Thursday, January 7, 2016

One (hundred) is not enough

There are days I think Nora Roberts isn’t real. No one, I am convinced, could write 214 books, including 195 New York Times bestsellers, even over thirty-five years. Any novelist that prolific must surely be a software program or a committee of twenty authors writing with a common purpose and a common voice.

Yet writers like Roberts really do exist. They produce full-length novels at a pace that is both mind-boggling and inspiring.

Stephen King has more than sixty full-length works and 200 short stories to his credit. R.L. Stine has penned hundreds of children's books. For them, National Novel Writing Month is every month.

And that’s just the current crowd. A few writers from the past have set records that may never be broken. Barbara Cartland wrote 723 romance novels, including twenty-three in a single year. She left 160 unfinished manuscripts behind when she died in May 2000.

Charles Hamilton, another Briton, wrote 100 million words, most in short stories for magazines. That's the equivalent of 1,200 books.

Science fiction legend Isaac Asimov published more than five hundred works in half a century. His output covers nine of the ten classes, or primary categories, in the Dewey Decimal system.

Corín Tellado of Spain wrote more than four thousand novellas before her death in 2009. That's thousand with a T.

I don’t plan to write four thousand of anything. I like sleep too much. I do, however, plan to write several more books, including at least three more novels in the American Journey series.

Work on the untitled third book of that series, set in Evansville, Indiana, in 1925, is under way. I hope to have a first draft out by the middle of March and a finished product out by June.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The best in Christmas movies

I like the Christmas season. I like the music, the lights, the festive spirit, and, of course, the holiday itself. No other time of the year quite compares to the stretch between Thanksgiving (some would say Labor Day) and New Year’s Day.

A favorite activity for me growing up was watching an endless steam of specials, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas, which turned 50 today, and Rankin/Bass productions like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Later on, movies became part of my holiday regimen.

Some programs were one and done. I never warmed up to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, for example, or 1983’s A Christmas Story, despite its off-the-charts reviews. Home Alone, Elf, and The Santa Clause have lost their appeal over the years.

Other movies and programs, however, continue to grow on me, including several I consider holiday essentials. Here are ten I would strongly recommend to get into the Christmas spirit.

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). There’s a reason NBC shows this twice in December. Flat out one of the best movies ever made.

2. A Christmas Carol (1951). Dickens’ novel has been adapted many times to film. This version, starring Alastair Sim, is the best.

3. The Polar Express (2004). The animated classic, based on the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, is cinematic eye candy.

4. Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). This animated musical TV special has no peer. Boris Karloff beats Jim Carrey seven days a week.

5. Miracle on 34th Street (1947). A must-see for fans of the late Maureen O’Hara. Natalie Wood’s first major role.

6. The Holiday (2006). Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet exchange homes over the holidays. A movie that will stick with you.

7. Trading Places (1983). My favorite comedy is set against a Christmas backdrop. Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy at their best.

8. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). If there is a bad Muppets movie out there, this is not it. Michael Caine is perfect as Scrooge.

9. Holiday Inn (1942). This is worth seeing for Bing Crosby’s performance of “White Christmas” alone.

10. Holiday in Handcuffs (2007). Melissa Joan Hart stars in this made-for-TV comedy, the one guilty pleasure on my list.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Unbroken

As a reader, I am not easily impressed. I have read more than 500 books and wouldn’t consider more than 30 great works of literature. Every now and then, however, I read — or listen to — a book that makes me shake my head in awe.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, is one such book. Subtitled “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” it is a triumph of storytelling, one I would recommend to anyone who is drawn to celebrations of the human spirit.

The story of Olympic runner and prisoner of war Louis "Louie" Zamperini, Unbroken is a mix of history, drama, and inspiration. Like many, I was vaguely familiar with Zamperini’s story. I had read reviews of the 2014 movie based on the book, but nothing quite prepared me for the book itself. It was, in a word, an experience.

Three things stood out for me.

The first was Hillenbrand’s prose. Lean, direct, and yet sufficiently descriptive, it brought Zamperini’s story to life. Hillenbrand exceeded even her effort with Seabiscuit: An American Legend, another non-fiction work that made its way to the big screen.

I also enjoyed Edward Herrmann’s narration. Herrmann, the late American actor, director, writer, and comedian, brought gravitas and sensitivity to a story that demanded both.

