Friday, June 24, 2016

Left-Hand Kelly is on sale!

Looking for an addition to your summer reading list? Look no further! The Kindle edition of my short Western novel Left-Hand Kelly is on sale for just 99¢ from today through next Thursday, June 30th. Grab your copy today—and if you've already read and enjoyed the book, tell a friend!

2015 Peacemaker Award Finalist for Best Independently Published Western Novel

Sixteen-year-old Lew Kelly grew up idolizing his enigmatic ex-gunfighter father. Everyone thought Lew’s habit of practicing his quick draw was a harmless amusement—until the day when a boys’ hot-headed quarrel exploded into gunplay, with disastrous results.

Three years later, Lew is withdrawn and bitter—and he still carries a gun. When an unexpected twist of circumstances forces him to face again the memories and the aftermath of that ill-fated fight, will old wrongs be righted—or will the result be an even worse tragedy than before?
"A very difficult to put down read...Foley's characters are both complex and well developed...The tale is beautifully paced, building through tense and frantic scenes to its neat conclusion." - Western Fiction Review

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BONUS: Meanwhile, Kobo is hosting a 50% off sale on all Kobo Writing Life titles, which means that you can currently get ANY (or all!) of my books for half-price at Kobo. Just use coupon code 50JUN—the sale lasts only through Monday, June 27th.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Research Diaries, Part III

Remember my first great research discovery—the difference between a DD and a DE? That seems like years ago. Since then, I've read so much about both types of ship that I think if I were to set foot on either one, I'd feel like I'd been there before. (Lord willing, I am going to set foot on the only surviving DE in existence before this project is over.)

I've determined that yes, I'm dealing with both types of ship in different parts of the story. I've roughly divided my research into about three sections, each corresponding to a part of the novel (at this stage I'm envisioning it divided into three Parts and an epilogue), and right now I'm focusing on the background for Part I: destroyers (that's DD) in the Guadalcanal campaign. It's rather funny—in order to convincingly write a given scene that may take up about ten minutes of the novel's timeline, I'll probably end up having read about ten research books.

Library ebooks, by the way, are a wonderful thing. If your library doesn't have the physical book you want, and you're not sure whether it's worth investing in a be able to check it out and start reading it on your Kindle in a matter of seconds is great. (I've also made the thrilling discovery that you can suggest digital titles for purchase if they're not in your library's digital catalogue, which is terrific for fiction reading as well as research!) My current research read is Condition Red: Destroyer Action in the South Pacific by Frederick J. Bell, which I'm thoroughly enjoying. Published while the war was still in progress, it remains vague about tactical matters and most names and places are altered or blanked out, but there's a lot of excellent "local color" about life on a destroyer—sights, sounds, emotions, tidbits about everyday shipboard life; which is exactly what a researching novelist is looking for. It's also written with a good sense of humor, as this extract demonstrates:

The other thing I'm doing at the moment is stockpiling—gathering materials for future reference. I've been filling up a favorites folder, my library wish list and a private YouTube playlist with links, photos, interviews, old magazines and pamphlets, video clips...all to be sorted out and gone through methodically when I reach the subject they relate to.

This has been particularly exciting in one respect—as I think I may have mentioned earlier, my first big "lightbulb moment" early in the project was when I decided to make the home-front setting New York State, so I could really write-what-I-know for a change. But a couple weeks ago I had a second, bigger lightbulb moment...after I'd slowly realized that randomly choosing a town I've only visited a few times was going to entail quite a bit of extra research on top of what I was already looking at. Why not set it right smack in my own hometown of Troy—where I'd have the advantage of writing about a place I already knew well geographically, and could do my historical research right on the spot? Within hours of having this idea, I'd found real-life locations that perfectly matched my imagined settings for pivotal scenes in the novel, and everything seemed to click into place at once. I've been having a great time browsing through fascinating vintage photos of the city during the 1930s and '40s, and added a lot of material relating to local history to my growing stockpile.

