Friday, November 10, 2017

Writing What You Don't Know

Beginning writers are often advised to write what they know.
Personally, I've always considered that rather limiting advice. Granted all of us have experiences which we might utilize in our writing. But is your experience broad enough to justify a novel? And should a good novel be autobiographical?
A good writer should have curiosity and imagination, two traits which go beyond mere experience. Not that I'm opposed to experience. I believe experience to be a great teacher--if you're willing to learn from it.
But I prefer to believe a writer should write what he wants to know.
As E. L. Doctorow put it, "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go."
This desire to learn has the power to stimulate your imagination and take you places you've never experienced before, a voyage which can transform your writing and give it a power it might otherwise lack. Your enthusiasm for the subject should shine through and transfer to the potential reader what you've learned about a subject.
For me, research is half the fun of writing and provides opportunity to delve into many fascinating topics. But we need to beware of lecturing to our readers. What you've learned about a particular subject must conform to the story you're telling and contribute to the advancement of the plot. It may please you to elaborate on a particular theme and this is where you need to exercise care lest you stall your story and leave your readers exasperated.
Read Hemingway's story Big Two-Hearted River. One of the things I initially liked about the story when I read it as a boy was all it had to say about the pleasures of fishing. The story isn't about fishing. But there's a lot of fishing in it, which gave me pleasure and also taught me a few things both about fishing and writing.
A powder mill is an essential element in my first novel, Schlussel's Woman, and I read extensively on the process to understand how powder is manufactured. But, in the novel, millworker Isaac Inch's explanation of the process to the artist Titus Kuhns is kept to less than half a dozen paragraphs spread over several pages. My intent was to provide the reader with just enough to understand its importance to the plot.

As with description, a writer  should introduce what's been learned in gradual, digestible supplements to his prose. It's the old premise of show, not tell (though there are instances where tell is appropriate).

Saturday, October 28, 2017

History For The Curious

It has been some time since I wrote a blog. So, to get back in the groove, I thought I'd recommend some books (in no particular order) for those curious about history.
1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.
If there are lessons to be learned from the past, some of those discussed in this book have been forgotten or, conveniently, swept under the proverbial rug. As its title suggests, this is a glimpse at new revelations about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. It offers devastating new evidence to destroy the myth the first inhabitants were ignorant savages who could only benefit from the civilizing influence of their conquerors.
Humankind by Alexander H. Harcourt.
A fascinating examination of how we (humans) became who/what we are.
Harcourt, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, traces the journey of the human species out of Africa and describes the biological and geographical forces which have shaped the beast into what it is today in all its glorious variety.
In the process he never shirks from noting differences of opinion or separating theory from established fact. His explanations of how environment, biology and even culture have shaped the differences between members of the same species across the world are lucid and backed by the latest scientific thought. Evolution is an ongoing process and more changes lie ahead.
Millennium by Ian Mortimer.
Despite resulting hardships, man has seldom chosen to benefit from the lessons of history.Those harsh lessons have failed to sway us from a tenacious belief technological advances will save us from the problems of the past.
British historian Ian Mortimer assesses what he considers the most important changes in Western civilization in the last thousand years, predicts a dystopian future if we don't end our reliance on fossil fuels but hints at a more optimistic stance pending some hard changes in our lifestyle. His conclusions on what changes and which historic characters had the most influence in each century from the eleventh to the twentieth may surprise, even shock, the reader, but he does so in an erudite, entertaining and convincing style.
A Pirate of Exquisite Mind by Diana and Michael Preston.
A remarkable man died sometime in 1715 in London and was buried in an unmarked grave.
This would be of little note were it not for the fact he was one of the greatest explorers of all time, a pioneering navigator, a naturalist, hydrographer, travel writer and--probably to his disadvantage--a pirate. His maps were used by James Cook and Horatio Nelson, among others; his work as a naturalist influenced von Humboldt and Darwin, and his writings stirred the imagination of Defoe, Coleridge and Swift. William Dampier circumnavigated the world three times and was the first Englishman to explore Australia.
The World of Washington Irving by Van Wyck Brooks.
This is my favorite of the series of books Brooks wrote on the literary history of the United States.
Irving, one of my early favorites, was the first American writer to live by his pen. This book by Brooks focuses on the world in which he lived and introduces some fascinating Pennsylvanians, including Charles Brockden Brown, the first true American novelist; Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Charles Wilson Peale, Alexander Wilson and others.
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.
Most recognize the Wright brothers as aviation pioneers, but know little about them on a personal level.
Fact is, on a personal level, Wilbur and Orville were generally reclusive, work-obsessed, idea-driven and with apparently little time or interest in people outside their closely-knit family and a carefully chosen group of friends with similar interests. In a word, they were nerds--who would have struck a majority of their fellow creatures as odd in any time period.
Defining The World by Henry Hitchings.
When Americans say "dictionary" they usually mean Webster. In the UK, the Oxford English Dictionary would more likely come to mind.
A few might realize that for more than a century the term meant Johnson to our ancestors.
For most, dictionary is like the 10 Commandments--writ in stone, accepted without question and its origin rarely considered. It may be hard for many to realize there was no such authoritative reference before Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published on April 15, 1755. It took Johnson eight years (five more than he'd anticipated) to complete the work.
Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Historic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester.
Winchester set out to write a book explaining all there is to know about the Atlantic, which he considers to be our most important ocean. An overwhelming task and one might doubt it's even possible. He may not have succeeded in his initial goal but he comes as close as anyone in writing a biography of our ocean.