Both author and narrator did justice to a man whose life was just flat out amazing. Zamperini, who died last year at age 97, deserved a book for his athletic career alone. An aimless, troublemaking teen in the 1930s, he made a nearly seamless transition from the streets of Torrance, California, to the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin.

But it is Zamperini, the U.S. Army airman, crash survivor, and POW, who shines in this book. He quickly becomes larger than life as he fights a multitude of battles, both large and small, just to stay alive.

When listening to this book, I was constantly reminded of the saying that “cats have nine lives.” In Unbroken, Louie Zamperini has no fewer than twenty. He is the dictionary definition of “survivor.”

I plan to see the movie, starring Jack O'Connell and directed by Angelina Jolie, at the earliest opportunity. Until then, I will savor one of the best stories I’ve ever consumed. Unbroken should be recommended reading in every American classroom. Rating: 5/5.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering our veterans

If there is one American holiday that never seems to get its due, it is Veterans Day. Lost in the maze between Halloween and Christmas, it is often confused with Memorial Day — if it is remembered at all.

Which is a shame, of course. If anything, we should dedicate a week to those who have served in the armed forces. Even a month would not be too much, at least not in my opinion.

I don't mention Veterans Day or even Armistice Day, as it was known from 1919 until 1954, in any of my seven novels, but I do play up the event that inspired it in one of the books.

In Chapter 35 of The Show, time traveler Grace Vandenberg comforts a friend by telling her that a war raging in Europe will end "on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” She is later witness to an impromptu parade that breaks out in Seattle when the armistice of November 11, 1918, is announced.

Grace's love interest in The Show is a wounded officer who has just returned from the battlefields of France. John Walker, a U.S. Army captain, plays a small but relevant part in a book that is, in some respects, a tribute to those who fought in World War I.

Jack Hicks, a retired admiral, plays a similar role in Mercer Street. He serves his country admirably by advocating peace through strength at a time (1938-1939) when many Americans preferred to ignore or play down growing militarism in Germany and Japan.

In other books, I mention veterans of the Civil War, the American Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, World War II, and the conflict in Vietnam. Those serving in more peaceful times also get their due. Brian Johnson, the nerdy high school senior in The Journey, tests his mettle by joining the Rangers in the 1980s.

I have also used civilian characters to honor vets. In The Mine, Joel Smith, a 22-year-old time traveler in 1941, wonders whether he can measure up to those who have served. He is haunted by memories of grandfathers who fought valiantly in World War II and by knowledge of the fate that awaits his Army-bound best friend.

I don't know whether I will feature veterans in the remaining books of the American Journey series, but I do know I will look for opportunities to do so. I think it's important to draw attention, even through fiction, to those who have done so much for so many.

Happy Veterans Day to the millions of men and women who answered the call. This civilian is grateful for your service.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Halloween treat for the ages

If there was one event that dictated the primary setting of Mercer Street, released last week, it was a radio broadcast that was supposed to be no more than an early Halloween treat.

When Orson Welles took to the airwaves on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening seventy-seven years ago, he intended merely to entertain an audience. Instead, he turned a nation upside down.

On that night, Welles directed and narrated a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds. The realistic performance, broadcast to 12 million listeners on the CBS radio network, sparked a mass hysteria unmatched in American history and catapulted the 23-year-old Welles (pictured below) to international fame.

I played up the event in Mercer Street because I thought it perfectly captured the tenor of the times. Many Americans believed "Martians" had invaded New Jersey, despite numerous disclaimers, because they lived in a world where scary things happened every day.

Hitler had just annexed a chunk of Czechoslovakia and looked at the rest of Europe with hungry eyes. America was militarily weak and still mired in a decade-long depression. Fantastic claims could not be disproved by searching Google or even turning on the news. On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles WAS the news.

As a result, many people took what they heard seriously. Motorists near Grovers Mill, New Jersey -- the extraterrestrial invasion's launching point -- jammed local roads and highways. Others overwhelmed switchboards with frantic calls to police. People in other parts of the United States responded in similar fashion.

The radio performance even created a stir in Concrete, Washington, nearly 2,400 miles west of Ground Zero. Some residents fled into the mountains when a power failure during the broadcast plunged the small community into near total darkness. Chaos reigned.

