Author Q & A: Waking the Shadows

My BIL wrote a book! This is such an amazing accomplishment I came out of blog retirement to ask him about it. Maybe this will be so fun that I’ll come back for more book talk… Meanwhile you should definitely check Jeff’s book out here: and maybe also bug him for a signed copy!

1. Tell us about Waking the Shadows? Where does the title come from?
Waking the Shadows is the story of Samantha Cooper, a 15-year-old girl orphaned after the Civil War. Samantha lives with her uncle, whose traumatic experiences of the war have left him unwilling to share any details about the life and death of Samantha’s father, whom she barely remembers. Samantha has all but resigned herself to the fact that she will never know what happened to her family, when a new schoolteacher, Miss Juliet Howe enters her life and pushes Samantha to discover the truth of her past. When I started writing the book, I didn’t think the target audience was young adults, but it was clear by the time I finished the final draft that I had written a coming-of-age story that worked for young adult and adult audiences.


Creating titles has always been my kryptonite, so it should come as no surprise that my original working title, “Finding Samantha,” was super lame. My wife Holly and I came up with the title, Waking the Shadows while on a walk. The idea for that title harkens back to a Halloween program I wrote while employed at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. My hope is that Waking the Shadows points people towards the theme of the book – that knowing a sad or tragic history is better than knowing nothing at all. The shadows are there. We may as well acknowledge them.


2. What inspired you to write a novel?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I’ve started several, none of which went further than the first few chapters, aside from the book I wrote in 5th grade about a character named Detective Dominike (yes, that’s how I spelled “Dominic”). Really, my only goal when I started the project was to finish the book. Everything that’s come after the completion of the first draft – the editing, publishing, selling a few copies – is just icing on the cake. The idea for Waking the Shadows came from two places. First, I wanted to write a story that helps people connect with history on an emotional level. Specifically, I wanted readers to understand that the effects of the war extend well beyond 1865. The historical timeline of the Civil War ends in 1865, but its impact lasts far longer, as seen through my characters. Second, I started writing the book around the time the first Confederate monuments were being taken down. As a public historian, part of me was sad to see them go because they provide opportunities for people like me to do historical interpretation. They were an opportunity to talk about the Lost Cause Myth, segregation, and racism. That being said, I also understood that A) most people don’t see the monuments the way I do, and B) the monuments don’t just exist in their historical moment, they exist in their current community, and having monuments to the Confederacy on courthouse lawns and public parks is inappropriate. Those two thoughts produced the theme of this book. Namely, the impact of the war lasts well beyond Appomattox, up to and including today, and that we should both recognize the good and bad of our past and take responsibility for choosing our own future.


3. How much research did you have to do? Why did you choose fiction over nonfiction when this is your area of interest?
The historical details in the book are accurate, though not specific, which was intentional. I purposely did not write any details that put characters in a specific location, or battle, or regiment, mostly because I wanted readers invested in the story, not the historical details. However, this also had the happy side effect that I didn’t have to do much historical research for this book. Had I written a story where characters were in a specific place, then I would have to find out details like, what the weather, where was the regiment, what did the regiment do, and so on. By being vague on the details I saved myself some work. The historical details that are included in the book reflect years of study and research into the Civil War generally. This general knowledge was enough to make the book historically accurate. The primary accounts I use in the text, which are all outlined in the End Notes, are fairly common and well-known accounts, so I didn’t have to dig too deeply. I chose fiction because I think narrative is an effective way to engage people in history. One can write narrative non-fiction too, but I’m more interested in connecting people emotionally and fiction is a great vehicle for that. I love reading non-fiction, but feel my best contribution to the field is taking what I learn from non-fiction and translating it to a story that anyone, including people who don’t even know the Civil War is, can appreciate.


4. Did you know how the book was going to turn out? Or can you answer that without spoilers?
I knew the theme of the book from the very beginning. I knew what underlying message I wanted to communicate. But, there was a fairly significant plot change that I arrived at about halfway through the first draft, which I can’t share without giving away a major component of the story.

5. Are there any favorite books or authors that inspired you? What are you reading now? The book that first piqued my interest in the Civil War is Harold Keith’s Rifles for Watie, which was written decades ago. I think I read it when I was in third grade and I’ve been hooked on the Civil War ever since. For more contemporary authors, I think Michael Saharra and Ralph Peters write traditional, military-focused Civil War historical fiction very well. I think my book is more closely aligned to the way Robert Hicks (Widow of the South, A Separate Country) approaches historical fiction, though our writing styles and audience are very different. Stephen Ambrose and Winston Groom set a high bar for good narrative non-fiction. My favorite storytellers, however, are Neil Gaiman and Fredrik Backman. They don’t write historical fiction, but I love the way they craft their stories. I’m currently reading some Civil War non-fiction that may help me with my next novel. I’m currently in the midst of Richard Sommers’ “Richmond Redeemed,” which is a very dense, traditional non-fiction campaign study. It’s level of detail nearly makes it a reference book, rather than a cover-to-cover read, so I’m looking forward to reading something superfluous when I finally finish this text.


6. We hear talk of a possible second book? Will it be a sequel? Still Civil War related? Give us more detail!
I’m considering writing another book. It too will be set during the Civil War. I know what theme I want to write about, and I know what historical subject and event I want to write about, but I haven’t quite figured out the plot structure yet. Unlike Waking the Shadows, this book will be set in the midst of a specific time and place and feature real people and the historian in me isn’t ok with manipulating what actually happened to suit the structure I have in mind. Thus, I have to do more research and read books like Richmond Redeemed to make sure I get my facts right. I don’t want people who know their Civil War to read the book and find distracting errors. If I know it was raining on a particular day, then I want my book to reflect that. I hate when details that are objectively wrong end up in books and movies.
All that being said, unless I sell about a million more copies of Waking the Shadows, I’ll have to keep my day job, so a second book is still way out on the horizon. Maybe around the time George R. R. Martin finishes his next Game of Thrones book I’ll be ready to publish a second book.

7. Where can we buy your book and have it signed? You can currently purchase my book through Amazon, or from me personally, if you find yourself in the greater Des Moines area. There’s an e-book and print version on Amazon and if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you can download the e-book for free. I’m happy to sign any book that is put in front of me, so folks can either find me, or mail me a copy to sign (just give me return postage and an address). I’m still waiting for my self-appointed Vice President of Marketing to find money in the budget for a full-fledged book tour. Apparently, my list of travel demands are “unreasonable” and “absurd.”


8. Finally, what’s your favorite U2 album?U2 is near or at the top of the most overrated bands in rock history. I guess I would have to say their 18 Singles album is their best work. At least on that album you’re getting a few good songs since it’s their greatest hits.

Ignore Jeff’s obvious foolishness when it comes to U2 albums (Achtung Baby obviously is their best album) and go check out his book!

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