Balo's War uses a variety of characters, real and imagined, to tell the story of a people who went from being Spaniard to Mexican to American in a short span of 30 years. They struggled to hold on to their land, their language, their culture, and their history—against insurmountable odds. At times this struggle resorted to violence.
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Writing a historical novel presents many challenges, not the least of which is to get the history right. In my first novel, Balo's War, A Historical Novel About the Plan of San Diego, I had no problem getting the overarching history right from the start. I had been researching this obscure event, on an off, for 30 years. There was plenty of material to draw from as building blocks.
The real challenge for me did not come to light until I started the final edits of the manuscript. It was the little things that needed to be checked and rechecked. Too often we subconsciously slip into our present day way of thinking and we resort to words and idioms that were not in use at the time of the novel.
My novel took place n 1915. It is a novel steeped in political and regional antagonisms. I resorted to phrases such as 'fascism', 'human rights' and others that did not come into use until later on. I had to double check to see if Lone Star Beer was already a product, what were the types of rifles in use, how much did a suit and tie cost, etc.
But the area where I had the most problems was in transportation and travel. I assumed that I could go from Brownsville, Texas to McAllen, Texas̶ a distance of 60 miles̶ in about a day, after all I could do it in less than an hour today. But, wait, I had my characters in a wagon pulled by a mule. Just how fast can a mule go pulling a wagon. Well as it turns out that trip would take about three days. I had characters walking, riding a horse, taking a train. Just how fast can you get to a place by those means of transportation? It was a little daunting trying to make sure the timelines were right, depending on what mode of transportation my characters were using.
Another challenge that I had not anticipated was making sure the age of my characters aligned with events in the novel. If my main character was 10-years-old in 1888, he could not have been 24 in 1915. So how old did that make his brother and sister and his parents. Did all that align as the story unfolded. And then there was the issue of making sure your descriptions of the characters matched throughout the book. In one chapter I had one of my characters with brown hair but towards the end of the book I had her with black hair. My protagonist had black hair in the beginning of the book and later he had auburn hair. One character I had at 6'3” and later at 6'2”.
Getting all these little facts to work was the bigger challenge than getting the history right. That was the easy part.
Early on I sought the opinion of others regarding my writing style. I'm an old newspaper man and have done quite a lot of writing of government reports. I feared I could not write in a literary style. Sure enough, the biggest criticism I got was that my story did not have enough description. I was telling the reader rather than letting the reader discover through the description. Aside from coming from the Joe Friday school of writing̶ “give me the facts, just the facts ma'am,” when I read a book I gloss over the descriptions. I want to know what happened; how did it happen; who said what to whom. I'm a meat and potatoes sort of guy; I don't pay attention to the garnishments.
So my novel is strong on dialogue, history, culture, geography, politics, ethnic relations, etc., but if you are looking for classic literature, Balo's War may not be for you. But if you want a good read, on an important piece of the history of South Texas, then this certainly will be worth your time. But I am out of time and word count, so you will have to buy the book to find out the rest of the story.
Alfredo E. Cárdenas
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About the author
Alfredo E. Cárdenas was born, raised in San Diego, Texas. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. He served as director of community and economic development for Duval County before founding and publishing the Duval County Picture, a weekly newspaper in San Diego. He also served as mayor of San Diego for two terms, from 1992-1999. Find out more at www.mcmbooks.com and find Alfredo on Twitter @SoyDeDuval.