Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A day to remember

Whether reading, writing, or viewing movies and TV programs, I never tire of exploring the past. I majored in history in college not because I wanted to teach history but rather because I wanted to learn more about it.

Though the past is past, it is never settled. It is subject to constant scrutiny, debate, and revision. And that, in my opinion, is what makes it interesting.

I thought about that this morning when I read an article about one of the most iconic historical events of all time: the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The ship that couldn't sink did just that 102 years ago today, spawning countless books, movies, and discussions that continue to this day.

There are seemingly fewer questions about how and why the Titanic went down than before its wreckage was discovered in 1985, but some questions remain. For example, in their work What Really Sank the Titanic: New Forensic Discoveries, authors Jennifer Hooper McCarty and Tim Foecke argue that weak rivets, not weak steel, doomed the luxury liner.

Even the forensics debates, of course, can't measure up to the human drama. The sinking remains a compelling story precisely because it offers so many lessons -- about public attitudes, class, culture, and the promise and limits of technology.

Some of the best takes on the tragedy can still be found in literature. I strongly recommend Walter Lord's 1955 classic, A Night to Remember, and newer books like Andrew Wilson's Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived, which was published last year.

As one who believes that history is often best appreciated in museums, I also recommend Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. I've seen the display twice and believe it is worth every cent. It is currently making the rounds in five U.S. cities.

As glimpses of the past go, it doesn't get better.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Deconstructing the Northwest Passage series

The questions almost always start with "why." "Why time travel?" "Why the Northwest?" "Why male protagonists in some books and females in others?" Or, as my 19-year-old daughter likes to ask, "Why do you have to marry off all of your characters before they're twenty?!"

(She exaggerates but only slightly.)

I've tried to answer these questions and others in nearly fifty interviews and personal e-mails since February 2012 -- when I published The Mine -- but still the questions come. Some readers ask things I've been asked many times. Others request fresh takes on old matters. Almost all simply want to better understand books they've read and, in most cases, enjoyed.

So I decided this week that before I officially put the Northwest Passage series to bed, I should make an attempt to explain why I did what I did in writing five books that have been my passion for more than two years. In no particular order are the subjects representing frequent questions.

Time travel: As I've noted in many interviews, I outlined The Mine minutes after watching The Time Traveler's Wife in 2011. Though I enjoyed both the book and the movie, I was more interested in twentieth-century time travel than that particular story. I wanted to see how a modern time traveler fared when suddenly thrust in the world of his or her not-so-distant ancestors. In three years, that interest has not waned.

Time portals: I decided to treat time travel as fantasy, rather than science fiction, because fantasy offered more opportunities to be creative. When the only limits are the limits you place on yourself, you can have a lot of fun.

Time streams: I knew from the outset I could not write the NWP series and adhere to the theory that time is a single, unchangeable stream. When you meet your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents in their time, history changes -- and when history changes, so do you. Using multiple timelines became a must.

Settings: Writing about the Pacific Northwest was never a question. When you live and work in places like Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, writing about those places is easy and appealing. I should note, however, that the settings in the series were not strictly limited to the Northwest. Hawaii and Nevada made guest appearances.

Protagonists: Writers are advised to write what they know. But as novelist James Rollins once asked, "What's the fun in that?" Beginning with The Journey, I decided that the books in this series would not be told strictly from a male perspective. I would do what authors have always done when they wrote outside their realm of experience. I would learn.

Relationships: My daughter is not far off. There are no fewer than eight engagements involving college-age characters, including three involving Grace Vandenberg Smith alone. My objective in the series was to show how young people in love reacted to circumstances and events that could change on a dime and often put their commitment to each other to a serious test.

Sequence: I wrote the NWP series out of order because, at the start, I did not plan to write a series at all. When I finally committed to writing five books, I decided that the best way to go was to alternate between two time-traveling families. Though I will probably not repeat this approach in the future, I like how this series turned out.

Common threads: Though the NWP books are, for the most part, distinctive works, they share many themes, venues, and even characters. Joel Smith and his mother Cindy appear and speak in all five books. Grace provides a point of view in three.

Frequent flyers: Kevin Johnson travels through time on eight occasions in The Fire. Grace Smith travels only three times but is the only character in the series to experience two distinct eras she was never meant to see.

