Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The LeMat Combination Revolver/Shotgun

Here's a strange gun that saw a fair amount of use in the Confederate army.

Called the LeMat pistol, it was patented in 1856 by Jean Alexandre LeMat of New Orleans. It featured a nine-shot cylinder, rifled barrel, and a smoothbore shotgun underneath. This was fired by a pivoting striker on the hammer that could be rotated so that it struck a percussion cap on the lower barrel, thus firing the buckshot.

The advantages of this pistol over regular six-shooters is obvious. Reloading black powder weapons is a slow business and not at all fun in the middle of a battle. Many bushwhackers compensated by carrying more than one pistol, or extra loaded cylinders that could be snapped into place. Extra guns or cylinders weren't always available, however, especially to regular army units, so having more shots in the same gun came in handy.

One disadvantage of the gun was that revolver part originally fired .35, .40, or .42 bullets, all nonstandard sizes. Quartermasters had to stock special bullets or the troops were forced to cast their own. Later versions were made to fire .36 or .44 caliber bullets, the standard for both Union and Confederate armies.

New Orleans was captured early in the war and LeMat fled to France, where he had his special guns produced by French, Belgian, and English manufacturers. About 3,000 slipped through the Union blockade to make it into the hands of rebel troops.

I have found no record of these weapons seeing service west of the Mississippi so they won't be featuring in my next Missouri Civil War novel. I do have plans to write some Westerns some day and I probably won't be able to resist the urge to outfit at least one character with a LeMat!

Here's a look at the business end of this fearsome weapon. I took both photos at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. For more on this interesting gun check out this website by some Florida Reenactors.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Review: The Lyon Campaign in Missouri

An excellent first-person account by a "90 day volunteer" in the early days of the fight for Missouri. He covers the years leading up to the war and includes lots of interesting anecdotes about life in Iowa back then. There's not much fighting in this book, but you get a good look at the daily misery of the soldiers with their bad or sometimes nonexistent rations, hard marches, adverse weather, and incompetent officers. A must-read for anyone interested in a private's eye view of war in the Trans-Miss.

I read the free version on Google Books. Google has scanned many public domain books and while the price is right (free) they have done no editing. While it's a treasure trove of otherwise hard-to-find titles, the books aren't the best reading quality. Often the scanner makes mistakes with these old books because of faded type and creased pages. At times there are obvious typos and occasionally complete gibberish. I'm almost tempted to shell out for the Camp Pope edition just to have this fine title on my shelf.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A writing podcast worth listening to

Longtime writing buddy and fellow traveler Cynthia Hope Clark is the guest on the latest episode of the What the Glass Contains podcast. She reads from her novel Lowcountry Bribe and gives some great advice on writing. One of my favorite points is that the more you write, the better you get. Don't sweat it, just practice. Seems like a no-brainer, but a lot of writers need to be reminded of that. Head on over and have a listen! Also check out the guest post she did on history as the foundation of any novel.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

My new travel series: Exploring Orkney: Scotland's Rugged Northern Isles

As I mentioned earlier, I spent a week in the Orkney Islands exploring the archaeological and natural wonders there. I've started a series over at Gadling called "Exploring Orkney: Scotland's Rugged Northern Isles."  There's lots of good photos and information about this region's unique prehistory and folklore. Should be inspiring for writers and travelers alike. Check it out!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: The Faces of Black Soldiers

This photo has been published a lot. It shows Company E of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, at Fort Lincoln, District of Columbia, and is freely available from the Library of Congress.

I love the faces in this photo with all their individual expressions and characters, so I downloaded the 86 megabyte version and zoomed in on some of the individuals.

The tall fellow in the center caught my attention first. . .

. . .then I noticed this determined man near him.

Others look warily at the camera. . .

. . .while others seem more relaxed. . .

. . .or even a bit amused at what's probably their first photo shoot.

The Library of Congress has thousands of hi-res images of the Civil War and other periods. Check them out to see some faces from the past!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Writing Pitfall #2: Talking More Than Writing

Let's face it--writers are full of themselves. How else could we assume that people will actually pay to read the products of our thoughts and imagination? It's a pretty big assumption.

