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Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Truth About Being a Writer

Imagine a doctor opening a clinic and having no patients.

Imagine an attorney passing the bar but his grand office has no clients.

Imagine a builder developing an idyllic neighborhood but it remains a ghost town.

Imagine a grocer stocking all the shelves but no one ventures inside.

This is what a writer's life can be like. In the wake of a down-turned economy, I saw scores of people putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) believing all they had to do was put their thoughts into words and they would be firmly established with a lucrative career as an author.

But placing words on paper does not create a professional career any more than stocking a medicine chest makes one a doctor.

The truth is, no one needs fiction to live. Unlike medical treatment, a roof over our heads or food in our bellies, fiction does not sustain life. In a weakened economy as disposable income becomes more rare, often we must wisely select where our money goes, and reading for pleasure can be easily discarded.

When my computer books were released, they flew off the shelves; the personal computer industry was in its infancy, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs hadn't yet made their millions (or billions) and people needed to learn computers to remain viable in the workforce.

So how does an author of fiction sustain an audience?

First and foremost, by writing something so compelling that readers will spread the word. When you hear someone say, "You have to read this!" there's a good chance that book will sell some copies.

Second, by giving readers what they want. Reading is highly subjective; some people relax with a western, others with true adventure, still others with romance or suspense or a sci-fi trip to an uncharted galaxy. Write something that no one cares about and the book will flounder.

Third, by making it easy for readers to find them. This is where the largest publishers excel because they can afford the sales forces needed for maximum exposure. Even if a publisher does not spend a great deal of money on media advertising, they still hold all the clout in placing their titles where readers can spot them.

Fourth, an author is only as relevant as their latest title. I can't think of an author since Harper Lee who has been able to earn a sustained income from one book title. Today, the market is all about producing; some authors have even begun writing novellas in lieu of full-length novels so they can get as many as a dozen titles a year in front of their audience.

Fifth, by constantly perfecting their craft. Each book must be better than the last one or that climb to the summit will result in a few brief moments at the peak before plummeting back to base camp. I've met many New York Times bestselling authors who don't have two pennies to rub together today because their moment in the spotlight was all too fleeting.

Sixth, keep your eyes on the market. A downside to the largest publishers is their focus on constantly increasing book sales; one dip can mean a cancelled contract. Small and mid-size publishers have far less overhead than the big guys, but they still need books that sell to keep them in business. This means constantly viewing the market and assessing what will sell and what won't and making adjustments where necessary.

Seventh, understand each author is a brand. When Fifty Shades was released, I saw countless authors leave a set of genre fans behind in the pursuit of becoming the next millionaire author in another genre. Even more interesting were those authors who left the mainstream in order to write for a small niche market, believing that would be their claim to fame.

For every author who earns a living writing, there are thousands who can't sell books to anyone outside their immediate circle.

So considering the odds, why write?

First, don't write for the income. If it comes, it's icing on the cake but don't expect it.

Second, write because you love the process. Write because that story inside you absolutely has to come out, even if no one else ever reads it.

Third, write even if no one notices. If you are writing for the constant accolades, you'll be disappointed. If the attention comes, that should be an unexpected bonus.

Fourth, understand your words may never die. In this age of technology, it is possible for books to remain in print long after the author has died, even if they are not profitable. I've seen many authors dropped by traditional publishers who have re-released their titles as self-published eBooks. It is possible that long after the author is gone, the book could find an audience. One need only look at the authors we revere today who were unappreciated in their own time.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Titanic

Most of us are familiar with the story of the Titanic; a British passenger ship unparalleled in its size and d├ęcor, it sank on its maiden voyage in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, killing more than 1,500 passengers and crew. But here are some things you might not have known:

The RMS Titanic was built in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was the second the three Olympic class ocean liners built by the White Star Line.

The Titanic Museum in Belfast was built in the shape of a white star.

The Titanic Museum covers much more than the building of the Titanic; it begins with the history of Belfast. Belfast linen, for example, has been sought after the world over, and was just one of the exports that needed ships departing for Europe and America. As industry expanded in Belfast, so did the population, bringing scores of people who worked not only in the textile industry but in metals, iron works, furniture and buildings. All of these industries played an integral part in the building and outfitting of the Titanic.

Workers on the Titanic were often divided into very small groups overseen by a foreman. Because of animosity between the Catholics (Unionists) and Protestants (Loyalists), there was a time in which workers entered the shipyard through the entrance bearing the name of their faith. They were kept separated while they worked.

The Museum is built in what is known today as the Titanic Quarter, and it is the best known attraction in Belfast. It is built at the original site, and from the windows shown below, the visitor can view the location where the Titanic was built:

There are so many things to do and see at the Titanic Museum that the visitor should plan on at least one full day there. You can tour the multi-level museum, take part in a Titanic walking tour, take one of the Boat Tours, take the Wee Tram around the shipyard, and tour the Nomadic, one of the three Olympic class ocean liners and the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world.

