Ed Protzel

Genre-stretching novelist — Author of darkly ironic fiction

Black History Month; Good Time to Research The Lies That Bind Sequel

Right now, I’m working on Honor Among Outcasts, Book 2 of my DarkHorse Trilogy and the sequel to Book 1, The Lies That Bind. I'm not just working on developing the story, but preparing the research, too. Black History Month couldn’t come at a better time to stimulate my thoughts and feelings, and to offer fresh insights into the Black Experience in America, which has been nothing short of epic on the world stage.

The new novel will take place in Missouri—gasp!—to where the DarkHorse partners have fled from Mississippi. Beginning in 1863, Durk, Big Josh, Isaac, and the other former slaves will finally get their chance to put on the Union uniform, to fight for the liberation of all Southern slaves.

But things are not as simple as they anticipate.

Of course, visionary charlatan Durk Hurst, continuing his role from The Lies That Bind as the “white front man” for the DarkHorse partnership, has worked alongside the others all along, sharing their joys and their hardships.

In the new book, Durk gets the group through these rough times by characterizing his partners as “contraband” laborers, supposedly “liberated” by himself. Sometimes he calls them his own “manumission-freed former slaves,” depending on what story he is spinning and to whom on any given day, to serve whatever ends Durk’s instincts dictate. Of course, sometimes Hurst’s golden tongue does get them out of trouble—and sometimes it gets them deeper into trouble. Oh, well. Durk may be part-Seminole, but he’s the only white face his partners have to depend on.

Brutal, War-Torn Missouri
Prior to 1863, when the story begins, General Samuel Curtis had defeated the Confederate army at Pea Ridge, and chased it to Arkansas. Was that the end of fighting in Missouri? No, the worst was just beginning. During the war, Missouri had more battles and clashes than any other state besides Virginia. But they weren’t set-piece battles.

After Pea Ridge, Missouri became neighbor against neighbor, terrible stuff. The state quickly devolved into hit-and-run guerrilla attacks: civilians were victims of atrocities, and generally, few prisoners from either side lived to tell the tale. Civil war is the nastiest kind, and guerrilla war the worst of all. Look at Syria today. Civil war, guerrillas, atrocities, refugees, devastation. Well, Missouri had all that—and more!

Bushwhacker Brutality
Missouri’s pro-slavery guerrillas, called “bushwhackers”—yes, you’ve heard that reviled term—raided Lawrence, Kansas, and killed hundreds of civilians before returning home. In desperation, the Union military authority issued Order No. 11, which emptied out more than three counties in western Missouri, where many guerrillas lived. I mean cleaned them out, including pro-Union civilians, everybody. Women with husbands at war and children to raise, widows, the elderly. Many destitute, without means to carry a few goods to sustain them, were forced onto the road. And it wasn’t done in a kindly way, as you might well guess. Union soldiers, like their bushwhacker counterparts, robbed and burned. That was Missouri.

The African-American War Effort
Since twelve of the thirteen DarkHorse partners are black, naturally I’m busy researching and learning about that experience during the war. Two books I’m excited to have found are A Grand Army of Black Men, edited by Edwin S. Redkey (Cambridge University Press); and African American Faces of the Civil War: An Album, by Ronald S. Coddington (The Johns Hopkins University Press/Baltimore). See Library of Congress  webcast discussion of the Coddington book.

I’m also very happy to be studying Guerrillas in Civil War Missouri, by James W. Erwin (The History Press); and A Rough Business: Fighting the Civil War in Missouri, edited by William Garrett Piston (The State Historical Society of Missouri).

Real history must never be forgotten, least we repeat our errors. And as I delve more deeply into our country’s history, the clearer it becomes that history itself is truly stranger than fiction.

Enjoy reading The Lies That Bind, and I’ll keep working on Honor Among Outcasts.

Coming up:
Book Launch for The Lies That Bind, Feb. 18, University of Missouri-St. Louis
LA Talk Radio's
The Writer's Block

Check out my online interviews:
Hangin With
,” G.W. Pomichter’s video show (30 min.)
David Clarke’s “Different Strokes for Different Folks” (58 min.)

The Meaning of DarkHorse — and Democracy

 “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
- Winston Churchill

Since I’ve been asked, and since The Lies That Bind is the first novel in my planned DarkHorse Trilogy, I’ll explain the two basic interpretations of the name, DarkHorse, the literal meaning and the mythological meaning.

The Protagonist
First is the name of the main character: Durksen Hurst. Durksen is Hurst’s given name, but he goes by Durk. Now, Durk was raised by the Chickasaws from the age of ten, but due to their limited familiarity with English and the similarity to the words Durk Hurst, the Chickasaws called him “Dark Horse,” a name that stuck.

The Plantation
Second is the name of the plantation, DarkHorse (an egalitarian partnership between a visionary charlatan and a group of slaves). Durk’s need to prove himself to the town of Turkle is expressed by naming the plantation after his Native name, DarkHorse. Why spell it as one word? Because that’s how he writes it on the deed. While Durk is a reader, he is self-educated, and his written skills are limited. In rural antebellum Mississippi, few were highly literate. In The Lies That Bind, only the Devereau French and Antoinette DuVallier characters are well-read in the classics.

