Jackson Speed novels are irreverent historical fiction

I love American history. A quick glance through my bookshelves at home and even my Kindle bookshelf, will reveal volume after volume about American history. Most of my personal study of American history has been directed at martial history – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II, mostly.

I can’t begin to guess how many books I’ve read about the War Between the States – books written by primary sources and books written a century or more after the war. I’ve read books that were nothing more than letters from soldiers and biographies and essays written by the battlefield commanders.

I suppose it would have been easy for me to write a novel or a series of novels set during the American Civil War that took an appropriately reverent attitude toward the subjects of my novels. Lee and Grant and Lincoln and Davis writ about properly with due respect. I could have turned these enormous statues of history into humans, I suppose, but still suitably solemn.

But what would be the point of that? After all, Killer Angels is already a book, ain’t it?

While I have respect for all these giants of history, it’s never lost on me that they are just men who did what they did during extraordinary times, and often as not they were neither extraordinary nor great. Some were bumbling morons with low morals and lower IQs. I present Dan Sickles as exhibit A. He may have won a Congressional Medal of Honor, but politics has always been politics.

No, when I decided to write a series of tomes about 19th Century America, my mission was to entertain with humor.

Thus was born Jackson Speed, a cowardly, lustful rascal who is driven only by his sense of self preservation and his lust for the fairer sex.

I patterned Jackson Speed after the uproariously hilarious Harry Flashman, the invention of George MacDonald Fraser because no series of books has ever so entertained me as the Flashman books (with the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series taking a close second).

It didn’t hurt, either, that the idea for Jackson Speed came to me while I was simultaneously reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative Volume I and re-reading Flashman.

Literally, when I had an epiphany the morning Jackson Speed was born, I had both Foote’s book and Fraser’s book in my hands.

Five books into the series, Jackson Speed has developed his own personality and is less Flashman and more Speed, though certainly he retains the characteristics of his lineage.

While Jeff and Michael Shaara have certainly done yeomen’s work in capturing the War Between the States with proper reverence, not many (or any?) authors have treated the subject with improper irreverence. So I figured there was a niche for my character.

Along the way, I’ve thoroughly researched my novels, and if you keep up with the footnotes at the back of the books, you stand a pretty good chance of learning something along the way.

None of this is to say that I will never write an appropriately hallowed novel about the men who fought in that war. While Jackson Speed’s adventures amuse me, I think they unrealistically jab at those terrible years when our country was torn apart. I am moved from time to time to write seriously about that war, and I’ve made notes and written bits and pieces here and there that may one day find themselves in a more serious novel.

But in the meantime, Ol’ Speedy is still entertaining me as I tell his irreverent tales.

Celebrating little successes

If you’re a self-published novelist or published through a small press, there’s a pretty good likelihood you’ve wallowed in a fair amount of self-doubt and self-pity.

If you see fireworks this week, almost surely they are being set off in celebration of my best sales month last month.

If you see fireworks this week, almost surely they are being set off in celebration of my best sales month last month.

I think most indie authors discover that finding and connecting with potential readers is a more challenging task than writing the book.

I didn’t know what to expect in terms of “success” when I first published Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria. I mean, obviously I wanted to sell a million copies and be on the NYT bestseller list for years. But I suspected that wouldn’t happen.

Now, after two years and four published books, I’ve learned that you have to find success where you can. Maybe you even have to redefine what success means. Otherwise, it’s easy to get terribly dispirited.

In June I had a pretty good run of “little successes.”

Toward the end of May I realized I was coming up on a milestone – 1,000 books distributed through Amazon. Around the first of June I achieved that milestone when I distributed my one-thousandth book. That’s not 1,000 sales, and that’s not all the books I’ve sold or given away, but it’s 1,000 books through Amazon (paperbacks and Kindle ebooks) both paid and free. The majority were free, but that’s okay.

Then over the course of the rest of the month, as I periodically checked my sales reports, I realized that I was having a good month. Again, this is scaled because we’re talking about a good month for me, not for Stephen King. But I was consistently selling books through the month of June and – by far – had my best sales month ever.

My month of little successes kicked off at the end of May when I received an email from a reader who contacted me through this blog. He’d read all three of the Jackson Speed novels and was complimentary. He favorably compared them to George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman books (which is high praise in my mind, because Fraser is among my favorites).

