Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: North and South

The questions from readers usually begin with why. Why so many characters in your books? Why so many points of view? Why so many settings and story lines? Why are you making my head spin?

The answer, of course, is John Jakes. From the moment I read his Kent Family Chronicles in high school, I've leaned toward family sagas with multiple themes and perspectives. I've favored the big picture over the small -- as a reader, a television viewer, and now as an author.

For that reason, I have read most of Jakes' books and viewed the television adaptations, including North and South, which I revisited on Hoopla this month. I found the series, the first of three, as thrilling, entertaining, and yes, sappy as when it came out in 1985.

North and South, you may recall, is not just America's story before, during, and after the Civil War. It is history as soap opera, with characters as good and evil as the characters in Dallas and Dynasty.

What I like, though, is the way the story moves from place to place and person to person. Jakes keeps the reader (and the viewer) engaged by shifting the focus early and often. He keeps the Hazards and the Mains, the families in the series, front and center. He stirs things up.

The adaptation stirs things even more with an all-star cast. If you've ever wanted to see Patrick Swayze, Kirstie Alley, David Carradine, Elizabeth Taylor, Wayne Newton, Johnny Cash, Linda Evans, Lloyd Bridges, Olivia de Havilland, and Billy Dee Williams in the same series, this is the show for you. Two dozen A-list actors appear on screen.

I plan to resume my journey down Miniseries Lane this week and then continue my own series in progress. The first draft of Sea Spray, the third book in the Time Box saga, is eighty-percent complete.

As with most of my other works, it will feature multiple settings and points of view. Enough, I dare say, to make John Jakes smile.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The best tools in the box

Artists, it is said, are only as good as their tools. With good ones, they can soar. With bad ones, they can't leave the ground.

Writers are no different. Though it is possible to produce quality works without the tools of the trade, it is difficult. It's a lot more difficult.

Since publishing my first novel, The Mine, in 2012, I have relied heavily on a handful of tools. Available on the free Internet, they are as indispensable to me as typewriters are to old-school novelists.

My favorite, Thesaurus.com, is the digital version of a staple that has been available in print for nearly 170 years. Comprehensive, versatile, and easy to use, it is one of two tools I can't do without.

The other is OneLook.com, a dictionary search engine that indexes more than 19 million words. Though the site draws from hundreds of dictionaries, it highlights results from the most important ones, such as Webster, Oxford, Collins, and American Heritage.

If OneLook.com is useful in finding the words of today, the Online Etymology Dictionary and Google Books Ngram Viewer are vital in finding the words of yesterday. OED, a "map of the wheel-ruts of modern English," explains what our words meant and how they sounded six hundred to 2,000 years ago. The Ngram Viewer displays the occurrences of words and phrases in books dating to 1800.

On occasion, I will consult grammar resources. Both Grammarly, a powerful proofreading tool, and the Hemingway App, which evaluates writing for clarity and simplicity, are excellent and easy to use.

I touted a few of the tools above in an April 2016 blog post. Go to Touting the tools of the trade to learn more.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Next stop: The Jazz Age

For years, I've had a fascination with the 1920s. I don't know if it began when I read The Great Gatsby, watched people dance the Charleston, or first listened to Rhapsody in Blue, but I've had it.

It's hard to dislike a decade that crams flappers, speakeasies, Gershwin, Ruth, Lindbergh, and runaway prosperity under one roof.

For that reason and others, I decided to set my next novel, the third in the Time Box series, in the Roaring Twenties. I can think of few more fascinating stops for the Lanes, my adventurous time travelers.

I can think of few more interesting eras to study. For the past four weeks, I have reacquainted myself with everything from Prohibition to the movies and music of the time. I paid particular attention to East Hampton, New York, in 1927, the primary setting in the book.

I hope to finish the first draft, now twenty percent complete, by Christmas. I intend the publish the book itself by February 2021.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A Fair setting for a sequel

When it comes to selecting settings, I am a creature of habit. I usually pick the time and place of a novel weeks, if not months, in advance. On occasion, though, I break form. This was one of those times.

Until I finished The Lane Betrayal in February, I struggled with where to set the second novel in the Time Box series. San Francisco in both 1849 (gold rush) and 1906 (earthquake) was a possibility. So was Philadelphia in 1876. The city hosted the Centennial Exposition that year. Neither setting grabbed me.

Then I read about the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, a fair in Chicago that introduced the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, the automatic dishwasher, and scores of electrical innovations. When I learned that 1893 was also the year of a severe economic depression, class conflict, and H.H. Holmes, America's Jack the Ripper, I decided to jump into that exciting and turbulent time. The Fair, the continuation of the Lane family saga, is the result of that decision.

For the Lanes, six time travelers from 2021, five months in the Gilded Age is a chance to catch their breath following a perilous and tragic journey to 1865. While physicist Mark Lane, 53, and wife Mary try to build a home in the Windy City, their children use the time to grow. Fun-loving Laura, 22, befriends a mischievous Irish artist. No-nonsense Jeremy, 19, falls hard for an engaged debutante. Younger daughter Ashley becomes a teenager. Former Army officer Jordan, 26, finds his answers elsewhere. Still grieving the death of a murdered lover, he trades Chicago for rough-and-tumble Virginia City, Nevada, where he finds adventure, purpose, and new romance.

Robert Devereaux has no intention of letting the Lanes rest. Determined to recover two time machines his former business partner stole from him, he sends assassin Silas Bain on two missions to retrieve his property and eliminate a pesky family. The billionaire commits his company to finding the Lanes, even as one of his trusted aides, a Lane confidant, secretly attempts to undermine him.

Like The Lane Betrayal, The Fair offers suspense and thrills, particularly in the last twenty chapters. Unlike the first book, it focuses primarily on relationships and motives. Readers see different sides of Mary, Jordan, and Jeremy; learn more about Devereaux and Bain; and view the limitations of 1893 through the eyes of its women.

They also see the fair. From the day President Grover Cleveland launches the exposition to the day the Lanes leave it, readers see one of history's greatest spectacles in all its glory. They see an event that is still in the news 127 years after it closed its doors.

The Fair is the second of five planned books in the series, which spans the century from 1865 to 1963. My seventeenth novel goes on sale today at Amazon.com and its twelve international sites.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Finding history in Virginia City

Even now, I can rattle off the names like days of the week: Wallace. Galveston. Princeton. Evansville. Gulf Shores. Chattanooga. Flagstaff. Sedona. Johnstown. Boulder. Coronado. Washington, D.C.

Between 2013 and this January, I visited each venue, a significant setting in one of my novels, before publishing that novel. I wanted to at least get a feel of the place — and even a time — before committing its particulars to print.

This week, I added Virginia City, an important setting in The Fair, to the list. Though the Nevada mining town of 900 is not what it was in the early 1870s, when more than twenty thousand people flocked to the Comstock Mining District to make their fortune in silver, it is nonetheless still impressive.

Some buildings mentioned in the novel still stand. They include the Storey County Courthouse, Piper's Opera House, First Presbyterian Church, Fourth Ward School, and the Territorial Enterprise, where Mark Twain worked as a reporter in the early 1860s. The Silver Terrace Cemeteries and the Mackay Mansion, which inspired other venues in the book, are also still around.

