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!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Carsons in transition

As I pondered possible titles for this book, the third in the Carson Chronicles series, I occasionally considered something flippant and direct. I considered The Siblings Take a Break or The Carsons Take a Breather, because, in many respects, the protagonists do just that.

After fleeing floods, fires, wars, corrupt officials, and vengeful gunmen in 1889 and 1918, the five time travelers, ages 18 to 28, attempt to refresh and regroup in the 1940s. They seek safety and peace of mind in their native Arizona as they continue their search for their missing parents -- college professors they have followed through time for a year.

I went with another title, one with more symbolic meaning, because I quickly realized that the siblings' respite was not a respite at all. In Indian Paintbrush, the Carsons, young adults from the modern day, merely find new trouble. They encounter challenges and change amid the deceptive calm of America's home front during the Second World War.

For Natalie and Caitlin, the two sisters, change means starting romances with wartime airmen. For Cody, the youngest brother, it means fighting injustice at a camp for Japanese Americans. For Adam and Greg, the oldest brothers, it means building new families with wives from other eras. For all, it means burying old ghosts, accepting new realities, and confronting mortal threats in a time when possessing knowledge of the future could get you killed.

Though Indian Paintbrush is much different than most of my earlier works, it offers many of the same trappings. There are car chases, celebrity encounters, coming-of-age moments, and a thorough examination of a day gone by. Fans of The Mine, Mercer Street, and Hannah's Moon, my other World War II books, may appreciate the glimpse of the war at home. Readers who enjoyed The Mine, The Show, and The Mirror may like watching a vibrant family grow.

Set mostly in Phoenix, Arizona, in the winter and spring of 1944, Indian Paintbrush continues a sweeping historical saga that began with River Rising and The Memory Tree and will continue with at least two more books. The novel, available in Kindle format, goes on sale today at and its twelve international sites.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The road from Kindle to print

Since February 2012, when I released The Mine, my first novel, I have put the cart before the horse. While many authors, traditionally published and independent alike, publish books in print before migrating to audio, ebooks, and other media, I did just the opposite.

After publishing The Mine as a Kindle book nearly seven years ago, I let it sit for more than a year before converting it to audio through Podium Publishing. I let another four years pass before bundling the novel with The Journey and The Show in the Northwest Passage boxed set.

It wasn't until this month that I decided to do what I probably should have done in the beginning. At the urging of two readers, I converted my oldest manuscript into my newest print book. The Mine is now something I can put on a shelf.

I hope to follow through with the remaining four books of the Northwest Passage series this winter and then convert the American Journey and Carson Chronicles novels to print (and audio) by the middle of 2020.

In the meantime, I will still put the cart before the horse and release new Kindle books as fast as time and circumstances allow. The next one, Indian Paintbrush, comes out later this week.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembering the Great War

In one of the most poignant scenes in The Show, featured on BookBub today, time traveler Grace Vandenberg tells a distant relative that World War I will end on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." Spoken in October 1918, in the waning weeks of what was then the most destructive war in history, the words comfort a woman who is worried about the fate of a brother fighting in France.

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of that day, when the Allies and Germany put down their guns, cooled their rhetoric, and began the arduous and unpleasant work of settling a conflict that claimed more than nine million combatants and seven million civilians.

Those who know the history of Veterans Day, observed in the United States tomorrow, know that the important holiday resulted from the armistice signed in a private railroad car on November 11, 1918. Though the name and even the observation date have changed over the years, the significance of the holiday has not.

I chose to set two novels -- The Show and The Memory Tree -- in the autumn of 1918 because I consider that time period both fascinating and relevant to what's going on today. Despite a hundred years of armed confrontations, including the biggest one of all, nations still struggle to resolve their differences in peaceful ways.

(Today's date also has some personal relevance. A beloved uncle, my father's oldest brother and a veteran himself, was born on November 11, 1918, and given the middle name Peace.)

Though my contributions cover the home front in 1918, many other works focus on the war itself. I highly recommend Jeff Shaara's To the Last Man and Joseph Persico's Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour, in addition to several classics on the war. One of the best lists of these works can be found at Barnes & Noble.

Those more interested in Hollywood portrayals of what contemporaries called the War to End All Wars may want to consider the list of iMDB's ten best World War I movies. I would recommend numbers 1, 4, 5, and 10 on that list and throw in Flyboys for good measure.

