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a_team_20My dad used to watch The A-Team when I was a kid and the main character. The main character, John “Hannibal” Smith, was known for chomping on a cigar and saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

I know how he feels. I’ve had this historical novel project in mind for at least five years, probably more. I knew I wanted to do a novel set around the 1922 national coal strike set in Western Maryland. I’d written about the strike in a couple articles, and it had come up in a non-fiction book that I’d written. It seemed like a rich setting for me to work with. The strike seemed like it would have a lot of action and drama.

Previously, my efforts in historical fiction have either been my family saga, Canawlers, which is set on the C&O Canal or action-oriented books as in The Rain Man or October Mourning. This novel I envisioned as being more action-oriented. However, I’m beginning to wonder about that now. It may wind up being a very character-driven story.

I had many false starts with the book. I’ve probably written the opening two or three times. I’ve written different scenes. I’ve got it outlined, and have done a lot of the research I needed. Yet, they didn’t work. Something was missing. It wasn’t coming together.

Every time that I put the book on my schedule as a project that I wanted to finish, I’d get started on it and then get distracted by another project. For me, when that happens, my belief is that if I’m writing something that I can’t stay interested in, I’m not going to write something that a reader will be interested in. Plus, I need to maximize my time, and if I’m struggling to push through writer’s block on a project, that is time I could have been doing something that pays.

I actually had this project on tap as one that I wanted to release this year as a herculean effort to produce four books in 2018. I’m putting the first book on the schedule to bed now and doing work on the second book.

Then all of a sudden this past weekend something clicked inside my head and pieces started falling into place for how I could structure the story, which has a working title of In Coal Blood. However, even though I’ve loved that title for a while, I’m not sure it will fit the book that I’m writing now. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe my title caused me to think of the book differently.

I spent all weekend writing notes about characters, outlining section of the book, and writing scenes. I’m really liking what I’m coming up with. I think this has been the turning point for this project. I believe that this year will finally see the publication of the story. I think that I may even switch it with the project that I should be working on.

I had this happen once before when I hit a major stumbling block with my first historical novel. I actually got about halfway through the draft, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. I banged my head against the wall for a long time before I finally laid the book out chapter by chapter on postcards. That’s when an epiphany hit me that a major character who was supposed to survive the story needed to die. Once I wrote that into the story, the floodgates opened, and the book was easy to write from that point on.

That’s how this has happened. I think the key point this time was that I needed to make the story more personal for my main character. Originally, he had no ties to where he was. He was being sent as an undercover Pinkerton agent into a community to infiltrate the miners’ efforts to unionize. It was a job and that was pretty much all it was. Then I decided to connect him personally to the community and have him face some of his demons.

He was always a WWI veteran, but I began to think of him as a man who had joined the army at the beginning of the war to escape the mining life. After the war, he did not return home because his parents had died from the flu. He had missed their funeral because he was still in Europe. He still works for the Pinkertons in Baltimore as an undercover agent. However, now I have him returning home because he was offered a job that would pay more than usual because of his connection to Western Maryland. He is also trying to get away from the memory of a failed romance in Baltimore.

By connecting him to the community, the book is now so much better for it. It is all coming together. I’ve created new characters and fleshed out the ones I already had.  This is giving me a better understanding of who these characters are, and with that better understanding, I am so looking forward to writing this book. I’ve got so many ideas. Now my problem is getting my other work complete because I’m spending so much time on this story.

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UntitledHere’s the cover for my next book, Secrets of the C&O Canal: Little-Known Stories and Hidden History Along the Potomac River. It is also the third book in my “Secrets” series.

Secrets of the C&O Canal contains 29 true stories about the canal and 67 photos and illustrations. My favorite stories include:

  • The chapter about where the original destination for the C&O Canal was. Hint: It wasn’t Cumberland, Md., or the Ohio River.
  • The sad story of the Spong family and how they met their tragic end on the canal. This one might give you nightmares if you’re a parent and even if you aren’t.
  • My third-favorite story is the one of about the connections between the canal and the JFK assassination. Let that sink in. The C&O Canal closed in 1924, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and this story takes place in 1964.

It should be no surprise that the C&O Canal is a favorite topic of mine. I’ve written three novels, a novella, and dozens of short stories about it. I’ve even got an outline for another non-fiction book that I want to write about the canal.

