Former Journalist Turns Love of History to Cottage Industry

December 01, 2008

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story:

December 1, 2008 — C. Brian Kelly built a cottage industry writing short historical vignettes, such as the "Best Little Stories from the American Revolution" and "Best Little Stories from the Civil War."

Now, Kelly — a former newspaperman and current University of Virginia news writing instructor — has changed scope of his series slightly, recently publishing "Best Little Stories from the Life and Times of Winston Churchill," a look at the legendary British prime minister who led his country and its empire during World War II.

"We've never done biography before — we've always done events," Kelly said.

He writes the books with his wife, Ingrid Smyer-Kelly, who focuses on the distaff side of the story. In this book, she writes about Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, nee Jennie Jerome, daughter of an American millionaire.

"I studied his mother and the influence she had on him," Smyer-Kelly said. "He looked to her for guidance. They brought together the whole English-speaking world."

Smyer-Kelly said she also wants to write about Churchill's wife, Clementine.

The format of this book is the same as the histories — short tales, about 800 words each, which Kelly said fits well into the modern attention span.

"Each story stands alone," Kelly said. "We are trying to interest people in history through shorter pieces."

"Brian brings a keen reporter's eye to putting these stories together," said William Fishback, a former journalist who also taught news writing at U.Va. "He can turn complex stories into a readable format."

The Churchill project came about after the Kellys attended a seminar on the British leader. Brian Kelly was attracted to Churchill by his achievements and the array of things he was — soldier, politician, statesman, writer, painter and, at many times in his career, a voice crying in the wilderness.

"He turned against his social class in the 1920s and introduced welfare legislation," Kelly said. "He spanned the history of England from the Victorian empire to its nadir in World War II and beyond."

"Today people want to knock down heroes," Smyer-Kelly said. "To have accomplished what he did is incredible."

Kelly has always been interested in history, from writing source documents to editing history magazines. He worked as a reporter for the Washington Star, the Richmond News Leader, the Harrisonburg Daily News Record and the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Stepping away from daily journalism, he founded Military History magazine in 1984, a publication he edited for 11 years. He also edited World War II, another history magazine. Kelly started teaching news writing at U.Va. in 1980.

He wrote a lot of short historical narratives for the history magazines and collected some for "The Best Little Stories from World War II."

He published the book himself and sold 35,000 copies. He followed that book with "The Best Little Stories from the White House," and then with his Civil War books.

His self-published books were successful enough that he attracted the attention of publishing houses. The Churchill volume, his ninth book, came out under the Cumberland House Publishing imprint.

"There are no formulas," said Kelly. "But it has got to be a good story. I'm a seat-of-the-pants type of guy."

The Kellys still promote their books the old-fashioned way. They give readings, go on signing tours and keep talking up the product. They recently attended a book fair at the National Press Club in Washington.

"I had a lot of fun traveling all around the country and meeting people at book signings," Smyer-Kelly said.

They also work well as a writing team together.

"He is a happy man because he loves what he writes," Smyer-Kelly said. "It is so much fun to write together."

The Kellys do not know what the next book will be. But Brian Kelly knows it will retain the current format.

"I think about writing other kinds of books," Kelly said, "but not seriously,"

— By Matt Kelly