‘A Distant Flame’ – the second time through

I purchased my copy of this novel about the battle of Atlanta in 2005 when author Philip Lee Williams gave a reading in my small NE Georgia town. He signed the copy, but since the novel had won the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction, he was more interested in my memories of Shaara as my creative writing teacher than talking about the book. I see that I gave the book a positive review on Amazon.

The book is somewhat haunting for a Georgia resident to read simply because the battles happened in the small towns between where I live now and Atlanta–and I’ve visited some of the battle locations.  I-75 carries motorists past sites where thousands were killed. It’s more haunting now because there is so much violence and unrest in the country in addition to the ills of the pandemic.

From the Publisher

In the spring of 1864, the Confederate Army in Georgia is faced with the onrushing storm of General William T. Sherman’s troops. A young sharpshooter for the South, Charlie Merrill, who has suffered many losses in his life already, must find a way to endure—and grow—if he is to survive the battles that will culminate in July at the gates of Atlanta.

From the opening salvos on Rocky Face Ridge near Dalton, through the trials of Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain, Charlie must face the overwhelming force of the Federal army and a growing uncertainty about his place in the war.

Never before has the Atlanta Campaign been rendered—in all its swift and terrible action—with such attention to history or with writing that reaches the level of art. This crucial episode in the Civil War’s western theater comes alive with unexcelled power and drama as it unfolds in soldiers’ hands and hearts.

Throughout the course of the novel, Charlie’s life is laid out in powerful detail. The experiences from his childhood, through the war, and into his twilight years are to a great extent on his mind half a century later when he is to give a major speech in the park of his small Georgia town

A Distant Flame is a book about the cost of war and the running conflict that led Sherman’s Army to the Battle of Atlanta—and the March to the Sea. It stands as a testament to love, dedication, and growth, from the Civil War’s fields of fire to the slow steps of old age.

What impressed me as an author is the fact that Williams made a chart (for research, not to include in the novel) showing where every general and brigade were 24/7 as Sherman moved through North Georgia. I mention this to everyone who says I spend too much time with research.

The novel reads well the second time through, and since it’s been a while since I read it, I don’t remember things just before they happen.




Keeping those sequels consistent

At a book signing for his award-winning novel A Distant Flame, Philip Lee Williams told us that before he started worked on the manuscript, he created a timeline showing where everyone was at every moment as Union troops approached Atlanta. I told him my wife was going to hear about that because she thinks I’m overly picky about research. He said a lot of people’s eyes glazed over at the thought of such a timeline.

sequelI’ve been reading Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander Series” ever since the first book appeared in 1991. I’m reading Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014) now. I doubt she outlined all of the English, Scots, and American history her series has covered leading up to the current novel set during the American revolution.

But her large, 800-page books are remarkably detailed and have a large cast of characters on multiple timelines. I wonder how she keeps it all straight. I wonder if Williams would have to re-read A Distant Flame in addition to his Civil War timeline if he wrote a sequel.

sequel2Readers–like Star Trek fans–are always the first to catch inconsistencies the author and his/her editors missed. A minor character’s eyes change color between books or episodes, a battle fought one year is suddenly at a different time and place, a person who said he didn’t know the main character turns out to have met them dozens of times in earlier books.

I’m an intuitive writer. That means I never outline anything and don’t know before writing a scene how it’s going to end. I’ve had a good editor and she sees things I miss. But she can’t fix major goofs. I worried about making Sarabande consistent with The Sun Singer. And now, as I work on a sequel to Conjure Woman’s Cat, I’m amazed at how often I have to go back and check things to make sure the new book isn’t out of sync with the earlier book.

This is the only time I wish I were disciplined enough to write an outline. Truth be told, I sort of cheated in English classes where we were expected to turn in both the outline and the term paper because I always wrote the outline after the paper was done. I suppose I can do now, but my eyes glaze over at the thought.

It’s strange re-reading ones own work. I come across passages that I’m surprised that I was able to write. Other passages, I wish I’d handled slightly differently. And I marvel at how my detail-oriented mind will consider the growing seasons of plants the characters see while hiking through the woods, but cannot remember who they were hiking with.

