Tragedy & Triumph


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How to Write a Battle Scene

Or rather, how to write a historically accurate Civil War battle scene as a retired teacher in the 21st century. One of the most difficult sections to write about in my book was how to get my central character, Truman Haden, in and out of one of the most horrific battles in the Civil War. I wanted to ensure that the scene was realistic and engaging, but also true to the character’s abilities and the story. Truman was an older conscript, a lawyer, not used to strenuous physical activity. A solitary man, he had spent his lifetime relying on no one. He had little understanding of weaponry, tactics and combat. How was he going to survive a battle? What was he going to feel like as he watched the enemy move towards him, his feet pressed against the earthworks with an impenetrable wilderness behind him?

How in the world was I going to make him feel and act in an authentic manner? Even more, how was I going to allow the battle experience to change him?

American Civil War, battle, war, Bullrun, Conferderate, Union, soldier, warrior, fight

The first battle of Bullrun

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What it Takes to Make History

Periodically over the past seven years my friends and family would ask, “how’s that book coming along? Are you still writing that violent battle scene? What happened to the mutilated slave? Is that runaway slave based on a real character? Did those brutal things really happen inside Elmira’s POW camp? Why is it taking so long to write your book?” I would nod my head, smile and reply, “Research. It takes a long time to write an honest and truthful historical novel.”

US Civil War, battle, slavery, abolition, freedom

The Battle of Atlanta during US Civil War

I lived near Elmira, New York for almost twenty years, fascinated by its historical participation in the Underground Railroad as well as its little-known involvement in a Confederate prisoner of war camp. It was almost eerie to drive by the tree-lined neighborhoods in the southern section of town and try to imagine what bravery, courage and horror had happened in those places one hundred and fifty years before. It seemed so peaceful and bucolic until I looked down at the partially caved-in sidewalk where an underground tunnel had once been carved inch by inch by desperate prisoners. A neighbor showed me a dirt hidey-hole in her basement where years before runaways had been hidden. I wondered what it felt like to remain curled in the hole waiting in terror for a slave catcher to find me. There were stories that wanted to be told.

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An Interview with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Official

From my book, Tragedy and Triumph, Elmira, New York, 1835-65

An Interview with the Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Official

The black man leaned forward in his seat and in a staccato voice, as if reading from a list, said, “Under no circumstance draw attention to yourself. Work to become a trusted part of the community. Confide in no one; simply keep your own counsel. Always be on your guard. Do not attend any abolitionist meetings, associate with anyone labeled that way. You must appear indifferent to the cause. Remember this well: you have volunteered to help fugitive slaves reach freedom. If you fail in this, you fail us all.”

Elizabeth nodded solemnly.

Joshua Edwards scowled at her as they sat across from one another on two wooden chairs. The small room, located in the musty third floor of the university’s library, contained little furniture other than the chairs, and a table filled with jars of glue, needles, thread, and books that needed to be mended. A small window nailed shut to its casement in the corner let in little light. Elizabeth wished that she could open it but remained seated as she waited for him to speak again. There was no sound in the room; a dense silence that spoke of the heaviness of their meeting pervaded the air.

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