By Paul Irion
I’ve always been a story-teller, from the time my kids were small to the late stages of retirement. I privately delight in observing people and making up scenarios about what they are thinking and doing. During my career I had published six professional books with academic and trade publishers. On my To Do List when I retired was: Write a novel. It took me a few years to get down to that item on my bucket list.
Historical fiction has always been a fascination for me. Family mementos contained a short journal written by my great-grandfather when he emigrated from Silesia to America in 1857. I marveled at the courage of people who set out for the new world, said goodbye to parents they would never see again, and started a new life in a strange land where they knew absolutely no one and were unable to speak the language. It was intriguing to see how their immigrant experience so closely paralleled present-day immigration issues.
On a limited foundation of forty small, faded diary pages describing their journey from Germany to Iowa and half a dozen sibling letters, translated from German script, I began to develop a plot. Like a paleontologist reconstructing the skeleton of a dinosaur, I had a small collection of bone fragments: a jawbone, a leg, a few ribs, and the end of the tail. Using my imagination and considerable historical research I built a whole dinosaur skeleton. My great-grandparents and their siblings were the only real people; all the dozens of other characters in the story were totally the product of my imagination. That was great fun.
Because my actual knowledge was so limited, I faced an ethical dilemma. It was unfair to make up so much of the experience, thoughts, motives, behavior of actual people. So I solved my problem by changing all the significant person and place names and made the whole story fiction.
As an academic I always loved research, and writing the novel provided wonderful opportunities. In addition to a lot of reading about 19th century immigration, questions and problems would emerge in writing. To find answers I traveled to Fort Clinton in Battery Park where immigrants were processed in the mid-19th century, to several historical societies and libraries in Indiana and Kentucky, to a Civil War battlefield, to the railroad museum in Strasburg, to the National Archives, and much more. The Internet was a treasure trove of information. I made the story as historically accurate as I could.
After about 10 years, with some sadness, the project was finished and the sixth draft was tucked away in the gizzard of my computer. It stayed there for a year. Finally I decided to explore publication.
If my name were Hemingway or Grisham, I’d send the manuscript to my agent, who would in turn sell it to publishers. I had a modest national reputation as an author in my professional field, but a story-teller in his 90th year has as much chance of getting an agent as being elected president. The answer to this problem is the emerging field of self-publishing, working with one of the many firms whom you pay to publish your book.
In the past self-publishing was looked down upon by respectable authors. It was called “vanity-press,” an ego-trip to see your name in print. It was very costly and the author was often left with a garage full of boxes of unsold books.
A new process called On-Demand Printing brought a revolutionary change to self-publishing. With digital technology it became possible to print and bind a single copy of a book, rather than a minimum print run of 500 or 1000 copies. This immediately reduced the cost of publication because there was no expensive inventory. As books were ordered, even a single copy could be produced at reasonable cost. Even some established writers were beginning to use self-publishing firms.
To find a publisher, I Googled “Self-publishing” and compared the many firms available. Most offer a choice of packages ranging from inexpensive Basic (for the humble realist) to truly ambitious and costly Professional (for the entrepreneurial dreamer). I was able to get a good arrangement with Trafford Publications in Bloomington, IN. (There are other good firms.) Within two months of submitting my manuscript via the Internet, I was able to hold a copy of THAT FAR LAND WE DREAM ABOUT. Trafford made it available immediately through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Self-publishing is definitely not a road to fame and fortune. Studies show that most self-published books sell 50-100 copies. So you don’t have to worry about going on book tours or being interviewed on talk shows. I’ve found that one of the great joys of advanced years is that one’s ego needs are almost totally met. So best of all—you’ve had the chance to share your story, hopefully for the enjoyment of others.
Click these links to find “That Far Land We Dream About” by Paul Irion
Paul Irion is a native Midwesterner who transplanted from Saint Louis into the Lancaster area in 1959. A graduate of Elmhurst College in Illinois, Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, and the University of Chicago Divinity School, he also did sabbatical study in Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He is Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary, following 27 years on the faculty.
Paul and his wife, Mary Jean, also a published poet and writer, are residents at Willow Valley Communities. Retirement began with a long list of projects, activities, and new travel destinations. Publication of a sixth professional book and numerous journal articles maintained the routine of research and writing of past years. After a decade of retirement he started work on his first novel, “That Far Land We Dream About”, now available through Amazon.com and from Barnes and Noble.