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In Fiction, Context is Everything

Ed Protzel Author Interview
Ed Protzel Author Interview

Something in Madness concludes your DarkHorse trilogy. Were you able to accomplish everything you set out to do with this series?

I did accomplish all my major objectives for writing the trilogy. My themes came across clearly in each novel, though each had a slightly different emphasis. The struggles of the characters under historical slavery (The Lies That Bind, 1859-61 Mississippi), Civil War guerrilla brutality (Honor Among Outcasts, 1863 Missouri), and, finally, post-war oppression (Something in Madness, 1865 Mississippi), clearly make their points. Though the characters, living in a repressed society, must remain tightlipped, rarely giving speeches, I think the reader gets the idea that humanity can— and must learn to — get along.

In fiction, context is everything, and the main concept carries throughout the series. For example, in book 1, a drifter and a dozen escaped slaves form a partnership to build their own plantation, but pretend their enterprise is a traditional master-slave one to trick the town. At first, the hostility and suspicion between the partners, driven together by circumstances, is palpable. But as they seek common goals under enormous pressure (as they do throughout the series), the partnership’s internal conflict blends into familiarity, friendship, and finally trust. And isn’t that what we aim for ideally?

The plot of each novel ties up neatly and better than I’d hoped. Each involved complicated situations and seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the characters, requiring numerous twists and turns, and ingenuity in the part of the protagonists. I had a lot of fun devising them and hope readers can sense that excitement.

Further, I worked hard to make the major characters (below) complex, fully-formed individuals — Black, white, Native American, mixed-race, male and female  — each with admirable qualities and flaws,  unique personalities, and ways of thinking and speaking:

  • Durk: an imaginative, idealistic hustler, whose ambition brings real danger to himself and his cohorts.
  • Antoinette: a sophisticated, strong woman carrying heavy emotional burdens and secrets.
  • Big Josh: wise, intelligent, highly competent; the group’s real leader, bearing his own past tragedies.
  • Mrs. Marie Brussard French: a reclusive, powerful planter controlling the town and perhaps a bit mad.
  • Devereau French: the unhappy and embittered French family heir.
  • Wounded Wolf: Chickasaw chief whose arc is completed surprisingly in book 3.

In fact, I think the arc of the series as a whole worked in tandem with the character arcs of each novel. As for the plots, the final novel not only ties up a number of tangled situations within the its storyline, using clever tricks and surprising gambits played out dramatically in court, but the novel also resolves a number of issues left unresolved from book 1 in an emotionally satisfying and meaningful way.

Was there anything in the story, that developed organically while writing, that surprised you?

Actually, my novels develop almost entirely organically. I never get bored because of the exciting surprises I encounter along the way: plot, dialogue, characters, everything. It’s a hard slog, but the constant need for invention keeps me, and the story, fresh.

Some of my most pleasant surprises came through the dialogue. I like to create characters with strong views and then listen to what they have to tell me. Some of the best lines merely pop into my head in the shower or taking a walk.

One good example of strong dialogue is from The Lies That Bind. The Mrs. French character detests being around townspeople. But I needed a way to get the recluse to town so that Durk, the protagonist, could expose her darkest secret to the citizenry. So I have her going to church, unwillingly, once a year:

“I don’t see why I have to go to church every Easter, just because that Man rose from the dead,” the bitter widow said.

I also gained terrific dialogue through my research. In Something in Madness, Colonel Rutherford, one of my few true villains, says some shocking things about race relations. Rutherford is an unregenerate Confederate who refuses to surrender nor to accept emancipation. In this scene, he opines on the concept of Black literacy:

“Negro schools have sprung up like mushrooms after a storm; hell, they’re starting them themselves. These so-called schools are a plague descending upon our civilization.”

Rutherford’s attitudes were taken directly from contemporary letters to newspapers and articles written by correspondents. I merely put them in the mouth of one man — who spoke them in a tense meeting with the story’s hero, Durk, a Southerner who’d fought for the Union. To Rutherford, Durk is a traitor. In other words, the two men don’t like each other, or the other’s politics. Frankly, the racial animus prevalent in 1865 was tough to read about, and I had to put my source materials aside at times.