Fraser died in 2008, and for his fans it was devastating to know there would be no more Flashman books.

As I’ve noted before, I patterned the character of Jackson Speed after Flashman – a coward and a womanizer. As I’ve written the novels, I’ve felt that Speed has developed more into his own self, but the comparison to Flashman is obvious and will always be there.

Anyway, the email closed with: “Thanks for filling the void, but making it your own.”

That’s enormous praise. I can’t ask for anything more than that. If a Flashman fan thinks I’ve filled the void left by Fraser’s death, that’s as much as I can hope to do.

Still, it scares me to think that fans of the Flashman novels would read a Jackson Speed novel, because truthfully they must be disappointed. I’m not half the writer that George MacDonald Fraser was.

When compared to a lot of other indie authors, I know my sales seem pretty weak and my little successes insignificant (especially after two years of this), but I’m still feeling pretty good about the way June went.

So, I’m filing this under advice for indie authors: Don’t get bogged down in the disappointments. Whether you set small goals (1,000 books distributed) or just celebrate unexpected victories (a reader who enjoyed your book reaching out to let you know), I’m convinced that the people who achieve success as indie writers (or, really, anything) are the ones who persevere through the tough days so that they can enjoy the good days.

Jackson Speed Origins

Fairly often I get some variation of the question: Where did Jackson Speed come from?

The “Jackson Speed Origins” is a story I enjoy telling.

Ol’ Speedy was born in May of 2012.

Seriously ... this guy? A rogue? A rascal? A scoundrel? Make of him what you will, but the ladies all found him loveable (so he says).

Seriously … this guy? A rogue? A rascal? A scoundrel? Make of him what you will, but the ladies all found him loveable (so he says).

At the time, I was reading two books. I had recently decided to re-read the Flashman series (it was going to be the third or fourth time I’d read most of the books) and was just starting on the first book in that series. I was also about 100 pages into Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative.

This particular morning I was waiting for my wife to finish getting ready for work (we work together so we typically commute together) and I was reading Foote’s book. In it, Lincoln had just been elected president and was on his train tour from Springfield to Washington D.C. for his first inauguration.

Foote wrote a couple of paragraphs on the Baltimore Plot to kill Lincoln, foiled by Pinkerton and a what Foote described as “a female detective.”

And bam! just like that Jackson Speed had arrived to take his place in history.

It was, perhaps, the only true epiphany I’ve ever had in my life.

I saw the whole of Jackson Speed’s life in front of me: The Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, the American Civil War, the Congressional Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, Texas Rangers and Indians and outlaws and cattle wars in the Old West, the Hatfields and McCoys, Teddy Roosevelt looking on Ol’ Speed as a hero …

I even saw the mill at Scull Shoals burning.

I suppose I could have fashioned Speed after Horatio Hornblower or one of these other countless heroes who not only wrestle with the bad guys but also battle temptations that seek to turn them from their own ethical and moral codes. Though I like the Hornblower novels, and Robert Parker’s Spenser and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe (and Starbuck, if we’re talking about characters in the Civil War), those are not the characters who really spark my interest.

Han Solo (not Luke Skywalker) was my first favorite fictional character. I was a fan of the womanizing James Bond. Byron’s Don Juan, Fielding’s Tom Jones (at least in the beginning), and, the greatest of them all, George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman: – These are the characters who have always seemed like the most fun to me, and from them came Jackson Speed.

From the start, Jackson Speed was always going to be a scoundrel. I mean, the very first scene in El Teneria – the burning of the mill at Scull Shoals – and the entire premise of his journey to war in Mexico necessitate his two primary characteristics.

Speed’s only motivations in life are his own survival and his insatiable lust. It is much easier to write about a character who has no moral code to live up to.

I also like the conceit of these novels being Speed’s discovered memoirs – the reminiscences of a man whose years are running low. Because the series is held out to be Speed’s memoirs, written late in a long life, it gives him an omniscience that I think is necessary for the character. I also like that he is attempting to correct the record (complaining that Fitz Hugh Lee failed to mention him in Lee’s own recollections of Chancellorsville).

I have an image of Ol’ Speedy – the old man writing his memoirs – sitting in his study and thinking on the near escapes, the maniacs who constantly tried to get him “in at the death,” as he likes to say, and the women who frequently led him to danger. Especially the women. I love the notion of the randy old bastard remembering the women who loved him by the color of their nipples.

