Since my first novel came out, I have been compiling a list of questions potential buyers of my books have asked at book signings. As a reader of my web site, please feel free to ask me a question and who knows, it may wind up here or just in my response to your email. Here are the most common ones.
Q - Where do you get your ideas for the plots and the characters?
A - This may sound arrogant, but often they come to me, e.g. I wanted to write an Age of Sail novel. Since I was familiar with the genre, I started thinking about ways to make the manuscript, even a series different an interesting. So, rather than focus on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Raider of the Scottish Coast starts during the American Revolution. And, rather than concentration on a single character in the Continental Navy, I created two, on in the Royal Navy and one in the Continental Navy. The two men start as enemies, meet and become friends and then, later in the war are enemies. This friendship/enemies theme drives the plot and from there one can build characters.
Q - What is the most difficult thing about writing?
A - Being objective about what you have created. You may love the story but you need to be honest enough about it to evaluate the manuscript against what is being published.
Q - What frustrated you the most about getting your first book published?
A - Maddening, frustrating, quirky, irritating, time-consuming are just some of the words I would use to describe the process of finding an agent and/or then a publisher. Trying to break in when one has never been published as a novelist is difficult beyond belief. Add in a dose of recession, declining sales of paper books, the advent of the eBook and you have a formula in which the odds are were stacked against me in 2009 when I started trying to get my first book published. If nothing else, getting from manuscript to a published work is a matter of perseverance even if you go the self-publishing route.
Q - Who is your favorite your novelist?
A - From a writing style, my favorite novelist is the late W.E.B. Griffin. I love the way he tells a story through his characters.
Q - What do you read?
A - Most of the books on my night table are on specific events or times in history, biographies and historical novels, most of which have military themes. I go through phases where I will read several books on a specific period in history to try to get an understanding of the events and issues of that particular time.
Q - Do you model your writing style after any author?
A - No. I am trying to develop my own style that is very conversational and is also as technically and operationally accurate as I can be and still tell a good story.
Q - What is the best preparation for writing a novel?
A - Writing, writing and writing some more. It doesn’t matter what the topic or purpose is, but learning to organize ones thoughts and then expressing them is the key.
Q - Why do you write?
A - Because I enjoy it… Now that I am retired from the business world, writing is a way to keep my mind going. But you also have to work at it. Writing is a craft and there is no formula for success. Writing is a change of pace, an escape and also in many ways, a rush because I can get involved with the characters. In many ways, writing allows me to let the Walter Mitty in me come out. My books are also a legacy to my grandkids.
Q - When do you write?
A - Writing is all about discipline. It is intense, hard work and one has to find the time. Because I started while I working for consulting firms, I traveled a lot and company policy did not allow us to work on customer projects on airplanes or trains. So, I started writing on airplanes and in hotel rooms on business trips and on weekends when I get up early in the a.m. and write for a few hours. Now, I get up, work out before I sit down at the computer for four to five hours, sometimes longer. Some of the time is spent on publicity, writing my blog reading a book and then reviewing for a magazine, and other non-writing and marketing tasks.
Q - Do you have any consistent themes in your books?
A - Yes. And it is more than just the good guys winning in the end. One, there are passages in every book about what i call "man's inhumanity to man." This could be about maltreatment of a prisoner of war, or just simply one human being cruel to another. Second, there are passages about religious freedom and particularly anti-Semitism.
Q - What process do you follow to create a book?
A – There are actually six steps I follow to create a draft that is ready to go to a publisher. It starts with what I call a "kernel" which is one or two paragraphs that are the gist of the story. This is expanded in Step two into a two to three page document called a plot summary that details the timeline and historical context that drives the plot, locations, major characters and events.
Step three is developing a chapter by chapter plot outline using bullets to identify the scenes and their content that will be in each chapter. During the outlining phase, the work is stop and start because I am always tweaking and changing the sequence and the outline.
The fourth step is writing the first draft. I let the characters tell the story and often I deviate from outline. Once I start writing the book, it is full speed ahead and very intense. As I tap on the keyboard, the world around me disappears because I am consumed with the scene and the characters. Researching historical facts and operational details takes up about 30% of the time spent writing. In this phase, after four or five hours, my brain is tired and I need a break.
