Author, Historian, Educator - An Interview with Tom
What is the premise for your books?
Based on 250 letters sent home from 1861 through 1865 about their experiences in the American Civil War, two young men, from south central Ohio, must make a decision about serving their country as the war explodes in April, 1861. As a result, Thomas Armstrong and his friend, George W. Porter, enlist with Tom’s brother, Wilbur, and three of their friends, in the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in November 1861, answering the call of President Abraham Lincoln to put down the rebellion of the southern states that had seceded from the Union in the winter of 1860 – 1861. None of the boys really knew what war entailed, only having heard stories about the Mexican War that occurred in the 1840s, but they, like thousands of other young men, felt the call of duty and honor to fight for their country and preserve the Union.
And, fight they did, first in reserve at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February, 1862, near the Kentucky-Tennessee border and then in the bloodiest battle of the war, the Battle of Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, in early April of that year. The problem was, for Armstrong, he was too sick with tuberculosis to actually pick up his rifle and engage the enemy with the rest of the 78th while Porter fought valiantly on the second day of the battle.
Subsequently, Armstrong was sent home on a medical discharge while at the same time Porter was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and fought on. But, now, they had seen the elephant, that is, they had experienced what battle was like with thousands of men killed, wounded, or captured. Armstrong, being sick had to sit out the fight at Shiloh, and could hardly comprehend the horror the men like Porter on both sides must have felt walking to within several yards of the enemy and opening fire with their guns and then, having been wounded, screaming for help from a surgeon or deliverance from God.
After Shiloh, Lieutenant Porter was involved in the Vicksburg campaign with Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. Armstrong, on the other hand, had made it home to Zanesville, Ohio, was under the care of his family, returned to good health, and faced a problem. Another regiment was being formed there in Muskingum County, the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the officers of which suggested that he re-enlist and join them. He understood that the 122nd was to go east into Virginia to protect the northern portion of the Shenandoah Valley. The question became, would he go back into the army to see the elephant once again, knowing full well he could be killed, wounded, imprisoned, or die of disease. Honor and duty won out again as he enlisted in the 122nd Ohio Volunteers, strengthened by his complete faith and trust in God regardless of the outcome.
The letters that we have from them describe their experiences in the war as it continued until the final Confederate surrender on April 26, 1865. Those events form the basis for the trilogy: “Answering Lincoln’s Call: War in America,” “Seeing the Elephant: One Man’s Return to the Horrors of the Civil War,” and “From Vicksburg to Bennett Place: The Long March to Victory.”
Describe the writing process and how you manage thoughts/ideas.
All fictional writing projects start with an idea or a story in mind with non-fiction based on real life circumstances. That is not to say, however, that an audience cannot learn from fiction which is one of the reasons for publication of my family’s stories in “Answering Lincoln’s Call.” “Seeing the Elephant,” and “From Vicksburg to Bennett Place.” The idea to write them came easily since a friend who knows a great deal about the Civil War simply said one day, “We all know about the battles, we all know about the great generals on both sides, but we don’t know much about the experiences of the ordinary soldier, the common man on both sides who enlisted to fight for his country quite willingly while knowing that there was a good chance that he would die.”
Now, adding to this was Armstrong’s capture after the 2nd Battle of Winchester and his imprisonment for over twenty years. Nothing had been written about that which made the story I was to tell easier to conceptualize. And, I have found that the literature on the Vicksburg campaign where Porter played an important role is sparse compared to that about Gettysburg. Thus, since the literature about the events in which they were involved was so limited, it only made sense to write of those stories myself.
Again, the letters that they wrote to their families provided the basis for the books, but a great deal of research had to be done in order to tell the stories accurately. But since I knew the chronological sequence of events, finding primary and secondary research in various libraries and historical societies was likewise made easier than starting with a blank piece of paper.
The most difficult thing a writer faces, at least for me, is that blank piece of paper or computer screen. Then, again, I was fortunate to have contacted Jeff Shaara, the author of four books about battles in the Civil War. In email correspondence, he said, “Most people who contact me don’t have a story. You do, so write it.”
So, with over 1,000 pages of research and the letters, I knew, generally, what the story was, and that’s when the creativity took over.
The first decision was to make the books fiction or non-fiction. I could have just transcribed the letters and put them in chronological order and let that be it. But, based on the advice from Jeff, I chose to write historical novels which allowed me to create conversations between the characters, to present their thoughts about the events at hand, and to fill in between the dates of the letters which was a great deal of fun to do.
