Physically speaking, John Hough Jr. lives in a book-filled home in modern-day West Tisbury. But for the last few years, he’s ventured far from Vineyard shores, and back in time: to Civil War-era Martha’s Vineyard, to the battlefield at Gettysburg, to the vast plains of Montana in 1876.
As he’s made himself at home in these different times and places, Mr. Hough has also discovered a new niche for himself as a historical novelist. The author of several novels and books (including one about the 1986 New York Mets, co-written by the late Gary Carter), he is a former newspaper columnist for the Falmouth Enterprise, a weekly newspaper owned by his family, and the leader of Island writing workshops. Mr. Hough has turned his talents — and considerable enthusiasm —toward time traveling: melding fact with fiction, research with imagination.
“Writing historical novels — once you imagine your way back into a time, it’s easy, you’re there. You make it yours,” he said in a Wednesday morning interview, seated in an armchair surrounded by bookshelves filled with titles about Gettysburg and Little Bighorn. “My world of 1863 is all mine, I can essentially do what I want in it, within the bounds of plausibility . . . I love that,” he said. “In a way it protects you, because no one was there and they can’t tell you, that didn’t happen or that wasn’t the way it was.”
His first foray into the genre was his 2009 novel Seen the Glory, set in Gettysburg and featuring two fictional brothers from Martha’s Vineyard who fight in the Civil War.
For the last two years, Mr. Hough has imagined his way back to another scene of military fame, the 1876 battle of Little Bighorn where Lieut. Col. George A. Custer made his famous last stand. Joined by about 260 troops, Custer was vastly outnumbered by thousands of Native Americans. The U.S. Army was defeated, and Custer and others were killed.
In the vast, forbidding Montana landscape, Mr. Hough places his protagonist, 18-year-old Allen Winslow, a Massachusetts native and reluctant participant in the battle. Mr. Winslow, his mother and his sweetheart, are the only fictional characters in Mr. Hough’s novel, which is in the final stages of revision and in the hands of his agent.
“I’m an Easterner. It’s so, so different,” he said of the Montana scenery. “I had to write it as I would see it. So [Allen is] seeing it for the first time . . . I have to write it in the new, subjective way that he sees it.”
On Tuesday night this week, Mr. Hough read a few excerpts from the book to a rapt audience at State Road restaurant, where he spoke as part of the West Tisbury library’s fund raising Speakeasy series. Full of dialogue and description, the scenes he read featured discussion around the campfire about the upcoming battle, with 18-year-old Allen bringing his concerns to Custer himself.
By now, Mr. Hough sounds at home when he talks about the day-to-day details of life in the 1870s, the famous battle, and the landscape that Custer and his battalion saw in their final days. But the story wasn’t new to him at the outset; his father and grandfather were Little Bighorn buffs, he said, and his father always thought it would be fascinating to write about a survivor of the battle.
“It’s such an interesting, dramatic story,” he said. And cast list would be the envy of any dramatist — “rogues and misfits and drunks.”
Mr. Hough enthusiastically describes the dramatic scene on the day of the battle. The troops left the fort on a May morning beneath a hazy sky. Women wept and said goodbye to their husbands. “As they rode up over the hill, all of a sudden they were reflected in the sky. There was this image of them in this sort of silvery mist overhead, as if two columns road out, the reflection in the sky and the column on the ground.
“Everyone said this was a terrible omen.”
He spent about a year researching the battle, and another year or more writing the novel. He keeps a strict routine — he writes in the morning, getting up early and starting on his laptop by 8 or 8:30 a.m. A former runner, he goes on a daily 20-mile bike ride at 11:30 a.m., sometimes writing a bit more in the afternoons, when he also spends time teaching and editing the work of his students.
“Hemingway said, ‘You write two and a half hours a day, and it’s a full-time job,’” Mr. Hough said.
“But you’re thinking about it all the time,” he added. “You’re working on it subconsciously.”
He writes in his Indian Hill home, which he shares with his wife Kate and their bull terrier, Jessie. (Jessie has her own ties to literature and history: a bull terrier was featured in Oliver Twist, Mr. Hough points out, and General George Patton had a dog of that breed.) Mr. Hough’s own ties to the Island are long; his great-uncle, Henry Beetle Hough, was the longtime editor of the Vineyard Gazette.
On Monday and Thursday evenings, the author turns his attention to guiding others through the writing process, as he conducts writers’ workshops in his living room. Each group of six students, all local writers, come to work on their own novels, and read aloud, critique, and discuss. Mr. Hough line-edits the students’ words — a manuscript on his kitchen table was emblazoned with notes in blue ink. One group has been meeting for about five years.
“It’s fun pointing out, showing people how fiction works, why fiction works the way it does, and watching people get it — and they all do,” he said. “It changes not only the way they write, but the way they read.”
With his own work, while Mr. Hough said that apart from e-mail, technology has left him “somewhat behind,” it also, ironically, helps him learn about the past. The Internet has helped him ascertain details about fashion in the 1870s or the history of plumbing. The research phase is critical, he said. “I want to know what they’re wearing. I want to know what Allen’s wearing when he gets on that train in 1876. When you’re writing historical fiction, photographs go a long way. You can construct a whole scene from a photograph . . . use your imagination and walk into that picture.”
He begins his research by reading “everything you can get your hands on.” For the Little Bighorn book, he spent two weeks tracing Custer’s journey by car, starting at Fort Abraham Lincoln in what is now North Dakota and eventually walking over every inch of the battlefield.
“It looks just the way it did when he saw it. I mean, just the way it did,” Mr. Hough said. “You see nothing but the hills, the pale green hills, and the buttes . . . there are no trees. It looks just the same.”
He also consulted experts in the field, authors, journalists, and even a National Park Service guide, who helped him get to all parts of the battlefield, including Crow’s Nest, the hilltop where Custer saw that he faced more Native Americans than expected.
“Being able to go up there and stand where Custer stood, being able to look out and see what Custer saw, was fun.”
What happens when he’s done with this book? “I’d like to write another historical novel. I’m beginning to think that’s my niche now, because the two have been so much fun to write. Seen the Glory is easily my best book . . . and I think this book is about as good. I hope it is.”