Once the first full draft of the manuscript is finished, I put the potential novel aside for several weeks before I start step 5 which editing, adding and deleting and moving sections. This is a continual, iterative process that leads to step 6 which polishing the story. In a sense, one is never done until the manuscript is published. Along the way, I’ve developed several tricks and tools that help me in each step and create what consultants call a “consistent, repetitive process that can be documented and improved upon.”
Q - Do you create and follow an outline?
A - The answer is yes and no. I create a chapter by chapter outline with bullets to identify the various scenes and the rough timeline. From there, the writing begins. As I write the first draft, the characters drive the plot and the outline becomes more of a guide and audit trail. Often, what was in the original outline and what is in the final book are quite different.
Q - What lesson or lessons did you learn while writing Raider of the Scottish Coast?
A - There were three. One, I totally underestimated the amount of research and background info I had to digest.
Second, as the writer, I transport myself into the 18th Century - a world where there is no running water, electricity, computers/internet/phones, FedEx/UPS, shopping malls, airplanes, restaurants, cars, etc. etc. Life was a lot different. Even things we take for granted today like cooking, aren’t the same!
The third was in writing sea battles. Wind direction played a major role so as I diagrammed battles, the limitations wind speed and direction imposed had to be taken into account and there were no sensors other than the Mark 1 eyeball.
Q - Why did you pick military historical fiction as a genre?
A - First, military/espionage novels are popular. If you can build a following, then each successive book will be easier to sell. Second, one of the earliest things I learned was to write about something you know. After twenty-six years as a citizen sailor, I have a fair amount of knowledge of naval operations so it was an easy place to start. I was also advised by a moderator of a workshop to write about topics I know little or nothing about. So, in each book, there is a little of that as well.
Q – Have you written any other genre?
A – Yes. In the fall of 2019, I will have an Age of Sail novel published. The Age of Sail began in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto when Spanish and Venetian sailing ships defeated galleys rowed by the Ottoman Turks. It ended in 1862 when the steam powered ironclads, U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia fought each other in Chesapeake Bay during the American Civil War. The first book takes place in the early days of the Revolutionary War. Hopefully, it will lead to more books that follow the careers of a Continental Navy and a Royal Navy officer. Writing the manuscript was a labor of love and a learning experience as I researched the American Revolution and the history of the Continental Navy.
Q - Have you ever written a non-fiction book?
A - Yes. The book is called Gold and Silver Wings - Tales from Three Generations of Military Aviators which is collection of stories from my fathers, my and my son's flying careers. In it, there are stories that will make you smile, sad and ask, what were they thinking! The manuscript is about 85% done because I have to add some additional stories from my son's flying career. Once it is done, then I will probably self-publish it. Writing Gold and Silver Wings was very different from writing a novels because you have to stick to the facts and I didn't have to create characters or follow a plot.
BTW, I have written hundreds of magazine articles. Some of the readers who disagreed with the content may have thought they were fiction!
Q - Which is harder, fiction or non-fiction?
A - My gut answer is fiction. In a novel you’re creating an “alternative” universe that has to believable. You start with a clean sheet of paper, do a bunch of research, sometimes on minutiae, and then have to create the story and characters as you go along! And, if the novel is historical fiction, you have to make the story plausible.
I do not want to demean those who write historical works because of the research and organization needed. And then, one has to present it to the reader in an enjoyable format.
Q - What’s harder, researching a plot or writing the first draft?
A - Research because once I have a rough outline, the characters tell the story. However, to make them credible, I spend countless hours poring over articles, reading books and using my favorite research tool – Google. Quite often, what I think will support the plot or the development of a character doesn’t work. For example, while researching Raider of the Scottish Coast, I spent hours reading letters from Navy Committee members Joseph Hewes, John Adams and Stephen Hopkins who expressed their frustration about manning ships, arguing over who should be promoted, how much they should be paid and most important, funding the Continental Navy. While I didn’t use their words or the letters, the information provided great context.
Q - When creating a major character, what is the most difficult characteristic?