The Real Significance
Then there is the real meaning behind the name DarkHorse. These thirteen men, near starvation and with little to lose, try to carve out their own farming enterprise from the surrounding Chickasaw swampforest (with Durk having swindled the rights to a patch of land from the local tribe). And wasn’t—or isn’t—that America (including robbing the Native Americans)? Didn’t our ancestors, and don’t immigrants today, find themselves on these shores looking to build new lives, and a new civilization, unbound by the strictures of the past — bound only by rules they conceive themselves, rules far different from those they left behind in the Old World? And it doesn’t matter whether they came across the ocean in steerage or first class, in the hull of slave ships, or by modern-day airplane, they all had common aspirations.

The Old World had a rigid class system: kings, aristocracies, all manner of tribal tyrannies. Except for Athens and a sprinkle of states, that’s the way the human race organized itself. In fact, that’s the way most of the world still is today. Even mercantile, parliamentary England had an aristocracy until the twentieth century. Unless you earned a title by pulling an arrow out of the king’s butt at the battle of Widdle-upon-Piddle five centuries ago, you had a rough road ahead.

And DarkHorse? A handshake between themselves and Durk was all the partners had to go on. Those men had to learn to trust and rely on each other. Their creation was a democracy of sorts, making up the rules as they went along, with everyone participating on his own terms, the decisions being made by consensus, through debate — or rather, under their tense circumstances, outright argument.

Of course, the society surrounding them was a slave society, about as rigid a structure as you can get. Run by the powerful French family, little Turkle, Mississippi, was slave vs. free, aristocrat vs. sodbuster. Impoverished whites clung to the belief they were better than slaves. House slaves believed they were better than field slaves. Field slaves believed they were better than house slaves. In the novel, former house servant Old Moses dismisses his partners with the term “field hands,” and he doesn’t mean that as a compliment; while his partners make fun of his house servant ways.

DarkHorse has no rigid structure. Its members are recognized by what they can accomplish, not by preconceived notions or birth status. Big Josh, with his deep knowledge running his former dissolute master’s plantation, with his wisdom, with his strength and his peacemaking skills, is actually the partnership’s unacknowledged leader.

Durk, the figurehead white man, is the front for DarkHorse out of necessity, and the townsfolk give him all the credit for its success. But Durk’s real talents are mostly fast-talking and, to a minor degree, building fires. And his fast-talking may sometimes prove more a drawback than a boon to the partnership, creating “fires” he hadn’t intended. (Such as when Durk signs manumission documents freeing his partners, whom he never owned, in essence invalidating those very papers!)

Naturally, the DarkHorse partners argue, even come to blows, trying to dig themselves out of their desperate situation and build some kind of security for themselves. But democracy is rough and tumble, and solutions come the hard way. To paraphrase Churchill, “Americans always do the right thing — as a last resort.” In spite of our repeated failures, through all kinds of hardships, we usually seem to find a way to do things a little bit better in the future. It may be trial and error at times, but at least we have mechanisms for change.

Meantime, in 1861, outside the partners’ insulated world, the country itself is coming to blows: the Civil War, a conflict necessary to break down the rigid structure of the slave system, in which 700,000 Americans would die. Democracy is not always pretty.

Try as they might to ignore what’s happening elsewhere, in the second book of the DarkHorse Trilogy, Honor Among Outcasts, the DarkHorse partners will find themselves engulfed in this not-so-fraternal American conflict. Woe to them.

Buy The Lies That Bind

Online Interviews:
Hangin With” G.W. Pomichter

David Clarke’s “Different Strokes for Different Folks”

Book Launch for The Lies That Bind, University of Missouri- St. Louis

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Lies That Bind’s Big Josh

Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word—voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.
- President Barak Obama's State of the Union Address, 2016

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday. When you visit Washington, D. C., be sure to visit the Dr. King memorial on the national mall. Yes, Dr. King’s visage in granite is moving. You immediately discover tears forming in your eyes, a lump in your throat, your pulse racing, and a heaviness in your heart. But what is more moving than any sculpture are his words carved in stone all around you, expressing the eternal ideas those words capture so concisely, so sublimely, so profoundly.

Also, when in Memphis, be sure to visit the the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated. When we last visited Memphis, the museum itself was in its early stages. Even then, when the project was merely the motel and the rudimentary foundations of the museum across the street, it was exceptionally moving. We hope to go back soon.

Dr. King’s Influence on Big Josh
When I wrote the screenplay The Lies That Bind is based on, Barak Obama was not yet a national figure. At that time, black men were not portrayed in film and fiction as leaders as they are now. I created the character Big Josh in my book as the leader figure, part of a new American mythology depicting a racially harmonious America where people are equally recognized for their virtues.

A slave, simple-looking, speaking with a stutter, people in the antebellum South would have looked right through Big Josh, not seeing the man himself. Yet in the egalitarian DarkHorse partnership, where Durk Hurst and twelve uprooted slaves agree by a simple handshake to carve their own plantation out of the wilderness, it is Big Josh who is their true leader. Hurst, the white man, is merely the front man to whom the town, naturally, gives all the credit for their accomplishment. But, in truth, it took all thirteen men to make DarkHorse a success. As Hurst acknowledges, Big Josh is the heart and brains of their plantation—without whom DarkHorse would surely fail.

