Making room for a late arrival

This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton.
This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton. (Photo by Shawn Nicholls)

One of the great things about writing for a newspaper is that you can make changes to your story right up to the last minute. That’s not to say that the editors will be happy when you do. But you can, and I did many times.

Writing a book is very different, as I learned last week. In fact, I may not be able to add new material, even if the book goes into an additional printing. The phrase “carved in stone” comes to mind.

In this case, the new material comes courtesy of Shawn Nicholls and involves a long-ago Ku Klux Klan rally in Fauquier County. Shawn is Tom Davenport’s assistant. Tom, Shawn and Shawn’s son, Dylan, are working on a documentary film about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson, the subject of this book. I have worked with them for more than two years, sharing research and doing interviews together. (I have written about their efforts here and here.) Last week Shawn found newspaper coverage of a 1926 Klan parade and cross-burning in downtown Warrenton. In addition, one of the staff members at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in Warrenton pulled from storage a Klan robe that someone had given them.

This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.
This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.

More than 200 Klan members, wearing robes and hoods and carrying torches, marched on Main Street to the Courthouse, then on Alexandria Pike to the Benner Farm, according to Shawn’s research. There they made speeches, inducted new members and burned a 100-foot cross. “They made a very striking appearance,” said the Fauquier Democrat of the marchers.

It was a stunning discovery. A public display like that, even in 1926, was evidence of widespread, deeply ingrained racism. And it gave weight to my contention that Thompson died at the hands of his neighbors.

I knew it was too late to include the new information in the book. Publication is less than five weeks away. But I thought I would be able to add it to any future printings. Probably not, I learned later.

History Press has a reprint correction form that authors use after publication to correct errors. “No additions or enhancements to the book are permitted,” the form says. My editor was a little more lenient. He said they probably could add the Klan incident as long as it didn’t “re-page” the whole book. In other words, find a spot at the end of a chapter and make it fit.

Another possibility, as Tom suggested, was to add it to my author blog. Good idea.


Preparing to launch

Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.
Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.

A sales specialist from History Press sent me an email yesterday titled “Getting your book into the market.” It’s the type of correspondence that I’ve been receiving from the company lately and an indication that it’s time to resume posting here about my book. Publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is still scheduled for Sept. 12, and judging by my mail, I’d be surprised if it was delayed.

Today’s email described how a regional sales team will be working to place the book in the national chains, such as Barnes & Noble, and in local stores. There are no bookstores in Warrenton or Fauquier County, Va., the setting for my story, so I have given History Press the names of local museums, visitor centers and gift shops, such as The Town Duck and Sherrie’s Stuff. I’d like to think a sales person would actually go from store to store on Main Street, trying to place my book. If that’s the case, God bless ‘em. More likely, they’ll use email and phone to make the contacts.

History Press also sent me a supply of business cards and “meet the author” posters, all bearing the book’s cover. Their representatives have asked me to list local reporters who might want to interview me, and any “author events” that I can attend. Finally, a marketing person asked me, “Have you thought about where you’d like to have your book launch?” He described the launch as “the initial large event to announce your book.” My friend Howard Owen had a book launch at a downtown wine bar. Maybe I will do that. Everybody talked and drank while Howard signed books. It was very nice.


Let’s pause now for a short intermission

Pic. 012
The Cash and Carry, a general store operated by Alex Green in Markham, played a key role in the Shedrick Thompson story.

I started this blog in January with the goal of describing what it was like to write this book and get it published. One question that I faced immediately was how often to post. I hoped to develop interest in the book before publication, but I didn’t want to turn off potential readers with too much horn-tooting. After about a month, I found a rhythm of once a week that I was comfortable with. Today marks 17 Tuesdays in a row that I have written about some aspect of this book. But the string ends today.

My decision follows the news from History Press that publication will occur on Monday, Sept. 12, instead of July, as I originally thought. That means that the arrival of the book is still four months away. As my editor said, “We are basically in a quiet period.”

My guess is that The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia resides on someone’s computer at History Press headquarters in Charleston, S.C., awaiting transfer to its presses. So, as doctors tell prostate cancer patients, this is a period of “watchful waiting.”

I’ll resume this blog closer to press time, probably in late August. That’s when History Press expects to “set up author events, create press releases, send out review copies and provide promotional material,” according to one of their marketing staff. So, please, stay tuned.

Launch date will be Sept. 12

Save the date5The notice I received last week reminded me of the “save-the-date” card that I got for my colleague’s wedding. This time, however, it was an email from one of the sales managers at History Press. It said:

“I am very pleased to inform you that we have scheduled the publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia for Monday, September 12, 2016.”