A photo essay of the western front, published last May in The Atlantic, offers readers a glimpse of the war zone today. I encourage anyone interested in this period of history to check these resources out.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Review: Beneath a Scarlet Sky

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to books about World War II. From Gordon Prange's At Dawn We Slept, which I read in college, to Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, which I listened to last year, I have consumed more than thirty works on the war.

So I did not need much motivation this month to add another title to that list. I needed even less to listen to a celebrated novel that covers several aspects of the war from an unlikely perspective.

In Beneath a Scarlet Sky, author Mark Sullivan has created an all-encompassing work that is reminiscent of All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale. Based on a true story of a forgotten hero, it is a gripping novel that raises the bar in its genre.

Set mostly in northern Italy, the book details the trials and triumphs of Pino Lella, who, as a teenager from 1943 to 1945, fought the occupying Germans -- first as a mountaineer guiding Jews over the Alps to Switzerland, then as a spy posing as the driver for a Nazi general, and finally as a reluctant Italian partisan.

Despite a violent political environment that pits Italians against each other, Pino maintains his ties with family and friends and finds love with the beautiful Anna, a woman six years his senior.

Though the novel is large at 524 pages, it never feels large. In Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Sullivan tells a riveting tale that holds the reader's attention from the start. Will Damron, narrator of the nearly 18-hour audiobook, does justice to the author's epic work.

I would recommend the book to anyone who loves World War II history, suspense, and stories of courage. Rating: 5/5.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Another day, another draft

"Writing the last page of the first draft," author Nicholas Sparks once observed, "is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period."

I must agree. As one who has experienced that moment more than a dozen times in the past seven years, I can honestly say it's pretty special. Finishing even the roughest of rough drafts is an achievement worth celebrating — if only for a while.

Early Saturday morning I finished the last page of my latest first draft. Indian Paintbrush, the third novel of the five-book Carson Chronicles series, is now, officially, a full-size work in progress.

Set mostly in Phoenix, Arizona, in the winter and spring of 1944, the story follows the five time-traveling Carson siblings as they build new families and chase their parents through the twentieth century.

Much attention is given to sisters Natalie and Caitlin, their relationships with wartime aviators, and brother Cody's experiences as a regular visitor to a Japanese American internment camp.

I hope to publish the 88-chapter book, the sequel to River Rising and The Memory Tree, by the middle of December.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Becoming a grandfather

Like many Baby Boomers, I have always thought of grandparents as older people. Women who sit in rocking chairs and knit sweaters. Men who tell fishing stories on creaking porches. Folks who start life with a two-generation head start on the rest of us. Someone else.

I don't think that way anymore. Today I think of grandparents as the woman I married thirty-two years ago and the man I see in the mirror several times a day. Time, as they say, catches up with everyone. And at nine forty-one on the Ides of August, it caught up with me.

Thanks to the joyous arrival of a little girl late last night, I became a grandfather for the first time. Like many others who followed texts and emails closely after my oldest daughter, Heidi, went into labor, I had to wait several hours to learn the particulars. But the wait was more than worth it.

Stella Irene Knipe, like her exhausted parents, is doing well. At seven pounds, two ounces, and twenty inches long, with a pleasantly mellow disposition, she looks like a kid who is ready for prime time.

I plan to see my granddaughter in person for the first time next month, when Cheryl and I can get away from Las Vegas, make the long trip to rural northern Idaho, and complete this life change. I can't wait.

Until then, I am content to know that Stella is happy and healthy; that her parents, Heidi and Will, are as pleased as punch; and that sometimes life's milestones are all they are supposed to be.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Taking a summertime break

According to Alan Cohen, author of more than twenty inspirational books and CDs, "There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest." "Use both," he advises, "and overlook neither."

This month I plan to pay more than lip service to rest. For the first time in more than a year, I will take a "break" from writing and marketing -- about three to four weeks -- and focus on other things.

This is a good time to take a breather. I am about halfway through the third Carson Chronicles book and at a point where more research and reflection might be beneficial. I still hope to publish the novel, set mostly in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1943 and 1944, by December.

While I am recharging my writing batteries, I will monitor the progress of my twelfth and longest audiobook. Chaz Allen, narrator of The Fire, September Sky, Mercer Street, Indiana Belle, and River Rising, is more than twenty chapters into The Memory Tree and should finish the second Carson book sometime in August or September.