One thing that I find fascinating about the canal is that although it closed in 1924, we are still learning new things about it nearly 100 years later.

Secrets of the C&O Canal will retail for $19.95 when it is released next month. You can pre-order a signed copy and get it shipped free to your home (U.S. addresses only) at this link.

If you’d like to take a look at the other books in the series, take a peek at their Amazon pages.

3 Secrets

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Happy-New-Year-2018-clipart-images-1024x640Welcome to 2018. I’m looking forward to it for a number of reasons.

Last year was a great year for me on the business side of things. I sold more books and earned more money than I ever had as an author-entrepreneur. Hopefully, I’ve learned enough to replicate the results for 2018 and build on it. I did a lot more marketing last year and a lot more examining of the results of the marketing.

I had a couple missteps at the end of last year. One, I can correct. The other I will just have to keep in the back of my mind.

The thing I can correct is that I misjudged the demand for one of my new books and some stores ran out of copies. Not only was I embarrassed to have to tell the stores that I couldn’t get them copies before Christmas, I lost potential sales. This year, I will make sure to order more copies of my newer books for the Christmas season.

The thing I couldn’t really plan for was a customer who over ordered books for a fall event and then returned half of them in December. At that point, I didn’t have enough time to make up for the lost income by the end of the year. It wasn’t a crippling thing, but it broke the growing momentum I had been on the rest of the year.

I’ve got book projects planned for this year, and I have even made progress on all of them coming into the New Year, which makes it more likely that I’ll be able to get them out on time.

Since January and February are relatively slow times for me, I can hopefully get ahead on some projects and layout my marketing plan for rest of year. I’ve hit the ground running and plan to keep going.

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rrI’ve written about getting ideas from dreams before. Well, the other morning I woke from a dream around 4 a.m. It was a neat story that as I thought about it loosely tied in with a novel idea that I had started work on years ago. The images were still fresh in my head that I actually got out of bed to start writing it down

Then, even as I was writing, those dream details started getting fuzzier. I managed to get a decent representation of the dream down on paper, but as I looked it over, I realized that it wasn’t the same thing that I had dreamed. Things were missing that I just couldn’t recall, I had filled it in with general statements.

I will go over it again my recollections again and try to create a coherent story line. Then the story will go into my tickler file. By the time I pull it out to write the story, it will have hopefully jelled into a more complete idea.

I don’t know what the final story will be like, but I hope I can capture the excitement that I felt while I was dreaming it.

The morning following that idea dream, I work up again with another idea dream. It was a completely different dream that I anxiously tried to capture on paper. The problem was that try as I might, I could only remember that this dream took place on an island.

So what is it that allows someone to remember one dream and not another? I don’t know if I would want to remember all of my dreams. Most of them probably wouldn’t make sense. I would like to remember the ones that wake me up, though.

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bible-dream.jpgI get ideas from a variety of different resources; things I see or hear, newspaper articles, something I read in a book, research for other articles. One of the most-unreliable resources is my dreams.

As I’m sure you know, dreams can be weird. Mine (at least the ones I can remember) can be very disjointed. People jump in and out of the scene without reason, scenes can change drastically and might not even be realistic.

Every once in a while, something about a dream strikes me that it might make a good scene in a story or even the basis of a story. I wrote a horror story years ago called “The Grand Illusion.” Most of that story, including the main character of Panfilo Vasquez who dressed in a lime-green tuxedo, came from a nightmare that I had. Luckily, the nightmare was scary enough that I woke up from it and wrote what I could remember down.

Because of that experience, I tend to keep a pad and pen next to my bed for just such times. If I wake up from a dream that I think is interesting enough for a story, I’ll make some notes about it because I know that I won’t remember it when my alarm goes off in the morning.

That has happened more than once.

A few months ago, something a bit different happened. I woke up from a dream and scribbled down some notes about the dream. When morning came, I remembered enough that I had made some notes about a great story.

I picked up my pad and looked at my notes. They were jibberish. Now, it might be that I wrote out the dream precisely as I saw it in my head, and that the dream was just too disjointed. More likely, I was still half asleep when I made the notes.

Either way, I feel like I lost another great story idea.

That’s frustrating to me when it happens because although more often than not, I can’t use the dream idea, they represent some very creative ideas. My subconscious is connecting lots of bits and pieces into a narrative that I might not have considered. Using my dream ideas, helps move me outside of my comfort zone.