Please save the date, the sales manager said, since publication is usually a busy time with “media interviews, book signings and other events.” Media interviews and book signings?  As I told my editor, I’m all in.

“We have not made any firm sales or marketing plans yet, but we will be in touch with you several weeks before the on-sale date to talk about specifics,” the sales manager said. “This date has not been shared with any online retailers, such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble, nor have we shared it with local retailers.  We will begin contacting retailers and media outlets closer to publication.”

My editor described Sept. 12 as the “release date” and said, “Retailers are told about the book in advance, and many often will order copies to have in their stores to begin selling from Sept. 12. It is when preordering ends and direct sales begin on Amazon, our website, etc.”

I realize that tomorrow’s reality often doesn’t match today’s dream. But I’ll savor this news for a couple of days.

The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!


The cover for this book arrived from History Press this morning, and all I can think about is Steve Martin in the 1979 movie “The Jerk.” I laughed again to see the YouTube clip of him celebrating the arrival of the new phone book.

“I’m somebody now!” Martin says. “Millions of people look at this book every day. This is the kind of spontaneous publicity, your name in print, that makes people! Things are going to start happening to me now.”

Today I share his goofy enthusiasm, his childish exuberance.

The publisher wants to know what I think about the cover. Any thoughts, dear readers? I’m disappointed that it’s black and white, rather than color, but perhaps that fits the time period and somber subject. Other than that, I like it. Or as Martin says in this 40-second clip,  “I’m in print.”

Reality intervenes after I mix enthusiasm and ignorance

The page proofs included the title page and chapter 1.

Lesson learned last week: The arrival of page proofs doesn’t mean that publication is imminent.

One of History Press’ copy editors recently completed a read-through of this manuscript and made dozens of changes. Then, within days and without warning, I found the page proofs in my inbox.

At the newspaper where I worked, page proofs represented the final review before publication. They were replicas of the finished pages, with everything from headlines to ads. Page proofs gave us one last chance to catch problems on paper that we may have missed on screen.

Because of this experience, I expected the page proofs for this book to be an inch-high stack of paper stuffed inside an oversized manila envelope. Instead, they were an email attachment, a PDF of 128 pages.

That meant that if I wanted to read the book on paper, I had to go to Office Depot and pay $15 for a copy. Even so, I was thrilled. My creation was no longer a Word document, printed out and bound by a staple in the corner. It was a book. At least it looked like a book, with an ISBN number, copyright notice and chapter headings. There was even a History Press logo on the title page.

With the page proofs in hand, I concluded that production of the book was moving quickly. I didn’t have the cover art for the front or a copy block for the back. Yet I had the page proofs. Certainly the missing pieces would arrive soon. Publication, which had been scheduled for July, would surely be advanced. I confidently told a friend that I might have a book in hand next month.


I had built a conclusion from little more than enthusiasm and ignorance. And my editor was quick to disabuse me. History Press’ printing schedule was set through August, he said, and I wasn’t on it. The soonest they could print this book was September, maybe October.

Wow, a summer book had become an autumn one. In the span of about 24 hours, I had gone from elation to dejection. Lesson learned.


I stand in praise of copy editors

The Washington Nationals host the Philadelphia Phillies in the first game of a four-game series at RFK Stadium in Washington DC on September 20, 2007. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star)
The author with Laura Moyer at a Washington Nationals game in 2007.

One of History Press’ copy editors reviewed this manuscript and pronounced it fit. Well, mostly fit.

The book is “very well written,” he said, but it contains errors of “grammar, style, spelling and consistency.” He made about 40 blue-type changes in the document. Most were violations of the publisher’s house style.

That means, in my case, that Shedrick Thompson served in the “army,” not the “Army,” that Warrenton was a “colonial-era” town, not a “Colonial-era” one, and that Harry F. Byrd’s title was “former governor,” not “former Gov.”

I also learned that you don’t abbreviate South Carolina, that my former employer is “the Free Lance-Star,” despite what it says on the newspaper’s flag, and that Thompson was not “6 feet, 190 and labor-strong.” He was “six feet, 190 pounds and labor-strong.”

History Press generally follows the Chicago Manual of Style, but like all publishers it ignores the style book when it chooses. For example, the Chicago Manual recommends the use of the serial comma, the one that precedes the final item in a series. I dutifully placed these commas throughout, but that was for naught. History Press doesn’t like serial commas and removed them.

I confess to being a little defensive about these changes. I try to be a careful writer, as in full of care. I look things up, rewrite and submit what I believe is error-free copy. I am similar to the airline executive who insists on clean flip-down trays so passengers will trust the engines. I want clean copy so readers will trust my conclusions.