I also plan to do some traveling and see at least a few more settings from previous works. Early this morning, I had the opportunity to visit Mount Shasta, a significant setting in River Rising and The Memory Tree and one of Northern California's natural wonders.

And though I did not see the time portal used by Tim and Caroline Carson, I did see stunning alpine scenery at Panther Meadows (photos). I encourage any visitors to the upper reaches of the Golden State to pay the area a visit. In July, anyway, it is beyond compare.

Best wishes to my readers and others on America's 242nd birthday. Have a happy and safe Fourth of July!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Getting an on-site inspection

There is nothing like visiting the scene of a scene to stir the senses and get a genuine feel for a time and place. I should know. I have done it several times, most notably on June 21, 2013, when I walked across the intersection of Sixth and Bank in Wallace, Idaho, at exactly the same time as protagonist Kevin Johnson in The Fire.

I intend to do something similar next month when I visit Upper Panther Meadow on the south slope of Mount Shasta in California. Readers of the Carson Chronicles may remember that the meadow is the location of one of three time-travel portals mentioned in the series. All three portals appear only on solstices and equinoxes.

The other portals, prominently featured in River Rising and The Memory Tree, are located near Sedona, Arizona, and New Paris, Pennsylvania. I visited the Sedona "portal" on Tuesday because I had the opportunity and because I wanted to see what members of the Carson family saw in two — soon to be three — works of fiction.

The general setting, south of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte (above) in Yavapai County, Arizona, was as I expected it to be: stark, stunning, and beautiful. With its abundant vegetation and inspiring landscapes, it was much more appealing than even the tourist photos and satellite images I used in creating several chapters in the books.

Because of the near-100-degree heat and my limited time schedule, I had hoped to get in, take my pictures, and get out. But like the Carsons, I found that trips to Red Rock Country can get problematic in a hurry. I took a wrong turn at a fork in a trail and ended up in a no man's land of rocks, juniper, sagebrush, and prickly pear — with no water, no map, and a bike that was not built for off-trail travel. Central Arizona, I quickly learned, was a land filled with surprises.

I needed a half hour to extract myself from the thicket, much to the surprise of my wife, Cheryl, who remained with our traveling cat in our air-conditioned pickup. Like the vendor at the trailhead who advised me to load up on water, she assumed I knew what I was doing.

In the end, though, the payoff was worth it. The final stop, southeast of Courthouse Butte on the Loop Trail, was as spectactular up close as it was in pictures. I made a mental note to come back soon.

I should note that I did not see the sofa-sized boulder described in River Rising and The Memory Tree. Nor did I see many open spaces or a time portal that floated in the air like a translucent sheet. Then again, I didn't expect to. The solstice was still nine days away.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A 'Tree' that bloomed early

I had originally planned this one for August. That was back in the tentative days of October, when I thought I would need ten months to plan, write, and edit a novel as long and expansive as River Rising.

Then something surprising happened. A book came together quickly. Inspiration came, ideas gelled, and words that so often escape me came knocking on my door. By the middle of February, the first draft of my twelfth novel, my most ambitious to date, was a reality.

Today, that work, The Memory Tree, goes live. Set in North America and Europe in 1918, the second book in the Carson Chronicles series literally continues where River Rising left off. It is a story that follows Tim and Caroline Carson and their time-traveling children through numerous trials as they try to reunite in the tense final months of World War I.

Like the parents they hope to find, the siblings search for answers in different places. While Adam and his pregnant wife, Bridget, settle in Tim's native northern Minnesota, unaware of a wildfire that will kill hundreds, Greg seeks clues in Caroline's ancestral home of Baja California. In the raw, bustling town of Tijuana, he finds love, adventure, and a slew of potential enemies. At the same time, Natalie, the ambitious journalist, follows a trail to wartime France, and teen twins Cody and Caitlin renew a friendship with a Gilded Age friend. Like their older sister, they are haunted by the losses and missed opportunities of 1889 and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the setting of their first time-travel experience.

Though family is an important theme in all of my books, it takes center stage here. In The Memory Tree, readers see the Carsons grow as individuals, experience their highs and lows, and meet distant relatives who come to life. They meet the war heroes, the eccentric heiress, the shrewd businessmen, the beloved matriarchs, and the devoted nurse. They meet them in the times and places that made them family legends and the objects of frequently told stories.