I don’t consider my pad a dream journal. Each dream goes into my idea file to be reviewed and considered later.

I just wish that I could remember them all so I can consider them later.

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I had a mini-book tour in Ohio at the beginning of November. I did a book signing, a couple talks for high school classes, an invitation-only presentation at the historical society, and a general presentation all in two days. It was all to promote my biography of Chuck Caldwell called Clay Soldiers: One Marine’s Story of War, Art, & Atomic Energy.

It was a busy time, but I was happy for the opportunity to do it. The general presentation was also filmed for the local cable provider. Here’s the link to my talk. I hope you enjoy it.

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During the last meeting of the Gettysburg Writer’s Brigade, we talked about marketing for the independent author. While marketing for the mainstream author and indie author overlap, some differences exist. This is mainly because an indie author can develop longer-term marketing.

While your short-term marketing will generally be focused on promoting your most-recent book, your long-term marketing will focus on your author platform or brand.

The basic elements of your author platform will be your author website and a Facebook fan page. These are the first two places that readers will search for information about you as an author. They should find an active, up-to-date page that lets them know about you, your books, and what you are up to. A webpage can be developed easily with sites like WordPress or Wix, and the cost is inexpensive. The Facebook page can be created for free.

From this basic platform, you can begin to add in additional pieces. This include:

  • Twitter – Visit it regularly to follow authors and readers. Tweet about your activities as well as your books. Readers want to feel like they know you and casual tweets are a way to do that.
  • Blog – If you have more to say than can be said in 140 characters, a blog could be a good way to do that. It also allows you to delve deeper into a topic of interest.
  • Podcasting – If you want to try a different medium to attract readers, try a podcast and fulfill your childhood dream of becoming a radio DJ.
  • E-mail List – This is something that I wish I had started building years ago. Collect names of and e-mail addresses of your readers. That way, you can communicate directly with them with news and book deals. If you post on Facebook or even your blog, you never know whether your readers will see it, but an e-mail has a greater chance of being read.

The key for your long-term marketing to last long-term is to provide information of interest to your readers. While you can mention special pricing or promotions within your author platform elements, most of the information should be non-sales. You are trying to build name recognition and goodwill. Continually trying to sell your books through your blog, Twitter account, etc., will only cause people to tune you out and unfollow you.

As the name suggests, long-term marketing is long-term. Don’t expect immediate sales. Your goal is to get your name out there and at the top of people’s minds when they think about your genre.

You want everything to become an interconnected web where you start to do something in one area and causes something to happen elsewhere.

Here’s a recent example. I do a particular festival every year where I sell my books (short-term marketing). A couple years ago, I met an author and we talked during the show. These events are good places to network (long-term marketing). This author later reviewed one of my books on Amazon (long-term marketing) and gave it four stars. More recently, he saw me do a presentation on C-SPAN (short-term marketing) and decided to review the book I walk talking about (long-term marketing). Also, the C-SPAN presentation came from doing a book signing (short-term marketing).

Can you see how everything is connecting? In some cases, it took a couple years for something to happen, but it did. Hopefully, the review will spur some sales, just as the C-SPAN presentation did.

It may sound like a lot to do, but you have time. As an indie author, you can keep your book in print as long as you want. You don’t have to make a quick impact like mainstream authors do (although if you can, so much the better). Do a little bit every day. Write yourself a marketing “to-do” list. Once you work your way through the list, evaluate the results and create a new list based on those results.

Go for it!

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McLGX78KiWriting can be stationary work. Sure, I get to go out and do an interview, attend a meeting, or do an interesting activity from time to time. Most of the time, however, I’m sitting behind my desk. That’s not the healthiest way to live.

I get up from time to time and walk around the house. The creaking in my joints lets me know it was a good choice.

I try to use the treadmill desk, but I’ve never gotten over the awkwardness of it. I do use it, but for probably only an hour or two a week.

My point here is that writers need to stay healthy. Besides helping you live longer, the less you are sick, the more productive you can be. My grandfather used to tell me a story that after he went deep into debt borrowing from anyone who would lend him money in order to build a small grocery store so that he could go into business for himself. He told me that every night he would pray that the Lord would keep him healthy so he could work and pay back all those people whom he owed money.

If you are ill, you won’t be writing and earning a living. So stay healthy.