Other buildings, like the palatial International Hotel, are gone. The six-story, 160-room structure, once the most prominent hotel between Denver and San Francisco, burned to the ground in 1914.

Despite these and other changes and the passage of 127 years, I did not have difficulty imagining Virginia City as it existed in the spring and summer of 1893. The town exudes the late nineteenth century. It still embodies the spirit of an industrious time in American history.

For practical reasons, I did not visit Chicago, the primary setting in The Fair. Unlike Virginia City, Chicago today is much different than it was in 1893. The grounds of the World's Columbian Exposition are now a public park. The Midway Plaisance, site of the first Ferris Wheel, is an expansive lawn at the University of Chicago.

The Fair, the second book in the Time Box series, is in its final editing phase. I still intend to publish the novel in the first week of July.

Photographs: Territorial Enterprise building, Fourth Ward School, Piper's Opera House, First Presbyterian Church.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Creating covers by committee

According to an old proverb, too many cooks spoil the broth. While that may be true with some things, I have not found it to be true when arriving at book covers. As one who is as artistic as a dog with a paintbrush, I depend on the insights of others when developing the right wrapper for a particular novel. This month, I did so again with The Fair, my latest work.

Thanks to my committee of advisors, a select group of friends and relatives, I settled on a cover that I believe is appealing and strikes a balance between the book's competing themes. Set mostly in Chicago during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, The Fair is a mix of time travel, history, romance, humor, and adventure, with grandeur as a backdrop.

For this cover, Laura Wright LaRoche, my longtime illustrator, enhanced an original photo of the fair's Administration Building and Grand Basin. Others helped me choose the style and color of the title font, a font that reflects the serious and whimsical themes of the fair, which introduced the world to the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, and the wonders of electricity. I was, and remain, grateful for their help.

Though the book itself is still a work in progress, it is one that is getting much closer to publication. I expect to publish The Fair, the second novel in the Time Box series, sometime in early July.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Writing around the future

I have been in this position before.

When writing Mercer Street in 2015, I had to contend with the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs, you may recall, were a bad baseball team for a long time. Between 1946 and 2014, they did not reach the World Series even once. So assuming — in the novel — that they would NOT reach the World Series in 2015 seemed like a safe bet.

Then the 2015 Cubs started winning and messed things up. They tore through the National League playoffs and put the World Series matter in doubt until October 21. The New York Mets, who swept the Cubs in the league championship series, saved me from rewriting a book I had held in reserve for four weeks.

In The Mirror, written in 2013 but set partly in 2021, I had to guess what the world would look like eight years hence. In Indiana Belle and Class of '59, published in 2016, I had to write around a presidential election because I did not know the outcome.

Enter the coronavirus. What once looked like a short-term problem for everyone has turned into a long-term problem for someone setting a series, at least partly, in the years 2021 to 2023. Like other writers setting books in the near future, I am forced to ask what the world will look like next year — or the next.

In The Fair, my current work in progress, I make only two passing mentions to social distancing and none to COVID-19. I assume that the pandemic currently sweeping the globe will be old news by the time the Lanes, my time travelers, leave the present in August 2021. I hope, for many reasons, that I'm right.

The safe approach, of course, is to set books far into the future. When you write about events decades or even centuries away, you limit the number of finger-waggers who can remind you that you got it wrong. You give yourself wiggle room.

Some writers, of course, stick their necks out anyway and come out smelling like a rose. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, seems eerily prescient today. So do the works of H.G. Wells and other authors. TIME magazine mentioned several in 2018.

Fortunately for the Lanes, they will spend more time in years like 1865 and 1893 than the 2020s. Writing about their battles with influenza and tuberculosis will require more research the guesswork. The Fair, the second book of the Time Box series, is now in the revision stage. I hope to publish it by August 1.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Noticing the world around us

Since joining the ranks of the sheltered in place, I have noticed the little things. Clean air. Quiet streets. Fewer planes in the sky. The smell of briquettes and not fast food. Even animal sounds. A mourning dove, my neighborhood's rooster, now announces each day at six.

Such is life in a COVID-19 world. When our mechanized civilization shuts down, our senses open. We notice more and appreciate more. We do more too. We speak to people we have put off for far too long. We watch the movies and prepare the dishes we had filed away. We pull the weeds and plant the flowers. We take the long walks.

We also view our fellow citizens differently. I know I will never again grumble about a long wait in a doctor's office or a keypad mistake by a distracted grocery checker. When people we often take for granted risk their lives for society, I, for one, take notice and applaud.

We work differently as well. Though not all of us can return to our jobs or return to them in the same capacity, we can still be productive. Thanks to technology, creative approaches, and the willingness to adapt, some have not stopped working at all. I know such people.

I have used the down time to finish one work and begin another. Caitlin's Song will be out in audio this month. The Fair, book two in the Time Box series, is 30-percent complete. I hope all of you are making the most of this trying and unusual time. Stay safe!

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Coping with the coronavirus

Let me say first, I feel fortunate. Unlike many who are struggling in these desperate times, my wife and I have the resources to weather the storm -- at least for now. My heart goes out to those who do not.

My community of Las Vegas is feeling the brunt. For the first time since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the Strip has shut down. Casinos, hotels, and restaurants, the economic engine of this tourist town, are closing their doors. Like many, I wonder when the worst will pass. I wonder when I will be able to resume work, look at a 401k statement without closing my eyes, or visit a store without seeing empty shelves and long lines. The challenges created by the spread of COVID-19 are both serious and numerous.

But so are the opportunities. If there is one thing that tough times force you to do, it is to rearrange priorities. Difficult experiences also prompt you to do things things you might not otherwise do. For some, it means volunteering, exercising more, or tackling projects around the house. For most, it means finding productive and meaningful uses of time when that typically scarce resource is suddenly in abundance. I know it does for me. I did not plan to start my next book for several more weeks. But it did not take me long to realize that home quarantine was an opportunity to do now what I might not be able to do -- or do as quickly -- later. Time, to a writer, is a gift.

So I jumped back in. I finished a chapter summary, ordered some research materials, read a few books, and watched some documentaries. I did and will continue to do what I can to make the most of a trying situation. I will begin writing the second novel in the Time Box series before the end of the month and plan to publish it by the summer. I hope that when the book does comes out, the world will be a healthier, happier, and less stressful place. I think we all do.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Review: Outlander (TV series)

For someone obsessed with time travel, I took my time getting around to the gold standard of the genre. I didn't read Outlander, published in 1991, until ten years ago and didn't take on the rest of the story until it became a miniseries in 2014. But as they say, better late than never.

For those of you with trial STARZ accounts, or Facebook pages with advertisements that remind you of those accounts, the Outlander series, now in its fifth season, is a pretty big thing right now. And for good reason. It is world-class entertainment.

The series, based on Diana Gabaldon's novels, follows nurse Claire Randall Fraser from 1946 to 1743 and beyond on a journey through time. Along the way, Claire, played by Caitriona Balfe, tries to find her place in two worlds -- the world of Frank Randall, her professor husband, and that of James "Jamie" Fraser, her hunky highlander.

