7 Questions With Author Harold Titus
Raised most of his childhood in Pasadena, CA, Harold Titus graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in history. He spent 2 years in the army prior to the Vietnam War. He is a retired eighth grade English and American history teacher, having taught 31 years in Orinda, CA.
He enjoyed coaching many of his school’s boys and girls sports teams. Basketball was his favorite sport. He and his wife have lived the past 22 years on the central Oregon coast. For 10 years Titus was active in local and state politics.
Seven years ago he took great pleasure in giving his children and grandchildren copies of his novel, “Crossing the River.” A year ago his second historical novel, “Alsoomse and Wanchese,” was published. Both are legacies of sorts, expressions of who he is, testaments of what can be achieved by hard work.
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Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I am both. First, regarding characters and events, a historical novelist must honor what most historians have agreed upon to be established fact. You must never thumb your nose at truth; you must not substitute intentionally or ignorantly made up stuff. Jeff Shaara does both in Rise to Rebellion, his account of the beginning of the American Revolution. For instance, he has Major John Pitcairn (whom he identifies as Thomas Pitcairn) witnessing the skirmish at Concord’s North Bridge.
Pitcairn never left the center of town! Most of the characters in my novel, Crossing the River, were actual people. I personalized all of them based on what historians know about their thoughts and beliefs and how they conducted themselves. Minor characters that historians know little about I fictionalized, changing their surnames to respect their actual beings. All of this required plotting. The known sequence of events that occurred April 19, 1775, determined the sequence of events of my novel.
Writing my second novel, Alsoomse and Wanchese, was an entirely different experience. Historians know very little about actual Algonquians during the 1580s because their limited sources — reports provided Walter Raleigh by Englishmen engaged in exploration and colonization — focused almost entirely on English endeavors. Almost no effort was made to record what individual Algonquians thought or, in detail, did.
Two Algonquians, Manteo and Wanchese, were taken back to England in 1584 to learn to speak English. From these two natives, Raleigh and his people learned a little bit about North Carolina coastal Algonquian history. The information is sketchy, therefore difficult to interpret. Historians offer conflicting suppositions.
Who attacked whom resulting in a major Roanoke defeat seven or ten years before the arrival of the first Englishmen at Roanoke Island? Whom and where had the Roanoke chief Wingina been fighting in 1584 when he was wounded? My novel begins in the fall of 1583. Before I started writing my first chapter, I had established the identity and strengths and weaknesses of most of my characters – nearly all of them fictitious. I knew how I wanted to particularize the major Roanoke tribal defeat but not Wingina’s wounding.
I knew I had to create events to fill the time gaps between these two important events and the 1584 arrival of the English. My characters, seeking to resolve their individual and tribal conflicts, did that. One fictitious event created impetus for the next. Worthy of note, I had not decided Alsoomse’s fate until several chapters before I finished the novel’s first draft.
What’s your definition of the first draft?
Alsoomse and Wanchese has forty chapters. I wrote them in identical stages: write five chapters, stop, review, eliminate glaring blemishes, write another five chapters. Two years after I had started, I saw before me what I considered to be my first draft. A year and a half later, 18 read throughs of all of the chapters completed, I submit the manuscript to my publisher.
What are some of the myths around self-publishing / traditional publishing?
The biggest myth that I am cognizant of is that indie writers are hacks. Their works are of poor quality. Proof? Mainstream publishers won’t look at their manuscripts. Agents know this and behave accordingly. Bookstores like Barnes and Noble will not purchase books from indie publishers for fear that the books will not sell.
Such stores might be willing to take three or four books directly from the author providing that the author agrees to take them back if they don’t sell. The reading public reads mainstream published books more than indie books. I myself have appreciated mainstream published books more.
However, I have read several excellent indie novels, Ethan’s Peach Tree by Stan Jensen and A Circle of Earth by Patricia Weil — to name two. Literary agents’ rejection slips do not define necessarily the quality of an unrecognized writer’s work.
Another myth is that mainstream publishers do the grunt work of publicizing your work. Sit back, relax, accept the fruits of your considerable labor. Afterward, when the time seems right, think about starting your next novel.
From what I have read, you are still on your own, doing presentations at distant libraries where nobody shows up; setting up a website to collect followers that might, after a passage of time, take a chance on your book and fork over twenty bucks; finding website owners that are willing to interview you; accepting invitations made by individuals on the internet who say they want to review your book.
Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your journey?
Lower considerably your expectations.
In your community only people who know you will purchase your novel. I advertised in the newspaper of a town 30 miles north of where I live that I would be doing a talk/book signing at the local library. Nobody showed up.
Most people do not leisure-read. Most who like to read are not historical fiction enthusiasts. Those who do read historical fiction gravitate to stories about the Roman Empire or Tudor England. If a reader selects a novel about a time period in American history, most often it is the American Civil War or World War II.
Expect little monetary reward for your product. Each of my paperback novels costs readers approximately twenty dollars. (My publisher determines the price, not me) If a reader purchases one of them on-line from Amazon, after my publisher, the printer, Ingram, and Amazon take their cuts, I net approximately three dollars. If I buy books from my publisher (at a reduced price) to sell to people here in town, I (not my publisher) must pay the shipping cost. The post office makes as much money as I do — about four dollars per book.
