The Genesis of the Creative Writing Style “Imaginative Realism”

Constructive Criticism of the short story “The Lion of the West”, by John Eric Vining

Literary criticism completed June 1, 2002


                In the spring of 2002, I was engaged in writing a short story in the fiction genre, entitled “The Lion of the West.”  This story was reviewed and constructively criticized by a successful short-story writer, “Karen.”  I was very surprised by her criticism; however, I much appreciated this criticism because it caused me to evaluate what others viewed as appropriate fiction versus how I viewed fiction.  It also caused me to evaluate the depth of analysis (or perhaps less charitably, “the lack thereof”) that critics go through in reviewing an article.  Finally, it caused me to first realize that my particular flair for writing fiction might be different from the standard expectation for fiction that most people were used to seeing.

                In this analysis I will first include the entire short story, “The Lion of the West” in its original form; the form as criticized. This will be followed by statements of overall constrictive criticism by Karen, and my responses to them. In the process, I will present some overall comments regarding what I was trying to accomplish with this piece.  Finally, I will present a summary of what I learned from the experience of writing this short story.


 The Lion of the West

(Set in The Civil War, circa 1862)



John Eric Vining



                We sat on the hilly mountain glade and peered at the battle lines nearly one-half mile away.  From this elevated vantage point, the tiny figures scurrying back and forth along the opposing battle lines looked like miniature toy soldiers.  However, each member of the Forty-first Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, of which I was a member, knew the lethality of the weapons those seemingly tiny Confederate soldiers possessed.

                If we all were inwardly shuddering at the looming specter of death, our commander, Colonel Rex Moore, certainly did not display such emotions.  Standing nearly 6’4”, and weighing around 240 pounds, Moore sat erect and alert upon his horse at the far right flank of the regiment.  The overall impression one drew of him was that of massive athleticism.  A huge head, crowned by glistening salt-and-pepper-colored hair that covered his ears when not flowing in the wind, featured solid, impassive facial features and a dark countenance. Thick shoulders and upper arms which supported tight, sinew-like forearms and giant, gnarled hands – not unlike those of a blacksmith – maintained an authoritative control of the reins.  Taut, heavily-muscled legs, sheathed in thigh-high black cavalry boots and capped with sharp, cruel-looking spurs, added to the awe-inspiring aura which surrounded Moore. 

                Even the horse upon which he was mounted enhanced this impression.  No Kentucky quarter horse could long withstand the size and vigor of this officer.  Instead, the colonel was mounted on a huge gray-white Percheron.  Any other officer in the Union Army mounted upon a draft horse would have inspired derision among his troops, yet such was Moore’s standing and presence within the Federal Army of the Tennessee in this year of 1862 that none dared scoff at him.  Indeed, the Percheron seemed to sense its master’s strength and charisma, for in the countless charges which Moore had led against the Western Theater Confederates, not once had the lean, sleek mounts of the various troopers which charged with Moore been able to overtake him.  Such was the measure of the man and his horse.

                I will never forget my first and only personal encounter with Colonel Moore. A group of us were making coffee around a low campfire one evening.  The colonel rode past and stopped for a cup with us.  In the regular army, such fraternizing between officers and enlisted men would be strongly frowned upon.  However, in the volunteers, where the officers were elected by the rank-and-file from their own number, the distance between officers and men was much less pronounced.

                After a short round of light banter, I finally worked up enough courage to ask a question of my commanding officer:

                “Begging your pardon, sir, but why do you risk your life so in our charges?  You are always so far out in front of us.  No disrespect intended, sir; but after all, you are one of us!”

                In a voice which greatly contrasted with my image of him as a true hell-bent-for-leather cavalryman, Moore softly said, “I realize I am a dry-goods store manager in Cleveland in my real life.  But you have elected me as your commander.  As such, I will do all in my power to break the enemy – his spirit as well as his body.  This might require the sacrifice of my life for a cause greater than my own existence.” 

                In carrying out this mission, Moore had a flair for the dramatic as he prepared his troops to charge. Invariably, in full view of his enemies, Col. Moore would gallop to the head of his command, flinging his hat heavily to the ground as he dashed forward.  Silver hair gleaming in the sunlight, black eyes burning malevolently like coals in a hellish locomotive firebox, he would grasp his sword and viciously slash it from its scabbard.  Brandishing the glinting, razor-edged instrument of destruction menacingly above his head, Moore would cause the tremendous Percheron to rear high onto its back legs as he leaned into the horse’s mane to maintain balance.  For a split-second, man and horse would freeze in a picturesque pose, while from the ranks of his men arose a tremendous, hoarse, primal shout; the kind heard down through the ages as warriors prepared to fight and die.  Above the din would come a deep, resonant roar from the lion-like soul of Col. Moore, and as the Percheron regained its legs, it would spring forwarded with a massive leap of adrenaline.  In a rush of wind and a shower of spinning turf, colonel and horse would hurl forward, his men unhesitatingly galloping behind – minds melded together as one toward the goals of victory or death.

