My book is titled, Dearest Issabella and it was meant as a love letter to my wife. I was bored at home one night while she was at a meeting. I decided to write her a letter to let her know how much she was missed. As I was rereading it, I thought it sounded like letters I had read from Civil War soldiers to their loved ones back home. The letter was filled with longing and deep feeling. I have been reading Civil War history books since I was young, and had done a lot of research and had read many, MANY letters home. As I thought more about the letter, I thought about writing more. As I wrote more, they became the basis of “Dearest Issabella.”
How did you get into Civil War history at a young age?
I grew up the youngest of six children in the Finger Lakes Region of Central New York. It was during a family vacation in Gettysburg that I first caught the history “bug.” We took a bus tour, and since I was just a kid (11 years old), but seemed enthusiastic, the tour guide took a special interest in me and always made sure I was at the front of the group at each stop so I could see and hear what he had to say. I really credit him and his incredible storytelling ability with my lifelong interest in history.
What inspired you to write this book?
My wife and the love I feel for her. The characters in the book are basically me, especially Samuel Ripley, the Civil War soldier who is writing letters to his “Dearest Issabella.” Up to a certain point in the book, my wife is Issabella, so writing as Samuel and writing such heartfelt letters of love came very easily to me. I felt if I could just write as myself, tell my wife how much I loved her when she was not right next to me, but then sign them from Samuel, then the words would ring true and be believable to the reader.
How did you choose the title?
I started out each letter with the words “Dearest Issabella.” The hard part was coming up with the names. I have always loved the name Samuel, so I knew my hero would be named that. He was the easy one. I decided to choose names different from anyone I knew. I felt that if I had a character named Debbie, and I actually knew someone named Debbie, then consciously or unconsciously I would weave in her mannerisms. So I have oddly named characters in the book so that there would be no chance of being influenced by someone’s actual personality.
How did you do your research?
I have been reading Civil War history books since I was very young. I also love war movies and basically anything related to history. So I had my research done long before I ever started writing “Dearest Issabella.” For the book itself I picked a regiment to place Samuel into and limit the scope of his letters to what that one regiment encountered. Since my interest in the Civil War started in Gettysburg, I wanted to choose a regiment that fought there and in many of the other major engagements leading up to Gettysburg. That still left a LOT of units. Since my wife and I lived in Pennsylvania, I limited my search further to strictly Pennsylvania regiments. That helped. Then I just started to read the stories of each regiment. Where they had fought, what they went through between battles, and the little miscellaneous stories. When I read about the 23rd Pa. Regiment, I learned that they did not fight in the battle of Antietam in Sept. 1862 because too many of the soldiers were sick. I thought that would make for an interesting letter home because Samuel would have felt regret at not being able to fight alongside his fellow soldiers. It was another VERY human emotion, besides love, that he could express to Issabella.
Is “Dearest Issabella” strictly a history book?
What I find most interesting about “Dearest Issabella” is that it is not a history book at all. It happens during a horrible time in our nation’s history, and is based in fact, for sure, but there was no Samuel Ripley, there was no Issabella and most of the story happens in the present day. I created a present-day character, Cassandra Losch, so that readers could have someone with whom they could readily identify. Cassandra finds the letters from Samuel to Issabella buried in her home and through reading them, she comes to terms with her own soldier-husband, Jake, who is serving in Afghanistan. The book points out many parallels between our current wars and the Civil War, as well as similarities between the present-day and Civil War era characters. My wife has said many times that she hates history and history books, but because of the way “Dearest Issabella” is written, she does not see it as a history book and can relate to the characters on a more human level because of what they have to endure.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I started the initial writing phase of “Dearest Issabella” with Samuel’s letters and I decided to handwrite them just as he would have. Except I wrote them sitting in a comfortable apartment and not sitting next to a camp fire outside my tent. I decided to handwrite them for a number of reasons. I did not want the letters to go on too long. I knew that if my hand was cramping, then Samuel’s would have been cramping too. I thought it would lend more authenticity to the letters if they were written by hand. And another part of my research on the 23rd Pa. was to find out when Samuel would have had enough time to write home to Issabella. Each of the letters is dated at a time when the 23rd was in camp and the letters are all written from where the regiment was at that time. All of the history related from Samuel to Issabella is true. The feelings he expressed to Issabella are true of the feelings I have for my wife. I wrote one letter each night for about a week and a half, and except for a few minor changes, they are the same as the letters that appear in “Dearest Issabella.” Another ritual I developed is that I never wrote myself out of ideas at the end of each session. I would stop writing for the night with ideas as to how to continue the story. That helped never running into “writer’s block.” By the time I resumed my writing and finished the ideas from the previous writing session, I already had new ideas on how to continue the story. I credit this with the rapid completion of the initial manuscript. I finished the first copy in about a month and a half.
Was the entire manuscript written by hand, or just the letters from Samuel to Issabella?
By the time I finished the letters, writing by hand just seemed natural. So I did complete the first copy by hand. But this also had some negative ramifications. In my ignorance of spelling, I thought Issabella was spelled with two “ss.” It was not until I began typing the manuscript into the computer that I realized my mistake. But by then, it was too late and “Issabella” had stolen a place in my heart.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
I could write a new book on the “how-NOT-to” of publishing. When the book was finished, I started looking for agents to help me find a publisher. I found an agent, but the only publishers the agent passed along wanted me to pay for the printing, editing, styling, etc. I did not want my book to be published simply because I paid for it. I did not want this to be a vanity exercise. I wanted the agent and publisher to believe in me and in my book. So the first mistake I made was getting rid of the agent and not finding another one. I thought I could do it better myself. And, in a way, I did. The first publisher I submitted the manuscript to loved it and did not charge me a dime for the editing, printing, etc. But neither do they help in any way with promotion. And on top of that, they are not paying me the royalties I am due from book sales. Now I would need an agent to make sure I am getting paid, but then I would have to pay the agent a percentage of the money they track down for me. I have decided the agent part of publishing is a double edged sword, but in many ways not having one is a HUGE regret.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
”Dearest Issabella” actually does cross many genres. At an event where I recently spoke, the audience was diverse and I could not pinpoint one group to whom to gear my pitch. The book is classified as a historical fiction/romance. Men seem to like the history aspect and women seem more interested in the romance between Samuel and Issabella. So I ended my discussion by asking audience members if they have ever been in love, apart from their loved ones, and had ever picked up a pen to let their loved one know that they were missed. I then said if there was anyone in the audience who could relate, I wanted to speak to them about “Dearest Issabella.” The response was strong.