So being a bit arrogant is actually part of the muse, but one flaw I see in a lot of beginning writers is that they spend more time talking about being a writer than actually writing. They boast to all their friends about the great novel they're working on, when in fact they haven't made it past page ten after five months of "work". They get into flame wars on newsgroups, arguing about all the tired controversies that crop up continually in such places, when they should be saving that energy for their writing.

My advice--shut up and write!

Yes, this blog counts as talking about writing, but I spend about sixty hours a week writing, researching, editing, or pitching, so I've earned the right to gab a bit. :-)

Cynthia Hope Clark talked about this on her blog recently, along with other common mistakes. She makes the point that you can end up diluting the creative process if you talk about your work in progress too much.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Civil War adventures of James Earp

James Earp was the older brother of famous lawman Wyatt Earp. He never earned the fame of his gunslinger brother, or even the lesser notoriety of Virgil and Morgan Earp. Jim, as most people called him, worked as a saloon keeper in Tombstone but didn't participate in the Gunfight at the OK Corral or the subsequent Vendetta Ride.

I never knew much about him until I started writing a book on the Earps for Osprey Publishing, due out in 2013. It turns out Jim saw service in Missouri during the Civil War. When the war started, he enlisted in the 17th Illinois Infantry, a Union outfit that soon marched into war-torn Missouri.

On October 21, the 17th Illinois saw its first major action at the Battle of Fredericktown in southeast Missouri. Confederate General "Swamp Fox" Thompson was in the area with 1500 men and had burnt an important railroad bridge. The 17th Illinois and some other units went after him.

Thompson placed his rebels along a wooded ridge overlooking the road on which the Union troops were approaching. A smaller detachment with three cannon stood in plain view in a cornfield next to the road as bait. The Union column arrived and attacked the Confederates in the cornfield. The 17th Illinois advanced on the enemy center as two other units attacked either flank. After some heavy fighting, the rebels retreated, but the Union troops soon came under a galling fire from the rebels hidden on the ridges.

Despite this, Thompson saw he was outnumbered about two-to-one and that he needed to withdraw. The 17th Illinois managed to capture one of the cannons in the cornfield, an old iron 12-pounder that was out of date, although not as rickety as the wooden cannon used at another battle in Missouri!

Being in the thick of the fight, the 17th Illinois suffered several casualties. One of them was James Earp. He took a bullet in the shoulder that crippled his left arm for life. He was invalided out and spent the rest of the war recovering and working various jobs. He joined his brothers in Tombstone in 1879, where the family gained their place in history. James died in California in 1926.

Numerous online sources say he was wounded on October 31, but the battle was in fact on October 21 and I cannot find any record of a battle involving the 17th Illinois for October 31. I suppose, then, that he was wounded at the actual Battle of Fredericktown and not some skirmish ten days later. I could be wrong, though. I'm in England at the moment and away from my collection of Civil War books!

Two other Earp brothers, Virgil and Newton, also enlisted in the Union army. I'll try to find out more about their experiences for future posts.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Writing Pitfall #1: Being Too Precious

Let's face it, you're not the next Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King. Heck, when they started, Hemingway and King weren't the next Hemingway and King. Hemingway wrote a lot of mediocre journalism before he made it big, and King spent years pounding out scenes on an old typewriter set between his washer and dryer before he saw publication.

A lot of beginning writers (and midlisters, for that matter) think their first efforts are perfect, and will be snapped up by a big New York publisher for tens of thousands of dollars. A movie deal will come next, and literary stardom. Fame and wealth and hot women. . .

Wrong. Writing is hard, often thankless work. If it isn't its own reward then you shouldn't be doing it. Yes, you can get published and if you work at it long enough you probably will be, but if you're in it for the money, quit now and go into banking.

I've seen way too many self-styled "undiscovered geniuses" screech when anyone dares try to give them constructive criticism. Everyone needs criticism, and you need to learn how to take it. I can't calculate how helpful my critique partners have been to me, and I'm proud to say I've helped out a few myself. Your prose isn't perfect, my prose isn't perfect, even Hemingway's and King's prose isn't perfect (although Hemingway comes damn close) so try to look at your work with an objective eye.