Researching the episode was a memorable experience. When reading dozens of newspaper, magazine, and online articles describing the event, I was able to immerse myself in a simpler, less cynical, more innocent era. I was able to easily understand how up to one million people had simply lost it, if only for an hour.

Much has been written about the broadcast, its aftermath, and its impact on everything from Welles’ career to the radio industry itself. I encourage those interested in this fascinating chapter in our nation’s history to learn more.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can even listen to the entire War of the Worlds broadcast. It can be found at

(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Driving down a different Street

I admit I resisted writing this book. Even as one who had written six novels set in the twentieth century, I resisted writing about the 1930s. The thirties, I thought, were too drab, too colorless, and far too uneventful for the kind of story I wanted to write.

Then I researched the year leading up to the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 and found that the United States was anything but drab, colorless, and uneventful. It was a deceptively interesting and active place, a cauldron of political, cultural, and social activity in a world that was slowly but surely coming apart.

In Mercer Street, the second novel in the American Journey time-travel series, three strong-willed Chicago women, representing three distinct generations, jump into that cauldron and commence vastly different journeys of discovery.

For one of the ladies, the leap is a tentative first step as a widow. Weeks after her husband dies in the midst of an affair, Susan Peterson, 48, seeks solace and hopes to find it on a Santa Barbara vacation with her mother Elizabeth and daughter Amanda. The romance novelist, however, gets more than she bargained for when she meets a professor who possesses the secret of time travel.

Within days, the women travel to 1938 and Elizabeth's hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. Elizabeth begins a friendship with her refugee parents and infant self, while Susan and Amanda fall for a widowed admiral and a German researcher with troubling ties. Each finds love, adventure, and intrigue in the age of Route 66, Big Band music, mesmerizing radio broadcasts, and frightening headlines.

Like September Sky and the five novels of the Northwest Passage series, Mercer Street presents the twentieth century on a twenty-first-century stage. Like the other titles, it is available as a Kindle book on It goes on sale today.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Back to the Present Part II

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Back to the Future Part II. Maybe twenty years, in fact. But today, the movie is fresh in my mind, if not front and center on my television screen. Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled to October 21, 2015, in the popular 1989 flick.

Many news sources are commemorating the day with feature stories. Some of the best are from CNN, CBS, The Telegraph, and Vanity Fair. Most focus on the accuracy of the movie’s depiction of life in 2015. Several predictions, it turns out, were spot on.

I’m still holding out on Part II's most famous claim. The Chicago Cubs, down three games to the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, have some work to do if they hope to meet the film’s lofty expectations. They must win four straight to reach the World Series for the first time since 1945.

I plan to publish Mercer Street, a book that mentions the Cubs, once Chicago’s playoff fate is known. Look for a weekend release.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Making The Journey to audio

Of the six time-travel novels I have published in three and a half years, The Journey is perhaps the least like the rest. It is easily my shortest work at 244 pages, by far the most contemporary, and arguably the most serious and poignant. It is the only one of my books set in a fictional town and the only one inspired by personal experience. It also offers the fewest points of view at two.

Published as a Kindle book in November 2012, it is the story of a 48-year-old Seattle widow who finds a second lease on life in 1979 Oregon, the time and place of her senior year in high school. Only Mercer Street, scheduled for publication later this month, features a similar theme. No other novel has a comparable ending.

The Journey was also the last of the five Northwest Passage books to receive a cosmetic makeover. Illustrator Laura Wright LaRoche produced a new cover, based heavily on the original, just last month.

Today, the book, the second in the series, gains yet another distinction. Thanks to Caroline Miller, a veteran voiceover artist from Missouri, The Journey is now available in audio.

Miller, the narrator of more than 90 titles, recorded the novel more than three weeks ahead of schedule, making an October release possible. I found Miller through the Audiobook Creation Exchange, an program designed to match authors with audio professionals. This was my first experience with ACX.

The Journey is available through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. It joins The Mine, released by Podium Publishing in 2014, among the Northwest Passage books that have been converted to audio.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: Radiant Angel

I never tire of reading Nelson DeMille. There is no one in the business who combines suspense and humor as well as the New York novelist, who has been entertaining readers since the 1970s.

DeMille’s latest offering, Radiant Angel, picks up where The Panther, his 2012 thriller, left off. Retired NYPD detective John Corey has taken a new job with the Diplomatic Surveillance Group, where he is charged with watching Russians working at the U.N.

