I want to extend a hearty welcome to thriller writer Mary Deal, my guest blogger today! Mary is a native of Walnut Grove in California’s Sacramento River Delta, has lived in England, the Caribbean, and now resides in Kapaa, Hawaii. (I’m insanely jealous). She has published three novels: The Tropics: Child of a Storm – Caught in a Rip – Hurricane Secret, an adventure suspense; The Ka, a paranormal Egyptian suspense; and River Bones, a thriller, which was a winner in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards competition. A sequel is being written. Down to the Needle, her next thriller, is due out early 2010. Mary is also a Pushcart Prize nominee. Read More
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MA: I’m happy today to introduce my guest-blogger, Nelson O. Ottenhausen. Nelson is a retired Army officer and an accomplished writer published nationally in periodicals and anthologies. His latest poem, Out of Sane, appears in a Siruss Poe anthology collection, Mind Mutations. His book, Flowers, Love & Other Things, released in November of 2005, is a selected collection of his own published poetry and short stories.
Several of his short stories have been published and one, A Fish Story, is included in the popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books, Chicken Soup for the Fisherman’s Soul, now available in book stores everywhere. His short story, Duty, appeared in the December/January 2006 issue of the Pensacola Today magazine. Feature articles of his have been published in various magazines about the USS Oriskany, an aircraft carrier sunk in the Gulf of Mexico in May of 2006 in the Navy’s artificial reef program, and Survivors a human-interest story about a Pensacola military family that survived Pearl Harbor, World War II, Hurricane Ivan and 70 years of marriage.
He has published five novels, Civil War II, (2004), The Blue Heron (2005) and The Killing Zone: Evil’s Playground (2007), Jugs & Bottles (2009) and The Sin Slayer (2010).
Nelson founded Pen WISE Poets (Writers in Service to Education), a literary arts outreach program in the schools of Northwest Florida, which he managed from 1994 thru 1998, and in 1995, he was cited by Governor Lawton Chiles of Florida for this work. In October of 1995, he received a fellowship for his writings, and in August of the same year was appointed by Florida’s Secretary of State to the Directory of Visiting Artists to lecture in Florida schools about poetry, only one of five poets throughout the state to be honored so.
He holds a Bachelor of Business Degree in Operations Management and a Masters of Business Administration Degree from Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois.
A former native of northwestern Illinois, he now resides in Gulf Breeze, Florida.
Okay, that was a mouthful! Tell us how you began writing novels, because it seems like you wrote a lot of poetry before this.
NO: I wrote poetry for over 7 years and had 40 poems published, 28 of them I actually received compensation, but the highest payment I ever received for a poem was $35.00. In the late-90s, I came to the conclusion I was wasting my time with poetry and began writing novels. However, the poetry writing experience taught me to express my thoughts in a more concise manner and greatly improved my sentence structuring.
MA: Tell us about your novels, and did any real-life experiences inspire them?
NO: My first 2 novels are action adventure novels with political overtones and loosely based on my military experience as an Army officer. Almost all of the main characters in my novels are based on people I know or have met in a professional working relationship in some way.
Here’s the list:
Civil War II – My first published novel, action/adventure (2004) – A story of coercion, bribery and a military coup, overthrowing a sitting President of the United States, the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court.
The Blue Heron – An action/adventure (2005) – A story about a U.S. military covert operation and coup to overthrow the Cuban government.
The Killing Zone: Evil’s Playground – Police thriller/mystery (2007) – Police Detective Daniel Patrick O’Malley is called out to investigate the death of a young woman in what appears to be an apparent suicide, but he soon discovers she is a victim in a series of bizarre murders.
Jugs & Bottles – Police thriller/comedy (2009) – A woman deaf since birth, is targeted for murder after witnessing a Mafia style execution then identifying the two hit men to the police. She, along with her dog become involved in a series of chaotic events as two brothers attempt to silence her with their bumbling, comedic ways.
The Sin Slayer – Police mystery/suspense thriller (2010) – For thirty years, a self-ordained church leader has convinced his small congregation to secretly kill dozens of people after hearing an inner voice, whom he believes to be God, telling him to cleanse the world of chosen sinners.
Flowers, Love & Other Things (2005) – A collection of poems and short stories by Nelson O. Ottenhausen published in other media from 1994 through 2005.
MA: That’s quite an assortment! Are your heroes based upon real people you’ve known?
NO: Protagonists, as well as the main characters in all of my novels, are mirrored after someone I knew, both relatives and friends.
MA: I’m intrigued by Jugs & Bottles because your protagonist is not human. Tell us more.
NO: My hero in that story is a dog. His strong points are; he is loyal, obedient and lovable, and will face danger without hesitation to protect his charge. His biggest weakness; he tries to befriend everyone because of his lovable attitude.
MA: I take it you have many different antagonists in your stories?
NO: Each novel has a strong “bad guy” and all of them are a little whacky. In Jugs & Bottles, there are really 2 “bad guys” and 2 good “bad guys” (2 brothers wanting be major criminals, but just don’t have the smarts nor ability to become so).
MA: As prolific a writer as you are, I assume you are working on something new?
NO: I’m presently working on two novels, Black Mist of the Trinity, a story of terrorists, nuclear warfare and black OPS; and Auggie, a historical novel about a young Russian girl growing up in Japanese occupied China during World War II, based on the true life experiences of a long time acquaintance.
MA: Anything else you’d like to add?
NO: I am President and part owner of Patriot Media, Inc., a small independent publishing company in Niceville, Florida. We are a traditional publisher in the sense we do not charge authors to publish their work. We are specialized and publish only military theme books, both fiction and non-fiction. To review our titles, go to www.patriotmedia.inc.