I wonder, too, as I write the novels, if Speed is being completely honest with us. Was he really so much a rascal as he paints himself to be? Was he really as awful? If you notice, he’s never bedded a woman who didn’t fall ass over head in love with him, and I have to wonder at that, too. If Jenny Rakestraw or Kate Cherry or Marcilina de la Garza had left their own memoirs for us to read, would they confess to being as fond of Speed as he claims they were?

I wanted Speed to walk a narrow line of loveable rogue – not the rogue part, but whether or not he was loveable. There are scenes when I’m writing that I think to myself, “Careful … you don’t want Speed to redeem himself here.” And that’s when I try to find something really nasty for him to do.

Regardless, though, I’ve really come to like the old guy.

A reader review posted at Amazon.com for El Teneria says, “The history is true and the fiction is fun.”

That’s what I was going for.

So if you’re interested in history and you think the bad guys have more fun, I hope you’ll give Jackson Speed a read. And if you do, please send me a note to let me know what you think!


Escaping Flashman: Still happy with Orange Turnpike

Orange Turnpike CoverI’m less than a week from the release of the third Jackson Speed book, and I’m still very excited about “Jackson Speed on the Orange Turnpike.”

I think most people who write for a living will tell you that as time goes by they become less enthralled with works they might have initially been very excited about. Whether it’s news stories or humor columns or political editorials or novels, any time I look back at my work I inevitably cringe.

“I can’t believe I wrote that,” I’ll think.

“I could have done so much better,” I’ll mutter to myself.

“Oh, Lord,” I’ll say out loud, “that was terrible.”

Lately I’ve given some serious consideration to completely rewriting the first Jackson Speed book. I probably won’t. But I might.

When you’re a journalist and you make your living writing stories on a daily or weekly basis, you don’t have time to cringe every time you write something, and you certainly don’t have the opportunity to go back and rewrite. You learn quickly to accept that it’s never as good as you wanted it to be and you just keep moving forward.

With the first Jackson Speed book, I was like a man possessed.

I loved the idea of the character, and I didn’t want Jackson Speed to go the way every other attempt at fiction writing had gone for me: Start and never finish. I’ve had other ideas before. I’ve worked for days and weeks on other novels, but eventually I grew bored with the story and quit.

But when I first had the idea for Ol’ Speedy, I really wanted to write and finish the Jackson Speed series. So I was frantic about it. I wrote almost non-stop for 28 days to finish the novel. I skipped meals, wrote at work and stayed up all hours.

And when I finished it, I sent it to my editor, India Powell and Lighswitch Communications, and I was done with it.

The second and third books did not go at quite the same pace. I slowed down, took my time and, I think, produced a better product.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that some of the inspiration for Jackson Speed comes from George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman. I also don’t claim that Jackson Speed is the next Harry Flashman. George MacDonald Fraser was a master, and I’m just having fun writing.

But there are similarities between the two that can’t be avoided: Flashman and Speed are both cowards masquerading as heroes; they’re both womanizers; they’re both brutally selfish; they’re both bullies.

At the same time, when I wrote the first Jackson Speed novel I wanted to make sure I was not writing about Harry Flashman – which is a hard thing to do because Flashman is such an overwhelming character if he’s in your mind – so I was deliberate in trying to make the characters different. I may have even been too focused on Flashman and not focused enough on Speed.

But somewhere early in the second book, Harry Flashman left my mind. As I wrote, Jackson Speed began to develop his own voice. Instead of thinking about Speed as a character, I really started to hear his voice in my mind. It started to become more natural to write Jackson Speed.

While retaining all of those qualities borrowed from Flashman that make Speed a character I enjoy writing about, I finally felt in the second book that I had broken free of forcing Speed to not be Flashman – Speed’s voice was clear in my mind. He’d truly become his own character.

I told India that I felt like I hit my stride, especially in the last chapter of Blood Tubs, and I kept with it through all of the Orange Turnpike.

As a writer with 20 years of experience, I know it won’t be long before I start thinking about specific passages or chapters in this third book and start thinking that I should have written something differently. It won’t be long, I suspect, before I’m standing in front of a crowd reading from the book and I cringe at a phrase or a word choice or maybe an entire paragraph.

But for now, I am very happy with Jackson Speed on the Orange Turnpike, and I’m excited for Speedy’s fans to read the book!