I've a ways to go yet. For instance, I found out that there was a USO canteen in Troy (which also clicks perfectly with some of my plot ideas), but haven't been able to find out exactly where it was located yet. (Anyone know of some good resources on the USO?) But I'm pretty much looking forward to the challenge. I have a feeling this part is going to be fun.

Part I
Part II

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Quote: The Smallest of Stories

Dare to tell the smallest of stories if you want to generate large emotions. 
                                                                 ~ William Zinsser

Monday, June 13, 2016

Soundtrack for a Story: The Mountain of the Wolf

The soundtrack for this story is a bit shorter one. When I began plotting/writing The Mountain of the Wolf, I initially didn't have any "inspiration music" at all. Then while working on the first draft, I gradually began recognizing some songs that fit, and rediscovered a classical work that suits the story's atmosphere (and coincidentally, its setting/plot) perfectly. Perhaps I'll find some more as I continue to edit, but here's what I've got for now:

Selections from Billy The Kid by Aaron Copland:

As for the story itself, it has me a little bemused at the moment. Last week I finished typing the rough draft I wrote in April, and discovered it was about five thousand words longer than I had expected. And that's with one scene (which I cravenly skipped during the first draft because I was dry of ideas) still to be added. Now, how in the world did that happen? I guess there must have been a lot more scrawled in the margins of my notebook pages than I realized. (You should have seen me as I tried to type certain pages, turning the notebook this way and that as I tried to decipher from the various margin notes and scribbled arrows and crossings-out exactly which sentence was supposed to come next.)
image: 'Silhouette of a cowboy on horseback' by Allan Grant, 1949

Friday, June 10, 2016

Blackout Friday, Edition IV

This one is titled, "A Wish." Unfortunately got a bit blotted (I'm still getting the hang of wielding the permanent marker), but I'm rather fond of it:

While this one, I think, speaks for itself:

(We hope.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Mystery Roundup

Mysteries are a kind of literary comfort-food for me. In a reading dry spell when I can't seem to find any other books that appeal to me, or while working hard on a writing project so that I don't feel up to diverting the brainpower to concentrate on something new and involved, I often tend to reach for a mystery. There's something familiar and comforting about the mystery-novel formula and atmosphere, along with enough questions and suspense in the plot that it requires your mind to stay attentive as well.

Thing is, now that I've read through Agatha Christie's oeuvre and am trying to spin out Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series so it lasts me a while, I'm always on the prowl to discover other mystery authors whose works will fit the bill when I'm seized with a mystery craving. Because I am fairly picky in a literary sense. Good writing is a must, and a genuinely mysterious mystery is always a good thing—one quickly loses interest in a book where the characters are as clichéd as the six suspects from Clue and you can guess whodunit by the second chapter. Anyway, here's a run-down of the handful of mysteries by new-to-me authors that I've read so far this year, along with how they stack up:

  • The Middle of Things by J.S. Fletcher (1922) - Quite good. This is the kind of old-fashioned mystery where all the interest lies in the pursuit of the clues, rather than the psychology of the suspects: lost heirs, missing papers, imposters, scheming lawyers, and dozens of little physical clues that all gradually come together in the end.

  • Let Him Lie by Ianthe Jerrold (1940) - Quite good. All the welcome elements of a good English-countryside murder—manor-houses and cottages occupied by a collection of suspects with plenty of shifting motives between them, precarious alibis, a likeable young woman protagonist and just a touch of love interest. Rather a pity that Jerrold (Ianthe Jerrold—how's that for an unusual name?) seems to have written only four books.

  • Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne (1931) - Indifferent. This one just didn't do anything for me, although it seemed to have all the right ingredients to start with. Perhaps it was that the author seemed to go a little overboard in painting the drama or trying to make the Scottish setting seem exotic; but in spite of the drama few of the characters ever came quite alive for me, and by the end I didn't care terribly what happened to any of them.

