Saturday, November 12, 2016

Starting down the final road

There is nothing like bringing a series to an end to focus the mind. Authors pay more attention to details and getting it right because they know they won’t have another chance to get it right. When a series is done, it is done. There are no second takes.

With that in mind, I have paid attention to the little things in writing the fifth book of the American Journey series. Questions will be answered — including a big one — and problems explained. In the series finale, I will bring back each of the time travelers from the first four books and borrow a few names and themes.

I am currently 35,000 words into the 100,000-word work. Set mostly in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the novel will follow a young childless couple from 2017 to 1945. Driven to adopt a baby in an age where babies were plentiful, the couple and the wife’s brother will find themselves caught up in the tense final months of World War II.

I hope to finish the first draft of AJ5, as I call it now, by Christmas. I intend to publish a Kindle edition of the book by April or May.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: Edge of Eternity

I am not a fast reader. I almost never finish a book before it’s due at the library and usually max out my renewals before bringing it back. Even so, I normally finish a work before the seasons change.

That was not the case with Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity, part of his Century trilogy. I started listening to the audiobook on May 17, when green leaves began to appear on trees, and finally finished the novel on Wednesday, when those same leaves started to yellow.

One reason was that I simply had other things to do — like write and edit Class of ’59. Another was that Follett’s latest work was long — as in 1,136 print pages or nearly 37 audio HOURS long.

But the biggest reason I didn’t rush to finish the book is that I didn’t find it as compelling as Follett’s previous works. I have read nineteen of the Welsh author's novels and loved most. I consider The Pillars of the Earth my all-time favorite book.

Edge of Eternity, unfortunately, did not measure up. Unlike with Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, the series’ first two novels, Follett tried to take on too much. That can happen when you try to follow seven families and dozens of others, including real historical figures, through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the fall of Communism.

But Follett compounded his challenge by turning his characters into cliches and giving his work a partisan edge it didn’t need. For much of the book, it seemed the author was more interested in sending a message to his readers than in connecting with them.

I hope Follett returns to writing shorter, more focused novels, like Eye of the Needle, Jackdaws, Hornet Flight, and Night Over Water. I know I will be ready to read them when he does. Rating: 2/5.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Review: Timeless

Like a lot of people, I love time travel. I’ve written nine time-travel novels and read or watched everything from A Sound of Thunder, Timeline, and The Time Machine to Outlander, Somewhere in Time, and The Time Traveler’s Wife. In short, I can’t get enough of it.

So when I heard that NBC was rolling out a new time-travel series called Timeless, I knew I had to check it out. As it turned out, the series, or at least its first episode, lived up to its considerable hype.

Goran Visnjic stars as a sophisticated criminal who steals a time machine in order to change the course of American history and destroy the country. In last night’s series pilot, he goes back to May 6, 1937, in an attempt to prevent the Hindenburg disaster.

Kept in the dark until Visnjic takes the time machine from the private company that developed it, the Department of Homeland Security quickly assembles and deploys a team to retrieve the criminal and the device. The team includes a history professor (Abigail Spencer), a soldier (Matt Lanter), and a scientist (Malcolm Barrett).

Almost from the beginning, the best-laid plans go astray for both the hunters and their prey. People live who were not supposed to live, timelines are changed, and little is resolved. The butterfly effect and the grandfather paradox are trotted out like show ponies.

There were a few things I didn’t like about the pilot. Timeless relied heavily on trendy sayings and cliches and its pursuers more often resembled cookie-cutter action heroes than normal human beings, but the story itself was superb and the visuals arresting.

I have been looking for a quality television show to watch since Downton Abbey faded into the English countryside last season. Thanks to NBC, I think I’ve found it. Rating: 5/5.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Review: Brooklyn

I don’t watch a lot of movies these days. One reason is that I don’t take the time to watch them. Another is that I don’t find current offerings all that compelling.

Every now and then, however, I see a film that makes me think I should give more motion pictures a chance. Brooklyn, a romantic drama directed by John Crowley, is one such movie.

Set in Enniscorthy, Ireland, and New York City, Brooklyn is the tale of Eilis Lacey, a humble young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States in 1951. She finds employment in a department store and love with Italian-American plumber Anthony "Tony" Fiorello.

Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen are magnificent as Lacey and Fiorello, respectively, but both take a back seat to the story itself. In Brooklyn, one gets a sense of what thousands of Irish and Italian immigrants experienced in the early postwar years.

Though Lacey makes a fairly smooth transition to American life, she feels the constant pull of Ireland in the form of a controlling mother, an ill sister, and a would-be suitor. From the moment she arrives in the U.S., she struggles to reconcile her two worlds.

