Monday, March 05, 2007

Sneak Peek

A little peek at the first part of Session One...

Why Write?

The first and biggest question that I would pose to any writer, especially any novice writer just getting his or her start in the field, is why do you want to do this? If your answer is anything similar to “I think it sounds like an easy way to make a ton of money,” then you should pick up your notebook, finish your coffee, and save yourself a ton of heartache by going home now, because I hate to be the guy who goes around squashing peoples’ dreams.

Writing is not easy. And, unless you are able to become a cottage industry like a Stephen King, an Anne Rice, or a John Grisham, there’s not a lot of money in it, at least not in relation to the blood, sweat, and tears you’ll end up spending on it.

See, the only real answers to that question are “Because I love writing,” or “Because I need to tell the stories that are inside me.” If you have that love and that need, then I can tell you this, here and now; every one of you can write a novel, and that’s what we’re going to be working through here for the next six weeks.

I’m going to give all of you my email address before you leave today. I urge you all to have or make at least one friend here in the class as well, because one thing that you’re probably going to need is a support system. Writers need to bounce ideas off one another, they need to commune with one another, and they need, on occasion, to drag one another by the scruff of the neck. You’ve all seen those war movies where a soldier gets wounded and one of the other guys in the unit slings the wounded man over his shoulder and carries him to safety? Look around the room here, because these are some of the people who’ll be sitting in the foxhole with you when you start to think that you can’t do this.

OK, enough scaring everybody and let’s talk about the fun stuff, shall we? What’s in it for a writer?

For one thing, writing is the only way that I know that you can play God, at least not without creating really awful progenies that will stalk the night and come back for you when you least expect it. You’re in charge, completely, and you control the characters and the very world they inhabit. The characters will express your feelings and emotions about the world you live in, and your view of that world, and your view of the people around you, and it’s all safely shrouded by the veil of fiction.

There’s a thrill that comes from telling a story, and the ultimate goal is to hold the end result in your hand; whether it’s a notebook filled with your own handwriting, or a printed ream of pages, or an actual book you can pluck from your shelf. You hold it in your hands and you can see that your dreams, your hopes, your hard work have resulted in art.

And, yes, it’s art. I don’t care if you’re writing a genre pot-boiler, a bodice-ripping romance, erotica, horror, it doesn’t matter. When a reader picks up that book, or that notepad, or that stack of pages, you have given him or her an experience – and that, my friends, is art.

And, hey, if you write a story that people want to read, and you catch a break or two, you might make a whole pile of money and get invited to speak on talk shows and have Ron Howard calling you up to offer you a wheelbarrow full of money for the movie rights, so there’s something to be said for art after all!

Workshop, Part the Second

This week begins the Creative Writing Workshop to be held at the Village Coffee House in Dundalk, MD. I have exciting news on this – the Dundalk Eagle has expressed an interest in printing a 1,500 word story or, if necessary, an excerpt from one of our participants, so you’ll have a shot at that most elusive of writing prizes – near instant gratification!

For those interested, the classes begin on March 11th, and the six sessions will cover such topics as:

Session One: Getting Started (4/11/07)
Ø Why Write?
Ø Tools of the Trade: Eyes, Ears, and Heart
Ø The Blank Page Terror
Ø Finding a Voice
Ø The Cold Open

Session Two: Character (4/18/07)
Ø Have We Met?
Ø Making Small Talk
Ø What’s In a Name?
Ø The All-Important Arc
Ø The Journey
Ø What’s My Motivation?
Ø Dialogue, he said.

Session Three: Readings and Critiques (4/25/07)
Ø Taming the Beasts
Ø Help! My Kid Is Ugly!
Ø Trimming the Fat
Ø Foot Cavalry
Ø Learn by Doing
Ø Having a Moment

Session Four: Plot (5/1/07)
Ø Outlines
Ø Mapping
Ø Upping the Ante
Ø Breaking the Story
Ø Drawing the Curtain

5/8/07 – Easter Sunday- no session

Session Five: Verisimilitude (5/15/07)
Ø Readings
Ø Research
Ø Experience
Ø Credibility

Session Six: Life and Art (5/22/07)
Ø Style Points
Ø The Second Draft
Ø The Goal
Ø The Need
Ø Now What?
Ø Alive! It’s Alive!

