Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Questions I Get As An Author

I am an author, historian, and novelist.  I write stuff.  I don’t do it for a living.  I work at one of the Big Four accounting firms as an Associate Director in IT.  My writing is something that I do on the side.  Some of it is therapeutic, writing helps me cope with some of the stresses of the day.  Another portion of it is because I don’t want to be defined by my day-job.  When I die I don’t want people to say, “He was a hell of an IT manager.”  Who wants that on their tombstone?  The final, biggest reason I write is that I love to write.  I like entertaining people with my work.  I don’t get that kind of satisfaction in my day job – few people get excited and giddy to see an IT manager coming into a room.  The only autographs I do at work are to order office supplies. 

People ask me questions as a writer, mostly out of innocent curiosity.  I thought I would share a few of these and my thoughts about the questions – hopefully addressing a few of these up-front and giving you a chuckle in the process. 

Where do you get your ideas?   This is a great question.  Where do any of us get our ideas?  I don’t have an answer to this short of saying that I don’t steal my ideas.  They just come to me.  I usually get a scene or even a line in my mind.  I mull that over – how would I create the circumstances where that scene could take place?  Who are the people there – and why?  I then explore the characters – what would make them interesting?  Why would a reader care about any of this?  The next thing you know a kernel of an idea becomes something more. 

How long does it take you to write a book?  That depends on a few factors.  Non-fiction book require research, detailed endnotes, and are slower to write than fiction.  Also, I do have a day-job, so a lot depends on how many hours I am working?  As a general rule, the research for a book can take years but the actual writing can take 3-5 months if non-fiction.  Fiction books go much faster for me – 2-3 months. 

How much do you get paid to write a book?  I find this one a tad personal and insulting.  I feel like countering, “How much do you make annually in your job?”  My writing isn’t about the money…and if it was I certainly wouldn’t tell people how much I make.  Suffice it to say I am not quitting my day job (yet) but my books pay me well enough to make me happy.  Other than that, it’s none of your business.  What I can tell you is that there are a lot of authors that make more money than me, and a lot that make less. 

Do you get input on the covers of your books?  This depends on the publisher.  Truth be told, I can’t draw stick people well.  My artistic tastes are limited to comic books – a much unappreciated art form I might add.  The last two years I’ve noticed publishers actually asking me for input.  The most recent of these was Virginia Creeper.  I was totally impressed how they took my rambling idea and made it real and tangible.  What I worry about the most is the spine of the book – is it easily readable on a shelf in a bookstore. 

Why don’t you quit your job and write full-time?  My-my we are getting personal aren’t we?  That is private folks.  Suffice it to say writers get paid irregularly (most publishers are twice a year) and it’s feast and famine in-between.  Also, I feel some control of my writing now.  If I were doing it full time I’d be under a lot of pressure to get books done out of fear of not paying bills.  For now, where I am at is just fine.  Know this though, I have an Evil Plan... 

What genres do you wish you could write in that you haven’t?  I got this one this week, seriously.  Great question too.  There are a few genres I have coming up, Steampunk, my return to business management/leadership, etc., that I’m excited about as a change of pace.  I have my first techno-thriller coming next fall.  There are few that I have not written in that I want to at some point.  The American Civil War for example, is one that excites me.  I’ve written articles about it, but have never penned a book.  Back in college (Central Michigan University) I wrote editorial columns for the CM Life.  I miss that from time-to-time. 
It is easier to say what I won’t write.  Romance.

For your non-fiction books, why does research take so long?  I like making sure I’ve been done my job and dug up all of the little facts.  I’m a research junkie. Also, sometimes you have to let a project sit for a while and simmer, then jump back into it and try to do your research from a different angle.  On top of all of this, I deal with archives, museums, and libraries around the world and it can take them time to respond. 

How can you write books and work full time?  I get this one at work and it’s a bit insulting.  Are you implying that I am somehow short-changing my career to do writing – or that I’m writing when I should be working?  I work for a living – I don’t live to work.  I don’t cheat my job to pursue my writing. If I seem harsh here, I really resent this question.

Can I have a copy of one of your books?  Unless you’re my parents, you sure can – just go up on and buy it.  Only mom and dad get a free one (and a handful of people that help me with my research on a given project.)   I get compensated for the sale of books, not giving them away.  While writing is my passion, I don’t believe in giving it away. 

