One of the best parts of writing for Osprey is the research. Whether I’m exploring an Ethiopian battlefield or delving into the military archives in Rome, research is richly rewarding and loads of fun.
The same goes for my historical fiction. When I decided to write a novel, I knew there would be lots of research ahead of me. Being swamped like every other full-time writer, I needed to save some time without sacrificing authenticity. I had just finished American Civil War Guerrilla Tactics for the Elite series and so had plenty of inspiration to write a story set amid the irregular warfare of the Civil War.
For a setting I picked Missouri, where I live part time. I’ve always been fascinated with the understudied Trans-Mississippi Theatre and have walked the battlefields and studied the primary sources. For a specific time period, I chose Confederate General Sterling Price’s 1864 invasion. Missouri had been in Union hands since late 1861, although the countryside was filled with rebel guerrillas and raids played havoc on Union outposts. Price’s invasion was a final desperate attempt to retake Missouri, timed for election season in the hope that it would hurt Lincoln’s chances for a second term.
My novel, A Fine Likeness, follows two men on opposing sides. Jimmy Rawlins is a teenaged bushwhacker who leads his friends on ambushes of Union patrols. They join infamous guerrilla leader Bloody Bill Anderson on a raid through Missouri, but Jimmy questions his commitment to the Cause when he discovers this madman plans to sacrifice a Union prisoner in a hellish ritual to raise the Confederate dead.
Richard Addison is an aging captain of a lackluster Union militia. Depressed over his son’s death at Vicksburg, a glimpse of Jimmy changes his life. Jimmy and his son look so much alike that Addison becomes obsessed with saving him from Bloody Bill. Captain Addison must wreck his reputation to win this war within a war, while Jimmy must decide whether to betray the Confederacy to stop the evil arising in the woods of Missouri.
While Jimmy and Addison are fictional, most of the supporting characters are real. Bloody Bill scalped and burned his way through Missouri in 1864 and Jimmy witnesses some of his greatest atrocities. Frank and Jesse James even make an appearance. They rode with Bloody Bill and I certainly wasn’t going to leave them out!
The plot allowed me to recreate some of the tactics I covered for Osprey. For example, Bloody Bill lured a pursuing Union force into a wooded cul-de-sac with a fake retreat. At the end of the cul-de-sac, a small portion of his command acted as bait while a much larger force hid in the woods on all three sides. The Union troops fell for the trap. Few survived.
Missouri was mostly held by Union militia, made up of those too old, too young, or too unwilling to join the regular army. The ranks even included former Confederates who had taken an oath of loyalty and served to protect their county from the chaos caused by irregular soldiers and bandits. The militia got the oldest equipment and least training. This is the material with which Captain Addison has to fight the South’s most dangerous guerrilla.
From bitter experience, Addison knows his men’s single-shot muskets are no match for the bushwhackers, who gallop in close and unload a heavy fire with their pistols. His commander doesn’t have pistols to spare, so Addison starts looting his secessionist neighbors to get the money to buy them. This alienates him from the community he grew up in, an all too common experience during the war.
Weaving a fictional narrative into the skein of history was challenging and rewarding. History even helped me out at times. Bloody Bill’s crew was nice enough to drop out of the record for a few days just when I needed them to do something fictional. Handling the supernatural aspect was a bit tricky. It’s never entirely clear if the paranormal phenomena are real or in the characters’ heads. This satisfied the historian in me that I wasn’t straying too far away from the record. Séances and Ozark folk magic were important parts of Missouri life at the time, and fit in nicely to the narrative.
Just a word of warning for aspiring authors—don’t let research become an excuse for not writing. You still need to hit that word count every day!
A Fine Likeness is available in print and ebook format from Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, other online outlets, and from your local bookseller.