Don’t Write What You Do Know, Write What You Don’t Know

Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today.

Even though N.C. Wyeth was born too late (1882) to know any actual pirates, his paintings and illustrations of these colorful characters still inspire viewers today. This illustration was first published in Treasure Island.

You might say that writing memoir is like pirating your own life.

Quotation From Toni Morrison

“When I taught creative writing at Princeton, my students had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.”  by Toni Morrison

Good-bye To The Memoir

Everyone seems to start out writing memoir,  and perhaps…….the unfortunate ones get successful at it. Look at Jack Kerouac. His second novel On the Road was a smash hit. It even got him on national TV……but at age 47, Jack was dead, victim of severe alcohol abuse. Jack London didn’t fare much better after his series of successful fiction and non-fiction titles. I’m sure everyone has read the short story, To Build a Fire, but how many know that he died at a young age of 40 from a complication of various medical problems including alcoholism.

Now it’s also very possible that having the name of Jack may have lead to the early demise of these successful authors, but no matter how you feel about this premise, I still think that evolution beyond the first person narrative is a good thing for a writer. Just by looking at the lives of famous authors, you might postulate that writing the truth can be a difficult thing to outlive.

Recent picture of Toni Morrison

Recent picture of Toni Morrison

Say Hello To an Octogenarian Novelist and College Professor

Her name is Toni Morrison and she teaches fiction writing at Princeton University. She is also a Nobel Prize (1993 for Literature) recipient and her 11th novel, called God Help the Child, is due to be released this month and is probably already on the bookstands. (Sorry I haven’t been to a bookstore lately, so I can’t verify this.) In a recent interview with her old editor and collaborator, Alan Rinzler, Toni delves into how it is important for young writers to get away from the old concept of “write what you know” and venture into the brave new world of “write what you don’t know”. This may be an invaluable piece of advice for writers regardless of age or experience level.

Maybe It’s Better To Fib A Little

So, what’s the moral of the story here. Well, it goes like this. If you fib a little bit, then you might live longer. It’s kinda like eating hard candy and drinking red wine. That is when done in moderation these things, which are supposed to be bad for you actually relieve some of your stress, thus leading to a longer life.

A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant

A very imaginative painting by N.C. Wyeth, entitled Giant

This surreal painting is simply called Giant. It was done by the master illustrator and painter, N.C. Wyeth. Just in case you’ve never heard of Newell Convers Wyeth he is the first generation of that famous American triad, which also features Andrew and Jamie. If you ever get a chance to see this painting in person, go do it. You won’t regret it, for this is an impressive, large oil painting that will most likely completely take over any space where it is exhibited.

A House Made of Sky

A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author

A high plains sunset in Sioux Falls, SD photo by author

A Montana One-of-a-Kind Passes Away

Since noted Montana writer, Ivan Doig, passed away this pass week, I deciced to honor the famed author of This House of Sky with some comments and a series of sunset photographs from the West. Though Ivan spent most of his adult life in the Seattle area, he did grow-up in the shadow of the Montana Rockies and wrote extensively from that experience. One of his best known books was This House of Sky. It was a memoir of his Montana youth that became a finalist for the National Book Award.

Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM

Sunset with tree silouhettes in Taos, NM

Western Childhood

Ivan Doig was born in 1939 in White Sulfur Springs, not too far from the Big Belt Mountains and the state capitol at Helena. He grew up in a family of homesteaders and ranch hands. His mother died at age six, so after that tragic event, Ivan was raised by his father and grandmother. Soon thereafter they moved north to a different part of the state, where the family’s main occupation was sheepherding. Doig stayed in Montana until educational pursuits drew him away from the state, first to Northwestern University in Illinois and finally to the University of Washington, where he obtained an advanced degree in American history. Ivan would remain in Washington for the rest of his life.

Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author

Clouds above Billings, Montana, photo by author

Last Bus To Wisdom

Even though Ivan Doig just passed away, there still is one more book on the way. The novel is called Last Bus To Wisdom and it will not be officially released until August of this year. The publisher is Riverhead Books and this autobiographical story revolves around an eleven-year old boy from Montana, who is sent to the Midwest to stay with some friends of his caretaker, a middle-aged woman, who needs to undergo an emergency medical operation.

