Researching travel in the 1800s

Toll house and toll road from the 1800s.

Toll house and toll road from the 1800s.

As I research and write the Jackson Speed Memoirs, one of the things that really fascinates me is the transportation of the era.

Anyone familiar with the books will know that typically the books unravel along a physical journey, and Speed rarely finishes a book in the same place he started it. So I end up spending a lot of time figuring out how a 19th Century scoundrel would get from here to there.

Transportation in the 19th Century was a crazy slow mixture of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and determination.

For instance, in the earliest days of train travel, it was not uncommon to have a bolt in the floor of the train car come loose from the vibrations and shoot into the air. Train passengers were sometimes injured by these flying bolts. And those early trains did not have cushioned seats, so passengers bumped and jerked over rails while sitting on flat wood benches or chairs. I imagine train depots probably presented a comical sight of stiff-backed travelers trying to stretch out the kinks.

The very first trains, going back to the early 1800s, consisted of nothing more than stagecoaches hooked to an engine.

Water, of course, was hugely important to travel. The rivers truly were our first highways.

I once came across some information about a river that I frequently travel in my canoe. The Oconee River, which runs from north of Athens, Ga., to South Georgia where it helps form the Altamaha River and goes out to the Atlantic, is a narrow river full of shoals and sandbars, and once or twice a month I can be found in my canoe paddling the Oconee around Athens.

In the early 1800s, the Oconee had significant boat traffic from the sea up to Dublin, Georgia. Above Dublin, the Oconee passes through Milledgeville (which was the antebellum state capital).

For more than a decade, every spring, tens of thousands of dollars and countless man hours were wasted trying to clear the Oconee of obstacles from Dublin to Milledgeville so that boat traffic could move up to the state capital. Typically in a season they would only be able to float a small handful of ships up river. The river north of Dublin was just too shallow for boats. They would dredge the sand and clear deadfall and even blast rocks, but the work would only clear the river long enough to allow a few boats to get to Milledgeville.

In Indiana there was an even bigger boondoggle in the making.

In the mid-1830s the Indiana general assembly passed a bill allocating $3.5 million to the construction of the Indiana Central Canal. Intended to run 296 miles from the Wabash and Erie Canal to the Ohio River, only 9 miles were ever completed (near Indianapolis) and another two dozen miles were dug. The project nearly bankrupted the state.

In the 1900s, the completed portion of the canal at Indianapolis was used to provide drinking water for the city, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

In researching the Jackson Speed novels, I dig pretty deep into the history of transportation, and I am constantly amazed by what I learn. Mostly, I am amazed at the ingenuity of the human race.

In Jackson Speed and the Fugitive Slaves, Speed flees slave hunters aboard a flat boat.

Big rivers – the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and others – were littered with these flat boats. They were large barges built almost like house boats, and farmers would pack these boats with livestock and produce and float them down the rivers (Abraham Lincoln once floated a flat boat down the Mississippi).

Typically when they arrived where they were going, these farmers would sell their boats and walk home. Sometimes the boats would be dismantled and the lumber used to construct homes or barns. Sometimes people would live on the boats on the river. Sometimes they would hitch the boats to steamships and carry them back upstream.

Especially in the novels set prior to the Civil War, my ability to get Speed from one place to another is very limited. I have several period maps I use that show the rail lines in the 1840s and 1850s, and the railroads of the day were a bizarre mishmash of ties and rails. Particularly as a line was being constructed, it was possible to arrive halfway along your journey only to discover that to complete your trip you would have to find some other mode of travel because the tracks had not yet been laid all the way to your destination. Speed encountered this particular dilemma when he arrived in Chattanooga in Fugitive Slaves.

But of course there was always some other way. A canal, a steamship, a stagecoach, or a horse would get you where you needed to go.

Another aspect of travel at the time that interests me is that most of the roads of the early- to mid-1800s were toll roads that were privately owned. While toll bridges proved to be successful private ventures – because evading the toll was quite a challenge when crossing a river – toll roads were less successful as private ventures. Toll jumpers, known as “shunpikers,” were common, and the roads were often chartered by the government with lots of regulations. People who lived within a mile of the tollhouse were not to be charged; people on normal family business were not to be charged; people going to and from church were not to be charged.

Between the no-charges and the shunpikers, private toll roads struggled to make money.

By the early 1900s, local and state governments were taking over roadways and the private toll roads were soon to be a thing of the past.