A book store on Roanoke Island will sell my Alsoomse and Wanchese novel provided that I ship several copies to it (at my expense) and that I agree that the store gets to pocket 40% of the price it charges purchasers. Adding the cost of paying the post office shipping costs twice (buying the copies from my publisher and sending them to the Roanoke store) to what the publisher and printer would take, I would lose six dollars on each transaction.
The store would have to sell the book for thirty-two (not twenty) dollars for me to break even. Any book that they could not sell would be shipped back to me at my expense. I suspect that this is standard practice with independent stores. Chain stores do not stock indie novels.
Had I known all of the above beforehand, I am not certain that I would have gone forward. Which would have proved to have had greater import? Financial practicality or the desire to communicate what I have learned about human beings, educate, and create?
How do you imagine your target reader?
He/She would be somebody who thoroughly enjoys historical fiction, who is curious about modes of living and cultural practices and beliefs different from our own, who is eager to draw parallels as well as recognize differences, who has a thirst for knowledge, who is empathetic toward characters that need/deserve support, who advocates social justice, who detects in the novel universal themes, who appreciates depth of content, who does not believe that romance or non-stop action are essential elements of a rewarding book.
Is there anything you learned from reader reviews?
One lesson I learned is not to exchange books with another indie writer to give and receive reviews. Knowing that the author of the book that I was reviewing would be judging my own work, I had difficulty being entirely truthful. One writer’s book had its merits and what I considered several shortcomings.
Believing it deserved a 3.5, I rated it a 4. Even though her remarks were complimentary, the writer rated Crossing the River a 3. Another writer gave me two of her books to review. This person’s narrative ability was definitely lacking. I provided several examples of this, striving to be honest, gave one of the books a generous 3-star rating and the other an undeserved 4-star rating. The writer gave Crossing the River a 4-star rating before my ratings of her books appeared on goodreads.com. A week or so later, she changed her rating of my novel to a 3.
Wanting to find somebody on the internet willing to review Alsoomse and Wanchese, I accepted an invitation from a person who was pushing her website and who purported to be an devotee of historical fiction. A month or so later, she posted on goodreads.com this one-sentence review:
“While it was refreshing to see a novel with Native American protagonists, I found that the plot moved too slowly to hold my interest.”
She rated the novel 2 stars.
Later, on her website, she posted what appeared to be a full, fair review. Only I could detect that she had not read past the first three or four chapters of the forty-chapter novel. Hours and hours saved, on to the next book had apparently been her decision. If you are going to base your review and rating on three or four chapters, at least admit it. Either that or don’t do the review.
Four people in the last two months have offered via email to review Alsoomse and Wanchese. I asked each of them why they chose my book. None of them messaged back. I stay away now from volume reviewers.
Just how much research is there behind a novel? Tell us how it looks behind the scenes.
Computer file after computer file of cut-and-pasted information about North Carolina coastal plain trees, birds, fish, native settlements, Algonquian culture, agricultural practices, weapons and warfare, religious beliefs, societal structure, the structure of longhouses, gender responsibilities, trade, the making of bows and arrows and of pottery, the curing of wounds, the parts of an English bark, English clothing and weaponry. (What have I left out?)
Add information about the reign of Queen Elizabeth as it pertains especially to attempts at colonization in North America. Everything I could find about Algonquian leaders mentioned in reports written by Englishmen. Different interpretations by historians about what actually happened before and after the English arrived and settled on Roanoke Island.
As I wrote I discovered that the story took certain directions that required me to research something vital to the story-telling. For instance, I decided that a confrontation between Roanoke natives and a war-like neighboring tribe needed to take place. Over hunting rights.
So where would this confrontation take place? Somewhere along the shoreline of Pamlico Sound nearly halfway between the opposing villages. Most of the terrain along the coastline is very swampy, not conducive to game seeking fresh water. I found an article on the internet about a former lake near the coastline that had eroded into its present state, Stumpy Point Bay. Centuries ago a peat fire had erupted and burned there for several months. Afterward, underground water, filling the exposed cavity, had created the lake. It was still a lake in 1583. I had what I wanted!
When you write a passage about a character making his way through thick vegetation on his way to attack a hostile village, research enables you to visualize what he encounters. From Alsoomse and Wanchese:
They had now gotten through the switchcane. They were entering a dense pocosin thicket. Wanchese indentified leafy wax myrtle; by its little white upside-down clustered flowers zenobia; by its long, white, dangling fingers titi; its black fruit not yet formed large galberry, twice as high as any man present.
Worst of all were bamboo vines, climbing over everything, large thorns sticking out of old growth. “Tear away only the new growth,” Cumay warned. “Be careful where you put your legs and feet. Try not to step on rattlesnakes.”
The thicket ended. Scattered pond pine, loblolly bay, and loblolly pine indicated the change, even though wax myrtle and inkberry were present. Happily, the bamboo vines were gone. “We are getting close,” Cumay, stopping, whispered. “Past that grove of pine is an old cornfield. We can hide behind the myrtle until you decide when to strike.”
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