Prosecuting attorney turns Cape Girardeau history into novel

Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Morley Swingle knows how to tell a good story. It's a skill the veteran Cape Girardeau County prosecutor honed in his opening and closing arguments at countless trials.

But one of his personal trials comes to a close with the publication of his historical novel, set in his hometown of Cape Girardeau. Not surprisingly, courtroom drama plays a major role in the book, "The Gold of Cape Girardeau."

"It's a dream come true for me," said Swingle. "I wanted to be a published novelist longer than I wanted to be a lawyer."

Southeast Missouri State University Press will publish Swingle's 296-page book this fall. It's the first book for the school's University Press, the school's new grant-funded venture in small-press publishing.

The story centers on a court battle over gold found in a Lorimier Street home and along the way weaves in the glory days of steamboats on the Mississippi River and the divided loyalties in the river town during the Civil War.

Read 20,000 pages for research

While the story is fiction, the novel's portrayal of the river city is rooted in history. Swingle spent years researching and writing the book.

"I read 20,000 pages of local history to put together this novel," Swingle said from his basement study, outfitted with a computer and a horseshoe-shaped desk with enough counter space for him to pore over his research. "I knew I wanted to write a Michener-type book that would tell Cape Girardeau's history in a novel."

"I think of a good historical novel as sugar-coated history -- the reader learns interesting historical facts while being entertained with a good story," he wrote in the book's afterword.

Swingle, who has a undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia, started delving into local history in 1981, but didn't start writing the book until 1983, while he was an assistant prosecuting attorney.

He researched the book year-round and did most of the writing during his two-week vacations.

"For four years, I used every day of vacation time on that book," he recalled. "I worked 12 hours a day."

Elected prosecuting attorney in November 1986, he finished the book in December 1987.

He's spent the last 15 years revising the manuscript. "It's been cut practically in half in the editing process," Swingle said.

He tried to interest New York literary agents in the manuscript. While that was unsuccessful, he did receive "lots of very complimentary rejection letters."

Local interest in the manuscript surfaced in 1997 when Southeast Missouri State University history professor Dr. Frank Nickell read it.

The manuscript initially was over 1,000 pages in length, or more than 500 pages in published form.

"I thought it was too long," Nickell recalled.

But the professor was intrigued.

"I thought it had lots of potential because it was a unique story, a story that connected to this region and this community -- a story that had drama, that had history, mystery and action," Nickell said.

At Nickell's urging, Swingle began revising the novel.

"I think Morley revised it for me a couple of times," Nickell said. "It's a much better book now."

It's also grounded in historical detail and accuracy, down to figuring out just how much a chest of gold would be worth today.

Capitalizing on local author

Nickell, who directs the Center for Regional History at the university, initially planned to publish the book through the center.

But the establishment of the Southeast Missouri State University Press through a $35,800, three-year state grant that ends in 2004 provided an opportunity for wider distribution of the novel. It also provided a chance for the new University Press to capitalize on a local author willing to attend book signings and help sell the book.

"He's the perfect author," said Dr. Susan Swartwout, an English professor and co-director, along with Nickell, of the Southeast Missouri State University Press. "You have to have an author willing to work the book."

The University Press is headquartered in a cramped, two-room office in the Grauel Building where Swartwout and students work on getting manuscripts ready on computer to send to the printers.

The University Press plans to spend about $6,000 to publish 3,000 softback copies of the novel, which will retail for $19.95 per copy. The press hopes to publish two or three books a year.

Swartwout said Swingle's novel should be in area bookstores by the end of October.

The book's cover includes a watercolor by the late Jake Wells, who Swingle commissioned to do a painting of the "Girardeau Rose," the fictitious steamboat that figures prominently in the novel. Wells' painting, finished in 1985, now hangs in Swingle's home.

Swingle hopes his book will do more than make him a little money. He hopes it sparks public interest in Cape Girardeau's heritage.

"People go through life in Cape Girardeau without ever glancing at the Mississippi River," he said.

But it's the river that put Cape Girardeau on the map, Swingle said.

Without it, there would have been no steamboat lore, and no colorful backdrop for a prosecuting attorney's creative writing.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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