Monday, January 29, 2007


Hello to all!

Just wanted to put out the word that I've been invited to lead a Creative Writing Workshop at the Village Coffee House in Dundalk, MD.

More details will follow, but we're looking at six weeks, every Sunday afternoon, and beginning in March. I'll post more on this as information becomes available. For now, I have to work on the materials...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Funeral For A Friend

A true officer and gentleman has been lost to the world, and it is with heavy heart that I sit here at the keyboard to note his passing.

Page G. Fried III was not a famous man. Most of the people reading this will never have heard of him, and he remains unmourned by the vast majority of people, but not by anyone who had the privilege of meeting him.

A Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army, honorably retired and working in the private sector, Page was one of the best bosses I ever had, and an example of how to be a man, an officer, a friend, and a father. The world does not know what it has lost, and it falls to those few of us in the know to reflect on the gifts he left us – his unique perspective on life and labor, his professionalism, his artful means of employing profanity, his simple faith in the sacred, and his towering sense of honor and personal integrity.

Page had a copy of one of my books in his office, still marked where he had left off reading before he was tragically taken from us by a sudden heart attack. It seems only fitting that “Hostile,” with its military overtones, should be dedicated solely to the Colonel. I will miss you, sir. Enter the gates of heaven, you soldier. You’ve spent your time in Hell.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Warriors in Police Actions

Americans have an instinctual mistrust of their armed forces. Yes, we tie yellow ribbons around every available tree and car antenna, and we break into spontaneous applause when a squad of uniformed troops walk past us in the airport, freshly home from Iraq, and yes, we buy the fellows a round when they walk into the bar. But that’s different; that’s the guys and gals who are serving, and we love them. It’s the establishment that makes us a little leery.

"Oh, Don, you’re being absurd," I hear you saying. Especially now, with over half the population in a flag-waving frenzy and current policy apparently taking the form of a Pax Americana Plan.

But that’s exactly the crux of the problem. Americans are willing to have a standing army only for the purposes of maintaining peace. It’s hardwired into the very system of the American military. We used to have a War Department – now we have a Department of Defense. We used to fight wars, real wars, against belligerent nations directly opposed to us, with formal resolutions and severance of diplomatic ties, and a Congressional Declaration of War. Now we fight “police actions” – limited engagements designed to pacify (there’s that “peace” intent again) certain groups, nations, or areas.

So some of you are rolling your eyes and muttering that it’s not our policy or our intention, but our burden. That, as the only superpower standing, we have an obligation to use our strength to preserve the peace, and that we certainly never intended it that way. I respectfully direct you to our military history.

Many of the founding fathers and succeeding political leaders have been openly opposed to the maintenance of a full-time, professional army, feeling that it is both a drain on the treasury and a potential threat, should the leaders of the military decide to take on political power backed by the threat or reality of attack. (Rome, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)

As a result, the armed forces have lived on a perpetual seesaw – favored when a national emergency requires that troops be mustered and put into the field, but viewed with distrust and even contempt during times of peace. Their existence is a reminder of the possibility of war, and Americans, for as warlike a people as they can be, dislike being reminded of such a possibility.

In an effort to make use of this trained force that was ready to hand, the government early on used the troops not as “soldiers” in the sense of fighting wars, but as “peace-keepers.” Initially, during the early years of the nation and throughout the Westward expansion, this meant posting regular Army troops along the frontier to defend settlements from Indian attacks, and to protect reservation Indians from white depredations. Not soldiers, in the accepted manner of conquering columns on the attack, but policemen. Their mission was not, generally speaking, one of making war on the Indians, but of “pacifying” the situation. Sometimes this called for war and sometimes it called for protecting, feeding, and settling displaced tribes. Troops were used for purposes of putting down railroad strikes, intervening in local shootouts, monitoring elections in the Reconstructed South.

