Launch: Glen Craney’s The Cotillion Brigade
INTERVIEW BY DAVID CONNON
What is your “elevator pitch”?
Georgia burns. Sherman’s Yankees are closing in. Will the women of LaGrange run or fight? The Cotillion Brigade is based on the true Civil War story of the Nancy Harts, the most famous female militia in American history, and the Union colonel whose life they changed forever. “Gone With the Wind meets A League of Their Own.”
What inspired you to start writing? And how does your occupational background affect your writing?
I came to historical fiction later in life. As a law clerk for state appellate and federal district judges, I researched and drafted legal opinions. Private trial practice didn’t feed my creative side, so I attended Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. After covering national politics and the Iran-Contra trial for Congressional Quarterly, I moved to Los Angeles to pen movie scripts. My first screenplay—about the Navajo Code Talkers in World War Two—won a prize. My mentor, the legendary Hollywood screenwriter Harry Essex, encouraged me to “shake out” some novels from my period scripts. My former writing careers—legal, journalism, screenplay—have all helped me research and create historical novels.
What attracted you to writing historical fiction?
I caught the history bug as a boy. A great-uncle lived in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark had defended the blood-soaked ground. He also took me to the nearby Civil War battlefield of Perryville and shared stories about his father, a Union Army captain who served there against his own brother, a Confederate cavalryman with Morgan’s Raiders. The Cotillion Brigade is the first novel I’ve written about the Civil War. It’s always been my favorite era.
What is the backstory behind writing The Cotillion Brigade?
In the late 1980s, I found a small-town Georgia newspaper column that described the exploits of the Nancy Harts. I tossed it into a clipping file. Several years later, writing for Hollywood, I nearly sold the Nancy Harts saga as a movie to Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions. The studio executive who championed the project left the company, and the clipping went back into the ideas file. It took the Covid pandemic lockdown to give me the time to turn the story into a book. I call it my plague novel.
Did you outline the entire book before you began writing it?
Yes, I did, scene by scene. I’m a plotter by nature, and I plan in detail the structure of all my novels. This habit comes from writing film scripts, whose story arcs, confined to 120 pages, must be tight and visual. In The Cotillion Brigade’s first iteration as a movie treatment, I focused primarily on the LaGrange militia women. Years later, rewriting the story as a novel, I added the experiences of Colonel Hugh LaGrange, the Union officer the women confronted. The two plot lines led to the climactic ending.
What is the most difficult part of writing a novel that follows the chronology of historical events?
The realities of history and the demands of storytelling often clash. History is messy. Important characters are not always in the same location together, as in a stage play, and pivot points and plot twists don’t always occur at the opportune moment for our compressed stories. Dual timelines can help, but they are tricky. If not executed deftly, they can result in a reader preferring one storyline while skimming the second. Still, perceptive readers of historical fiction tend to be aware of these challenges and allow the author some leeway in deviating from traditional story-structure expectations to accommodate chronological accuracy.
You write some vivid scenes. For example, Uncle Gus describes the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by striking his desk with his cane and breaking the desk. Did you have a strategy for writing powerful scenes?
I look for ways to dramatize back story and context, rather than drone on with “tell, not show.” Clever classroom teachers do the same. Because of Gus’s reenactment, the female students in that scene—and, I hope, the reader—will not soon forget the violence of the Sumner caning and the Southern reaction.
Which character challenged you the most?
The Confederate women presented a conundrum. I knew I had to write the Nancy Harts story; it wouldn’t let go of me. Yet for the first time, I suffered writer’s block. I struggled with how to depict as empathetic those who defended a society built upon an immoral institution. How would I convince readers to root for them? I have no patience with the Lost Cause ideology. I aimed to avoid glorifying the Lost Cause or sidestepping the significance and depravity of slavery. I also tried to portray the characters making choices and facing the consequences of those choices.
What led you to include prominent historical figures in your book, including John Brown, Jim Lane, and Jefferson Davis?
They leapt out at me from the research. Hugh LaGrange, as a young Free-Soiler, had brushes with both Brown and Lane, who were so eccentric that I felt certain they would have helped shape Hugh’s worldview. Fortunately, the town of LaGrange sat on a major railway through Georgia to Montgomery, Alabama and, thus, hosted many Confederate notables, including Jefferson Davis, a friend of LaGrange’s most prominent resident, Senator Ben Hill.
What reference book did you consult the most when writing The Cotillion Brigade?
Regrettably, Nancy Morgan and Hugh LaGrange left no memoirs or diaries, only a few dozen letters. Much of my primary research came from the archives of their contemporaries. I gained the most insight into Colonel LaGrange’s personality from his military reports published in The War of the Rebellion (AKA Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies).
What did you learn while writing this book?
I hadn’t fully appreciated the devastating effect the war had on the social fabric of both Northern and Southern societies. Divorce was still very much frowned upon, but many soldiers’ marriages failed. To my astonishment, I found several instances of Southern women agreeing to marriage proposals from Union soldiers after knowing their former enemies for only a few weeks.
Can you recommend a book about writing historical fiction?
I suggest reading accomplished historical novelists, such as Sharon Kay Penman, Nigel Tranter, and Bernard Cornwell. Don’t try to imitate them. Learn their techniques and keep your own style.
What is your next project?
I have a long list of possibilities, but the Muse has yet to tap me on the shoulder with my next assignment.
The author is offering a raffle giveaway of five e-books specifically for readers of this HNS interview. Hurry! Giveaway ends on 1 June.
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