I’m trying to be a writer, can you help me?  I rarely turn this down.  My rule of thumb is, however, that you buy and write a review on one of my latest books.  That’s the price for assistance.  No one helped me in learning this profession, I had to find out the hard way.  I’m willing to help authors (short of actually reading their material) with questions and information. All I ask is that you post up a review of one of my books. 

So there you have it.  What are your questions?   

Saturday, July 21, 2012

My Review of the Dark Knight Rises

I set out early this morning to watch my last of the summer movies…The Dark Knight Rises.  I wanted to see it in IMAX to drink in all of the noisy goodness.  After a year of the buzz and pseudo-hype, I wasn’t sure what to expect of this third of the Nolan Batman movies. 

Oh, I read the Knightfall comic storyline back before it was cool to have read Knightfall, so I was familiar with the whole ‘Bane breaking Batman mentally and physically,” shtick.  And, over the years, I’ve read through the various incarnations of Catwoman too.  I felt prepared.   As long as Catwoman didn’t purr, I felt this movie might be pretty entertaining. 

It was just that – pretty entertaining.  Not great, not mind-blowing, not The Avengers level of awesomeness.  I had a good time and got my monies worth.  Sure, go see it, but I’d recommend the matinee tickets and save up for the Blu Ray.  I’m sure I will ruin some of the movie for you so stop here if you’re worried just stop here.

The upside – this is a capstone movie to end the trilogy and tie up a lot of loose ends.  To fully appreciate this movie, you should watch Batman Begins before going.  Many of the references that those of us who are geeks will get are related to that film more than The Dark Knight.  Eight years has passed since Harvey Dent’ demise, boo hoo.  Batman has faded into the shadows.  Organized crime has been stomped out. 

Then there’s this cat burglar who robs Bruce Wayne – now a recluse with rumors of a Howard Hughes lifestyle.  Yeah, you had this figured out, Catwoman.  We don’t know much about her character but, what the hell, we don’t care because we’re geeks.  You put any fighting chick in a tight black suit and we’re oddly happy with it. 

The character of Lucian Fox (Morgan Freeman) as the “Q” of the Batman trilogy is still pretty good.  I always feel good when Mr. Freeman is on the screen.  We all want a friend like Fox, complete with all of the toys. 

The movie has some twists and turns you don’t expect which made it good.  The film does tie a bow on the entire trilogy and lay the foundation for future films which we are all fairly sure won’t happen. 

Alright, let’s talk the downsides of this movie.  There were also some implausible movie plots like Gotham being held hostage for five months, which defy not only logic but stretches our willingness to believe it.  Yes, it works in the comic book storylines, but stuff like that just doesn’t play well in the film. 

There is this almost pathetic undertone of the movie that rich people (ala the 1%) are bad and need to be stripped of their wealth, demeaned, and even brutalized/killed.  Hollywood was so clearly pandering to the moronic “occupy” movement in this film that it’s not even subtle.  Yeah, that’s what I want for my money, someone shoving their political beliefs down my throat.  Thanks Hollywood.  This is why we can’t have nice things. 

If you’re going to talk about downsides of the film, we have to address the terrorist Bane.  He’s a badass with a cool entrance at the start of the film – which, as it turns out, is about as cool a Bane gets in the movie.  After The Dark Knight we’re used to villains where we don’t know their background.  Let’s face it, the Joker in the last movie was a creepy, funny and twisted SOB.  We never really learned who he was but it didn’t matter.  We wanted to see him on the film.  With Bane, we kind of wish he had a background and that it was cool or that he had a personality other than just being bitter.  Instead, when we learn his background (at the end of the movie – what a dumb move was that?) I felt like saying, “that’s it?”  You had all of this time failing to get me to care about this character and his origin story is well, flat?  And, yielding to my inner-geek, it didn’t fit the origins of his character from the comic books in the least.  And what in the hell was the deal with the Darth Vadar mask? 

The character of Alfred is whiny – more so than in previous films.  Yes, it was supposed to show character development, but I didn’t care.