As for my methodology. First, I came up with the central concept of the trilogy (the partnership), which established the context for everything that happens after, themes and conflicts. Second, I get a rough idea of the arc the plot will take, plus an arc the major characters will undergo, working on their strengths and weaknesses. Then I let the characters go at it to create the plot twists, always working more conflict into every situation and scene. Is the story tense enough? Does it move?

For example, Durk and his Black partners are equal; they have to trust each other. But with Durk acting as front man for their enterprise, what if his ego drives him to gamble on the cotton market? What if that venture endangers their whole scheme?

I have to figure my way through all the possibilities. That constant need for invention creates suspense for the reader — and a lot of fun for the writer.

What has been the most surprising reader reaction to your books in this series?

How I write the female characters, without a doubt the most commonly asked question. After the publication of The Lies That Bind, I was invited to speak to a book club with about a dozen women and a few men. I went there with the notion of discussing many of the book’s elements, but the major thing they wanted to discuss was how I could write the women so well! In retrospect, there were two reasons for that.

Most importantly, I set out to give the women’s stories, Mrs. French and Antoinette predominately, as much weight as the men’s in terms of plot and outcomes. Not doing so would, in my opinion, sabotage the notion of “equality” and realism, an omission committed by far too many male writers past and perhaps present.

And second, I asked for and received feedback from female writers, friends, and my most ardent fan and critic, my wife, who often pointed out: “A woman wouldn’t say that” or asked  “How would she feel about…” And she was always right.

What project are you working on next?

I’ve been considering a sequel to The Antiquities Dealer, my futuristic suspense thriller featuring the clever David Greenberg, released in 2018. The story involves the search by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian extremists to find the surviving nail from the Crucifixion, tied to an attempt by a secret society to clone Jesus Christ. Murders, puzzles, and romance drive the suspense toward a surprising conclusion. In the meantime, I’ve begun working on another sci-fi thriller, Remembering Planet Earth, where in the not-so-distant future, our world has become an offbeat tourist destination for advanced, wealthy aliens — they’re here to have fun and observe…what? In both sci-fi scenarios, I get to explore politically and socially relevant themes, and offer up possible consequences.

Author Links: GoodReads | Twitter | Facebook | Website

Appomattox ended the war with a penstroke…
but the struggle for freedom had only begun.

1865. After the Civil War, Durksen Hurst and three black friends return home to a devastated Mississippi, the sole survivors of a Union colored cavalry regiment. But instead of peace, they find unregenerate Confederates who reject emancipation still in charge.

Undeterred, Durk opens a law practice to help disenfranchised freedmen — only to be threatened by powerful planters and nightriders. A black school is burned; a petition march to Jackson is terrorized. And when one of his friends goes missing, Durk is horrified to discover Black Codes being used to force freedmen into brutal servitude. Clever Durk schemes to liberate them but must contend with armed ruffians — and a rigged court system. Will fire and bullets prevail?

In this concluding chapter of Ed Protzel’s DarkHorse Trilogy, Something in Madness illuminates Reconstruction, the least understood epoch in American history, exposing the origin of America’s ongoing racial divide.


WHAT LED TO THIS UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIP?

Read The Lies That Bind, book 1, and Honor Among Outcasts, book 2.

Something in Madness

Something in Madness (Darkhorse Trilogy Book 3) by [Ed Protzel]

Something in Madness by Ed Protzel is a tense and gripping venture into the post-civil war South. Durk Hurst and his companions return to their town in Mississippi, Turkle, after the war, having fought on the side of the Union. They are greeted with horrors beyond belief. The fallen South does not plan on going quietly into a new era and is trying to maintain its racist system through terrifying arrests, lynchings, and court cases. Durk and his companions must navigate this fraught atmosphere even while trying to rebuild from the war. It is not going well to start, but things worsen when one of Durk’s former business partners gets auctioned off to the cruel leader of Turkle. Meanwhile Devreau, convicted of murder, attempts to escape prison in order to restore her family property.

