I wrote Pliney Fiske in hopes of achieving three things: stretching myself as a writer, sharing my passion for history with a broader audience, and achieving fame and fortune as a novelist.
I went two for three.
Perhaps you could think of Pliney Fiske as the reverse of the My Brave Boys coin. It’s a mystery, not non-fiction. It’s set in Concord, New Hampshire, just after the Civil War, not during its height. The veterans of the Fifth are the villains of the story, not the heroes. And the central figure isn’t a fierce warrior but a timid pension clerk who didn’t go to war.
I suppose in writing it I made all the mistakes expected of a first-time novelist, and then some. But a New York agent embraced the manuscript enthusiastically — she said it reminded her of To Kill a Mockingbird — and I began packing for a book tour.
Alas, reality. The rejections were as helpful as knife cuts can be. More back story. Too slow to take shape. Insufficient dramatic payoff.
I tried to incorporate every suggestion, and in the process tangled my own narrative. The agent lost interest. Pliney was nothing more than a Word file on my hard drive.
Next came sickness: an acute form of leukemia leading to long hospitalizations, chemo and radiation, and a stem cell transplant, followed by a year of isolation and recovery. One of the motivations that kept me going was wanting to keep Pliney alive, too.
One night I fell asleep reading a polished piece of historical fiction only to awaken several hours later alive with an idea: adapting the approach behind that author’s opening to mine. Suddenly Pliney’s problems began resolving themselves in the darkness, one by one. The next morning, my scribbled notes still made sense, and I set to work.
The result was a manuscript I felt ready to share. It was 2013, a decade after I began writing. This time I took the direct route: self-publication. Think of it as a hobby, I urged Brenda: cheaper than buying a Harley, and a lot less dangerous.
With the marketing support of the newspaper company, I actually made money. More satisfying still were the appearances and book club conversations that followed publication. For this author, anyway, there’s really nothing more satisfying than realizing that people you’ve never met have enjoyed your work — and found meaning in it that you didn’t even realize you’d put there.