Readers and bloggers occasionally ask me to cite my favorites in the series. I admit I don't have a favorite book, but I do have favorite characters (Ginny Smith, Sadie Hawkins), settings (Seaside, Wallace), and scenes (the drag race in The Journey, the wedding in The Show, the Beatles concert in The Mirror).

I also have a favorite ending, which many of my readers share. If I can ever again catch lightning in a bottle, like I apparently did in Chapter 70 of The Mine, I'll be sure to share it.

Readers now, of course, seem more interested in what's coming up. They want to know if the next series will be anything like the last. The short answer is yes. I have enjoyed writing novels that blend history, humor, romance, and serious themes and fully intend to write more. I hope to publish the first novel in the American Journey series by this fall.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Number five goes live

There is something liberating about ending a series. When you bring a story to an end, you can focus solely on the task at hand and not what comes next. You have the freedom to take chances. You can write the story you want to write.

Today that story goes live. The Mirror is not just the fifth and final book in the Northwest Passage series. It's the novel I've wanted to tackle for more than a year -- a work that answers lingering questions, takes on new social issues, and recasts familiar characters in not-so-familiar roles.

It's the story of nineteen-year-old twin sisters who go from the comfortable, digital world of 2020 to the dawn of a turbulent decade that changed America forever. In Ginny and Katie Smith, readers will see 1964 as only a time traveler could see it.

The Mirror will not be my last time-travel work. Later this year, I will start a new series that encompasses many of the same themes. The Mirror will, however, be the curtain call for Joel Smith, Grace Vandenberg Smith, and their extended family.

I hope readers will like the last installment as much as they have liked the first four. The Mirror is available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com. Enjoy.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson

The thing I like most about researching possible settings for new novels is discovering works I might have otherwise ignored. Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson, is one such work.

Subtitled "A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History," Larson's book examines the Galveston hurricane of 1900 through the eyes of meteorologist Isaac Monroe Cline and other survivors of the storm. Eight thousand people perished in the disaster.

Larson does more, however, than trace a cyclone across the North Atlantic. He offers compelling look at Cline and his family, the fledgling Weather Bureau, and a prosperous turn-of-the-century community that saw itself as Houston's economic rival.

I found Larson's 1999 nonfiction work as informative, entertaining, and readable as The Big Burn by Timothy Egan, The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, and even many novels. I strongly recommend it to fans of science and history. Rating: 5/5.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The writing road at Milepost 2

I remember the day like it was yesterday. I clicked a button on a web page in the morning, waited impatiently for several hours, and finally noticed a subtle change shortly before taking my wife to dinner.

The Mine, the first novel in the Northwest Passage series, was no longer "in review." It was no longer an idea or a rough draft or a work in progress. It was live on Amazon.com. It was a published book and subject to the scrutiny that all books face.

I've learned a lot since February 13, 2012, when I joined the ranks of published authors. I've learned that covers matter, that marketing is a never-ending job, and that readers like happy endings and characters they can relate to. I've learned that producing a novel is time-consuming, humbling, and often frustrating but infinitely rewarding.

The rewards, for most of us, are not large royalty checks, awards, or publishing contracts but rather the thoughtful and often useful comments from readers. As one who cares about his craft, I've learned to pay attention not only to those who like my works but also those who don't.

Supporters are important, of course, because they keep indie authors going. They remind us that the hundreds of hours we spend on our "hobby" are ultimately worth it. Their opinions can make a day.

Constructive critics are no less relevant. When they point out flaws in our books, they help us improve. They ensure that we focus on what's important to the consumers of literature and not the creators.

In two years, I've also learned the value of perseverance and patience. When you try to find a niche in a world of millions of books, you learn that this business is a marathon and not a sprint. Even modest success takes time.

This year I plan to continue that marathon by releasing The Mirror and then starting a new time-travel series. With any luck, I will be able to apply what I've learned and keep a good thing going. It's been fun.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Next stop: 1964

If there is one thing I enjoy most about writing historical fiction, it's that it allows me to build a story around actual historical events and escape to another time.