Something in Madness has a wonderfully unique voice and chromatic characterization for all of its characters which really brings the story off the page. Protzel uses a wide variety of syntaxes and dialects to portray Durk’s motley group and the variety of people that, historically, did try to rebuild their life after the Civil War. In that vein, Something in Madness does an excellent job of portraying the varying walks of life and attitudes about the South, freed black Americans, Reconstruction, etc. The author writes, with vivid accuracy the indifference of many, the vitriolic hatred of most, and the futile effort of people in the South. The book also demonstrates the often-overlooked fact that for many Black Americans, Reconstruction was almost as bad as slavery itself. Thousands were forced into slavery under criminal charges that were allowed by the 13th Amendment and thousands more were lynched for transgressions against a cabbalistic code that mandated Black inferiority. Despite this, Black Americans did not lose their agency and they fought back when they could. Protzel manages to show the reader these facts of historical interest without losing the allure of his narrative. It leaves a deep impression on the reader’s mind. There is little more to be desired in Ed Protzel’s Something in Madness. The plot and characters are well-developed, the setting and voice unique, and the historical reference is accurate. To claim that occasionally the antecedents of pronouns get lost through the verboseness of the author would be true, but it would be a needlessly stringent complaint. This is not a common occurrence and it pales in comparison to the gripping narrative and electric action. I highly recommend Something in Madness for any lover of history or adventure.

Pages: 261 | ASIN: B08DL84KLF

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History Is Not Always Pretty

Ed Protzel Author Interview

Ed Protzel Author Interview

Honor Among Outcasts continues the story of the Dark Horse inhabitants that joined the Union Army as soldiers in the Missouri State Militia Calvary. What direction did you want to take this book that was different from book one in the series?

In the first novel of my DarkHorse Trilogy, The Lies That Bind set in the antebellum South, I wanted to debunk many stereotypes and myths about blacks, whites, rich and poor, regarding slavery and gender. Southern literature is generally about powerful aristocrats who make fortunes, and often ignores the slaves who actually did the work or gives them little credit. So I created a situation where the protagonist, Durksen Hurst, a hustler/drifter, forms a secret partnership with a group of escaped slaves to build their own egalitarian plantation in the fictional hamlet of Turkle, Mississippi. But, rather than the white man, one of the slaves, Big Josh Tyler, who had run his former master’s plantation, is the natural leader of the group and is greatly responsible for their enterprise’s success. (Such was often the case, historically.)

Developing the novel into a trilogy allowed me to show the full historical arc and the resultant changes of the time period: from antebellum South/slave society (The Lies That Bind, book 1); to the Civil War years (Honor Among Outcasts, book 2); and end in post-war Reconstruction (Something in Madness, book 3). You see the arc.

Together, the three novels depict the historical developments and their effects on the men and women, black and white, of all social stations.

So to answer your question, in book 2, Honor Among Outcasts, the milieu, conflicts, plot, and themes all had to be completely different from book 1, as will those in the third.

I felt like you did a great job with the historical details and facts. What were some things that you felt had to be accurate and what were some things you took liberties with?

Although I am a big Civil War buff, I didn’t want to write a typical battle-type novel. Fortunately, the guerrilla war in western Missouri was like modern-day Syria, with terrible murders and depredations like the massacre and burning of Lawrence, Kansas, by Quantrill’s Confederate bushwhackers. In Missouri, combatants of both sides took scalps! I felt it important for the characters to face these major events in order to illuminate humanity’s potential for brutality and cruelty.

Also, in the spring of 1863, President Lincoln began to allow “colored” regiments to be formed, but these required a white officer to lead them. Naturally, having the DarkHorse partners form their own regiment was a nice parallel to their dreams of the democratic enterprise depicted in The Lies That Bind.

Throughout Honor Among Outcasts, I tried to remain faithful to the difficulties and unique dangers these regiments and the local populace actually faced. In rare cases, I had to move minor events around to aid the narrative. For example, a train raid massacre like the one in Honor did take place, but at a later date and at a different location. Nevertheless, in writing book 2, the actual history did very much shape the story.

The characters were very well developed in this story, which led to some heartbreaking scenes when some characters met their end. What was your decision process like in deciding who stays and who goes?

Heightened emotions give your themes greater impact. I hated to kill off some of the characters I’d become attached to, but in doing so, the reader is able to feel the senseless terror and cruelty of the time, which required more than the characters merely observing the conflict.

For example, wise Big Josh is the backbone of the DarkHorse partnership, despite the many loses in his past that he carries in his heart. So when his mate, Ceeba, found late in life, is one of the three women killed in the train massacre, the poignancy of the event is increased. Plus, Josh’s emotional state throughout the rest of the novel is deepened. Similarly, in the Lawrence massacre a relatively unarmed colored regiment training there actually was massacred. How could I ignore that in my novel? And with the loss of a favorite DarkHorse character during the Lawrence raid, I hoped to bring out the horror of that event. (I, myself, had to recover after writing that wrenching scene.)