In essence, as I see it, Big Josh is the literary, mythological precursor to Barak Obama, the leader of America as a whole.

Symbolically, these thirteen men are rootless, finding themselves stranded in the American wilderness (Mississippi/Chickasaw swamp), and from there they must learn to work together to achieve security and prosperity for all. Isn’t that the challenge America has always represented and that we’re faced with today? Hurst had no family, no friends, no place to call home. But Hurst’s slave partners, and America’s slave population in general, could never return to Africa thousands of miles away either. Talk about being stranded. Perhaps that is why Hurst, being an outsider himself, was able to see Big Josh as a man like other men, black and white.

In his past, Big Josh ran the plantation for his drunken master and, thus, has the skills and knowledge for DarkHorse to succeed. That was pure invention on my part. However, in my recent research, I found there were, indeed, slaves who ran plantations for dissolute masters [see: The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South by John W. Blassingame].

So there were men like Big Josh in real life!

A great soul, like Dr. King, in the worst of circumstances—a slave society—Big Josh is the peacemaker in the DarkHorse partnership, always keeping headstrong partners Durk Hurst and angry Isaac from coming to blows. The novel shows in very practical, down-to-Earth terms why Dr. King’s own inspiration claimed that peacemakers—men bearing only unarmed truth and unconditional love—are blessed. Big Josh exemplifies that spirit.

Celebrate Dr. King’s life today, sure. But keep in mind his eternal ideas every day. After all, I seem to remember that Dr. King told us that he had a dream, didn’t he? And while we’re closer to that dream than we once were, we haven’t achieved that dream just yet.

See DelawareBlack.com:  "New historical novel, The Lies That Bind, debunks slave stereotypes"

Related blog posts:
Seeking a New American Mythology
Big Josh and Angry Isaac—Minus Stereotypes and the Chains of Slavery

On With the New Year: Forthcoming Novels in the Queue

Late-2015 proved a busy, busy time for me. My first novel, The Lies That Bind (The DarkHorse Trilogy, Book 1), was published in early December by TouchPoint Press, and as you can imagine, it was quite a thrill to hold the book in my hands after all that went into it!

Even before the book was in print, I’d had three interviews lined up, with many other interviews, signings and appearances in store for 2016.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
My first interview took place Dec. 3, just before the book’s release, on David Clarke’s Different Strokes for Different Folks” (we talked a full 58 min.). David calls himself a “spiritual adventurer,” and we talked about the “spiritual” — or what I’d describe as the “aspirational” — aspects of The Lies That Bind. These can be found deeply buried under the layers of desperation the characters endure and the subterfuge they must promulgate to survive in that restrictive society—beneath their deeply hidden secrets. Find it here.

Hangin With...
On the heels of the Clarke interview, I did my first Skype interview with G.W. Pomichter for his YouTube show “Hangin With... (30 min.). Garrett, a former journalist, is a great interviewer, with lots of personality and knowledge in the arts, literature and film, and the show has terrific production values. I see a limitless future in TV for Garrett. Catch it at on YouTube.

“The Writer’s Block”
On March 31, I’ll be speaking with Jim Christina and Bobbi Bell on their LA Talk Radio show, “The Writer’s Block.” Being an LA show, I’ll probably talk more extensively on my screenwriting and how The Lies That Bind had its roots in that medium.

"An audacious scheme"
I’ve even ventured into production myself, posting a brief trailer on YouTube: An audacious scheme: The Lies That Bind. In 1:15 min. it captures the intrigue and essence of The Lies That Bind. View it here.

Much more in the works! All will be posted on the Events page of my website so check back frequently. I’ll also be posting events on my Facebook page - so “Like” me if you haven’t already to get the latest. Will tweet it out too.

New novels in the queue—whoa!
Working now on two books that definitely bear the Ed Protzel imprint—conflicted characters burdened by lots of secrets, plots with a plethora of surprises, revelations, twists and turns.

First on my agenda is researching and sketching out Honor Among Outcasts, Book 2 in The DarkHorse Trilogy, which takes place in Civil War Missouri, the nastiest, cruelest perversion of the conflict. Oh, my poor, sensitive characters, faced with unspeakable crimes! Massacres of civilians by Confederate bushwackers, even Order 11 by Union General Ewing, which cleared whole counties of “pro-rebel” sympathizers: men, women, and children. How did the DarkHorse partners—Durk, Big Josh, Antoinette, Isaac, et al—Devereau French, and their respective allies jump out of the frying pan into this inferno? Book 2 due in 2016; Book 3, Something in Madness, to follow in 2017.

And then there is The Antiquities Dealer, nearing completion. I describe the novel as a genre-stretching, ostensible futuristic suspense/mystery/thriller (and don’t forget, romance). But aren’t all my works genre-stretchers?

In this novel, an upscale Jewish antiquities gallery owner is drawn by his former lover into a scheme by a purportedly ancient society of Israelis to clone the great minds of history—beginning with Jesus Christ. Oh, my!

