Posts Tagged ‘black history month’

DeedsofaColoredSoldier_medF.W. Abel was born in the city of New York, long ago enough to have not even been a teenager at the beginning of the Civil War Centennial.  He escaped from Fordham University with a degree in psychology into the U.S. Army.  The army had him function as a psychologist for a while, until he escaped from that into “the real army” that is, the infantry.  After postings in Berlin, Tokyo and the southern United States, he left and became a junior executive in the insurance industry.  He now labors diligently for the American taxpayer as a federal bureaucrat.  He currently resides in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.  As many of the most important battles of the Civil war was fought within a relatively short distance, he has taken advantage and visited most of them, as well as several in the so-called “Western Theater.”
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Q: Congratulations on the release of your book, Deeds of a Colored Soldier during the Rebellion, Volume 1: From the Beginning to Chickamagua. How does it feel to be published for the first time?

A: I’m ecstatic, and apprehensive at the same time.  I think just about anyone who writes something, anything, that took scores of hours and pounds (if not tons) of effort, wants to share their creation with the wider world.  Of course, in doing so, said author leaves themselves open to criticism, and possibly, some of it is deserved.  A work that made you a literary legend in your own mind just might not be perceived that way by readers.  Hence, the ecstasy and the apprehension.

Q: What compelled you to write this Civil War story?

A: I recall a reviewer of the motion picture “Glory” as having stated it would have been interesting to know more about the African-American soldiers portrayed in the film, as it revolved around the story of their commanding officer.  “Glory” was an outstanding movie, but it gave the impression that the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was the first colored regiment to fight.  My novel kind of sets the record straight, and from the viewpoint of the enlisted men, the African-American soldiers who did the fighting.  Also, I was a pre-teen during the Civil War Centennial, and I read a number of young adult novels with that theme.  I essentially combined the two.

Q: Tell us something about your protagonist that my readers won’t be able to resist.

A:  The novel tells the story of Jedediah as a young man, told by himself more than 30 years later.  So a reader can see the enthusiasm and cock-suredness of a youth contrasted with rueful regret of his older, and perhaps wiser, self.

Q: Did your characters surprise you with their own ideas? Did you listen to them?

A:  I remember reading long ago the novel, The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas.  It included a scene where Marcus asked a young man who had sculpted two gladiators what their names were.  The young man thought he was being mocked, until Marcus explained that to really animate his two figures, they had to have names, past lives; they had to be real to him, or their sculpted selves would be lifeless.  So, I created lives for them, before the action taking place in the novel.  Of course, the great thing with dealing with fictional characters is the author’s ability to make any amendments needed to fit the narrative.

Q: How was your creative process like during the writing of this book and how long did it take you to complete it?

A:  I wrote it linearly, without a formal outline, although I always knew where I was going.  Historical fiction is great in that way, as it provides your general plot.  The surprises came from filling in the details.

My book is about the rigors of war, and how life-changing, but a story with nothing but battles would bore even the most devoted reader of military fiction.

Q: How did you conduct your research?

A:  I had an fairly extensive reading background in the Civil war from the time I was a pre-teen (I won’t tell you how long ago that was).  But to insert a character into the major events portrayed in the novel required a considerable amount of research to get the minor details, in one case, weather conditions on a particular night, correct.  Readers who read history fiction are also usually avid readers of history, and would be cognizant, and unappreciative, of dramatic license that did too much violence to the facts.

Q: How do you keep your narrative exciting throughout the creation of a novel without letting the historical details drag the pace?

A:  You have to be judicious.  You have to strike the delicate balance between verisimilitude and throwing in details to show how much research you did.  And ideally, the minor historical details should have some bearing on the story.  In one case, I made a big deal of the difference in the bullet sizes of two rifles, because (as really happened) during a battle, the soldiers ran out of one size of ammunition and were in dire straits because the only ammunition available was an unusable size.

Q: What is your writing schedule like and how do you balance it with your other work and family time?

A:  I have a full-time job, so I have to fit writing in, but other things usually have priority.  I look forward to the (now somewhat few) totally free days.  I can write for 5-8 hours, but I can’t write anything good in one hour.

Q: Tell us about your publisher and how you found it.

A:  After acquiring a fairly impressive collection of rejection letters, a friend going back to my college days introduced me to his publisher.  The intro only got me so far, as like any good publisher, Lida Quillen wanted to judge the work for herself.  Thankfully, she greeted it with enthusiasm and encouragement.  I’m grateful to Lida, and my friend, Scott.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author?

A:  First, don’t get divorced.  The number of aspiring authors is probably exceeded only by the number of aspiring actors, currently waiting tables, or the number of aspiring general currently serving as lieutenants.  My wife has a business writing background, so I lured her in by having her do copy editing.  Even so, although she liked my novel, she was still very skeptical that I had produced a saleable work.  Sometimes, the person you have to convince is yourself.

On the other hand, writing is a less expensive hobby than golf or deep-sea fishing, so an aspiring author can approach it on that basis until the magic moment when he surprises even himself by having produced something good (good = publishable + saleable).

Q:  Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?

A:  There’s an old adage for writers, which is write what you know.  To that, I would add, read, and extensively, because at some point, a reader could get the spark from something read to transition into a writer.

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Getting Out of Dodge City, Heading for L.A. on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe is a short novel that reads like a memoir and that will appeal to those interested in black American history and the dynamics of poor black American families from the early 1800s to the 1960s.

The story begins in 1821 with our narrator talking about the origins of the Atchinson, Topeka and the Santa Fe railroads, how they replaced the old Santa Fe Trail, and the impact they had on the people of Dodge City, Kansas. Author Clifton E. Marsh describes the city as “the dust bowl queen of America,” a dry place where “the wind and sand blew so hard a man could catch sand pneumonia.” It is in the heart of this city where our narrator’s family come from, starting with General Burnie, the imposing grandfather who was a laborer at the railroad. The tale spans three generations, from the grandfather to his beautiful daughter Marguerite who eventually moves to Los Angeles and marries Clifton, to her two sons, Jesse and Hugo, born from different fathers and who both live different painful lives that reflect the lives of other Black men during the 50s and 60s. Homelessness, street gangs, sexual and drug abuse are just some of the subjects explored in this story. 

Because it has lots of narration and exposition and very little dialogue, Getting Out of Dodge City, Heading for L.A. on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe reads more like a memoir than a novel. I was a bit put off by several punctuation mistakes and by the use of purple prose in some love scenes, but on the whole, this is a poignant, honest and heartfelt account about a black family trying to survive and improve their lives in the midst of a decaying society that is full of obstacles. 

This review originally appeared in Blogcritics Magazine.

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