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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Three Things on HEA

Of all the bloggers I've worked with in the past three years, few have been more helpful than Joyce Lamb. The curator of USA TODAY’s Happy Ever After blog published a review by Kathy Altman just weeks after The Mine’s release in February 2012, a guest post of mine in 2013, and four promotional blurbs about The Fire and The Mirror in late 2013 and early 2014.

For September Sky, Lamb, an award-winning author of romantic suspense novels, invited me to participate in the blog’s "Three Things" feature. My answers to three questions about what inspired my latest release, the first book in the American Journey series, can be found here in USA TODAY’s online edition. Authors Cathleen Armstrong and Rhenna Morgan are also featured.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A news series for a new year

Author Sally Koslow once compared writing a book to "giving birth to an elephant."

Even as a father who has seen the inside of a delivery room, I can’t fully relate. There is only so much understanding ANY male can gain from the process of childbirth. (Let me repeat that three times.)

As the author of six full-length novels, however, I can at least appreciate Koslow’s sentiment. And as the author of a 125,000-word historical epic, I can say I get the "elephant" thing too.

Writing can be . . . well . . . laborious. But in this case, the labor was worth it.

Say hello to September Sky. Nine months in the making, it is my newest, largest, and most spirited baby, a multi-genre work that launches the American Journey series.

Like the novels of the Northwest Passage series, September Sky follows a contemporary time traveler to the world of a twentieth-century relative. Like the other books, it features history, romance, humor, adventure, and multiple points of view.

Unlike the other books, it does not feature a protagonist named Smith, Vandenberg, Preston, or Johnson. It does not take place in the Pacific Northwest.

September Sky is a literary child that remembers its roots but heads in new directions.

It is the story of a remorseful, unemployed San Francisco reporter who tries to rebuild a relationship with his estranged, college-dropout son by taking him on a cruise to Mexico.

Once on board, however, Chuck and Justin Townsend do more than mend fences. They meet a lecturer who has discovered the secret of time travel. Within days, the Townsends find themselves on a 1900 train to Texas, intent on saving a distant relative from being hanged for a crime he did not commit.

Set against the backdrop of one of the deadliest hurricanes in history, September Sky is the first of a planned five-book series. I hope readers will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

The novel is available as an ebook on Amazon.com.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A timeless Christmas story

This time of year there is no shortage of stories about the magic of Christmas. No matter where you look — in the news or in everyday life — there are accounts of people doing good deeds for others, setting aside differences, and otherwise getting into the spirit of the season.

Some of these stories are current, while others are as old as the holiday itself. Many leave lasting impressions. One of my favorites is the Christmas Truce of 1914.

One hundred years ago today, the first of thousands of British and German troops in Ypres, Belgium, left the safety of their trenches to celebrate both Christmas and their common humanity.

For two days, the World War I belligerents defied orders from their superiors by singing carols, exchanging gifts, holding joint religious services, and — according to legend — playing soccer.

Though the tale has been told many times in song, on film, in literature, and, most recently, in a slick advertisement by a British supermarket chain, it never seems to grow old. Then again, few stories better represent the "peace on earth, goodwill toward men" sentiment that is at the heart of the season.

Here’s to the spirit that led even bitter enemies to become friends. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Beta readers and covers

The errors are usually minor: an anachronistic figure of speech, an unnecessary adjective, a missing preposition, or an incorrect date. On occasion, the mistake is (gasp!) an adverb — the asphalt of Stephen King's oft-cited road to hell.

Whatever the boo boo, I usually want to know about it. Which is why each time I finish the manuscript of a novel, I enlist the help of several volunteers to tear it apart. Each finds things others miss. All contribute something to the finished product.

For September Sky, the first novel of the American Journey series, I sought the help of ten beta readers. The group includes friends, relatives, former coworkers, subject specialists, and people who simply love the written word.

Thanks to the efforts of about half of these insightful individuals, solid early drafts have become even better later drafts. The others will take their turns between now and mid-December, when editor Aaron Yost applies the final touches. Aaron, a former newspaper colleague, has edited each of my previous novels.

September Sky also has a new cover. Laura Wright LaRoche, who produced the eye-catching cover of The Mirror, came up with a cover that I think captures the beauty and innocence of Galveston, Texas, the day before it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1900.

My sixth novel is tentatively scheduled for an early January launch.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Selling books in a global village

Of all the things I appreciate about being an author in the digital age, nothing beats being able to reach a global audience. I have never been to Europe, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, or South Africa, but because of Amazon.com, I’ve been able to sell books in all of those places.

