If you’re a writer intent on independent publishing, you would have hard time finding a better model than Carol Buchanan. The Montana-based writer’s debut novel, God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana, scored a major coup this year by being selected for a Spur Award by the Western Writers of America.
A better-late-than-never success story, Buchanan is hard at work on the follow-up novel, Gold Under Ice.
Q: Your debut novel, God’s Thunderbolt, came well into your career as a writer and a student of literature. What was the breakthrough, if any?
I quit writing nonfiction for a living. It paid well, but I had had the story of the Vigilantes in mind for fifty years and decided now was the time to write it if I were ever to do it. The genesis of the novel came during a family vacation to Virginia City (MT) just before I started the eighth grade. After supper I walked up to the Hangman’s Building, where the Vigilantes hanged five outlaws at once, and went inside. I stood looking at the beam and heard the ropes creak. Remembering that still raises goose bumps for me.
Learning to write fiction after so many years of writing nonfiction (journalism, scholarly writing, and technical writing – airplane and software manuals) was not easy. The first step to becoming a fiction writer was to read my old stories and realize how bad they were. The second step was to find out why they were so awful. (Trust me. They were truly bad.) That took a year or so, while I was researching God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana. I had to track down a reliable person who would level with me without being afraid of hurting my feelings. I didn’t care if my feelings were hurt; I just wanted to be as good a writer as I could be, and I sensed that I could write better.
I took a couple of online classes, and learned a great deal from both of them, and I took classes locally. And I read everything I could find on the art of writing fiction.
The breakthrough came as I was writing the second draft of God’s Thunderbolt. (Second draft or 22nd – they all blend together.) I was priming the pump one morning, doing one of the writing exercises in Brian Kiteley’s wonderful book, The 3 a.m. Epiphany, and it hit me how much fiction is like poetry. Suddenly the idea of “distilled narrative” came into my mind, because I had been reading the poems of Jane Kenyon and Billy Collins, and some of my long-time favorites such as Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and the poems of John Donne. And of course, William Wordsworth. I did my dissertation on Wordsworth, and my book Wordsworth’s Gardens was a top ten finalist in the Washington State Book Awards. Each scene in a novel is, for me, like an image in a poem that builds toward a complete whole. (I’m saving the details for an essay in my blog.) At that moment I became a writer of fiction instead of nonfiction.
Q: God’s Thunderbolt is a meticulously researched and written novel of historical fiction. Walk us through the process. How long did it take, start to finish?
On that same vacation trip I bought Thomas J. Dimsdale’s The Vigilantes of Montana, a nearly eyewitness account of the events during the winter of 1863-1864, and read it. Then I joined the Montana Historical Society in high school and bought all the back copies of Montana: The Magazine of Western History that had any articles about the Vigilantes. By the time I actually had the time to write GT (starting in 2001), the revisionist historians were turning their story inside out. I began by wondering if there were any truth to the revisionists’ allegations that the wrong people were hanged and the actual criminals were the Vigilantes, but as I dug further into contemporary accounts and read as many of the eyewitness accounts as I could find, I realized that the revisionists are just plain wrong. More than that, they falsified the evidence to support their claims. They cherry-picked what would support their theory and ignored what wouldn’t. They never mention Conrad Kohrs’s account of a run-in with Henry Plummer. Nor do they acknowledge facts of early Western mining such as the sovereignty of each mining district. Their research is incredibly sloppy—at best.
For a year or two I wavered between writing history and writing historical fiction. I decided to write historical fiction because when you write history, you can’t write about how it felt to live in a place without law* and with access to wealth beyond belief. I read an estimate that between May 1963 when the Alder Gulch placer deposits were discovered and 1866, when they played out, more than $20,000,000 in gold was taken out of Alder Creek. This at a time when hazard pay was $3.00 a day for hardrock miners, and a cowboy made $30 a month and found. (Meaning board and room was included.)
Besides, to write history I’d have to mess with all those footnotes and their proper forms and the bibliographical forms, where the commas are, and the semicolons, and do the pub dates come before or after the issue numbers. Scholarly writing is enough to make a person crazy. Me, at least. J I wanted to get it right without the nitpicking formats. (I had enough of that in graduate school, both in my MA thesis and my PhD dissertation.) I put the bibliography for God’s Thunderbolt on my Web site (http://www.swanrange.com)
If I had written a history, I would not have been able to imagine how it felt to be a Vigilante, how it felt to put the noose around the neck of another human being, someone you knew. I would not have been able to imagine how it felt to be a woman, a mother with children, in that place, at that time.
And after I decided to write historical fiction, and nail it as close to the history as I could, along came the definitive history of the entire Vigilante era (not just the beginnings of it as I have written of). Frederick Allen’s A Decent, Orderly Lynching came out just as I began the first draft of the novel. It was tremendous help to me because he had found things I hadn’t and he included an exhaustive bibliography and notes. And he told the truth without blinking or apologizing for it. A very fine book. I’m glad I didn’t have to compete with it.
All in all the research took five years and the writing took two years, but they overlapped quite a bit.
* When I say without law, I mean that literally. Montana had not been split off from Idaho Territory then, and Congress had forgotten to attach the U. S. Constitution to the Territory when they created it, so there was no governing body of law. The Idaho legislature did not meet to rectify Congress’s mistake until January 1864, and Lewiston, then the capital of Idaho Territory, is some 500 miles west of Alder Gulch, over the Bitterroots, mountains so rugged that no highways yet go through there. Communication went from poor to rotten to nil in our winters. There weren’t even any federal mining laws until 1866. The only laws the miners had were the ones they made themselves. And the Ten Commandments, of course.