Based on Colm Tóibín's novel, Brooklyn wowed audiences at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and earned three Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress. I strongly recommend it to any fan of historical fiction. Rating: 5/5.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Finding fun in the Fifties

In every series there is usually one novel the author looks forward to writing the most. For some, it’s the first book, the one that sets the tone. For others, it’s the last book, the one that brings a story to a conclusion. For me, it’s the book that brings the most enjoyment.

And this one, folks, was just plain fun.

Say hello to Class of ’59. The fourth novel in the American Journey series and my ninth overall, it is a book that breaks new ground, answers old questions, and takes readers on a T-Bird ride through the era of Happy Days, Pleasantville, and American Graffiti.

Like in September Sky, Mercer Street, and Indiana Belle, people from the present access a portal to the past in a Victorian mansion in Los Angeles. Unlike in the first three books, they do so without the knowledge and assistance of Professor Geoffrey Bell.

On March 21, 1959, Mark Ryan, 22, is a focused college senior, an engineering major with an eye on building rockets and missiles. Then he explores an old desk in his family’s new home and finds a letter and two crystals that give him the means to travel through time.

On June 2, 2017, Mary Beth McIntire, 22, is an Alabama woman headed to medical school. Her life seems set when she takes a trip to California with her family. Then she sees a man in 1950s attire outside her vacation house and her world turns upside down.

Mark and Mary Beth share their startling discoveries with his adventurous brother (Ben) and her sensible sister (Piper). Within hours, four young adults throw caution to the wind and plunge into the age of sock hops, drive-in theaters, hot rods, and jukeboxes.

Class of ’59 is the first of my books set almost entirely in the Golden State. Instead of scattering across the country to places like Texas, New Jersey, and Indiana, my time travelers stay put.

From the streets of Hollywood to the high schools of Pasadena to the beaches of Santa Monica, they see Southern California in its storied prime. They experience the fifties up close and personal.

Filled with history, romance, humor, and suspense, Class of ’59 provides readers with a nostalgic snapshot of an unforgettable era. The novel, available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com and its international sites, goes on sale today.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Giving a nod to my better half

She is usually the first person I consult on writing matters and the contributor I trust the most. She is the person most likely to recognize problems in my books because she has read them all and helped fix them all — more times than I can count.

No one else, I think it is safe to say, knows me better as a writer than my wife, Cheryl Fellows Heldt. Then again, no one else knows me better as a person.

Her support for my “hobby” goes back to the beginning. Long before I even dreamed of writing my first novel, The Mine, in the summer and fall of 2011, Cheryl encouraged and supported my career as a newspaper sportswriter, reporter, and editor.

She went through my manuscripts, attended events I covered, and occasionally provided me with story ideas. She also put her own career ambitions on hold for many years so that I could achieve my goals as a journalist, a librarian, and finally a novelist.

Even now, when she is extraordinarily busy blazing her own trails as an educator, Cheryl sets aside blocks of time to help me with various projects. In the past year alone, she has listened to and offered input on the narration of three audiobooks.

So it’s with much love and respect that I recognize my wife today. On our thirtieth anniversary, I have never appreciated her more.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A finished first draft and more

It took seven weeks, a lot of sweat, and some swearing at the cat (just kidding), but I finally got it done. The first draft of Class of ’59, the fourth book in the American Journey series, is a done deal.

I have forwarded the manuscript to the first of eight beta readers and hope to have a finished product by September 20. A cover for the book is also in the works and should be out within a week.

I am also pleased to report news on four other books.

Midwest Book Review, a highly respected and influential book review site founded in 1976, reviewed Indiana Belle this week. The review can be found online in the MBR’s July newsletter.

Narrator Sonja Field is two-thirds of the way through The Show audiobook. I expect to release that title by September.

Chaz Allen, who narrated the recently released September Sky audiobook, has started an audio production of The Fire. I hope to submit that work to Audible by October or November.

Downloads for Mercer Street, yesterday’s featured book on e-Book-Daily have been brisk. The second novel in the American Journey series is available as a free download through Saturday.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Getting a jump on novel nine

Those who know me well know that I rarely keep my word when I say I will take a long break between books. The temptation to jump into the next novel and start writing early is almost always too great.

Such was the case with the untitled fourth book in the American Journey series. I had hoped to put off the project until July 1, but I started early last week when I finished my initial marketing campaign for book three, Indiana Belle, well ahead of schedule.

In book four, two vacationing Alabama sisters, ages 22 and 18, will travel from 2017 to 1959 Los Angeles, meet similarly aged brothers, and immerse themselves in the age of Sputnik, sock hops, drive-ins, and cars with fins. I hope to complete the first draft by Labor Day and publish the novel -- my ninth overall -- by Thanksgiving.