Corey considers his job ho-hum until he stumbles upon a senior Russian intelligence officer posing as a diplomat. When Colonel Vasily Petrov disappears from a Russian oligarch’s party on Long Island, Corey takes it upon himself to find Petrov and determine whether he is part of a possible attack on the homeland.

This is the seventh novel of the John Corey Series and arguably the best. Just when you think DeMille has run out of compelling assignments for his crusty, sarcastic, rule-breaking protagonist, he finds another. I would recommend the author and the series to those who like thrillers with a humorous edge. Rating: 4/5.

Friday, September 4, 2015

When life influences art

As a sports fan, I generally root for the underdog. If my favorite team is not playing in a game or in the hunt for a playoff spot, I side with a lowly team that is.

Earlier this week, I was set to root for the Chicago Cubs. With my Seattle Mariners going nowhere in the American League West, I was ready to adopt a usually hapless team that is suddenly a favorite to make the National League playoffs.

I saw no downside to siding with baseball’s lovable losers.

Then I remembered I was in the final stages of writing a time-travel novel where three Chicago women from 2016 go back to 1938 and do something that no baseball fan has (presumably) done since 1945: watch the Cubs play in the World Series.

Should the Cubs reach the World Series next month, Mercer Street, a novel slated for publication next month, will have to undergo emergency surgery. I will have to acknowledge 2015.

I should have known I was in trouble when I read a news article in March that refreshed my memory of a favorite movie. In Back to the Future Part II, a hologram informs time-traveling Marty McFly in 2015 that the Cubs have won the World Series.

The lessons are clear: Don't ignore Michael J. Fox movies, don't put eggs in one basket, and don't assume anything. Nothing in sports is a stone-cold lock. Not even the Chicago Cubs missing the World Series for the seventieth-consecutive year.

Fortunately for me, the part of Mercer Street that deals with the Cubs is minor. Whether Chicago goes on a roll and reaches the Series or fades in the playoffs, I will be ready to give the story an appropriate spin. Thank God for alternate histories.

One way or the other, Mercer Street, the second novel in the American Journey series, will be out in October. Until then, I am more than content to root for the boys in blue. Go Cubs!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Heading down new roads

One of the first things I learned as a self-published author three years ago was that I was more than an author. I was a businessman who had to package and promote his books as effectively as any Big 6 publisher to succeed in a competitive industry.

I also had to seek new markets. Through, I’ve been able to sell e-books in places I’ve never visited, such Britain, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Through Podium Publishing and Audible, I've been able to offer an audiobook of The Mine.

Last week I started down yet another road by signing a contract with Natasha Soudek to create an audiobook of The Journey. Soudek, a Los Angeles-based actor, narrator, and songwriter, has already begun work on the project, which should be completed by early October.

Through the Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX), an Amazon platform, I hope to convert each of my six — soon to be seven — novels to audio. With the exception of The Mine, all are available only as Kindle e-books on Amazon.

Readers and listeners can also expect to see three new covers. Laura Wright LaRoche, who created or modified the covers of The Show, The Fire, and September Sky, is currently updating the cover of The Journey and creating a new one for Mercer Street.

LaRoche recently finished an elegant new cover for The Mirror (above), the fifth book in the Northwest Passage series. A cover reveal for Mercer Street, the second book in the new American Journey series, is scheduled for the middle of September.

I plan to release the novel itself on October 30.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Review: The Finest Hours

As I noted in a review of Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn more than two years ago, I don’t read many non-fiction books. And, when I do, I tend to gravitate toward stories about disasters.

My latest venture into non-fiction was no exception. Last month I finished the audiobook of The Finest Hours. Written by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman and narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner, it is the riveting account of the “U.S. Coast Guard’s most daring sea rescue” -- a historic event that I had never heard about.

The book is much more than a tale about the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer, two oil tankers that split in half in heavy seas off Massachusetts in February 1952. It is a tribute to an often overlooked and unappreciated branch of the U.S. military.

Tougias and Sherman tell the story from the perspective of the participants and, in doing so, give the reader a feel for what it was like to be there. The book is much like Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, which chronicled the last voyage of the doomed fishing boat Andrea Gail.

Like Junger’s work, Tougias and Sherman’s book will be adapted to the big screen. Walt Disney Pictures will release a film account of The Finest Hours in January.