Millennial religion, futuristic biotechnology, and human evolution collide in a cauldron peopled by our intrepid couple, plus a TV evangelist, lowlife gamblers, a former NFL player (“God’s Left Tackle”), Middle East conspiracies, and radicals of the major world religions. 

But unlike The Lies That Bind, where all the tension is dramatic or internal, The Antiquities Dealer has its share of murder, assassinations, and kidnapping…as does the real world. Buckle your seat belts!

In the meantime, I’ll be writing and exercising regularly to lose those extra holiday pounds :)

A good 2016 to you all!

Order The Lies That Bind at Amazon, B&N or through your local book store!

Seeking a New American Mythology

In writing The Lies That Bind (DarkHorse Trilogy, Book 1) — released by TouchPoint Press on Dec. 8! — I was attempting to create a new American mythology. There are a couple of wry hints of this intent within the book (one section title and the name of the county seat), but the novel’s true mythology is in its milieu (the antebellum South), structure, and characters, as I’ll explain.

“Elysian Fields” Indeed
First, Section I is titled “Elysian Scrubland.” That tells you something right away. “Elysian Fields” is the ancient Greek approximation of Paradise or Heaven, where the very best, most virtuous people go after they die. In America’s inception, the perfection we sought began merely as scrubland, not neat fields.

The novel begins with Durksen (Durk) Hurst, an itinerant “visionary” charlatan, escaping a mob into the Chickasaw swamp. Isn’t that like the original colonization of America: People leaving the Old World, often escaping oppression and/or seeking opportunity, for the wild New World of America?

There, Hurst encounters a group of stranded slaves. These slaves are rootless, coming from the oppression of slavery. Together they agree to create an egalitarian plantation, an equal partnership, which they call DarkHorse, after Hurst’s Chickasaw nickname. Isn’t that symbolic of our ancestors’ arrival in this country—an extreme version of their plight?

So the DarkHorse plantation represents the attempt by these dispossessed men to create their own “civilization” based on equality. Sound a bit like the founding of American representative democracy? It doesn’t matter where they came from. Durk’s past is revealed, and he can never return. His partners can never return to their past either. Their old plantation, where they were slaves, is gone. Besides, they had no rights there. And their African homeland is an ocean away, an impossibility to cross.

A Uniquely American Concept
Thus, symbolically, their DarkHorse enterprise is like the original America. These people have no model to follow, no rules waiting to be adopted, no preconceived ideas on which to base their actions. And no clear consensus on how to govern. For the first time in their lives, the former-slave partners are free from fear of the lash. Durk, too, who had to keep his abolitionist opinions to himself, is now free to treat black men as human beings.

The adjustment of these very different men, from very different circumstances, to each other is an important dramatic element of the book. Isn’t that symbolic of multi-cultural America, the inclusion of so many different ethnic, religious, and racial groups into the “melting pot” that is America?

Studies have been done of historical colonization. For example, the Greeks colonized the Mediterranean centuries before our ancestors colonized America. In every case, the original belief systems and social structures of the old civilization weren’t retained in the new colonies; they were dispensed with or dissipated. Aren’t things constantly being created anew in America? Wasn’t our constitution, with its checks and balances, its dispensing with kings and aristocracy, and our social formations very different from Europe, Africa, or Asia? And aren’t we still evolving?

I should mention, the establishment characters in the novel, the powerful French family, also contribute to the story’s mythology — especially regarding the role of women. But you’ll have to read the novel to find the meaning which is deeply hidden and only revealed as the novel progresses.

Nod to the Greeks
Oh, a funny tidbit: The town’s county seat, where the big money cotton exchange and wealthy brokers are located, is named “Lethe Creek.” In Greek mythology, when people died, they were taken on a boat down the river Styx by the ferryman Charon, to Hades, the underworld. The river Lethe is one of the five rivers in Hades, and all who drink from its waters experience complete forgetfulness, forever.

With the word lethe defined as “oblivion,” “forgetfulness,” or “concealment,” Lethe was also the name of the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion. Indeed, lethe is related to the word aletheia, the Greek word for truth, which literally means “un-forgetfulness” or “un-concealment.”

Concealment! All the novel’s characters are concealing profound secrets (which are unraveled as the story progresses). Indeed, a major element of the novel is the eternal war between truth and lies—oops, the word Lies in the title is a clear giveaway! Read it and you’ll find out why :)

Enjoy your holidays and let me know how you like the book.

Order it at Amazon - print & Kindle editions. Other outlets to be added soon!

Until January...Cheers!

From Screenplay to Novel: The Evolution of The Lies That Bind

I originally wrote The Lies That Bind not as a novel, but as a screenplay for feature film. At that time, I was writing spec scripts for Hollywood, everything from science fiction, to futuristic, to historical, as well as writing development treatments for film projects. I still believe the story, named DarkHorse in that incarnation, is the best script I ever wrote.

Fortunately, the late Bob Friedman, president of the Missouri Association of Performing Playwrights at the time, quite a writer of plays and operas for the stage himself, read the script and was wowed. Bob was kind enough to organize a filmed reading of the script to introduce me to the St. Louis playwright community, with professional actors and award-winning writers reading many of the parts and others in attendance, including George Hickenlooper, Jr., the father of the late writer/film director, George Hickenlooper III.