He explains how the ocean was born, how people living on its shores reacted to it and how, most importantly, it has influenced the development of the civilized world. To do this, he tells tales of man's first attempts to go out on the water, pirates, naval battles, the development of sea-going commerce and other topics. He also includes numerous anecdotes from his personal experience with the ocean.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Who's Afraid of Smutty Words?

I have serious concerns about people who can accept murder and other violence (even if it's off screen) yet are offended by mere words in a story.

Let me preface this by saying I'm not a proponent of profanity. I don't sprinkle my prose with vulgarity in order to shock or thrill readers. On those rare occasions when I do employ one of those words which offend some people, it's usually because that particular one is the appropriate choice for that character or situation.

Like it or not, people do swear. Some more often than others.

Many of the words condemned as obscene or coarse come to us from Germanic, Latin or Greek roots with rather benign, descriptive origins. For instance, that four-letter word with sexual implications we hear so commonly today, even among children, originally meant "to plow." The interesting thing is these taboo words exist in all languages and cultures.

You don't have to like those words. You don't even have to read them. If such a word offends your sensibilities, skip over it. Just accept these words exist and people do voice them, especially people who might be inclined to commit a crime.

Not that every character in a book who uses vulgarity is a criminal. For some it's just their nature. Lydia Brubaker, Chief Brubaker's daughter in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series, swears frequently. Aside from that, Lydia's a nice, compassionate young woman. Officer Flora Vastine, in the same series, is not given to profanity. Other than a rare hell or damn, nasty words aren't part of Sticks's vocabulary either. Incidentally, since the intent is the same, there isn't a shade of difference between hell and heck or damn and darn. A euphemism can't change the nature of the beast.

For the most part I've refrained from using so-called offensive language in my 19th century stories for the simple reason it wasn't common to the culture as it is today. And it was largely as a result of that repression obscene words came into more widespread use in modern society.

 Some opponents suggest using profanity indicates laziness on the part of the writer; i.e., he could have found a better word. Or might have simply said, he/she swore.


Either is a cop out. The writer chose that particular word because it was the most descriptive. Simply saying the character swore does not reveal the depth of the character's feeling. That's tell, not show.

To deny a writer the use of any word is, simply put, censorship.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ready For Another Western?

Love puts a revenge-seeking former lawman on a path to redemption.

That's the theme of The Tithing Herd, my latest Western scheduled for release on Tuesday, July 25 by Sundown Press.

The Tithing Herd is set in Mormon country in New Mexico in the 1890s.

On the trail of the outlaw known as Spanish who murdered his brother, Luther 'Lute' Donnelly stumbles upon young Tom Baskin who has been duped by the outlaw band and falsely accused of rustling.  The unlikely pair unite and their travels bring them to Cedar Flats, a Mormon village, and Serene McCullough, the widow Donnelly had planned to marry before his life was turned upside down by the bandits.

Cash-strapped Mormons have assembled a herd of cattle to pay their tithe to the church. Serene prevails upon Lute to help her son take the herd to market. Reluctantly, he agrees.

Lute's desire for vengeance is replaced by another more important goal when Spanish and his gang kidnap Serene and hold her ransom for the cattle, pitting him and Tom against dangerous odds in a desperate quest to save the woman he loves.