When I wrote the two non-fiction books back in the 1990s, while I conducted research in the morning, the best time for me was writing in the afternoon, after my daily exercise and lunch. So, I did the same thing here in these books, generally writing from about 2:00PM to 5:30PM or so, always making sure that I had written the first line of the first paragraph I would start with the next day. This allowed me to get to know the characters very well and to think about the events that would transpire when I opened the file the following afternoon. It was amazing, and somewhat unexplainable, as to where some of the thoughts originated since many times I would have an idea that would fit the circumstance about which I was writing and had definitive research to support it. The most important thing was to get the story on paper and into Dropbox and two flash drives.
Then, I found that when I read the first draft, I would make changes, additions, subtractions, and other revisions, and when I was satisfied, I would give a printed copy to my copy editor who would generally return it within one day. Then, I would make the proper corrections she suggested, save it, and then send it to the three people I had asked to review each one for its historical accuracy and grammar. Upon receiving their thoughts and comments, I would make the changes that I thought were appropriate, save it once again, and send it out for their comments once again. Only when they agreed that it was acceptable would I save it and put a printed copy in my notebook and move on to the next chapter.
Who is your favorite author? And, why?
Through a circuitous series of events, I became an English major at Hillsdale College and was introduced to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway who became my favorite authors in American literature. In class, I was taught to think critically about the message that was being sent, who the characters represented, and what the events really meant in Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s words. I was also taught about their private lives as well as their professional ones in the 1920s and 30s in the case of Fitzgerald and into the 1950s for Hemingway.
As I think about it, perhaps it was the faculty’s enthusiasm about the two of them that was contagious and encouraged me to read everything they had written and then to write my senior thesis on Fitzgerald’s and John Updike’s work on the theme of escape, in response to “The Waste Land” of T.S. Eliot.
Some twenty years later, after we had discovered the letters of Armstrong and Porter, I attended a showing of the movie, “Gettysburg,” which I came to understand was based on the book, “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara. I picked up a copy, read it, and realized the depth and the quality of the writing, deciding that if the letters told a story like the one Mr. Shaara had told, I would try to write that story.
And, then, as I was starting to think that could become something I really could do, I came across “A Blaze of Glory,” “The Fateful Lightning,” “A Chain of Thunder,” and “The Smoke at Dawn,” written by Mr. Shaara’s son, Jeff. Needless to say, after reading them, I came to admire his work which became a model for me.
What are you currently writing?
Currently, I am transcribing additional letters that my ancestors wrote about their lives in 19th century in these United States. They range in date from the 1830s to the 1880s and address some of the events such as the Dred Scott Decision, the Homestead Act, and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, among many, many others.
Do you have any advice for novice writers?
Determine why you want to write and what the subject matter will be. Will it be fiction or non-fiction?
Determine your audience.
Be relentless in your research. Learn as much as you can about the subject. Has anyone else written the same story?
Do not be afraid of just starting your story. An outline will help
Do not be afraid of getting criticized. That’s how you learn.
Have outside experts to read your work as you go.
Make sure that your grammar and spelling are excellent.
Have someone serve as an editor.
If for the general market, research publishing houses that work with the subject matter.
Be prepared to do book signings and lectures about your work.
If academic, find first tier journals that deal with your subject. Offer to present your work at a conference.
List ten items about yourself that may be of interest to your readers.
Play written in 4th grade chosen to be performed at my elementary school.
Undergraduate degree in English – senior thesis Eliot’s Theme of Escape as Seen in the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike
Master of Business Administration
Career in banking and finance, including publication of articles in banking journals and presentations at banking conferences
Publication of “Quality Value Banking” in 1992
Discovery of 250 letters written by ancestors of their experiences in the Civil War
Publication of “The Banking Revolution” in 1996
Join faculty of Ashland University 1999 – retire 2013
Doctor of Business Administration 2004
Publication in banking and finance journals and presentations at management conferences
Toured all major battlefields of the Civil War, tracing the movements of the 78th O.V.I. and the 122nd O.V.I.
Publication of “Seeing the Elephant” in 2018, “Answering Lincoln’s Call” in 2022, and “From Vicksburg to Bennett Place” in 2023
Seeing the Elephant
Awarded Distinctive Favorite Honors by the 2022 NYC Bick Book Award Competition
Distinguished Favorite in the 2022 Independent Press Competition
Answering Lincoln's Call
Awarded the Distinguished Favorite Honor by the 2023 Independent Press Award Competition