I recommend the book for anyone who likes stories about the sea and about the unsung heroes of the Coast Guard who take risks that many of us could not even imagine. Rating: 4/5.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Finding a place in Princeton

When you write historical fiction, you are immediately confronted with at least two challenges. The first is to describe a time. The second is to capture a place.

Writing about a time long before your own requires research. Writing about a place a thousand miles from home requires a visit. At least it does in my book. Literally.

Though research can accomplish a lot, it is no substitute for an on-site inspection. I rediscovered that basic truth this week when I visited Princeton, New Jersey, the setting for Mercer Street, the second novel of the American Journey series.

I’m no stranger to college towns, particularly in the West. I’ve spent quality time in places like Eugene, Iowa City, Corvallis, Lafayette, Pullman, and Missoula. But nothing quite beats visiting a community with an Ivy League college.

For one thing, everything is old. Very old. Princeton, founded in 1683, is no exception. Whether on campus or off, it is not difficult to find a building that is at least two hundred years old. One, Nassau Hall, built in 1756, once housed the entire United States government.

Other buildings are younger but, for me, far more relevant. I went to Princeton to see what it might have looked like in 1938 and 1939, the setting of the book. And though much has obviously changed in eight decades, much has stayed the same.

I know this from comparing what I saw in books and online with what I saw in person. Georgian and Greek Revival houses still dominate plush residential neighborhoods. Albert Einstein’s last home, on Mercer Street, looks much as it did in the 1930s.

As I did on earlier visits to Wallace, Idaho, and Galveston, Texas, the primary settings for The Fire and September Sky, I took notes, snapped photos, visited the local library, and tried to get a sense of place.

I think I succeeded -- or at least succeeded enough to proceed with the book. In Mercer Street, three women, representing three generations of the same family, travel from 2016 to 1938, where they find love, intrigue, and danger on the eve of World War II.

The novel is now in the draft stage and making its way through the first of many revisions. I still plan to publish by Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Giving animals their due

I admit I’m not very good at keeping track of these things. Had I not seen an obscure Internet reference yesterday, I would have never known that I had missed National Frog Month (April) and International Hug Your Cat Day (June 4) but could still participate in National Deaf Dog Awareness Week (September 20-26). My hard-of-hearing dog, Mocha (photo), has already circled the dates.

Groups create these observances because they love animals. So do many authors, including some who have turned stories about animals into celebrated works. These range from classics like Charlotte’s Web, The Call of the Wild, and Black Beauty to contemporary novels like The Art of Racing in the Rain.

As an author of six novels, I haven't done much with four-legged friends. Max, a 2-year-old Abyssinian cat, follows Joel Smith out of a door in The Mine. In The Show, Grace Vandenberg gives a belly rub to a golden retriever named Killer. Kevin Johnson and Sadie Hawkins ride Spirit, a gentle Appaloosa, in Chapter 44 of The Fire.

Most other animals in my books are unnamed or unappreciated. When Justin Townsend spots a West Texas pronghorn from the window of a passenger train in September Sky, he admires it for a moment and then moves on to other things.

I plan to do better in the future. In the second book of the American Journey series, due this fall, a pork-chop-loving German shepherd named Fritz will play the part of a temperamental gatekeeper.

I recently finished the rough draft of that novel and sent it to my editor for a first read. That freed me up to do other things this month, such as properly recognize some toothy and misunderstood creatures. Shark Awareness Day is July 14.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Book Seven: A midterm report

Of all the rules Stephen King has laid down for writers, none gets my attention like this one:

"You have three months."

That’s not three months to create an outline or write a prologue but rather three months to complete an entire first draft. Whether the book is 30,000 words or 300,000 makes no difference.

Three months.

Last week, I began month three in my quest to write book seven. I am now more than 72,000 words and fifty chapters into a novel that I hope will be my best.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned a lot about 1938, 1939, and Princeton, New Jersey, the setting of the novel, and even more about a central truth of fiction.

You don’t control the story or the characters. They control you.

When I outlined the second novel of the American Journey series in March, I had a time-travel romance in mind. What has emerged is a more sophisticated work, a book that takes a few risks and views two critical years from a fresh perspective.

I probably won't beat King’s ninety-day deadline. There are lawns to mow, fish to catch, vacations to take, and a summer to enjoy. But I probably will come close.

