Instructor Q&A

James L. Haley has written a dozen award-winning nonfiction books on Texas and the American West. James is the recipient of two Spur Awards, two Fehrenbach Awards, and the Tullis Prize, among others. Three of his five novels have had widely varied historical settings: The Kings of San Carlos (Doubleday) set on an Apache Indian reservation in the 1870s; The Lions of Tsavo (Bantam Books) set in British East Africa in 1898; and The Lion’s Mouth (now in press with G. P. Putnam’s Sons) takes place in the U.S. Navy of 1805, set in New England, Gibraltar, Naples, and North Africa. James has two more historical novels in the works: The Tempest, set during the War of 1812, and The Devil in Paradise, set in Hawaii in the 1820s.

James is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Historical Fiction Bootcamp” on Saturday, October 10 at the ACC Highland Campus. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

James Haley (2)

Scribe: What first inspired you to write historical fiction?

James Haley: Oooh, let us turn back the years to when the earth was young—I wrote my first three nonfiction books for Doubleday, all of them some facet of Western history: Texas, Indians, Indian wars (please note that I did not say “Native Americans,” because that is no longer politically correct. I got in big trouble in Phoenix a couple of years ago for saying “Native American.”) The books garnered excellent reviews and acceptable sales, so my editor called me one day and said, “You know I edit the Double-D series of western genre novels, fourteen a year. I think you’d be good at it, so I’m sending you a contract to write one for me. Go to it.”

Now, that may be one of the few advantages of being older than dirt because I don’t think that happens any more. In my second book, Apaches: A History and Culture Portrait (which is still in print after 34 years, so I did something right) I was fascinated by the story of John Philip Clum, a New York farm boy of 22 who was sent West to be the agent at the wild San Carlos Apache Agency. Dishonest grafters who controlled the Indian Department thought they could manipulate him into a new Indian war so they could make big profits on military contracts. (No, this did not begin with Halliburton). Boy, did Clum ever surprise them.

There were many elements to explore that a more detailed history could not accomplish, I had a ready cast of larger-than-life characters like Geronimo and General George Crook. I was already aces in descriptions and scene setting, but I had no idea how to develop characters and narrative into a novel. David Lindsey, who wrote the Stu Hayden mysteries for Atheneum, went to my church, and his advice absolutely set me on fire with the love of telling a story. We will talk about that advice in the class.

To my eye today, some parts of The Kings of San Carlos blare “DANGER: YOUNG WRITER,” but equally, I can open it at random to a passage and think, “Damn, I’m glad I wrote that.” People still bring me beat-up old copies at Western Writers of America conventions to sign.

Scribe: You write both historical fiction and historical non-fiction. To what extent is there crossover between the two genres or do you consider them mutually exclusive?

JH: That is an excellent question. Stories should entertain, but I’m sort of old fashioned and I think stories should also mean something. Historical events create their own narrative, but almost never do they complete a story arc that is complete or aesthetically satisfying, or conveys a compelling theme.

In the beginning, I did not even like historical fiction, because if I found events or a period interesting, I wanted to know what really
happened, and not be confused with what some artsy writer larded in there
for “story.” I was young, and thought that fiction and nonfiction should
be mutually exclusive. Now that I have written three historical novels, I
have come to appreciate how elements of fiction, carefully researched,
authentically applied, can lead to a much more vivid and even ultimate
truth than facts alone can take you to. For instance, read Thomas B.
Costain’s The Conquering Family about 12th century England. Facts,
facts, facts, boring, boring, boring. But, it was one of the resources
that James Goldman used to write The Lion in Winter. Breathtaking,
jaw-dropping piece of art. We are going to look at some of the homework
that went into that movie, that no attention is ever drawn to, but created
a rich, rich fabric of story.

There have been times when this blurring of fact and fiction could be
quite indiscriminate. In the 1920s the art of biography was ruled over
from England by the “Bloomsbury Group” — Virginia Woolf, the Sitwells.
Their philosophy was that making up little things about your nonfiction
subject was fine to help you paint your portrait. One of their American
exponents was Marquis James, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Raven, a
biography of Sam Houston. It is deeply researched and beautifully written
but a lot of stuff in there never happened. That’s where I draw the line
because it misleads people.