Later, Murray Silverman, president of 20th Century-Fox MTI, gave the script to Sherry Lansing, who called it a “great script.” We both thought my future in Hollywood was made. However, just at that time, Fox was bought by Ruppert Murdock, and Sherry Lansing left Fox to take over Paramount. Being a newer screenwriter, naturally, my career fell through the cracks. Another producer offered an option on the script. His idea was to submit the script to Oprah to produce, but we never agreed to contract terms. Life happens.

The Incubation Period
DarkHorse the script sat for some years, but the power of this unique story ate at me. Once I decided to turn to writing novels, I knew exactly where to start. Suddenly, it was like Alice in Wonderland when she ate the mushroom or drank from the bottle: the story and characters outgrew the restraints of the two-hour script medium and bloomed into a deep, multi-layered work of fiction.

Screenplays for feature film are a very limited medium. Scripts are typically 120-minute pages of dialogue and action, and the director and actors must bring the characters to life as their talent allow. But in the novel format, which can be hundreds of pages, the writer can reveal what the characters are thinking and feeling, which allows the writer to go into great depth and to take the story over great stretches of time and space. For example, when a character’s thoughts are at odds with his/her actions, that can lead to irony and reveal internal conflict. You can do a lot more with a novel than a screenplay.

In The Lies That Bind, the main character is Durksen (Durk) Hurst, whom I describe as a “visionary charlatan.” That in itself is almost contradictory, and only by exploring Durk’s thoughts and perceptions can the reader fully grasp how complex the man really is. How and why does he invent such a foolhardy scheme as a partnership with slaves to build their own egalitarian plantation? Along the way, why does he take the risks he does, which jeopardize all their lives? What is it in his past  that drives him to take such risks? In attempting the seemingly impossible, is Durk terrified, doubtful? How do he and his partners really feel about each other? How does their relationship change?

Each of the main characters becomes a three-dimensional, flesh and blood human being, with fears, hopes, dreams, resentments, and secrets from the past—oh, their pasts! That’s the beauty of writing a novel: the writer can reveal a character’s secrets at a time when they’ll have the most dramatic and thematic effect.

The first version of The Lies That Bind was well over 650 pages, but I knew I had to trim it down to make it tighter. Then I rewrote it and it got longer again, so I cut it back again. I endured this process several times before being satisfied with the result.

Also, as I rewrote the novel, my writing got better and sharper, leaner and meaner. Sometimes, for example, I cut standard descriptions and replaced them with impressionistic ones, which made for a faster read, sure, but also made for a more emotional, more aesthetic experience for the reader.

I hope you will agree.

Watch for the release of The Lies That Bind from TouchPoint Press later this month!

Big Josh and Angry Isaac—Minus Stereotypes and the Chains of Slavery

The core of my historical novel, The Lies That Bind (TouchPoint Press, Nov. 2015), is the unique relationship between visionary charlatan Durksen (Durk) Hurst and a dozen helplessly stranded slaves who partner together to build their own egalitarian plantation, which they will call DarkHorse.

Wormsloe Plantation

The DarkHorse plantation itself is mythological, carved out of the Chickasaw forest by this ungainly baker’s dozen. As a literary technique, dramatically and structurally, DarkHorse creates a dynamic triangle between the partnership’s main characters: Durk, plus Big Josh and Isaac, both of whom are still legally slaves, and thus at risk of being re-enslaved—or worse—alongside Durk, who would surely hang should their scheme be exposed.

This pervasive danger forces the ill-fitting partners to adapt to each other in order to make decisions and settle disputes—quickly. But the characters’ awkwardness—given the time and place, their different races, legal status, and outlook—creates a tension and a sense of irony, resulting in some of the book’s most hilarious and most touching scenes.

Interestingly, although my original concept and first draft invented Big Josh and Isaac from whole cloth, during subsequent research I discovered that historically there were slaves such as Big Josh who ran plantations for dissolute masters. (See previous blog.)

I am a lover and reader of the great Southern novelists, especially William Faulkner. It was during a read of his iconic Absalom, Absalom! that the idea for The Lies That Bind came to me. I wondered why give all the credit for the success of Sutpen’s Hundred plantation to Thomas Sutpen? The labor of his slaves built his empire. In fact, I’ve blogged about how slaves and women are so often stereotyped in Southern literature. In my novel, I attempt to correct these oversights by portraying the novel’s slaves, including Big Josh and Isaac, as real men, and to give them credit for their intelligence and labors. I do the same with the novel’s women.

Big Josh’s Talents and Smarts
The DarkHorse plantation cannot survive without Big Josh’s talents and smarts. Simple looking, a stutterer, Big Josh has already upended stereotypes when we meet him. We learn Big Josh had run the plantation “back home” for his drunken master, a man who insisted people call him “General,” despite his lack of a military background. Because of Big Josh’s knowledge and wisdom, this natural peacekeeper becomes the unspoken, but acknowledged, true leader of the DarkHorse partnership. Durk is merely acting as the figurehead “white master,” with no actual experience in farming or building other than as an itinerant laborer, whose vainglorious, but failed, past endeavors had always left him broke and alone.