And rewrite. I once met a guy who insisted that anyone who can't come out with perfect prose in the first draft isn't a real writer. Nonsense. Even Kerouac rewrote. The story of him pounding out On the Road straight onto the page is only partially true. Yes, he wrote it all in one long, benzedrine and booze-fueled week, but he had carefully planned out the entire book in his head in the preceding months. And the final published version is very different than what he wrote.

Writing means work, realism, and a dose of humility, even for the big names.

So keep at it, fellow writers. You're special, but you're not perfect.

Monday, July 23, 2012

I'm baaaaack!

I've been silent for more than a week on this blog. That's because I was exploring the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland with my family. These islands have always fascinated me because of their remoteness, Viking heritage, and prehistoric monuments. A prime example is the ring of Brodgar, an impressive stone circle on the main island. It's the third biggest stone circle in the UK, pretty impressive considering there are about a thousand in all!

Being a travel writer, my vacations are working vacations, and this was no exception. I wrote an article for an upcoming issue of Handstand travel magazine and I'm starting a series on it for Gadling this week. The scenery and history have also inspired me to write a short story. I'm teaming up with fantasy author A.J. Walker on a short story collection. He's already supplied his stories, now it's my turn!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Another fine review for A Fine Likeness!

My Civil War novel A Fine Likeness has received another four-star review. This time it's on Amazon UK. Reviewer G.R. Yeates writes:

"Sean McLachlan's novel of horror set during the civil war is a most assured work. The author draws upon his extensive knowledge of Missouri during the time period and includes genuine figures from history as part of the tale. His passion for the era and the people is evident and creates a thoroughly immersive atmosphere. There are points in the earlier sections of the novel where it is not entirely clear which direction the narrative is going to take and the supernatural aspects take their time in becoming established - normally I would criticise this but in this case, no, because McLachlan had me wanting to take my time, to walk around in the world he had brought to life and spend some more time with the characters before the business of pushing ahead with the story took full hold. There are not many books I have read that I can say that about.

"The contrasting characters of Jimmy Rawlins and Richard Addison are the lynchpins of the novel and as they grow and develop, it feels natural and organic, you identify with them very strongly, you understand and sympathise with two people who are essentially decent caught up in the nightmare of war, trying to do what's right in morally ambiguous times.

"McLachlan also displays a talent for portraying the supernatural as he fashions a demon and a cult about which we are told just enough for us to be unsettled and disturbed without giving too much away about their nature. However my one reservation with this novel does come down to the climax and resolution. A few threads are left hanging that I would have liked to have seen more surely resolved, which leaves me to say that this novel has a solid ending rather than an exemplary one.

"Overall, I would recommend this novel to horror readers as it has a setting not often seen in the genre and I strongly doubt that the American Civil War has ever been this effectively and thoroughly evoked before. What you will find here is a fine likeness of history with a disturbing undercurrent of evil and cosmic chaos"

Hmmm, does anyone else think there are too many loose ends? Hopefully the sequel will tie some of them up, and create new ones!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Is Twitter useful for writers?

I've had my Twitter account since January 2010. After my first week of tweeting I blogged about the uses of Twitter for writers. You might be interested in reading that post before this one.

Back? Good. Now after two-and-a-half years tweeting I can say that Twitter can be a useful tool for writers, and also has some serious limitations.

First off, it's a great way to get readers. I tweet everything I write for this blog, my guest posts on other blogs, and my travel writing on Gadling. I also retweet interesting stuff from other writers, historians, etc. These tweets, with their generous use of hashtags to bring in a wider readership, really up my hits. Blogspot allows me to see the source and timing of hits and I see a spike every time I tweet.

It's also a great way to keep abreast of current events and trending stories. I've found a fair amout of material for travel blogging thanks to Twitter.