The history of travel in the United States is fascinating to me, and it’s easy for me to get lost in the research as I try to move Jackson Speed from one place to another without benefit of interstates, cars driving 75 mph or airplanes.

In some of the novels, such as Jackson Speed and the Fugitive Slaves, the physical journey the characters make is as important as to the story as anything, but in other novels, the travel is merely a necessary part of the story. In Fugitive Slaves, I spent hours and hours researching roadways, river and train travel of 1853.

In the novel I’m currently writing, Jackson Speed in the Rush, Speed makes one of the biggest journeys in the history of our nation – the Overland trip to California. I spent a massive amount of time researching the trip, but the novel is not about that journey and it only takes up a chapter of the book.

I think my fascination with early travel stems from a family story I heard many years ago. There is a letter that survived from when my Peecher ancestors moved from Virginia to the Midwest in the early 1800s (before the war). In the letter, one of the women making the journey wrote of traveling over the Appalachian Mountains, and she noted that one evening as they camped they were able to see across the valley to the spot where they had camped the previous night. It was a long, slow process to travel any distance.

And while I certainly don’t lament the advances and improved efficiency of travel from those days in the 1800s when Jackson Speed was traipsing about, I do find a certain nostalgia in the slower, simpler modes of travel of 150 years ago.

Speed’s English ancestry

Allan Pinkerton, America's first detective, was born in Scotland. The Pinkerton in the Speed novels is a Partick Thistle fan.

Allan Pinkerton, America’s first detective, was born in Scotland. The Pinkerton in the Speed novels is a Partick Thistle fan.

I’ve written before that the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser provided much of the inspiration for Jackson Speed, and there is no question that the Jackson Speed books are similar to the Harry Flashman novels.

The character type – the roving rascal, the womanizing coward, the historical bully – is inspired by Fraser’s Flashman. I also employed the same tool of holding out the novels as “found” memoirs. It is a fact, too, that Jackson Speed was dreamt up while I was re-reading Flashman (for the third time) and reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative.

But the deeper I get into writing the Speed novels, the less I think I rely on Flashman and the more Speed has become his own person. I’ll admit, when I wrote the first Speed novel, “El Teneria,” the voice speaking to me in my head was more Flashman than Speed.

But I’ve found, particularly with “Orange Turnpike” and “High Tide” and now as I write the fifth Speed novel, that the voice I hear in my head is Speed’s voice.

It helps, too, that having written him through Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, I think Speed is more American now than he was in “El Teneria.”

Let me explain: Even though I live in rural Georgia, a British accent is a commonplace thing for me. I know several guys who are English and living here. I play soccer with them all the time. I watch English Premier League soccer and Scottish Premiership soccer, so the announcers all have English or Scottish accents. I follow on Twitter and Facebook many fans of the Scottish soccer team Partick Thistle, and I read their tweets and posts every Saturday morning. And because we’re all Partick Thistle fans, I get to read a lot of cussing, so much so, that I even gripe and moan and complain with a Scottish accent these days (liberally laced with “fook” and “pish” and “shite”).

I watch Top Gear and, at least when I wrote “El Teneria,” I watched a lot of Doctor Who and even Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

So, I may speak with a Southern drawl and I may be surrounded by Southern accents here in rural Georgia, but I am still constantly exposed to various British accents.

And because Jackson Speed was so heavily influenced by Harry Flashman, I think Speed started life with more of an English influence than I ever intended.

But the more I write (and gain confidence in my own character and my own writing), the less Flashman influences Speed. My character has grown into his own. And he’s developed his own voice, with a properly Southern accent. It helps, too, that he’s been through some very American experiences and been hanging out with very American people. I mean, how can you keep your English influences when you count among your friends people like Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee?

Without question, Jackson Speed traces his lineage back to England, and his ancestors are Harry Flashman and the guys from Top Gear and Premier League announcers, but I think he is now fully and completely American and, more importantly, Southern.

Nevertheless, I continue to owe a debt of gratitude to my fellow Partick Thistle fans on Twitter and Facebook (and the Scottish sitcom “Still Game”), and they will continue to find their way into the Jackson Speed books. I get my Allan Pinkerton dialect from Partick Thistle fans. Pinkerton, of course, pre-dates Partick Thistle’s founding, but I am confident America’s first detective would have been a Thistle supporter.

The fifth book is coming along very well now. Speed is currently hanging out in Indian Territory with Stand Watie, but he will soon be making his way west to encounter Joaquin Murieta.

Jackson Speed proves too risque for teenagers

whitman leaves of grass

Last night my oldest son and I were shooting some video for another project, and he had the idea of shooting video of me reading from one of my novels.

