Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Honoring our Veterans

Author Jessica James honors Veterans
After a computer crash this fall, I was going through old files that had been backed up on a disc, and ran across this post. I remember every detail of the events it describes, but I have absolutely no memory of ever writing it down.

Even though it focuses on 9/11, its subject matter is the honor, dedication and courage of our military, so I'll share it on this Veterans' Day.

 'Remembering heroes'

 I’m not a veteran, but I write about them. More specifically, I write about heroes.

 As an author, I conjure up the traits that I most esteem and put them together to create a character that is heroic, noble, honorable and self-sacrificing.

 Soon after September 11, 2001, I found out that I had a lot to learn about heroes.

 As many of you will probably recall, September 11, 2001, was a beautiful Tuesday—bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. I was a newspaper editor finishing up pages for a 9:30 a.m. press time when we were alerted that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. In the midst of bantering back and forth about which editor (Page 1 or Page 2) was going to tear apart her page, the second plane hit, and the mood changed in an instant. As we all know, by the end of that morning, the country had changed as well.

Of course, all of the editors ended up re-doing their pages that day, but the morning is mostly a blur of minute-by-minute updates coming across the wire—some of it news, a lot of it rumor.

I was so moved by the tragedy that within two days I was heading to lower Manhattan with my Jeep loaded with masks from my local Red Cross unit. It wasn’t hard to find the outer perimeter of defense that had been set up after the attack. Every street was filled with blue—New York City police officers standing literally shoulder to shoulder for blocks and sometimes two and three deep.

 After I had been stopped by these gentlemen and had every inch of my Jeep checked, I was permitted to pass through and move closer to the destruction. Anyone who has been to Manhattan would not have recognized the streets so starkly and eerily empty. There were no cars, no people—just a smoky film that hung in the air thick as grief, and a smell I will never forget.

 When I reached the next line of defense, made up of the National Guard, I was again stopped, this time by well-armed servicemen who surrounded my Jeep. I soon noticed a no-nonsense officer walking toward me at a rapid pace. (When I say no-nonsense, I’m talking about a real don’t-mess-with-me guy who made my heart race with uh-oh-what-did-I-do kind of thoughts).

 “You can’t go any farther.” His tone and his appearance were so intimidating that I did not answer or move. “You can’t go any farther,” he repeated, “with that plate on the front of your car.”

It wasn’t until he began to crack a smile that I realized what he meant. I had a NASCAR #8 on the front of my Jeep (back in those days that was Dale Earnhardt Junior). This Guardsman was a Dale Jarrett fan, and thought it more appropriate if I added another 8 to make it #88. (Which ironically, is Dale Jr.’s number today).

Amidst heartbreak and sorrow, destruction and the acrid smell of jet fuel, this moment in time left an imprint on my memory that will remain forever. I looked around at the faces of the men surrounding me and knew in an instant we were going to be all right. This country was going to get through this tragedy with the same courage, guts, determination and tenacity that made it great to begin with.

Every September 11 is a day of heartbreak and pain—but it is also a day of hope. Scars remain, but the terrorists who sought to destroy the American spirit did not succeed. I witnessed that unique spirit on my trip to New York City in images that I could not draw my eyes away from, yet did not want to see.

As George W. Bush said in Shanksville during the unveiling of the memorial there: “Evil is real—and so is courage.”

To combat that evil, the world needs heroes—not like the ones I create for my novels—but like the ones who serve us every minute of every day in the military. Mostly unnoticed, but always ready for action, they serve, sacrifice and represent the very best of America. Thank God for them. Today and every day.




Monday, October 13, 2014

A star-spangled visit to Fort McHenry

Jessica James visits Civil War Fort McHenry
The flag still flies at the spot where it was seen by Francis
Scott Key when he penned the Star Spangled Banner.
It's been exactly a month since I visited "the birthplace of the National Anthem" for the 200th anniversary of the "Star Spangled Banner," but I am only just getting around to writing a post about it. I'm happy to report that my latest manuscript is with the editor so I have time to take care of the things that I put off while trying to get it finished.