MA: Nelson, thanks for your service in the Army, and thanks for being my guest today. Folks, please visit Nelson’s Patriot Media website, as well as his personal site: www.booksbynelson.com. Read More
MA: I am pleased to have visit with me today, Australian author Diana Hockley. Diana lives in a southeast Queensland country town, surrounded by her husband, Andrew, two 19 year old cats and four pet rats. She is a dedicated reader, community volunteer, and presenter of a weekly classical program on community radio. She and her husband once owned and operated the famous Mouse Circus which travelled and performed for ten years throughout Queensland and northern New South Wales. Now that the circus is sold, she is the mouse judge for the Queensland Fancy Rat and Mouse club shows!
Diana and Andrew also bred Scottish Highland cattle. Prior to 1995, her last occupation was medical transcriptionist specializing in Radiology at a major Brisbane hospital.
They have three adult children and three grandchildren.
Diana has had articles and short stories accepted and published in a variety of magazines, among them, Mezzo Magazine USA, Honestly Woman (Australia) the Highlander, Austin Times and Austin UK, Australian Women’s Weekly, It’s A Rats World, Solaris UK, Literary Journal of University of Michigan USA, Foliate Oak, children’s website Billabong. She was awarded Scenic Rim Art Festival prizes for poetry and fiction. Since that time she has published two crime novels, The Naked Room and The Celibate Mouse.
Now, that’s one of the most diverse – and interesting – backgrounds I’ve ever seen. How did you go from the circus to novels?
DH: I wrote a novel in 1971 which was rejected but deemed “worthy of merit.” After this, I didn’t write anything more until I attended university when I was in my 30s. Raising children was a fulltime occupation for a widow, so I didn’t write anything more until 2005, by which time I was living on a small farm in rural Australia, married again and on my own a great deal in the show season. I started off with articles about our animals – always a rich source of amusement for city magazines, then ventured some short stories and had some success there as well. It was a short step to novel writing after that.
MA: Did your professional career inspire your writing? Are any of your characters based upon real-life people with whom you’ve interacted?
No, my professional life – from which I retired in 1993 – didn’t inspire my writing, but I think some of my characters couldn’t help being heavily disguised as some people I know!
MA: I won’t ask which of them resemble rats! Tell us about your stories.
DH: My debut novel, The Naked Room, fits into the crime genre, the idea for which came to me one night when I was in the studio at the radio station. What would happen if the pianist didn’t turn up for the big concert? There would have to be a very good reason why not. So I set about creating one!
MA: How did you develop your protagonist?
DH: I allowed Ally Carpenter’s character to develop in response to her abduction and the personalities of her kidnappers. I once read that you have to listen to your characters, rather than trying to force them to do what you want (within reason of course) so that is what I tried to do and it seems to have worked.
MA: Is there a hero in addition to a heroine in your story?
DH: It’s hard to say who is the hero in The Naked Room. Is it her boyfriend who takes it upon himself to investigate the crime? Is it her father who holds himself together and works on the ransom money? Or are they both the hero? My heroine’s strength is that she refuses to give in. My hero’s strengths are neither of them are about to give up searching for Ally Carpenter.
MA: I understand you have more than one antagonist in the book. Tell us about them.
DH: Oh yes, there are three bad guys and one bad woman in this – but they too have an agenda other than money.
MA: Any real life experiences that flowed over into your stories?
DH: No, not really. I psyched myself into standing behind each character, listening to them speaking and the reaction of those around them – like reading a newspaper over someone’s shoulder. And I am sure they got a bit cranky with me sometimes (chuckling).
MA: So who migrates over from The Naked Room to your other novels?
DH: I have taken the main female detective from The Naked Room and given her the starring role in The Celibate Mouse. In this novel, the reader finds out what is happening to three of the protagonists from The Naked Room. For After Ariel, my next story, I have taken one of the characters from The Naked Room and made her the character. We find out what is going on with some of the Naked Room characters who were not in Celibate Mouse (some have moved on, it’s two years later) and Susan Prescott turns up again, now an Inspector. I don’t want to over-use the same characters beyond giving continuity to the series.
MA: Any last thoughts?
DH: It’s said that you should always write what you know, so my novels will always be set in small towns/rural/Australian city/UK or Wales and they will feature people whose lifestyles I understand and whose point of view I can put across. My stories will never feature high finance, spies or sophisticated political themes because I have no knowledge of these genres. I do know, however, how people keep secrets!
I tend to write my main characters in first POV and the rest in third, with the exception of The Naked Room which is very different, darker and more violent than The Celibate Mouse.
MA: Thanks, Diana! Please visit Diana Hockley’s website for more information about her writing: http://www.dianahockley.webs.com. Read More
MA: My guest today is Peter G. Pollak. Peter is a retired business executive who has also been an educator and editor of two weekly newspapers. He also runs a web business where he interviews people, and he writes a blog on New York State government and politics.
Welcome, Peter. Please tell us more about your background.
PP: My working titles have included visiting professor, editor, publisher, CEO and lately chairman (of the company I founded), but what has characterized my professional career has been a willingness to take a risk in order to make a difference. After finishing my B.A., I spent a year as a VISTA Volunteer. Although I went back to school and eventually earned a Ph.D. (in history and education), in between I was editor of two alternative newspapers. In 1985, I said good-bye forever to being an employee and started a press release delivery service which is still in existence (under the name readMedia). I’m semi-retired now, spending most of my time writing.
MA: With your particular credentials in business and journalism, how did you end up writing fiction?
PP: I love to read fiction. To me fiction is on par with painting, sculpture and music as a higher art form. It requires both talent and dedication and good fiction rewards the reader by transporting h/h to another reality. In doing so, the reader can experience life’s horrors and its potentials.
MA: In your novel, did you create characters based upon people you’ve known in your personal and professional life?
PP: I don’t draw on real people for my characters. I suppose my characters are composites of people I’ve met, read about or come in contact with in some other way.
MA: Tell us about your novel.
PP: The Expendable Man is a political thriller. The protagonist is thrown into a bad situation for which he is ill prepared. He not only has to find a way out of that situation, but in order to regain his life he must find out why he was put there in the first place. He must survive the crucibles of being wrongly convicted of a crime and contracting a normally fatal illness.