I hope to have that all-important first draft out by the third week of July. I expect to publish by Thanksgiving.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Breaking through the 'block'

Oxford defines writer’s block as "the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing."

It is a malady that torments many writers, challenges most, and prompts others to deny its very existence. It also inspires some to provide creative remedies.

I investigated some of these remedies today after reaching a point in the second American Journey book that demanded at least a pause. The pop-culture site Flavorwire compiled advice from more than a dozen famous writers.

Most of the writers advised doing something specific, such as taking a walk or making a pie (Hilary Mantel) or writing "the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat" for two weeks (Maya Angelou).

Mark Twain suggested breaking "complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one."

I have found one of Mantel’s approaches useful. When I reach a dead-end point in the writing process, I take a walk — a long walk in a natural setting, away from noise and electronic distractions.

Like Twain, I also break the complex into the manageable. I will often set up a scene on Tuesday, describe it on Wednesday, and revise it the next week. When tackling complex parts of a novel, I’ve discovered that two (or three) chapters are better than one.

I am currently seventeen chapters into my latest work, a tale about a grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter who venture back to New Jersey on the eve of World War II. I am making good progress and expect to complete a first draft by the end of August.

With or without writer’s block.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: Second Honeymoon

There was a time when I went through James Patterson novels like some people go through newspapers. In a stretch of five years, I read thirty-four Patterson books. This past week, I read — or rather listened to — Number 35. Like those that preceded it, Second Honeymoon was worth the time and effort.

In the 2013 thriller, co-written by Howard Roughan, FBI agents John O’Hara and Sarah Brubaker hunt two serial killers, including one who targets honeymooners. As with many Patterson novels, this one features romance, intrigue, and enough twists to make even a detail-oriented reader like me pay close attention.

Listening to the downloadable audiobook was an experience in itself. Music, sound effects, and the alternating voices of readers Jay Snyder and Ellen Archer gave the work a “radio mystery” feel.

I thought Snyder and Archer did a fair job and found their presentation preferable to the standard single-reader approach. Few readers, in my opinion, have the range to convincingly represent characters of both genders.

As for the novel itself, I liked it. I didn't care for the numerous cliches, product name-dropping, and occasionally silly dialogue, but I did like the story. Patterson is still the king of suspense. If nothing else, he gave me a reason to read Book 36. Rating: 3/5.

Monday, March 2, 2015

My go-to place for info

I have sought its assistance when writing every book.

When preparing The Mine and The Mirror, I asked it for information on the peacetime military draft in 1941 and 1964.

When researching The Fire, I inquired about the price of pearls in 1907, public reaction to Halley's comet in 1910, the workings of the National Forest Service, and the incubation period for polio.

When planning September Sky, I requested turn-of-the-last-century fire insurance maps of Galveston, write-ups on Pullman porters, and a primer on U.S. copyright law.

The Library of Congress delivered every time.

It delivered again last week. Mere days after I requested news articles on the cherry blossom festival in Washington, D.C, in 1939, the LOC sent two Washington Post stories directly to my in-box.

I expect that these articles and others will prove useful when I write the second novel in the American Journey series later this year.

I point all this out not only to praise the LOC — a national treasure if there was one — but also to draw attention to libraries in general.

In today’s digital world, where information can be obtained and shared with lightning speed, many believe that libraries are not necessary. They believe they are obsolete and needlessly expensive. As a result, many of these institutions for forced to scrap for funds and continually justify their existence.

As a former reference librarian who knows the difference between the first answer from a search engine and the best answer from a book, I hope this kind of thinking passes. A strong society depends on information that is not only timely but also accurate, relevant, and accessible. It needs information that is free.

As an author of historical fiction, I can’t count on life experience to fill every void or answer every question in a novel. I must depend on others to provide facts, materials, and guidance.

Libraries, including that treasure in the nation’s capital, continue to do just that. For that reason alone, I will always have their back.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Winter of the World

To say that Ken Follett is one of my favorite authors is a serious understatement. I have read eighteen of his novels, including four of his massive historical tomes, and loved them all.

I still consider The Pillars of the Earth, Follett’s epic about twelfth-century England, to be the best book I have ever read. So I didn’t need much incentive to return to his works when I finally had the chance to do so.

