When a newspaperman turns author, chances are the novel will put the reader at the scene quickly and the story will move fast.
Author Mark Travis, an Andover native who is publisher of the Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H., certainly uses that writing approach in his new book. “Pliney Fiske, A Civil War Mystery” ($14.95) is Travis’ self-published book. Travis wastes no time getting the reader hooked as Fiske, an agent helping Civil War veterans get their pensions, is introduced in the novel’s opening sentence as “...scrambling out from under a rifle in his face.”
True to his newspaper reporting skills, Travis keeps the story pace moving as Fiske meets all sorts of characters while doing his job. Those people and their backgrounds fill these pages and it’s a slice of life showing Concord, N.H., circa July 1867.
“I was researching my other book, ‘My Brave Boys,’ which is nonfiction about the New Hampshire regiment in the war, and an idea came to mind,” Travis said. “I was doing research at the National Archives in Washington and came across these pension documents...just fascinating stuff.”
“It proved that people truly depended on pensions and there was a lot of pension bureauocracy back then,” Travis said.
So, “Pliney Fiske” was born. It’s not a true story. Travis said he used historical fragments and added his knowledgeable take on what was happening during the Civil War and after.
“Fiction lets you fill in the gaps,” he said. “I hope to reach a different audience than a nonfiction Civil War book might.”
One example is the name Pliney Fiske. It’s a real name found in Travis’ research travels. Fiske was a sign painter from Concord, N.H. Letters by a serving soldier report a feud between the the soldier and Fiske, because Fiske did not serve in the war, owed the soldier money and the soldier felt Fiske visited the soldier’s wife too often.
“That’s the real fragment,” Travis said. “That name, Pliney Fiske, just stuck with me.”
History has been the author’s passion since his kindergarten days at Central School on Bartlet Street (the building that is now Doherty Middle School). He remembers bringing a prized history book to show and tell.
“I still have that book and I still remember that day,” he laughed. “I tripped going to class and ruined the corner of the book.”
Travis said his love of writing took shape in Andover. He was a regular at Memorial Hall Library and the Andover Bookstore. His family lived on Summer and Elm streets. Travis graduated from Andover High School in 1975.
He wrote his Pliney Fiske manuscript several years ago after completing a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University in 2003. He landed a New York literary agent, but the manuscript was rejected by publishers. The manuscript took a back seat to his newspaper career.
When a leukemia diagnosis completely shocked Travis two years ago, he was remotivated to self-publish the book.
“It was for my kids (Ben and Leanna),” Travis said. “I had a successful stem cell transplant thanks to my brother, Michael, and had to take a year off from work to recover.”
The back cover of the historical fiction includes praise from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns who says, in part “This is a wonderful novel, alive in the moment, from the first scene to the last... This is a gritty, real world that Travis unpacks.”
“I succeeded in self-publishing and I am just so happy,” Travis said. “I also persuaded my wife (Brenda) that as far as hobbies go, self-publishing was cheaper and less dangerous than, say, buying a Harley.”