MA: I love political thrillers. What makes your hero who he is? Strengths? Weaknesses?
PP: At the beginning he’s all about himself. He lacks family or friend. He’s not a bad person, but one who hasn’t allowed himself to smell the roses. No one can go through hell without being changed in the process. I hope my readers see the changes that take place in his personality as he struggles to regain his health and his freedom.
MA: Every good thriller has to have a bad guy, so I assume you have a unique one?
PP: Yes, of course. There is the person who sets the ball in motion and the one who has to do the dirty work of making my protagonist “expendable.” Readers may recognize their types.
MA: I imagine you don’t have any real life experiences that you drew from to create your story, or do you?
PP: I’ve been behind bars…for a few hours. I was arrested when I was about 19 for violating a local ordinance, selling without a permit. I was trying to earn money one summer selling encyclopedias. Later I had the privilege of teaching political science 101 to inmates at more than one NYS Correctional Institution (prison). What’s worse than being locked up? Answer: facing a deadly disease. What if you had to contend with both? That’s the fate of my protagonist.
MA: Well, I never saw that coming! What are your future writing plans?
PP: I’m working on a mystery which I hope to finish by the end of the summer and then publish a second mystery set in the same city using two of the characters from the first one. The protagonist of The Expendable Man has ridden off into the sunset. I’ll let my readers imagine what his life is like, but I think readers will like the main characters in my next two novels — Jake Barnes, a retired cop turned P.I., and Karen Battaglia, recently promoted to detective on her local police force.
MA: Excellent! Any parting thoughts for my readers?
PP: If you live in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. region, I’d be happy to do a reading for your book club or other organization. Contact me through my website: http://www.petergpollak.com/
MA: I’m joined today by author Ellen Brazer. Before getting published, Ellen did just about everything but write. She was in business. She worked for the State of Israel, and she was involved with the community. She actually did not begin to write seriously until she was in her forties. So tell us, Ellen, with no real writing background, how was it that you came to pen novels?
EB: I was waiting for some medical test results to come back. I was extremely successful in business when I was very young and while waiting for that phone call I asked myself what mountain had I yet to climb. The answer for me was writing a book. I have a dear friend who is a Pulitzer Prize winner. When I wrote my first draft of Hearts of Fire I pressed the Caps Lock key on the computer and wrote the entire first draft in capital letters with almost no punctuation. It was my writing friend who said, there is something here and you must keep going. That first book took me 10 years to write. The manuscript went from under the bed to the closet and then back under the bed again. A doctor friend took it on a ski vacation and he was the one that finally got me to become serious about getting the book published.
MA: I can’t even imagine going more than a full sentence with the Caps Lock Key on! Tell us about what you write.
EB: I write historical fiction. Let me tell you about Clouds Across the Sun. Before the end of WWII, Hitler charged a group of his most trusted and brilliant comrades with a mission—educate your progeny and then elevate them to positions of power throughout the world. Steeped in fact and impeccably researched, Clouds Across the Sun is the story of just one of these children.
From Naples, Florida, New York City, and Washington D.C., to Israel and then the killing grounds of Vilnius, Poland (Lithuania) this story is one of great romance, discovery, redemption, and enlightenment as Jotto Wells unravels the intrigue surrounding a plan to take over the government of the United States.
MA: How did you develop your characters? Was there a great deal of research involved into the lives of people from this era?
EB: I am not sure as writers that we develop our characters. I think they are born to the page and then they develop us. Whenever I have a new character I find myself sitting back and watching their personality emerge. Sometimes I have to rein them in when it feels like they are doing something out of character but most of the time they are in control of me. In Clouds Across the Sun I have more than one protagonist and I was always amazed that they each had their own distinct voice.
MA: More than one protagonist? Tell us about one of them.
EB: I will focus on Jo for this question. She is very independent and self-assured. As the first woman Senator from New York she is intelligent and opinionated. Her greatest weakness is that she falls prey to her family’s influence over her.
MA: Any unique antagonists, other than the obvious?
EB: I think I do bad guys really well and in this book there are some really evil people. When creating an antagonist in the Holocaust time period it is challenging to show all sides of the personality. My antagonist is a Nazi doctor from the Concentration Camps. We see him as a dangerous monster but we also see him as a loving father. The danger is constant when he comes to America after the war with one goal: placing someone under his influence as President of the United States
MA: Do your novels ever fool people into thinking more of the fiction is actual fact?
EB: I write historical fiction that is so based in fact that when people finish my book they tell me that they are chilled and always ask themselves: Could this happen? Is it happening? I talk about IBM, The Red Cross, Hitler and Henry Ford’s close friendship and how the U.S. allowed thousands of known Nazis into the U.S. in exchange for information about our new enemy, Russia.
MA: Interesting…so what’s next?
EB: I am writing an historical novel that takes place in the year 135 of the Common Era. It was a time period when the Jews believed that Shimon Bar Kockba was the Messiah. Following him, they managed to defeat Rome and for a three year period Israel was under the control of the Jews. And So It Was Written is the story of two brothers, one who becomes a famous physician in Rome and the other becomes a commander in the Jewish army. There are some very unique and controversial elements to this book that I am keeping close to the vest so stayed tuned. I am in the process of rewriting and I hope to be finished within the year.
MA: Well thank you, Ellen. I encourage everyone to visit Ellen’s website for more information: http://ellenbrazer.com/Home_Page.html Read More
MA: Julie Achterhoff was born in Michigan, but brought up mostly in the big city of San Francisco and a small island in the Gulf of Mexico. Her imagination was sparked by experiencing these different ways of life. She grew up reading very adult horror, mystery, and thriller novels passed to her by her mother. When reading she would get as excited about the writing of the books as the reading. She ended up becoming a home birth midwife with five children of her own. Still, with every book she read there was that gnawing urge to write something of her own.
Julie – welcome BACK! This is your third visit to my blog, and while I’ve had a few authors guest with me twice, you are the first with a triple visit.
My readers can go back and read the original posts Julie did with me, first on January 1, 2010, and then again on September 10, 2010.
