Musical Inspiration

Sometimes my imagination needs a jump start. Sometimes it needs some help keeping it “in the zone.” Sometimes it just needs a taste of the historical period I am writing about to keep the juices flowing. At times like these music is my source for inspiration. I know some writers prefer to write in absolute quiet, but not me!

I have managed to find a number of albums from Fife & Drum groups; these are excellent for taking me back to the Eighteenth Century. I find these especially useful during the action scenes, when Gideon Hawke and his mates are trading shots with the British or Hessians. While in the Army I participated in enough ceremonies to understand the power of martial music over a group of soldiers, so when I wrote one of my favorite scenes, the fight on Breed’s Hill (a.k.a. the Battle of Bunker Hill), I had The British Grenadiers playing on a continuous loop. The effect was so profound I included a snatch of the tune into the text, and I got in the habit of including the “rat-tat-tat” of the drums urging the British forward.  Of course, when I write scenes in which the Americans have the upper hand, there is no substitute for Yankee Doodle! That song was born as a British insult toward the American “Provincials” but was embraced by the Americans and became a symbol of American resistance. Many a British soldier fell on the battlefield to the accompaniment of Yankee Doodle.

But it’s not all fifes and drums, of course! I also have a couple of go-to contemporary (-ish) groups and artists whom I can rely upon to help me focus. I find that Lord Huron, with their sweeping instrumentals, smooth vocals, and gritty lyrics help me put my world aside focus on Gideon Hawke’s world. (I am listening to them right now, in fact!) What’s more, I can always count on their song She Lit a Fire to help me get in touch with Gideon’s feelings for Ruth. On the other hand, I think Brother brilliantly captures the emotions that men feel toward one another as they face hardship or combat together; that song reminds me of the relationship between Gideon and Andrew Johnston.

When I need to slow things down a bit, or feel especially inspired, Sarah McLachlan never lets me down. If nothing else I find that her incredible talent helps me to de-stress. When I am exploring characters and relationships, Sarah’s music helps me get in touch with a completely different set of emotions. She also throws in a few curveballs; her song Monsters was one of the inspirations behind the character of Kate Scott, who makes quite a splash in my forthcoming novel A Nest of Hornets.

Of course, it was not all fun and games during the Revolution. War takes a toll, and I find that many of the songs on the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms evokes those feelings of war-weariness and loss. (Yes, I realize I just dated myself, and I’m OK with that!) I feel the title song brilliantly communicates the feelings of brotherly love in extremis.

There are many more, of course. Were someone to browse my musical selections I am sure the term “eclectic” would come to mind (or perhaps something a bit harsher). Whether it’s rock or reggae, Buffet or the Beatles, AC/DC or the Maytals, it all has a place, and I am certain that the flavor of the music comes through on the pages. I hope my readers enjoy the beat!

I am curious to hear what music inspires other authors, or if readers have favorite background music to accompany a good a good book. What say you?


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Historical Research: Books, Maps, Notebook, Sunscreen, and Bug Spray

What do you think of when you hear the term “historical research”? Many people would likely visualize a quiet library, or a stack of books, or even a computer monitor. I certainly use all of those, but when writing historical fiction I feel there is no substitute for visiting the scene of the action.

I have been fortunate in that at one point or another I have been able to travel to most of the sites I have written about, but my recent visit to the Saratoga Battlefield was by far the most satisfying visit for two reasons. First of all, the battlefield is well-preserved. The man-made structures have disappeared, and the vegetation has changed somewhat, but the topography is generally as it was 239 years ago. Secondly, I was able to thoroughly prepare for this visit as I had not prepared for visits to Trenton, Princeton, Washington’s Crossing, New Brunswick, and so on. That preparation was priceless.

Research 1

Tools of the trade

I had already read up on the Battles of Saratoga; there were many engagements in the Saratoga Campaign, but the “Battle” generally includes the actions on September 19th, 1777 (a.k.a. The Battle of Freeman’s Farm) and October 7th, 1777 (a.k.a. The Battle of Bemis Heights). Once I realized I would be able to make a trip to visit the site, I procured a topographic map of the area from My Topo. The My Topo site produced a map in a scale and format very familiar to me; through many years in the Army I used similar topographical maps to plan and navigate on several continents, so my “Saratoga Special” spoke to me in a very familiar language.


I read more, and used the nuggets of information in several books to better understand the timing and sequencing of events. By comparing my notes and the maps in the various books with my topographical map, I was able to narrow down the spacing: precisely WHERE various events occurred. The contour information and precise scale on the topographical map was critical here, as it helps make sense of lines of sight, ranges, and difficulties of the ground. When I thought I had it sorted out, I went so far as to sketch out the sequence of events on transparent overlays over the map, enabling me to visualize the ebb and flow of the fighting.

