Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Savage Wisdom by Norman German

Today, our guest blogger is Dr. Norman German, a Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, Fiction Editor for Louisiana Literature, and Winner of the Deep South Writers' Contest for No Other World.

A specialist in twentieth-century American literature, he has also published award-winning short stories, poems, and literary criticism. His stories have appeared in commercial and literary magazines, including Shenandoah, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Sport Fishing, and Salt Water Sportsman. His scholarly articles cover a wide range of major American authors including Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Raymond Carver, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Dickey, and Anthony Hecht.

You can also find him on Facebook.

He’s here today to tell us about his third book, A Savage Wisdom, his research and the trail that led him to write the book. Plus, he has a special purchase price for his book for Straight From Hel readers, so be sure you check the end of the post.

Welcome, Dr. German.


“The Detective Work of a Writer” by Norman German

Put to death in 1942 for the 1940 Valentine’s Day murder of a Houston businessman, Toni Jo Henry is still the only woman ever executed in Louisiana’s electric chair.

Toni Jo’s story has intrigued me since childhood, when I would read about her in special features in the Lake Charles American Press, which tantalized readers with reproductions of her leggy portrait as a coddled death-row inmate.

When I decided to “novelize” her life, my four-year research led me to the newspaper archive room, legal documents, and Toni Jo’s gravesite.

First, I read dozens of newspaper articles on the murder, capture, trial, and execution. To create the dense, “textured” world of a novel, I immersed myself in magazines and popular histories from World War I to 1963 (JFK’s assassination).

From antique stores, I bought ten copies of magazines from the period, including Life, Look, Collier’s, and Saturday Evening Post. I read every article and studied every ad in order to realistically recreate the clothing, slang, and pop-culture icons of the era.

Two indispensable histories were Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s and Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America, both by Frederick Lewis Allen. However, my most valuable source was written by a hobbyist historian. New Orleans in the Thirties, by Mary Lou Widmer, includes hundreds of photographs chronicling the interior décor, men’s and women’s clothing styles, cuisine, and social customs reproduced in the novel.

For the 1950s, I ordered legendary journalist David Halberstam’s The Fifties. From Time magazine’s special issue “Time Capsule: 1950, The Year in Review,” I became familiar with everything from automobile models and colors to whiskey brands.

The authoritative source for the trial was the Southern Reporter, a series containing summaries of regional court cases—dull reading, indeed, but it led me back to the newspaper accounts describing the various parties in the courtroom. For example, during Toni Jo’s three trials, members of the courtroom audience often made slitting motions across their throats.

For years, I had heard the rumor that Toni Jo’s grave was not marked by a headstone for fear of vandalism. I went on my scavenger hunt in the Orange Grove-Graceland Cemetery on Broad Street, thinking to walk in concentric squares until I found her tombstone or proved the rumor valid.

I had two surprises. The first was coming upon the headstone within five minutes. The other was discovering that the name of Louisiana’s most notorious murderess had been misspelled. Annie Beatrice McQuiston, carved as “Anna,” adopted the name “Toni Jo” as a prostitute and became Toni Jo Henry upon marrying Claude “Cowboy” Henry, himself a murderer on the lam when he met Toni Jo.

From my research what I ultimately discovered was that Toni Jo was not a sympathetic character I could build a true-crime novel around, so I became interested in the idea of “rewinding” her life and recreating her as an ingénue deceived into a type of high-class prostitution. A Savage Wisdom thus became a study in deception and an exploration of identity development.


Thank you, Dr. Norman. So many years of research, and it seems as though what you discovered changed your entire approach to her story.

If you’re interested in getting A Savage Wisdom for yourself or to give as a Christmas gift, I have good news. This month, to commemorate the gruesome anniversary, Dr. Norman is offering free shipping plus a discount on his book for orders placed at through November. So instead of $14 plus shipping, paperback purchase is a flat $10.

Dr. German will be stopping by during the day to answer questions or say hi. You can also chat with him on Library Thing from now until November 26.

How about you? Have you done research that, in the end, changed your thinking or even your entire approach to the book?
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  1. Toni Jo must have been quite something since you had to recreate her in order to make her a sympathetic character. With all the research that went into it, this sounds like a good book to read to get a realistic feel of the times.

    I write contemporary fiction so I haven't needed to research anything to that extreme - yet.

  2. My research has altered details but never changed the whole story.

  3. It's very interesting to read about the amount of research Dr German undertook for his work, and also, how he then 'fictionalised' fact. Thank you.

  4. That is a LOT of research! Kudos to Dr. German for his work.

    Maybe someday I'll have the time to write a heavily-researched book. Right now I'm concentrating on books that need minimal research.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. I have to admire the amount of reserach that goes into a book like this. Dr. German does it well, judging by this article. Sounds like a fascinating book - and I LOVE the title.

    Marvin D Wilson

  6. The amount of research he did is rather mind-boggling, but it also means the book, although fictionalized, is accurate.

  7. I find research to be so helpful in building a story, lending characteristics and authenticity to works of fiction. It also helps me take a story in certain directions suggested by the facts I've uncovered. Great post here with lots of insight!