Angry Isaac
Then there is angry Isaac, an escaped slave who had been badly treated and was living as a swamp rat in Chickasaw territory when he first latches onto the partnership. Isaac’s past mistreatment led him to distrust all people, especially white people. In the first encounter between Durk and his future partners, wary Isaac insists that the stranded slaves bury Durk in the swamp lest he turn them in for a reward. And it is only Big Josh’s intervention that forestalls that tragedy.

Dramatically, Isaac serves as a counterbalance to Durk Hurst. While slaves were reluctant to criticize whites, hostile Isaac has too much anger to ever hold back. He brings up issues and flaws in Durk and Durk’s outrageous schemes that get the discussion—or rather, the arguments—going. Seeing this, Durk’s other partners get brave enough to express their opinions, too. This makes DarkHorse’s internal conflicts lively, to say the least.

Again, my research showed there were many slaves who, like fictional Isaac, had escaped bondage to live in marginal areas, in swamps, forests, and mountainous lands. These were called maroons at the time. Understandable, considering the lash was a major management technique on many plantations.

Despite Isaac’s vehement initial hostility toward Durk, Durk comes to realize that he has much in common with Isaac, especially their mutual alienation toward society. But Durk also sees a vast difference between them: that a slave can’t “pack his goods in a handkerchief and leave his troubles behind like a white man.”

There are no rules, no defined roles, no model to guide these mismatched protagonists through their ordeal. Yet despite their natural antipathy toward one another, they must somehow learn to cohere to survive. As a result, each must evolve as human beings—or they are all doomed.

A life lesson for us all.

Next week: Evolution from Screenplay to Novel
November is here — watch for the release date of The Lies That Bind later this month and how to pre-order!

Characters: The Soul of a Novel

A good character will almost write your own novel for you, will make your story come alive. An example of this is Durksen (Durk) Hurst, aka Dark Horse, in my forthcoming novel, The Lies That Bind (TouchPoint Press, November 2015).

In last week’s blog, I wrote that, in writing a novel, you should make sure you know what your major characters want or, if they’re conflicted like Hamlet, why they’re confused. Then make their actions true to their inner motivation. In this way, your characters will become real people, will even initiate actions that may surprise you and breathe authenticity into your story.

Complexity Creates Character
Keep in mind: stories are about conflict. The different characters’ interests should clash. Build as much conflict as you can into the story and into every scene: between protagonist and nemesis; even between the protagonist and his/her allies; and conflict within the nemesis’ group. But the story is richer when that conflict comes from within the characters—the plot then feels real, not artificial, trumped up.

No one is simple. A killer may be repulsed by his/her own tendency toward violence. A hero may have grave doubts about his/her ambitions. Ambiguity is the key here—build lots of ambiguity into your tale, into every event and character. In The Lies That Bind, seemingly logical actions propelled by the characters’ own internal contradictions develop into irony, humor, and meaning for the reader.

 When Durk Hurst first appears in The Lies That Bind, he is being chased by a mob. Is Durk bad or good? or a real person with inherent complexities? I often describe Durk as a “visionary charlatan,” and that almost contradictory description illustrates the contradictions within Durk himself. As a visionary, he has ideas that he believes will help whole classes of people throughout the South, poor farmers, widows, everyone—and make him rich to boot. But one of these get-rich, help-everybody schemes is why he’s being chased. Durk has his limitations.

Near the beginning of the novel, Durk agrees to a secret partnership with a group of slaves stranded in the Mississippi wilds to build their own egalitarian plantation, with Durk serving as the partnership’s figurehead “white master.” An idealistic scheme, yes; yet a death-defying one. But then Durk’s ambitious urges take over, as he attempts to parlay the partnership’s success into great wealth—incurring enormous, possibly fatal consequences.

Naturally, great tension and cataclysmic actions are generated by Durk’s own flawed character. Like real life, the interests of flawed people colliding with those of other flawed people. And so, history is written.

Next week: Big Josh and Isaac Defy Stereotypes
Watch for the release date of The Lies That Bind!

Celebrating National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. A great time to start your own novel! Visit http://nanowrimo.org/

Take the NaNoWriMo Challenge in November

Well, here is where I don my writing coach cap and whistle and draw your attention to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), being celebrated in November across the country.

 If you’ve ever wanted to write fiction, you should definitely go for it next month. Just sign up  at NaNoWriMo.org and draft a 50,000 word novel or novella. You track your progress, get pep talks and support, and meet fellow writers online and in person. What more could you ask for?

Sure, any writer can tell you that good novels are not just written; they’re re-written, edited, and edited some more. But still, this is a great starter exercise, if it only motivates you to get the story down. You can re-write/edit later. In fact, once you get your first draft roughed, then the fun really begins as you revise. So go for it!

 A Less Solitary Experience
It’s nice that today there is so much support, online and otherwise, for would-be writers. The effort is not quite as solitary as it once was. Perhaps there are enough ways to link up to other writers and readers to overcome the isolation of the computer screen. I’ll tell you, readers who will take time to give you considered feedback are solid gold. Makes the long, hard slog of writing a novel more fun. A reader will have a different perspective from yours, and will tell you honestly when your story is unclear, etc., plus engage you in discussions that will summon up good ideas. Solid gold indeed.