Please remind my readers what you did before beginning your writing journey.
JA: I was a midwife raising a family for about 17 years, but when the oldest got big and responsible enough to watch the younger ones I started taking a couple classes a week at the local college. Of course I picked writing and English classes. I didn’t even dare hope to actually write anything. It was this deep, dark secret I kept even from myself! I started getting addicted when teachers and other students told me what they liked about my writing. That gave me more confidence. I suddenly realized the authors of every book I’d ever read were just regular people like me who probably started out not knowing if they could write. So I allowed my deeply buried creativity out and gave it full rein.
MA: I know you didn’t start writing novels right away, but you actually began with plays, is that right?
JA: My first major effort after some short stories and essays was actually a three-act play called Angel in the House. I really got excited about seeing my work performed. I eventually hoped against hope that I could work in the movie industry. But the structure used in plays and screenplays was very stilting for me. I had to pay so much attention to form that I felt it took away from the writing. I enjoyed just writing away without a care like I could with the short stories I’d written. I just couldn’t imagine putting enough words down to make up a whole darned book. But I decided to give it a try. I figured if others could do it, so could I.
MA: So how many books are you up to at this point?
JA: I’ve now written four books. I still can’t believe it, but I swear it’s true. I just kept writing and writing, and somehow the word count kept climbing until finally it was the end and I had a whole book in my hands. The first was Quantum Earth. It’s about a team of metaphysical scientists racing to find out why we’re having more natural disasters of a higher degree leading up to the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012, and if our own human thoughts are actually creating this reality. Deadly Lucidity is a thriller about a woman trapped in her nightmares and dreams. Then she meets someone who tries to help her find a way out of her own mind. He seems to be another part of her imagination, but he is also so real. Native Vengeance is a novella about a woman who meets a friend on the internet and eventually goes to visit her during the town’s main event of the year. Of course, this annual “event” isn’t what it seems. The town has an old Indian curse on it because of something that happened a long time ago. The new friend needs her so she can escape the evil that occurs each year to punish the residents of the town.
Then there’s my latest book, Earthwalker- Earth can be Hell for a Vampire. I’ve always loved vampires the most of any of the beasts around. Maybe that’s why it took me this long to write my own kind of story about them. Plus, I hate doing anything that’s “in.” So I figured I’d have to write the book so different and far from the main crowd that it would hardly resemble any vampire story from the past. I think I achieved this. Earthwalker is a book about a vampire. And there is a passionate love story. But from there on out it is different in almost every way from any past works of its kind. I think I was successful in finding a fresh new way of presenting it. It’s all in the writing, though, anyway, isn’t it? I mean if you like my writing, you’ll definitely like this book. It barely gives the reader a moment to take a breath. I write tight and lean. There’s not a lot of flowery prose or descriptive overload in my stuff. I think you learn a lot about yourself and your style of writing with each new attempt. I would call Earthwalker my dissertation.
MA: Are you the kind of writer who starts with a hero and then builds the story, or do you start with a plot and develop the right man or woman to fill the need?
JA: Whenever I begin writing a book I already have a pretty good idea of who the protagonist is. I have the framework in my mind and then let them develop and grow on the page. I say “let” them because that’s how it seems to happen. They become alive to me. I think that’s how I’m able to write a whole book at all. The characters kind of take over and tell me what could possibly happen to them that would be thrilling and exciting, but also believable to the reader.
MA: Can you give us an idea of one of your heroes or heroines?
JA: In Earthwalker, for example, Willa is the so-called heroine. In the beginning of the story she is pretty weak. She’s recently gone through some tough life situations and is worn out emotionally. But she’s basically a strong young woman with emotional reserves that she calls on from the beginning. She’s good at dealing with emergency situations, it doesn’t take much for her to catch on when something outside her past experience happens, and she has the capacity to be courageous if need be. She is also willing to sacrifice herself for a greater good. As most of us do, though, she tends to think of herself first. She does sense this about herself and ends up putting herself last. With Willa, it’s like she moves ahead two steps then one step back and so on.
MA: Where do you draw from to create your “bad guys?” I’m always intrigued by antagonists in supernatural stories.
JA: I’ve had pretty intense nightmares since I was very young, so I’ve got plenty of nasty people in my head. I actually tone them down for my books so they’re not totally evil. That would be boring. You’re always going to enjoy a story more when you can somehow relate to the bad guy/gal. It’s like your dirty little secret. It brings the reader in so they feel closer to the characters.
MA: I take it you’ve not had any real-life encounters with vampires or other such creatures, or have you (grinning)?
JA: Not at all. I like making it all up from scratch. You will probably never see a non-fiction book come out of me. The further away from reality the better. My writing is my escape. It takes me far away from this world. And that’s the way I like it!
MA: Okay, so four works of fiction down…how many more to go? Where are you headed in the near future?
JA: Just recently I had a very long and real feeling dream that inspired me to write another book. It’s been months since I’ve written anything, so it’s great to know I haven’t dried up in the writing department. The next one’s about a reporter out to research the latest drug craze. And boy is it a doozy! What a crazy dream that one was.
MA: I can only imagine! I’ve had a few intense dream in my life, so I can relate. Will your allow any characters from past books to tag along in future stories?
JA: I have been asked by several readers if there will be a follow-up to Quantum Earth. Unfortunately, it’s kind of a time-bound novel in that it revolves around a particular time, the year 2012. But I guess it all depends on what actually does happen in 2012 to tell you the truth. Maybe these characters will have more to say and do at that point. Who knows?
MA: Let’s hope the Mayan “prophecy” turns out to be a whole lot of nothin’! After all, the Mayans simply stopped counting days, without actually saying what would happen beyond the calendar. So much about that calendar is super-hyped. Any parting thoughts?
JA: I would just like to encourage anyone who has a desire to write not to make excuses or let your inner critic stop you from doing something that could bring you a lot of joy. Don’t let anything stop you. And don’t do it for the money or fame. Chances are that won’t happen. You just have to love it. And then just do it. Get those words down on that page! You’ve got nothing to lose and so much to gain. If you do it this way it’s gonna show in your writing. Then you’ll have something to be proud of.