Settings also share the spotlight. Mount Shasta, Redding, Flagstaff, Sedona, and New Paris, Pennsylvania — important locales in River Rising — make encore appearances in The Memory Tree. Duluth, Minneapolis, Gettysburg, El Paso, and Coronado, California, are new. So are the international venues. In the second book, readers will see the Carsons travel to great lengths and push boundaries, both literal and figurative, in an attempt to bring their family together.

It is my hope that others will enjoy reading The Memory Tree as much as I enjoyed researching it and writing it. The novel, the second of five planned for the Carson Chronicles series, is available as a Kindle book on and its twelve international sites.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Review: Hotel on the Corner . . .

It remains one of the most troubling chapters in U.S. history. In the spring of 1942, more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, most from the West Coast, were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps in the interior of the country.

Though many books have explored the injustice, few, in my opinion, are as compelling as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Told from the perspective of a Chinese-American, in two stages of life, Jamie Ford's debut novel is a refreshing take on the subject.

In the 2009 work, set primarily in Seattle, Washington, in 1942 and 1986, Henry Lee develops and later reflects on his deep friendship with Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl and schoolmate caught up in turmoil of World War II. Much of the story centers around the Panama Hotel, a dilapidated building that houses the belongings and the memories of the people who were forced to flee.

Though Ford's novel is uneven in places, it is a captivating, beautifully told account of a turbulent time. Those who are familiar with the history, culture, and geography of the Emerald City, as I am, will love the author's lavish descriptions of daily life in Seattle's Chinese and Japanese communities. Those who simply like a good story will like Ford's portrayal of a poignant and timeless friendship.

I intend to read more on this period of history and see the movie, based on the book, when it comes out later this year. Rating: 5/5.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Finding family roots in fiction

Like my brother-in-law, who can trace his lineage to the Mayflower, and millions of others, I am a fan of genealogy. For many years, I taught genealogy classes in a public library, demonstrated useful databases, and helped countless patrons find their roots.

This was long before, a leader in family research, began touting its AncestryDNA service in creative television advertisements or before new sites and tools made it easier than ever to discover one's ancestors. Some of these resources can be found on Cyndi's List, a directory of genealogy web sites. It adds about 1,500 links a month to its collection of more than 300,000 links.

So when I had the opportunity to incorporate an activity I enjoy and appreciate into one of my books, I jumped on it. In The Memory Tree, the second novel in the Carson Chronicles series, the time-traveling Carson siblings use a variety of tools and resources to find their roots in places like Baja California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and France.

To keep track of all the names, dates, and relationships, I found it necessary to create genealogy or family-tree charts that went back seven generations. In The Memory Tree, Cody and Caitlin, the 18-year-old twins, spend quality time in 1918 with their great-great-great-grandfather, a Union Army captain and a Civil War hero. They find their distant relative by doing some old-fashioned research.

When I sent materials to my first few beta readers this month, I included the genealogy charts of the Carson family. I know firsthand how difficult it can be to keep track of names, dates, and events once you go beyond two or three generations. I intend to keep the charts and use them as I work my way through the five-book series.

The Memory Tree itself is now undergoing a third revision. I intend to publish the novel by the second week of May.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Finishing a draft and more

I exceeded Stephen King's ninety-day limit on drafts and departed from my "plotter" outline on more than one occasion, but in the end I did what I set out out to achieve. I completed the first draft of The Memory Tree several weeks ahead of schedule.

The novel, the sequel to River Rising and its twin in length, tone, and subject matter, now undergoes a revision process that will take about three months. I hope to publish the book, the second of five planned for the Carson Chronicles series, by the third week of May.

A cover reveal on this blog is set for later this month.

Earlier this month, Publisher's Weekly announced that it had selected Hannah's Moon for a BookLife review within the next several weeks. I will offer more information on that as it becomes available.

Work continues on the Hannah's Moon audiobook. Allyson Voller, who narrated The Mirror, is currently completing the project. River Rising, narrated by Chaz Allen, was released on Audible on January 5. All other published books are currently available in audio.