The good thing about this one-month challenge is that it forces the writer to write every day. That’s great because, as I’ve mentioned, for a new writer, especially in the beginning, creating a novel can be more than challenging. It’s like your brain has inertia of rest: you’ve got to cut your way into the story with a sword or an ax. Once your story is going, however, it’s like inertia of motion: it’s painful to be kept away from your tale. At some point, the act of creating your story is so pleasurable, so exciting, so fulfilling, you don’t want to stop. It’s more than worth the pain of getting started.

An “Easy” Method
Frankly, when I get an idea for a novel, I’m pretty ready to go—I can’t wait, in fact. Experience, perhaps; but the only way to get experience is to start writing. One fun way to go about crafting a novel is the method Syd Fields’ book, Screenplay, suggests for writing scripts. I’ve used it and recommend it.

Divide the story into four roughly equal segments. Come up with three major plot points: a quarter-way, half-way, and three-quarters-way in. Then decide on your dénouement or climax. These are guideposts and may change somewhat. In fact, the events at these guideposts may change meaning by the time you get to them because your story has outgrown them. It’s great if things change or evolve: that means you’re creativity is taking over!

Make sure you know what your major characters want; or if they’re confused, like Hamlet, why they’re confused. Then make their actions true to their motivation, which will keep the story moving forward. In this way, your characters can come alive, and your story will be more than a simple narrative. Often, your characters will fool you and change the story. To me, this is the magic of fiction writing—being surprised and delighted by your own creation!

Next week: More on creating characters, depth and themes, and how I developed the characters in my forthcoming novel, The Lies That Bind (TouchPoint Press, November 2015).

The Book Title: Doorway to the Story

Strangers On A Bridge.jpg

Saw the Steven Spielberg film “Bridge of Spies,” this weekend, which vividly reproduced the paranoia of the post-WWII/Cold War era. The Soviets were hardliners, no doubt;, but we had many of our own hard cases, too. Both the U. S. and the Soviets had a long slug to victory over the Nazis. And, naturally, hardliners in both camps were in the ascendancy after VE Day. That’s the way it works.

As a writer, reflecting on “Bridge” got me thinking of the importance of titles, both of movies and books. That, of course, led me to thinking about the title of my own forthcoming novel, The Lies That Bind (TouchPoint Press, November 2015): a dark, ironic, and twisted tale of intrigue in the antebellum South.

I’ve been asked by other writers how I came up with the title, and I can honestly say it was a major headache–until it appeared in a flash of light. The challenge was how to encapsulate the story’s many elements, overall mood, themes, and time and place. Do you try to elicit mood or do you get specific?

That’s a lot to pack into a few words, and still try to entice a reader to wonder about its meaning and to pick the book off the shelf.

I haven’t yet read Strangers on a Train (the book by James B. Donovan the movie was based on), but I’m guessing the “Bridge” in the movie title relates not only to the physical Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin, but to the connection bridged between the mutually hostile East and West that brought about the story’s humanitarian Powers/Able/student prisoner exchange. On a human level, “Bridge” also alludes to the respect that developed between Able, the Soviet spy, and Donovan, the lawyer reluctantly representing him, as men of principle, without painting either as evil or enemies in the Cold War.

A good title focuses on a book’s central theme.
Hanks (as Donovan) argued artfully and logically not to put Abel to death so that he might be used a future pawn if an American were captured. Donovan was an insurance wheeler-dealer, a regular guy, not a political hardliner, and diplomacy won out over vengeance and death. Hey, we’re still trying to learn that lesson today, right?

My book title, The Lies That Bind, focuses the reader on the story’s central themes, too. But unlike the phrase “the ties that bind,” which has a positive connotation, Lies shows the dark side of life in Southern slave society, with people held together through deceit, bound by falsehoods: injustice, subterfuge, and outright intimidation. See synopsis.

 Yet, though the novel’s characters must live lies and live with lies, oppression can never be omnipotent. The opposite is true, in fact. This story shows that the only way we can fulfill our highest aspirations is to find the truth deep in our own hearts. It’s a battle we never stop fighting within ourselves.

In a macro sense, too, The Lies That Bind shows that a society built on falsehood and injustice is fated for an upheaval that will bring it crashing down. If you doubt that,  just look at the former Soviet Union and its puppet, East Germany, which “Bridge of Spies” presents so well. And, historically, regarding The Lies That Bind, what was the result of the slavery system? I think my novel dramatizes it pretty clearly.

See you next week. Good reading!

Interpreting the Ambivalent, Conflicted Harper Lee

Having just completed my read of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I was not surprised to learn of the similarities between her fictionalized Atticus Finch father-figure (in Watchman and in the later-published but earlier-set To Kill a Mockingbird) and her real-life father, newspaperman A.C. Lee (see the AP’s Jay Reeves’ report in the Christian Science Monitor).

In Watchman, Lee’s massive polemics against father-figure Atticus felt like angry, youthful rebellion against her real father, A. C., who as noted was part racist Watchman-Atticus and part honorable Mockingbird-Atticus.