Of course, if you’re submitting to major publishers and agents, they’re going to require a synopsis. I’ve written those several times and have to confess that having them later on as reference does help keep sequels consistent. Some writers make character lists and spend a great deal of time writing little character studies about them that include height, weight, eye color, hair color, and other details. If I did that, I wouldn’t have to search through my previous books using terms like “hair” or “eyes” to see what color I chose.

It’s not that that stuff doesn’t matter. It does. It’s an important part of making the character and his/her actions seem real and valid. Nobody ever accused me of having an encyclopedic mind. I’m horrible at Scrabble, Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit. I think it all goes back to a college geology course in which the teacher said, in this class we don’t memorize things for tests; instead, we talk about larger concepts because anyone with a good set of reference books can look up the details.

That was my new mantra. Never again would I consider listing all the battles of a war and memorizing the dates they happened–much less all the characters in one of my books and the colors of their eyes, hair and favorite shirts and blouses.

While, I love writing without an outline, it plays hell with keeping all the facts straight when it’s time to write a sequel. Yes, I know, I can forget writing sequels. Unfortunately, I like the characters too much and can easily think of more stories to tell about them.

If you write, how do you keep your characters straight from book to book to book. If you read novels in a series, do you catch yourself going back to earlier books because you think the author has gotten something backwards?

Since I write magical realism, fantasy and paranormal stories, I’m ready for any reader who finds any inconsistency. “Hey, Dude, it’s magic.”


SarabandeCover2015Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Sarabande,” a contemporary fantasy coming out in a new edition from Thomas-Jacob Publishing on November 1. You can pre-order the Kindle edition now.

Review: ‘The Divine Comics’ by Philip Lee Williams

“In a great comedy, we are always made aware of the darkness in life, but the ending must be happy or it’s not a comedy. A man’s journey to wholeness is therefore most rightly named ‘The Comedy,’ for the end is the final awareness of that love which is the joy of the universe.” – Helen M. Luke in “Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’”

Philip Lee Williams’ magnificent “The Divine Comics: a Vaudeville Show in Three Acts” begins and ends with Whitman Bentley, a young man with gangly legs who’s been dreaming again, perhaps to escape the fact that among the eccentrics at The School of Music, he “may be the weakest, torn with every phobia in the catalogue.”

Since the novel’s back-cover informs readers that Williams’ novel reimagines and updates Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” we know going in that Whitman Bentley will, to put it crudely, go to hell and back, after—as Dante might put it—the eccentric second-string symphony conductor awakes to find himself in a dark wood where the right road is wholly lost and gone.

En route to the ending of “The Divine Comics,” (which is pure poetry and white rose wonderment) the reader—as well as Williams’ huge cast of dysfunctional characters—may sense that that there is no right road and that the trickster gods (known as the Divine Comics, aka “The Lords of the Inner Kingdom”) are plagued with every manner of dark joke in the catalogue. Ah, but the chapters in “The Divine Comics” are called skits for a reason.

The novel’s three sections, “Fire,” “Earth” and “Air,” match Dante’s “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.” “Fire” focuses on a school of music, “Earth” on the followers of a lady who takes her friends on a cruise to France where they will be well paid to treat her as their queen, and “Air” on a mixed group of artists, politicians and scientists who have been assembled as honored fellows at a rich man’s Rocky Mountain retreat.

Each troop of trekkers has its own farcical road of trials, puns, groaners, riffs, improvisations on every imaginable subject under heaven, and assorted terrors to follow, complete with a guide, until all the skits merge into one with the novel’s almost-overpowering crescendo of an ending. Like “The Divine Comedy,” Williams’ “The Divine Comics” has four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral and mystical. While the novel has great depth and a near-infinite number of overt and covert references to music, popular culture, history and religion, it is a very readable and entertaining story.

At this point in the review, Dante purists may be wondering if any of the groups in the story is guided by Virgil. No, but there’s a good reason for that. Former used car salesman Al Carswell, who hosts Whitman Bentley’s group in the vestibule of hell, says that “the Big V” isn’t around much. “Last people he brought through was a bunch of Jaycees who died of ptomaine in Butte, Montana. After that, he turned sort of sour on things, don’t you know?”

