An interview with Don Cummer, author of the “Jake and Eli” series set during the War of 1812: Brothers at War; A Hanging Offence; and Blood Oath. Hear about Don’s love of historical characters, his thoughts on the business of writing and publishing, and his collection of beautifully polished first chapters for books he hasn’t finished. (I have such a collection myself.) 25 minutes.
Read the full transcript:
[1:20] Interview with Don Cummer
DC: Do I plan things beforehand? History plans it for me …. In order to get characters to the final line where history says they have to be, I have to steer them on all kinds of different directions that they don’t want to go. … History tells you where your finish line is and it tells you where the race course is, but it doesn’t tell you how to run that race.
[2:40] DC: The essence of storytelling is conflict. … there’s always that opportunity to just use your imagination and just say, Okay, how can this be made worse? How can you raise the jeopardy? …
[3:40] CA: How do you feel about tormenting your characters?
DC: Sometimes you just want to say, wouldn’t it be nice if they all can settle down and live happily ever after, mom and dad could tuck them into bed, and the war would be over and they could be off to school the next morning. But that’s not my job.
[4:00] CA: How do you feel about sad endings?
DC: … I like happy endings, or at least endings where you feel there’s a sense of redemption and feel that you’ve earned something. …And so in my books, each of the books ends with a parting. … Will they be able to maintain their friendship after three years of war? And you’ll have to read the books to figure that out.
[5:00] CA: With a series, how can you end a story satisfactorily knowing that it’s going to continue?
DC: …If I was better at that, then everybody would know how the books would end because the original plan was to end it in three. And by the time we got to three books, the boys are not where they need to be to be at the ending. But this is one of the challenges. …
[5:35] CA: Do you have a favorite plot twist from your own work or other books? …
DC: One of my big things about studying history and writing about history is that it’s hard to tell who the good guys are and the bad guys are at times. If you’re living in the moment, the people who are the good guys may turn out to be monsters when you find out what they’re really up to …. Or they become monsters in response to events. So, my favorite twist is to take people who the reader might initially really like at first and in the end you find, Oh my God, this person is really a terrible person. And vice versa… The central spine of the story is about a man named Joe Wilcox. …. He is one of the great traitors in history, and he’s in Canadian history. But we’ve forgotten him. We’ve erased him from our national memory. …
[8:05] CA: Have you ever opened a story with dialogue?
DC: …I don’t tend to do it because I think that it’s much easier to set a nuanced opening where you can set a scene. …
[8:40] CA: Do you revise while you draft? Or do you just try to get the story out?
DC: In my better self, I would say just get it out. But I’ve got too strong an editor in the back of my head. So sometimes it’s hard for me to get out of the early chapters. … I’ve got beautiful opening chapters of books that will never be published. … So if I had spent that time getting to the end of the story, (a) I would have either have found out that, you know, maybe I needed a different kind of opening; or (b) I would have found that maybe I don’t have the interest to carry the story on to completion…. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to get something through to completion. …
If young writers are …thinking of doing a series, I would caution them … it’s easier to get the attention of a publisher by something short, easy to produce, and doesn’t commit them for years of continuing stories in a series…. There’s a business side of writing. We shouldn’t be driven by the business side of it – that’s the job of somebody else – but we have to be aware of it. …
[11:40] CA: Do you have a favorite point of view to write from?
DC: I love writing in first person, but I think that first person’s sort of a way to make sure that I don’t get carried away by exposition in history. … You’ve got to deliver the historical background and the social context in a way that doesn’t seem intrusive. … In the Jake and Eli books, the first two are written in first person from one character’s point of view. The third one is in first person as well, but from the point of view of two characters alternating. And then the fourth one – I’m really having fun with this – it’s in third person. … I need to wrestle the timeline back. Writing in first person got me carried away into other directions. My second book veered into the spooky. …
[13:30] CA: Do you have any advice on making a spooky atmosphere for the reader?
DC: My advice for writing spooky atmospheres is not to hurry it. It comes with layering. … If you’re writing a novel or story where it’s otherwise a normal world and you’re expecting a normal world, and you introduce the weird elements bit by bit, and all of a sudden your character realizes, Hey, I don’t want to be here anymore. … Once you get to that point and it’s really spooky, then you start increasing the jeopardy.