Readers will have an opportunity to download The Mirror Kindle book for free between February 24 and 28. The novel, the last in the Northwest Passage series, makes its first appearance on the prestigious BookBub promotion site on February 25.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Using the cumbersome comma

For me, the comma has always been the most problematic of punctuation marks. As a newspaper reporter in the 1980s and 1990s, I was taught to leave out the Oxford comma because it represented an extra keystroke. And the Associated Press Stylebook, the Bible for journalists since 1953, considered extra keystrokes mindless waste.

Later, as a graduate student, I was taught to put the Oxford back in. Formal writing demanded a more formal presentation. That meant putting a comma after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items because to do otherwise was to invite confusion.

Some of the most heinous uses of the comma — or its non-use — are documented on the web site Mental Floss. My favorite — "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God" — is particularly enlightening. Others examples are no less so.

For that reason, I use the comma in Oxford situations. But in other situations, I shy away from it. I don't like using commas after the first word in a sentence, before the last word in a sentence, or before a dependent clause. Grammatically correct or not, it looks funny.

I have a better grasp of other punctuation marks, but I use them less often because they are discouraged in fiction writing. Novelist Elmore Leonard, in his rules for writers, insists that no more than two or three exclamation marks should be used every 100,000 words. Many others believe the colon and semicolon should not be used at all.

Greats like James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, and William Faulkner have taken a minimalist approach to all punctuation. I don't go that far. I view punctuation marks much like the words they regulate. They are tools. And like all tools, they should be used wisely.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

An end-of-year progress report

"Progress," Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables, "is not accomplished in one stage." I consider that a good thing. Given the projected length of my next work, the second book in the five-book Carson Chronicles series, I might need ten to twelve stages.

Thanks to unexpected quiet time in November and early December, I have managed to write a third of the sequel to River Rising and hope to finish the rest of the first draft by the end of March. Like the original, the sequel presents the past from the perspective of the five Carson siblings and their parents. Unlike the original, it will be set partly in other countries — Mexico and France — and devote more space to Greg, the middle and most adventurous brother.

I hope to settle on a title and a cover in January when I resume writing in earnest. I am currently going back and forth between two possibilities. Both relate to a symbolic pine tree in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and a secondary character from the first book who will play a much larger role in the second. A few storylines will also make a comeback in Book 2, including one from the end of Book 1.

The River Rising audiobook is also one step closer to completion, thanks to the timely efforts of narrator Chaz Allen. The title is now in the final stages of review and should be available on,, and Apple iTunes by the first week of January.

I will update readers on both works as needed. In the meantime, I want to thank you for your support and encouragement and wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a happy and productive 2018!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

All the world's a baseball field

I like sports. I played them as I kid. I tried to play them as an adult. I watch them now. I like everything from the competition on the field to the spectacles in the stands. Sports events, whether Little League games or Super Bowls, are among the world's greatest stages.

For that reason, I have used them as settings in my books. Those who have read The Mine may remember that Chapter 34 is set at a minor-league baseball game in Seattle in 1941. In this chapter, the longest and arguably the most entertaining in the Northwest Passage series, protagonist Joel Smith tries to win over a reluctant Grace Vandenberg with humor and bravado and eventually succeeds.

Baseball, in fact, is a recurring theme in my works. In Mercer Street, three time-traveling women, long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans from 2016, watch the Cubs play in a rare World Series game in 1938. Later in the novel, they go to Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, and listen to Lou Gehrig declare that he is "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." In Chapter 64 of Hannah's Moon, history teachers David Baker and Margaret Doyle discover a mutual love of the national pastime at a minor-league game in Chattanooga in 1945.

Two books feature chapters set at college football games. In The Mine, Joel Smith tries to start a "wave" forty years before it becomes a stadium staple. In Mercer Street, Amanda Peterson makes a new friend at the Yale-Princeton clash on November 12, 1938.

In other novels, characters make social inroads at a bowling event (The Journey), a tennis match (Class of '59), and the Indianapolis 500 (Indiana Belle). Other characters in other books sail (The Mirror), roller-skate (River Rising), ride horses (The Fire, River Rising), or pedal a bicycle-built-for-two (September Sky). Only in The Show do the main characters refrain from sports events and recreational activities. And even then, Joel and Grace dream of going snow skiing.

Will I do more sports settings? Without a doubt. When people go to Pamplona, they run with the bulls. When they travel to Chicago, they check out Wrigley Field. Few devices in fiction writing lend themselves more to humor AND drama than sports and recreation.

