F.W. Abel was born in the city of New York, long ago enough to have not even been a teenager at the beginning of the Civil War Centennial. He escaped from Fordham University with a degree in psychology into the U.S. Army. The army had him function as a psychologist for a while, until he escaped from that into “the real army” that is, the infantry. After postings in Berlin, Tokyo and the southern United States, he left and became a junior executive in the insurance industry. He now labors diligently for the American taxpayer as a federal bureaucrat. He currently resides in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. As many of the most important battles of the Civil war was fought within a relatively short distance, he has taken advantage and visited most of them, as well as several in the so-called “Western Theater.”
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
When I entered the program at Fordham to obtain a degree in psychology, the psych department had students take a common interest inventory, which measured the student’s interest with those of people working in various professions. Although I had already set on the army as a career choice, the test showed I had few common interests with army officer (actually more in common with air force officers) but most in common with authors and journalists.
Perhaps in common with army officers, I do have a strong interest in history, and read historical fiction for relaxation. It occurred to me, especially after I recalled the results of the interest inventory, that I might try my hand at writing what I was fond of reading.
Do you have another job besides writing?
I work for the federal government. However, I write recommendations, decisions, and remand orders for appeals judges.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
I got a public library card as soon as I had learned how to read. When I was young, there was an extensive genre of “young adult” literature. Non-fiction and fiction were both represented. I especially enjoyed young adult novels about the Civil War, of which there were a plethora, those years being the Civil War Centennial.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
The book is a novel about the experiences of a young African-American as his Confederate master’s slave and then a soldier in the United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War.
I recall a reviewer of the motion picture “Glory” as having stated it would have been interesting to know more about the African-American soldiers portrayed in the film. Also, I was a pre-teen during the Civil War Centennial, and I read a number of young adult novels with that theme. I actually wrote the first part of Volume I in that genre, and in the third person, as Jedediah Worth, Kansas Colored Volunteers. A potential publisher said it really said little new about the Civil War, so I re-wrote as kind of a first-person interview, which allowed much more scope for commentary by the main character.
The novel is written in the style of George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, that is, by a fictional character as if he were actually a historical person.
Another influence is Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels. Jedediah and Samson are somewhat modeled on Cornwell’s Sharpe and Harper. Of course, neither Jed nor Sam are officers, so that brings up the third influence, Sir Michael Caine.
I read that during an interview, Sir Michael made a comment about finding stories that a person of his background could relate to. He was of humble origins and had served as an enlisted man in the Korean War. I’d like to think that this story, as Jed and Sam could never rise higher than non-commissioned officers, would satisfy his requirement.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I didn’t have an outline, but knew how I wanted the story to begin and where I wanted it to go.
I wrote it pretty much linearly, with the narrative moving forward in time. Of course, then I had to go back several times and write in other actions and occurrences to make the story coherent and increase the dramatic tension.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Yes, a fair amount. Good historical fiction cannot do violence to the historical facts.
I was able to do most of the research using secondary sources, which are listed in Acknowledgements. In some casual reading, I happened across other information, e.g., the weather a few days after the battle of Shiloh, which were worked into the narrative. The hailstorm after Shiloh became a minor plot point.
What was your goal when writing this book?
As we are in the midst of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I thought a novel about the war was timely, and wanted to highlight the contribution of African-American soldiers in preserving the Union that we have today.
Who is your target audience?
First, readers of historical fiction, especially of military historical fiction, who, I hope, will appreciate the story on that basis, as historical fiction that does not distort historical fact. The Endnotes and Historical Notes might also be of interest to them.
Second, young adult readers, as the book is still about a teenager functioning not only in the adult world, but one engaged in a bitter war. Hopefully, they’ll see not only what people of their age are capable of, but actually did; the teenage Jedediah is emblematic of the myriad teenagers (estimates range close to 20 percent of the combined Union and Confederate armies) who fought in the Civil War.
Third, readers interested in African-American history. The book, or should I say books (hopefully, Volume 2 will be published), deal not only with the end of slavery in the United States, and the beginning of freedom for the newly-emancipated, but how the promised freedom turned out to be hollow, and the why behind it, as it obviously affects present American society. However, one of the main points for these readers is to appreciate the role their ancestors played in us having a united country today.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
Hopefully, they’ll get a glimpse of American society 150 years ago, especially the attitudes toward race relations which, obviously, were so different than those today. Also, just how much resolve was shown by the soldiers of both sides in enduring the hardships and terrors of 19th-century warfare, and how devoted they were to their causes, even though one side’s cause was founded on white supremacy.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
As this is a novel about events occurring 150 years ago, a lot of it was merely mental, although because much of it concerns the military, my experience as an army officer was somewhat helpful.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
I get most ideas from reading, both history and fiction, and just kicking the ideas around in my mind. Sometimes, something I read will just trigger an idea that can serve basis for a story, or be worked into a larger narrative.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
Work on another story. I have a list of subjects and events about which I’d like to do a story. Some should wait until I get better at story-telling.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
Years, literally. Almost embarrassing how long.