                I tried to imagine what the Confederates must feel as this mountain of a man, his luminous white charger, and his furious, screaming shock troops thundered toward them.  I imagined the enemy saw the flowing silver hair, felt the pounding of heavily-shod hooves, and sensed the prospect of cold steel death emanating from the massive man and his tremendous horse, as rider and steed bore mercilessly down upon them.  If they were religious, Revelation 6:8 must have filled the enemies’ terror-stricken minds: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death…”  Fingers fumbled for triggers as cold sweat cascaded into fearful eyes.  Suddenly, he was among them, the flashing saber at the end of the powerfully muscled arm sowing death and destruction among the masses.

                I was jolted back to reality by a rising crescendo of cheers which approached like a tidal wave from my right. From my position in the ranks, I caught a flash of streaming silver hair as I sensed, rather than felt, a pulsating rush of energy moving over me.  Trembling fingers clutched my carbine as cold sweat clouded my eyes and trickled down my back.  Soon would come the rearing stallion and the flash of hooves.  Would today be his day…or would it mine?


Criticism and response:

Karen’s statement of overall criticism for the above piece was: “Fiction? Or Non-fiction? Reads like a personal experience article (nonfiction) but the assignment was fiction.”

Response:  I found this statement quite interesting because I had never been in combat and was far too young to have participated in the American Civil War.  Further, the character of “Colonel Moore,” while based on my study of the careers of certain Civil War military leaders, was an entirely fictitious character! I’ll return to this point later in this essay.

Karen’s detailed criticism for the above piece was: “For [this assignment] we asked for a piece of fiction – a story – something you make up using your imagination – though it can be based on a person or situation from your life.  In other words [,] a real individual or location can provide the seeds for the story.  But the result should be a creative story.

“I enjoyed reading your submission but I’m curious as to whether you consider it fiction or nonfiction.  It reads like a personal account of an experience you had as a member of the Ohio Voluntary Cavalry Regiment.  You use the first person pronoun, I, and you describe at some length, the commander, Colonel Rex Moore.  This description seemed more in keeping with the instructions for [a previous commission] where you’re asked to describe a person you know or once knew.

“On page 2 you reflect on your relationship with Moore and you include some of his dialogue.

“But the overall effect is that you, John, are telling me, the reader about this man and this experience from your life.  This is not fiction.  A story (fiction) must be plotted or structured to a basic format that forms the skeleton of all stories.”

                 I believe the best way to respond to this constructive criticism is to answer it paragraph-by-paragraph:

For [this assignment] we asked for a piece of fiction – a story – something you make up using your imagination – though it can be based on a person or situation from your life.  In other words [,] a real individual or location can provide the seeds for the story.  But the result should be a creative story.

                The story of Colonel Moore and the 41st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment was totally made up from my imagination. It was based on my experience in deeply reading about and researching the Civil War for about 35 years before writing this article.  Colonel Moore never existed: his character was a composite of three people. Union Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles, the eventual Commanding General of the United States Army, was a crockery store clerk when the Civil War began.1 Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest was a physically large cavalry commander who was hugely successful in the Civil War.2 He believed in leading from the front, and was so involved in physical skirmishing that he killed approximately thirty opponents in hand-to-hand combat – one of the few generals on either side to personally slay an opponent in battle.  The more detailed physical characteristics of the fictional “Colonel Moore” were those of a former supervisor of mine in the business world.  The fictional Union “41st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment” was loosely based on Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s famous “43rd Battalion, Virginia Calvary,”3 which operated in Northern Virginia during the Civil War. Thus, “a real individual or location [did] provide the seeds for the story.  But the result [was] a creative story.”

 “I enjoyed reading your submission but I’m curious as to whether you consider it fiction or nonfiction.  It reads like a personal account of an experience you had as a member of the Ohio Voluntary Cavalry Regiment.  You use the first person pronoun, I, and you describe at some length, the commander, Colonel Rex Moore.  This description seemed more in keeping with the instructions for [a previous commission] where you’re asked to describe a person you know or once knew.”

                I definitely thought of this story as a work of fiction, as noted above. But Karen’s next sentences revealed the seeds of my emerging unique writing style.  I did indeed “see” this entire account through the eyes of an imagined participant in the saga – the first manifestation of a personal style labeled by a later critic as “imaginative realism.”  I “saw” Colonel Moore and the cavalry charge as if I were watching a television show or a movie, and was merely writing down in great realistic detail what I was “seeing” unfold before my mind’s eye.     