I do a lot of bicycling during the summer. I like getting out and exploring my county. I also do resistance training with resistance tubes. This hasn’t been as effective for me as the biking.

I decided to rejoin the YWCA in town and use their fitness center. I love spin classes. I can also start using the free weights for resistance training again.

Meanwhile, I have also started jogging again. (Some people may call it fast walking.) I haven’t done this is decades because of a bad knee. My body does not like this much, but I am slowly getting better at it.

It’s all in the effort to improve my health, keep me away from the doctor’s office, and keep writing.

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The keynote speaker at one of the annual writer’s conferences sponsored by the Washington Independent Writers.

For a job that relies on connecting with readers, writing can be a lonely profession. To start with, I have no workmates. I work in my den in my house. Now, that’s not the case for all writers. I have worked for businesses and newspapers where there were desks next to mine and I could speak and joke with the person sitting next to me.

 

Writers do a lot of talking to people for interviews, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to relationships. I do get to know some of the people well. These are people in the geographic areas that I frequently write about or experts on topics that I frequently write about. The vast majority of people I speak with, though, I only talk to once for a single article.

With that feeling of isolation, I find that it’s important for writers to have a support system in place. This includes family and friends, but it also includes other writers. I participate in a weekly writer’s group. It’s nice to meet with other people who share an interest in writing and talk about the craft or simply joke around.

This network comes with some benefits. First and foremost, it reinvigorates me for my work each week. This is important for me, particularly during weeks where I’m feeling very stressed out.

You also find the benefits that come with other networking groups. I hear about writing opportunities, and I can find people I trust when I need some help.

It also gives me a chance to pay things forward and help other writers when I can because I like seeing writers succeed. I might get a little jealous of their success, but I’m always happy for them.

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RULE

Ann Rule

Last month, I had the opportunity to take on a true crime book, but I turned it down. It wasn’t an easy choice. It was an interesting cold case, but I felt that I wasn’t ready for the project at this time. It would have required travel that I didn’t want to do, and time that I just couldn’t commit, at least not if I wanted to finish the book in less than a decade.

 

While I was considering the project, I also studied how to do true crime books. I have covered criminal cases when I was a newspaper reporter and even done investigative pieces. I’ve read some true crime books as well, but I wasn’t sure what goes into writing one. For instance, should you have your manuscript vetted by a lawyer? If so, that would have made it very different from other types of writing.

I found an interesting article that had some good tips from the “Queen of True Crime” Ann Rule. If anyone knows how to write a true crime book, it’s her. She is the author of books like Small Sacrifices and Heart Full of Lies. Her first book, The Stranger Beside Me, was about her co-worker, serial killer Ted Bundy. 138454

While she has great advice for being a writer, in general, here are her tips for being a true crime writer.

  1. You can usually get a press pass, but there’s often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Rule calls the prosecutor’s assistant.
  2. Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience. (I used to try and take notes during trials, but I finally started recording them so I could do just this. If a writers soaks in the experience, it helps in setting the mood and scene when you write.)
  3. Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.
  4. Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they’re doing.
  5. If you’re sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don’t ask them about anything. You can comment on the weather or the courtroom benches being hard, but “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth pretty shut.” (She says this to keep you from getting in trouble with the judicial system, but it also follows the old adage, “If you’re talking, you aren’t listening.” You never know what you might hear if you are quiet and sitting in the right place.)
  6. Don’t take newspapers into the courtroom.
  7. Know what you’re getting yourself into. “You don’t want to start a nonfiction unless you’re really in love with it, and usually you want a go-ahead from an editor.” (This was one of my hesitations with the true crime project I was presented. I was interested in it, but I wasn’t obsessed by it. Because of that, I was willing to let other things get in the way of me writing the project.)
  8. Absorb detail. “When I’m writing a true-crime book I want the reader to walk along with me.” Rule describes the temperature, how the air feels—“I think it’s very important to set the scene.” As far as the writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.
  9. Don’t use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing. (Though Rule has written about a few who have asked to have their names included.) As Rule said of her subjects at large, “I always care about my people. And if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”

x4459True crime is an interesting genre because you might actually have a real-world impact, such as catching a criminal. However, it also has plenty of things that could cause you headaches if you aren’t careful. Maybe one day I’ll find that true crime project that I can’t forget, and when that happens, I’ll take the leap.

Here’s the link to the original article where I found Ann Rule’s tips.

 

 

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