College football will make another appearance in the second Carson Chronicles book, set for a summer 2018 release. After that, I will have to conjure more possibilities. Perhaps bobsledding. Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

No for now to NaNoWriMo

Each autumn I hear its siren song -- and each autumn I resist it, though I must admit it's getting tougher. Despite the allure of being a part of something big, there are always other, more important things to do. For that reason, I do not plan to join thousands of others in writing a 50,000-word manuscript in the next four weeks. Instead, I intend to enjoy a pleasant lull between novels eleven and twelve.

November will not be a time I rush headlong into National Novel Writing Month but rather a time I scan articles, read books, and write emails in preparation for the second Carson Chronicles book. I will do what I have done a dozen times in six years. I will dive into the glorious past.

Learning about distant eras, places, and events is half the fun of being a writer of historical fiction. When I lay the groundwork for a novel, I become a student again — a person who embarks on a series of new and interesting journeys.

This fall such journeys have taken me, figuratively, to Tijuana and Ensenada, Mexico; San Diego, California; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Flagstaff, Arizona; Duluth, Minnesota; and war-torn France in the summer and fall of 1918. I hope to gain what I can from each of these trips before I begin writing the sequel to River Rising in early January.

I also hope to aggressively market some of my older novels and see two audiobook projects through to their completion. Chaz Allen, who narrated The Fire and the first three American Journey books, has already begun recording River Rising. Allyson Voller, who narrated The Mirror last summer, will start Hannah's Moon later this fall.

One of these years I will participate in NaNoWriMo, if only to be a part of a creative writing event that has grown into a phenomenon since 1999. This year, however, I am content to let others have the fun. When taking a breather between 140,000-word novels, the temptation to write even more words on demand is one I can still resist.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: The Cuban Affair

If there is one thing I like about Nelson DeMille, it’s that he manages to get my attention just about when I am ready to give up on him. Two years after reading Radiant Angel, my fourteenth DeMille novel, I was beginning to think that the author, now 74, had retired. Then he came out with The Cuban Affair and all was right with the world.

In The Cuban Affair, DeMille introduces us to Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, a 35-year-old army veteran who operates a charter boat in Florida. Cynical but honorable, like the protagonists in DeMille’s earlier works, Mac searches for ways to retire crippling debt when one comes walking through the door of his Key West watering hole.

The contact convinces Mac to participate in a covert mission to liberate millions in hidden assets left behind by fleeing Cubans following the rise of Fidel Castro in 1959. With the help of a beautiful Cuban architect from Miami, Mac travels to Havana with a tour group and begins his biggest adventure since returning from Afghanistan.

What follows is DeMille’s most enjoyable story since Wild Fire, which I read shortly after it came out in 2006. Like the novels of the John Corey series, centered around a former NYPD homicide detective, The Cuban Affair offers the kind of suspense, thrills, and humor that have made DeMille a bestselling author for nearly thirty years.

I recommend the novel — and the unabridged audiobook narrated by Scott Brick — to anyone looking for a literary adventure and a revealing glimpse at the enigma that is modern Cuba. Rating: 4/5.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Review: American Ulysses

In rankings of U.S. presidents, Ulysses Grant typically finishes at or near the bottom. Most contemporary historians have little use for the Civil War general who served in the White House from 1869 to 1877.

In downgrading the eighteenth president, many point to the scandals that rocked his second term. Others cite Grant’s hands-off leadership style. A few draw inordinate attention to his personal failings.

Ronald C. White is not among them. In American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, the author gives us a man that modern historians and scholars, often driven by modern biases, tend to overlook.

To be sure, White, the New York Times-bestselling author, does not sweep Gilded Age corruption under the rug. He describes the unethical behavior and influence peddling that occurred under Grant’s watch in great detail, but he does so in a way that exonerates the two-term chief executive of everything but misplaced trust.

White’s Grant is a study in contrasts: a fierce, dogged warrior who loathed violence; an inarticulate speaker who was an eloquent writer; a man who hated conflict and controversy but invited both as a champion of newly freed slaves, Native Americans, and women.

The Grant is this thoughtful work is also a compelling figure: a boy who favored reading books over hunting animals, a young soldier who fought loneliness when separated from his bride, and a poor man who struggled most of his life to make an adequate living.