Progress also continues on two audio book projects. Both The Show, narrated by Sonja Field, and September Sky, read by Chaz Allen, should be available to consumers by early fall.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Review: Friction

There’s a reason Sandra Brown, author of more than 50 New York Times bestsellers, is still going strong 35 years after publishing her first novel. Like a lot of authors, she can write a first-rate thriller. Unlike a lot of authors, she can infuse one with a first-rate romance.

So it was with enthusiasm that I downloaded the audio edition of Friction, Brown’s 2015 novel about Crawford Hunt, a troubled Texas Ranger who saves the life of a gorgeous newbie judge moments before she rules in the custody hearing of Hunt’s daughter.

In the week that follows, Hunt carries out a clandestine and ill-advised romance with the judge (Holly Spencer), battles his vindictive father-in-law for custody of five-year-old Georgia, and aggravates lawmen and outlaws alike as he pursues the people responsible for a deadly shooting in a small-town courthouse.

In Friction, Brown gets it half right. The crime drama is gritty and compelling. Though the identity of the ultimate culprit is never in doubt, the roles and motives of Hunt’s many other detractors are. Brown offers two twists at the end that lend poignancy to Hunt’s story as Georgia’s father and the neglected son of a town drunk.

Hunt is less sympathetic as a Romeo. His relentless pursuit of Judge Spencer is comically crude, a Lone Star version of “Me Tarzan. You Jane. Tarzan want Jane. Now!” Spencer, for her part, seems more like a schoolgirl with a crush than a rising legal star.

Even so, I liked Friction enough to recommend it. Sandra Brown may sometimes prompt readers and listeners to roll their eyes and shake their head, but she rarely leaves them bored. Rating: 3/5.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Two more for the audio files

As a reader for the past couple of years, I have really been a listener. More often than not, I have selected audio books over print and digital books because they are flat out more convenient.

With audio, I can “read” a novel while driving my car or walking the dog or resting my eyes after a long day. I can can consume quality literature at times that work best for me.

Aware that many other readers prefer to do the same, I have sought ways to turn my Kindle novels into audio novels. Thanks to reader Aaron Landon and Podium Publishing, I succeeded in 2014 with the release of The Mine. Thanks to reader Caroline Miller and an unexpected stipend from Amazon's Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), I succeeded again, last fall, with the release of The Journey.

I am pleased to report that two more books will soon join their ranks.

Chaz Allen, the producer of Little Known Facts, a nationally syndicated radio program, is about a quarter of the way into September Sky, my longest novel and the first in the American Journey series. The Oklahoman has narrated fifty-four audio books.

Sonja Field, a classically trained actress from Philadelphia, has just started recording The Show, the third novel in the Northwest Passage series. She has narrated twenty-seven audio books.

I hope to release both novels this summer. When completed, they will be available through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Putting disaster on center stage

One of the things I enjoy most about writing time-travel novels set in twentieth-century America is learning about the people, customs, and events that defined particular eras. This is particularly true with events like natural disasters, events no movie studio could improve.

I found many of these cataclysmic events to be fascinating stories in their own right and did my best to incorporate them into my books. In four of my eight novels, in fact, I have used natural disasters as backdrops, starting points, and/or climactic turning points.



In The Journey, I bring my protagonist in close proximity to the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens. In The Fire, I devote several chapters to the Great Fire of 1910, a relatively little known but widely destructive inferno that charred three million acres of pristine forestland in Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

In both books, the main characters know a disaster is coming but can do little more than spare a precious few from harm. The same is true in September Sky, where a reporter and his college-age son try to minimize the impact of a hurricane they know will strike Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and claim several thousand lives.

I like incorporating natural disasters into my stories because they provide added drama, sharpen distinctions, and bring out the best and worst in people. Timid men and women become heroes in an instant, while some of the cocky and powerful become cowards.

I learned this when researching The Fire, set in Wallace, Idaho. As the flames closed in on the isolated and vulnerable mountain town on August 20, 1910, many men helped women and children escape by loading them onto trains. A few acted less nobly. They pushed others out of the way in an effort to save themselves, much like some men did on the RMS Titanic less than two years later.

I didn’t use a natural disaster to draw out heroes and cowards in Indiana Belle, but I did use one to get the novel off to a roaring start. A few chapters into the book, my protagonist comes face to face with the Tri-State Tornado, a mile-wide tempest that killed nearly seven hundred people in the Midwest on March 18, 1925.

Reading about these disasters made me appreciate modern technology all the more. People who confronted wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes in the early 1900s did not have television, smartphones, the Internet, or Doppler radar to alert them to pending doom. They faced nature’s wrath blindly.