A - This may sound strange, but for me, it is hard to create a different key word and gesture for each major character. In the beginning, I didn’t do a very good job at it, but as I’ve grown as a writer, there’s more and more of it which helps make the characters more memorable.
Q - What was the hardest book to write?
A - Raider of the Scottish Coast by far and away. To write the book, I spent countless hours reading how square rigged ships were sailed, tactics used, food served, navigation, etc., etc., etc. The research spawned and continues to support a blog on the Continental Navy and the early days of the U.S. Navy.
Q - Why do you have disabled characters in your books?
A - In one of the workshops, the facilitator gave me what I thought was an important piece of advice. It was “make your characters different and memorable.” I “looked” around at other books and decided that was an avenue that I would explore. I also have created characters that are gay/lesbian, transsexual or who have different sexual tastes. I’d never written about any of them so that filled another criteria.
Q - What is the most successful way to promote your books?
A - Assuming one is eliminating investing big buck in advertising on Amazon, then speaking engagements is the best. The trick is not to approach an organization about your books, but instead, finding a topic that you can speak authoritatively on and then your books became an OBTW, I wrote these books and then you can give an elevator speech on the book. If you can tell me the audience, I can tell you how many books I will sell!
Q - What is the most unusual promotional took you have used?
A - I am not sure it is unusual, but it is different. I have postcards with each of the books on them. This way, if someone who reads only e-books, I can put a note and sign the card. Several times, I've been asked to mail a card to the recipient of a book that will be given as a present.
Q - Have you ever participated in writer’s workshops?
A - Yes. And if you do, bring a thick skin. Go to learn but they are not for everyone.
Q - Why a series?
A - Two reasons. First, I wanted to tell the story of a helicopter pilot’s career and that lend itself to a series of books rather than a single work. In the Josh Haman series I could cover a series of events/plots over a couple of decades. I plan to do the same with the series based on the life and career of Jaco Jacinto. The books start with the American Revolution and end 40 odd years later in 1814 at the end of the War of 1812.
Second, I thought that the books would be more marketable. If the readers liked the first ones, then they might by another. Early on in the process, I had several publishers ask me if I was a “one book wonder!” The answer was clearly no!
Q - Would or did you consider self-publishing?
A - Initially I didn’t. At the time (circa 2010 - 2012) there was a bit of a stigma associated with self-publishing and I was arrogant (naïve) enough to believe that my work was good enough to warrant a contract from a publisher who would invest in me. Fast forward nine plus years and the stigma attached to self-publishing has evaporated for the most part. I would now consider self-publishing because the margins are better!!!
The underlying question is why not and I ask myself this all the time because the economics, at least on the back end, are there in longer margins. Plus, there are no issues about who owns the rights, the cover art, the ISBN number and a host of other “things.” The self-publishing process is relatively simple but fraught with some landmines. Unless one is good with computers and formatting large documents, the author is responsible for formatting the manuscript so that it can be printed via print on demand and in the common electronic formats of which there are four. Then, there the issue of editing and proofreading. If you can’t do these yourself, then you have to pay for the service. As a book reviewer, I am sent many self-published books and about half are poorly done, i.e. the writing, editing, formatting and/or the cover is bad. I may still try it, but the “when” is still a ways off.
Q - When did you first try to write a novel?
A - It took a long time for me to figure out how. My first attempt was in the early 1980s. After reading a couple of Tom Clancy’s books, I figured I could do that so I sat down one day and started writing a novel. Then I tried a second one. The manuscripts were bad, really bad. Looking back now, I didn’t realize how terrible they were.
In the mid-1990s, I read a few books, joined a writer’s group, went to several seminars and tried again. It was better, but still not good enough to even satisfy me.
Early in 2006, I wrote the manuscript called Flight of the Pawnee that will now be published in January 2021. At the time, I tried to find a publisher. Several agents liked the book but none found publisher. In 2008, the U.S. was in the midst of the recession and the book industry is being turned on its ear by e-books, print-on demand, self-publishing and few agents, much less large publishers were willing to invest in an unproven author who didn’t have a “brand.”