Hours of operation: 9 am to 7 pm during the summer tourist season (June, July, August). Purchase the tickets online at to save 5% and avoid the queues.

The shipyard is still in operation today. In addition to shipbuilding, repairs are made here on oil rigs. Belfast is very close to some of the richest off-shore oil operations in the world.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Belfast, Northern Ireland

I grew up in America during the times of The Troubles in Belfast and Northern Ireland. Though the issues are complex, a simple explanation is the conflict between the Protestants or Loyalists (those who tend to be loyal to the British throne and who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) and the Catholics or Unionists (those who want a united Ireland and a separation from the United Kingdom).

So when I traveled to Belfast recently, I was more than a bit apprehensive about going there. I worried about venturing into the wrong neighborhood, saying the wrong thing, or wearing the wrong colors.

Yes, you read that correctly. You can spot at a glance whether you’re in the Protestant section or the Catholic section by the colors displayed. The British Jack in its red, white and blue can be seen flying proudly over the Protestant areas, along with pictures of the Queen of England and other monarchy. Cross into the Catholic section and you could be verbally or physically assaulted if you flew the Union Jack. There you’ll see the Irish colors of green, white and orange flying proudly.

The most curious thing that happened to me while visiting Northern Ireland was a trip to the post office to purchase stamps for a friend in the States who wanted them for his collection. On the first day I went in, I asked the lady behind the counter for some postage stamps. She stared at me as if I had arrived from Mars. I asked her again, more slowly in case my accent made me difficult to understand. She said they didn’t have any and she turned and walked away.

When I told my sister of the problem, we returned together. This time, my sister asked her for postage stamps. Again, she said they didn’t have any. We must have had an expression like Elaine on an episode of Seinfeld because a gentleman came from a back office and asked us what we wanted. When we told him we were simply looking for postage stamps for a collector friend back home, he took us to another area where he sold us the stamps.

It turns out that every stamp in the United Kingdom is exactly the same except for the color: they all display the Queen of England. And it also turns out that Unionists or Catholics would never, ever collect anything with the Queen’s likeness on it. I had mistakenly stepped over the line when I asked to buy postage stamps but didn’t have a letter to mail.

In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton forged an agreement between the Unionists and the Loyalists to end thirty years of violence. Though the bombings stopped, the animosity between the two groups did not end overnight. In 2015, the vast majority of school-age children are raised completely separated by their religion—Catholic or Protestant—and integrated neighborhoods are nearly non-existent. It has only been recently that adults have begun working together in business, side by side.

The neighborhoods are separated by a wall. On one side there is a wrought iron gate behind which the Protestants live. On the other side is a graffiti-covered concrete wall behind which the Catholics live. The graffiti has risen to an art level, and even the most beautiful or poignant among them can be there today and gone tomorrow as they are continually covered over by newer images.

In this film clip of the Peace Wall (which is the name given to it after the peace agreement was signed) I was riding in a tour bus, which is the best method for seeing the city without the risk of venturing into the wrong neighborhood.

When I arrived in Belfast on the Ulster Bus, we stopped where every bus stops that ventures into Belfast: at the Europa Hotel. Little did I know at the time that the Europa Hotel held the distinction of being the most bombed building in the world until the Baghdad Hotel took that title after the start of the Iraq War.

I asked a Catholic lady in a village outside of Belfast how The Troubles had affected her family and friends, because it occurred to me that when I arrived at the Europa, I was amidst a number of people (predominantly women on my bus) who had come to the city to work or to shop. They were civilians. A bomb going off in the bus terminal would have killed or maimed primarily civilians of both faiths.

The lady I questioned told me that no one ventured into Belfast during that time; it had become too dangerous. The Troubles, she went on to say, hadn’t done anyone any favors and the violence had only made everything worse. If they couldn’t find what they were looking for outside of Belfast, they simply went without.

Belfast is growing today as a result of 17+ years without the bombings. It is a beautiful city about the size of Richmond, Virginia. One of the more impressive sights is the Titanic Museum, which I’ll cover in detail next week.

If you plan to visit Belfast, I suggest the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus. The tickets are good for 48 hours after you first use them, and you have the ability to hop off at any of the stops and hop back on when the next bus arrives, which is anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour later. In addition to the Peace Wall, it tours the Shankill Memorial Garden, Crumlin Road and Donegal Street, Falls Road, Queens University, cathedrals and the Titanic.

Colors to avoid wearing in Belfast: red, white and blue; green, white and orange. They represent the flags of Britain and of the Republic of Ireland.

