Friday, April 22, 2016

Putting disaster on center stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 15, 2016

A book with a bit of everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 1, 2016

Touting the tools of the trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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