Archive for September, 2013

Stonewall_JacksonFew conflicts caused as many rich personalities to be put into the historical spotlight as the American Civil War, and arguably the most eccentric among them was that of Stonewall Jackson. He was the devout Presbyterian who frequently fell asleep during services, and worse, was a snorer to boot; his passion for fruit in general led him to suck on lemons, something almost all contemporary observers found strange enough to comment on; his peculiar mix of rigidity of habit and rich imagination colored just about choice the man made.

Much had been made of Jackson’s hypochondria and his embrace of quackery, although some of his complaints read as very real indeed. Jackson’s oft-quoted statement that he never ate pepper because it weakened his left leg certainly sounds off, but if Jackson suffered from dyspepsia, his preference for plain, unseasoned food makes plenty of sense. So it was with many things Jackson said and did: his pronouncements were often peculiar, but his practices sometimes appear sensible, especially if viewed from the right perspective.

So what is a historical novelist to do with the legendary tics of Stonewall Jackson? The man certainly offers plenty of fodder to work with, but in a broad sense I had only two real choices in how to characterize the man: I could either use Jackson as a Richard Taylor-style caricature, playing his eccentricities up for maximum color; or I could try to imagine how those eccentricities might work in a real person. I went down the latter path.

This is the reason lemons are mentioned only twice in Stonewall Goes West: once when Jackson apologizes for not having any, and then in a single instance of sucking on one. Because I was imaging Jackson as how he might really have been, I was obliged to depict his well-documented passion for fresh fruit in general. Peaches, and not lemons, were Jackson’s favorite. A second and lesser reason I made only slight use of lemons is that I had two more books to write, and that simple fact dictates I don’t overuse any of Jackson’s¬†peculiarities by always depicting him as sitting on a fence rail, thumb up, eyes blazing, sucking on a lemon, and quoting the Bible.

Moss Neck Manor

With a sobriquet like “the Marble Man” and a reputation to match, people tend to overlook that Robert E. Lee was a human being, and more to my point here, that he had a sense of humor. A discussion on my author’s Facebook group reminded me of a cute example of Lee’s sense of humor that I found while researching the novel.

In mid-December 1862, a cold, an exhausted Stonewall Jackson tired of his own austerity, and moved his headquarters into Moss Neck, the Corbin family estate near Fredericksburg. After receiving a pile of food as gifts from the citizens of Fredericksburg, Jackson invited Lee, Stuart, and a number of other officers to dinner. Jackson’s hired slave-servant Jim Lewis joined a (presumably) Moss Neck servant, and put out a feast that is known to have included three turkeys, biscuits, fresh and pickled vegetables, ham, oysters, and a big bottle of wine.

Lee and Jeb Stuart decided to tease Jackson, pretending shock and outrage over Jackson’s supposedly lavish table and luxurious accommodations. Lee jibed that Jackson was only playing at soldiers, while Stuart derided the paintings of ratting dogs and race horses on the wall (these being the 19th Century equivalent of having pictures of race cars and football players on the walls) and mocked Jackson’s fondness for drink (the wine bottle). Stuart’s punchline was pointing to the butter mold in the shape of a rooster, declaring it to be Jackson’s family crest. From the description, it’s easy to imagine Lee almost falling out of his chair laughing at this.

I’ve always imagined Jackson as being someone who took himself far too seriously, and it showed that night, as he stammered this explanation and that, taking some time to realize that he was being mercilessly teased. In fact, I don’t think the teasing from Lee and Stuart ever quite settled in Jackson’s craw, because me moved out of the manor house and back into tents later that winter, and that is part of the reason why I have Jackson living in a hut instead of the Huff House a year later. Given Old Blue Light’s personality, I think the ribbing he got made him even more stridently austere.

Another thing stemming from that winter at Moss Neck is that it’s where Sandie Pendleton met Kate Corbin. The two became sweethearts, and in real life Sandie was tragically killed before they could marry. In Stonewall Goes West, Sandie and Kate are married in Richmond.

One of the bad raps against indie and small, start-up press books is that they are all poorly edited monstrosities. Some of them are, and these are the books that give the rest a bad name. Yet whenever a consumer fixates and repeats this meme, they are repeating a myth that, by and large, is untrue.

I’ve worked in publishing, know the process intimately, and can tell you every book, magazine and journal out there has at least some errors. Coming from a major publishing house doesn’t change that. So, here are some things every reader, every writer, and every prospective start-up publisher should know.

All Books Have Bugs
Once upon a time, I was given a freshly published, leather-bound copy of a classic novel I adore, one that was listed as the 14th edition of said work. I happened to have a used and well-worn paperback of the same book on the shelf, and that was the 6th edition. I compared the two, and found exactly the same bugs in both books, uncorrected and faithfully reprinted decades later. The publisher didn’t (and likely still doesn’t) care about them, and as the bugs didn’t detract from my reading experience, neither did I.

Getting more specific, I love ancient history, and earlier this year I picked up a two-volume set of books about Sicily from one of my favorite new authors. I have no desire to piss in anyone’s cornflakes here, so I won’t identify the books any further than that, but suffice it to say they come from a well-established publisher that has a lot of good work. No one would call the company “indie.”

The first volume had eight spelling errors, and the second had eleven. Over the two volumes, that is an error rate of 1 per 25 pages, double what I consider acceptable when you are paying someone to catch such things. These were errors any spell-check should have caught, nevermind a copy editor, and this from a thoroughly professional publishing house. It’s not great, but it in no way alters my overall opinion of the books.

No published work is perfect, so perfection isn’t the issue. The issue is if the errors hinder reading the book.

That Error Is Deliberate
Some errors in a book aren’t actually errors, but are instead examples of deliberately agrammatical prose. This is especially the case when it comes to dialogue or text that is meant to describe a character’s thoughts. In these instances, breaking the rules of English 101 is not just desirable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary.

To cite a work near and dear to my heart, thumb through Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. That novel is built on a foundation of sentence fragments and other grammatical “errors,” which are integral to the style Shaara developed to write it. Half the novels on my bookshelves use an agrammatical style of some kind or another to enhance the voice of the author. Yet despite being a common practice, some people don’t get it, or worse, selectively don’t get it.

The Killer Angels won a Pulitzer Prize, and since the release of the film Gettysburg has become¬†arguably the single greatest Civil War novel, and a classic of historical fiction in general. Yet if you scrutinize the reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N and other websites, you will find people who just don’t get Shaara’s style and nitpick his grammar. As if the presence of entire paragraphs composed of nothing but sentence fragments were anything but deliberate!

It’s Not Me, It’s You
In the “my ignorance trumps your hard-earned knowledge” department are those who are woefully underqualified to comment on anyone’s use of language. More than half the reader/consumer reviews I’ve seen griping about copy errors in various books over the years were written by people who seem to be unable to put two or three lines of text together without bungling the spelling, punctuation, grammar, and/or capitalization multiple times. Some of these “reviews” had more errors in their mere 40 words than were in the entire 90,000 word novel being criticized. Credibility, anyone?

These Things Matter
This blog is not saying that copy errors don’t matter, but only that all books have them and that in some instances they don’t matter. Every writer needs editing, and every publication needs proofing. Professional standards are critical to producing a good piece of work, and that is an ironclad rule.

Even so, if a publication has a long enough word count, it will contain mistakes. Every single book on my shelf has at least one typo in it, someone will always be there to nitpick it, and everyone concerned should keep that in mind.