An electronic version of The Tithing Herd was originally published several years ago by the Western Online Press, which has now gone defunct. I'm happy Sundown Press found this story of action, suspense and romance  worthy of a new life.

The book will be up for pre-sale of the Kindle version a few days before the release date.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Another Alternative

Don't review my books.

"What!" I hear my fellow writers screaming. "Are you mad? Don't you know all writers need reviews?"

Of course I'm not mad, and I fully agree. All writers need reviews. They're not just something to stoke our ego. We've been taught they are vital to building name recognition and driving sales. So, if you choose to ignore what I said above and write a glowing review for any of my books you've read and enjoyed, I certainly won't object and offer my since appreciation.

But the sad truth is a majority of the people who read books--including those who ardently promise to do so--won't write a review. Even if they sincerely want to help you, they won't. Many feel they aren't qualified, don't know how to begin, or just don't have time.

And, even if they do, how much does it really matter?  Most people don't write reviews, nor do they read them. Even the best of reviews are simply one person's opinion. If that person isn't someone a reader knows and/or respects, how much traction is it going to generate among the hundreds of thousands of books published each year? Sure, having 50 or more reviews might spark some interest, have some impact on Amazon's algorithms or gain you admission to Bookbub or one of those other promotional sites primarily geared to giving away books in the hope it will transit to mega-sales.

But, unless you're already a major recognized brand or have a book that's blazing a track across the skies, a review isn't going to do much more than that for you.

Which brings me to advertising. To a certain extent, paid advertising can find you readers. But for the most part you'll be throwing money into a dark hole. Who sponsors your favorite TV show? Better yet--what have you ever bought just because you saw it advertised? It's a rare person who can honestly answer either question.

So, how do we stand out from everyone else and attract those coveted readers?

By cultivating the best form of advertising there is--word of mouth.

Whose word inspires more faith--a family member/close friend or some Madison Avenue advertising hack? The answer is obvious. We take seriously the word of someone we know and trust that a product is worth the money it costs.

A study by McKinsey & Company found word of mouth to be the primary factor in 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions.

Which would you rather have: Ten reviews by average Joe? Or, ten people telling their friends and family how much they enjoyed your book and urging them to pick up a copy? I know which I'd prefer. Because having those ten people hyping my book is more likely to translate into sales than would the reviews.

I'm not going to turn down anyone who wants to write a review for any of my books. But I'd much rather have them urging the many people they know to buy a copy.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Glimpse of History

(Science thriller writer Janet Greger is my guest today, commenting on a favorite subject, history, and offering some information on her latest novel.)

Wikipedia states the Vietnam War was a conflict in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from November 1955 until the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The first date is debatable, and these facts don’t put this conflict into context so it can be understood.

After 40 years, a number of the combatants have died and many of the “little stories” about the war have been lost. That’s too bad because I suspect George Santayana was right: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Thus, when a friend, who was a medic in the secret war in Laos in the early 1960s, offered me his notes, I was thrilled. But I’m no historian. I write modern thrillers and mysteries with a woman protagonist, Sara Almquist, who is too young to have first-hand knowledge of the Vietnam era.

I decided to set the novel, titled Riddled with Clues, mainly at the VA Center in Albuquerque because my dog Bug and I are a pet therapy team there. We’ve met Vietnam era veterans in the rehab programs at this large VA center. Many homeless veterans also roam the campus and its over seventy buildings. I realized the convoluted nature of the layout of buildings would be great for a chase scene, and the veterans in rehab units could be the basis of colorful supporting characters in the book.

Are you curious how I used the notes?  In chapter 1, Sara, a scientific consultant for the State Department, gets a mysterious summons to the VA in her hometown of Albuquerque. She discovers Xave Zack (her old friend from previous novels – Ignore the Pain and Malignancy) was seriously injured while tracking drug smugglers.  He hands her a note he received before his accident. The note is signed by “Red from Udon Thani.” However, he doesn’t know anyone called Red, and the last time he was in Udon Thani was during the Vietnam War. 

Xave proceeds to tell her potentially relevant details from his wartime experiences in Laos. (The experiences are all based on my real friend’s adventures). After Sara listens to his rambling tale of all the possibilities, both are assaulted. Xave is left comatose. Sara must determine whether the attacks were related to events during the war fifty years ago or to the modern-day drug trade. As she struggles to survive, she questions who to trust: the local cops, her absent best friend, the FBI, or a homeless veteran who leaves puzzling riddles as clues. 