  8. Yikes! I'm already behind. Thanks for the posts!

    Regarding transforming fact into fiction--I confess that I might not have had the boldness to do so, but in my Ph.D. work I read Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD, a novel that started a new genre, "faction," which is fiction based on fact.

    I also read Norman Mailer's THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG, a novelizing of the life of Gary Gilmore, who insisted that he be executed by firing squad in Utah rather than languish in prison.

    I'm glad Old Silly likes the title, which is taken from the mouth of a key character on the novel's last page.

    The original title was ZERO AT THE BONE, a line from an Emily Dickinson poem. However, I not only learned that it's the title of several other books but that people constantly got it wrong and called it "Zero TO the Bone." I hated that butchering of Dickinson's line, so I changed the title.

    Many thanks for your comments,
    Norman German

  9. I remember reading IN COLD BLOOD. This was the first non-fiction novel and true crime story that I read and I was mesmerized!

    Capote spent a lot of time researching and turning fact into a incredible fiction read.

    Norman German has done an amazing amount of research for his book. From what he has said here, this story sounds fascinating. Congrats to Dr. German.

    Thanks, Helen, for sharing this insightful post!

  10. Research can change your manuscript, whether you're writing fiction, non-fiction or faction.

    I've heard the term "faction" before, but had forgotten about it.

    Thanks for stopping by, Dr. German.

  11. Reading this and the wikipedia entry on her, I have to confess I'm now fascinated.

    But, I have to wonder - when you fictionalize a true story like this do you give any thought to the relatives of the people involved. It's history, and I'm sure most people involved are long gone, but it would be living memory to sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and so on.

  12. Norman German11/19/2009 10:32 AM

    Anton: Yes, that's a sensitive issue. The name of the murdered man was Joseph P. Calloway. In the novel, I change him to Joseph Paul CARROWAY, mainly to avoid friction from his descendants.

    In real life, he seems to have been a KIND man, whereas I depict his fictional counterpart as a deceptive shape-shifter, a Satanic chameleon figure who deceives people with his multiple identities.

    I prepare the reader for the fictionalized version of Toni Jo's life by stating in the preface that the novel is an "imaginative reconstruction" of her life.

    Norman German

  13. This is so impressive. I find the idea of exhaustive research daunting. But I know when I read historical novels, it makes such a difference when they are accurate.

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  15. Norman German11/19/2009 10:51 AM


    A famous poet and teacher of poets, Miller Williams, at the University of Arkansas, says in one of his poems, "You cannot twist the fact you do not know."

    So, I try to saturate myself will every fact I can before writing a novel. Then, I "twist."

    My baseball novel, Switch-Pitchers, is coming out in March from BlueWater Press (Florida). In it, a fictional Hemingway (there I go again!) smuggles twin Cuban pitchers to the U.S. for a shot at Major League fame.

    My research as a Hemingway scholar was helpful in recreating this larger-than-life legend because I had already read 20 biographies (by academics and his family members). So, I'm glad that those who have read the manuscript have stated that he "really comes to life."

    He'd better! I actually know more about Hemingway than I know about any living human being--even my wife!

    Norman German

  16. Norman German11/19/2009 10:52 AM

    Dear Anonymous:

    I'll get back with you as soon as I learn to read Chinese ideograms. I promise!

    Norman German

  17. Hooray for authors who work the background. Fiction that gives a sense of time and place is a favorite of mine. For me, the story is ruined if something is 'off.' BTW, for non-fiction, research often helps me find a handle or point of view that makes the non-fiction inviting. (or so I think!) Thank you Mr. German. I know I will enjoy your novel even before I begin.

  18. Norman German11/19/2009 12:16 PM


    I have to drive across the state this afternoon, so I'll check back in tonight around 6 or 7.

    Thanks for the many interesting comments and questions.

    Norman German

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  21. What a nice introduction to an interesting book. I'm a sucker for true crime and history, especially history so carefully researched, so I will take advantage of this great offer.

  22. I love this kind of stuff. We just visited the house in Wineville where the murders took place that the Clint Eastwood movie "The Changling" was based on.

  23. The story I started researching is still on the back burner, but I guess I'll write it one day. Interesting to read this and realize how much research I would need to do.

  24. Norman German11/19/2009 11:17 PM


    Rome wasn't built in a day, and we all have different work habits.

    Because I'm an English professor, my 4-year reading-and-research took place mainly during the 5 weeks we're off at Christmas and the 3 months I CHOSE to be off in the summer--which comes at the sacrifice of a substantial loss of income.

    I do have colleagues who work an hour or two per day on their research/writing, but I can't do that when I'm immersed in my teaching. I have the classic one-track mind.

    So, as Benjamin Franklin said, "Plan your work, and work your plan." Any plan will do if you stay on schedule.

    Norman German

  25. I love research and feel inspired by the description of Dr. German's approach. I have some projects still in the mulling-over stage that are definitely going to benefit from his discussion--THANK YOU, Helen & Dr. German!

    Oddly enough, yesterday I was doing some research for the project I'm outlining and made a discovery that will completely change my approach to my main character! It's a dark fantasy novel, so it just goes to show ... no matter what your genre, a little research can have big pay-offs.

  26. Norman German11/20/2009 11:30 AM


    As the Beat poets used to say, "GO!"



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