Then came the big day! Map, notebook, and camera in hand–and with generous applications of sunscreen and bug spray–I set out early to arrive at the Visitor’s Center as it opened. The center is small, and houses a limited but very nice collection of artifacts and dioramas, but I found the 20-minute LED Map presentation to be invaluable. Based on extensive studies of the battlefield and historical record, it corrected a few misperceptions and definitely enhanced my understanding of unit locations and the sequence of events.

Finally it was time to hit the road. I was able to follow trails and paths to find key locations

Author 6

Balcarres Redoubt

where the battle unfolded. It was truly humbling to stand on the very ground where men like Daniel Morgan, Simon Fraser, Enoch Poor, at thousands of others fought gallantly for their respective causes, and where so many gave the last full measure of devotion. I am especially indebted to park Ranger Douglas Bicket, who clarified several points and helped me understand how the field had changed, and had not, since 1777.


Being particularly interested in the actions of Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Corps, I focused on retracing their steps as best I could. The vegetation around what was Freeman’s Farm made it a bit difficult to fully envision what Morgan and his men saw on September 19th, but that was a revelation in itself. In that broken, wooded, ground I could see how Morgan’s men were able to fire the first shots of the battle and then run headlong into the might of the British Center Column. To my even greater delight I was fully able to reconstruct the events of October 7th, especially the approach to and assault upon the


Looking up the slope toward the Hessian positions

Breymann Redoubt. The books may not all agree with my interpretation, but knowing what the Rifle Corps accomplished that day, and having studied and used terrain as a professional soldier, I found myself sliding around the northern flank of the redoubt, into a shallow draw, with a steep slope leading up to the location of the Jäger Outpost and Hessian Light Infantry positions. Standing at the base of that slope, with one of the National Park Service’s white markers just peeping over the top, I was absolutely certain this was the way a tactician as astute as Morgan would have led his men. After I scaled the slope and stood inside what had been the Jäger Outpost, I was even more certain this was the spot where Morgan’s men actually swarmed over the Hessian defenses, precipitating the collapse of the British and German line and sealing the fate of Burgoyne’s Army. Of course I can’t be sure I got it 100% right, but if anyone disagrees with my interpretation I’d happily meet them on the field and have a friendly discussion about it; I think the facts on the ground would speak for themselves.


One of His Majesty’s cannon


Happily, the only hazards I faced during my visit to Saratoga were dehydration, sunburn, thorns, and bug bites, all of which I am happy to report I overcame. 239 years ago, for a few hours, that hallowed ground was a much more dangerous place. I will dedicate the fourth Gideon Hawke novel to memory of those, on both sides, who braved shot, shell, and cold steel on the fields of Saratoga.

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Quill and Ink: The Origins of Gideon Hawke

When I resolved to write a historical fiction novel set in the American Revolution, my first task was coming up with a protagonist. That was quite a challenge!

I did quite a bit of reading about the Revolution, and one of the things that struck me was the youth of many of the participants. It was not at all uncommon for boys as young as fourteen to be in the ranks. I wanted my novel to appeal to the young adult crowd, so what better way to do so than to make the protagonist a young man? So, I settled upon a character that was on the cusp of turning 16 when the first shots were fired on Lexington Common.

That led me to more research. I was fortunate to find that the Lexington Historical Society had compiled a great deal of material on life in Lexington, Massachusetts in the 1770s; much of it is available online. Diving in headfirst, I developed a decent feel for life and love prior to the Revolution. This helped color in a lot of the details about school, romance, work, and daily life.

Then came the subject of war. I had been in combat, and had seen the aftermath of battle, so I certainly did not want to glorify war. It is a mean, dirty business that takes a physical, psychological, and spiritual toll on the participants, and I wanted to convey that. Interestingly, in the age of black powder warfare it was possible for a musket-armed soldier to empty his cartridge box in the direction of the enemy without ever having the feeling he had killed anyone. Muskets were so inaccurate, and musket volleys produced such dense smoke, that most of the time soldiers fighting in line of battle might be firing blindly in the general direction of the enemy! I wanted my character to be absolutely certain he had taken a life; that is why I happened upon the idea of the long rifle.