For many years the role of the armed forces walked this schizophrenic line, attacking villages filled with people to whom they had given tons of rations and supplies a few months before. It has continued all through our present.

So why do these police actions fail? Because police work can only be done properly when the police force is recognized as a legitimate authority, and American troops are generally not regarded as legitimate authorities when they are sent in to “pacify” an area or a people. Police work depends upon the mutual consent of the people to be governed and policed. Naturally, the individual malefactor or gang of cutthroats do not recognize the authority of the police, but the general population does, and that’s what makes for effective policing.

Jack the Ripper was never caught. Several of the police officers involved expressed the strong opinion that the killer must have been a Polish Jew immigrant. Why? Not only because of the prevalent opinion that no Englishman could have committed such awful crimes, but also because the police were convinced that the man was “hidden by and among his own people.” The Polish Jews were outsiders, outside the mainstream order which accepted the police as a legitimate authority. If the police were considered antagonistic or illegitimate, then persons who had committed crimes could find allies to aid, feed, and hide them.

The US Cavalry was not regarded as a legitimate authority by the Indian tribes, and that is what led to the shooting wars. Most of the wars wound up taking place because a limited handful of Indians, usually in response to white aggression of one kind or another, struck and committed a crime against whites. When the Army sent troops or agents to apprehend the suspects, the Indians refused to turn them over to what they considered not only a hostile, but an illegitimate authority. The shooting began as an effort to impose legitimacy through force.

Our troops cannot be expected to function as police officers in Iraq, separating guilty persons from innocent, and that is the problem. Police officers have to be recognized as representatives of legitimate authority, and occupying troops are never accepted as such. If a military occupation is in place, it means that, by definition, the occupying force is being resisted by the local inhabitants. That means that while you may have collaborators, the majority or a very powerful minority will not accept the authority of the occupiers, and resisters will always have someplace to run.

Soldiers are warriors, not peace-keepers, and we do well to remember that always.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Last Stand

So what happened a hundred and thirty years ago? Why have I made such a big deal out of this, dedicating an entire week to spouting off about the events leading up to a Sunday afternoon that will never be completely understood?

The Battle of the Little Big Horn was the biggest military catastrophe that had befallen a United States military unit in nearly a century. Soldiers had, of course, been killed in battle by Indians before, and vastly larger numbers of men had been lost in comparable spans of time during the Civil War. As an example, the Union Army lost about 4,000 men in a matter of seven or eight minutes at a lonely crossroads called Cold Harbor, VA in 1864. Captain Fetterman’s entire command had been wiped out by Indians a few years before the Custer debacle – but Fetterman was virtually an unknown and exceptionally unimaginative commander, and he had taken only 50 or 60 men into the trap carefully orchestrated by a young Crazy Horse and his companions.

Custer took over 210 men into the Valley of the Little Bighorn, and he was well known as a charismatic and extremely effective officer. Much has been made of the supposed “mistake” or “typographical errors” that led to his promotion to Brigadier General at the age of 22. But it would be far-fetched indeed for the same man to receive the benefit of another such error, and Custer was destined to report as a Major General by the following year. Such award and promotions did not generally go to the unpromising, all protests from troops of the Army of the Potomac notwithstanding.

It never should have happened; nobody ever believed that the primitive Indian warriors could even form a line to resist the blue coated troops, especially the ones commanded by Old Long Hair. No one expected the Sioux to stand still for an attack. In fact, the overriding obsession from virtually ever ranking officer asked, is that the Indians could escape the cordon of troopers pressing in on them from three directions.

Custer divided his regiment into four battalions. Captain McDougall took charge of a single company guarding the pack train and its mules. Captain Benteen, with three companies and somewhere near a hundred men. Benteen’s mission, as given verbally by Custer, was to ride out in reconnaissance to the left and ensure that the hostiles could not leave by that route, unprotected by the approach of the other two converging columns.

Custer’s second-in-command, Major Marcus A. Reno, was given command of three companies (including the strongest group in the outfit) and ordered to charge the village ahead. Custer also promised support – “Pitch into the hostile camp and press your attack and we will support you.” The words themselves are unimportant –in some versions, Custer is said to have pledged that “you will be supported by the entire outfit.”

Custer himself took the remaining five companies and marched farther down the river to find a place to safely ford. He may have been met at the river and repulsed, then retreated under fire to the hill that now bears his name.

“Custer Hill” became the final resting place for the Boy General, his body found in a small cluster with several of his relatives and close officers. So many officers, in fact, were found immediately around the General that many theorists suppose that he may have been holding an “Officer’s Call” to give instructions for defense when a volley resounded and tore through Custer and several of his key subordinates, perhaps all in a single moment.

The truth of what happened in so far as Custer’s fate is known. He and about 212 men died along the banks of the Little Big Horn river in the greatest victory of Sioux and Cheyenne arms over the US Army in history. It was, however, to be their last. Nothing could have more effectively roused the ire and rage of the American public than to kill one of its dearest heroes on the very eve of Independence Day. The revenge was swift and horrific, and it was the “victory” at the Little Big Horn that truly sealed the fate of the Plains Indian.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

No Prisoners

The media, whether in print or on film, have alternated depictions of the great Indian Wars over the years, largely in response to the prevailing mindset of society regarding the plight of the Native Americans themselves. For example, in the first half of the twentieth century, when American pride was booming and the great patriotic fervor seized the country during and following the Second World War, the battles were depicted as grim, hardfought contests, with thin lines of blue-coated troopers forming doomed stands against hordes of well-armed, murderous warriors. In the late Sixties and Seventies, when the Vietnam War had many Americans questioning the effectiveness of the military and the very nature of warfare itself, the battles began to be examined differently. Now the well-armed, well-fed, disciplined regulars marched in and brazenly destroyed ragtag bands of peaceable Indians, putting women and children as well as men to the sword and the torch.

So where was the truth?

General John Gibbon, a corps commander in the Union Army during the Civil War and later a Colonel with field command against the Sioux and Cheyenne, described the “glory” to be gained in Indian fighting as “being shot from behind a rock by an Indian and having your name misspelled in the newspapers.”

Native American warriors were regarded by several of the commanders who fought them as “the finest light cavalry in the world.” Man for man, the Indian who lived by his fighting and hunting skills, was faster, stealthier, and better skilled in combat than the mostly city-bred white cavalry troopers ranged against him. The Indians were better marksmen, better at unarmed combat, and better at knowing and using the intricacies of terrain against an opponent. In fact, there were really only two areas in which the troopers held any real advantages – the discipline of a regimented Army unit was completely unknown to Indians, who never gave more than a tacit nod toward granting true authority to their chiefs, and the effective range of the carbines carried by the cavalry was superior in stopping power and accuracy to the bulk of the weapons carried by the Indians.

The “peacetime” Army, stripped of its massive numbers of volunteers gathered during the Civil War, moved from having 13,000-15,000 man corps to fielding entire expeditions with portions of a single regiment. The bulk of the fighting was done at the company level, and a cavalry company numbered about 40 to 45 men. As an example, the Custer fight resulted in the loss of Custer and every man under his command, which sounds to the student of the Civil War like an inconceivable bloodbath, since Custer’s brigade probably numbered some 5,000 men during the War. When he entered the valley of the Little Big Horn, however, he had somewhere in the area of 225 men, and this was the combined strength of five companies – nearly half the regiment.

The Seventh, despite its reputation as an “elite” regiment, was made up of the same stuff as the rest of the frontier Army – career men, skulkers, ne’er-do-wells, and a newer breed of mine-seekers. Many men in the early 1870’s joined the Army specifically to get a posting out West with the full intention of deserting at the first travel opportunity and making their way to the gold and silver mines in the Black Hills or farther West in California. Many were immigrants with very little English, looking for an opportunity to hold a job and get room and board for a couple of years while they learned the language and customs of their adopted land. For all their reputation as crack Indian fighters, Custer’s Seventh had seen comparatively little action besides the attack on Black Kettle’s band on the Washita River, and even that expedition had not been without loss.

Government committees found that it cost the taxpayers approximately a million dollars to kill a single Indian in battle. Problems of supply and logistics were exponential when dealing with the long expanses of open prairie, mountain ranges, precipices, and deserts of the West. Indian camps were highly mobile affairs, ready to fold up and move in a matter of minutes in case of attack, and the predominant problem, the thorny dilemma that obsessed not only Custer, but virtually every other field commander in the Army, was how to bring the Indians to battle in a stand-up fight. Much has been made of the Army’s policy of attacking villages with non-combatant populations of women and children, but it was the only countermeasure available to a ponderous Army that simply did not have the speed and mobility of the columns of Indian warriors.

Native American warriors also had vastly different ideas of warfare than their white counterparts. White soldiers saw victory as being something tangible and gained by the force as a whole – your forces hold the field at the end of the engagement, the enemy is forced to retreat or surrender, etc. For the Indians, victory was something that was measured only in terms of individual achievements – this warrior captured ten ponies, this one scalped two enemies, this one counted the first coup and so on. Because of the highly individualized concepts of the Native Americans, the idea of surrendering in battle was completely incomprehensible. Prisoners taken by Indian warriors would be seen as cowards, as unworthy of any treatment other than slow torture and death.

Therefore the watchword for frontier troops was “Save the last bullet for yourself.”

Monday, June 19, 2006

A Name Guaranteed To Start an Argument

My latest novel, “Hostile” is set in the Dakota territory of the Old West in the year 1876, and has necessitated no small amount of research. The time period is, of course, controversial by its very nature, but the inclusion of those three terms – Dakota, West, and 1876 – bring immediately to mind one of the most controversial figures in American history: George Armstrong Custer.

In six days, it will be Sunday, June 25, 2006 – one hundred and thirty years, to the day, even to the day of the week, since Custer led a detachment of five companies of his Seventh Cavalry to their deaths at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Thirteen decades and a host of excuses, rationalizations, theories, recriminations, and investigations later, we still do not know exactly what happened on that dusty Montana hillside that Sunday afternoon, but one thing that we do know is that Custer’s name is often enough to either begin an argument or, at the least, unleash a torrent of venomous opinion.

Since my research has meant so much study of the famously coiffed commander and the battlefield which until recently bore his name, I thought it would be interesting to spend the next six days leading up to the one hundred thirtieth anniversary in discussing this final, greatest victory of the Plains Indians over the United States Army.

It must be clearly understood that none of the “facts” which I will discuss are necessarily to be taken as gospel truth. No man in Custer’s immediate command survived, and the survivors of the battle told their stories under circumstances even less convivial to true memory than eyewitnesses to other notable events. Indian survivors, for example, had a very real (and sometimes justified) fear of retaliation when asked for their stories of the battle. White officers may have colored their tales in order to cover their own actions or to grind a personal grievance against Custer or some of the other commanders in his regiment. Later writers, swayed by their partisanship for Custer, Reno, Benteen, or any of the other figures in this dramatic story, have placed importance and emphasis on different and even conflicting stories, each to buttress his own theory.

But before touching on the movements, the actions, the mistakes made by the officers involved, it is important to remember that the truth is that Custer lost the battle and his life because his enemies won. Custer didn’t “lose” the Battle of the Little Big Horn – the Sioux and Cheyenne “won” it.

It is, therefore, with these Sioux and Cheyenne warriors that we should begin. Who were these Indians? Were they the “demonic red devils” of frontier lore? The “bloodthirsty savages” of early Westerns? The noble, Nature-embracing conservationists so beloved through the 1960s and 70s? Speaking personally, the most enduring image that I carried of the Native American from my childhood days was that of the noble warrior, one tear slowly trickling down his cheek, who looked down at the garbage-strewn mess that we had made of his beautiful land. The image, of course, came from a ubiquitous television commercial in the 1970’s, but was emblematic of a fundamental change in the way that the Indian Wars were viewed from the vantage point of a century.

