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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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