Sound exciting? I hope so.

Now back to the history. As a medic, my friend treated men covered with hundreds of leeches, a baby monkey, and Hmong children with yaws and vitamin A deficiency besides lots of wounded soldiers. He also received survival training in the Philippines, served as a medic for the Hmong general Vang Pao, and was sent home after he earned his fourth Purple Heart. These “small events in history” are part of Xave’s stories. If you’re looking for military secrets, you’ll be disappointed. However, you will gain an appreciation of guerilla warfare in a jungle from these vignettes. For example, did you know a leech can swell to a couple inches in length with blood? Or that the medics of the Vietnam era were the prototypes for modern Physicians Assistants and EMTs?

The purpose of this blog is two-fold. I hope you’ll read Riddled with Clues and gain a different perspective on history. And I hope you’ll gather “historical” information from older friends and relatives and use the details in your writing. History can be fun.
Riddled with Clues (both paperback and Kindle versions) is available at Amazon:

Bio: J. L. Greger likes to include "sound bites" on science and on exotic locations in her Science Traveler Thriller/Mystery series, which includes: Riddled with Clues, Murder…A Way to Lose Weight (winner of 2016 Public Safety Writers [PSWA] annual contest and finalist for New Mexico–Arizona book award), I Saw You in Beirut, and Malignancy (winner of 2015 PSWA annual contest). To learn more, visit her website: or her Amazon author page:

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Horror of Reservation Life

The history of U.S. treatment of the Indian, or Native American as some now choose to call them, is replete with misjudgment and failure to keep promises.
As early as 1633 in Massachusetts there was a policy of assimilating the Indian into communities and inviting them to share equally in social and political privileges. Ironically, it was church people (who should by the tenets of their faith be the most tolerant of citizens) who rejected this plan and insisted on separate communities for the Indians.
As Manifest Destiny pushed westward, various treaties were adopted in which tribes ceded land in exchange for certain promises. These treaties were broken as promised lands were coveted by others for various reasons such as fertility, mineral richness or strategic placement. In 1824 the government created the Office of Indian Affairs to govern such issues. Under the administration of Andrew Jackson the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole) off their ancestral lands and onto less desirable tracts on what became known as "Indian Territory." Many died in the mass migration rightly named the Trail of Tears.
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 formally established the reservation system which made the Indian both the ward and the victim of the government and its agents. Even after reservation lands were designated for the tribes, the possibility existed they might be appropriated if Americans found a reason to access the tract--as happened to the Dakota when the Custer expedition found gold on Indian land in the Black Hills.
U.S. Grant adopted a policy of assimilation in 1868, a primary focus of which aimed at converting Indians to Christianity, the primary religion of the country. Violent resistance led to its abandonment by the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, though he retained the system of separating children from their parents for re-education in boarding schools.
The U.S. Congress replaced the reservation system with the Dawes Act in 1887, removing tribal governing councils, attempting to destroy communal traditions and parceling land into individual plots. Accepting and farming these plots opened a path to citizenship. President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered a "New Deal" in the 1930s, authorizing a return to tribal governments, ending the land allotment procedure and resurrecting the reservation system, which remains in effect today.
Throughout its existence, the reservation system has been one of poverty, malnutrition, dependency and limited opportunity for economic advancement.
The San Carlos reservation in Arizona is the setting for my novel Geronimo Must Die and the hardships the people endured in such places makes it plain why many rebelled. Here's the blurb for the novel:
Geronimo and rascally half-breed Indian scout Mickey Free have never been friends.
Yet, Mickey has already saved Geronimo's life twice (without acknowledgement) and is the only one who can keep the great Apache leader out of the sniper's sights now. The sniper has already murdered several tribal leaders and Mickey believes it's all a plot to prompt a great runaway from the hated San Carlos reservation.
Mickey's efforts are stymied by Al Sieber, head of scouts, and John Clum, reservation agent, as well as suspicion of other Indians. Adding to his problems, Mickey is in love with a girl whose name he keeps forgetting to ask and who may be allied to the plot.
Only perseverance, risk to his life and, eventually, Geronimo's help will enable Mickey to resolve this dangerous situation.