Scribe: When is fiction an ideal medium for hashing out conflicting narratives of
history as opposed to nonfiction?

JH: An interesting question about a delicate issue. As soon as you posit
“conflicting narratives of history,” you open the door to your characters
spouting political or social manifestoes, and you end up with something as
horrifying as Ayn Rand. Novels are about the story, the story, and the
story — and the characters must speak and act believably within their
motivations, in their time.

Now, that does not at all prevent you from exploring “conflicting
narratives,” in fact that is at the heart of, say, the John Jakes North
and South
series, no? But if you start with position papers, that makes it
harder to draw believable characters in believable situations. If you have
a thesis to prove, write nonfiction. Of course, if it later turns out that
you are full of crap, you can’t cop out and say, “But wait a minute, it
was just a novel!”

Scribe: What is something people (including yourself) have found they are most
surprised by when they start writing historical fiction?

JH: The initial shock was discovering that writing historical fiction really
well is about eight times harder than writing straight history, because
you have to know the entire culture, what they wore and ate and how they
talked — including words they would NOT use, and we will discuss
anachronisms. But after getting past that, and learning the life and
culture, I was overwhelmed with the endless possibilities of enriching the
story with the background. We will discuss the issues of looking through
the large end of the telescope: most readers won’t know any more than what
you tell them, while you are painfully aware of the thousands of elements
you are NOT using.

When I wrote The Lions of Tsavo, about the Uganda Railroad man-eating
lions that shut down construction for over a year, my then-agent read it
and said, “It’s a great story, but I don’t want to send it out without any
sex in it.” So I was forced into deeper research, into the sociology of
the Kikuyu and Wakamba people, and I found a whole new subplot that vastly
enriched the story, was not in the least gratuitous, and I am sure was one
reason why Disney Touchstone bought the film rights.

Scribe: How has historical fiction’s form and style evolved since you have started
writing? Do you think it has changed for the better? Is this something important for new writers to know?

JH: When I began, big historical fiction (not genre, which has its own
traditions) was ruled over by Irving Stone and James Michener, whose
novels might begin with volcanoes and dinosaurs, and eventually narrow
down to his characters, but he still felt at liberty to spend several
pages expounding on the Treaty of Tordesillas or something. None of my
editors now let writers get so rangy or undisciplined. The art has become
sharper, and the writer is tasked to find more succinct ways to work
background and context into the story.

Having said that, longer novels are once again coming into vogue. I know
in the early American Navy adventure novel I just finished for Putnam, my
editor even after accepting the book and paying me for it, asked me to add
several thousand words of specific development. So, the fashion changes,
but good writing doesn’t, and those new words were not fat, but had to
pull their weight at the same rate as the existing story.

— Thanks, James!

Click here to register for James Haley’s class.

Click here for our full schedule of fall classes.

Meet the Members

Marilyn LaRonde has been a member of the Writers’ League for three years. She lives in Round Rock, TX.

Marilyn Photo











 In what genre(s) do you write?

Marilyn LaRonde: Memoir.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

ML: David McCullough.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

ML: That’s a long time so I’ll choose something weighty: The Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

ML: The conferences (2014 & 2015) were fun because I learned so much. The entire staff has been a big help to me.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

ML: Writing one great book like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

ML: When this great book is published, that each of you buys twenty-five copies.



Edited by Robert H. Wilson, Norman J. Glickman, and Laurence E. Lynn, Jr.

Published in 2015 by University of Texas.

LBJ's Neglected Legacy












Reviewed by Trilla Pando.

All the way, with LBJ? The editors of LBJ’s Neglected Legacy might rephrase the 1966 campaign slogan as “Half the way with LBJ!” as they contend that current history has not gone anywhere near all the way   either in remembering or recounting the critical events and policies of the thirty-sixth President’s six years in office.

What do most of us remember? A solemn man raising his right hand taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One? Or perhaps, only months later, the inauguration of Operation Rolling Thunder bringing three years of bombs raining down on Vietnam—both North and South? The Tet Offensive? Or Headstart, Medicare, immigration reform, the beginning of the end of Jim Crow?