But what every writer wants to know is, can Twitter sell books? It seems not. I do tweet about my books but I've seen no evidence that it translates to sales. I don't hard sell on Twitter, and don't follow anyone who does, but about one in ten tweets is related to my books. Too many writers nowadays seem to be on Twitter for the sole reason hawking their wares. Judging from their Amazon rankings, it doesn't seem to be doing much good. Twitter users want content, links to cool stuff, not sales pitches.

Fellow blogger and indie author Alex Cavanaugh told me about a Twitter app called WhoUnfollowedMe. I've found two trends from this useful app. The first is that some people, so far entirely indie writers, will follow you so you follow them back, and then unfollow you. When I catch a person doing this, I unfollow them. I don't like being used. Also, some people follow me and then unfollow me after a few days when I don't follow them back.

Sorry, folks, but I only follow Twitter feeds that I find interesting. If I like your stuff, I'll follow you (unless you pull a fast one). If I don't like you're stuff, don't leave in a huff. Chances are I wasn't going to buy your book anyway. It's not like I expect everyone who I follow to follow me back. I'm pretty tickled that Clive Barker follows me, though.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

My local paper reviews A Fine Likeness

Living in Spain I sometimes feel out of touch with the Anglophone writing world. On the other hand, being a writer in an immigrant community tends to get you more noticed by those locals who read your language. I got invited to do a reading at Madrid's Noche del Libro, for example. Now the local English-language newspaper InMadrid has written a very kind review of my Civil War novel. Here it is:

"Madrid/Missouri-based history and travel writer Sean McLachlan turns his hand to fiction, using his vast knowledge of the American Civil War to pen his tale. Ostensibly a war story, and one in which the finer details are clearly well researched, A Fine Likeness is also a story about the emotional toll that armed conflict has on individuals.

"Missouri, 1864: The Rawlins Rangers, a six-strong team of teenaged Confederate bushwhackers headed by 19-year-old Jimmy Rawlins, head out to join Bloody Bill Anderson's guerilla group, while on the other side of the battlefield, Union militia captain Richard Addison is depressed about the state of his recruits, and about the death of his teenage son during the first years of the war.

"Jimmy starts to question his allegiance to the Confederacy when he witnesses strange and supernatural happenings in his group, and when his and Addison's paths cross, Addison is struck by Jimmy's likeness to his dead son, and becomes obsessed with saving him from the crazed Bloody Bill and his dark pursuits.

"McLachlan draws his well-rounded characters convincingly, and cleverly steers clear of telling readers what to think. With a well-planned and fast-paced plot that seamlessly swims between the two rival sides, this is a perfect summer read."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: Contrabands at Headquarters of General Lafayette

This week's photo shows escaped slaves working as washerwomen at a Union general's headquarters. Escaped slaves were referred to as "contrabands" an expression coined by General Benjamin F. Butler. They were considered spoils of war and were often forced to work for the army for little or no compensation. Others were allowed to find civilian work, while later in the war the men were encouraged to join black regiments.

The photo was taken in 1862 by Mathew Brady and is in the collection of Yale University.

One major character and several minor ones in my Civil War novel are "contrabands". The white soldiers have various opinions of them. Some feel it's wrong to steal property from civilians (not all Unionists were abolitionists) while others think they the only way to defeat the South is to free all the slaves.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Guest blogging over at Bookish Whimsy

Today I'm guest blogging over at Bookish Whimsy, a very cool blog dedicated to books. I'm talking a little bit about the Civil War in Missouri and my Civil War novel. I'm also including an excerpt you won't get from Amazon's "look inside this book". Hop on over and check it out!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4, 1862: The Union Navy captures Confederate "aircraft carrier"

On this day 150 years ago the United States was celebrating a grim Fourth of July. The nation was torn apart by a Civil War that was getting progressively bloodier with no end in sight. Union General McClellan's attempt to take the Confederate capital at Richmond had just failed. It wasn't yet clear if he'd be able to extract his army before it would get wiped out. The excellent blog Civil War Daily Gazette is covering this in detail.

