By Jon Black
Recently, I had the pleasure of receiving an Advance Review Copy of Desecration, the new HistFic/Weird West novel by Miami-based author Jeff Oberg. Not only is it a great story, it is a great example of how to write HistFic. Jeff was kind enough to sit down with me (electronically speaking) to discuss his book and process for writing historical fiction.
1) Tell us a little about Desecration? What inspired you to write the story?
One night I was online and stumbled across a clickbait list about the five most badass lawmen in the Old West. It was an honest list and included none of the usual suspects popular culture has made symbols of the old west. Number two on that list was a Deputy Marshal named Bass Reeves.
Marshal Reeves became the inspiration for Ulysses Bowden. I’m a speculative fiction writer and enjoy hard science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In this case the idea of a freedman, taken in by the displaced tribes of Indian Territory serving as a US Marshal gave me the kind of iconic hero it’s fun to tell stories about.
In Desecration, Ulysses, his cook Jim, and his friend Che, are doing what US Marshals did, finding and arresting criminals in Indian Territory. The story starts to go off the rails when a talking raven finds Ulysses and adopts him. The further Ulysses gets from the Dead Line (what the historical Fort Smith marshals called the boundary where the outlaws would post wanted posters for the marshals) the more the world he knows is changed by the man on Raven Hill. The story contains a lot of traditional western elements, chuck wagon cooking, horseback chases, tracking, homesteaders, ghouls, six-guns, and mindless horrors from beyond space and time. It was a lot of fun to write, and I hope people find it fun to read.
2) What was your research process for the historical elements? Were there resources you found particularly useful.
There is a reference to Marshal Bass Reeves and the excellent book about him, Black Gun, Silver Star, by Art Burton, at the end of Desecration. Mr. Burton dug deeply into court documents and newspaper accounts for stories about Marshal Reeves. Like many people of color, Marshal Reeves was not well documented during his life.
I have some family friends from Arkansas who I talked to about dialect and history. Then I started looking at the records of the Marshal’s service and maps. The real treasure trove turned out to be the National Park Service. When writing about American history, the NPS keeps huge amounts of information online, including monographs, papers, photos, and reports. The Fort Smith Court House is a National Historical Site administered by the National Park Service. I found floor plans, photos of court in session, reports about the jail (which appears in the sequel coming this Fall), pictures of furniture, criminals, marshals, and the people of Fort Smith.
I’m even more convinced the National Park Service is a national treasure. I tried to use as many primary sources as I could, without the NPS this would have been a much poorer book.
3) What are some of the challenges, expected or unexpected, you encountered either in the research or the writing for Desecration?
There were a few that were minor. I made some choices with dates, Winchester didn’t offer a .45 option in its rifles until 1876, so I pushed that back a year after debating it a bit just to simplify my book keeping and because Marshal Reeves was an early adopter of the .45 Winchester so he only had to carry one type of cartridge. Fort Arbuckle closed in 1870, but in Desecration it’s still open in 1875. I’ll be closing it in the course of the series, and there will be an appropriately weird reason for it. For the most part, people attached to real places in the novel are historically accurate. Due to the great, white man school of history, most of them are famous white men. As I learn more, I’m sure that will change.
The biggest challenge turned out to be language. One of my alpha-readers, chosen because I’m a middle aged white guy writing about a black protagonist, told me, “Dude, black people, we don’t talk to each other that way.” It was in reference to an early draft of the conversations between Ulysses and Ernie that take place in the first two chapters. He went on to tell me that the slang used between black people is a way to indicate that they haven’t forgotten where they came from. It started a whole new line of research.
Fortunately, there is a treasure in the Library of Congress. In the first half of the 20th century, a group of researchers and grad students lugged a 200-pound mobile recording studio around the south and recorded conversations with some of the last living people who had been enslaved before the 13th Amendment. There is a link to those recordings in the back of Desecration as well. One thing I learned from those recordings is that all of them refer to emancipation as “The Break”. Of course, I had to include it in Ulysses’ speech patterns. Getting the language right is important to me. I don’t like including phonetically spelled dialect, so the cadence, rhythm, and word usage needs to be right. I’ve probably spent a hundred hours listening to those recordings at this point. You can find them at the Library of Congress site, under Voices of Slavery.
4) You’ve got a nice touch for incorporating the fine details of 19th century life in ways that are interesting and don’t slow down the narrative. Can you talk about your process for this?
To be honest most of it has to do with writing what I know. Jim’s cooking rings true because I’m a classically trained chef who grew up in Texas. I know how to cook because I’ve spent thousands of hours practicing and studying it. I was a Boy Scout and learned outdoor cooking in Texas. Part of my decision to make Jim from Texas was to let me use my knowledge of Texas cooking to enrich the book.
A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to take a traditional blacksmithing class. Travis’s forge has the feel it does in part because of that class. For me it’s a very tactile thing. As writers, we get accused of living in our heads. I find the more I get out and do, the more things I touch and try, even if I am terrible at them, seriously the results of my blacksmithing class are kept as an object lesson to keep writing, the more it informs my writing.
The other piece is to not write what I don’t know. I don’t know how to make a horse shoe, so I don’t include a detailed description of a horse shoe being made. My experience is that if I can get a few details exactly right, it makes it much easier to evoke the feel of the time and place than if I try to throw everything at the wall and hope some of it sticks. I will always have readers who know much more about history than I do. I just try to get the things right that I include. If I am not certain, I don’t use it.
5) What advice would you offer to those interesting writing HistFic and related genres?
For me it’s about the unexplored corners of history. Everyone knows about Washington crossing the Delaware. Don’t write about it unless you have a truly new and unique take on it. You might, but I know I don’t. It’s more fun to find the stories that haven’t been told. Mansa Musa was the King of Timbuktu and possibly the richest man in history. The Varangians were Norsemen who served as the personal body guard of the Byzantine Emperor from the 10th to the 14th centuries. Bass Reeves was the greatest law enforcement officer of all time, but almost no one knows his name. The Silk Road was in use for centuries before Marco Polo. If you find the history that no one is talking about, you can tell amazing stories that are new to most of your readers. That makes the stories more interesting and new, even though they are set in history.
6) Tell us a little bit about the man behind the keyboard?
Oh heck, umm, I have a web site? You can visit me at jeffobergwrites.com. Beyond the web site, I grew up mostly in Texas and have ADD. I have a ton of interests and along with the cooking and the blacksmithing, I do some woodworking, I read a lot, I am a gamer of the pencil and paper RPG variety, I’m a terrible geek that loves some western in my Sci-Fi. I have a beard that borders on wizardly. I have two huge dogs, three kids, and I’ve been married for nineteen years. As a side note you officiated at my marriage, which turned out to be a good choice.
Jeff Oberg’s new novel, Desecration, is now available on Amazon . Find him online at Jeffobergwrites.com and @Jeffobergwrites.