Williams has done one hell of a job updating hell, purgatory and paradise for today’s savvy seekers of a great story and/or the white rose. Observers—such as the readers of this novel—left standing  in the dark wood for eternity will sooner or later shout, as James Joyce might put it, “Here Comes Everybody,” for Dante’s epic poem and Williams’ update some 690 years later are both masterpieces describing the human condition. This is not to say everybody must use “The Divine Comics” as a personal heaven and hell travel guide. After all, how will we know at any moment whether we’re in or out of Whitman Bentley’s dream? As Williams says many times in the novel as an author commenting on the story he’s telling, “It’s a question well worth our attention.”

“The Divine Comics” is, indeed a comedy. But rest assured that before you reach that happy ending, The Lords of the Inner Kingdom, will capture your attention and then leave you breathlessly rolling in the aisles at a Vaudeville show filled with enough black humor to last a lifetime, and then some.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the satire “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire”

Upcoming Reviews: Williams, Babcock, Saxena, Slattery, Flieger and Nichols

I have a great list of books here on my desk to review, starting with The Divine Comics by Philip Lee Williams. Mr. Williams is somewhat responsible for the fact my reviews are running late, for his novel is a thousand pages long and, in spite of the fact it’s very readable, it’s taken me a while to finish. You’ll see a review of it next week after a break for a long holiday weekend.

JeffreyT. Babcock’s book based on the true story of a 1967 mountain climbing tragedy on Mt. McKinley will follow closely. I mentioned Should I Not Return in this morning’s post on Magic Moments, The Range of Light.

The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J.K. Rowling Novels by Vandana Saxena takes a look at teens, rebellion and the kinds of books that tend to support the rite of passage between childhood and adulthood as viewed through the lens of J. K. Rowling.

A fan of fantasy and folktales, I’m looking forward to reading Verlyn Flieger’s The Inn at Corbies’ Caww. A long-time Tolkien scholar, Flieger knows the territory and proves it with fine writing and a wonderful story. (I know this because I peeked into the book when it arrived.)

After mentioning Riting Myth, Mythic Writing: Plotting Your Personal Story by Dennis Patrick Slattery here on this blog on May 22, I decided that there was much more to be said. So, you’ll be seeing a review in the near future.

River Dragon Sky, Justin Nichols’ novel about a Taoist “street seer” in China has a noir feeling about it along with a lot of secrets. Nichols is also the author of Ash Dogs.

You May Also LikeMain Street Stories, by Phyllis LaPlante, reviewed by Smoky Zeidel on Smoky Talks Books. The author of The Cabin and On the Choptank Shores, Zeidel’s new novel The Storyteller’s Bracelet is coming out in June.


Upcoming book reviews

I’ve got my work cut out for me with Philip Lee Williams’ huge new novel The Divine Comics: A Vaudeville Show in Three Acts. It’s a 1,000+ page, two-inch thick novel from an award-winning Georgia author. However, I’m really looking forward to this one. I’ve previously enjoyed his poetry in Elegies for the Water, his natural history about the ridge he calls home in In the Morning, and his civil war novel  A Distant Flame. Williams, who is also a composer of classical music, recently retired from the  University of Georgia.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Williams several times at our local library when he was on tour.

I’m also looking forward to Rhett DeVane’s new novel Cathead Crazy. She wrote a guest post about the novel’s background here on March 12. I’ve started reading the book—it’s great. I’m not surprised. I liked Rhett’s Evenings on Dark Island, co-written with Larry Rock. What a great vampire spoof that was. While Rhett lives in Tallahassee, Florida, the town where I grew up, I’ve never met her. She needs to do a book tour into the Northeast Georgia region where we also happen to like large biscuits.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading and enjoying Lynne Sears Williams wonderful novel about the long-ago days in the country now known as Wales. I’ll be talking more about The Comrades on this blog very soon.

Meanwhile, I’m busy keeping up with my Book Bits blog (writer’s links) while working on short stories. (I’m not yet ready to tackle another book-length story.) And then, too, the website has undergone a major overhaul lately. That can happen when you switch the domain from one ISP to another.

The weather’s heating up in northeast Georgia, the grass is growing faster than I like, pollen is covering the cars, the cats are constantly miaowing about something, and I’m starting to think I’m ready for a vacation.