This time the treat of choice was Winter of the World, the second book of the Century Trilogy. The series includes Fall of Giants, which I read following its release in 2010, and Edge of Eternity, which I will devour at the earliest opportunity.

Winter follows the lives of five interrelated families — English, Welsh, Russian, German, and American — from the rise of the Third Reich in 1933 through the beginnings of the Cold War in 1949. Though there are far too many characters to name in a single review, there were not too many to leave an impression.

Follett tells the story of the time from several perspectives: young and old, male and female, rich and poor, civilian and military, and good and evil. He gives readers a front-row seat of the Spanish Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Midway, D-Day, the development of atomic weapons, and the political drama in Britain, Germany, and the U.S. Few stones from the era are left unturned.

Though I gravitated toward the riveting descriptions of major historical events, I also loved the many personal narratives. I became quickly invested in Lloyd Williams, the principled and daring English soldier; Daisy Peshkov, the plucky American socialite; and Carla von Ulrich, the young German nurse who gave new meaning to courage and sacrifice.

In Winter of the World, Follett doesn’t make readers choose between big-picture history and small. He gives us both — and a whole lot more. I look forward to completing the trilogy and returning to the author's earlier works. It’s time to catch up. Rating: 5/5.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A plotter, not a pantser

E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I must say that, for the most part, I can’t relate. When it comes to producing novels, I'm a "plotter" and not a "pantser." A pantser is someone who writes by the seat of his (or her) pants -- a person who can reach a destination without looking too far ahead.

Writing for me is not a spontaneous process that begins by opening a blank page on my laptop. It is a process that is so clear and ordered, it’s like driving all day in sunshine on a flat, straight, traffic-free highway with my GPS navigator activated.

My outline takes the form of detailed chapter summaries that can run from twenty words to two hundred. If there’s something I want to mention in Chapter 26, I’ll leave myself a reminder. Often I will add entire quotes or passages to a summary.

By the time I’m ready to start Chapter 1, I know not only which roads I will take to get to my destination but also which ones I’ll avoid. Virtually every twist, turn, and potential obstacle will be identified well in advance.

I say virtually because, like most authors, I like to leave some room to depart from the script and do something entirely different.

When I wrote The Mine, my first novel, I added a Japanese-American character about a third of the way in. The character, a college senior named Katie, became one of the most instrumental figures in the book. In three other novels, I added two lengthy chapters after the first draft was “finished.”

I’ve found that this approach works well. By outlining a novel in advance, I reduce the chances of writing myself into a corner. By leaving myself wiggle room, I leave open the possibility of heading down a better road.

In the twentieth of his twenty-two lessons on writing, Stephen King advises writers to take a break from their finished draft. He suggests six weeks, in fact, so that they can return to their manuscript with fresh eyes and see the proverbial forest among the trees.

I think this is sound advice. Good writing is a process that requires not only discipline and perseverance but also patience and perspective. What may seem a great idea in the planning stages may seem downright dumb in the end.

As I jump into the second novel of my second series, I plan to drive during the day with a map handy. But I’m going to keep an eye on the signs. Last-minute detours can do more than make a trip more interesting. They can make it better.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: The English Girl

A few years ago, before I began writing novels of my own, I used to jump on every thriller that hit the bestsellers list. Vince Flynn became a fast favorite, as did James Patterson, Joel Rosenberg, Lincoln Child, and Tess Gerritsen. But only Flynn captured my attention like Daniel Silva.

This month I returned to Silva by reading The English Girl and found it every bit as riveting as The Messenger, Moscow Rules, and The Rembrandt Affair. Centered around Israeli intelligence officer Gabriel Allon, the novel, Silva’s sixteenth, is perhaps his best.

When the English girl in question, the mistress of the prime minister, goes missing in Corsica, Allon is called in by his British counterpart to assist with her return. Before long, he finds himself racing around France and Britain to beat a seven-day deadline imposed by the victim’s abductors.

As in his earlier books, Silva weaves a tale that is both intricate and straightforward. Old friends and adversaries meet in familiar places to resolve a mystery that kept me on edge almost to the very end.

Silva also takes an extra step in humanizing his sometimes colorless and mechanical protagonist. We see Allon not only as a master spy but also as a friend and a family man.

Though sometimes drawn-out, particularly in the middle, the book held my interest throughout. I am glad to see that Silva has not lost his touch and look forward to reading his latest work. Rating: 4/5.