I only live an hour or so from Baltimore so it's sad that I never visited Fort McHenry until this past September. The fort is famous for its role in defending Baltimore from the British in 1814, but its valued service continued well past the night when the sight of the 30-by-42-foot American flag waving in the breeze inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words that became "The Star Spangled Banner."

Historical Fiction author Jessica James visits Fort McHenry
Inside Fort McHenry.
Following the War of 1812, Fort McHenry continued to be used as an active Army post, and played a role in the Civil War. Federal troops garrisoned the fort, and it served as a prison for Confederate soldiers and civilians suspected of being loyal to the South. Even Francis Scott Key's grandson was imprisoned in the fort as a Confederate sympathizer.

During World War I, the U.S. Army converted the fort into one of the largest hospitals in the U.S. Over 100 buildings surrounded the fort with 4,000 patients and hospital staff in residence. Advances in plastic surgery and some of the first programs for disabled American veterans were promoted at the hospital.

Historical fiction author Jessica James visits Civil War fort.
The guns that defended Fort McHenry and Baltimore from the
British during the War of 1812.
After the Army transferred the fort to the National Park Service in 1933, part of it was still used by the Coast Guard as a training base.

Today, Fort McHenry is one of five sites in the world where the U.S. flag flies 24 hours a day. The others are Iwo Jima Memorial, the White House, Washington Monument and U.S. Ports of Entry.

If you ever visit the Baltimore area, make sure you put this fort (built in 1797 and named after Colonel James McHenry, our second Secretary of War), on your "to-do" list.

Part of the festivities of the celebrated 200th anniversary of
the writing of the Star Spangled Banner.
Fort McHenry has been visited by 11 U.S. presidents, including the current one, who, sadly, marred the festive and patriotic atmosphere of the highly-anticipated 200th anniversary celebration when he forced its closure for a fundraiser on the busiest day of the century. (But that's another story).

I'm hoping to get back to Fort McHenry to make up for the time lost when my visit was cut short. There is a lot of history in the Baltimore area that I have yet to see and experience.

Who knows? Maybe I'll stumble across a story from the War of 1812 to write about for my next novel.

Until next time,
Jessica James

Monday, June 30, 2014

Two-time winner of Southern Fiction Award

I can't believe summer is really here, and we are heading into the Fourth of July holiday weekend! I have been trying to get the garden in shape, but it's been slow-going this year. We do finally have some beans coming, along with broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, corn, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers. The strawberries were pretty sparse, but blueberries and raspberries are pretty plentiful right now.

Historical Fiction author Jessica James wins John Esten Cooke Award for Southern Fiction
For those of you who are not on Facebook and so don't know the good news, I recently found out that I have won a second John Esten Cooke Award for Southern Fiction--this time for the Civil War novel Above and Beyond.  (I won it in 2011 for Noble Cause).

The award is presented annually to encourage writers of fiction to portray characters and events dealing with Southern history in a historically accurate fashion. I am in good company because other winners include New York Times bestselling authors Donald McCaig for Jacobs Ladder and Newt Gingrich for Grant Comes East.

I am really honored to receive this award, because I have read and studied John Esten Cooke and his exploits during the Civil War since back when I first started doing research for Shades of Gray.

Cooke was not only a Civil War soldier, but one of the most important literary figures of nineteenth-century Virginia. A prolific author of historical adventures and romances in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, Cooke's work holds a significant place in Virginia's literary history and in nineteenth-century American literary culture.

This is the house where Cooke lived, called The Briars
This past weekend, I traveled down to Virginia, and ended up in Cooke's old stomping grounds. He was an aide to General JEB Stuart during the War Between the States, and was actually a cousin of JEB's wife, Flora Cooke Stuart.

