Friday, October 22, 2010
Author Interview: Carol Buchanan
This month my author spotlight is on Carol Buchanan. Descended from Montana pioneers and homesteaders, Carol is a nonfiction writer and student of Montana history who turned to historical fiction in God’s Thunderbolt, The Vigilantes of Montana, which won the 2009 Spur for Best First Novel.
Her second historical novel, the sequel to God’s Thunderbolt, is Gold Under Ice, now out from Missouri Breaks Press.
Her short story, “Comes a Stranger,” was published in New Works Review, summer 2008. “Fear of Horses” won the 2008 short fiction contest sponsored by Women Writing the West. She is also the author of Wordsworth's Gardens, which was a finalist in the 2002 Washington State Book Awards.
Carol lives in northwestern Montana in the Flathead Valley with her husband, Richard, who owns and operates ByteSavvy Computing Services. She is currently at work on the third book about the vigilante period, titled Reni’s Ears.
Q:Tell us a little about God's Thunderbolt and Gold Under Ice.
I write historical fiction set in the West, primarily Montana. They celebrate courageous people making tough choices to survive and build a life.
God’s Thunderbolt: The Vigilantes of Montana is set during the winter of 1863-1864, in the gold fields of Alder Gulch when ruffians ruled and murder was tolerated. Dan Stark, an attorney from New York City, comes to get enough gold to pay off the massive debt left by his father’s gambling and suicide. But he quickly realizes that so many people are robbed and murdered occur on the roads that he wouldn’t survive to take his gold home. When a friend is murdered, Dan joins other friends in tracking down the murderers, and accepts the dangerous assignment to prosecute them. During the trial evidence reveals a criminal conspiracy behind the crimes. Dan joins with other men to form a Vigilance Committee. As the Vigilante prosecutor, he is faced with the horrible dilemma of hanging both a friend and the husband of the woman he loves.
Gold Under Ice is the sequel to God’s Thunderbolt. It takes place from April to September 1864. Dan returns to New York with his gold, but finds that he does not have enough to repay the debt. A quasi-legal gold exchange called the Gold Room has sprung up in the financial district, and Dan sees trading gold options and futures as his only way to get enough gold to pay the debt. But trading gold is considered next to treasonous because it pits gold against greenbacks, the new federal currency with which the Lincoln administration funds the Union Army. When the value of gold rises, some traders sing “Dixie,” and when the value of greenback goes up, Union sympathizers sing “John Brown’s Body.” When Dan and another gold trader are mugged, and the friend killed, Dan tracks a criminal conspiracy into the core of his own family. He wonders if he will ever be able to return to Montana.
Q:You state on your blog that you never change history to suit the needs of the story. Can you give us any advice on doing research to make it easier?
If research is easy, I’m sure I’ve missed something. I love research almost as much as writing. I have a PhD in English, with history minors all the way. In graduate school I was fortunate enough to have an excellent class in methods of research, so I know how to dig. I follow two principles: Wherever possible go to the primary sources, and don’t be satisfied with what other people have written about a topic. For God’s Thunderbolt, I traveled to the Montana Historical Society in Helena and dove into the archives, with the gracious help of the historians there.
For Gold Under Ice, I used the Internet, specifically, Google Book Search, to unearth among other books, Henry Clews’s autobiography, Twenty-Eight Years on Wall Street. Mr. Clews was a gold trader who owned a gold trading house on Wall Street, and I used his business as a location in the book. I found many treasures and first-hand accounts that way, all in the public domain, which I downloaded to my hard drive. Without Google Book Search, I would never have been able to travel to the great libraries like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, and Gold Under Ice could not have been written.
So to summarize, good solid research is not easy, but it’s as thrilling as finding clues in a murder mystery. (Not that I’ve ever done that, of course.)
Q:You self-published God's Thunderbolt but Gold Under Ice is published by Missouri Breaks Press. What are some of the pros and cons of each?
Missouri Breaks Press is the imprint founded last spring by Craig Lancaster, the author of the wonderful 600 Hours of Edward. (His second novel, the equally wonderful The Summer Son will be out this winter from Amazon Encore. I read it in a later draft.)
Craig did a lovely job on the cover and the interior design of Gold Under Ice. I can’t say enough in praise of the selfless work he did to put the book together. We have a co-op arrangement by which I retain all rights to the book.
However, I’ve noticed that some who have published with small presses have experienced a number of problems. Small presses are subject to the owners’ health and personal lives. One author, whose publisher quit business, did not have the money to buy back the rights to his book or the unsold copies.
Self-publishing gives an author more control.
I’ve been very happy with both methods. I used BookSurge (now CreateSpace) for God’s Thunderbolt, and I also used CreateSpace as the printer for Gold Under Ice.
Q:What challenges did each of these books present?
Writing always challenges me to get it right, whether it’s melding fiction with history while remaining true to the history, or revising each sentence and image so they convey what I have in mind. Even then, people tell me they got something from the writing that I didn’t know was in there. Writing is such an interaction between writer and reader! I love it.
After publication, the marketing and promotion are challenging. How to rise above the noise of the millions of people clamoring for attention? It’s a long, slow haul, but worth it. I’m very happy for the Internet, but it’s like skiing down a mountain in a snowfall. Visibility is poor and the terrain keeps changing.
Q:In your blog, you talk about "the writer's responsibility." Can you elaborate?
People’s lives can be changed by what we write. A woman told me her husband’s life had been changed by reading God’s Thunderbolt. We are responsible to our readers to do the best work we’re capable of and to write stories that give people hope instead of depressing them, and to consider the wider implications of our writing. Yet we each have our own path to follow. I admire Jane Kirkpatrick’s work, but I’m not called to write the kind of Christian historical fiction she writes. In my blog I wrote about a novel that would be a good thriller, but it could also give terrorists an idea for disrupting the U.S. economy. I’ll never write it. The money isn’t the real goal, or shouldn’t be, I think.
Q:What, to you, is the hardest part of the writing life?
Oh, my. Everything. This is not an easy job by any means. From the initial idea to the last word, God’s Thunderbolt was difficult, and Gold Under Ice was even more difficult because it depends so much on math to get the gold trading scenes right. I was a nonfiction writer and wrote articles and books in the fields of aerospace, computer user’s guides, gardening, horticulture, and equine journalism before I came back to Montana and changed to writing fiction. Historical fiction is much more difficult, but it’s also more joyful. It’s using the right side of my brain, the part that synthesizes unlike things into a new whole. (The left side is the logical, analytical side that I used throughout my nonfiction career.) Using the right side of my brain is such a joy, I feel I’m in my right mind at last.
Q:Do you have something new in the works?
You bet! I’m in the planning stages for both the third and fourth novels in the Vigilante series, which I think will end after the fourth one. I didn’t imagine when I started that I’d write so much about them, but as I’ve done the research, one thing has led to another….
And I love writing about that era because it’s so relevant to now. With budget cutbacks, a judge in Ohio recommended last spring that citizens arm themselves and learn how to use their weapons because the county could not pay for adequate law enforcement to protect the public. In Los Angeles, cutbacks in the police force are so great that murders go unsolved and uninvestigated for lack of manpower.
And in the financial markets, gold is through the roof.
For more about Carol and her books: