In this edition of AutoCrit Author Spotlight, we’re speaking with AutoCrit Elite member J. Paul Hickey, as we shine a light on his historical fiction novel The General & The Lady.
How difficult was it to write an historically-based romance? Was the path to publication fraught with hurdles? And what’s next for the author? Find out in our exclusive interview!
Tell us a little about yourself and your background. When did you first get the idea to become an author, and has writing always been a big part of your life?
Writing has always been a huge part of my life. Apparently, some of my instructors thought that should be so. Mrs. Lowery, my high school creative writing teacher once gave me a C+ for a paper I had thought was well written. With all the adolescent indignation I could muster, I demanded of her: why the low grade? Her reply was, “Well, the composition wasn’t bad. But I know you can do better. It was like you phoned this one in. The C+ stays.”
Sixteen years later, I was a full-fledged correspondent for ABC News, covering a Congressional political campaign in Michigan. The candidate swung through my hometown with a stop at my old high school. Mrs. Lowery was still there, still teaching. We greeted each other with a big hug. Then she held me at arm’s length and said, “See? I told you. You could do better!”
After nearly fifty years as a journalist, I retired from that life in 2012. But the urge to write has never left me. The ability to create literary worlds and imagine possibilities is magical. Plus, writing keeps me busy and my mind active in retirement; that, and playing bass guitar in a local rock band.
Your most recent novel is The General & The Lady: A True Story of Civil Love and War. Tell us about the book – what can readers expect, and what inspired you to tell this particular story?
The General & The Lady is a true story about real people, General John Fulton Reynolds and his secret lover, Kate Hewitt. The novel is historical fiction and, as I explain in the preface, it is their story as it truly happened, and as we imagine it happened.
Reynolds was one of the most admired and respected general officers of the Union Army during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln even asked Reynolds to be his Supreme Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Reynolds declined because he believed his place was in the field, leading his men. He fell in love a beautiful woman, Catherine Hewitt, whom everyone called Kate. They kept their tragic love affair hidden, even from their families. You learn why in the novel. From the streets of Philadelphia to the battlefields of the Civil War, this is a story that boils that epic event down to the personal lives of two people trying to find love in a time when other Americans were trying to destroy each other.
The inspiration for this novel came from another author I met at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. I am a docent at the fort, helping National Park rangers explain to visitors the history of Sumter and the Civil War. One day, a man by the name of Edwin Bearss stopped by. Bearss is the historian emeritus of the National Park Service and is considered one of the foremost experts of Civil War history. He has written several books, one of which is entitled Fields of Honor. In four hundred thirty-one pages of exquisite detail, Bearss recounts fourteen of the most significant battles of the war. In his chapter about the Battle of Gettysburg, he devotes two intriguing paragraphs to the relationship between Reynolds and Hewitt. That brief reference got my journalistic nose twitching. This has the makings of a great story, I thought. So, I started researching and found I was correct. It was a wonderful story. One thing led to another and soon, the book was practically writing itself.
Historical Fiction can be a tough genre to tackle, given the need for historical authenticity at every turn. Had you written in this genre before? What were the biggest challenges you faced, and could you offer a few tips for those seeking to take on storytelling in an historical setting?
Throughout my broadcast career, I had written in what I suppose you could call the “genre of facts.” I wrote, obviously, news stories about real people and real events. The first book I wrote in retirement is a purely fictional murder mystery called Naked Ambition.
The General & The Lady is the first book of historical fiction I’ve written. It was a challenge. Because of my journalistic career, it is second nature for me to get the facts right. But I know Civil War history is sacred to many, if not most, Americans. Thus, it was doubly imperative for me to accurately represent what occurred during that incredibly important period of American history. That’s why I tried to annotate and footnote the book as best I could.
But The General & The Lady is a novel, not a historical record. Thus, I had the freedom to write about the lives of General Reynolds and Miss Hewitt as I imagined they lived them. Much has been documented about John Fulton Reynolds. He occupies a highly visible position in historic literature. Many letters that he wrote to his family and others are preserved at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Some military memos from and to Reynolds are accessible through the Library of Congress and other sources. So, imagining what Reynolds might have felt and said in his most private, intimate moments was not a huge stretch.
Research on Kate Hewitt, however, was another matter. Very little has been written about her; the historical record is scarce. Kate is barely a footnote in American history. It turns out there apparently were two Kate Hewitts around the same time, and some historians disagree about which one was engaged to Reynolds. But enough has been written to understand that a certain Catherine Hewitt was madly in love with General Reynolds and that they had planned to marry when the war was over. So, that part of the novel was a matter of writing a love story about two patriotic Americans conflicted by religion, politics and a war tearing the nation apart.
Conducting the research for the novel was enjoyable. It was like following a trail of breadcrumbs; one source led to another, which led to another and so on. Historical records are not always accurate, nor do they always agree about how events developed centuries ago. So, it is a matter of checking one source against others, trying to determine the clearest picture of the past. Then, if you write historical fiction, you remain as faithful as possible to history while overlaying a tale born out of your imagination.
Since you’re dealing with real-life historical figures, how hard was it to try and keep authentic to who they were? What kind of research did you have to do to find their “voice”?
I didn’t want to create a caricature of 19th century figures, trying to mimic their voices or mannerisms. That is hard to do consistently and is very thin literary ice. But I did research such things as social norms and fashions of the period, sometimes to the confusion of my editor.
For example, I referred to Kate Hewitt from time-to-time as Miss Hewitt. My editor told me it should be Ms. Hewitt. I had to remind her that honorific was not used during the 1800s. Negotiating grammar and colloquial customs of the day can be tricky. In one conversation between Reynolds and Hewitt, I had her say, “Okay, then. Good night, sir.” A learned friend of mine who read the original manuscript told me this: “While in use at the time, (okay) was considered bad slang and would not have been used by an educated woman.”
Another example – in the original version, I have a character say, “Yep, the Army’s for me.” My learned friend reminded me that, according to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of “yep” was in 1882, seventeen years after the Civil War. A basic tenant for journalists is “everyone needs an editor.” The same is true for novelists; everyone needs an editor and a sharp-eyed friend. Always, always, have someone read your manuscript before you publish.
Which authors would you say most heavily influence, or inspire, you and your work?
Clearly Edwin Bearss was an inspiration. Another is Amor Towles, who wrote A Gentleman in Moscow, a fascinating story of fiction about an early 20th Century Count held under house arrest in a Moscow hotel by Bolsheviks for decades.
Other influencers for this book include Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg, The First Day, Lawrence Knorr, General John Fulton Reynolds, His Biography, Words and Relations, and Marian Latimer, Is She Kate? The Woman Major General John Fulton Reynolds Left Behind.
How long were you working on the novel before deciding it was fully finished, and what was the path to publication like for you? Are there any potential pitfalls you think it would be helpful for others to know of?
It was a little more than a year from the time I met Ed Bearss at Fort Sumter, got the idea, started researching, writing and rewriting and, finally, to publishing.
I had self-published my first novel, Naked Ambition, but decided to go a different route with The General & The Lady. I submitted my manuscript to Page Publishing, Inc and they agreed to print, publish and distribute my novel for a fee. They produced a very fine-looking book. I was pleased with the results. I was also fortunate to discover some artwork by Gettysburg artist Dale Gallon, who specializes in Civil War scenes. He had created a painting called The Last Promise, featuring lovely images of Reynolds and Hewitt. The scene now graces the cover of the book.
There are many pitfalls on the way to being published. In this digital age, self-publishing is popular, although becoming wealthy that way, if that is your goal, is questionable. I have nothing but good things to say about my experience with Page Publishing, but debut writers should use caution. There are other so-called “vanity publishers” who require a fee for publishing but whose reputation is less than acceptable. The good news is there are tons of websites and helpful online sources to negotiate the complex world of publishing.
Along the road to publishing, prepare to write, rewrite and rewrite some more. Also, a thin skin should be avoided. Editors can be tough. That’s why you pay them. Once you start submitting for publication, be ready for rejection. Publication houses get thousands of submissions every year. Not every author gets published. Not right away, anyway. Persevere. Most best-selling authors today have been rejected at least once, often times, more.
Where does AutoCrit fit into your publishing process, and how do you think being a member of the platform has influenced or strengthened your writing?
The AutoCrit editor is a great help! I had no idea I was over-using adverbs so much!
Seriously, the program has helped me streamline my prose and make the overall manuscript better. Also, the information in the AutoCrit Elite Vault is like taking a graduate course in composition. I’m pleased to be a member.
What’s next for you?
I have just finished a final draft of another murder mystery, The Blood Island Brooch, and am currently shopping around for a literary agent to help me find a traditional publisher.
I am also researching two more possible novels of historical fiction – one about the 18th Century pirate Stede Bonnet, a rich Barbados plantation owner-turned-buccaneer. The other is about groups of 19th Century slaves in South Carolina called Maroons, who escaped from bondage and lived successfully deep in the dismal swamps of what is now the Congaree National Park.
Are there any final points you would like to mention?
Thank you for this opportunity to talk about my work. In this difficult time of COVID-19, writing has been a welcome relief. I appreciate being able to share some thoughts with other writers here on AutoCrit.
A former national correspondent for ABC News – sporting 32 years with the network – J. Paul Hickey retired from journalism in 2012.
Now an author, audiobook narrator, and volunteer at Fort Sumter National Park, Hickey holds two university Honorary Doctorate Degrees and is an avid bass player.
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