In Praise of Research by Bill Zarchy – Guest Blog and Giveaway

This post is part of a virtual book tour organized by Goddess Fish Promotions. Bill Zarchy will be awarding a $50 Amazon/BN GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour. Click on the tour banner to see the other stops on the tour.

In Praise of Research

I had the idea for Finding George Washington when I was a kid. I used to challenge myself: how would I explain the workings of modern technology to George Washington, if he were suddenly to appear? Did I understand the basics of photography or the internal combustion engine well enough to explain them to someone from a pre-industrial culture?

Till recently, all my writing was nonfiction. When I finally decided to try my hand at fiction, I wondered if that old idea about George could be the basis for a charming, funny, perhaps exciting novel. Maybe a goofy, fish-out-of-water story.

Only one problem: I knew very little about Washington. Of course, I knew the broad strokes: Revolutionary War General, first president, married to Martha, lived at Mount Vernon. But what else? I recalled old stories of George as a lad chopping down a cherry tree (but confessing his guilt to his father) and throwing a dollar coin across the Potomac. And didn’t he have wooden teeth?

I realized I needed extensive research.

Those old stories were apocryphal. I learned that the cherry tree incident was fabricated by a later biographer, Parson Weems, who also made up the dollar-toss lie (the Potomac is about a mile wide). And no, his dentures were not made of wood, which would be a terrible material to use for chewing.

I consulted many books and a number of movies. I acquired factual knowledge of George and his world. He was scrupulous about saving his letters and other papers. Those documents (and all those of the Founding Fathers) are now available online, which has spurred a new raft of biographies. I learned a lot about George’s deep passion tempered by extreme self-control and stoicism, his rugged bravery and lifelong suffering from dental pain, his role as Father of Our Country despite having no direct offspring, his gracefulness when dancing or on horseback.

And I had to learn about and deal with the fact that he was a slave owner. This was a complicated issue. He led the fight for freedom from the British, even though he possessed human chattel. His manservant, an enslaved person named Billy Lee, rode into battle with George and stayed with him throughout the Revolution.

I learned that, in his will, George freed Billy Lee by name and promised to free his slaves once Martha also died. But George only owned about a third of the 300+ slaves at Mount Vernon. The rest belonged to the estate of Martha’s first husband or were descendants of their intermarried offspring. After her death, George’s slaves were freed, but the others were sold off separately, families tragically torn apart.

Since my other main characters (and my readers!) would be spending so much time with George, I also wanted to know what it was like to be in his presence. I learned that he was quite tall and athletic for his era, was soft-spoken in person, had blue eyes, pale skin, and rosy cheeks. I wondered what he sounded like. He was descended from Virginia colonists who had come from England many decades before his birth. Would he have spoken “the King’s English,” what we now think of as a cultured English accent, like a BBC announcer? Or Scottish or Welsh or Cockney or some other British regional accent? Also, what was his relationship like with Martha? How did they address each other?

I consulted with Mary V. Thompson, the Research Historian at Mount Vernon, who gave me some tips to pursue in these areas. The sad fact is that we don’t really know what accent he had. And Martha burned all George’s letters after his death, so we don’t have a lot of clues about the intimacy of their relationship.

Another research decision I made was not to send my characters anywhere I hadn’t been myself. I knew early on that I wanted them to take a long train trip (there’s a locomotive on the cover of the book), but I had never been on an overnight train ride myself. When I told my wife I was considering taking an Amtrak sleeper train to Oregon from our home near San Francisco, she kindly suggested I go instead to my characters’ eventual destination, several nights on the train. This trip yielded hundreds of photos, dozens of videos, a ton of emotional and practical impressions, and a number of characters for my story. Including several villains!

Besides that Amtrak jaunt, I also visited Valley Forge, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Washington Monument, New York City, Mendocino, the Doe Library at UC Berkeley, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, and AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Every trip, every visit was valuable. Museums, historical sites, monuments, libraries, cities, and ballparks all yielded unique information, impressions, artifacts, and visuals for further study. I thought often about John Steinbeck’s book Travels with Charley: In Search of America. I was searching, too — for historical context, texture, backstory, modern-day drama, and details to flesh out my story. I got all that, in spades.

On a freezing night in 1778, General George Washington vanishes. Walking away from the Valley Forge encampment, he takes a fall and is knocked unconscious, only to reappear at a dog park on San Francisco Bay—in the summer of 2014.

Washington befriends two Berkeley twenty-somethings who help him cope with the astonishing—and often comical—surprises of the twenty-first century.

Washington’s absence from Valley Forge, however, is not without serious consequences. As the world rapidly devolves around them—and their beloved Giants fight to salvage a disappointing season—George, Tim, and Matt are catapulted on a race across America to find a way to get George back to 1778.

Equal parts time travel tale, thriller, and baseball saga, Finding George Washington is a gripping, humorous, and entertaining look at what happens when past and present collide in the 9th inning, with the bases loaded and no one warming up in the bullpen.

Enjoy an Excerpt

A new freeze gripped the valley, and a few inches of virgin white covered the now-frozen ruts in the roads. When the soldiers first arrived at this winter encampment two months before, rain and cold had compounded the misery of the men. Lately it had been freezing and snowing, making the hardened ground easier to traverse than the sleety, slippery mud had been.

A small farmhouse made of tan and brown fieldstone sat in flat bottomland near the creek. The back door opened and a splash of warm light lit the new snow. From inside came the sounds of a party—a fiddle, laughter, and high-energy conversation. A tall man in a heavy cloak and three-cornered hat stepped off the small porch at the rear of the house and into the cold. A sentry snapped to attention.

“Just getting some air, lad, stand easy,” the General said. “No need to follow.” He trudged off north, away from the house, enjoying the brisk chill.

Ah, he thought, it’s fine to have my dear wife here with me these past couple of weeks! She and the other wives provide such a boost to the morale and hopefulness of the men. It’s worth a wee party to celebrate the difference they make … and my birthday.

The dreadful winter weather and the spread of disease had cost him one-fourth of his army in the early going, but at last there were signs of hope. Foraging for food was still a daily struggle, but now the men were finally housed in hundreds of hastily constructed wooden huts.

The eager effervescence of the Marquis de Lafayette for the past half year; the appearance of the Polish nobleman Pulaski a few months before; the continued loyalty of so many of the troops; the imminent arrival any day now of the Prussian Baron von Steuben; and the General’s wife coming to stay with him during the winter encampment—all these events gave him hope.

About the Author Bill Zarchy filmed projects on six continents during his 40 years as a cinematographer, captured in his first book, Showdown at Shinagawa: Tales of Filming from Bombay to Brazil. Now he writes novels, takes photos, and talks of many things.

Bill’s career includes filming three former presidents for the Emmy-winning West Wing Documentary Special, the Grammy-winning Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em, feature films Conceiving Ada and Read You Like A Book, PBS science series Closer to Truth, musical performances as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Weird Al Yankovic, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and countless high-end projects for technology and medical companies.

His tales from the road, personal essays, and technical articles have appeared in Travelers’ Tales and Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers, and American Cinematographer, Emmy, and other trade magazines.

Bill has a BA in Government from Dartmouth and an MA in Film from Stanford. He taught Advanced Cinematography at San Francisco State for twelve years. He is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and a graduate of the EPIC Storytelling Program at Stagebridge in Oakland. This is his first novel.

Book Website | Blog | Author Website | Facebook

The eBook will be $0.99 during the tour everywhere it’s sold.

Buy it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iBooks.

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  1. Thanks for hosting!

  2. I think the excerpt was a great part of this post.

  3. Thanks so much for hosting me today!

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