In short, White fills the gaps left by all too many texts and history books. I recommend American Ulysses to anyone who loves history, underdogs, and new takes on old subjects. Rating: 4.5/5.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Heading down a different road

If there is one thing I like about being an indie author, it is having the freedom to dance to my own drum. Last spring, I faced a choice — start a third time-travel series or create a family saga I have wanted to write for years. Had I been bound by the rules of traditional publishing, I would have had to pick one or the other. Because I was not, I was able to do both. I was able to produce a work that takes readers down a different and compelling new road.

Say hello to River Rising. Like the novels of the Northwest Passage and American Journey series, it follows contemporary time travelers to America’s past. Unlike The Mine and September Sky, it launches a series where my protagonists — two Arizona professors and their five grown children — march through time together. It begins a family saga that I hope readers will enjoy and embrace.

On December 1, 2017, Adam Carson, 27, is an engineer trying to hold a family together following the unsolved disappearance of his parents from a Sedona trail. Thrust into an uncomfortable role when he is still recovering from another loss, he inadvertently learns that his conventional parents aren’t so conventional after all. They are time travelers who, unbeknownst to family, friends, and authorities, have traveled to — and become stuck in — the 1880s.

Armed with the information he needs to find them, Adam convinces his younger siblings to join him on a rescue mission to the nineteenth century. While Greg, the adventurous middle brother, follows leads in Arizona and California, Adam, ambitious journalist Natalie, and high school seniors Cody and Caitlin do the same in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Like the residents of the bustling steel community, all are unaware of a flood that will destroy the city on May 31, 1889.

In River Rising, readers will see America in the heady, reckless days of the Gilded Age, when coal was king, robber barons ruled the roost, and railroads stretched from the industrial East to the untamed West. They will see five young adults adapt to challenges, find friendship and love, and grow in ways that surprise even themselves.

The 139,000-word novel, the first in the Carson Chronicles series, is my largest and most ambitious project to date. Inspired by the works of John Jakes, author of the celebrated North and South trilogy, it lays the foundation of a multi-genre series that will span nearly a hundred years and take readers across the United States and beyond.

Filled with history, fantasy, adventure, and romance, River Rising is a poignant, sometimes humorous, portrait of a family, a country, and a time. The novel, available as a Kindle book on and its twelve international sites, goes on sale today.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Review: Endurance

History, I think it is safe to say, favors the winners. It remembers and rewards those who try and succeed, not those who try and fail — or at least not those who fail to do anything but simply survive.

There are exceptions, of course. The British at Dunkirk come to mind. So do Washington’s army in the Battle of Long Island and the crew of Apollo 13. But for the most part, history does not smile on those who fail to accomplish the one thing they set out to do.

On occasion, however, the stories of those who fail persist and become the stuff of legend. The tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton, leader of the doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, is a case in point.

The famed British polar explorer did not achieve his goal of leading his team across Antarctica in 1915. He instead lost the Endurance, his three-masted sailing ship, before his party even began its trek across the southernmost continent.

Yet Shackleton is remembered and revered today because of his efforts to save his crew, including an 800-mile, open-boat voyage through the most treacherous waters on earth. These feats are the focus of a riveting audiobook I enjoyed this week.

Written by Alfred Lansing and narrated by Simon Prebble, Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage is a triumph in storytelling — one that describes the misery of 29 men and 70 dogs in excruciating detail as they battle for survival on a frozen sea.

Readers and listeners who favor nonfiction works like Unbroken, Into Thin Air, Shadow Divers, and The Perfect Storm will find much to like in Lansing’s account, published in 1959. Ordinary individuals, with temperaments and shortcomings we can all relate to, endure conditions and events that would break even the heartiest of souls.

I would recommend Lansing's timeless classic to any fan of history and adventure. Endurance offers both in shiploads. Rating: 5/5. (Photo of Endurance in 1915 courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A find that could not be eclipsed

While most news organizations this past week focused on two objects in the sky, at least a few paid lip service to an object in the ocean and a truly remarkable discovery. Thanks to an expedition team led by Paul Allen, the fabled warship USS Indianapolis has been found.

A research vessel owned by the Microsoft co-founder discovered the heavy cruiser last Friday in 18,000 feet of water in the Philippine Sea. Sunk by a Japanese submarine in the early hours of July 30, 1945, the Indianapolis has been the subject of countless movies, news articles, debates, and books, including my own Hannah’s Moon.