Probably few or none of the latter listed, yet 50 years later many of these continue to be present as part of our daily life, albeit considerably changed. In their comprehensive selection of essays, Richard H. Wilson, Norman J. Glickman and Laurence E. Lynn Jr. seek to change history’s emphasis.  These scholars, from the University of Texas, Rutgers, and the University of Chicago respectively, are well qualified to do so. Additionally, Lynn brings firing-line experience; he was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Johnson years.

The editors’ introductory and concluding essays give succinct and convincing support to their premise. The doubter or the questioner will do well to read both before delving into the specifics discussed between the two.

These specifics divide well into the four sections. The first two sections consider direct social welfare policies ranging from Jim Crow and immigration through education and health care. The latter sections deal with general social issues—cities, water and public management. Readers with topic-specific interests will be able to cut easily to their own chase while students of the Johnson Administration or American history in general will want to pursue and to enjoy a page-by-page approach.

Books considering both Johnson’s life and his works are proliferating in this centennial year of his birth. For its focus, its scope, and its scholarly approach this one is a noteworthy addition. The man once mourned, “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved—the Great Society.” of LBJ’s Neglected Legacy brings the lady back to life.

Trilla Pando holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Houston; she taught in both Texas and Georgia. Her research focused on women in Texas and Houston. The Bainbridge (Georgia) Post-Searchlight published her weekly column on food and local history. She now lives and works in Houston.



Instructor Spotlight

Greg Garrett is the author of four novels, including Cycling published in June of this year. He is also the author of two books of memoir, and over a dozen books on narrative, film, culture, religion, and politics. He is 2013 Centennial Professor at Baylor University, where he teaches classes in creative writing, literature, and film.

Greg is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Playing with Time: Planning Your Story from Past to Future” at St. Edward’s University on Saturday, September 26. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Scribe: Do you think there is any particular value of writing exercises when it comes to imagining the pasts and futures of characters?

Greg Garrett: I always encourage my students to know much more about their characters than they end up sharing in the work they’re doing. Sometimes I ask them to write character histories for major characters. For people working on longer narratives, it’s usually helpful for them to plot out their throughlines—maybe on past the end of their book or screenplay.

Scribe: The class description also mentions “successful exposition.” Can you briefly share one tip authors can use for writing exposition well?

GG: Exposition always consists of information, mostly from before the beginning of the story. The challenge is always how much of it to include—and when to include it. We’ll talk in class about the difference between “exposition dumps” –big blocks of information that the writer is awkwardly trying to shoehorn into the story—and drips and drops of exposition. Some writing examples will help us learn how successful exposition looks.

Scribe: Have you ever found that you or your students become so immersed in the past and future of a character that you find you delve into that more than initially planned?

GG: On one of my very early novels—I wrote it for my Master’s thesis, and it’s never been published, thank God—I got so interested in my main character’s back story that I kept writing histories, first of the character’s parents, then of his grandparents. But when I started trying to write the World War One experiences of the character’s grandfather into my Vietnam War-era novel, I knew I had gone overboard.

Scribe: Could you briefly describe what the “practical value” of thinking about time refers to in the class description? Do you think people could think more about the past and the future in their own lives?

GG: In terms of this class, I’m encouraging participants to wrestle with the artistic challenges of time in storytelling, but I certainly think that spiritually and emotionally the past and future offer a rich topic. We tend to relive the past and anticipate the future instead of ground ourselves in the present, which Buddhist and Christian mystics both have noted, and so our characters tend to do that as well. Perhaps the great example is Fitzgerald’s Gatsby: “Can’t repeat the past? . . . Why of course you can!” But what makes great storytelling is immersing a reader or viewer in a realized moment, whether that moment took place in the past, is happening “now,” or will not arrive until the character’s future!

— Thanks, Greg!

Click here to read more about Greg’s class and register.

Click here for a full schedule of fall classes.

Meet the Members

Terrie Reed has been a member of the Writers’ League since August. She lives in Midland, Texas.