Describe your working environment.
I have a small office. Actually, we have a small office, as I have to share it with my wife.
What types of scenes give you the most trouble to write?
As my wife told me, I couldn’t do a romantic scene if my life depended on it, but the few that are in the book are not horrible (I hope).
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
I usually write, and re-write as I go, especially when “a better turn of phrase” occurs to me. For me, it’s helpful to get it down before I forget it. Which has happened distressingly often.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
If it’s constructive criticism, I look at that as a way to do better. The book’s Acknowledgements includes a list of friends who reviewed my work and were honest. I’m glad they were there for me.
Even if it’s “brutal” criticism, I regard as a challenge to change the critic’s mind with the next work.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
I guess, ridicule. It requires a fairly thick skin to create something and then “go public” with it. It’s analogous to a general fearing losing control more than defeat.
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
Because I write historical fiction, not altering the historical facts. The actions of my characters have to be done with little license or alteration of the historical record. For example, a character can be one of the defenders of the Alamo and do any number of things, but the Texans can’t win.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Yes and no. I said before, turning out five good pages a day is a goal, but I have to admit, I haven’t always met it. And not because of writer’s block, but maybe because it was the first sunny day after a week of rain.
How do you divide your time between taking care of a home and children, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?
I fit writing in, but other things usually have priority. I look forward to the (now somewhat few) totally free days. I can write for 5-8 hours, but I can’t write anything good in one hour.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
I’m definitely a morning person. I can do editing later in the day, and maybe something creative if it’s describing action, but not too well if it’s describing interior things like feelings, attitudes or plans.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
I had never been able to find an agent. That’s another file of rejection letters (although not as thick as publisher rejects; maybe because I was aware of fewer agents than publishers).
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
I don’t think so. Wait – I drove one of my editors crazy because of my tendency to put dialogue before action rather than the reverse. But after several hours of editing, I think I’m cured of that habit.
What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?
I have never been in a critique group, so I can’t say. However, as I said before, I have a number of friends who did a good job for me in that regard.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
If I’m blocked on one book, or I just get bored with it after a while, I start or resume writing a different one. Very often, that will break the logjam on the priority project.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
Looking for a publisher can be very discouraging, mainly because must publishers won’t take the time to say what they didn’t like, so you don’t know how to rectify what didn’t appeal to them.
Even if a writer is aware of a publisher who specializes in the genre in which they are writing, there is little incentive for publishers to go beyond a cursory look. I guess what I did was send proposals to every firm I thought was a good fit, and some that were reaches (which is why my reject folder is so thick).
I was lucky in that an old friend introduced me to his publisher, and it was a good fit.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
I am not very good at promotion. I have the somewhat naive expectation that the work should speak for itself. Again, I’m lucky in that my publisher introduced me to a great publicist. I follow her instructions and suggestions.
Who are your favorite authors?
My favorite military fiction writers are George MacDonald Fraser and Bernard Cornwell.
If you see how I wrote Deeds of a Colored soldier and are aware of his work, you can easily spot the influence of George MacDonald Fraser. His command of the history pertaining to his subject matter is superb, and he integrates fictional characters so seamlessly into the historical record, you almost think they performed the action in the history books. I consider Fraser’s Harry Flashman as high in the pantheon as possibly more well-known characters like Horatio Hornblower.
Bernard Cornwell writes differently, and across more historical periods, the Dark Ages to the Napoleonic Wars. I consider Cornwell’s Sharpe, another of the great characters in military fiction, a quintessential “man of violence who is also the man of self-awareness.”
Also in historical fiction, but different subject matter, is Dewey Lambdin, whose character, Alan Lewrie, is an officer in the Royal Navy in the late 18th to early 19th century. His mastery of speech patterns, word usage and dialogue is wonderful to the ear.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
Volume 2 of Deeds is “in the can” so to speak. Of course, as my story about the Civil War was related by my main character, Jedediah Worth, after the Spanish-American War thirty years later, at some point I will have bring his story up to that date.
Currently, I’m working on a novel about Roman Britain in the early first century.
As a sometime break, I’ve done four or five chapters of a novel about Jedediah’s descendent, a soldier in the 22nd century.
Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!