MA: Thanks again, Julie, for coming back. I want to encourage my readers to check out Julie’s blog (http://earthwalker.tk) and her books’ website (http://julieachterhoff.tk).
MA: Help me welcome my newest guest, Steven Nedelton. Steve is a professional engineer, but most of his life he dabbled in arts. For example, he likes to paint in oils. He lived for a while in several countries outside of the U.S. and was born in the Balkans. Steve lived and worked all over the U.S., from the Washington and California coasts to Arizona, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. He started reading when he was ten after beginning to receive books as birthday gifts. Those included Tom Sawyer, then a year later, The Three Musketeers, and so on. At first, it was hard for him to concentrate, in fact, he hated reading. But then, gradually, he began to love good novels. Zane Grey became one of his favorite writers. He still remembers how he got the lunch money from his grandmother and spent it on books about cowboys and Indians, and the Wild West.
That’s a very colorful life and background you’ve had! You mentioned dabbling in the arts and having a love of reading, so it sounds like a natural progression to writing.
SN: Way back in my early teens, together with a few of my school chums, I began writing short stories. There’s no doubt that Tom Sawyer, The Three Musketeers and the various pirate novels were the principal contributors to our writing affliction. Also, the principal cause of all my later accompanying woes. But, aside from those early literary misadventures, and a lot of reading since, my first serious involvement with English Literature happened in my college English 102 and the subsequent course, Advanced Creative Writing. It was a true miracle that I managed to get through those two classes with A’s, and even to this very day, I am convinced that my professor was one crafty yet friendly soul. I guess, my feeble pretenses to understand Shakespeare warned him I wasn’t the material for a future scribbler. Thus my English Literature marks, A or F, were quite inconsequential. And his conclusion was natural, I was studying how to become an engineer, not how to write another War and Peace
From then on, my writing was, one might say, ‘placed on hold.’ A lot of occasional reads, but not much else until a decade ago. It was then that that sordid writing affliction got sort of reawakened within me, and the desire to become a writer was reborn too. And so, finally, after all those years, I chained myself to my laptop, and began writing again. I worked very hard while braving various virus attacks and rejection e-mails from a multitude of publishers and agents.
MA: Given your penchant for writing short stories as a teen, how did you come about writing novels?
SN: That is an interesting question. Early on, in my teens, I dreamed of writing a top short story. Much later, after reading a number of novels, I decided that short stories were not for me. Mostly because avid readers loved novels. I felt it was in my best interest to stay away from short stories and proceed with novels. There I could fit in my interest in thrillers–suspense and crime, the genre that was my true love and I knew I could do it well.
MA: You and I share a few writing things in common. My Child Finder Trilogy is a thriller series with paranormal elements which some of your books have also featured.
SN: I write fiction based on partly true events and characters. My novels deal with infamous criminals, espionage, and extrasensory perception tied together with unusual and extraordinary action. Basically, I write about anything that will make the reader interested in the story. I don’t specialize in any genre; I try to write about life in general. My stories cover local and international events. Also the events I have lived through and been a part of. Mixing fiction with fact makes readers believe in my stories.
For example, Crossroads is a thriller/suspense based on extrasensory and the action takes place in the US, Russia and France. The principal character is a U.S. agent assigned to lead a group of men with very special gifts like claivoyance, remote viewing–the ESP. The inspiration came from a sentence found in a major newspaper in the early 90s. The story is far more than espionage, James Bond like flick. It deals with several countries and characters with their ethnic peculiarities.
The inspiration for The Raven Affair came from the news too. In this case I had already heard quite a lot about one particularly infamous criminal involved in genocide who was finally being prosecuted in California. I thought that I could write a story that would be far more interesting than a description of his hideous exploits alone. I decided to add a number of fictitious characters and a number of fictiotious events. The title of this book was based on its central character, the hit man known as ‘Raven’ who, as a child, witnessed the horrors of genocide and decided to revenge his family. But the stories included in this book are far more interesting than the criminals and, of course, I’ve used my imagination to make them believable.
Both books were reviewed by the top country reviewers like the Midwest Book Review, The US Review of books, Apex, etc. I just received a note from the “Eric Hoffer Award” representative advising me that The Raven Affair is “Da Vinci Eye Finalist” and an “Eric Hoffer Award” finalist.” I feel that it is a great achievement for my novels.
Fear! is my next book that I hope to have it released soon. It is a sort of a historical biography. And, I am presently working on my third thriller, Tunnel.
MA: Congratulations on the book award accomplishments! Those are two excellent and prestigious selections. Tell us how you approach the development of your characters.
SN: I develop my characters through events. I let them speak, act, and from their actions and dialogs one can get the feel for the character’s strengths or weaknesses. For example, in The Raven Affair, the hero (the hit man Raven) has the criminal in the gun sights and yet he does not shoot him. He lets him live so that the people’s courts can judge him for his hideous crimes.
MA: A hit man protagonist! Tell us more about him.
SN: Raven is a very determined man. He is ready to sacrifice his life yet, occasionally, he is cold and detached, disinterested in other people feelings.
MA: I take it with these standalone novels that you do not migrate any of the characters over to other novels, or do you?
SN: I don’t have a recurring character in my novels as yet. Each of my novels is a completely different story with different characters, with one exception. I am developing the use of a character from Crossroads. This is still in a developmental stage and I am not yet set on other characters and their interaction. I can assure you that he will be used in the most interesting way.
MA: Given your travels in life, have any of your experiences outside the United States inspired your writing?
SN: Yes, I lived in several countries, England and France for example. I dealt with various people there and although people are pretty similar everywhere, there are ethnic peculiarities that one needs to experience in order to portray a character properly in a story.
MA: Where can people learn more about your stories and purchase your books?
SN: My books are available in print and e-book formats on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Fictionwise.com, etc. They can be accessed directly from my web site: http://snedelton.com.
