Archive for October, 2013

Some folks have commented that Stonewall Goes West is a short novel, and it is a little on the short side, but not for the reason those people think.

Word Count Is the Way
In publishing, the length of a work is determined by its word count, not its page length. That is because page length can, and usually is, manipulated. When I do a freelance article, the size of the project is mandated by word count, not by the number of pages. So it is with books.

Stonewall Goes West is about 84,600 words. The oft-quoted length of the average novel is about 90,000 words, so in word count terms the novel is a little on the short side, by a margin equal to two magazine feature articles. However, the typical murder mystery is usually quoted at 60,000 words, the typical romance novel is 75,000 words, and the typical sci-fi or fantasy work is around 100,000 words. So, “short” depends on the standard, and generally speaking a story is done when a story is done, word count or no.

To put that in perspective, Brave New World has 64,531 words, and a Publisher’s Weekly put it exactly in the middle of their study of classic novels by word countMoby Dick is 209,117 words, and War and Peace is almost 550,000!

Manipulating Size Through Layout
Stonewall Goes West seems shorter than it really is because it has a page count of 256, and most readers expect novels to be 300 pages or longer. I’m here to tell you that if we had wanted to make my book 300 pages long, we could have, and without adding a single word. Instead, we went the other way, making the page count a bit shorter so as to lower the printing cost, and without subtracting a single word.

The page layout and formatting process offers all sorts of tricks to increase the page count of a book. Some of the more obvious tricks are to always start chapters on an odd-numbered page, because doing so inserts blank pages into the text. Some wrongly think this is a professional standard, but it’s not, and the practice is routinely abandoned by anyone looking to trim page count. Half the books on my shelves have chapters that start on even-numbered pages.

Another obvious trick is to format the chapter page so half the page is blank except for the chapter number and title. Many books use less space for this and look just fine.

Less obvious is to tinker with the margins and the font size. Raising the font size from 11 to 11.5, for example, doesn’t make the text noticeably bigger, but it adds up over the course of tens of thousands of words. Likewise, widening the margins of the page in small, unnoticeable ways have a cumulative effect. The gutter of a book (the white space in the middle, leading to the spine) in particular can be widened considerably without laymen noticing.

To cite a working example, I’m very fond of the John Maddox Roberts SPQR series of Roman murder mysteries. Even so, those books have big margins, the chapters start on odd-numbered pages and have big chapter headers, all of which increases the page count of an otherwise short novel. If the same had been done with Stonewall Goes West, it would have added at least 30 pages to the printed version.

Following the dictum of opening with a bang, I started Stonewall Goes West with the fictitious Second Battle of Kettle Run. My opinion is that any good alternate history (or at least any good one that isn’t about time travel) follows the rule of starting with a small, plausible change at first, and then widening the deviation plausibly thereafter. In approaching the idea of Stonewall Jackson returning to duty for the October 1863 Bristoe Campaign, the idea of small, plausible change and sticking close to the real history is interwoven most tightly into that part of the story. Indeed, anyone who is familiar with the Battle of Bristoe Station should recognize several real historical decisions and events in my story.

Making Second Kettle Run
Second Kettle Run proceeded from two simple questions: what would Jackson want to do, and how would that alter Lee’s plans? Historically, Lee had to manage Dick Ewell and A.P. Hill, both of whom had disappointed him in the Gettysburg Campaign. With Jackson there instead of Hill, Lee would only need to mind Ewell, and could therefore give Old Baldy his undivided attention. That matters in the story, because with Lee minding him, Ewell came to grips with II Corps at Auburn more forcefully.

Jackson’s night march to and through Thoroughfare Gap reflects his preferences for expending boot laces over bullets and for avoiding predictable behavior. More than a few historians have suggested that Bristoe Station might have turned out differently if A.P. Hill had gotten started earlier in the morning, and therefore arrived on the field earlier, but the problem there is that Hill would have still approached Bristoe Station by the direct route. I have a hard time seeing Jackson making that choice if his intention were to cut off rather than pursue the enemy, hence his choice to march hard in an attempt to approach the enemy from an unexpected direction.