  • The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1929) - Pretty good. To paraphrase my Goodreads review, it tries to combine an Old Dark Mansion romp with a standard murder-mystery, rather at the expense of the latter; but I would definitely be interested to see if Allingham's later books improve—since she's known as one of the four Golden Age queens of crime, along with Christie, Sayers and Ngaio Marsh (whom I've yet to try).

  • At the Villa Rose by A.E.W. Mason (1910) - Very good. Who can resist the glamorous setting of a French villa in the Edwardian era? Another one with lots of twists and turns and little intricate clues to piece together. Mason's detective, Inspector Hanaud, is said to have been one of the inspirations for Hercule Poirot, and I could definitely see glimpses of that.

Other authors whom I've read one or more books from and will likely read more are: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Josephine Tey, Mignon G. Eberhart and Ethel Lina White (I've had mixed reactions to White's, but Some Must Watch was good enough that I keep hoping for another on the same level).

Have you read any of these authors? Any other good old-fashioned mysteries you recommend?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Book Review: The American Home Front 1941-1942 by Alistair Cooke

Reading this book is a remarkable experience. It's a literal road-trip through America of the early 1940s. English journalist Alistair Cooke, curious about the effects of World War II across America, but wise enough not to rely on newspaper pronouncements about the war effort or the public's patriotism, set off to explore the entire country and see for himself how the war was affecting people's lives, and if possible, how they felt about it.

The answer, of course, was neither simple nor small. The term "home front" here does not describe, say, a picture of what day-to-day life was like for the average middle-class American family in your typical American town. It's rather a sweeping tour of a big and incredibly varied country where the effects of the war were felt in hundreds of different ways, each specific to its own particular bit of American landscape and culture. As Cooke puts it, "You learn...that 'war' means all things to all men, but mostly it means the day-by-day effect on their own job or crop."

This being the case, there's a strong focus on the economic impacts of the war on different industries, professions, agriculture, labor, housing. We're taken not just through shipyards and defense plants, but are shown the effects of wartime demand and regulations on everything from lumber to cattle-ranching to insurance to the growing of oranges, beets or dates. We see towns teeming with an inrush of migrant workers to suddenly-sprung-up war plants, farmers lamenting the loss of workers to the draft or factories. Cooke visits small towns and big cities, talks to people in diners and drugstores and railroad stations and by the side of the road. Some of the moments are unforgettable—the quiet, grieving New Mexico town which lost a National Guard unit on Bataan; the encounter with the boy driving an ice-cream truck on a lonely California road while on furlough from the Army; or the wry humor of the Miami luxury hotels driving a bargain with the military taking them over for training schools.

My original reason for picking up this book was for research, with a hope that I'd learn some specifics about that average home-front life I mentioned above; and while I didn't exactly find that, I did glean one important thing. I think this book reminds you that everyday life (in all its American varieties) didn't just stop or become entirely wrapped up in "the war effort"—it wasn't all blackouts and scrap drives and victory gardens. Reading books about the military campaigns can kind of give you the skewed impression that life at home just slowed to a stop and waited while the men were overseas. But it didn't. People didn't just sit by the radio waiting for war news; they still got up and ate and chose what clothes to wear and went to church and school and work, even if wartime conditions changed how they did some of these things.

Part of what makes it interesting is Cooke's point of view. An Englishman, but also an American citizen who had evidently lived in the country for some time when he made this trip, he has enough of an outsider's perspective to be somewhat dispassionate, but enough knowledge of America and Americans to talk about them with understanding. Plus he's an excellent writer. Everything he notes is set in the context of the landscape he travels through, and so we get sharply observant descriptions of the deep South, the desert Southwest, the lush California coast, the mountains of Oregon and the plains of Kansas wheat, Minnesota dairy farms and New England in the autumn. There's really too much to do justice to in a brief review. We're treated to quick but observant snapshot views of the character of major American cities in the early forties, the changing scenery along the highways that link them and the small towns, farms and roadside diners along the way. It's a priceless time capsule—not least because it shows a vanished America, one much closer to its pioneer roots than it is to anything in our twenty-first century.