I thought immediately of one of my favorite scenes from a Jackson Speed book – the Baltimore ball in “Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs” where Speedy is attempting seduce a Baltimore Belle by reading poetry to her. The book at hand is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. So Speed picks it up and begins to read aloud to a gathering of ladies.

It is outrageously funny to me that Speed, a Pinkerton agent attempting to save president-elect Abraham Lincoln from the vicious gang of assassins, the secessionist Blood Tubs, is using the poetry of abolitionist Walt Whitman to woo these Baltimore belles.

The scene makes me laugh every time I think about it.

But not everyone thinks it’s funny.

When I first started writing the Jackson Speed novels, my sons were young enough that my wife would not let them read my books because of the sexual content. I’ve never thought the books were particularly graphic, but I admit my sensibilities are a little more jaded than some.

The boys, now older, will agree that the content of my novels is no more graphic than the latest Eric Church song, but because the books were written by their father, they are completely freaked out by even the hint of sexual innuendo that came from their dad’s imagination.

So my sons have never read any of my novels.

And when Harrison looked over my shoulder at what I was going to read for the video last night, he completely freaked out. He caught a line that made him more than a little uneasy. He’s 19-years-old, but he went running from the house and dragged his 14-year-old brother with him.

What Harrison doesn’t know is that the offending line was not from his father but instead came from Walt Whitman.

If you are familiar with Leaves of Grass, you’ll know that the thing would make Hugh Hefner blush. When it was first published in 1855, Whitman was working for the Department of the Interior. Interior Secretary James Harlan fired Whitman after reading it. In 1882, Boston’s District Attorney threatened Whitman with local statutes against obscenity. Whitman’s publisher even dropped the book at one point.

I probably will not produce or upload the video. Something about teenagers running from the house shakes my confidence. But if you think you can handle erotic poetry from the 1850s and you see the humor in a Southern Pinkerton agent wooing secessionist women with abolitionist poetry, maybe you should give Jackson Speed a read.

Maybe I’ll try to find a tamer scene from one of the books to read for a video, one that won’t assault my sons’ fragile sensibilities. Maybe the scene where the Blood Tubs torture the army spy.

Great launch for Jackson Speed at the High Tide

Jackson Speed at the High Tide: Volume IV of the Jackson Speed Memoirs

Jackson Speed at the High Tide: Volume IV of the Jackson Speed Memoirs

In the past three years I’ve launched eight books or short stories – four Jackson Speed novels, a couple of Moses Calhoun short stories, Iron Curling Ale and Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings.

The launch of Jackson Speed at the High Tide has been the best so far.

The book went live on Amazon as a Kindle ebook last week and I made no announcement at the time. I was waiting for the paperback to be live before I started any promotions. Nevertheless, within a couple of hours of the book going live, someone in the United Kingdom bought one of the books!

If you think that doesn’t make me feel like the John Grisham of the War Between the States, then you are dramatically underestimating the value of the sale of one $3 ebook.

I’m still not sure exactly how so many people in the United Kingdom found the Jackson Speed books, but every time I get a royalty check in British pounds I am so grateful to my English speaking cousins.

Sales for High Tide have been surprisingly good these first few days, and I’m trying very hard to improve my marketing efforts. My hope is there may be some folks coming to see Jackson Speed for the first time.

If that’s you, I’ll offer a little background: Jackson Speed was born in the spring of 2013 while I reading Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War: A Narrative.” By a happy coincidence, I was splitting time between two books that May, Foote’s Civil War book and George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel. This was my third or fourth time reading Flashman.

I came across a passage – not more than a paragraph or two – where Foote described the efforts of the famous private detective Allen Pinkerton and “a female spy” who saved Abraham Lincoln’s life from an assassination plot prior to Lincoln taking office. Foote named the group planning the assassination as the “Blood Tubs.”

My imagination exploded. It was Fraser’s influence on me that did it. In an instant, I saw the entirety of Jackson Speed’s life form in my mind, and that morning I started writing the first Jackson Speed novel. That one was Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria, and I introduced the lecherous young coward from the Mexican-American War in that book. It was followed up by the book that inspired the series – Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs.

Volume III of the Jackson Speed Memoirs (Jackson Speed on the Orange Turnpike) leads directly into Volume IV – the latest in the series.

If you’re new to Jackson Speed, my intention was to write a series where you could pick up any book and start from there, and you certainly do not have to read them in the order they were written.