Nevertheless, I kept writing and wrote Big Mother 40. On the advice of a friend and a published author, I started approaching small publishers and low and behold, Fireship Press took me on. I signed my first book contract on Valentine’s Day, 2012 for Big Mother 40
There’s a neat footnote to all this. My first two attempts at a novel have been re-written based on what I learned. One now has the working title of The Simushir Island Incident and will come out as the last book in the Josh Haman series in November 2020. .My attempt from the mid-1990s was also redone by and was published as Moscow Airlift in April 2018.
Flight of the Pawnee, which was supposed to be the 9th book in the Josh Haman series is now the first book in a series based on the character Derek Almer. The novel will be published under the Crossroad Press imprint in January 2021.
Q - Do your books have “hidden” messages?
A - Yes and no. If one thinks along the lines of literary fiction like Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist or Robert Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, then the answer is no. There’s no hidden social message.
On the other hand, the answer is yes. For example, Cherubs 2 dives into the lack of equal opportunity in the Navy. It is also a book about learning to lead. Render Harmless was written with the message of to the world that we cannot allow the world to forget or allow something like the Holocaust to happen again. As we get farther and farther from World War II, the horrors of Holocaust seem to fade from memory and that is unacceptable. However, the evils of anti-Semitism appear in almost every book.
Q - What’s in every book?
A – When a reader asked this in the context that authors who write series always have some element in each of their books. Well, the short answer is that there are five besides lots of action scenes. One is flying. I try to get at least one or more exciting flying scenes in each book. Some are fixed wing and some are rotary wing. In the Age of Sail novels, readers will view the action through the eyes of the participants and there will be ship handling scenes with some detail, but not enough to put the reader to sleep.
The second is history. One of my favorite sayings is that "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The stories in each novels are built around historical events and facts that have often gone unnoticed, yet have had a significant event on history. Pick up a copy of Moscow Airlift and read the section in the back of the book called "Historical Backdrop for Moscow Airlift" and you'll understand the six events of 1991 that drove the plot and current U.S. foreign policy.
Number three is that at least one of the characters is a Jew. It enables me to cover interesting aspects of Jewish history that most don't know about and include some element of anti-Semitism. The research into the possible character also helps me understand my heritage.
The fourth is food. I’m not a foodie or a gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, but food is all about culture and who wouldn’t want to have a delicious meal?
Number five and last are firearms and the weapons' history. The firearms are used as they were intended within the constraints of the limitations of each weapon. In some cases, there are swords and knives used by the characters which forces me to research how and why they are used.
Q - How do you tell the story?
A - I try to let the characters tell the story and alternate between narrative and conversation. There are some scenes are best narrated and others lend themselves best as conversation so there’s no hard and fast rule. I tend to lean more to the characters acting and talking than narrative.
Q - How much time do you spend researching versus writing?
A - More than one thinks. I spend a lot of times researching historical details that enrich the story. The risk is that one can go down rat holes that while are interesting, are a total waste of time.
In terms of a ratio to writing, I have no idea. My gut tells me that writing – the creative process of writing a manuscript – is about 70 percent and 30% is research.
The best example I can give is that for Render Harmless I wanted to include a scene that took place in a hotel in East Berlin that no longer existed. I’d been there as a teenager when my parents took my brother and I into East Berlin long before the wall came down. I remembered the restaurant at the top of the hotel that allowed us to look into West Berlin. One Sunday a.m., I spent almost four hours trying to find pictures of the dining room. In the final version, the research resulted in about fifty words of scene setting!
Q - What one thing would you tell an aspiring novelist?
A - Be persistent and don’t give up. The process is stacked against you. Self-publishing levels the playing field in terms of getting the manuscript published. Then the marketing begins and there are tricks of the trade that will help. Just putting the book out on Amazon won't result in many sales. Writing is a discipline and only you, as the writer, can impose it. If you want to write, you will find the time because writing is important to you.
Q - Do you recommend having your manuscript reviewed and edited by a professional editor before it goes to a publisher or agent?
A - NO!!! Most acquisition committees can smell the work of a professional editor a mile away. The publisher wants to take you through an editing process and wants to know that you can do the necessary re-writing. I’ve been told it is a big, big negative.