Periodically, I like to post about the art and craft of writing. Today I am posting the first of a three-part series on the topic that I did a while back. Here is Part One:
During the past few years, I have done several interviews with bloggers and spoken to audiences at book festivals and book signings about books, publishing, and writing in general. For the next couple of days, I am posting those interviews as a three-part series. I hope you find these posts interesting and, most of all, helpful.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Probably when I was in the sixth grade. I loved writing stories, and I had a teacher (Mrs. Gooch) who encouraged me. My mother also bought me books and often took me to the library–a place that I found magical and magnetic. She often read to me, and I could “see” the story unfolding before me. When I could read myself, I began to devour everything I could get my hands on. Reading took me places I could not, as a young boy, otherwise go. As I used to tell my journalism students at the University of Illinois, if you want to write well, read well.
What was your inspiration to write the Finding Billy Battles Trilogy?
I grew up in Kansas, and I was always fascinated by what life was like there in the 19th Century, when the state was still relatively wild. At the same time, I spent a lot of time in the Far East as a foreign correspondent, and I was equally intrigued by what life must have been like in the 19th Century colonial period in places like French Indochina, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. Then one day, I got the idea to blend the two using a character from 19th Century Kansas who goes to the Far East and other places in search of himself. During that search, he finds himself immersed in more peril and adventure than he bargained for.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a published author?
Try to write as much as you can from your own experiences. They are real and uncontrived, and if you incorporate those experiences in your fiction, your work will have a truthful ring to it. Beyond that, KEEP AT IT! Don’t let anybody (editors, agents, etc.) discourage you. At the same time, be willing to accept constructive criticism from those who have experience as authors, editors, agents, etc. Notice I said CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. Some people criticize just to be criticizing–or to be malicious. You must believe in yourself, your work, your vision, and your story. If you don’t, who will?
What do you think makes a good story?
A good story needs a strong plot and even stronger characters. Otherwise, it falls flat. The writer needs to be, above all, a good storyteller. If you build a good story, THEY WILL COME, to paraphrase “Field of Dreams.” Make readers care about your protagonist. Make readers empathize, cry, and laugh with them. At the same time, keep them off balance. Don’t be predictable, and don’t be afraid to do terrible things to your favorite characters. Have you ever known anybody who has sailed through life without some turmoil, some pain, some suffering? I haven’t.
If your trilogy became a movie or a Netflix mini-series, who would be your first choice to play the lead roles?
Clint Eastwood or Sam Elliot as the elderly Billy Battles; Clive Owen as the middle-aged Billy Battles and Ashton Kutcher as the young Billy Battles. I would pick Saffron Burrows for Billy’s first love, Mallie McNab and Famke Janssen for the widow Katharina Schreiber who Billy meets on the ship to the Far East. (Why these choices? These folks are all tall, like me. Billy is 6’3,” and Mallie is about 5’10,” as is the statuesque widow Schreiber).
Do any of your characters have qualities/characteristics that are similar to yourself?
I think Billy Battles and I are a lot alike. I mean, aren’t most novels a bit autobiographical? He is a restless sort. He enjoys traveling, going to new places, and experiencing new things. Like Billy, I couldn’t wait to get away from Kansas (though I love the place dearly). And, like Billy, I am a happy wanderer. How else could I have survived and thrived as a foreign correspondent for 25 years? We are both journalists. At the same time, he is a dependable guy who is loyal to his friends and to those he chooses to keep close to him. Above all, Billy respects two traits in people: Honesty and Kindness. We are alike in that way.
Tell us about your next release.
I finished the trilogy in 2018 with the publication of The Lost Years of Billy Battles, which I am proud to say has won multiple awards. Book #3 deals with a new phase of Billy Battles’ life. It takes him to Mexico during the 1910 revolution led by such people as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. In Veracruz, Billy finds himself mixed up with political opportunists, spies, revolutionaries, and an assortment of evil and dubious characters of both sexes. In short, Book #3 in the trilogy once again takes Billy far away from his Kansas roots and out of his comfort zone. Then, Billy disappears for several years. Family and friends have no idea where he is or why he vanished. Why did he vanish and to where? You will have to read Book #3 to find out.
I am finishing my next book, which is a novel about foreign correspondents in Asia. Its working title is Asia Hands: A Tale of Foreign Correspondents & Other Miscreants in the Orient. Here is a blurb about it:
A mysterious object of unknown origin hidden in the heart of an impenetrable S.E. Asian jungle. A covert alliance of dangerous people determined to keep it concealed. Treacherous secret agents. Betrayal. Assassination. Murder.
It’s one hell of a story, and two foreign correspondents—one recently retired and the other approaching burnout—are on the scent.
Meet Cooper McGrath and Clayton Brandt.
They have just stumbled onto the biggest story of their lives—one that could have staggering ramifications for the planet and its people.
Now all they have to do is live long enough to tell it.
Will they meet their deadlines, or will they meet their deaths?
How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula?
I don’t outline my books, and I don’t write down plot scenarios. I just start writing and see where the story and my characters lead me. It’s a lot like life itself. We may have a goal in mind, but the route to it is often strewn with obstacles, surprises, and sometimes tragedy. I usually write 3,000 or 4,000 words a day, and I edit as I go. In other words, I may write a few paragraphs and then rewrite them within a few minutes of creating them. I don’t write what I would call a “First Draft.” When I finish writing a book, it is finished. I may go back and make a few tweaks with the plot here and there or alter a little dialogue or some action by a character, but there is no second or third draft.
I know some authors who will write a first draft and put it away for weeks or months and then go back and look at it with fresh eyes. Alternatively, they may send it out to professional “beta readers” or “critiquers.” I do use beta readers, but I don’t put my writing away for weeks or months. Those strategies may work for some people. They don’t work for me. I guess it’s my journalistic training: see it, report it, organize it, write it and then move on to the next story.
If your publisher offered to fly you anywhere in the world to research an upcoming book, where would you most likely want to go?
To Papua New Guinea. That is where a significant portion of my next book takes place–or should I say, in the dense jungles of that still mostly unexplored country. There, in the forbidding and uncharted Foja Mountains, lurks an ancient mystery that two foreign correspondents are attempting to uncover.
(TOMORROW: Part 2)
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