“On page 2 you reflect on your relationship with Moore and you include some of his dialogue.

This is self-explanatory. The dialogue was totally made-up; it was entirely fictional.

“But the overall effect is that you, John, are telling me, the reader about this man and this experience from your life.  This is not fiction.  A story (fiction) must be plotted or structured to a basic format that forms the skeleton of all stories.”

                This constructive criticism confirmed my feeling that I was developing a personal style of my own. The critical phrase, “The overall effect is that you…are telling me…about his man and this experience from your life” is a virtual definition of the emerging writing style of “imaginative realism.”  This fictional story was so realistic that the critic herself had trouble distinguishing it from factual nonfiction!

                The final sentences of the detailed critique firmed up my growing recognition that Karen and I had entirely different purposes in actuating the fictional story writing process. From Karen: “This is not fiction.  A story (fiction) must be plotted or structured to a basic format that forms the skeleton of all stories.”  Karen was stressing a structured, formulaic, “cookie-cutter” approach for writing commercial fictional short stories such as one would find in publications on the shelves of Walmart. On the other hand, I was attempting to develop my own stylistic version of the classic short stories of the mid-20th Century masters: the splendorous verbal descriptions of a Fitzgerald; the terse, nerve-wracking combat narratives of a Hemingway; the obscure verbal symbolizations of a Faulkner.  

                An example of this observation was that Karen completely missed an important piece of Faulkner-like underlying symbolism that was embedded in the story. Commanding officer Moore had been a simple dry-goods store manager in the pedestrian city of Cleveland, Ohio before the Civil War.  In contrast, his gray-white Percheron horse had been bred to be the steed of nobility in Europe.4 Their roles in the warfare of this new world were completely reversed.  The humble store clerk was now a leader of men, while the former regal mount of royalty was now usually employed in lowly beast-of-burden duties.  There was no hint of recognition of this hidden symbolism in the critique of the short story.

                Further, other critical notes seemed to indicate a lack of recognition of subtlety in the writing process of “The Lion.”  For example, in Karen’s comments regarding the first word of the story, “We,” the critic asked, “Who does this include?”  She did not seem to recognize of the literary concept of a “hook” to draw the reader’s interest further into the story.  Indeed, in my opinion this was more evidence that Karen was looking for a bland, elemental, commercial approach to the creation of the story, in which all facts are early and garishly presented.  This is in contrast to the process of leading to reader to think and question; to require the reader to gather and retain facts in order to be drawn into an interest in the story. This opening line for “The Lion” was very similar in concept and intent to the opening line in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”5 Like “A Farewell to Arms,” “We” were slowly but steadily defined throughout the story. These contrasting approaches are the difference between force-feeding essential facts to the reader versus inviting the reader to mentally engage and participate in the story.   

                Karen did recognize some of what I was trying to accomplish with several of her internal critical comments. Regarding the physical description of Colonel Rex Moore, the critic noted, “vivid details (my nod to Fitzgerald). Regarding the fear felt by the enemy, instigated by a potential Moore-led charge on the opposing line, and then the soldier/narrator being jolted back to reality in anticipation of the coming charge, the critic noted, “excellent writing.”

                But once again at the very end, Karen did not recognize a technique that Hemingway might have used to engage the reader’s imagination one final time. Regarding the ending sentence, “Would today be his day…or would it be mine?” the critic asks, end?  I believe that Karen was looking for a commercial, spelled-out ending suitable for mass consumption – again, a “Walmart storybook”-style ending.   However, by my use of the phrase “Would today be his day…or would it be mine?” (,) I declined to delineate all the facts for the reader (in imitation of Hemingway’s “iceberg effect”).  I invited the reader to engage with the tale and imagine what the results of the combat might hold for both (or either) the commanding officer or the rank-and-file cavalryman.  Would either or both of them emerge from the attack wreathed in martial glory, with imaginary “laurels of victory” surrounding their heads?  Would this be a day for either or both to simply survive to this battle in order to fight the next one another day?  Or would the reader draw the intended meaning, indicated from the description of the nervousness felt by the private soldiers which was detailed earlier in the story: would this be the day that one or the other fought their last battle…their deeds on this earth forever done?

                To summarize, creating this story was a great opportunity for me to grow; to choose where I would go and what I would do with writing.  I could have chosen the safe, bland “commercial” route.  But that was not why I got into writing.  I thus chose the more classical “artistic” route…and the development of a unique style.  I am very grateful to “Karen” for her assistance in defining this early phase of my writing journey.   