Q: You’re one of the indie publishing success stories, someone who pushed her own book into print to much acclaim, winning the Spur Award for best debut novel. What led you to the indie path?
Sheer impatience. Probably a factor of my age. I don’t have time left, literally, to wait years for agents and editors to get around to responding. Or to bring it to the public. A book can take two years to go through the traditional publishing process. I tried that route, but after the book sat on people’s desks for six months – when they had asked to see it – I said, “Nuts. I don’t have time.” (Then again, though, maybe I will have time. My mother lived past 106.)
Another factor is that the book gets classified as a “Western.” And Westerns have been (a) declining in popularity, and (b) ignored by agents and publishers alike. They aren’t even listed in many lists of genres. It seems that if historical fiction is written with a setting east of the Mississippi it’s “historical fiction.” If it’s set west of the big river, it’s a “Western.” There are signs that the popularity of Westerns is rising; I don’t think a major writer like Robert B. Parker would bother writing Westerns if he didn’t think it worth his while to do so. Nor do I think his publisher would publish them, but then again, Mr. Parker probably has enormous clout with his publisher.
However, God’s Thunderbolt is not a Western. It does not end with two men or two groups of men shooting it out with pistols. One reviewer called it a “literary Western,” and I like that label. (Sorry, I digressed.)
I researched self-publishing options for 4 months and about the time I realized I was wasting time with agents and publishers, I decided to sign with BookSurge. My account rep, Whitney Parks, was very good about answering all my questions forthrightly and honestly. She was a major factor in my deciding to go with them. I also checked them out with Better Business Bureau, and found no outstanding disputes. In business, disagreements are bound to arise, and part of the measure of a company is how the company deals with them. (Like Tylenol. Trust in that company rose because of their handling of the product tampering.) Whitney still is available to answer my questions.
Q: What is your writing process like? What sort of environment do you need?
Quiet. I early adopted Virginia Woolf’s saying, that in order to write a woman needs “a room of her own and 500 pounds a year.” When Dick and I married, I told him I was a writer and needed a room in the house to write. I’ve had my own writing room everywhere we’ve lived, with one brief exception, and we don’t live there any more. I don’t like writing fiction in short bits of time, but a person does what they have to do. The secret of making use of small time spaces is discipline. Another secret is to believe in the subconscious, though I do check in with mine throughout the day when I have to leave a scene unfinished or am about to start another one.
Q: You’re an active reviewer of others’ works, particularly those who have published independently. What mistakes do you commonly see in self-published books?
Oh my. Most of the mistakes I see appear to stem from the writer’s belief that because “I” wrote it, it must be wonderful. Not so. The horrid truth is that we can pour our hearts into a piece of writing and have it turn out to be junk. Writing fiction, especially, is so incredibly scary it’s a surprise that anyone does it, when you think of it like that.
Mistakes I see are these (not an exhaustive list, by any means):
- Poorly developed characters, especially historical characters who are merely modern people dressed funny.
- Impossible coincidences in the plot.
- Careless research for historical fiction.
- Sloppy editing that misses homonyms. No spell checker will catch those. (Grizzly remains rather than grisly remains.)
- Generally poor writing.
I think people believe that anyone can write, because we’re all taught in school how to put one word after another, and besides, we speak English, don’t we? But writing well takes so darn much work that I wonder anyone wants to do it. It’s like music in a way. I took years of piano lessons, got to be pretty good, but I could never be a concert-level pianist. I just didn’t have whatever it takes. And no way could I compose music. I don’t hear music like I hear words, or see people in my imagination. (Sometimes, writing a scene is writing what I see and hear.)
We owe it to our readers to write the best we can. When people buy God’s Thunderbolt or Gold Under Ice (next year), I want them to have the best work I can do because they are investing their time and their money in my work. I don’t want them to waste either. Some people haven’t liked the book because they are offended by the swearing in it, but those were rough men and I called it as I saw it. I can’t help if someone has a problem with something in it, like a sex scene. (More about that later.) If I know I did my best work, got the history right, and wrote it well, I can live with criticism. I owe everything, all the success God’s Thunderbolt enjoys, to the readers who bought it, read it, loved it, and told their friends. And that includes the judges of the Spur Awards.
Sex scenes are boring to read about. I don’t like to write them as a technical manual: “Put this here. Put that there. Press this.” These days, nearly everyone who’s old enough to read my book knows how that’s done. I write sex scenes as metaphors for how the people feel about each other.
Q: You’re in the midst of writing a sequel to your novel, called Gold Under Ice. Are you intent on independently publishing again, or has your success prompted overtures from larger publishers?
I’ve had no overtures from larger publishers. Except that I signed a contract with Books In Motion for it to be made into an unabridged audio book, I remain firmly obscure. 😉 My three nonfiction books were published by reputable publishers, but I’d have to take a good look at what a regular publisher could offer. “Show me the money,” in other words.
Q: What’s on your nightstand? What sort of works do you read for pleasure?
Thrillers: Craig Johnson, James Lee Burke. Mysteries: Tony Hillerman, Margaret Frazer, Ellis Peters. Michael Connelly (Does he write thrillers or mysteries?) Robert B Parker’s Westerns. (I also enjoy his minimalist style.) Literature: E. L. Doctorow: The March. Kim Edwards: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Louise Erdreich: The Painted Drum. Jane Kenyon’s Poems, Shakespeare’s plays (currently Henry VI) and Sonnets. The King James Bible above all. I love the music of the English language, and its richness.
Q: What’s a question you would ask of other independent authors trying to make a go of it?
Why are you doing this?
Carol Buchanan’s Web site: http://www.swanrange.com
Carol Buchanan’s blog: http://www.swanrange.blogspot.com