At the height of the conflict, however, the nation was almost as deeply divided on the “Indian question” as it had been on the “slavery question” over the first half of the nineteenth century. Many of the same activists who had so tirelessly championed the cause of removing the institution of slavery turned, in the years following the Civil War, to advocating the cause of the American Indian. Their portrait of the “noble savage,” at one with Nature, nomadic and peaceable, ever mindful of the connection between man and the Earth, and victimized by the ever-increasing reach of white “civilization,” was matched by equally vociferous demands for pacification, protection, and even extermination coming from the settlements in the West. More than one commentator has noted wryly that the farther East one traveled – and thus, the farther away from the Indian territories – the more this depiction of the “noble savage” held sway. Out West, the victims of depredations were too fresh to be painted over by a few speeches or petitions, and vengeance was the call of the day.

And where was the Army in all of this? Square in the middle between the two camps. Officers such as Major Wynkoop went so far as to turn in his blue uniform and become an Indian agent to attempt to better the lot of his Native charges. Other officers, Custer notably among them, admired the Indian way of life, going so far as to privately admit that he himself would be labeled a “hostile” if he were compelled to live on a government reservation, especially under the often deplorable conditions set by a penurious Congress and a number of dishonest Indian Bureau agents.

Conversely, much of the army held the view attributed (mistakenly) to General Philip Sheridan, who was said to have commented “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In point of fact, Sheridan never said this at all. Upon being introduced to a chief who greeted him by saying, “Me good Indian!” Sheridan brusquely replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” So there is a misquoting, but the sense of the position is still clear.

Most of the officers held a pragmatic, duty-oriented view not unlike that of Custer himself. If the Indians were on the reservations, where they belonged according to the treaties they had signed, they should be well cared for, and the Army constantly recommended the cession of these administrative posts to Army officers who could handle the logistics involved to make sure that all were housed, clothed, and fed. If the Indians left the reservations and became “hostile,” then the Army accepted its duty to attack, round up, and “chastise” the recalcitrant tribesmen.

But what was it all about? Was the Indian the bloodthirsty murderer or the noble lover of Mother Earth? Like his white enemy, the Indian was all of the above, and none of it. To the eyes of white civilization, there is really only one term that truly describes the Native Americans, and it is a term ill-used today, its true meaning having been lost along the way of the years. The word is ALIEN. Nowadays, the word conjures up images of extraterrestrial beings, or immigrants from a foreign land. The original definition, however, was strange; different; unlike anything known to the speaker.

The culture and experiences of the Native Americans were alien to the “civilized” whites. Whites looked upon the Indians as foolish children, poor backward tots who only needed to be taught the “proper” way to live in order to become functioning members of society – white society, that is. Many tribes used vast tracts of land because they were hunters and gatherers by nature. Their culture was built around the chase, the hunt, winning honor through single exploits of courage, and living as nomads. Whites, seeing the Indians wander to and fro across the land, decided that they must be backward. Didn’t they know they should wear pants? Plow their fields? Put a fence up to determine their own land from their neighbor’s?

To the Indians, it was the white man who was backward and crazy. “One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk,” said Sitting Bull. The concept of having a plot of land or even a haunch of beef that was not for the use of others as well as yourself was completely inconceivable to the Native American culture. When an Indian was hungry and far from home, he walked into the nearest camp, sat down at a fire, and helped himself to some meat, even if he did not speak the same dialect. When an Indian fought, he fought alone, on his own terms. Every man was free to choose whether he would ride with a war party or stay home, and there was no stigma attached to refusing to battle. Contrast this with the discipline, regimented style of fighting embraced by the Army.

It was a clash of cultures that was bound to produce conflict, and just as firmly bound to end with only one culture surviving.