In the 18th Century rifles were fairly rare on the battlefield. They took a long time to load and typically did not take bayonets, making rifle-armed formations impractical for conventional operations. They were excellent hunting weapons, however: the spiral grooves (rifling) in their barrels imparted a spin to their projectiles, making them lethally accurate at 200-300 yards or more. Because of this they were used heavily on the American frontier, and once the Revolution started specialist rifle units were quickly formed to scout and harass the British. The point is that a rifleman could easily select a target, take aim, fire, and be certain that his shot had found its mark. I wanted my character to have that certainty, because it allows me to explore what that knowledge does to people.

There was a catch of course: rifles were very uncommon in Massachusetts in the 1770s. In fact, I could find no evidence of the use of rifles at Lexington/Concord or Bunker Hill. I decided to press on, highlighting the rifle as an exception to the norm (hooray for artistic license!). But to do so, I had to create a backstory that explained how a 15-year old boy in Lexington in 1775 could be a proficient rifleman and woodsman. That led me into more research: this time into the French and Indian (Seven Years) War and other Colonial “Indian” wars. I decided that my character’s father would be a deceased veteran of the French and Indian War; leaving home (Lexington) for adventure on the Pennsylvania frontier, he acquired a rifle and became a backwoodsman. That connection enabled me to link his character not only to Pennsylvania, but also to George Washington. Now I was off and running!

But…what to name him? Biblical names were common in the 1700s; I wanted a warrior’s first name, so I settled on Gideon. As for the last name, well, it had to sound kind of cool, be not too outlandish, and not be already used. I assembled several combinations, and did a lot of Googling (it’s amazing how many literary characters are named Gideon) until I settled on Gideon Hawke. I think it has a certain ring to it!

And so:

Gideon Hawke was born in Pennsylvania on April 20th, 1759, his mother dying in childbirth. His father, Aaron, was born in Massachusetts but ran away at a young age to find adventure on the frontier. He became a rifleman and fought in the French and Indian war; he fought valiantly alongside George Washington in the Braddock Expedition and was later badly wounded at Fort Carillon. After Gideon’s birth, Aaron realized he could not care for him alone for long, so he took his son back to Lexington, Massachusetts to be near family. Before he died, Aaron did his best to train young Gideon in the ways of the frontier: to hunt, to shoot, to be independent, and to lead. After Aaron’s death in 1774 Gideon felt increasingly alone. In April of 1775 Gideon was struggling with decisions about life and love until one fateful morning: his friend told him the militia was forming on the Common because the British were en route through Lexington to Concord. Gideon went out to watch the excitement, and then the shooting started. Gideon was assaulted by British troops, his friend was killed, and a war had started. Taking up his father’s rifle, he resolved to make the British pay dearly.

With a plausible backstory and connection to George Washington, I was able to set the stage to transfer Gideon into Thompson’s Rifle Battalion, aka the First Continental Regiment. This was the first unit formed by the Continental Congress, and Washington relied heavily on it, especially through early 1777, and it fought in most of the major battles of the war. Through the end of Times That Try Men’s Souls Gideon has served in the First Continental through some of the toughest fighting of the Revolution. He has been promoted, endured great hardship, and has seen many of his friends and colleagues fall in battle. And his story continues. He and the lads will be back in action in A Nest of Hornets, due out in January 2017.

I hope if nothing else Gideon Hawke does honor to those brave men and women, the “Winter Soldiers,” who stayed with the colors in the dark day of 1776-1777, and kept their Glorious Cause alive.

Quill and Ink: Writing the world

As I prepared to commit the act of madness that is called “writing fiction” I poked around to see what others were saying about it. I found that in a lot of genres there was much discussion about something called “creating your world.” It was generally agreed that this was important, and that the author had to walk a fine line in the early chapters of her/his book: the reader had to understand what the world was like, but not be bored by the details. I thought, “That sounds hard. I’m glad I don’t have to do that in Historical fiction.” I was wrong. I have learned that a historical fiction story DOES exist in its own world. There are, however, significant differences between the historical fiction world and the world of other genres.

First and foremost, historical fiction is supposed to be tied into “stuff that happened.” Whether set in Ancient Egypt, Tudor England, the American Colonies, The Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, Nazi-occupied Europe, or what have you, there is a historical foundation on which the author builds the “world.” This is harder than it sounds, because history is often a moving target, even though not everyone sees it that way.