Part of the fun of researching the books that featured the disasters was visiting the disaster sites themselves. I visited Wallace in 2013, Galveston in 2014, and southwest Indiana earlier this year. The first two venues offer several museums, historical sites, and attractions that commemorate their respective calamities.

I visited Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument -- pictured above in 2005 -- several years before writing The Journey. It is an attraction no one with a memory of the May 1980 eruption or its aftermath should miss when visiting Washington state.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A book with a bit of everything

If there is one thing I’ve learned in four years as an indie author, it’s that people like certain things in the books they read. They like appealing characters, drama, humor, history, a quick pace, and a healthy dose of intrigue. They like a satisfying ending.

While it’s easy to incorporate all of these elements into a series, it’s not easy to incorporate them into a single book. Doing so requires planning, patience, and imagination. It means finding a balance.

With Indiana Belle, I think I found that balance. My eighth novel, the third book in the American Journey time-travel series, is one that hits all the right notes.

Like September Sky, Mercer Street, and the novels of the Northwest Passage series, Indiana Belle looks at the past through the eyes of the present. Unlike the other books, it offers a glimpse of the distant future too.

On Valentine's Day 2017, Cameron Coelho, 28, is a quiet loner working on his doctorate in history in Providence, Rhode Island. Then he receives a package from an old woman in Indiana that turns his world upside down.

Armed with revealing letters, diary pages, and a mesmerizing photograph of Candice Bell, a society editor murdered in 1925, Cameron follows a trail that takes him to Geoffrey Bell, the “time-travel professor,” and the age of flappers, jazz, and Prohibition.

Readers who like natural disasters, like those presented in The Journey, The Fire, and September Sky, will get one here. The Tri-State Tornado, one of the most destructive storms in history, gets ample play. So do speakeasies, car races, and religious revivals.

Readers who like murder mysteries, like the one in September Sky, will get that too. They will also get a love story and a snapshot of a rebellious era that is still firmly etched in the American imagination.

In writing Indiana Belle, I pulled the best elements from each of my first seven novels and put them in a story that I hope will entertain, inform, and amuse. The work, available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com and its international sites, goes on sale today.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Touting the tools of the trade

As one who came of age in the early 1980s, I remember what writing was like before Microsoft Word, spell check, and the Internet. I remember manual typewriters, correction ribbons, card catalogs, and clunky, dog-eared monstrosities called dictionaries.

Even as a newspaper editor as in the mid-1990s, I kept a dictionary close. It was the last line of defense against errors that readers -- usually elderly Scrabble-loving women -- liked to circle with red pens and offer as proof of Western civilization’s decline.

Things are much better now. When I write a book, I can count on a number of Internet resources to make an otherwise difficult task easy and even enjoyable. These resources include not only online dictionaries but also search engines, grammar guides, and specialty web sites that don’t get even a fraction of the love they deserve.

My Elite Eight, ranked in no particular order, are as follows:

1. Google Books: Ever wonder whether a phrase has been used by others, is still in vogue, or is even grammatically correct? This is one place to find out. I often use this tool to see how publishers treat words and phrases. The Ngram Viewer is a nice side feature.

2. Library of Congress: Though I wrote about America's library last year, the institution deserves another mention. There is no better place in the world to get an authoritative answer to a question.

3. Thesaurus.com: If you're a writer who strives to avoid repetition, this is a site you cannot do without. In two or three clicks, you can go from a good word to a great word to one that is perfect.

4. Grammar Girl: There are more grammar sites on the Internet than adverbs in Stephen King’s proverbial road to hell, but few are as enjoyable or helpful as this one. Creator Mignon Fogarty provides useful tips and guidance in language anyone can understand.

5. Wikipedia: Some people consider this Internet mainstay an unreliable ending point. I consider it a useful starting point. Most articles are thorough and clearly written and feature extensive bibliographies that can be used to explore a topic in depth.

6. OneLook: Why search just one dictionary when you can search a thousand at the same time? This versatile tool provides quick, clear results. And, unlike many other dictionary sites, it is not cluttered with annoying advertisements or cumbersome graphics.

7. Online Etymology Dictionary: This is an indispensable resource for any writer of historical fiction. Want to know when carpetbagger and scalawag were first used in literature? OED has the answer.

8. Daily Writing Tips: On the rare occasion I stray from Grammar Girl, I head to this site. Operated by a team of credentialed writers and editors, the resource is user-friendly and highly informative. The contributors regularly tackle grammar issues that others do not.

I recommend these sites to those who take writing seriously and want to improve their craft. They are as essential now -- at least to me -- as the typewriter and dictionary were a generation ago.