The visit to Minnesota does not go well and soon the boy from Montana is back on the bus home with a surprise companion. This posthumous traveler’s tale falls in line with a lot of the western tales that Ivan wrote during his lifetime and should consolidate his well-deserved reputation as one of the best Western storytellers of the 20th century. The book is definitely on my reading list for this year.


Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author

Sign for Empire Steel Manufactoring Co. in Billings, MT, photo by author

Why We Read (and write) Horror

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.”  by Stephen King

The Joker from the Dark Knight

The Joker from the Dark Knight

Those Terrifying Flying Monkeys

I have a confession to make…….I could not watch The Wizard of Oz all the way through until I was 14 years old. It was always the flying monkeys that would send me running away from the TV set and into another room, where I would bide my time reading a book or some such activity until the movie ended. Even my younger brothers were able to sit through the whole movie before I was able to. Why I was so terrified of these fictional animals I do not know, I just know that there was something very primal in them that frightened the Dickens out of me.

In fact, we all seem to have a few basic fears that storytellers from past ages to the present have tried to exploit. And as Stephen King expressed in the opening quote, their motive may not always be financial, for there is also the innate need to develop an effective way to prepare ourselves for any misfortune or disaster, which are bound to come our way from time to time.

Living In the City Where Stephen King Was Born

For over ten years I lived in the city where Stephen King was born, Portland, Maine. And to be honest, the place is a beautiful city on a series of hills that overlooks a saltwater bay. The port has picturesque lighthouses, ocean-going freighters and popular seafood restaurants that specialize in boiled lobsters. Not by any stretch of the imagination can Portland be considered a dark-spirited place. So where did King get his stories. They must have been internalized.

King’s Memoir Almost Comes Home To Haunt Him

Stephen King’s book On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, started out just like any other book on writing. Put rear end in chair and type. But then a demon showed up, a middle-aged man in a SUV. Accident or not, he ran Mr. King over and near killed the famed author. As a result, On Writing differs from other treatises on the same subject, because the details of Mr. King’s horrendous accident and miraculous recovery become part of the story. Even Mr. King could not escape his own stories.

Quotes On Horror

“There are moments when even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity may assume the semblance of hell.”  by Edgar Allan Poe

“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” by Clive Barker

“Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.”  by Chuck Palahniuk

“It’s a dance. And sometimes they turn the lights off in this ballroom. But we’ll dance anyway, you and I. Especially in the Dark. May I have the pleasure?”  by Stephen King

“Demons are like obedient dogs; they come when they are called.”  by Remy de Gourmont

“I think perhaps all of us go a little crazy at times.” Robert Bloch, Psycho

“The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”  by  Frederic Brown

“There are horrors beyond life’s edge that we do not suspect, and once in a while man’s evil prying calls them within our range.”  H.P. Lovecraft,  The Thing On the Doorstep

“It’s not the books of Stephen King that I read,

I need protection from the things in my head….”  by Jimmy Buffett

“Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.”  by Truman Capote from In Cold Blood

A scene from The Wizard of Oz, where a winged monkey takes an order from one of the witches

A scene from The Wizard of Oz, where a winged monkey takes an order from one of the witches

A Look Back at 2014


Star Formation in the Tadpole Nebula  Image Credit: WISE, IRSA, NASA; Processing & Copyright : Francesco Antonucci

Star Formation in the Tadpole Nebula
Image Credit: WISE, IRSA, NASA; Processing & Copyright : Francesco Antonucci

Good Riddance to 2014

Though 2014 has not been all that bad a year, I am more than glad to see it banished into the realms of past history. For me, as a writer, this past year has been one of great promises, all of which seem to have gone unfulfilled or turned into dead-end back alleys. All the good contacts and leads, which I had so painstakingly advanced, dissolved into nothing.

Then there was the closing of Yahoo Voices, a site which I had started to contribute to, way back when it was called Associated Content. Finally, as of this year, the site was beginning to produce some real revenue, but as soon as that begin to happen, YV closed it doors and took all articles off the web with just a 30 day warning…….2015 has to be better!

