Sunday, August 9, 2015

Update on the Writing

It's been a long, hot, and dry summer in Central Texas. After our incredibly rainy May, I had hoped that this would be more mild than usual, but, alas, it was not to be. Granted, it hasn't been nearly as bad as the brutal scorcher of 2011, but now that we are approaching mid-August, with Fourth of July fireworks now a distant memory, I find myself longing for the crisp air of autumn. Much as I look forward to its end, though, I must say that it has been a good summer. I had a lovely trip out to the beaches of Florida with my wife and daughter, visiting with my parents. I've spent as much time as I can with my little girl, taking her for walks in the morning before the heat becomes too intense. My wife and I have had a few good date nights. I'm now beginning the traditional mourning period that every teacher in the country endures as mid-August approaches.

The defining characteristic of this summer has been the writing. My fingers have positively bled from all the writing I have been doing. I am very proud to say that there has not been a single day this summer when I have not written at least 1,000 words and most days have seen rather more than that. The record has been June 21, when I wrote 4,549 words in a single stretch. Anyone who thinks that's not an achievement ought to try it.

What am I writing, exactly? It's called House of the Proud and it's the sequel to Shattered Nation, the novel I published in the fall of 2013. Faithful readers will know that Shattered Nation explored the question of what might have happened if General Joseph Johnston had been kept in command of the Army of Tennessee in July of 1864, as opposed to being replaced, as he was historically, by General John Bell Hood.

(I published a short novella, Blessed are the Peacemakers, in the summer of 2014. It dealt with the counterfactual peace conference between the Union and the Confederacy and should be seen as a bridge between Shattered Nation and House of the Proud. I plan on writing novellas and perhaps collections of short stories set in the Shattered Nation universe between the writing of the major novels.)

House of the Proud takes place in 1867, three years after the events of Shattered Nation. The Confederacy is independent but unsettled, burdened with a crushing war debt and finding its political consensus in tatters as it approaches its first contested presidential election. More ominous than all this, however, is a slave rebellion in the lower Mississippi Valley, led by the mysterious figure known only as Saul. Meanwhile, a crisis sparked by the group of Irish nationalists called the Fenian Brotherhood threatens to cause a war between the United States and the British Empire.

The cast of characters is grand and sweeping. Charles Sumner, champion of abolitionism in the United States Senate, pursues his anti-slavery crusade in Washington. Robert Toombs, king of the Fire-Eaters, plots to bring about the downfall of his enemies and to solidify the South as an aristocratic slave-holding republic. Cavalry general John Hunt Morgan, once the darling of the Confederacy, finds himself matching wits with black insurgents in the swamps of Louisiana and Mississippi. Judah Benjamin, the wry smile rarely leaving his face, schemes to set the Confederacy on the course he know it must take if it is to survive. In distant Europe, the wealthy and cultured John Slidell, the minister of the Confederacy to France, bends every effort to bring France into an alliance with his newborn nation. In Canada, British Lieutenant-Colonel Garnet Wolseley battles with Fenians and dreams of a great war with the United States in which he might earn immortal glory.

John C. Breckinridge, once Vice President of the United States, then a Southern general, and now the Confederate Secretary of War, weighs his duties in the Cabinet and his desire to retire from public life against intense pressure to seek the presidency. Charles Russell Lowell, brilliant scion of one of Boston's great abolitionist families, must make a decision that will not only put his own life at risk, but might transform the history of both the Union and the Confederacy. And then there is the enigmatic Saul, leader of the slave rebellion against the Confederacy, who is both more and less than what he appears to be.

Finally, readers will again find themselves in the company of James McFadden, late of the 7th Texas Infantry. Once a tormented soul, yearning for death on the battlefield, McFadden is now trying to live a simple life on the Texas frontier with his beloved wife Annie and his toddler son Thaddeus. Yet the peace he has found is imperiled by an enemy he could not had foreseen and more dangerous than any he has previously faced. Their conflict is tied to the larger forces threatening to tear their nation apart and in which he will play an unexpected role.

I'm rather proud of the story, but I certainly am not going to reveal the specifics of the plot to anyone as yet. You'll have to buy the book when it comes out. Still, I will share a few tidbits:
  • Scenes take place in locations as varied as the Texas frontier, the border between Canada and the United States, Paris, London, Boston, New Orleans, Montgomery, and of course Richmond and Washington City.
  • Historical figures who show up, but are not perspective characters, include Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, P.G.T. Beauregard, Frederick Douglass, Alexander Stephens, Redvers Buller, William Porcher Miles, William Seward, Louis Wigfall, Edwin Stanton, Benjamin Disraeli, Basil Duke, Napoleon III, John B. Gordon and a host of others.
  • One of Britain's most storied infantry regiments, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, plays an interesting role. And no, I didn't misspell "Welsh" there.
  • Although the story is set in 1867, an epilogue depicts a scene from 1907.

I wrote a large chunk of House of the Proud last summer, before hitting a heavy wall of writer's block in the fall. During the winter, I fell into alternate history writing projects having to do with either the late Roman Republic or the American Revolution. But since March of this year, however, I have been writing furiously on House of the Proud. Before the school year was over, I dragged myself out of bed at four thirty or five o'clock every morning and wrote for as long as possible before I needed to get ready to go to work. Once summer break began, I locked myself in the study whenever I could and have written as much as possible.

It is not easy to remain focused on a single literary project for such a long time, so I have occasionally given my brain a rest and done some preliminary work on other writing projects I intend to pursue when House of the Proud is finished. Some of these are other books of the Shattered Nations series. Two of them are set in 1864 and explore how the "point of divergence" in Shattered Nation impacted events in places other than Georgia, one taking place in and around Charleston Harbor and the other in the Shenandoah Valley. I have some ideas for titles, but don't want to say them now as they may change later. I've also done some initial work on a novel that will take place primarily in Texas in the late 1890s, one that takes place in the 1920s in the midst of a world war, and another that takes place in the 1960s and is essentially a spy novel. Outside of the Shattered Nation universe, I have started work on an interesting alternate history novel set during the American Revolution, with cryptography emerging as a central theme. I've also started to do some early work on an alternate history novel set during the late Roman Republic, which I personally feel is perhaps the most fascinating and enthralling dramas in all of human history.

But House of the Proud remains the priority. It's a big book and it's not finished. As of this afternoon, the manuscript is 230,000 words long. It still has long way to go, but at least it won't be the behemoth that Shattered Nation, at roughly 600,000 words, turned out to be. I have no doubt that the commencement of the school year will disrupt the writing process a bit, but I hope to keep it up until I complete the narrative. Then it will take a few months of editing, cover design, and so forth until it is ready for purchase.

I'll be sure to keep everyone informed. Rest assured, I'm working as fast as I can.

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