Summary:  In the end, this movie was more of a sequel to Batman Begins than to The Dark Knight.  Ultimately it suffers the same fate as most trilogies – the second movie in the series is the best.  Oh sure, The Search for Spock was okay, but nothing topped The Wrath of Kahn.  Yeah, we thrilled at the victory in The Return of the King, but nothing topped the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.  This movie is pretty good – four out of five stars (with me being a bit generous)…but after The Dark Knight, we expected much more.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Researching The Daisy Zick Murder

If you are unaware at this point, I am writing a book about the unsolved murder of a Calhoun County woman in 1963 – Daisy Zick.  I got drawn into this case while working on Secret Witness.  When I would tell someone I wanted to interview them about a crime in the 1960’s in Calhoun County they would almost always respond, “Ah, the Zick case.”  After about four of these responses, I knew I needed to look into this murder. 

Daisy lived in Wattles Park outside of Battle Creek, only a mile or so from where I was raised.  She worked at Kelloggs on the line.  Her murder was 50 years ago next January and was exceedingly violent – she was stabbed over 25 times.  The struggle with her killer took place in three rooms of her house.  Whoever killed Daisy planned it; they came to her house specifically to murder her.  They fled in her car, abandoning it in a bitter cold snow on Michigan Avenue. 

This crime remains unsolved to this day.  That doesn’t mean that that police haven’t had good theories over the years.  I obtained a copy of the police reports through a Freedom of Information Act Request and have pieced together not only the crime but the theories. 
In terms of cold cases, this one is almost frigid.  I considered walking away from this story because of that but I couldn’t.  Too many people still talk in hushed whispers about Daisy Zick, her rumored little black book, the marriages at Kelloggs that were allegedly shattered because of the investigation of her death.  It struck me as odd how the rumors sometimes outlived the reality.    

Were there mistakes in the investigation?  Let me say there are mistakes made in almost every murder investigation and you have to remember that 1963 was a long way from CSI-style investigations.  Having said that, yes, some mistakes were made.  Daisy was not a faithful woman, she had numerous affairs in her life and even at the time of her death.  As one person put it to me, “If you worked at Kelloggs back then you were the exception if you weren’t having an affair.”  Daisy’s lifestyle seemed to draw the focus of the investigators time and efforts – and with good reason.  Yet for every path they explored, few offered any tangible results. 

Every so often the case was taken up by a new generation of investigators who tried to stir public interest in the crime, perhaps surface a new clue.  Each time, the results were more disappointing. 

As a writer of history and true crime, you may be wondering if it is possible to write a book about an unsolved case.  The answer is yes.  Mark Fuhrman wrote Murder in Greenwich about who killed Martha Moxley and that led to an eventual conviction.  Mardi Link wrote the inspiring and brilliant, When Evil Came to Good Hart, which was a great story about an unsolved murder of a family in Michigan.  Yes, it can be done, and in this case, I intend to do it. 

I have interviewed a number of investigators on the case over the years.  Furthermore, I have had some tips come in which are interesting and potentially helpful.  I have been fortunate to get to interview Daisy’s son who gave me an incredible amount of information on the background of his family and about his mother.  I didn’t get to know Daisy, but I feel like I know her…if only a little. 

This case deserves to be resolved.  Fifty years does not mean that her son doesn’t deserve some closure, as does the rest of the community.  Someone out there has heard something that is tangible – something that police could use today.  Someone bragged or revealed what they did.  Fifty years have passed – the threat of retaliation is gone.  Someone got away with murder…but they had to have made mistakes.  The time has come for the truth to come out.  
If you’ve heard something that might help – please reach out to me at    Who knows – you might help bring closure to this vicious murder after half a century.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Digging Deep Into the Cuban Missile Crisis

I am hip-deep in research and writing on my Cuban Missile Crisis book, tentatively titled, The Fires of October.  The publisher wants it out this year (the 50th anniversary of the event) so I am accelerating my work on it.    

If you’re like many people you’ll say, “another missile crisis book?” Yes.  This book is written about the planned invasion of Cuba and how that would have unfolded.  This is a military history book.  Most writers of the crisis focus on the politics, the decisions, etc. of the crisis with cursory mention of the planned invasion.  These books are great, and in the last 20 years a lot of new information has emerged. 

My book focuses purely on the military aspects of the invasion and the possible outcome of that assault.  For the first time you’ll be treated to the details of the planned invasion of Cuba and, from a speculative historians perspective, how that might have played out.  While men like General Curtis LeMay thought that the landings and assaults would be a ‘walk-in,’ the reality is, when you look at the opposing sides and the planned invasion- this was going to be a horrific and bloody struggle. 