Take the Battle of Gettysburg, for example. There is a very solid historical record of the events of that battle; on top of that foundation are layers of storytelling, which sometimes sharpens, and sometimes obscures, the actual events. Many of the critical events in the battle were fairly well known before Michael Shaara released his novel, The Killer Angels. [lest anyone think I am a Shaara critic, I love that book—it has inspired my own writing] Michael Shaara had to make decisions about what to include, and what to leave out or gloss over. The incidents he highlighted he did so dramatically: “Chamberlain’s Charge” and “Pickett’s Charge” for example. When the movie Gettysburg was made, based on Shaara’s book, those incidents lent themselves wonderfully to Hollywood dramatization. As a result, in the common consciousness, our perception of these incidents is colored by several layers of storytelling. A visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park, however, with a knowledgeable guide, might reveal that, well, those things probably didn’t really happen quite that way. Chamberlain’s Charge may not have looked quite so dramatic. Pickett’s Division was probably masked from Union fire until the last 100 yards; that’s how they got as far as they did.

Here’s the real problem: right now someone is taking violent exception to one or both of those last two sentences. History buffs tend to be passionate about their history, and oftentimes once they settle on an interpretation of events, they will defend their position against overwhelming odds…and against overwhelming facts and logic. [Incidentally, I am guilty of this as well] The historical fiction author can expect that any interpretation of events is going to upset at least someone.

Which brings us more to the point: in general, no one can know all of the events and relationships that affected a particular historical incident. The Duke of Wellington famously dismissed efforts to write a history of Waterloo as an impossible task. Even if a person was physically THERE, he/she could have only one, very limited perspective. And when one is talking about events that happened 100, 200, or 2000 years ago, there is an excellent chance that neither the author nor the reader was there.

The bottom line is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to perfectly replicate history. But that’s OK: I would argue that all history is, in fact, the interpretation of past events through the lens of the present. In order for an author to make the past understandable for a contemporary reader, the reader must bridge the gap between past and present; and the author must interpret those events. For me it often involves looking at conflicting sources, or piecing together a picture from incomplete sources, and asking myself, “What really happened? or “Could it really have happened that way?” A good example of this: my portrayal of the Battle of Princeton. Having had a chance to visit the site and walk the field, none of my sources made complete sense. I had to build my own version of the climax of the battle, based on my own knowledge and observations. Did I get it 100% right? Probably not. But I suspect I came pretty close, probably a lot closer than others, and I am happy with the result. Most importantly, I think I conveyed the ideas that Washington made an audacious move, that it was a near run thing, and that it was ultimately a dramatic victory.

That covers major plot points; but what about the overall look and feel of the world? I think most readers picking up a historical fiction book will appreciate that things will be different, so we authors have that going for us. In fact, I think they key is to highlight the critical similarities and differences between THAT world and THIS one. How do people communicate? What do they eat? How does it taste and smell? How do they dress? How do people stay warm/cool? How do they stay clean? Do they even bother? As the reader picks up these tidbits, he or she will subconsciously fit these into his or her existing mental picture of the time period. When done well, the reader consciously or subconsciously finds herself transported to a different time and place. And that is definitely worth the ride!

Times That Try Men’s Souls is available on Amazon at or the iTunes Store at

Spring arrives with inspiration in tow

It’s time to mow the lawn again. Some would consider that a bad thing, but I find it enjoyable. For one thing, I plug in my earbuds and enjoy some tunes, but more importantly, I get some of my best story ideas while walking back and forth across the yard.

This past week while about halfway through my front yard I had a flash of inspiration for Chapter 7 of A Nest of Hornets; an excellent plot point to bring a few threads together and perhaps build some suspense. Excellent!

Fortunately I am generally able to remember these ideas I generate while mowing. I dread the day, though, when I get multiple ideas. Maybe I should start mowing with my writer’s notebook in my pocket!

Author Interview with Cynthia Vespia

Author Cynthia Vespia

Author Cynthia Vespia

Cynthia Vespia, “The Original Cyn,” is an author, screenwriter, and freelancer. She was nominated for a “Best in Series” award for her trilogy DEMON HUNTER.  I recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions:

Darkness and death are common themes in your novels. To what do you attribute that dark influence?
In all honesty I had alot of tragedy plague my family at a young age, so alot of it is deep rooted in my past. Other than that I like to read darker tales like horror and dark fantasy.

You are a prolific writer; how do you manage to get so much writing done?
I think it’s probably because I started when I was a teenager. And at that time I wasn’t going out and partying like most high schoolers. I stayed home and wrote and that’s how the majority of my early work came about. Then as I grew into a better writer I went back and reworked a few of my first books, such as The Crescent, and repackaged them for publishing.