MA: Thanks, Steve!
Prologue, Denouement and Epilogue
First let me quote from the Oxford Dictionary before we discuss usages.
Prologue: 1) A separate introductory part of a play, book or piece of music. 2) An event that leads to another.
Denouement: The final part of a film, play or narration, in which matters are explained or resolved.
Epilogue: A section at the end of a book or play which comments on what has happened.
A Prologue can set up the rest of a story. That is, it can relate a brief occurrence that led to the present action of the story that we then jump into the middle of in Chapter One. Used this way, a prologue becomes a bit of back story, should not take up any more than a few paragraphs, and definitely should not be as long as a full chapter. Too, anything that isn’t foreshadowing for the rest of the story should be cut.
The longer the Prologue, the more it seems the writer is, again, quoting back story when, in reality, back story should be incorporated into the present of the telling. This is done through conversations between characters or brief remembrances of the main character. Providing too much life story in the prologue, keeps the reader bogged down in the past when you really want them immersed in the action of the now that starts with the first word, sentence and paragraph of Chapter One.
Completely opposite of that, the Prologue can also be used to show the outcome of the entire story up front before Chapter One begins. In other words, your story has a problem the main character needs to resolve. The story goes on to show the character resolved those issues and then shows the climax and denouement, which led to the information first presented in the Prologue.
My preference is not to read a book where I know up front that all ends well. I want to feel all the indecision, fright and other emotions that the characters may endure. Then I want the relief of learning how their situation is resolved. If I read up front that their lives went back to normal after something drastic had happened to them, I won’t feel their emotions as I read.
Part of reading is to experience what the characters endure. First reading that everything came out okay seems, in my opinion, to diminish the thrill of suffering with these story people. So what? I ask. I already knew these people would prevail.
The Denouement tells how the characters are affected once the climax of the action is made apparent. If a mystery, the climax happens when the perpetrator is caught or gets his or her comeuppance. You cannot end the story at that point. You must tell how this climactic revelation affected all the other characters. That portion after the climax is the denouement.
The denouement need not be lengthy. It can be a few sentences or a couple of paragraphs. It can also be one or more brief chapters.
In my thriller, River Bones, after the perpetrator is caught and people realize just who the serial killer is, many more additional clues are found to cement his guilt. Too, a few subplots needed to be wrapped up that did not really affect catching the perpetrator, but which followed through and fed into the action of the entire story. That wrap-up, my denouement, took two additional brief exciting chapters. But that wasn’t all….
An Epilogue is best used to show how the story resolution affected the characters after a period of time has passed. Yes, it’s enough to catch a perpetrator and everyone return to their normal lives in the denouement. However, in River Bones, I used an Epilogue to not only wrap up the strongest subplot, but to create a situation where it leaves the story open for a sequel.
Another example might be a romance. After the lovers settle their differences and end up together in the denouement, the Epilogue might be used to show that a year later they parted. What caused them to part must be something already written into the story beforehand. The Epilogue is not a place to introduce new information – ever. Whatever happens in the Epilogue is a result of some action already dealt with in the story.
Between prologue, denouement and epilogue, the denouement is the only part necessary to any story. Think hard about using Prologues and Epilogues and have good reason for doing so.
MA: My guest today is Steven Jay Griffel. Steven was born in the Bronx, 1952. He tells me he, “met a beautiful blue-eyed art student in my junior year at Queens College (BA, Creative Writing, 1973) and married her in 1976. We’re still holding hands.” Steven studied American Literature at Fordham University, and he and his wife have two beautiful daughters, Sarah and Julia, grown and on their own. He spent his professional life in publishing, and he still works as a publishing consultant, though most of his time is now spent writing novels and talking about them. Steven is a frequent speaker and guest lecturer and especially enjoys leading book club discussions about his novel, Forty Years Later.
You told me you thought writing was a part of your DNA. How did you describe that, again?
SJG: I’m a born storyteller: sired by a father who never met a fact he couldn’t spin into fancy, and by a mother whose bitchin’ neuroses could make a grudge match of any relationship. From my father I learned there is no division between truth and fancy, just a wonderful gray area where imagination and ego could thrive. From my mother I inherited a genius for nursing regrets and grudges, so I’m never at a loss for reasons to rant.
I was raised on the colorful streets of the Bronx, where home plate was a manhole cover; where there was a pizzeria and deli on every other block; where there were always enough kids for a ball game; where it was okay to be Jewish, so long as you didn’t piss off those who weren’t.
MA: Well, that’s a colorful life! How did you decide to write novels? Was it always something you longed to do?
SJG: I wasn’t cut out to be a scientist or movie star or athlete. But I always had lots to say—and a talent for saying it well. In college I considered a career in journalism—until I learned I’d have to stick to the facts. I like facts, but I much prefer the novelist’s god-like sense of entitlement. As a novelist I decide the facts. I decide who rises, who falls. If I need a perfect line I create it, rather than relying on interviews and research for my gold. Thus I prefer fiction, where the music and meaning of words have primacy over facts. . . . I just remembered a pair of wonderfully relevant quotes:
“Journalism is literature in a hurry.” –Matthew Arnold
“Literature is news that stays news.” –Ezra Pound
I like to think that my writing is meant for the long haul.
MA: Well said! So tell us about Forty Years Later.
SJG: A middle-aged man (smart, handsome, happy, successful) has a single, gnawing regret: a lost opportunity to make history. He has kept the regret alive for forty years, continually picking at the scab of its memory. A coincidence (Fate, if you believe in such things) reunites this man with a former teen sweetheart who is very much a part of his regret. The man is married with children, the woman is famously and formerly gay, and their reunion results in the kind of sparks that presage trouble. It is a tale of music, movies, murder—and madness too. It is also a story of love and redemption—except for those who are probably going to Hell.