There was one little Union victory on this date, however. The Confederate gunboat CSS Teaser was captured by the USS Maratanza. This photo, courtesy Library of Congress, shows the damage to the deck caused by a 100-pound rifled shell that made a direct hit. You can also see a nice photo of its bow gun here.

The CSS Teaser was a screw tug of 64 tons with a length of 80', a beam of 18', a depth of hold of 7'. She was armed with one 32-pounder rifle and one 12-pounder rifle. According to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships,

"CSS Teaser had been the aging Georgetown, D.C., tug York River built at Philadelphia. Purchased at Richmond by the State of Virginia in 1861, she was assigned to the naval forces in the James River with Lt. J. H. Rochelle, Virginia State Navy, in command. Upon the secession of that state Teaser became a part of the Confederate Navy and continued to operate in Virginia waters. With Lt. W. A. Webb, CSN, in command, she took an active part in the battle of Hampton Roads, Va., on 8-9 March 1862, acting as tender to CSS Virginia. She received the thanks of the Congress of the Confederate States for this action

"Teaser was a pioneer "aircraft carrier" (balloon ship); she also became a pioneer minelayer when ordered 17 June to assist Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Under Lt. H. Davidson, CSN, she was used by the Confederate Naval Submarine Battery Service to plant and service "torpedoes" (mines) in the James River. While engaging Maratanza at Haxall's on the James 4 July 1862, a Union shell blew up Teaser's boiler and forced her crew to abandon ship. When seized by Maratanza, Teaser was carrying on board a balloon for aerial reconnaissance of Union positions at City Point and Harrison's Landing. Teaser was taken into the Federal Navy, and sold at Washington, D.C. on 24 June 1865."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sales breakdown for an indie novel

My Civil War horror novel A Fine Likeness has been out as an ebook since November and trade paperback since April. Enough time has passed that I can look at some sales trends.

Firstly, ebook edition is available on all Amazon channels and is in Smashword's premium catalog, meaning it's available through Barnes & Noble, the Apple store, Kobo, and many other outlets.

So far about 80% of my sales have been through Amazon. About 75% of all Amazon sales have been through Amazon US. Most of the rest have been through Amazon UK, with a couple of sales on Amazon Spain. I live part time in Spain so I'm not unknown here. Other Amazon channels such as Germany, Italy, and France have had no sales. Hardly surprising for a book that's only available in English.

The other 25% of total sales have mostly been through Barnes & Noble, with the next biggest seller being the Apple store. I've had a lot of people download samples from the Smashwords site but have had no sales there. Other writers tell me this is common. The general consensus is that people sample from Smashwords and buy from other sites.

While my book didn't make it into Smashwords' premium distribution until a month after it was available on Amazon, the numbers clearly indicate that Amazon is that major source for ebook sales.

Now for the print book. It came out via Createspace and is available on all Amazon channels. So far ALL sales have been through Amazon US. It may be a little early to spot any real trends, however.

So it appears that Amazon US is king for ebook sales and will remain so at least for the near future. A sizable chunk of sales have come from getting into Smashwords' premium catalog, so indie publishers should not overlook this source of income.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Firefight in a haystack: just another day hunting bushwhackers in Civil War Missouri

June of 1862 was a tough month for the Union forces occupying Missouri. The bushwhackers seemed to be everywhere, cutting telegraph wire, attacking outposts and patrols, killing mail couriers, and committing depredations on Unionist civilians.

Several major firefights are recorded for this month. The strangest occurred on the 18th, when a group of Union soldiers arrived at Hambright's Station near Independence in order to arrest some suspected guerrillas. As they made the arrest, a black man on the farm (presumably a slave) quietly took the soldiers aside and told them more guerrillas were hiding in a nearby haystack.

A skirmish ensued, in which the guerrillas fired out of the haystack and the soldiers fired into it. Hay doesn't provide much protection against bullets and so one guerrilla was killed and the other two wounded and captured. The soldiers completed their mission by burning Mr Barnes' grocery store, presumably for supporting the rebels.

This was only the beginning. Missouri faced three long years of guerrilla warfare before it would be over.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. It actually shows a haystack on an Indian reservation in 1941, but that's OK, it's a nice picture.