Everything else in the story flows from those two factors and from the real historical record, with the historical movements of the Army of the Potomac that day corresponding either closely or exactly to what I describe in the novel. III Corps marched out when I described it did; II Corps was delayed for a time by Wilcox’s attack at Auburn, but otherwise moved exactly as in history. In particular, Sykes behaved just as I described in the novel, seizing upon an unconfirmed report that mistook the arrival of the II Corps wagons for Warren’s entire command to start V Corps’s departure from the area.

But Is He Lucky?
Another pair of aspects of the Second Kettle Run story are the two classic battlefield factors of  friction and luck. Astute readers should have noted that Jackson’s own timetable was far too optimistic, and that he arrived at Bristoe hours behind his schedule. This turned out to be a lucky stroke, and the record shows Jackson was a lucky commander for the most part (although Jackson himself would have described it as Providential).

If Jackson had arrived more in tune with his own timetable, he would have found V Corps waiting for him, and the result would have been a slugging match between Jackson and Ewell against II, V, and eventually III Corps. Such a thing could only have resulted in a stalemate. If Jackson had arrived a little later, he would have found II Corps posted behind the Orange and Alexandria embankment, just as A.P. Hill historically did.

By arriving at just the right time, Jackson came into the gap opened between V Corps and II Corps by Sykes, a gap I widened only slightly by delaying II Corps at Auburn. Historically, A.P. Hill missed the same moment by a matter of 20 or 30 minutes, so the idea that Jackson could as I described is not outside the realm of serious possibility.

The rest of the battle follows from there. Cut off from the Army of the Potomac, II Corps is put in desperate straits, but even so it manages to escape complete destruction. The losses among II Corps leadership (Warren, Hays, and Webb are all casualties) reflect the extent of the disaster suffered, while I think Sykes’s court martial and suicide is an appropriate response to the unmitigated disgrace he suffered. Historically, Sykes dereliction at Bristoe contributed to his banishment into obscurity, and that was without his flawed decisions leading to a battlefield defeat.

The White-Force Cottage

The White-Force Cottage in Selma, Alabama
(Credit: Joana Thomas)

One of the things I decided when I embarked on researching and writing the Stonewall Goes West trilogy was that while it was inevitable that some reader or critic somewhere would say “that place wasn’t really like that,” they would not be able to say it for want of my trying to make it so. I can’t say I’ve been to all of the locations that have been or will be used in the trilogy, but I can say I’ve been to all of the battle locations and many of the other settings. This is so much the case that I sometimes joke about having dragged my poor, long-suffering wife to every county seat in the Mid-South.

These visits have proven invaluable in helping me set my battles and choose my settings, and the process has brought its own rewards. One of the things I found so worthwhile about all the road-tripping involved were all the things I did not expect to find along the way.

So it was with Sturdivant Hall, referred to as the Lee House in Stonewall Goes West. I recently referred to this house on my author’s Facebook group, where I sometimes share modern and period photos relevant to the story. Sturdivant Hall is a truly lovely house museum, and given that it is in the severely depressed town of Selma, it is likely the most overlooked antebellum mansion of its kind in America. The place is truly worth going out of your way to see if you like this sort of thing.

But it was next to Sturdivant Hall that I had my little surprise. Right next door was the equally historic White-Force Cottage, the former home of one Martha Todd White, the half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. Whenever the Radical Republicans accused Mary Todd Lincoln of relaying government secrets to her treasonous relatives, they most likely had her half-sister Martha Todd White in mind, as the woman was an ardent secessionist.

I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, where the Mary Todd Lincoln House has been a fixture of downtown history for very nearly my entire lifetime (it was restored and opened to the public in 1977). The house was the childhood home of Mary Todd, and probably Martha Todd too. So, in looking for a setting I used in book #1 and intend to use again in book #3, I stumbled right over this lovely place that looped right around to a historic house I grew up with.