Though the Outlander series has long been considered a staple of romance, I appreciate it most for its attention to other things. Even without the sex scenes -- and yes, there are plenty of those -- it would stand on its own as an achievement of historical fiction.

It does not matter if an episode is set in Scotland in the 1740s, Boston in the 1960s, or the colony of North Carolina in the 1770s. The writers and producers make it work. They give you the glory and misery of each place and era. They provide the grit, the costumes, the accents, and the settings that so many others do not.

Beyond the attention to historical detail, I like how the main characters adapt to their changing surroundings. Claire evolves from nurse to "healer" to modern physician and back in the series and makes the most of what she has. In Season 5, she makes homemade penicillin from bread mold to treat colonial neighbors who think mercury pills and blood-letting are the answer to every ill.

Similarly, Jamie, played by the charismatic Sam Heughan, evolves from soldier to printer to landowner while supporting and mentoring a host of family and friends. Though Claire is the central figure in the series, Jamie is the most compelling. He retains his humor and his humanity despite challenges that would break other men.

I would recommend the series, in any format, to anyone. In a world where so many books, movies, and television series are overrated, this magnificent collection delivers the goods. Rating: 5/5.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Driving in a familiar Lane

I admit I considered another course. After writing the Carson Chronicles, an exhaustive five-book set, I was ready for a change.

But as I pondered my options for my next series, I realized I was not quite ready to say goodbye to time travel, family sagas, or even historical fiction. So I jumped back in. I took the best elements of my first fifteen novels, focused a little more on suspense, and came up with a storyline for what I hope will be my best series yet.

Like the Carsons, the Lanes of Fredericksburg, Virginia, are a family with a problem. Weeks after noted physicist Mark Lane, 52, creates the world's first time machines, he learns his corporate partner wants to use the portable devices for nefarious purposes.

Rather than give him the chance to do so, Mark takes the time boxes and his family to the relative safety of 1865. For Mark, wife Mary, and their four children, the adventure is a chance to grow. Mary runs a business selling modern cosmetics. Jeremy, 19, and Ashley, 12, befriend an abolitionist and two escaped slaves in wartime Washington. Laura, 22, finds her place as a nurse in a military hospital. Jordan, 25, falls for a beautiful widow on a recovery mission in Virginia. All hope to find peace in the past.

But billionaire Robert Devereaux has no interest in giving the Lanes even a moment's rest. Shortly after Mark's betrayal, he sends an assassin to 1865 to retrieve his property and set matters straight.

Like most of my previous works, The Lane Betrayal combines history, romance, adventure, and multiple points of view. It also features my first true villain and cameos by Abraham Lincoln, Mary Lincoln, Edwin Stanton, John Hay, Walt Whitman, and John Wilkes Booth.

The Lane Betrayal is the first book in the Time Box series, which will span 1865 to 1963. The novel, available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com and its international sites, goes on sale today.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review: Where Crawdads Sing

Like others, I suspect, I put this one off. I prefer other genres and wasn't eager to jump into a long novel when I was in the middle of producing my own. But 4.8 stars on Amazon and Oprah's blessing are hard to ignore, so I made an exception. I'm glad I did. I found Where the Crawdads Sing, the debut novel by Delia Owens, every bit as poignant and captivating as most readers say it is.

The story begins in 1952, when Kya Clark, a girl of six, is abandoned by her mother, her siblings, and finally her abusive father. After trying and failing to make her peace with the outside world, Kya raises herself in a shack in the wilds of coastal North Carolina. What follows is a coming-of-age story that spans two decades.

The story is implausible at times. Kya, dubbed "The Marsh Girl" by her many detractors, never gets sick, even though she has never been immunized. She never gets pregnant, despite dabbling in unprotected sex. And she becomes the published author of several reference wildlife books, despite the lack of a formal education.

But these flaws did not hinder my enjoyment of a story that grabbed my attention from the first chapter. The depictions of life in a small Southern town in the 1950s and 1960s are first-rate. So are the descriptions of the plants and animals of the exotic and sometimes forbidding wetlands. Throughout the book, Kya, a recluse, is at one with nature, the one thing that never betrays her.

Crawdads is also a riveting murder mystery. When Chase Andrews, a philandering former football star who is obsessed with Kya, is found dead under an abandoned fire tower, all eyes turn toward the beautiful marsh girl. The whodunit is not solved until the last chapter.

I would recommend Crawdads to anyone who loves a good story, particularly one with an appealing, strong-willed female protagonist. I look forward to seeing the movie version. Rating: 4.5/5.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Taking a second look at history

The row houses of F Street were more colorful and ornate. Ford's Theatre had a smaller lobby and a bigger stage. Even the forests of Northern Virginia were different. They had more oaks, fewer pines, and much greater density than I expected. But that's why I went. As I wrote last year after visiting the settings for three novels, writers cannot get a true feel of a place without seeing it in person. So this week I traveled once again to Washington, D.C. and put some lingering questions to rest.

Unlike in August, when I gave the capital a brief inspection, I was thorough. I walked miles of the city's streets, visited important historic sites, and did the kind of research one can only do in the District of Columbia. As a result, I learned a lot about places that will be featured in The Lane Betrayal, my current work in progress.

Among other things, I learned that row houses are cool. Really cool. Even those without black-wrought-iron gates, sash windows, and ornamental facades evoked a much earlier time. So did Ford's Theatre, which is still a functioning performance hall. Though President Lincoln's suite was less lavish than I imagined, the theater itself was grand. I had no difficulty picturing the place on April 14, 1865, when it became a tragic footnote in American history.

Like Ford's, the Round Robin Bar, with its circular bar and oak-paneled walls, has changed little in a century and a half. Part of the luxurious Willard Hotel, it is still a go-to site in the capital.

For that reason, I set three chapters in the fabled bar. I set one in the Star Saloon, where John Wilkes Booth mulled his plot over a bottle of whiskey. Now a commercial space, the saloon is adjacent to Ford's.

When I wasn't visiting venues, I was researching them at several museums and the Library of Congress. Among my top finds were old maps of Maryland and Virginia, native plant guides, and information on early settlements in what became the federal city. I plan to include what I found in the novel.

The Lane Betrayal, the first book of the Time Box series, is now in its second revision. I hope to publish the novel in early April.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Doable goals for a new year

New Year’s resolutions, according to a popular saying, are a bit like babies. They’re fun to make but extremely difficult to maintain. Though I tend to agree, I think the second part doesn't have to be true. When resolving to do something in the coming year, we, as dedicated individuals, can always resolve to do something doable.

That's the approach I'm taking to 2020, with resolutions and goals. Though I have compiled a list of writing and work-related goals for the next twelve months, I have managed to make it manageable.

Topping the list is a new series. I will finish a draft of the first book in the Time Box series in two weeks and hope to publish the book itself in twelve. Set mostly in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., in early 1865, the novel will introduce readers to the Lane family.

I don't plan to stop there. Though I have not yet outlined the second book in the set, I intend to start work on it in April, after book one is out, and publish it by the end of the year. Like the Carson Chronicles, the Time Box series will follow a modern family over a century. Like each of my first three series, it will consist of five books.

I also intend to convert two more novels to audio and my newest books to print. If there is one thing I've learned as an author, it's that readers like choice. I intend to give them more of that in 2020.