Important Literary Events of 2014

By far the most important literary event of 2014 was the ongoing feud between Amazon and Hachette. Although this dispute was settled last month, just in time for the Christmas sales, the ebook pricing agreement will affect all the large publishers, who wish to sell ebooks on Another important Amazon action that will affect many self-publishing Indie authors is the introduction of Kindle Unlimited (commonly called KU) by Amazon. This decision will be especially detrimental to authors, who sell a large number of self-published ebooks  in the $2.99 to $7.99 range through Kindle Select. Stay tuned for there is more to come on this new development.

And finally there is the most recent success of The Interview, a recent Sony pictures release that depicts the death of the leader of North Korea. This is a complex story, where Sony originally eighty-sixed the movie after hacking repercussions, but later released the movie in an unique way that has made the dark comedy a smash hit around the globe.

In Passing

For me, the most notable passing has been the death of Maya Angelou, theaward-winning  African American writer, who penned such American favorites as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. Also gone are Thomas Berger (author of Little Big Man), Nadine Gordimer (July’s People), Graham Joyce, P.D. James and Ralph Giordano (a holocaust surviver and author).

2014 Success Story

One of the most amazing events of 2014 was the landing of a ESA spacecraft on a moving comet. On November 12, 2014 the Rosetta spacecraft successfully landed on the Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko and immediately started beaming back pictures, such as the one below. Unfortunately, a notably 20th century problem has now disconnected the adventurous, ESA spacecraft from the planet Earth. And that problem is low batteries, which is something many of us experience all the time.

The Cliffs of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko  Image Credit & Licence (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO): ESA, Rosetta spacecraft, NAVCAM; Additional Processing: Stuart Atkinson

The Cliffs of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko
Image Credit & Licence (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO): ESA, Rosetta spacecraft, NAVCAM; Additional Processing: Stuart Atkinson

What the Future Might Bring?

image from the Vimeo short film titled The Wanders

image from the Vimeo short film titled The Wanderers, which was created by Eric Wernquist and Christian Sandquist and features the words and voice of Carl Sagan.

To view The Wanderers go to the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day site, here.


Stolen Stories

illustration by Henry Kane of North country canoeist

illustration by Henry Kane of North country canoeist

Before the Internet

Before the internet came rolling around way back when, books were an important way of discovering strange worlds that were unknown to us in our day-to-day routines, which most of us lead. And as you go further back in time, before the TV network news, movies and the color photographs, you might find that the written word had an added importance in telling people about the strange worlds that existed across the seven seas and into the interior of some of the most isolated spots on the planet. Our world would have been a whole lot poorer, if it wasn’t for the likes of such writers as Jonathon Swift, Jules Vernes, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Shelley or William Shakespeare.

Cache Lake Country

For me, one of the most vivid books of my youth was Cache Lake Country, which was written by John J. Rowlands and illustrated by Henry B. Kane. I grew up in central Maryland where the winters were not so severe and not all too long. So to read about two men who spent an entire year in the North Woods of Ontario, Canada was spell-bounding to say the least. The most fascinating part of their tale was their life on snowshoes, which lasted approximately from December till April. The fact that no photographs are part of this book, only adds to the mystique of time and place, even though the manuscript was published in 1947, when cameras were well in fashion.

Stolen Stories

When I wrote Le Loup de Garou (see previous post), I borrowed from two parts of the Cache Lake book. One part of the short story is influenced by the account of a real-life lumberjack, who gets turned around on one of the coldest nights of the winter and spends most of the night outdoors attempting to gain his bearings. Finally, he comes across a lighted cabin, but not before developing a minor case of frostbite. And then there is the title, which comes from a French-Canadian legend in regards to a wolf-man type of creature that haunts the North Woods at night. So there it is in a nutshell, on how to be influenced by real life experiences, even though they might only appear in book form.

Cache lake woodlore as illustrated by Henry Kane

Cache lake woodlore as illustrated by Henry Kane

A Few Words On Writing Historical Fiction


Fact or Fiction

Fact and fiction are a strange pair of bedfellows. One might think that fictional episodes might provides the strangest stories, but in reality, it is often true episodes that provide the most bizarre tales.