I’ve gotten some new information declassified – and have dug up some sources that other historians (because of their focus) did not use.  My goal is to put you on the beaches or in the LZ’s as the US struggles to secure the missile sites and depose Fidel Castro’s government.  This was a war that would be fought not just on the mainland of Cuba, but on the high seas and in a number of other potential hot spots around the world.  I have uncovered some tantalizing details that will please even the most stolid Cold War historian…at least, I hope!

Is it an alternate history?  Yes – but only to a degree.  I’m using the actual battle plans, TO&E, intelligence reports, etc., in formulating what would have happened. The actual invasion was forestalled by the decisions of calmer minds and hearts. Using the best information available, you will get a good glimpse of what the US actually may have faced when invading Cuba. Veterans of the Cold War who would have been involved on the drops/landings will find this book particularly fascinating. 

This research is different from most books on the crisis.  I intend to support this book project with articles and I’m even working on a board game design (once a wargamer, always a wargamer). 

I am always looking for new facts, tid bits, anything that might make this book better.  If you’re a veteran of the military at that time with knowledge of the invasion plans, I’d love to talk with you.  Every little detail you might remember would be of potential interest to me.  My email is  Contact me and let’s chat! 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My Review - The Amazing Spiderman

First off, my expectations for this movie were not high.  I’m not some Tobey McGuire nor do I believe he turned the role of Spiderman into some artistic piece destined for movie history.  But let’s face it, until his Spiderman first came out, we all thought Marvel superhero movies were a joke.  Still, it was only five years since the last film/debacle so I really didn’t see the need for a reboot…except to make money for the studio.  Engage your spoiler-shields – though in fairness, I will keep the reveals to a minimum. 

With my blasé attitude to the movie as your backdrop, let me say, this movie rocked!  It starts out slow.  Look, we get it, Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider…duh.  Can we get to the fights?  This movie focused on Peter’s back story beyond Aunt May and Uncle Ben and concentrated on what happened to Peter’s parents.  The film never really explains this – but in the end you don’t care.  Stick around until mid-way through the credits and you’ll get a little hint of where this storyline may go next. 

This movie falls back to the original Spiderman comic book themes – i.e. Parker makes his own web-slinging devices rather than mutating to the point of spinning webs.  His girlfriend is not Mary Jane Parker but Gwen Stacy, just like in the comics.   The actor that plays Parker is Andrew Garfield and I found myself liking him.  He’s not a dork or geek, he’s just a normal guy.  We even get some clashes with Flash Thompson in the movie.  Okay, I’m dating my inner-geek here, but if you read Spiderman back in the 1960’s and 70’s like me, this movie actually pays great homage to the original characters. 

The actors were great.  First off, Emma Stone, as Gwen Stacy, really was fantastic.  Her acting was with her eyes and she really did a great job.  Aunt May was played by Sally Field, which oddly worked for me.  Even Denis Leary who plays Gwen’s dad was engaging.  I could have done without Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, but let’s face it, if you know the Spiderman story, you know he dies anyway. 

The villain is The Lizard.  Okay the special effects for this creature weren’t as good as The Avenger’s Hulk, but they were passable.  The Lizard didn’t wow me.  Maybe I’m getting to the point where I expect a lot more from movies – I wanted to get blown away.  As a villain, he’s a good match for Spiderman and the fights have an almost Michael Bay feeling about them, with Spidey bouncing all over the place in the battles. 

Other little gems in this movie– the traditional cameo by Stan Lee was great, but aren’t they all?  It was great to see Parker outshine Flash Thompson in the school.  We get a hint at Norman Osborn (Green Goblin – eventually?) but that’s not a big loss.  To be honest, it was good to see the franchise move away from that villain.  Spiderman swinging through NYC – that never gets old. 

The downside to the move?  No J. J. Jameson, editor of the Bugle.  No, “with great power comes great responsibility,” line – though honestly, it would have been a tad corny in this movie.  No Bruce Campbell cameo.  Also the writers planted a lot of hints about Parker’s parents, but didn’t drive that point to conclusion.  Apparently this is going to be an ongoing thing with the franchise. 

Is the movie worth going to?  Yes!  In fact, I find myself highly recommending this movie.  It’s good, really good, and fun.  Get out of the heat and go see this movie!