I hope to give fellow authors something as well. Beginning this month, I will offer marketing, research, formatting, and proofreading services at reasonable rates. Aimed at new authors, Proof Plus will augment, not replace, my writing, which will remain my primary focus.

Here's to a happy and productive year to all of you!

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Getting (another) early start

Those who know me best know how to process the pledge. When I say I won't start a new book for eight to twelve weeks, they know they can cut that time in half, add maybe a week or two, and wait for me to break my promise. Like a lot of writers, no doubt, I always do.

And so it goes again. With most of my research and preparation in the rear-view mirror, I have started writing my next novel and next series. Set in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., in the final three months of the American Civil War, it will document the triumphs and tribulations of a contemporary time-traveling family.

In this case, the Lanes of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and not the Carsons of Flagstaff, Arizona, will take the stage. It's my hope that this family of six will prove to be as compelling as the family of seven I retired this fall. As with the Carson Chronicles series, I will look for new ways to develop familiar themes and explore American history.

I hope to finish the rough draft of the still-unnamed novel by January, when I travel to D.C. and visit at least a few of the settings. I intend to publish the finished work no later than the end of April.

In the meantime, I will devote some time to other priorities. I hope that all of you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Friday, November 1, 2019

Revisiting a time of conflict

If there is one thing I like about researching a new book, it is learning about people, places, and times I have never met or experienced. I particularly like seeing a historical period through the eyes of the people who lived in that period.

This is especially true when exploring significant eras and events, such as World War II, which was a backdrop for The Mine, Mercer Street, Hannah's Moon, and Indian Paintbrush, and the American Civil War, which will be the primary setting for my next work.



In October, I began reintroducing myself to a conflict that claimed 600,000 lives and forged a modern nation. Though I had read or watched many of the works at least once before, I enjoyed them nonetheless. I expect to peruse many more before I begin writing the first novel of my fourth series, set mostly in Washington, D.C. and northern Virginia in early 1865.

Some of the less familiar sources -- like Abraham Lincoln: A History by John M. Hay and John George Nicolay, Mary Boykin Chesnut's Civil War Diary from Dixie, and The Lady Nurse of Ward E by Amanda Akin Stearns -- are in the public domain and available online. All three were produced by individuals with a front-row seat to history. Filmmaker Ken Burns cited Chesnut's diary often in his epic 1990 television series, The Civil War, which I revisited in September.

I have also begun reading more recently published books, like A Guide to Civil War Washington, D.C.: the Capital of the Union by Lucinda Prout Janke, The Willard Hotel: An Illustrated History by Richard Wallace Carr and Marie Pinak Carr, and The Civil War in Spotsylvania County: Confederate Campfires at the Crossroads by Michael Aubrecht.

My next work, the first in a new time-travel saga, will follow a modern family from 2021 to the final three months of the Civil War and focus on the civilian side. Though most of the characters will be fictional, a few, such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert Lincoln, John Hay, Edwin Stanton, and John Wilkes Booth, will not. I learned more about Robert Lincoln, the president's oldest son, and Hay, one of his secretaries, by reading Jason Emerson's Giant in the Shadows and John Taliaferro's All the Great Prizes, the definitive works on the two men.

I hope to begin writing the first draft in January and publish by June. (Photo: Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, October 7, 2019

Sweating the small stuff

As one who has written fifteen novels that blend both fact and fiction, I know firsthand the importance of getting it right. Writing about time travel, after all, requires more than describing the means of travel. It requires accurately depicting the past. It requires meeting the standards of quality historical fiction.

The challenges are often daunting, particularly when writing about the recent past, as I have done on multiple occasions. When writing about places and times that are in the living memory of many readers, you have to make an extra effort to get even the little things right.

When I wrote my first novel, The Mine, a story set mostly in Seattle in 1941, a few older readers gently reminded me that chocolate-chip cookies were more commonly called "Toll House cookies" and that aluminum foil was generally called "tin foil," even after aluminum replaced tin as its primary component. Since that time, I have done what I could to ensure the historical accuracy of my books, which have spanned eras ranging from the 1880s to the 1980s.

Like many writers of historical fiction, I favor primary sources, such as newspapers, documents, letters, photographs, and oral histories. I generally find eyewitness accounts of events and eras, produced by those who lived through them, to be more compelling than even the best research compiled decades – or even a few years – after the fact.

Even so, I don't limit myself. When preparing to write about times I did not experience, I will often sample the movies, music, and literature of the day. I find it easier to describe Americans of the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, if I immerse myself in the very things that drove them to theaters, concert halls, and libraries.

On some occasions, I look closer to home. When writing The Journey, set in 1979 and 1980, and Camp Lake, my newest book, set in 1983, I relied mostly on memories of — and mementos from — my senior year of high school and my experience at a summer camp in Maine.

No matter where I turn for answers, however, I follow advice that has been around for decades. When writing historical fiction, even in the context of time travel, pay attention to details. Note the nuances and the particulars. Sweat the small stuff.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A review, guest post, and more

Camp Lake makes its first big media splash this morning at the Reading Cafe. The Canadian blog, which has reviewed all but one of my fifteen novels, takes on my latest today. Many thanks to Sandy and Barb at the site for running the review, a guest post, and a giveaway of the entire Carson Chronicles series. Readers can find all three here.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Saying goodbye to a series

I admit I miss the characters already. Even though the proverbial ink has not yet dried on the Carson Chronicles series, I miss the fictional family I have lived with for more than two and a half years.

With the release of Camp Lake, the fifth and final book, I say so long to the seven original members of the Carson clan and their significant others. I close the door on a memorable time-travel series.

Like River Rising, The Memory Tree, Indian Paintbrush, and Caitlin's Song, Camp Lake embraces a place and a time — in this case, Maine in 1983.

Though the novel begins and ends in the Carsons' home state of Arizona, it finds a home in the Pine Tree State.

Nineteen-year-old Cody, the youngest of the three sons, takes center stage in this one.

Along with Caitlin, his brainy twin sister, and Dennis Sawyer, his talented and thoughtful friend, he travels to prestigious Camp Washington, where his missing middle-aged parents met as college students and where jobs, romance, and danger await.

For Cody, a nature counselor, the summer in New England is an opportunity to develop a friendship with a beautiful colleague, a young woman with a tragic secret. For Caitlin and Dennis, it is a chance to grow as a couple and test the boundaries of sacrifice.

For the five siblings, the summer is the next stop on a journey that started in 2017; continued in 1889, 1918, 1944, and 1962; and ends in the era of big hair, space shuttles, and MTV. For all of the Carsons, parents and children, it is a last chance to reunite as a family.

Filled with humor, adventure, and suspense, Camp Lake answers the questions and ties the loose ends of a tumultuous family saga. The novel, my fifteenth overall, goes on sale today at Amazon.com.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Audio, sales, and new releases

Some important updates . . .

For the fourth time in three years, I will work with talented actor and voice-over artist Allyson Voller on an audiobook. Voller, the narrator of The Mirror, Hannah's Moon, and Indian Paintbrush, has agreed to narrate Caitlin's Song. I hope to publish the audiobook on Amazon, Audible, and Apple iTunes by the winter of 2020.