The Mine examines life in the Pacific Northwest in the months leading up to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The Journey and The Fire do the same with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and the Big Burn of 1910, respectively. The Show captures Seattle in the weeks before and after the end of World War I.

The Mirror will follow a similar course. It will offer readers a snapshot of the pivotal, exhilarating year of 1964, with references to everything from civil rights, Barry Goldwater, and Vietnam to contemporary TV programs and the Beatles.

An entire chapter, in fact, will be devoted to the Beatles' concert on August 21, 1964, when the Fab Four played to 14,000 screaming fans in the Seattle Center Coliseum. The stop was the third on the band's twenty-six-city summer tour of North America.

This Sunday, CBS will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles' iconic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show with a live multimedia event. It will likely be the first of many glimpses of a year that changed the country. As a Baby Boomer and a fan of history and nostalgia, I look forward to them all.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Wright person for the job

One of the most enjoyable things about producing novels is enlisting the help of others on jobs that, frankly, should be left to others. And few jobs, of course, are more important than creating the cover.

Last month I sought and received assistance from Indiana designer Laura Wright LaRoche. In a matter of a few days, she was able to create a cover that captured the spirit of a book about nineteen-year-old identical twin sisters who travel in time to 1964.

I would recommend Laura to any author in need of a cover illustrator. Examples of her work can be found on her LLPix Photography & Design web site.

Work continues on The Mirror. I expect to publish the fifth and final book in the Northwest Passage series by early March.

Monday, January 6, 2014

New goals for a new year

An author friend recently asked me if I had any writing goals for 2014. I thought it was an odd question at first. Most authors have at least one goal. They want to write more books!

The more I thought about the question, though, the more I realized that I do have goals that go beyond simply producing another novel. Some are bigger than others, but all involve putting my works in the hands of more readers.

I will see one longstanding goal reach fruition this Friday with the release of The Mine audio book on Amazon.com and Audible.com. Until now, all four of my published novels have been available only in e-book format. Though I have no immediate plans to turn to print, I will not rule out that option.

I also plan to start a new series following the March release of The Mirror, the fifth and final book of the Northwest Passage series. The new series will be much like the first and offer a blend of time travel, history, humor, adventure, and romance. I hope to publish the first installment by August 31.

As in past years, I will also do what I can to promote existing books, whether through reviews, interviews, contests, or advertising. Like many indie authors, I've learned that marketing a novel is just as important as writing it.

Here's hoping that your 2014 is a productive one!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December milestones

Two projects months in the making each came to fruition today with the preliminary release of The Mine audiobook and the completion of the first draft of The Mirror.

Narrated by Aaron Landon and published by Podium Publishing, the audiobook is now available to pre-order at Audible.com. The unabridged first novel of the Northwest Passage series will be released on January 10, 2014. It is ten hours in length.

The Mirror, the continuation of The Mine and The Show, will now undergo several rounds of editing and proofing. I expect to publish the fifth and final book of the series by March 31.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A new look for an old book

One thing I've learned in nearly two years of writing and publishing novels is that you should never let an opportunity slip through your fingers. So when I was given the chance to update The Mine's original cover with a flashier version, I took it.

Podium Publishing, a Toronto-based publisher of audiobooks, produced the new image. The cover will closely resemble the one used for The Mine audiobook, which is currently in production.

Many thanks to Cannon Colegrove for his work on the original cover, which was based on a photograph by Steve Jurvetson of the San Cristobal Mine, an abandoned mercury mine near San Jose, California.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Looking in The Mirror

There is something both satisfying and sad about bringing a continuing story to a close. The satisfying part goes without saying. Authors have the opportunity to tie up loose ends, revisit familiar places, and reexplore comforting themes one last time. Last month I began doing all of these things when I started work on The Mirror, the fifth book in the Northwest Passage series.

In this novel, Ginny and Katie Smith, the 19-year-old twin daughters of Joel and Grace Smith, will travel from 2020 to 1964 and see Seattle at the dawn of the sixties. They'll see the Beatles, the civil rights movement, and a changing culture through modern eyes and find new purpose in an era they knew only from their grandparents' stories.

They will also put a final stamp on a family saga that began in The Mine and continued in The Show -- much like Kevin Johnson did in The Fire, the recently published sequel to The Journey. They will give fresh perspective to a story I have enjoyed writing since starting The Mine two and a half years ago.

