What would you like readers to gain from reading your book(s)?
Because the Finding Billy Battles trilogy is historical fiction and is set in the 19th and 2oth Centuries, I would like readers to get a sense of the time and place of the story. I would like them to have an appreciation of the way people lived, how they thought, and how they dealt with both adversity and triumph in a very different era. Finally, I would like readers to finish my books and think to themselves: “Damn, I didn’t want that story to end!”
All historical fiction is, I think, a mixture of truth and story. Accuracy is beyond our reach since we have to imagine conversations and thoughts, but as novelists, we struggle to present an authentic, believable past whether or not our characters ever existed. When you talk about the Billy Battles novels being “faction,” do you have something more specific in mind?
That’s tricky. I call my work “Faction,” because it is both fact and fiction. Some of the events in the book–especially those dealing with real people, did happen. Was my character directly involved in them? No. However, members of my family were native Kansans, and some of the experiences I write about did happen. Of course, I have woven some of my own experiences into the storyline also. I think it is essential to weave as many of your own experiences as you can into the storyline. That gives the story a ring of truth or credibility if you will. Novelists ask readers to suspend belief when it comes to things their characters do, but if you are writing historical fiction especially, you must be faithful to the time and place in which the story takes place.
What caused you to make that shift away from journalism to a mix of fact and fiction?
It wasn’t a sudden shift. I always knew I wanted to write novels, but as a foreign correspondent I just never found the time. Then, in 1997 I left the Chicago Tribune to write a corporate biography of Japan’s Kikkoman Corp (the soy sauce maker which also happens to be Japan’s oldest continuously operating company dating back to 1630). When that was finished, I was offered a full, tenured professorship at the University of Illinois teaching journalism. A couple of years later I was made the Dean of the College of Media—so once again, no time to write my novels. Finally, in 2010, I left the university, moved to California, and began my novel-writing career.
Thanks for joining us here on Favorite PASTimes. Do you have any final words for readers or writers?
Yes! For Readers: Please DON’T STOP READING! Those of us who love telling stories need you. And when you read a book, don’t be shy. Write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, etc., and let us know what you liked and didn’t like about a book. I value the reviews I get from Amazon Verified Purchase customers more than I do from professional or editorial reviewers. After all, customers spent money on the book and that gives them the right to tell the author what they think.
For Writers: Please Keep Writing. The world needs good storytellers today more than ever. I know that many who write are frustrated by letters of rejection from agents and publishers. Don’t be discouraged. If you can’t get a book before the reading public going the traditional publishing route, consider self or indie publishing. Publish on Demand (POD) books are everywhere these days and so are e-books. Writers today don’t have to consider a rejection letter the last word in their aspiration to publish. You have options to reach readers that didn’t exist 10 or even five years ago. There are also scores of contests in which you can enter your books so you can measure your work with that of your peers. As I mentioned earlier, Chanticleer is an excellent example, as the Book Excellence Award which my books have won, as well as the New Apple Literary Award and the New York Big Book Award, where my books were also achieved recognition.
Having said that, I never wrote my books in pursuit of awards. I wrote them because I enjoyed writing them. And, I must be honest. Many self-published books are not well done. The writing may be of poor quality; the covers are often inferior, and the proofreading and editing are shoddy. Frankly, some books should never have made it off the printing press or into an e-file. However, there are enough gems coming from self-published authors to offset the marginal efforts.
My advice to beginners: Give yourself time to learn the craft of writing. How do you do that? Read, read, read. If you want to write well, read well. Learn from the best; imitate (and I don’t mean plagiarize). Listen to the words! You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on writing seminars, conferences, etc. Gifted writing can’t be taught. It must be learned. And we learn from doing it; from experience.
To be a good writer you need to be confident in your ability to use the tools of the craft: research, vocabulary, grammar, style, plot, pacing, and story. A confident writer is typically a good writer. We gain confidence by being successful in our work–no matter what work we do. We also learn from failure. Why was a book rejected 40 times? Why isn’t it selling on Amazon or Goodreads or Barnes and Noble? There must be a reason. Find out what it is and learn from it. Then go back to work and make the book better.
And remember: Writing is a discipline that you can learn at any age. Unlike ballet or basketball or modeling, writing is not something that if you missed doing at 16, 18, or 20, you could never do again. You are NEVER too old to begin writing!
I recall interviewing Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck once. It was late fall, 1971, and at the time she was living in Vermont
We were talking on the phone, and suddenly she began describing her backyard and what she said was the first snow of the season.”You should see this, Ron. From my office window, I am watching a leisurely shower of white crystals floating, drifting, and landing softly onto a carpet of jade. I wish you could see it.”
“I do,” I said. “Thanks for showing me.”
I never forgot that conversation with the first American female Nobel laureate. She was 79 and still writing.
Finally, writing–as difficult as it is–should also be fun. When you turn a beautiful phrase or create a vivid scene, you should feel a little flutter in your heart, a shiver in your soul. If you do, that means you have struck an evocative chord with your writing. Nothing is more rewarding than that!