From the Author’s POV: “Killing Albert Berch”

Almost all families have secrets.

Sometimes, those secrets are ‘open’ – everyone knows about them, and that’s that. Sometimes, they’re hidden – the grandchildren or great-grandchildren may learn about them accidentally, but all evidence has been destroyed and they’re left with a handful of rumors and not much else. And sometimes, the secret isn’t as much a secret, as a mystery. 

berchThis is the case with Dr. Alan Hollingsworth book, Killing Albert Berch. 

I had the chance to go see Dr. Hollingsworth yesterday at Watermark Books in Wichita. In large part, I wanted to go because the era and subject matter are shared by my YA work in progress (1920s, race relations), and because it’s a nonfiction historical, and therefore has a lot in common with my work on the disappearance of George Kimmel. But also because I think as an aspiring writer, I should go see as many authors as I can. You never know when that one moment might spark an idea or answer a question.

Growing up, Hollingsworth had always heard the story that his grandfather was murdered. It was his grandmother’s obsession, trying to bring the murderers to justice while remaining safe. When she died, it became his mother’s obsession – and in turn, it became his.

What Hollingsworth knew of the murder was little more than some scant facts. Albert Berch was only 30 when he died. He and his wife Lula owned a hotel in Marlow, OK. In 1923, Berch hired a black porter, Robert Johnigan, for the hotel – an experiment which lasted only a few short days. Marlow, like many towns in Oklahoma at the time, was a ‘sundown town’ – no Negroes could be in the city limits after dark. These towns even had signs on the outskirts of town as ‘friendly reminders’ of the rule. And like many towns across the country, Marlow had a sizable Klan population. So the family’s belief was that Berch had been killed for daring to hire a black man, and that Robert Johnigan had been killed simply for being a black man.

And until Hollingsworth’s mom died, that was as far as it ever really went.

After her death, Hollingsworth and his family returned to Marlow for a short visit, and went to the local museum, where they found an entire scrapbook about the murder. (Notice the similarity here with Killers of the Flower Moon? Never bypass the chance to go to museums!) From there, Hollingsworth spent every weekend researching.

Of course, as a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research methodologies. For Hollingsworth, some of it was really easy – he and his sisters found a box in their attic marked “Murder Memorabilia,” which included their grandmother’s research notes, interviews she’d done with suspected murderers, and letters. I wish I could be that lucky with Kimmel!

And then – tucked away at the bottom of the box – Hollingsworth found something that made him stop.

I asked him if there was a moment when it all became real to him, when he reached a point of no return. Because I had that, when I found the “Missing” poster for George Kimmel. A moment where the world stops and you realize that this thing you’ve chased for years, is real. Hollingsworth smiled, and held up a 1920s collar and black necktie – the things he found at the bottom of the Murder box. There was a note with them, in his grandmother’s handwriting, saying that this was the last collar and necktie Al Berch ever wore. “I was alone in the house,” he said. “It was eerie.” He pointed to a faint stamp inside the collar. “I saw the size stamped here, 15 1/2, and I thought – this can’t be his. Then I realized that I, too, had worn a size 15 1/2 in my thirties.”

So sure. Finding an entire box marked “Murder Memorabilia” sounds great! But Hollingsworth found that this was only the tip of the iceberg. Men were put on trial for the murder; he knew it. He had the case numbers. But he couldn’t locate them anywhere. A friend finally found them languishing in the courthouse at Oklahoma City, where they had been sent for an appeal, and then never sent back. That gave him a thousand pages to work with. And of course, though the trial transcript answered some questions, it raised many more.

Hollingsworth was frank about the reactions of the descendants, and his interaction – and lack thereof – with them. Marlow is still home to many of the families who were involved, directly and indirectly, with the murders. At first, Hollingsworth had a ‘point person’ in Marlow who acted as an intermediary – though after some time, she backed away from the position. It took longer to find Johnigan’s family – in fact, not until the book was nearly done did Hollingsworth find a post on Ancestry.com, asking about murders that had occurred in Marlow, Oklahoma. That person turned out to be a family member of the porter.

Hollingsworth feels that he has answered the questions his grandmother and mother always had about the murder. He feels confident that he knows who the mastermind behind the murders was, and that the mystery can be laid to rest.

 

http://www.killingalbertberch.com/ – the official site for the book

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/killing-albert-berch-alan-berch-hollingsworth/1125579111#/

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The Manuscript Wish List

Single writer seeks agent for editing fun and publishing excitement. Must provide constructive criticism, a shoulder to cry on, unending cheerleading, and a never-quit attitude. Interested? Just call 555- . . . 

Doesn’t it just seem like finding an agent is a mysterious, magical thing? That all the stars have to be in perfect alignment the second your manuscript crosses their desk? Or maybe you have to make a sacrifice to the Writing Gods (pretty sure they take mocha lattes!) to find that literary soul mate?

Me, too.

The only person I know who actually ever found an agent is my friend, fellow writer, and beta reader Debra Dockter. I watched her go through that process. For years. This is how that process went:

  1. Finish manuscript.
  2. Edit manuscript.
  3. Create short list of agents.
  4. Send queries.
  5. Haunt your in-box for responses.
  6. Drown sorrows when the ‘no’s come in.
  7. Start over.

But for ages, that was the only way to do it. I watched Deb get emails that said, “liked it, but . . . (dystopian is dead, not looking for this right now, didn’t love it, too similar to another book, whatever).” Or those cruel emails, the ones that said, “If you’d be willing to change X and Y, and possibly Z and B, and send it to me again, I’ll take another look.” Because those are the ones that get your hopes up, and still . . . nothing comes of them.

But!

In today’s world, we have something magical. Something akin to alchemy, even.

It’s called The Manuscript Wish List. 