MA: Oh my! So had did you develop your protagonist’s character? Sounds like there may be a little of you in him…
SJG: Until recently, I too had a gnawing, life-long regret. Like a cancer that does not metastasize, it was annoying but not life-threatening. A complicated coincidence reconnected me with someone I hadn’t seen in forty years: a successful screenwriter who is best known for writing about the subject that framed my regret: Woodstock. We met and hit it off—big time. Of course, I was happily married with children and wouldn’t think of getting involved with another woman—but I have a protagonist; an alter-ego; a doppelganger, I suppose, and this fellow (named David Grossman) has been known to explore roads I dare not travel myself.
MA: So, what are David’s strengths and weaknesses?
SJG: Like many people, the novel’s protagonist is a miracle of contradictions. He is clear-seeing despite his blind spots; confident when not suffering from crises of self-esteem. He is a man who misplaces loyalties and manufactures jealousies. He loves and is loved but sometimes loses his way. All of which is to say, he’s flawed enough to get himself into a royal pickle—and brave enough to see his way out.
MA: What about an antagonist … is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind?
SJG: There is a brilliant, formerly famous lesbian screenwriter with a blind lover and hip-hop son, who becomes a vengeful alcoholic with a particular fondness for dangerously sharp objects. Unique enough?
MA: (Smiling) Okay, so did any of your real-life experiences factor into the plot at all?
SJG: I also nurtured a life-long regret tied to someone I had not seen in forty years. We were reunited. Sparks flew. . . . Note: The real-life tale is private and tame and not worth the telling in this space. However, the novel it inspired is rip-roarin’. But it is not a story for the faint of heart or for those of unbending scruples. It is tale signifying: One is never too old to change; Beware what you wish for; There is no greater grace than tried and true love.
MA: Excellent! So what’s next for you?
SJG: I am working on a new novel called The Ex-Convert. It is, loosely speaking, a sequel to Forty Years Later. Though I am now in the enviable position of having a publisher waiting for my next book, I have no guarantee of publication. My publisher believes I hit a home run with Forty Years Later and demands I hit another one with The Ex-Convert. Batter up!
MA: An enviable position to be in…so will any characters from Forty Years Later migrate over?
SJG: David Grossman is the protagonist in each of my novels, and I haven’t sworn off him yet. Having said that, he is not quite the same character in each book. His voice and sensibility are pretty consistent, but his circumstances vary: he has a wife or not; he has a family or not; he lives in New York, or not, etc. Expect to see him again in the Ex-Convert.
MA: How do readers get a copy of your book?
SJG: Forty Years Later is available as an e-book on Amazon.com. The download is incredibly fast and easy. And no special reading device is required. Most people enjoy Forty Years Later on their computer, PC or Mac. But with each passing day more and more people are using e-readers (like the Kindle) or tablets (like the iPad) or screen phones like the Android, Blackberry, or iPhone. In fact, one of my first readers sent me the following text message from his iPhone: “Reading Forty Years later at 40,000 feet—and loving it!” I also encourage readers to friend me on Facebook and share their thoughts. It’s a digital dawn!
MA: Well, thanks, Steven. Folks, please visit these websites for more information about Forty Years Later and Steven Jay Griffel!
MA: My guest today is Alan Simon, the author or co-author of 30 books dating back to the early 1980s. His writing career began with the 1st edition of How to be A Successful Computer Consultant (McGraw-Hill) that sold approximately 200,000 copies in 4 editions over the next 15 years. He is the author of three titles in the “For Dummies” franchise series and has written extensively about technology and business topics. In 2009 Alan began experimenting in self-publishing with Blocking and Tackling Your Way to Management Success in which he set 40 fundamental management lessons against a backdrop of 40 stories from the history of his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2010, Alan branched out into fiction with the publication of his first two novels including The First Christmas of the War, set at Christmastime, 1941 – only weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Alan currently lives in Phoenix and in the past has lived in Pittsburgh, Tucson, Colorado Springs, Denver, and northeastern Pennsylvania.
Please tell me a little bit about your professional or personal background…the prequel if you would to your writing career.
AS: The best way to describe my professional background is to quote The Beatles: “The long and winding road…” I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA until my family moved to Tucson, Arizona just before my 16th birthday. I attended college at Arizona State in Tempe and then went to graduate school at the University of Arizona back in Tucson before heading off to Colorado Springs where I spent four years as a U.S. Air Force officer stationed at Cheyenne Mountain. In the Air Force I wrote software for one of the real-life “War Games” systems, referring to the early 1980s movie in which Matthew Broderick breaks into Cheyenne Mountain’s computers to play “thermonuclear war.” After my Air Force days I worked for a series of technology and consulting companies in a variety of roles, including several as a national or global practice leader in business intelligence and data warehousing. I began my own firm – currently called Thinking Helmet, Inc. – in 2006.
In many ways my writing career began as an “accident.” When I was an Air Force officer in the early 1980s I started a small computer consulting business on the side mostly so I could stay up to date with the technology of the then-brand new “microcomputers” that were very different than the old-fashioned mainframes we used in the Air Force. One day I was thinking about all of the tasks I had to do to set up my company and learn about new technology and suddenly thought there might be a book in the making there. I wrote a proposal, sent it off to McGraw-Hill, and presto! Book deal! (Little did I know the publishing game wasn’t quite that easy…)
MA: Well, I definitely have a soft spot for fellow Air Force vets, and I am very familiar with Cheyenne Mountain during my work in Air Force Space Command nearby. With such a technical and non-fiction writing background, how did you end up writing fiction?
AS: I began “dabbling” in fiction approximately 25 years ago, sequestered in a near-deserted hotel in the mountains of Colorado in late May of 1985. I had gone there to spend a week finishing up the final manuscript for my first book, How to be a Successful Computer Consultant. (Thinking back, my long-ago writing getaway in the Rockies was sort of a combination of two works from one of my favorite authors, Stephen King: “The Shining” meets “Misery” !)