Even so, I believe in copy editors. They have made my writing better. Heck, I’m engaged to a professional copy editor. Laura Moyer read several versions of this book and offered countless valuable suggestions. When she finished, it had the feel of a fine oak dresser, worn by the touch of much good use.

They look fine on the screen, but will they print?

The Cove
This photo of the Cove, Mamie’s Baxley’s childhood home, was rejected for publication because of its poor quality.
Pic. 033
Guy Jackson is a key figure in the book, but the only picture I have of him was rejected for its poor quality.

 I sent History Press 69 pictures for this book, then waited to see if they would accept some, none, or all of them. The publisher was specific in its instructions: “No image should be submitted at a resolution lower than 300 dpi at 6 inches wide.” I confess that I have only the vaguest notion of dpi or dots per inch. I know that dpi affects print quality, and that more is better, but after that it could have been the initials of a federal agency for all I knew, the Department of Pixelated Images.

I was happy with the set of pictures that I sent them, but I didn’t know if any of them had the required dpi. Turns out most were fine. The company accepted 62 and rejected seven. Even so, it was like getting a test back in school and seeing only the seven “X” marks and not the 62 checks. What was wrong with them?

I was not surprised that four of the photos were rejected. They were inferior, but the people pictured were important to the story, so I submitted them anyway. But History Press wasn’t buying that excuse. As for the other three photos, the publisher rejected them because they were “pixelated.” Again, I don’t really understand the concept. My editor said that pixelated pictures can look fine as digital images, but “if printed on the page, they would appear as mostly scrambled dots.”

To illustrate, he sent me two versions of the same image, a downtown street from the 1920s. In the one labeled “digital view,” I could see details, such as a muddy street, church steeple, horse-drawn wagon and people looking at the camera. In the other labeled “print view,” those details were gone, blended into a gray mess. So it’s all about details? I understand details and how important they are.  As a reporter, I was told to be sure to get the name of the dog, brand of the beer, and make and model of the car. From now on, I’ll think of dpi as details per inch.


A new title, or learning to play well with the other children

2treeBefore History Press agreed to publish this story, they asked me to complete an 8-page application. One of the questions they asked was: are you capable of working with other people on a long-term project that requires a “high level of co-ordination.” In other words, do I play well with the other children?

I answered sure, that I was a former newspaper reporter who had worked with assigning editors, copy editors, managing editors, photographers, page designers and fellow reporters on stories that took months to complete. It was an honest answer, but now my breezy assurance is being tested. Other people are messing with my stuff.

The first change I’ve had to deal with is the title. I always liked the title that I gave this story: Death on Rattlesnake Mountain: Virginia’s Last Lynching. It was concise, as Strunk and White suggest. It was accurate and informative, as required of a good headline. And it was intriguing. As one of my former colleagues said, “Rattlesnake Mountain has such a mysterious appeal.”

But History Press has other standards. They have learned that if you put the subject locale in the title, the book sells better. The term “Rattlesnake Mountain” can’t carry this burden since there are Rattlesnake Mountains in New Hampshire and Washington state. They also argued that my title was repetitive, that “death” and “lynching” are the same thing. They wanted a subtitle that told the book buyer what my goal was in writing the book.

We went back and forth several times. They gave some, and I gave some. And so, as you may have noticed, this book has a new title: The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Searching for Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain. It’s not my first choice, but as I told them, I play well with other children.


What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Edenhurst, once the Baxley home, in Fauquier County, Va.
Edenhurst, once the Baxley home, in Fauquier County, Va.

It’s done. It’s gone. I sent my manuscript to the History Press on Friday.

With that delivery, I met the second of two February deadlines.  The first was for the photographs. This one was for the book itself. Actually the book is still just an email attachment, a Word document of 51 pages, 32,000 words, done in 10-point, Times New Roman type, single-spaced. With luck, it will be a real book this summer.

Today I think back to December 2001, when I sent an email to Henry Baxley Jr. of Warrenton. Baxley and his parents were key characters in the story I wanted to tell, and I asked if he would talk with me. He agreed, and we met in a restaurant in Marshall. Later we drove to Africa Mountain and then to Edenhurst in Markham, where he lived as a baby. It was at Edenhurst that a farmhand employed by his family snuck into the house in the middle of the night and attacked his parents. Henry Jr. was not harmed and has no memory of the event. The current owner of the house, Dorothy Showers, was kind enough to show us the upstairs bedroom where the attack occurred. Showers also told us a story that Henry’s grandfather told her, how the attacker left behind a pistol on the landing.

That visit was the beginning of my work on this book, and the attack became its opening scene. The story has been my companion for more than 14 years. So now what do I do? Or as Merle Haggard sings, “I can smoke and I can drink. I’ll probably be alright ’till morning. But what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”