In the AP report, A. C. Lee, editor and owner of their hometown paper, The Monroe Journal, from 1929 to 1949, did in fact support segregation, was nostalgic for the vanquished Confederacy, and was against proposed (failed) federal legislation against lynching. Still, he editorialized against lynching and displayed front page stories on its horrors. He also published positive stories on the local black community, unusual for deep South white newspapers.

It appears Mockingbird, having been written second, may reflect Harper Lee’s emotional reconciliation with her racist but otherwise honorable father, as perhaps evidenced in Watchman’s conclusion and made right in her much-loved To Kill a Mockingbird.

A daughter’s dilemma in any era.

Taken together, Lee’s two novels appear to express her own highly charged, mixed feelings about her father—as well as her disgust with the South’s racist Jim Crow ties to the past and its resistance to Civil Rights.

For me, I was left with my own disturbing sense of ambivalence about Atticus, the character I thought I knew and admired from Mockingbird.

If only we could make right our disappointments with a re-write in real life.

What’s your take on Lee, on rectifying disappointment? Can art help heal the wounds of the past?


Note: Like Harper Lee, my Southern novel, The Lies That Bind, confronts racism, sexism and class distinctions in antebellum Mississippi.

Watch for its November release and how to order!

November Release for "The Lies That Bind"

Great news! I just learned that my novel, "The Lies That Bind," is scheduled for publication this November (TouchPoint Press)!! We'll post the book cover as soon as possible and let you know where you'll be able to order it.

It's been a long time coming. I've been living with these characters for years and feel I know them personally. I hope you'll feel the same when you read the book.

Stay tuned :)

Introducing Big Josh: the Undervalued African-American

Each semester I have the privilege of teaching a writing course for college juniors and seniors at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. This past semester’s was an evening class attended by so-called “non-traditional students,” meaning I had more students who were a bit older, worked full time, and had full family responsibilities, including wives or husbands, children, and even grandchildren to support. And although school is quite a drag on their limited time and energies, they push ahead to get their degrees.

A good percentage of the students were African-American, and their personal sacrifices and drive to excel would open the eyes of any citizen whose perception of them was formed basically through the lens of local newscasts, sensationalized headlines or talk radio, and little to no actual interaction with them as individuals (more in future blogs). On top of their other responsibilities, the adults in my class devote much time to their churches and charities, to helping others when some of them could use a helping hand themselves. Is it any wonder I so greatly admire their work ethic and perseverance in their efforts to better themselves and their families?

"Uncle Jim" Lawson

Big Josh: Giving Credit Where Due
One of the major characters in my novel, The Lies That Bind (to be published this year by TouchPoint Press), is Big Josh, a man of great heart and intelligence in his fifties who has lived his entire life as a slave. In one of the novel’s major plot streams, Big Josh and his group of enslaved men, hopelessly stranded in the Mississippi wilds, take great risks to form a secret partnership with the visionary charlatan Durksen Hurst to build an egalitarian plantation they will call Dark Horse. White and black share the work—and the deprivation—of building Dark Horse. However, there are limits to well-meaning equality in a society structured to be inherently unequal.

Having run the plantation back home, Big Josh is the real strength and brains behind the success of the farming side of their plantation scheme. He is a deep thinker and peacemaker within the ill-fitting partnership, a man with a tragic past (how many slaves who survived didn't have tragic pasts?). But with Durk serving as figurehead "white master," the town's admiration, and fear, are bestowed solely on Durk—whose only farming experience was busting up clods for his drunk-of-a-daddy. Big Josh and the other partners are virtually invisible. Ironically, Durk, whose incompetence is matched only by his naivete and blind ambition, is the one who puts their endeavor at greatest peril.

This dichotomy exposes one of the deeper meanings of the novel, and one of the currents in our society today. The antebellum South’s wealth was based on agriculture, but the wealthiest elite made their fortunes on the backs of slave labor. And slavery was not a benevolent institution. Don’t the bonded laborers deserve some credit—much less some remuneration—for the South’s extraordinary successes? But whose statues and portraits grace the region?

In one of the greatest American novels, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Thomas Sutpen builds Sutpen’s Hundred on the backs of slave labor; yet Sutpen becomes the legend. Isn’t this skewed slant symbolic of the antebellum South? Why shouldn’t Big Josh—or so many like him—get at least a public mention? As in my novel, slaves would have been satisfied to simply not be slaves, allowed to eat what they grew, to be warm when they could earn enough to buy a blanket, to live in a house they built for themselves—and to not live in constant fear.

But 700,000 men, white and black, would have to die before slaves could even come close to achieving that minimum condition. And even today, a skewed view of the African-American community by too many continues to hold them back.

Next Up: A campaign to require a disclaimer on hate speech.

To be announced soon: Publication date of Ed Protzel’s novel, The Lies That Bind, a darkly ironic antebellum mystery/drama set in Turkle, Mississippi, 1859-61, (TouchPoint Press, 2015).

Ed Protzel’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone. Blog copyrighted by Ed Protzel © 2015.

© Copyright 2017 Ed Protzel