I suppose the books are popular in the United Kingdom because of the Flashman influence. It must be that the Brits just love a cowardly, lecherous scoundrel. No shame in that. I love them, too.

I’m pleased to say, though, that my domestic sales have picked up quite a bit over the past few months, and now that Jackson Speed at the High Tide is done and dusted, I’m working on Volume V – Jackson Speed in the Rush! This one will go back in time in Speed’s life, and readers will discover how he made his fortune in the California Gold Rush of ’49.

Texas Ranger, Forty-Niner, Pinkerton Detective, Yankee spy, Confederate officer, Wild West Gunslinger … Jackson Speed may be all these things, but if you read his memoirs you discover that he’s also a cowardly adventurer, a rascal, and a womanizer.

As one reader stated in a review, “The history is true and the fiction is fun!”

So check out the Jackson Speed novels if you like your heroes to be cowardly, and if you enjoy what you read, I’d love to hear from you!

Iron Curling Ale soft opening begins now

iron curling ale finalIron Curling Ale is now available in paperback.

You can get it through my createspace estore. I was going to wait until May 11, but I have decided to do a “soft opening.” The ebook is not yet done and won’t be available for at least a week or more.

As I’ve mentioned, this was a short story I wrote about 22 years ago when I was in college. A year or so ago I dug it out of a box, dusted it off and started typing it in. I thought maybe I’d publish it, maybe with some other old short stories I have lying around, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it.

But as I was typing it in, I decided Iron Curling Ale was not nearly as good as I remembered it being. The story was good, I thought, but the writing was poor. Not just poor in the way that I look back at something I’ve written and think, “Well, I could have rephrased that.” No, the writing was really poor.

So I stopped retyping Iron Curling Ale and I started rewriting.

While I wrote I put on my ear phones and pumped 1990s music straight into my head at ridiculously loud volumes, and I dug down deep into my memories and really tried to put myself back in the frame of mind of the 20-year-old who wrote the original story.

I won’t say the experience was magical, but it was mystical.

I’ll give you fair warning: This story is a little rough. If you know me from church or if you’re a fan of my newspaper columns about raising sons, I would encourage you to skip on by this story.

Iron Curling Ale is like nothing else I’ve published (except that the protagonist of the story is a sort of anti-hero, which seems to be the thing I enjoy writing best). The language goes beyond the drunken sailor scale. The plot of the story involves a lot of drinking and drug abuse and themes such as that, so it’s not the story I would read to my kids at bedtime.

Ultimately, for me, it’s a love story, and that’s also not something I would typically write.

Regardless of the rough language, the drinking and the drugs, I absolutely love this story. Iron Curling Ale, sitting ignored but not forgotten in a box all these years, has always been with me. This story is deeply, intimately personal to me, and I think a lot of what made it into this version is the result of the story sitting with me for so long.

Over the years, a 4000-word story grew flesh. It now totals out to about 20,000 words, so it’s still very short. And as a printed paperback, it’s ridiculously small. It’s like a fun-size candy bar. But I love it.

This rewritten version of Iron Curling Ale is what I wanted the story to be when I wrote it two decades ago. Honestly, I think it’s beautiful.

Here’s the back cover description:

All confidence, sex driven and alcohol fueled, Green has flunked out of college and lost his job as a pizza delivery boy. About all he has left is his 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix. But when he wakes next to a beautiful woman whose name he cannot remember, Green’s disposition turns hopeful. Somewhere in his subconscious, through a cloudy haze of dope smoke and a pool of beer, he remembers a sign with a missing letter S, and when Kim’s pregnancy test shows negative, the two embark on a cross-country quest to find something better, something stronger, something memorable. They’re looking for an ale that can curl iron. In the end, it’s never more than a moment.
Part angst, part tragedy, all love story, Iron Curling Ale has a back beat and should be read like a rock song.

Free today and tomorrow

mexico prior to 1848In recognition of the 167th anniversary of the U.S. Senate’s ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War and giving the United States the territory that would eventually become Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, I thought I’d give away some Kindle versions of Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria.

So the first novel in the Jackson Speed series is free today and tomorrow.

This is the story of Jackson Speed’s corruption, first marriage and flight from an enraged and cuckolded husband. In it you can read Speed’s first-hand account of the Battle of the Boat on the Rio Grande and see his introduction to Jefferson Davis, a man who would several times force Speedy into the death. The novel also reveals Speed’s adventures with Ben McCulloch and the Texas Rangers.