Spoofing History

When I was in grade school, I acquired a Smother’s Brothers LP, where they did a short sketch on the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Though short, the routine was hilarious and may have provided a bit of inspiration to this story. Looking at the success that these two brothers had in spoofing America, one can only conclude making fun of our past might lead to some success.

Getting Your Facts Straight

Just because you are presenting an alternate history to the mainstream version, does not mean that you can skimp on the little details of everyday life. Things like dress, architecture, mannerisms and even language should fit the times as best you can. This may take some research and in the process you may surprised as to some of the information that you might come across.

When writing Colonial Capers, I wanted to use the type of Elizabethan English that might have been used by the Pilgrims. During my inquiry, I found out that by the time of the Revolution, this style of speaking had all but died out, so I dropped all the thees and thous. Nonetheless, I did come across some very colorful Colonial slang that was used in the years just prior to the Revolution.

My Venture

My venture consists of a short story, based on events surrounding the Boston Tea Party, which occurred in December of 1773. The tale is called Colonial Capers and is set before, during and after the famous action. The story is meant as a satire on the Colonial era and American history in general. Presently, it available through Smashwords. Here is the link.

 In a darkened boathouse on the edge of Boston Harbor, Phineas Phillips and a small band of dissidents sit                   quietly watching two British ships that are at anchor along the Pearl Street Wharf. Soon a band of heathen              Indians will board the two schooners and toss all the tea into the harbor. With advance knowledge of what                may happen, Phineas and friends have a different plan in mind.



Amazon Settles With Hachette, Who Won?

Two grizzly bears fighting, from wikipedia

Two grizzly bears fighting, from wikipedia

“As with most battles, all combatants lost a little something in end.”  Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords

The News

Last week, Amazon and Hachette came to a tenuous agreement on their feud concerning ebook pricing. The Amazon-Hachette settlement followed an Amazon-Simon & Schuster agreement that went down just a few weeks ago. If you stand back and look at both agreements, they are not all that different. The Agency means of ebook pricing pretty much stayed in tact. What this means is that the publisher (Hachette and Simon & Schuster), gets to set ebook prices in most cases. Amazon gets to some discounting (they wanted much more), but only under certain circumstances.

Good News for the Print Market

Most observers believe that Hachette and the Big Five publishers wanted to keep ebook prices high so that they could discourage ebook sales and push paper sales, which at present  are their main bread and butter. This should benefit authors, who are capable of generating large numbers of paperback sales in the mass marketplace. It is no wonder than best-selling authors such  as Stephen King, Tess Gerritsen, James Paterson, JK Rowling, John Grisham and Donna Tartt, all supported high-priced ebooks to keep paperback sales high.

Thorough Agreement

This agreement that Simon & Schuster first achieved will most likely set the tone for any negotiation between Amazon and any other Big Five or large-scale publisher. Although Amazon did get some concessions, these terms favor the short-term livelihood of the large publisher.

Why Indie Authors Might Be the Big Winner

By keeping ebook prices high for traditional authors, self published ebook authors, who keep their prices low and royalties high, may be the biggest winners. For those working outside a major paper publisher, large sales and high royalties are possible by placing a book in the $2.99 to $7.99 range, not only through Amazon, but with other ebook publishers as well. By maintaining the status quo, Big Five publishers may drive more readers to the Indie market, where ebook prices will probably stay the same in the near future.

The Ultimate Irony

The ultimate irony is that in order to develop and encourage new talent that can create mass paperback sales, companies like Hachette may have to mine the field of self-published Indie authors. This situation may come to exist if  the Agency model does become less lucrative for mid list and first time authors. In this situation, much depends on how much of an overall share the ebook market achieves.

Hachette’s (and other Big 5) Dilemma

After this agreement, Hachette will come under increasing pressure to raise ebook royalties for authors and also to show a better bottom line in profits to its parent company, Legendaire. These could be conflicting demands that will never be met at the same time….or a situation, where the publisher might opt for lower ebook prices to increase sale and profits.