The sad part is no less obvious. Ending a story means saying goodbye. In The Mirror, I'll say so long to the extended Smith family, which includes not only the Greens and Vandenbergs of the early 1900s but also the Gillettes and Jorgensons of the rest of the century.

Whether I do the same to the Northwest Passage series is still an open question. Sometime next year, probably in the spring, I'll decide whether to continue the distinctive series with a new cast or start down an entirely new road.

Whatever the case, I will strive to give readers the very things they have come to enjoy in this particular collection: times and places they can explore, themes they can embrace, and characters they'll never forget. I expect to finish the first draft of The Mirror by the end of the year and publish by April 1. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: The Great Gatsby

Like a lot of people, I don't read many classics. Classics are books we remember fondly (or maybe not so fondly) from high school -- not ones we actually take time to read as adults. Of the more than four hundred novels I've read in the past twenty years, only six were drawn from the Modern Library's celebrated Top 100.

Prompted by my community's Big Read program, however, I recently revisited No. 2 on the Modern Library's list: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's timeless portrait of the Jazz Age. What I found was a book that has held up well since it was published in 1925 and still contains relevant messages for modern society.

In what is considered his greatest work, Fitzgerald introduces readers to the young, enigmatic Jay Gatsby, a self-made man who has everything but the one thing he wants: socialite Daisy Buchanan, the wife of fellow Long Island millionaire Tom Buchanan.

Told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, a young bond salesman who serves as sort of a middleman between his neighbor Gatsby and his second cousin Daisy, The Great Gatsby grabbed my attention from the first page and never let go. Fitzgerald's portrayal of prosperity, greed, arrogance, and recklessness is without peer.

To augment my enjoyment of the novel, I listened to the unabridged audiobook, read by actor Jake Gyllenhaal, and watched the recently released movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. Both were excellent but were no substitute for the text. Fitzgerald's haunting prose still resonates and probably will for another century. Rating: 5/5.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

An overdue thank you

As I head into the fall and begin to market my fourth novel in earnest, I feel indebted to a group of people who have helped me to get even this far. Bloggers have been more than accommodating in getting my works before the public. They have been indispensable.

This is particularly true with ten people I have worked with over the past 18 months. They include Casee at Literary Inklings, Lisa at 300 Word Book Reviews, Nicole at Forbidden Reviews, Carrie at the Mad Reviewer, Donna at More than a Review, Sharon at Sharon's Book Nook, Dianne at Tome Tender, Ailyn at Piece of My Mind, Judy at the Voracious Reader, and D.J. at Pick Your Poison Book Reviews.

These ladies have done more than review The Fire, released August 31. They have reviewed all four novels in the Northwest Passage series. That is the sort of thing you don't forget when trying to introduce your works to new readers in an increasingly crowded and competitive market.

A special thanks goes to each of these reviewers for taking a chance on an unknown author and another to those who are about to join their ranks. This writer is most grateful.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Esperanza by Sandra C. Lopez

If there is one thing I've discovered in producing four novels in two years, it's that writing leaves precious little time for reading. It leaves even less time for reading works outside my favorite genres, such as historical fiction and thrillers. As I learned last week, however, it's sometimes wise to make that time and wander out of literary comfort zones.

Sanda C. Lopez's delightfully written debut novel, Esperanza: A Latina Story, follows a Mexican-American girl through four turbulent years of high school in east Los Angeles in the late 1990s.

From the beginning, Esperanza Ignacio commands admiration and respect. She stays true to herself despite the demands imposed on her by a controlling single mother, two needy younger siblings, and several not-so-admirable friends, relatives, and classmates, who try to badger and bully her in unproductive directions.

As a reader, I had no difficulty imagining the obstacles the girl faced. Esperanza's world is a mostly bleak place, filled with bullying, broken families, alcoholism, poverty, and the myriad temptations of youth. Lopez does a masterful job in describing them all.

What makes this story compelling, however, is not the description but rather the uplifting tone. The author gives readers a protagonist we can root for from start to finish. She reminds us that even those living in challenging environments can succeed by remaining focused, optimistic, and compassionate.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Rating: 4/5.