I think it’s a fun story full of adventure and excitement, and if you download it for free today or tomorrow and you decide that it’s not to your tastes, I’ll offer you a no-questions-asked money back guarantee.*

To download the book at no cost to you, click here.

*The money back guarantee is only good for free downloads.

NaNoWriMo and the legend of Spangler’s Spring

Participant-2014-Square-ButtonI’m posting another NaNoWriMo update.

Back in September when I decided to try NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month project where, to win, you have to write 50,000 words in your novel in the 30 days of November) I was thinking it would be great fun to attend some of the local events, maybe communicate with some other writers in the forums at the NaNoWriMo website and try to write a new novel.

But, as I reported earlier this week, November just wasn’t my month. My paying job seriously got in the way of my non-paying writing job, and by November 25, I’d only written about 16,000 words in my novel.

I’ve been seriously busy, and the days when I did have time to write there was not much writing going on.

But on Monday, Nov. 25, with 16,000 or so words written I looked at the rest of the month and thought, “Maybe I can still do this.”

I have not closed myself up in a closet with a laptop. Yesterday I spent the entire day with friends and family and enjoyed the day feasting and playing front-yard football with the boys (and girls), and last night when everyone else went to bed I started writing. I’ve spent most of my writing time with my family – I on my laptop, they huddled around the fireplace or the television or whatever they were huddled around.

But four days later, I’ve topped 30,000 words. As of the close of writing Thanksgiving Day, I was at 30,694 words, and I’m looking at a weekend where I should have plenty of time to write.

I don’t know that I can get 20,000 words in three days (this week I did 14,000 words in four days), but I am still trying.

I don’t think the writing is poor, either. I admitted to Jean last night that I wasn’t sure about a particular scene I was writing and whether or not it would make it to the final draft of the book, but I woke up this morning pretty pleased with that scene.

In some of my author talks, I’ve discussed how the historical record often lends itself really well to my wandering character, and that scene I wrote last night is sort of an indication of that.

In the scene, Speed was fleeing Gettysburg in the night after the second day of battle. For the story, I needed him to wander through the ranks of the Yankee army on Culp’s Hill and then somehow pass over into the Confederate lines without anyone noticing him or shooting him.

Spangler's Spring as it did not appear during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Spangler’s Spring as it did not appear during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Obviously, even at night, crossing through the no-man’s-land between two entrenched enemies is no easy feat, even for a man as adept at getting away from stuff as our reluctant hero Jackson Speed.

Stuck for a moment in trying to figure out how Speed would move from one army to the next, I picked up my handy-dandy research material and found a passage in Glenn Tucker’s book about how in a meadow near Culp’s Hill on the night after the second day of battle, the Federals and Confederates filled their canteens at Spangler’s Spring, and the water carriers for both armies stood there together, chatting with each other, sharing gossip and filling their canteens.

It created the ideal opportunity for Speed to move from one army to the next unnoticed. Thanks historical record!

Possibly, probably, the legend of Spangler’s Spring isn’t true. We do know for a fact that there was fighting during the night around Spangler’s Spring, and it is probable that the legend of the local truce allowing both Union and Confederate troops to fill their canteens from the spring was a story made up entirely for the purpose of promoting reconciliation between North and South in the years following the war.

That said, the legend of the local truce at Spangler’s Spring is not without precedent. Frequently in Civil War battles the soldiers of either side met and talked in lulls between the fighting, though in most of the accounts I can find they did not mingle at close range and merely called out taunts at each other. But because the legend fits well with my fiction, I don’t mind incorporating it.

If you want to read more about Spangler’s Spring, I’ll point you to this blog which I found particularly interesting. It’s not overly supportive of the notion that Speed was able to mingle with both Yankee and Confederate soldiers who chatted amicably while filling their canteens, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

At any rate, I’m still writing, still hoping that I can finish out NaNoWriMo. If I win it this year, I think next year I’ll sign up and just go to local events and chat with other writers in the forums, because I feel like I’ve missed a lot of the experience by only focusing on the goal.

But if you’re a fan of Jackson Speed and eager for the next book, you can consider NaNoWriMo a success even if I don’t hit my 50,000 words. The truth is, I’d been stalled for a long time in my writing of Jackson Speed at the High Tide, and at the pace I was going I was not finishing the book before the first of next year. With NaNoWriMo motivating me, I now expect to finish writing the book within the next two weeks (three days if I can!) and then I’ll start on editing and rewriting, and surely I’ll be able to hit my goal of publishing Jackson Speed at the High Tide next spring.