The American Home Front 1941-1942 is available in paperback and on Kindle. Incidentally, I had had this sitting on my Kindle for some time before I pulled it up and read it for my current research project—I had originally downloaded it when the ebook edition was briefly free on Amazon two years ago! Yep, that's probably one of the best bargains I've caught so far.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Summer Reading 2016

A pattern has emerged over the last couple of years: I begin putting down titles for my summer reading list practically just after New Year's, and by the time May rolls around I'm champing at the bit to dig into it...and to talk about it! A side-effect of making the list early, of course, is that I occasionally swipe a title off it if I'm really desperate for something to read anytime in the spring. This year I swiped Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope and The Brandons by Angela Thirkell (a double dose of Barsetshire!) and I remain unapologetic. Barchester Towers in particular was exactly what I needed in a dry reading season—and anyway, there are plenty of books left in both authors' series if I want to read them in the summer!

So without further ado, here's this year's list:

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
Escape the Night by Mignon G. Eberhart
The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart
Storming by K.M. Weiland
Where There's a Will by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope
Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Greenwillow by B.J. Chute
Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener
Conagher by Louis L'Amour
The Great K&A Train Robbery by Paul Leicester Ford
When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Seventeen by Booth Tarkington

(Review links added later.)

I admit, I have fun making my summer reading lists kind of like Irish stew—a little bit of everything on there. More Westerns this year, as I seem to have been slacking off on my Western reading for a while; and a couple of titles that have an oblique connection to the World War II research I'm doing (my research-reading list will carry on through the summer, too).

What does your summer reading list look like? I'd love to see it!

image: "Woman in a Boat" by John Singer Sargent

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Faces of Wolves

I've long admired Jennifer Freitag's knack for creating beautiful photo collages to inspire her works-in-progress. So the other day, to assist in whipping up my enthusiasm for getting back to work on The Mountain of the Wolf, I thought I'd try my hand at it:

I used the Fotor online collage maker, which was a snap once I got the hang of it. Graphic arts not being one of my strong points, it did take me quite a little time and frustration before I figured out which pictures went best together and how to proportion them most effectively—but I liked the finished result so much that now I'd rather like to try it for some of my other stories!

(To see more visual inspiration for The Mountain of the Wolf, visit the Pinterest board.)

Next week: summer reading list!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Snoopy Begins a Novel

You know who is really an expert on the writing life? Snoopy. Apparently he's been writing a novel for years, and he knows all about the ups and downs of the process. His writing adventures are legion, but here (courtesy of the Twitter account The UnNovelist) is a series of them in which Snoopy tries to get his plot off the ground...with about as much success as most of us usually have.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Weekend Odds and Ends #28

Lots of links this week!
  • I have been really growing to enjoy Anthony Trollope's books—I'm two books into his Chronicles of Barsetshire series—so I was delighted to discover that there's a new three-part adaptation of his Doctor Thorne (the third in the series) out this year, which looks quite promising! It's coming to Amazon Prime on May 20th, and in the meanwhile, here's a review at Finding Wonderland. I'd best get reading the book!

  • A good piece at Becoming Minimalist: Accomplish More with a 3-Item To-Do List. This is a wonderfully common-sense approach to a to-do list, which makes perfect sense to me.

  • From a back-issue of the National Archives' magazine Prologue, the unfortunate story of the 1890 U.S. Census—destroyed in a fire and much regretted by historical researchers, including amateur genealogists like myself!

  • I appreciated this article from Writer Unboxed on How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as a Writer. A message I needed to hear, as it's something I often wrestle with.

