Writing the Epic: Take a Tip from the Racetrack

One of the pitfalls to guard against when writing the sweeping historical novel is losing the reader amid a legion of characters.

The author becomes so immersed in the research and details that it becomes virtually impossible to understand what it will be like to read the story for the first time. Character rosters at the start of a novel can be helpful, but why require the reader to constantly turn back to refresh memory?

I like to think of the epic as a long, endurance-challenging horse race. The author is the literary equivalent of a track announcer who calls the race for the crowds in the grandstands. Veteran announcers at Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park know that a critical part of their job is creating and maintaining suspense. They do this by periodically resetting the ranking order of the horses and recasting the race from their omniscient point of view. At every quarter-mile turn, the announcer recaps his two-minute story and heightens the stakes by ratcheting up the excitement in his voice.

Authors of vast historical novels would benefit from applying the techniques of these track announcers. Periodically pull back from a tight point-of-view and provide an omniscient recapping of the story to that point.

There are many clever and subtle ways to do this without breaking the spell. Having your main character reflect upon how he or she has reached this stage of in life is one. Commencing chapters from an omniscient POV and easing into a character’s POV is another.

Sharon Kay Penman is the master of the reset. She’ll often start a chapter from a distance by describing the weather or condition of the country, then move to the city, the street, and finally, almost imperceptibly, the reader is spiraled into the POV of the character who will take us through the rest of the chapter. Consider this passage that commences Chapter 11 of When Christ and His Saints Slept:

     For Stephen and Maude both, it was to be a frustrating year, one of advances and retreats, check and mate. Matilda scored a diplomatic coup in those early winter months; sailing to France, she negotiated a marriage for her eldest son, Eustace, with Constance, young sister of the French king. But that good news was soured for Stephen by a rebellion in the English Fenlands, instigated by the Bishop of Ely, who’d been nursing a grudge since the Oxford ambush. Stephen raced north, and the bishop, fled south, taking refuge at Bristol.

     More trouble was already flaring for Stephen. . .

In the space of a paragraph, Penman has given us the track’s quarter-turn recap. Now we know the new ordering and condition of the horses in the race.

Chaucer Awards Committee Names Glen Craney a Double Finalist for Best 2015 Historical Fiction

The Spider and the Stone and The Yanks Are Starving were honored this week as finalists for the prestigious Chaucer Awards in historical fiction.ChaucerAwardTwitter

The announcement was made by Chanticleer International, which sponsors the awards to recognize outstanding works and new talent in the genre. The Grand Prize Winner will be announced at the April 30th, 2016 Annual Awards Gala in Bellingham, Washington.

Both books have been previously honored as Foreword Reviews Finalists for Book-of-the-Year and as IndieBRAG Medallion recipients.

The Yanks Are Starving unfolds the little-known but true story of the thousands of jobless World War One veterans who marched on Washington, D.C. during the Great Depression. The Spider and the Stone is the 14th-century story of the Black Douglas during the Scottish Wars of Independence against England.

History’s Grim Irony: New WWI Memorial Will Stand Where War’s Jobless Veterans Fought Eviction

Eight decades before the Occupy Wall Street movement, another protest of occupation, launched in the shadows of the Capitol, pitted the U.S. Army against its own American veterans from the Forgotten War.

Last week, the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission unveiled design plans for the transformation of Pershing Park, the site for the new National World War I Memorial. The trapezoid-shaped strip of land, cleared of buildings in 1930, eventually became a traffic island. It was converted to a park in 1981 and named for Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in 1918.

Had any American veterans of World War I lived to see it–the last doughboy died in 2011–they might have viewed the new memorial’s setting as bittersweet. In 1932, along that very ground just a few steps from the White House, the federal government launched an attack against several thousand of them. Now these plans have revived memories of that struggle, the only clash between two American armies pledging allegiance to the same Stars and Stripes.

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On a hot day in July of that year, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff, mustered a detachment of cavalry, tanks, and regular infantry on the Ellipse, across 15th Street NW from the modern park. Convinced the veterans had been infiltrated by Communists, he donned his uniform to return to action with his reluctant aide, Maj. Dwight D. Eisenhower, at his side.

A ragtag host of veterans and their families, estimated by some to number nearly 43,000, had staggered into Washington that summer to plead for jobs and advance payment of their service annuity, popularly called the Bonus. President Hoover opposed the Bonus as a handout. In June, the House of Representatives passed the bill, but the Senate voted it down two days later. Crushed and desperate, many veterans hunkered down in abandoned federal buildings and shanty camps, vowing to stay until the Bonus was passed.

District commissioners and the Hoover administration finally lost patience with the protesters. Late on the afternoon of July 28, MacArthur ordered the advance.

Maj. George Patton led the cavalry and six tanks from the Ellipse and past the present site of the park. Up ahead, veterans and civilians just getting off work lined Pennsylvania Avenue and sang patriotic songs, believing they were about to witness a parade. Instead, the infantry fixed bayonets, tossed gas canisters, and began herding the outraged veterans and onlookers north. Some of the veterans tried to resist, but they were quickly swept away.

Hoover had signed off on a limited law-enforcement operation to be halted at the Eleventh Street Bridge, several blocks southeast of the Capitol. But MacArthur sent the troops across the Anacostia River and into the largest of the camps. By day’s end, the homeless veterans and their families were scattered with their shacks burned. Among those routed was Joe Angelo, an Italian-American from New Jersey who had won the Distinguished Service Cross for saving Patton’s life in the Meuse-Argonne.

Joey Angelo

Four years later, the veterans finally got their Bonus. It came too late for many.

The new memorial is scheduled to open in 2018, in time for the centennial of the nation’s entry into the European conflict. When Americans visit it, they should remember the Forgotten War and its forgotten veterans who suffered there during the Bonus marches of the Great Depression.

In The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army, I recount the events that led to the 1932 confrontation. The historical novel spans three decades and follows the experiences of eight Americans who survived the fighting in France and came together again in Washington fourteen years later to decide the fate of the nation on the brink of upheaval.

This post first appeared in The Huffington Post.