Mercer Street will appear, for the first time, as a featured book on BookBub on September 15. Set mostly in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1938 and 1939, the novel is the second in the American Journey series. I will discount the other Kindle books in the series in the week following the promotion.

And last, but not least, Camp Lake is coming in October! Thanks to some significant and unexpected progress in revising the first two drafts, I now expect to release the novel, the fifth and last book in the Carson Chronicles series, sometime next month. I will provide more details on both the Kindle and paperback editions when I can.

In the meantime, I will continue working on other projects, including a new series. I wish everyone a happy and productive autumn!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

For writers, advice is abundant

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King advises fellow scribes to "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open."

It's not bad advice. I even follow it on occasion when I'm not trying to drown out distracting sounds both inside and outside of my urban Nevada home.

Distraction can sometimes result in inspiration. And inspiration can sometimes result in a better book. King's recommendation is just a pebble on a beach that is accessible to writers. No matter where I look in libraries, in bookstores, and online, I can find easily find experts willing to impart knowledge on writing, editing, and marketing.

Some of my favorite sites include: writersdigest.com, createifwriting.com, thecreativepenn.com, janefriedman.com, victoriastrauss.com, and selfpublishingadvice.org. Promotional sites like authormarketingclub.com, thefussylibrarian.com, and bookbub.com, which will feature Mercer Street among its September 15 listings, also offer useful resources for those in the trade.

I intend to utilize at least some of the advice from these sites in the next two months, when I put the finishing touches on Camp Lake. The fifth and final novel in the Carson Chronicles series is now set for a November release.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Review: Young Men and Fire

When I was a resident of the Treasure State, I knew all about one of its most tragic chapters. One cannot live within a stone's throw of Helena, Montana, without knowing at least a few details about the Mann Gulch fire, a deadly 1949 inferno that spawned films, books, songs, and changes in how firefighters are trained. Even so, I did not read -- or, in this case, listen to -- the most famous account of the event until this month, shortly after its 70th anniversary.

In Young Men and Fire, winner of the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award, Norman Maclean tells the story of 15 smokejumpers and a Forest Service ranger who battled a blaze in a rugged and remote ravine near the Missouri River. Published two years after the author's death, the detailed nonfiction account is a staple of Montana literature.

Maclean, a University of Chicago professor and the author of A River Runs Through It, approaches the fire as a scholar, a former firefighter, and a woodsman who was in the area when the fire broke out. Though he spends much of the book examining the scientific particulars of the fire and firefighting, he also offers touching portraits of the heroes and those directly affected by the tragic event.

Only three of the men walked away from the site, including 17-year-old Robert Sallee, the youngest member of the crew, and Wagner (Wag) Dodge, the oldest. Dodge, the 33-year-old foreman, survived by lighting a small grass fire, sitting in the embers, and waiting as the larger blaze passed around him. Sallee and Walter Rumsey, 21, escaped by beating the inferno to the lee side of a ridge.

Though Young Men and Fire does not have the depth or scope of The Big Burn, Timothy Egan's work on the Great Fire of 1910, or even similar books on natural disasters, it is nonetheless compelling, informative, and highly readable. Maclean offers both science and poetry in explaining a tragic event that still defies understanding.

I would recommend the book to general readers, fans of Montana literature, and those who love stories of heroism and sacrifice. Rating: 4/5. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, August 12, 2019

Returning to the capital

To be sure, Washington, D.C. has changed in the last 35 years.

Construction fences and security barriers surround everything from the White House and the Washington Monument to various parks and tourist attractions. The traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, is heavier, and the subway system is more advanced. New museums and monuments, like the ones honoring Holocaust victims, African Americans, and veterans of the Korean War and World War II, have joined more established ones.

Even so, the nation's capital, in its 230th year, is much as I left it in the summer of 1984, when I interned for a congressman and got a close look at a city and a government at work.

I visited the area this past weekend while seeing my son, Matthew, who graduated from the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates School, and youngest daughter, Amy, who recently started a job in the city.

I found both the District of Columbia and northern Virginia, places brimming with reminders of our historical and cultural heritage, as interesting as I had the first time I saw them. Both will serve as backdrops for the first book in my next series. Set in late 1864 and early 1865, in the closing months of the Civil War, the novel will follow a modern American family as it begins a journey through time.

Though the series will have much in common with the Carson Chronicles series, it will differ in many ways. It will feature more history, adventure, and science fiction and follow a family that, for the most part, sticks together. Like my first three series, it will consist of five interrelated novels and feature multiple points of view.

I hope to start the new series in March. In the meantime, I will bring the Carson saga, a three-year labor of love, to a conclusion. I recently finished the first draft of Camp Lake. The fifth and final book of the Carson Chronicles series is still set for a January release.

Friday, July 12, 2019

A visit to Molar City

I am what you might call an American homebody. Though I have visited forty-seven states and plan to visit the remaining three -- Alaska, Hawaii, and North Dakota, I know where you live -- I have ventured beyond the borders of the United States only nine times.

On all but one occasion, I made a short trip, a day trip, to Victoria or Vancouver, Canada. My exotic world travels were limited to two cities in British Columbia.

This week, I branched out and added a country. I visited Los Algodones, Mexico, a postage stamp of a town tucked in the far northeast corner of Baja California. Located about ten miles west of Yuma, Arizona, just south of Interstate 8, it is one of the most accessible and interesting communities on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Known as Molar City, Algodones has one of the highest concentrations of dentists in the world. More than 350 dentists operate in the town of 5,000 people, as well as numerous plastic surgeons, optometrists, and pharmacies. One cannot walk ten feet in the city's downtown without seeing a sign, a building, or a person touting dental services.

Though I passed up a molar extraction and root canal on this visit, I did not pass up many of the shops, restaurants, and cantinas. When in Rome, you order authentic beef tacos and milkshake-sized margaritas and give the street vendors' shiny wares a second look.

I hope to return to this little corner of Mexico sometime when the temperature is below 110 degrees and the city, which had largely shut down for the summer, puts on its winter face. Until then, there are more places to visit and bucket-list items to check.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Remembering a summer

The best summer of my life began on a winter day. Like countless other Oregon college students in 1983, I spent much of that winter looking for interesting summer employment, and on February 11, I found it. That's when I received an offer to work at a boys camp in Maine.

Never mind that I had never traveled east of the Rockies or that the pay barely covered my travel expenses. I wanted to head east in search of adventure. So I did. In June, I boarded a jet (another first), flew to New England, and began an experience I would never forget.



The camp itself was a sight. With more than fifty buildings, including cabins, offices, a dining hall, activity shacks, and a pavilion for movies and stage performances, it was a small city. During the summer, campers and counselors could participate in dozens of activities, including archery, karate, scuba, sailing, waterskiing, and golf.

Then there was the staff. More than eighty counselors, representing 28 states and six countries, including Australia, South Africa, and Britain, came to Maine that summer. So did several hundred boys, ages 6 to 16, who came from some of the wealthiest families in the Northeast.

Most counselors were specialists who led activities and programs. Others, like me, were general counselors who escorted groups of campers from station to station. All of us managed cabins, with one to three other counselors, during the course of the eight-week session.