Where do you get the inspiration for your characters?
Real life. You run into alot of characters throughout the majority of your lifetime. Bits and pieces of these people inevitably latch onto your subconscious and then they wind up on the page. Where there are holes, or the character has to be or do something specific, obviously that’s where creativity comes in handy. Honestly creating characters is my absolute favorite part of writing. It’s like inventing a new friend.

Do you have a favorite character you have created? Which one and why?
I have a few. In my Las Vegas thriller Lucky Sevens my lead character Lucky Luchazi was an absolute joy to write. I think part of the reason was that I gave him some quirks that may come off as unlikable (for example he’s an alcoholic) but that gave him a depth of realism to work with. Also, alot of his mannerisms and dialogue were based on my own father so how could I not love him. Another character who stands out for me is the female gladiator Nadja in The Crescent. She’s compelling because she was ripped from her home and forced into slavery to fight as a gladiator but all the while she never gives up her strength. I like writing strong women. I like creating realism in my characters. I like creating characters!

Have you considered writing books in any other genres?

I learned a new term the other day, it’s hybrid-author. Simply stated it means that genres are mixing to give readers the best possible story. I do alot of mixed genre writing myself. But these days I am leaning more towards suspense with a touch of supernatural.

What has been the high point of your writing career thus far?

When you’re an independent writing it is difficult to know whether or not your writing is actually in circulation. Even with all the marketing, etc. it is hard to see if it is even making a dent sometimes. So I like to do conventions because it puts me face-to-face with readers. This past year I had a few really nice encounters with folks. A couple of different times I had some folks buy a book or two and then the next day of the convention they came back to tell me they already started the book and that they loved it! That was cause to smile right there. But, my absolute favorite moment this year was when a young couple came up to my table. The boyfriend stood in front and his girlfriend seemed to be shying away behind him too nervous to talk. He proceeded to tell me that I was this girl’s favorite author. I did a double take and then welcomed her over. She was the kind of nervous I get when I meet one of my favorite actors, etc. But she told me how much she loved my books and how excited she was to meet me in person. We posed for a few pictures and some autographs and she got a few more of my books. I cannot tell you how that made me feel. Words fail this writer except to say that I was humbled. Those moments are why I write.

If you could visit one place you have never been, where would it be and why?huntresfront

I have always wanted to go to New Zealand. It stems from watching Xena: Warrior Princess and Lord of the Rings. That is the most epic and beautiful countryside I have ever seen. Also on my bucket list is Disneyworld. I’ve been meaning to go there for years now and everytime I try to plan it something comes up. But life is short and I intend to make that happen this year!
Thank you for having me! Check me out online at or Facebook and Twitter!

Cynthia Vespia| Original


For the past several days I have been traveling with my family.  I got about half a chapter written on our flight out of KC.  I used the methodology from “2k to 10k,” which I reviewed recently, first outlining the chapter, then writing with focus and vigor!

I have not gotten much written during the trip, but I have gotten a lot of inspiration.  I have a new character I am going to try out, one who will help explore the complexities of the American Revolution.  More importantly, a great Independence Day Weekend, spent with my family, reminded my why I love this country, and why I love writing.

I’m really looking forward to the flight back, because I am going to get some serious writing done!

My GoodReads Review of “2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love”

2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is nothing really new in this book, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t with a read.

2k to 10k gives the reader common sense tips to make the process of writing and editing more efficient and fun.

When I wrote my first novel I dove into the woods. Sure, I had sort of made an outline, and I eventually built a timeline, but I spent literally months wandering around.

After getting halfway through 2k to 10k I stopped work on my current novel and started scene mapping it. I immediately changed the order of two of the chapters, linked scenes far more effectively, and found ways to squeeze more “juice” out of many scenes. Now, when I actually write those scenes, I will know where I am going and how I will get there.

2k to 10k is not the last word on writing fiction, but I wish I’d read it before I started wandering through the woods. It is a short, easy read, written by an author who earns a living by her writing. I strongly recommend it to anyone who writes fiction, or is thinking about doing so.

View all my reviews

Finding Time to Write

One of the most common book-related questions I am asked:

When did you find time to write a book?

The simple answer: wherever and whenever I could! Ideas come to me at weird times, that’s why I try to keep my writer’s notebook handy, so I can capture them for later. Then it is a matter of finding a little bit of time here and there. Between work and family life it can be a challenge to find a few dedicated hours to sit and write. The Notes app on my iPhone is one of my secret weapons: I can type up a few sentences or paragraphs and later email them to myself. This allows me to assemble my story bit by bit. When I think of all of the places where I worked on This Glorious Cause I have to wonder how it came together. I guess the answer to that is in the editing process, but more about that later!