There is something liberating about that. In the past, authors without the backing of a major publisher were rarely able to distribute their works beyond their local market. The costs of shipping a physical book even to other parts of the country were prohibitive.

The Internet has changed that. Like thousands of other authors, I can now send an entire novel — in digital format — to someone on the other side of the planet in seconds. The cost to me — and to the online retailer — is measured in pennies.

Challenges remain, of course. It’s one thing to be able to deliver books instantly. It’s another to actually sell them overseas — even in markets where English is the dominant language.

When you write about Americans doing American-like things in the United States, you expect to sell at least a few books to people who know and perhaps appreciate the nation’s customs, culture, and history. You don’t expect to sell books to people from much different backgrounds. At least I didn’t.

One reason I’ve had at least marginal success in other countries is because of bloggers like Heena Rathore Pardeshi of India, who reviewed The Mine this week. By focusing on things their readers have in common with my characters, they’ve opened doors and reminded me that the world is, indeed, a pretty small place.

For that, I will always be grateful.

Technology has made it possible not only to publish but publish everywhere. If you've ever wanted to write a book, there has never been a better time to do so.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

On-site inspection

To be sure, Galveston, Texas, is not the place it was 114 years ago. Like every other mid-sized city in America, it has modern buildings, streets, and services. Like other tourist destinations, it has plenty of twenty-first-century glitz.

When I visited Galveston this week, however, I didn’t find it difficult to imagine what the city was like on September 8, 1900, when it was virtually destroyed by one of the worst hurricanes in history. Signs of the city’s past were as visible as those of its present.

Scores of well-preserved Victorian homes can be found in most of the seven districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. So can public buildings that date to the 1800s, businesses that have operated for decades, and the ruins of a house once occupied by pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte.

I visited the city, the setting for my upcoming novel, September Sky, because I wanted to experience the place I was writing about. And I’m glad I did.

It’s one thing to read about stifling heat and humidity. It’s another to feel it. Just as it’s another to stand in the shadow of the Texas Heroes Monument, walk down The Strand, wade in the churning Gulf of Mexico, and hear the horns of seagoing vessels in Galveston Bay.

I specifically visited some sites — such as the City Cemetery and the Garten Verein, an octagonal dancing pavilion built in 1880 — because I knew they had changed little in the past century and because they were settings for important chapters in the novel.

I visited others — like the Rosenberg Library, the Tremont House, and Old Red, the University of Texas’ first medical school — because I wanted to see if they were as impressive in person as they were in literature. (They are.)

Throughout my two days in the island community, I took notes, snapped photos, talked to people who know the town, and made the kinds of observations one can only make when they see a place up close. I intend to use this information to make what I think is already a good book even better.

September Sky, the first novel of the new American Journey series, is tentatively scheduled for a December launch.

Top photo: Garten Verein. Bottom: Old Red (Ashbel Smith Building).

Monday, September 8, 2014

Dealing in disaster

There is nothing like a disaster as a backdrop for a book or a film. Disasters are, by definition, dramatic. They bring out the heroes, cowards, lovers, and fighters in delightfully equal numbers. They make the ordinary extraordinary and bring a story into focus.

Take the movie Titanic. Without the iceberg and the sinking ship, it is Downton Abbey. With them, it is Downton Abbey on steroids. Every act in the story becomes significant because of the high stakes and the price of failure. In the 1970s, one man, Irwin Allen, became a household name making movies about things that sank, burned, or crashed. He knew what creators have known for centuries: disasters grab our attention and hold it.

For this reason, I used disasters as backdrops for two Northwest Passage books. The Journey ends with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, The Fire with the Big Burn of 1910. In two other novels, characters are motivated by the specter of disasters to come.

In September Sky, the first novel of the new American Journey series, my time travelers, a San Francisco reporter and his college-age son, confront a hurricane in Galveston, Texas. The storm, which struck 114 years ago today, killed 6,000 people and nearly wiped a modern city off the map. (See photo.)

Like the Northwest Passage books, September Sky will focus on characters with knowledge of a coming disaster and the choices they make in the face of that disaster. Like the other novels, it will feature history, romance, humor, and multiple points of view.

I hope to have it out by Christmas.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The road to Dixie

I admit the cat’s meows took some of the bloom off the rose. So did the endless construction, the commuter traffic in several cities, and drivers who permanently occupied the passing lane.