Though 36 years have passed since that summer, when I participated in several campouts, operated a sailboat for the first time, and finally got up on skis, it remains fresh in my mind. I made friends from around the world, tried a host of new activities, and mentored boys who looked up to their counselors like the big brothers many did not have.

Many of our efforts went unrewarded. Others did not. Later that year, just before Christmas, a New York woman, the mother of a deeply introverted nine-year-old boy, thanked me for teaching her son to ride a bike. Her letter remains one of my most treasured possessions.

This summer I will honor that summer by putting countless memories to thousands of words. I hope to finish a first draft of Camp Lake, set mostly in Maine in 1983, by Labor Day. The fifth and final novel in the Carson Chronicles series is still set for a January 2020 release.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Visiting the venues, Part II

The steady sea breeze was as brisk as I thought it would be. The scents of the blooming trees and flowers were just as enticing. And though Coronado, California, has changed a lot in the past several decades -- like Boulder, Colorado, which I visited earlier in May -- it is still very much the spirited Navy town I described in Caitlin's Song.

I had a chance to visit the city this week, along with several other venues in the greater San Diego area, and enjoyed every minute. When you see places in person that previously existed only in movies, literature, and your mind, you develop a special appreciation for them. Such was the case with San Diego County, a major setting in not only Caitlin's Song but also The Memory Tree.



I found Coronado particularly inviting. Situated at the north end of Coronado Island on the west side of San Diego Bay, it is a trendy city with a small-town feel -- one where Craftsman houses with porches and white picket fences outnumber coffee shops and souvenir stores. Only the cultivated rose gardens, fence-climbing honeysuckle, and jacaranda trees, with their rough trunks and indigo flowers, could compete.



Nothing in Coronado, of course, commands attention like the opulent Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian fusion of turrets, balconies, and courtyards that has greeted visitors since 1887 and was the inspiration for a hotel featured in both novels. Located between the bay and the ocean, it is as impressive today as it was a century ago.

I did not see as much of San Diego, the more prominent city with the famous zoo and aquatic park, but I did see enough to appreciate its charm. The Gaslamp Quarter, a sixteen-block nod to the late 1800s, is alone worth a trip to California's second-largest city, as are its storied waterfront and countless museums.

I don't know if I'll set another book in this appealing corner of the United States, but I do know I'll be back. Coronado and San Diego, like many of the settings in my novels, are worth a second look.

(Photos from top: Jacaranda tree in bloom, Hotel del Coronado, Navy ship off Coronado beach, entrance to the Gaslamp Quarter.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

May update and giveaway

Since getting the bright idea a few months ago to convert my Kindle collection to print, I have made steady progress toward doing just that. Today, I am happy to report that all but the newest of my fourteen novels is now available in paperback form on Amazon.com. I hope to add Caitlin's Song, released this month, to that list by the end of July.

Thanks to the speedy work of narrator Allyson Voller, all but one of the books are also available in audio format. The most recent, Indian Paintbrush, my third project with the talented voice artist, went live on Audible.com and Amazon last week.

Voller also narrated The Mirror and Hannah's Moon. To promote the audiobooks and show my appreciation to longtime readers and listeners, I am giving away ten audiobooks. All of my Audible titles, with the exception of The Mine, which was produced by Podium Publishing in 2014, are available.

Interested listeners can request an Audible book through May 25 by emailing me at jaheldt@excite.com.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Returning to a golden age

At least once a year, I am asked, usually by someone who suspects I'm a time traveler, which era I would most like to visit if I could. Each time, I give the same answer: the late 1950s to early 1960s, when cars were classic, rock and roll was young, and rockets were all the rage.

For that reason, I enjoyed writing The Mirror, set in Seattle in 1964, and Class of '59, set in Los Angeles in 1959. I loved exploring an era that has been immortalized many times in movies, TV, and literature.

In Caitlin's Song, I take one more bite of the apple. In the fourth and pivotal book of the Carson Chronicles series, I send most of my time travelers to 1962, the year of John F. Kennedy, John Glenn, the Seattle World's Fair, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Like The Mirror, Class of '59, and even The Journey, set in 1979 and 1980, Caitlin's Song is coming-of-age story about young adults in a simpler, more innocent time. Unlike the earlier books, it is also a murder mystery — one with a critical time component and circumstances that put one Carson in mortal danger and test the resolve of two others.

As the title suggests, Caitlin's Song is Caitlin's book. From the first chapter to the last, the youngest member of the original Carson clan is the center of attention and the focus of the plot. Now nineteen and a college freshman in Boulder, Colorado, Caitlin seeks peace and fulfillment just months after losing her first love in a plane crash.

Others also shine. Cody Carson, Caitlin's twin and alter ego, finds romance, freedom, and fun as a student, while his parents, Tim and Caroline, assume their most important roles to date. The professors, separated from their children for more than two years, try desperately to prevent a horrific crime that will alter their family forever.

Set in 1941, 1972, and 1983, as well as 1962, Caitlin's Song follows the Carsons from coast to coast as they search for answers, opportunity, and each other in some of America's most memorable eras. The novel, available in Kindle format, goes on sale today at Amazon.com.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Springtime in the Rockies

The first thing you need to know about Boulder, Colorado, is that it is prettier in person. From the University of Colorado to the quaint residential districts to the mountains that loom in the west, it is as pretty as a postcard and as inviting as a Rocky Mountain stream.



I visited the town this weekend because it is the primary setting for Caitlin's Song, the fourth novel in the Carson Chronicles series. As with Wallace, Idaho, in 2013; Galveston, Texas, in 2014; Princeton, New Jersey, in 2015; Evansville, Indiana, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2016; Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 2017; and Sedona, Arizona, in 2018, I wanted to get a firsthand look at a place I was writing about.



I'm glad I did. Nestled at the base of the Front Range on the edge of the Denver metro area, Boulder is a community that comes as advertised.

I visited CU first, of course. I suspected that the university would be alive on the Friday before spring commencement -- and it was. From the Norlin Quadrangle and the Hill to the University Memorial Center and a buffalo-shaped outdoor swimming pool, the sprawling 786-acre campus was a happening place.

Then there was the city itself. Like a lot of college towns, Boulder is cultural gem, complete with dozens of museums, libraries, parks, restaurants, and entertainment venues -- including more than a few aimed at the college crowd. It is even more appealing in the spring, when flowers and trees begin to bloom, hillsides turn green, and residents and tourists, particularly those in the historic Pearl Street walking mall, are at their festive best. If I learned anything about Boulder on my three-day visit, it was that this is a town that knows how to have fun. Even the municipal bus system, with routes called Hop, Skip, and Jump, projects community spirit.



For me, though, the highlight was visiting venues mentioned in Caitlin's Song, including the stone bridge at Varsity Lake, the student union ballroom, the quadrangles, Baseline Road, and Chautauqua Park, a green space in the shadow of the Flatirons and Flagstaff Mountain. Though these sites have changed since 1962, when the book is set, I could easily imagine what they were like almost sixty years ago.



Readers will have a similar opportunity this week. Caitlin's Song, my fourteenth novel, will be officially released on Tuesday.