  • The May issue of the Texas Homeschool Coalition's magazine, the Review, includes a piece by Homeschooled Authors blog founder Sarah Holman spotlighting 30 "beach reads" by homeschooled authors, and my The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories is among those featured!

  • Here's an interesting interview at Bas Bleu's Bluestocking Salon blog with Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, a book that's on my to-read list for this year.

  • And finally, a neat list of the 10 Most Magnificent Castles in the U.S.—including one that helped provide some inspiration for Lost Lake House—from Architectural Digest. (And one they missed: Colorado's Glen Eyrie Castle.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Why Genealogy is Good For Historical Fiction Writers

My interest in putting together my family tree has always stemmed from my fascination with history. Answering the questions of Where were my ancestors at this point in history? What were they doing, and how did they live? forges a link between us and the past, a curiously immediate and emotional link—it's a different feeling than one gets from merely reading and studying history from the foreign vantage-point of the twenty-first century.

On the other hand, the more I dig and discover, the more my writer's imagination feeds off the little scraps of information I piece together. My amateur-level genealogical research has already led from hazy possible beginnings among the Normans of William the Conqueror's time, to the early colonial settlements of Massachusetts; from brick row houses in Dublin to textile mills in New York; from farms in Vermont and Minnesota to a boarding-house in California; through orphanages and Army barracks, through Castle Garden and Ellis Island—from Constantinople to Marseilles to Bremen to Texas. The mere listing of individuals' professions on census records are myriad little sparks of the imagination, begging to be blown into the flame of a story someday. Farmer. Laborer. Sawmill worker. Woolen mill foreman. Teamster. Chauffeur. Mechanic. Domestic servant. Schoolteacher. Housekeeper. Photographer. Railroad fireman. Clerk. Carpenter. Tailor. Café owner.

The answers to who and what my ancestors were create another set of questions: What did this place look like when they lived here? What kind of a living did a man in that profession make; what kind of clothes did his family wear? How and where did the paths of this couple first cross? The figure of an ancestor in the foreground makes me want to learn more about the background...and to resurrect all those forgotten stories in imagined stories of my own.

Of course, there's even more prosaic ways that researching genealogy can inspire a historical fiction writer. Character naming, for instance. If you ever run dry when trying to name characters, just take a look over a census for the time and place you're writing about—or even just look at the names in your own family tree. To give you a slight idea of what a fruitful resource this can be, here's just a sampling of women's names that I've seen, as either first or middle names, among my own ancestors and their relations:

Agnes - Almira - Amelia - Amy - Anna - Aurora - Belle - Bertha - Bessie - Beulah - Blanche - Bridget - Calista - Catherine - Della - Eileen - Elizabeth - Ella - Emily - Emma - Essie - Estella - Ethel - Etta - Fidelia - Frances - Grace - Harriet - Hazel - Honora - Ida - Irene - Jane - Jemima - Jennie - Jerusha - Josephine - Julia - Julietta - Laura - Lela - Lena - Louise - Lucinda - Lucy - Luna - Margaret - Mariah - Marion - Mary - Maud - May - Myrtle - Ora - Phoebe - Rebecca - Ruth - Sarah - Sophronia - Susan - Susanna - Teresa - Ursula - Valeria

You could write a dozen novels and not exhaust that list.

When it comes to colonial and early America, the names can be particularly unique and entertaining. One New England ancestor of mine, name of Manassa Sprague, had brothers named Hiram and Cyrenius, and another rejoicing in the full name of Governor Galusha Sprague. Another ancestor had a brother named Independence, while some of the more interesting women's names I've spotted included Alpha and Czarina. How a woman born in New Hampshire around 1800 (Independence's sister, by the way) was given a name that is Russian for "empress" is a curious question in and of itself.

Irish names, on the other hand, present a challenge to the researcher in that they're all the same. If you're looking for an ancestor named William or Edward, chances are there'll be at least five Williams or Edwards sharing his surname in any given city.

Historical fiction writers, have you explored your family history? How has it influenced your writing?