  Commandant Thewnissen advanced on their side. Jack noticed after a few minutes that the forward motion had stopped. “If I’m not mistaken, those folks are being captured,” Jack commented to Japie and Wilbur. “I do hear the words ‘Hands up,'” said Japie.   After they all pushed back in retreat, Jack heard voices raised in dispute. Japie told them that Botha was claiming Thewnissen had gone forward without proper caution, while those of Thewnissen’s burghers who hadn’t been captured were claiming Botha’s men had given them insufficient support. It seemed to Jack that both things were probably true, due to the uncomfortable reality of their situation. Impossible to be sufficiently cautious, impossible to give sufficient support.

De Wet had one last card up his sleeve. He ordered the intrepid Danie Theron to sneak behind enemy lines and give Cronje a message. “[Theron] must go and tell General Cronje that our fate depended upon the escape of himself and of the thousands with him, and that, if he should fall into the enemy’s hands, it would be the death-blow to all our hopes. Theron was to urge Cronje to abandon the laager, and everything contained in it, to fight his way out by night, and to meet me at two named places.”

As Jack and Wilbur later learned, Theron set off on the evening of February 25 and returned the morning of the 27th. His knees were running with blood. He had crawled past the khaki sentries, wearing holes through his trousers. The response from Cronje: he did not think De Wet’s plan could succeed.

It was not exactly that Cronje lacked courage, as De Wet was to write, it was simply that for him, courage meant staying at his position no matter what, rather than fleeing it. But it was a terrible disaster for the Boer cause: the first truly major victory for the British. The Boer general walked forward slowly to announce his surrender, dressed in a flapping greatcoat and a broad-brimmed hat, a sad, dark figure with his faithful gray horse by his side. Roberts seemed a slender, trim figure by comparison. It was a clash of two worlds.

Cronje was sent to the prison reserved for high-ranking Boer officers: St. Helena. His burghers were collected and distributed to various camps, in India, Ceylon, Bermuda. Jack and Wilbur rode away with De Wet’s commando to a point east of Paardeberg: Roberts was resting his soldiers for a few days after their big accomplishment. They could chase De Wet later on—in fact, they would keep doing it for another two years. Jack would meet General Cronje in person one day. That event would occur in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1903.

#Christiaan De Wet, Three Years’ War. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1902.

Piet Cronje as a prisoner on St. Helena