In addition to finding the house where he lived, I also visited the beautiful graveyard where he is buried. (I will be writing a future post on the Old Chapel Cemetery).

Cooke fought with the Richmond Howitzers at the First Battle of Bull Run. After the battle, he began to write to newspapers of the South as, "Our Virginia Correspondent." In 1862, Cooke served as an unpaid volunteer for Major General Stuart, he was then formally commissioned as a lieutenant and officially joined Stuart's staff.

Tombstone of author and Civil War author John Esten Cooke
Tombstones of Cooke and his family.
His tombstone reads:
"He served loyally and gallantly through the late war on the staff of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Pure in thought, amiable in disposition, he died as he lived in simple child like faith in the promises of God."

In addition to his numerous novels, Cooke wrote popular biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

I am so honored to receive this award. It's a great kick-off to what I hope will be a great summer of writing. I hope you have a happy and safe Independence Day holiday!

Jessica James

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Patriots' Day marks release of Revolutionary War novella

Historical Fiction author Jessica James' Revolutionary War novella
Revolutionary War novella
By Jessica James
"The spark from a single candle
can light a sacred flame."

I'm sure most of you remember the poem that starts:

"On the 18th of April in '75,
Hardly a man is still alive
That remembers that famous day and year."

Yes, it's called "Paul Revere's Ride," and it's quite long. (Still, there was a time when I could recite the entire thing).

If you dig back in your memory, you may also remember that on the next day, the Battles of Lexington and Concord were fought, marking the opening salvos of the American Revolution. In Massachusetts and Maine, they continue to commemorate this day as a holiday called Patriots' Day.

I am pleased to announce that my new novella, Liberty and Destiny will be released on Saturday, April 19 -- fittingly on Patriots' Day.

Set during the American Revolution, the novella tells the tale of two Patriots who show their devotion to freedom as they struggle to survive in a war-torn country full of deceivers and spies.

Liberty and Destiny will only be released as an ebook, and I will put the links up as soon as they become available for Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, and iTunes.

As you go about your business on Saturday, don't forget to think about that historic day -- April 19, 1775 -- and the sacrifices that were made during the entire Revolution. We are so blessed to live in this country. Don't take it for granted.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The miracle of Spring

Spring with historical fiction author jessica james
A lone daffodil blooms among the rocks.
I have always thought that autumn was my favorite season, but this year, I've changed my mind. After a winter that seemed like it would never end, I am seeing Spring as I have never seen it before.

After being cooped up all winter, the weather has finally warmed up enough to get outside and start cleaning up the effects of Old Man Winter. This means picking up sticks in the yard, burning downed limbs and brush, raking out garden beds, turning over the soil in the garden, and numerous other chores.

Usually I don't look forward to tackling them, but this year is different. It seems like forever since I've felt the warm sun on my back or smelled the scent of fresh-cut grass. And there is nothing like finding tiny shoots of green hiding under a pile of dead leaves to help you appreciate the miracle of nature.

Daffodils along the road near Gettysburg.
According to my journal, we are usually eating asparagus out of the garden by now. This year, we're still waiting for the slightest sprig of green to show us signs of life.

I have no doubt the asparagus will come--just like the hyacinths that are just starting to break through the ground with their vibrant colors and fragrant scents.

In fact, the landscape seems to be turning greener by the minute. Every time I look out, the patches of brown and gray have receded a little further into the woods, like giant shadows in the late afternoon sun.

Just like the ebb and flow of the tide at the ocean, Spring has its own cycle and rhythm, arriving when she's ready and departing when she must. This year, I hope she sticks around a little. I've never enjoyed a Spring so much!

Note: I checked the asparagus before starting this blog yesterday and there was nothing there. This afternoon, it's up four inches! Mother Nature's Magic Trick.

And I quote...

"[L]et us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Strengthened by their courage, heartened by their valor, and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died."
--Ronald Reagan at Pointe du Hoc, 1984