1 Nelson A. Miles

                Nelson Appleton Miles (August 8, 1839 – May 15, 1925) was an American military general who served in the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars, and the Spanish–American War. From 1895 to 1903, he served as the last Commanding General of the United States Army before the office was abolished.

                Miles was working as a crockery store clerk in Boston when the American Civil War began. He entered the Union Army as a volunteer on September 9, 1861, and fought in many crucial battles. He became a lieutenant in the 22nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment on May 31, 1862. He was promoted to colonel after the Battle of Antietam.

                Other battles he participated in include FredericksburgChancellorsville (during which he was shot in the neck and abdomen), and the Appomattox Campaign. Wounded four times in battle, on March 2, 1867, Miles was brevetted a brigadier general in the regular army in recognition of his actions at Chancellorsville. He was again brevetted, this time to the rank of major general, for his actions at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. He received the Medal of Honor on July 23, 1892, for his gallantry at Chancellorsville. He was appointed brigadier-general of volunteers as of May 12, 1864, for the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. On October 21, 1865, he was appointed a major general of volunteers at the age of 26.[1]

[1] Eicher, John H., and David J. EicherCivil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3. P. 389


2 Nathan Bedford Forrest

                Nathan Bedford Forrest (July 13, 1821 – October 29, 1877) was a prominent Confederate Army general during the American Civil War… scholars generally acknowledge Forrest’s skills and acumen as a cavalry leader and military strategist… Nathan Bedford Forrest was a tall man who stood six feet two inches (1.88 m) in height and weighed about 180 pounds (13 st; 82 kg);[23][24][25][26] He was noted as having a “striking and commanding presence” by Union Captain Lewis Hosea, an aide to Gen. James H. Wilson. Forrest rarely drank and abstained from tobacco usage; he was often described as generally mild mannered, but according to Hosea and other contemporaries who knew him, his demeanor changed drastically when he was provoked or angered.[27] He was known as a tireless rider in the saddle and a skilled swordsman.[28] Although he was not formally educated, Forrest was able to read and write in clear and grammatical English.[29]

Though Forrest had no prior formal military training or experience, he had exhibited leadership and soon proved he could successfully employ tactics.[26][40]

23     Wesley W. Yale; Isaac Davis White; Hasso von Manteuffel (1970). Alternative to Armageddon: The Peace Potential of Lightning War. Rutgers University Press.
24      Robert M. Browning (2004). Forrest: The Confederacy’s Relentless Warrior. Potomac Books, Inc. ISBN 978-1-57488-624-5., p. 8
25      D. Reid Ross (2008). Lincoln’s Veteran Volunteers Win the War: The Hudson Valley’s Ross Brothers and the Union’s Fight for Emancipation. SUNY Press. p. 276. ISBN 978-0-7914-7641-3.
26      James R. Knight (2014). Hood’s Tennessee Campaign: The Desperate Venture of a Desperate Man. Arcadia Publishing Incorporated. p. 27. ISBN 978-1-62585-130-7.
27      James Pickett Jones (January 13, 2015). Yankee Blitzkrieg: Wilson’s Raid through Alabama and Georgia. University Press of Kentucky. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-8131-6164-8.
28      Claude Gentry (1972). General Nathan Bedford Forrest: The Boy and the Man. Magnolia Publishers. p. 48.
29      Spaulding, Thomas M. (1931), “Forrest, Nathan Bedford”, in Allen Johnson; Dumas Malone (eds.), Dictionary of American Biography, 6, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, p. 533.
40      Morton, John Watson (1909), The Artillery of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Cavalry: “the Wizard of the Saddle”, Publishing house of the M.E. Church, South, Smith & Lamar, agents, p. 1


3 John S. Mosby

                John Singleton Mosby (December 6, 1833 – May 30, 1916), also known by his nickname, the “Gray Ghost”, was a Confederate army cavalry battalion commander in the American Civil War. His command, the 43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, known as Mosby’s Rangers or Mosby’s Raiders, was a partisan ranger unit noted for its lightning-quick raids and its ability to elude Union Army pursuers and disappear, blending in with local farmers and townsmen.


4 Percheron

                The Percheron is a breed of draft horse that originated in the Huisne river valley in western France, part of the former Perche province from which the breed takes its name. Usually gray or black in color, Percherons are well muscled, and known for their intelligence and willingness to work. Although their exact origins are unknown, the ancestors of the breed were present in the valley by the 17th century. They were originally bred for use as war horses. Over time, they began to be used for pulling stagecoaches and later for agriculture and hauling heavy goods.


5 “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1929). Contained in Ernest Hemingway: Four Novels (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007; 2011), 189.