[14:45] CA: Do you have any favorite settings from fiction?
DC: Setting is everything in historical novels. I’m going to do a shout-out to my friend Karen Bass and The Hill. It’s a story about a boy from the city who’s been in a plane crash and he’s with an indigenous friend and they have to escape. But the way that she sets that world in northern Alberta is just wonderful…
Jake and Eli … made me get reacquainted with the town of Niagara on the Lake in Ontario. … My imagination for years has been living in this town, and the streets are still the same. The layout of the town is still the same. The fort it is still there the way it was. … You can walk those streets and you can picture what the tannery would’ve been like at the end of that road, and Dunwoody house at the corner, and here’s the headquarters where General Brock has his office. It’s wonderful to be able to evoke that, but also to be able to go and step into it and live it again.
[17:15] CA: So you would recommend to young writers, if there is a setting similar to what they’re writing, to actually go there and put themselves into their world.
DC: … you can find equivalents. A graveyard is a graveyard, if you’re doing your spooky story. … The graveyard in Niagara on the Lake actually was the battlefield. … The battle of Lundy’s Lane, which is the big climax of the Jake and Eli story, was fought in a graveyard at midnight. … when I started these stories, zombie stories were all the rage. So I thought, you know, why don’t I just go with the flow? General Brock has been dead for a year and a half but he rises from the grave and he leads the zombie army in the graveyard at night, to push the American invaders back. … I hope somebody takes that idea sometime and runs with it because there is a zombie story waiting to be written about the War of 1812.
[18:30] CA: Do you do character exercises? Like some people write in a diary as their character or interview their character or do character sketches. Do you ever do that sort of side work?
DC: No I don’t. I admire people who do. It shows real discipline. I just want to get down to writing, to telling the story. You know, you have to be aware that it may take you in places that you weren’t planning to go….
[19:00] CA: Are any of your stories based on your own childhood?
DC: My main character is named Jacob, and my son is named Jacob. And people ask me, Is Jake in the story based upon my son? Absolutely not. My son is more like Eli, just out there, flamboyant, just fun-loving. Jacob is actually more like what I was like. You know, quiet, contemplative… it’s easy to write yourself into characters, but … I have a lot more fun writing about Eli than about Jake. …
[19:45] CA: Have you ever turned your fears into fiction?
DC: …When I started working on the second book and it started turning to the supernatural, it got into a lot of things that I’m probably subconsciously concerned about. The idea that this world that we see, we’re not seeing everything… or fear that the people that we know may not be who we think they are. …
[21:00] CA: Do you have any recommendations to young writers for getting ideas for stories?
DC: Yeah I do: read. Read newspapers. … And every time I read a history book I come across stuff that I say, oh man, somebody’s got to turn that into a script or a novel. This is just too good. … Read.
[23:00] CA: Excellent. You’ve had so much good advice. … I wish you well with continuing the series.
DC: Thank you.
[23:30] Don Cummer introduces himself
DC: Hi. My name is Don Cummer. I’m from Calgary, Alberta, but I’m living between Ottawa, Ontario and Dublin, Ireland these days. I am the author of a series of books about three boys growing up in the War of 1812, the Jake and Eli stories. And I’m a historical novelist. I love history. And I’m really looking forward to Catherine’s questions.
[24:00] Find out more about Don Cummer
You can hear more creative writing advice from Don Cummer on Cabin Tales Episode Five: “Squirm,” about Plotting; on Episode 6.5: “Author Interviews about Beginnings;” and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. You can find out more about Don Cummer and his books from his website at DonCummer.com.
[25:10] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the young adult fantasy author Sarah Raughley, who joins us from Ottawa.
Thanks for listening.
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Visit the Cabin Tales home page.
Don Cummer is the author of the “Jake and Eli” stories published by Scholastic, set during the War of 1812. The first book, Brothers at War, was short-listed for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young Readers. Don spends his time between Canada and Ireland – where he’s finding many more stories to tell. Find him online at www.doncummer.com .