On the whole, however, I couldn’t complain. My 3,500-mile, roundabout trip across the United States last month was everything I had hoped it would be and then some.

You see a lot when you see America by car. You learn a lot too. You learn even more when you travel with a talkative daughter, a stubborn dog, and a high-maintenance feline in a Nissan Frontier pickup filled to the gills with stuff. I know I did.

I learned, for example, that I like Old Crow Medicine Show. I love it, in fact. I didn’t know it when my daughter Heidi, 22, started playing bluegrass and folk at the beginning of the trip, but I do now.

I also found I like Wyoming’s 80-mph speed limit, Tennessee’s gas prices, sunsets in central Missouri, and the pet policies at Motel 6, where they not only leave the light on for you but also let your dog and cat stay in your room for free.

There is more to travel, of course, than getting from Point A to Point B quickly and cheaply. There are the things you do along the way, the things that become memories and fodder for photographs.

I did a lot of those, too, from dipping my toes in the Pacific near Ocean Shores, Washington; to riding the bike trails in Wallace, Idaho; to taking a picture with Superman in Metropolis, Illinois. Heidi and I even posed with an ear of corn. When you are stuck in Mitchell, South Dakota, you do those things.

The only things I truly didn’t like — besides Nashville’s traffic and the cat's occasional protests — were the bugs that embraced my windshield. In South Dakota, bugs are big — bigger even than the billboards touting Wall Drug — and more numerous than the Harley riders headed to Sturgis.

What I’ll remember most, however, are the personal notes. On my latest and longest road trip across the U.S., I had the chance to visit with Montana friends one last time, reconnect with a daughter redefining her life, and think a lot about my future as a newly unemployed writer of fiction.

That future began Friday, the day before my 28th wedding anniversary, when I reached Alabama and reunited with my wife after ten weeks apart. She was eager to show me the unfinished house that will soon be our home and the fourth-grade classroom that will soon be her workplace.

I gave them both a look but saved the rest of my new community for another day. After seeing eleven states in eleven days, I decided to keep the driving to a minimum.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Saying goodbye to a city

I admit that my first impression of Helena, Montana, was not a good one. I was approaching the city on Interstate 15, bound for a job interview, when snowflakes the size of silver dollars began peppering the windshield of my Nissan Sentra.

Coming from Boise, Idaho, I knew all about January weather. Trouble was, it wasn't January. It was May. May 2000. While most of the country was preparing for a long, hot summer, Montana's capital was just emerging from winter. I almost turned around.

I still don't like winter in spring and summer. There's something very wrong about watching a baseball game in a heavy coat and scraping ice from the inside of a window on Labor Day. But even the long winters couldn't dampen my enthusiasm for a town I quickly embraced.

When I brought my family to Helena, I didn't plan to stay for more than two years. I preferred the warmer and more populous parts of the Pacific Northwest and wanted to return to those parts as soon as I could.

What I didn't count on was falling in love with things like confectioneries, quirky architecture, walking malls, and nature trails. I didn't think outdoor concerts, ski areas, theater schools, and trout streams could influence career decisions either, but they did. I stayed in Helena because it was a great place to live.

It was also a great place to write about. So when I considered settings for The Mine, I naturally included a city I knew well. I decided to introduce the novel's protagonist, a Seattle man, in my hometown -- not his. I wanted Joel Smith to explore Helena's historic downtown, hear a few "hons" and "howdies," and drive like a bat down Highway 12, just as I had on countless occasions.

I wanted Grace Vandenberg to see Helena too. So when I wrote The Show, I added the city to the heroine's itinerary.

I set more than twenty Northwest Passage chapters in Helena and vicinity because I wanted to showcase places that had become central to my life. I wanted readers to see what I saw every day.

There will be no more Montana chapters or books, at least in the near future. My focus will soon shift from the Rockies to Dixie, where I will spend at least the next few years. My next novel, September Sky, will be set in Galveston, Texas, a city built on nineteenth-century cotton and not nineteenth-century gold.

That doesn't mean I'll forget this community between the Missouri and the mountains. One doesn't forget cities with fire towers, art houses in jailhouses, and streets named Last Chance Gulch. It's just that my attention will be directed elsewhere.

Which is just as well. By the time I leave Helena later this month, the "Symphony Under the Stars" will have come and gone -- as will the best days to camp and fish. Then a few leaves will turn and the comforting summer breezes will take a chilly edge.

Winter will be just around the corner.