(Photos from top to bottom: Economics building and museum, University of Colorado; Stone arch bridge at Varsity Lake; Norlin Quadrangle; Chautauqua Park and the Flatirons; Broadway and the Flatirons.)

Monday, April 1, 2019

In defense of plain language

It is a question every writer faces at some point: Should I dazzle or communicate? Or, put another way, should I try to craft the perfect sentence or write the perfect story? In an ideal world, writers could do both every time, all the time. In the world of writer's block and rigid circumstances, they must sometimes make hard choices.

For years I have generally favored simple over complicated and substance over style. Driven by old habits formed in my newspaper days, when I was advised by editors to report events in language a layman could understand, I have erred on the side of clarity.

This approach, which some liken to the Hemingway style, certainly has its supporters. Mark Twain once quipped: “Don't use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” Stephen King says much the same today. In the fifth of his famous twenty rules for writers, he advises others not to obsess over perfect grammar. “Language," he says, "does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes."

Hugh Howey, author of the bestselling WOOL series and the patron saint of self-published scribes, echoes this sentiment. He writes that "readers prefer the clear and concise delivery of an exciting story more than the flowery and sublime delivery of utter ennui."

I believe this is true not only with flowery language but also with things like jargon, slang, and acronyms. Even though I have not read a Tom Clancy book in more than a decade, I can still remember wading through terms like CINC-PAC, DDCI, and NORAD.

I take two steps to improve clarity in my books. The first is to explain unusual references at least once in the context they are made. The second is to run them past my beta readers, who have different backgrounds, life experiences, and areas of expertise.

If one reader does not understand a word or a phrase, I give the term a closer look. If two or more have an issue with the same item, I strike it from the text. I assume readers will be similarly perplexed.

It's not a perfect approach, but it is one that works for me. In the ongoing effort to entertain and inform, it helps me find a balance.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Review: TURN

As I have written at least a few times, I don't watch much television. Aside from news, sports, and an occasional movie, I simply don't find it worth the time. Every now and then, though, I make an exception to the rule and latch onto something like a sci-fi junkie binging on Star Wars films or a romance fan exhausting the Hallmark catalog.

This month, I took a turn at TURN. For three weeks, I watched all four seasons of the AMC series, currently available on Netflix, and immersed myself in the American Revolution. Based loosely on the exploits of the Culper Ring, an unlikely group of citizen spies based in Setauket, New York, TURN: Washington's Spies gives viewers an unvarnished look at colonial America from 1776 to 1781.

In the series, we see not only the cunning cabbage farmer Abraham Woodhull, the focus of the production, but also his childhood friends, such as the diligent Major Benjamin Tallmadge and the folksy smuggler Caleb Brewster. Women, including Woodhull's wife (Mary), his former fiancée and confidante (Anna Strong), Peggy Shippen Arnold, and her servant Abigail, play equally compelling roles.

I appreciated the series' even-handed approach. Though AMC gives us the nastiest villain I've seen in decades in Lt. Colonel John Simcoe, it provides sympathetic portrayals of other British officers, including John André and Edmund Hewlett, and nuanced treatments of George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Charles Lee, and other patriot leaders. It gives us far more gray than black and white.

Though TURN does take a few liberties with the historical record, it more than compensates with a realistic depiction of the times. Viewers can smell the smoke and carnage on the battlefield and the stench of a prisoner ship. They can see the fear on the faces of men as they shed their uniforms and step behind enemy lines.

I would recommend TURN to any fan of history and drama. As compelling television, it does not get better than this. Rating: 5/5.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

A first draft for novel fourteen

I needed seven weeks and enough keystrokes to fulfill two NaNoWriMos, but I got it done. Hours before the vernal equinox, an occasional time-travel catalyst in the Carson Chronicles series, I finished the first draft of the fourth CC book and forwarded it to the first of ten beta readers. I intend to publish Caitlin's Song, set primarily in Boulder, Colorado, in 1962, by the middle of June.

In the meantime, I hope to convert more Kindle-only books to audio and print. I sent the print edition of Mercer Street to Amazon today for final approval and plan to process at least one more American Journey book before returning to my current work in progress.

Seven of my fourteen novels, including the entire Northwest Passage series, are now in print. Twelve are available in audio format. Indian Paintbrush, narrated by Allyson Voller, is set for a spring release.

Fortuitously for me, I had the chance to discuss spring releases and older books today at the Sixth Annual Henderson Libraries Local Author Showcase. The extravaganza, which drew sixty authors and hundreds of book lovers from around southern Nevada, was a resounding success. I hope to do more such events in the future.

Friday, March 15, 2019

A meet-and-greet for March

Experts advising authors rarely stray from the message. If you want to sell books in a highly competitive marketplace, they say, you have to get out there and interact. You have to meet and greet. Engage.

It's not bad advice. Even in a world where millions of books are sold through online retailers like Amazon.com, there is no substitute for face-to-face marketing. So on Saturday, March 23, I will do just that.

Along with fifty-nine other authors from southern Nevada, I will participate in the Henderson Libraries Local Author Showcase. The sixth annual event, at the Paseo Verde Library, begins at 10 a.m.

I plan to bring copies of my first six novels to the event, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Nevada Arts Council. I encourage readers in the area to drop by and say hello.

In meantime, I hope to finish the first draft of my current work in progress. Caitlin's Song, the fourth novel in the five-book Carson Chronicles series, is still set for a summer release.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Finding inspiration in music

Writers are notoriously quirky creatures. James Joyce, I recently read, liked to write while lying on his stomach. Lewis Carroll preferred to scribe in purple ink. Agatha Christie fueled her inspiration with apples. Dan Brown reportedly cures writer's block by hanging upside down.

I don't do any of those things. When I turn thoughts into words, I sit in bed or a chair, stare at my laptop, and type. As a writer and an editor, I am as conventional as they come.

No so as a book plotter. When I lay the foundation for a work of historical fiction, I seek inspiration in movies, television, and especially music. Before writing a single word, I immerse myself in a historical era by listening to that era's music. I create an iTunes playlist that is as representative of the time as people who lived through it.

I have done so since the start. When planning The Mine, Mercer Street, Hannah's Moon, and Indian Paintbrush, my World War II books, I listened to a lot of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Big Band music. When plotting The Journey, set during the 1979-80 school year, I dug out the tunes I listened to in high school. When preparing The Mirror and Class of '59, I downloaded the Beatles, Buddy Holly, Elvis, and enough Motown to fill an American Top 40 program.

In January, I did more of the same. I added Chubby Checker, Sam Cooke, and the Shirelles to my vast music library and upgraded my Beach Boys and Four Seasons holdings. Using old Billboard charts as a guide, I created a virtual jukebox that would have been right at home in Boulder, Colorado, in 1962, the setting of my next novel.

I admit that building this playlist was a lot of fun. Some of the best American popular music -- including tunes immortalized in movies like American Graffiti and Animal House -- came out of the early 1960s. So did the some of the best dances and most memorable, if sometimes cringeworthy, traditions, fads, and fashions.