Whenever I’d take a break from polishing that manuscript during that trip, I’d shift to write two or three more draft pages for an idea I had for a “potboiler” novel; something that in retrospect was heavily influenced by the writing style and typical plot lines from popular writers of the day such as Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. I shelved that book for all eternity shortly thereafter, but over the next two decades spent thousands of hours – and wrote the proverbial million words of fiction – on any number of long-dormant projects, as fiction writing grew into a deep passion of mine.
MA: Speaking of The Shining, my kids and I once spent a night in the “Stephen King” room at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where King stayed and wrote the book. Sadly, nothing spooky happened during our stay there. So tell us about your novels.
AS: I wrote two novels in parallel with each other over a period of 6+ years; both were self-published this past year. The first is entitled The First Christmas of the War and is a family saga set at Christmastime, 1941…only weeks after Pearl Harbor. Beyond the overarching and terrifying news coming back from the war front, each family member has his or her own “mini-drama” going on, and the story interweaves the “macro” and “micro” plots in a day-by-day format beginning with the Saturday before Christmas and ending the day after Christmas.
The other novel is entitled Unfinished Business and just like The First Christmas of the War, it’s set in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I like to think of Unfinished Business as “a darker Bridges of Madison County story” that begins in flashback with a brief wartime affair that takes place in 1942. The plot of the story is based around the resumption of that affair nine years later, in 1951, when Roseanne DeMarco’s steelworker husband is called up from the Army Reserves and set off to the Korean War…just as her long-ago “friend” reappears in Pittsburgh as she’s struggling to make ends meet.
MA: I have a hard enough time writing one story, so I can’t imagine what two parallel ones must be like. Who are your protagonists?
AS: In The First Christmas of the War I’m fortunate enough to have a number of main characters who essentially are an “ensemble cast” as the book’s protagonist. The family’s patriarch – Gerald Coleman – is patterned after one of my grandfathers. He’s a shoemaker who is fortunate enough to have made a decent enough living during the Depression. His wife, Irene Coleman, is the classic homemaker of the day…she runs her household and her family and is always looking out for the best interests of every family member. The eldest son, Jonathan, is patterned after characters such as those played by Sean Penn and Nicholas Cage in the 1980s movie Racing with the Moon…he knows with certainty he’s headed off to war soon and is trying to come to grips with this sudden reality. The rest of the family members are all “demographically appropriate” for 1941 children and teenagers.
In Unfinished Business I tried my best to get inside the head of Roseanne DeMarco. Her husband is suddenly sent off to war, she has no safety net to fall back on, and in general she’s sleepwalking through life…and here comes this person from the past who was her “partner” in an illicit yet exciting brief period of her young life. Throughout the book she’s conflicted between the renewal of this excitement and her increasing guilt about what she’s doing while her husband is away at war.
MA: They both sound interesting. Who are the antagonists in the stories?
AS: The First Christmas of the War doesn’t have an antagonist…unless you want to think of Hitler and Tojo as off-the-pages antagonists who made the story (and the war) possible!
In Unfinished Business Frank Donaldson – the main with whom Roseanne DeMarco renews her affair – is very much an antagonist, but a carefully constructed one. I patterned his character after that of Noel Airman in Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel, Marjorie Morningstar. At first he seems suave, debonair, the man of Roseanne DeMarco’s dreams who has returned to her…but increasingly his fascination in the story with Jack Kerouac (then a brand new novelist) becomes symbolic of his own character flaws.
MA: How much of your real life’s story influenced your writing?
AS: When I moved from Pittsburgh to Tucson just before my 16th birthday, I was very homesick for my original city and spent many hours in the high school and public libraries reading books about Pittsburgh and its history. Since I planned to go into the military in one way or another, I was also very interested in the World War II era and the aftermath, including the boom years of the 1950s. So my fascination with mid-20th century Pittsburgh formed the foundation for both of these novels. I spent many hours researching the facts and tidbits for both stories, though when appropriate I took a bit of poetic license in the interest of moving the story along.
In both books – especially The First Christmas of the War – I did use my real-life great-grandfather’s produce business in Pittsburgh as a plot vehicle, and in First Christmas had eldest son Jonathan working side-by-side with my real-life great-uncles in a couple of scenes. I dedicated that book to those great-uncles, all of them gone now, as members of the “greatest generation” who (to use the words of the book’s dedication) “sacrificed much of their youth to the Second World War.”
MA: So what’s next for you? You are so versatile, I can imagine either a novel or some techno-geek book coming soon!
MA: The biggest challenge I have is getting my head and hands around a much-too-full list of to-be-written projects for 2011. In all seriousness, I have a list of about 15 business, technology and management topics; 25-30 ideas for novels and short stories; and another non-fiction, self-help oriented title based on my own personal close call on 9/11. (A schedule quirk put me in Pittsburgh for a speech that morning, scheduled to fly to San Francisco from there that afternoon; otherwise I almost certainly would have been on United Flight 93 since I was shuttling between projects and proposals in New Jersey and the San Francisco bay area for the consulting company I worked for then.)
MA: Wow! I’m glad you missed the original flight, and it’s nice to hear you plan to turn that experience into something good that may help others. With regard to fiction, would any of your future writing involve characters from your first two novels?
AS: The First Christmas of the War is actually the first of a series of four holiday-set, similarly-structured novels featuring the Coleman family. Next up is Thanksgiving, 1942, taking place – as one can tell from the title – eleven months after the initial book’s Christmas, 1941 setting. The next title is The First Christmas After the War, set at Christmastime, 1945. Finally, a concluding novel set in the 1970s takes a final holiday visit with the Coleman family.
MA: Sounds like a nice set of books. Anything else you’d like add before we wrap it up?
AS: Over the years, I’ve had many, many people ask me about the writing business and my own experiences in the context of book or story ideas they’ve had themselves. I always enjoy sharing my experiences with others and am always more than willing to help people navigate today’s publishing world, craft proposals…pretty much anything.
MA: Thanks Alan for appearing on my blog, and thanks for your military service. Please visit Alan’s websites for more information about this amazing author and his projects: www.alansimonbooks.com and www.thinkinghelmet.com.