Informative articles on the ship’s discovery can be found on the CBS, Chicago Tribune, CNN, Discover, New York Times, Seattle P-I, and KOMO-TV (Seattle) web sites. Many thanks to readers who brought this story to my attention last week. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons and the Naval History and Heritage Command.)

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The traveling road show (2017)

For most of my life, Las Vegas, Nevada, has been a footnote.

In 2001, I spent part of my fortieth birthday at Treasure Island and beat the slots — the nickel slots, mind you — for the only time. My twenty-dollar payout was enough to finance a buffet dinner and a cocktail and that was somewhere between splendid and sublime.

Nine years later, while traveling from my home in Helena, Montana, to my in-laws’ house in Mesa, Arizona, I purchased a new pick-up truck. I had scoured the four corners of the globe for a black Nissan Frontier with a manual transmission and found one on a lot in Vegas.

With those two exceptions, Sin City has been Flyover Country, an afterthought, a place I’ve seen on television, movies, and postcards but rarely up close. For the past three days, however, it has been something more than that. It has been my home.

Thanks to my education-warrior-new-Masters-degree-packing wife, who starts a teaching position in Las Vegas this week, I am now a resident of the Silver State. As such, I hope to blaze new trails as a writer, a researcher, and a person who loves to learn and explore.

I know I did plenty of learning and exploring as a resident of Alabama. In my three years in the South, I immersed myself in the history, music, food, and culture of a different region and came away more educated. As I result, I was able to write more knowledgeably about Galveston and Chattanooga, the settings of two novels, and even places beyond Dixie that were suddenly within reach of a car.

Las Vegas presents even more opportunities. Located in the heart of the Southwest, it puts deserts, mountains, California, the Pacific coast, and nearly a dozen national parks in play. I look forward to setting at least a few future novels in some of these places.

In the meantime, I have a two-bedroom apartment to settle, a job market to test, and a vibrant city to explore. Inspiration awaits.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Writing in a single-genre world

I admit it has always been a challenge. When you write multi-genre books in a single-genre world, you sail into the headwinds of an industry that thrives on classification. Libraries of all kinds favor the categorization of fiction literature. So do bookstores, online retailers, and advertisers. They favor it because it is the quickest and most efficient way to bring readers and books they might like together.

As a former librarian and a consumer of literature, I like this system. I like knowing that if I read and enjoy a book like Amish Vampires in Space, I can probably find a similar work in a matter of minutes.

As the author of eleven multi-genre novels, however, I take a more nuanced view. I care less about an industry with scores of genres and sub-genres than about marketing my books to the right readers.

Anne A. Wilson, author of the multi-genre book Hover, identified some of the obstacles in an interview last year. She noted that Library Journal and Booklist reviewed her book as women’s fiction, while two other publications treated it as romantic suspense or a thriller.

I can relate. On Amazon alone, my books have been classified as historical fiction, time travel, romance, coming of age, fantasy, literary fiction, teen and young adult, and mystery, thriller, and suspense. On occasion, The Journey, my second and shortest novel, is listed in the Ghosts and Haunted Houses sub-genre because it features, among other things, a bad-tempered spirit in a creaky old house.

Readers, of course, assign their own labels. Goodreads members have placed The Mine, my first novel, on no fewer than 647 top shelves, including time travel, sci-fi fantasy, and ... (sigh) ... chick lit. If I were asked to put this book on a single shelf, I could not do it.

One of the biggest challenges, beyond selecting a genre — Amazon lets authors pick two — is coming up with a cover that at least pays lip service to the labels. When a novel is equal parts historical fiction, fantasy, romance, and mystery, it is difficult to find images that do justice to the entire book. For that reason, I have leaned toward simple, abstract covers that evoke a variety of themes.

Despite these challenges, I have resisted the temptation to scale back and write for a single audience. I favor multi-genre novels because, like life itself, they are complete stories. They are not just one thing or the other. They are a bit of adventure, romance, good times, and bad times. They are a combination of many things.

Last week, I finished the rough draft of River Rising, the first book in the Carson Chronicles series. As with the ten novels that preceded it, it will combine history, family relationships, adventure, romance, and suspense in one time-travel stew. How I will classify it when it comes out this fall will be a problem. But it’s a problem I’m glad to have.