I hope to draw on least a little of that cultural heritage in creating the fourth Carson Chronicles book, tentatively set for an August release. Until then, I will turn the volume up and listen to some of the finest music from yesteryear. Quirky or not, it's a habit worth keeping.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Book trivia for the new year

Like a lot of people, I am a fan of trivia. I find it difficult to skip a book, article, or web site filled with interesting, if otherwise unimportant, details and facts. There is something particularly appealing about information that is intended to be read but not necessarily remembered.

So it was with considerable interest that I recently read one blogger's annual reading roundup. Among other things, the reviewer listed the shortest book she had read in 2018 and the longest. The longest, I am happy to say, was The Memory Tree.

TMT, as I sometimes call it, is my longest book too. At 140,000 words, it is slightly longer than River Rising (139K) and Indian Paintbrush (128K) and nearly double the length of The Journey (77K), my shortest work. For those keeping count, 140,000 words is about 650 print pages or more than half a million keystrokes on a MacBook Air.

As a writer, I am usually too busy to notice or dwell on such statistics. When one attempts to sell books in a competitive marketplace, one tends to focus more on sales, borrows, and subscribers. Not so this week. Instead of running the numbers in anticipation of tax season, I took a more imaginative look at my thirteen novels and learned a few things. Some might make fodder for a round of trivia.

Among other things, I learned, or perhaps rediscovered, that I like putting twins in my stories. In addition to Ginny and Katie Smith, the protagonists of The Mirror, there are Cody and Caitlin of the Carson Chronicles series, Edith and Lucy Green of The Show, and Kurt and Karl Schmidt of Mercer Street. Even Mike Hayes, a major character in The Mirror, is a twin who lost his brother as a child.

I also like employing many points of view, though this was not always the case. In The Journey, only two characters, Shelly Preston and her older self, Michelle Richardson, provide their insights. In Indian Paintbrush, readers hear directly from ten different characters -- the original Carson family and three significant others from the past.

Among the characters with their own chapters, thirty-one are male (including repeats) and forty-two female. The youngest are the Carson twins, age 17. The oldest is Katherine Kobayashi Saito, who is eighty years old in The Show. Seven are journalists, six are teachers, five are librarians, and more than a dozen are high school or college students. Two male characters, including Ron Rasmussen, a Navy seaman in Hannah's Moon, are active or retired military.

Readers who like romantic and family themes may appreciate that there are ten engagements (three for Grace Vandenberg Smith alone) in my novels, eight marriages, and several pregnancies. Two toddlers, Hannah Rasmussen and Lizzie Wagner, get star billing in Hannah's Moon and Mercer Street. Joel Smith evolves from a two-year-old boy to a 43-year-old grandfather in the Northwest Passage series.

Not all of my characters are fictional. Some are very real people cast in fictional roles. Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt appear in Mercer Street, while Marilyn Monroe (Class of '59), Mark Twain (River Rising), Bob Hope, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth (Indian Paintbrush) interact with a few of my protagonists in later books.

California is by far my most popular setting. Eight books are set, at least partially, in the Golden State, followed by five in Washington and four in Oregon. At least one chapter is set in thirty-two other states, the District of Columbia, France, and Mexico. One book, The Mirror, is set entirely within one state -- Washington. Three books -- September Sky, Hannah's Moon, and The Memory Tree -- feature chapters set at sea.

On occasion, I am asked how long it takes to produce a book. The answer varies with the work. I needed nearly ten months to research, write, and revise Mercer Street, but only three months to create The Show.

I intend to take most of 2019 creating the fourth book in the Carson Chronicles series. Research for the novel, set in Boulder, Colorado, in the autumn of 1962, is already under way.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The blessings of getting older

I remember the morning of my twelfth birthday like it happened yesterday. After delivering the Seattle Times between four thirty and six, when the biting Western Washington cold was at its worst, I raced into my kitchen, where breakfast and — more important — an unopened box of cereal awaited. I did so not because I was particularly hungry but rather because I wanted to fetch the prize inside the box before my siblings awoke from their Sunday slumber and beat me to it.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s may recall that boxes of cereal were no small things back in the day. Manufacturers often put prizes inside the boxes and 45-rpm records on the boxes themselves. Box tops were as valuable as currency, thirty-day offers as good as gold. Breakfast wasn't just a meal back then. It was an opportunity.

So I opened the box that morning, retrieved a forgettable plastic trinket, and had what may have been my first Eureka moment. Rather than celebrate my good fortune, I lamented the fact that an era — my pleasantly simple and carefree childhood — was coming to an end.

I realized that while it was perfectly acceptable for sixth-grade boys to get excited about prizes in cereal boxes, it was not so for teenagers. I was mindful, even then, of the looming specter of junior high. Within months, I would turn my attention from childish things to music and movies and clothes -- and girls. Though the prospect was troubling at first, it was also exciting. Very exciting. The future was out there.

That is the way of life. Most of us spend our years anticipating the next great thing. A driver's license. High school. College. Careers. Marriage. Children. Birthdays like 16, 18, 21, and even 30 call to us like mischievous sirens. As we proceed toward these milestone dates, we think only about what we are gaining and not about what we are losing.

Most of us, after all, do not regret leaving childhood or young adulthood — until, of course, we are no longer children or young adults. Then we want time to slow down. We pine for the times when everything was new, opportunities were limitless, and the future was a vast, empty canvas, waiting to be filled with vivid, memorable images.

And so it is with me. At age 57, I am wistful about days gone by but also hopeful about what the coming years may bring. As I should be.

If I have learned anything from observing the long and productive lives of others, from notables like the late President Bush to my own grandfather, who remained active for almost all of his ninety-nine years, it's that birthdays are guide posts and not stop signs. They are tools that allow us to measure, evaluate, and sometimes recalibrate.

As an author, a new grandfather, and a restless spirit, I remain as optimistic about possibilities as I was on the morning of December 30, 1973. There are more books to write, places to see, and things to do.

The prize, for me, is still in the box.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

A December to remember

I admit that December is not my most productive month. Like a lot of people, I typically set aside nonessential tasks and save them for January, February, or later — after the holidays and a seemingly endless parade of distractions have passed. Not so this December.

Inspired in part by a positive early reception for Indian Paintbrush, released November 26, I decided to move ahead with plans to convert the book to audio and incorporate it into a three-volume boxed set. I had previously set aside both projects for early March.

Allyson Voller, who produced the The Mirror and Hannah's Moon for Audible, will again narrate one of my books. The veteran voice artist will begin work on Indian Paintbrush sometime in January.

And thanks to the speedy work of cover designer Laura Wright LaRoche, who has created or modified all but one of my covers, I was able to release the boxed set this week. Featuring River Rising, The Memory Tree, and Indian Paintbrush, the Carson Chronicles collection is my largest compilation of Kindle books to date.

I also intend to publish at least two more print books before the year is out. The Journey should be available in paperback in the next few days and The Show sometime before Christmas. I plan to convert the entire Northwest Passage series to print before starting my next novel.

As the holidays approach, I give many thanks to those who have supported my work over the years. These people include countless contributors, readers, reviewers, and bloggers who have helped to bring my books to the attention of the reading public. Some, such as the fine folks at the Reading Cafe, who posted a lengthy review and interview on their popular site today, have been particularly helpful. A special giveaway on the Canadian blog continues through December 18.

I wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!