Where will book three in the Dark Horse Trilogy take readers and when will it be available?

In the final novel, Something in Madness, at war’s end the surviving characters return to Mississippi, only to confront new indignities restricting the rights of freedmen in the South.

Researching the Black Codes, lynchings, and other humiliations perpetrated on blacks during Reconstruction made writing book 3 tough, and I expect it will be tough on the reader, as well.

History is not always pretty. I only hope the DarkHorse Trilogy does its part to see that such cruelty and hatred doesn’t re-occur. Something in Madness is planned for release in 2019.

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Honor Among Outcasts (DarkHorse Trilogy Book 2) by [Protzel, Ed]After their harrowing escape from Mississippi, abolitionist Durksen Hurst, his fiancée Antoinette DuVallier, and their friends — a group of undocumented slaves — land in guerrilla-infested Civil War Missouri, the most savage whirlwind of destruction, cruelty, and death in American history. Trapped in a terrifying cycle of murder and revenge, scarred by Quantrill’s cold-blooded Lawrence massacre and the Union army’s ruthless Order Eleven, Durk and everyone he cares for soon find themselves entangled in a struggle for their very survival.

Honor Among Outcasts takes readers on a pulse-pounding journey of desperate men and women caught up in the merciless forces of hatred and fear that tear worlds apart, and the healing power of friendship to bring them together.

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Honor Among Outcasts

Honor Among Outcasts (DarkHorse Trilogy Book 2) by [Protzel, Ed]

The Civil War was filled with pain, suffering, and too much death for both the North and the South. The often-untold stories of suffering and valor are those of the slaves and former slaves. Out in Missouri and Kansas some of the most brutal fighting occurred, not from the armies, but from guerrilla warfare. Honor Among Outcasts continues the story of the Dark Horse inhabitants that have joined the Union Army as soldiers in the Missouri State Militia Ninth Calvary. This is a story of how a group of former slaves fight for their freedom along with their half Indian partner. They face war, racism, and the loss of family and friends, and a multilevel conspiracy; but through it all, their spirit and honor never waver.

Ed Protzel uses historical fiction to bring light to things that went on during the Civil War. While the story of Durk and Antoinette is fabricated there is truth underlying their situation. Generals in the war often didn’t agree with the side they were on; but cared more for their political status than the men they sent off to die. Colored soldiers were especially expendable and were not given adequate supplies and provisions to fulfill their missions, yet few cared. Protzel does an amazing job showing the fear for each decision and action that the soldiers in the Dark Horse regiment had to make. It was never a simple decision of what makes the most sense, it was always about, what will keep us alive the longest while maintain honor. Paralleling their story, is the one of the women from the Dark Horse plantation. These women could not join the army, so they had no protection when all their papers are lost. This was a common issue among freed slaves. You could not go anywhere without your documentation or you were at risk of being put in jail or hung. This fear is so prevalent in the writing.

Reading about the harsh conditions in Missouri that the soldiers lived in is hard, starvation, lack of medical care, equipment shortages in the way of horses and weapons. Soldiers being sent out with little more than their bare hands to fight off guerrilla attacks. I know growing up and learning history I never heard about the guerrilla warfare and the complete brutality of it all. It didn’t matter who you supported, they were merciless and only cared about collecting the spoils of war. Killing meant nothing to these mercenaries. Double agent spy’s playing to whatever side they could is not a far-fetched idea and I’m sure it happened more often than even Protzel makes mention of. Lives and families torn apart and those left alive must suffer from it all.

Reading Honor Among Outcasts, I can see where Ed Protzel got the title. Everything is stacked against the Dark Horse group, men and women, but through it all they retain their honor. They refuse to take the easy way out of things to save their own lives. As I read this book I wanted to see the happy ending, I wanted everything to be okay, but true to real life, that isn’t always the case, not everyone will live, not everyone has a happily ever after. There is still another book in this series and I look forward to reading it to see what happens with the remaining Dark Horse members’, just maybe they will find peace.

Pages: 269 | ASIN: B077YRFB9J

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