Terrie Reed






Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write? 

Terrie Reed: Realistic Fiction.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

TR: John Grisham and coffee.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

TR: Hawaii by James Michener.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

TR: That I do not know what I do not know and I hope to learn that which I do not know that I do not know. In other words, I need enlightenment in the writing process.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future? 

TR: I would like to publish my novel of course. Outside of that goal, I would find delight in the process of putting my experiences and interests in writing just for the sake of writing it all down. Hoping, some day, someone else might find my experiences and interests thought-provoking.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

TR: I am a retired Chemistry/Math teacher. I have taken the opportunity to write for pleasure since my retirement from public education. I spent over 30 years studying and teaching about things that were very conforming and structured. Now I am learning to enjoy the lack of so much structure in my life. The freedom to be able to write about things that intrigue me is quite enjoyable.

Meet the Members

Kirsten Dodge has been a member of the Writers’ League for a year. She lives in Elgin, Texas.


Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Kirsten Dodge: Literary Fiction.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

KD: I’d travel to Italy to meet the illusive novelist Elena Ferrante for a glass of wine; there’s nothing like her four-volume Neapolitan trilogy, and I’ve read a lot of books since I learned to read in 1945. For sure I’d like to meet the Australian novelist Tim Winton–I’d even go back to Australia to have a beer with him and tell him Cloudstreet is a work of genius. I’d go to Istanbul to have a coffee with Orhan Pamuk. I’d meet Piper Kerman (who wrote the memoir Orange is the New Black) for coffee wherever she wants.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

KD: Yikes! One book would not keep me sane. I’d start writing in the sand.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

KD: You’re never too old to learn.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

KD: I’m learning from others who reflect my truth back to me to go deeper and be grateful when they catch me on my bullshit.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

KD: I’ve spent a good deal of my private life in blatant self-promotion: I’m a Leo! That explains a lot.  But at this age, after reading writers like Ferrante and Winton, I’m learning to get in touch with other lost selves and give them a voice too, even though they don’t do a whole lot for my public persona.



By Taylor Stevens

Published in 2015 by Crown.

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Reviewed by K.L. Romo.

Taylor Stevens does it again with the fifth book in her Vanessa Michael Munroe series – The Mask. At the end of her last assignment, Munroe is weary of the fight, and longs to spend time with the love of her life, Miles Bradford. She agrees to meet him in Japan, where he’s currently on assignment to try to live a more “normal” life. Although she tries to embrace a life of domesticity, Munroe finds herself fidgety and accompanies Bradford to work—an investigation being conducted at a cutting-edge biotechnology company. When the investigation unravels, Munroe is forced to take the lead in sorting out the many layers of the puzzle that left one woman dead, and multiple threats of retribution aimed at Bradford and Munroe.

In each new book, not only are we entertained by Munroe’s skill in self-defense, but we delve more deeply into her personality—her strengths and weaknesses.  And again, the hardened warrior not only carries out her mission, but rescues others along the way. We see her empathy for women who have been mistreated, and for people who are broken, just like Munroe. Once again, her compassion for victims outweighs her hard veneer, and she once again does what’s right to save the one most vulnerable.

Although her character is akin to a super-ninja-killer-spy, readers are also given glimpses of her frailties and weaknesses, basically, what makes her human.

The novel begins with an assault against Munroe on day 7, then backtracks to day 63 before the event that shifts her world once again. The story is told in chronological order until the pivotal incident, and then continues for another 24 days after. As always, we are plunged into Munroe’s dangerous occupation, but instead of Africa and Europe, we are taken to Osaka, Japan.

The plot is action-packed and entertaining. Readers can’t help but admire Munroe’s extreme skill at self-defense, but can also relate to her brokenness and emotional upheaval.  Another great read, Taylor!

K.L. Romo is a member of the Writers’ Leagues of Texas who lives with her family in Duncanville, Texas. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her novel From Grace I Fall – about a modern woman who’s suddenly transported back to 1907 Dallas, seeing the world through the eyes of a reformed prostitute who’s determined to seek justice for victims of human trafficking, and other women forced to sell their bodies. You can visit her at