And best of all – it’s created by agents! 

Never heard of it? Oh, hang on! You’re going to love it, I promise. The Manuscript Wish List got its start on Twitter a few years ago. The hashtag #MSWL is used whenever an agent or editor has a sudden idea for a great novel that they want to read – and haven’t seen yet. If you follow this hashtag on Twitter, this becomes your bat signal!

But best of all, if you aren’t on Twitter (or like me, just end up using it to cuss out certain orange people who shall not be named), you can go straight to the official site – http://mswishlist.com/ From there, you can search wish lists submitted by agents, editors, publishers – even interns! You can also search by genre. Romance currently has 1,272 requests; historical, 634.

This site, http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/, also has requests from Twitter in live time, so you can see which agents are requesting what, and how recently those requests came across. They also have a blog and some other great resources.

Obviously, you can use these wish lists to find an agent that fits with your particular project. That’s what I’ve been doing.

But you can also use these to think about projects you might not have considered before. Agents get pretty specific sometimes about their wants! For example, someone just posted that there’s probably a story in the Kansas gubernatorial elections – because we have teenagers running. Many want things ‘in the vein of such and such.’ And one of those things just might give you the spark you need, who knows?!

So . . . there you go. If you hadn’t heard of #MSWL before, I hope you take some time to look it over. You never know. You might just find your literary soul mate.

 

The Manuscript is Not Sacred!!

A little while back, I posted about how blindsided I was by the manuscript I’m currently editing. How many things were wrong with it. How many Post-It Notes I have used (an entire stack!). How much ink has been spilled in corrections, cuts, and extensive notes.

But every time I try to sit down and actually make those revisions . . . my fingers still on the keyboard.

I know enough to listen to that feeling. I know there are scenes that just have to go. I know there are others to be put in. But something else was bothering me, as I tried to make my fingers and brain work, something that had nothing to do with the amount of work involved, or how daunting all this was. Been there, done that.

It was the fact that in some small way, I was thinking about this manuscript almost as something sacred.

The fault lies with me. We all get these ideas about things. We remember the taste of something being better than what it really is. We remember reading a book in one sitting – then going back to read it a second time, a few months later, and suddenly realizing that it totally sucks (Twilight and The Clan of the Cave Bear, I’m looking at you!). Or a house being bigger, or our parents being perfect.

That’s the way I was with this manuscript. Even though I had the evidence – 50+ Post-It Notes, scribbles on every page, a mountain of comments in my journal – to provide otherwise, the sad fact was . . . I’d spent so long on this project, put so much of myself into it, loved certain scenes and passages so much, that there was this block in my mind.

So tonight, faced with yet another round of staring at the computer screen, dreading the moment I opened that file . . . I instead decided to confront my issues head-on.

Okay. So what are my problems here?!

I think part of it is still feeling blindsided by how much work there is to do to this thing. I have to get over that. Even if all those edits I made to the manuscript end up being thrown out later, I have to make them. I have to get motivated on this!

A huge part of it is simply – where do I even START?! I have no idea! There are so many issues and so many things wrong that it honestly feels like I need to take the first few chapters, put them in a new file, and then just go from there. Rewrite the entire thing, blank slate, without the cumbersome burden of what I already have. Maybe that’s what’s holding me back – not knowing what to do with what I already have. I don’t want to toss it all. There’s some really excellent things in there. Things that have to stay. But on the other hand – it’s also holding me back. It’s a mental block. It feels like a sacred thing that I can’t deface.

Well. I have to get over that, too. It’s not sacred. It’s a creation. It evolves. As my writing evolves, so does this manuscript. As my writing changes, as my characters change, so does this manuscript. Nothing stays the same. The writing I do now is not the writing I was capable of doing a few years ago, when I drafted this. I have to keep that in mind. The tone and style I wrote Book 1 in, is not the same tone and style that this is written in. All of Erin’s quips and snark is gone – it’s there in the end, sure, and that’s part of the reason why I love the ending so much. But in the middle, it’s nowhere to be found. She’s just whining about the demon. And that’s it, really – she whines. For like 100 pages straight!

And that has to change, too.

So does Kai. Well. Not change as much as just take on more of a role. It’s one of the things that bothers me, the transition from where they are in Book 1, to where they need to be in Book 2. It’s a bit too sudden, maybe, and Kai still isn’t quite trusting her. She still has tons of questions about how he saved her from Rebecca – and the demon. Questions he won’t answer. Is she okay with that? The tension between them feels forced, and not organic. That has to change. That’s a huge issue for me.

Wow. So. I feel better now! I know what the problem is – and much as I hate to say it, I know how to fix it, too. Rip it apart and start from scratch. I know it means a lot of scenes may not return. I know it means that things are going to be cut. I have to be okay with that. And I think I am. I think I know what’s strong and what isn’t, and I think I know what I can leave on the table and what I can use again.

I mean, what I wrote isn’t GONE. It’s not like it won’t be there, in some draft. Maybe it can be used in a different book, like the scene with Abigail. Scenes can be recycled, you know. J Lines, dialogue, situations, even just the germs of the scenes can go in other books. It’s not the end of the world.

I do feel a bit better now, having written that. In her book Write it Down, Make it Happen, Henriette Klauser says that sometimes, just writing down all of our fears makes us feel better, because we know. They aren’t lurking in the shadows anymore (like the Turbo Tax commercial!) – they’re out in the open, and once our fears are in the open, we can figure out how to deal with them.

Maybe this wasn’t helpful for anyone else – but if you’re having issues with something you’re working, try writing about it. Just let the fingers do the talking and see what comes of it. It might be nothing. But then again, you might just find a nugget you can use to go forward.

Either way, please remember:  in rewrites, your manuscript isn’t sacred. 🙂