Symbols to avoid wearing: the crown, the poppy flower, an orange ribbon or orange sash, a bowler hat, the star of David, and the red clenched fist are all symbols of the Loyalists. IRA slogans (representing the Irish Republican Army), the Crest of the O'Neills, the Celtic emblem, the Crest of the United Irishmen, the Easter Lily (symbolizing the Easter Rising of 1916 which led to Irish Independence), and the green ribbon all symbolize the Unionists. 

Subjects to avoid while in Belfast: religion and politics.

Next week: The Titanic, one of Belfast's newest attractions.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Where Would You Live? Book Club Discussion

This is the fifth in a series of blogs for book clubs and discussion groups who are reading my book, A Thin Slice of Heaven. Weigh in below, or send me an email through my website letting me know the results of your book club or group discussion.

If you had the opportunity to start over, where would you choose to live? This is a dilemma that Charleigh faces in A Thin Slice of Heaven. Born and raised near Boston, she knows nothing else. But with few family, few friends and a husband who has just informed her - in a text, no less - that he's leaving her for another woman, she finds herself with the opportunity to start over.

How would each of these factor into your decision to move someplace else?

1. Language - The ability to communicate with others should not be overlooked. Yet I am fascinated by HGTV's series, House Hunters International, and how many people move to countries where they do not speak the language. How would this influence your decision?

2. Culture - Every country has it's own unique culture. How would that persuade you for or against a particular locale? For example, I am an animal lover and I would never want to move to a country where bull-fighting or cock-fighting or similar sports are legal. I also could never live in a country that raises dogs and cats for human consumption.

3. Food - This may seem like a given, but religious and cultural influences often dictate what can or cannot be eaten. Consider, for example, that in some cultures eating beef is considered barbaric. Others subsist on meats, seafood and vegetables that cause Americans to recoil. How much emphasis would you place on this?

4. Money - In some areas of the world, it's customary to spend $5,000 US per month for a one-bedroom apartment or studio. In other areas, $5,000 would get you a palace. And in still others, $5,000 would support you for an entire year. How would you consider the monetary factors? There is also the matter of employment, unless you are independently wealthy or can live comfortably on a nest egg. What type of employment would you need to receive to make the move worth your while?

5. Acceptance - Some countries may welcome tourists but inwardly dislike outsiders. Others welcome newcomers with open arms. How important is it for you to make friends and fit in? I had a friend years ago who volunteered her time and money to help build houses in a third-world country. When she arrived there, however, she found the people to be extremely judgmental. They disliked the very people who had come to help them. She never returned - would you?

6. Housing - I have to admit, I have grown quite fond of large rooms. Extra bedrooms have been turned into a study, a guest room and a massive closet. What if the place you wanted to live had one or two bedrooms and 1,000 square feet was spacious? Would that satisfy your needs? What if glass windows and locking doors were unheard of? I've heard of people who moved into homes in the middle of jungles or in remote areas. How would that impact your decision? Would you prefer city living, suburbs or country? Apartment, adjoining home or detached home? Yard or no yard?

There are also areas of the world in which gated, armed communities and barred windows and doors are the norm. Could you adjust to such an environment?

7. Amenities - I lived in the Washington, DC area for most of my life. I was accustomed to museums, festivals, a variety of shopping, restaurants of every cuisine, national parks and monuments, and much more. What do you have where you currently live? Could you live without them?

8. Climate - I would love to think my snow-shoveling days are over. I once lived in central Virginia where ice storms knocked out my electricity for several years in a row, and always at Christmas when I had a houseful of guests. For others, a mountain scenery is valued high enough that snow and ice are the norm and completely acceptable. Others prefer the heat and humidity of the tropics, while still others prefer a climate of moderate temperatures year 'round. How much would climate factor into your plans?

9. Government - Some governments are quite liberal, others conservative and still others can change rapidly with coups. How much emphasis would you place on a stable government or its policies?

10. Crime - I knew a gentleman from Europe who made America his second home, and his European friends could not understand why he wanted to live in a country that was so accepting of crime, particularly murders. Some cultures have grown accustomed to high crime and consider it the norm, while others find any crime to be socially unacceptable and often barbaric. Cultural influences often go hand-in-hand with high or low crime rates. How would this factor into your decision?

What other considerations would you give to moving to a different country or culture? What would cause you to remain where you were, or influence your decision to relocate?



Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Club Discussion: Sexually Appropriate

This is the fourth in a series of blogs for book clubs and discussion groups who are reading my book, A Thin Slice of Heaven. Weigh in below, or send me an email through my website letting me know the results of your book club or group discussion.

A Thin Slice of Heaven was a complex book to write because every scene has more than one meaning and more than one context. This includes the intimate love scenes which take place between Charleigh, who is stranded in a castle in Northern Ireland and Sean, a man who died more than a hundred and fifty years earlier.

In the first intimate scene, Charleigh questions how physical love can even be possible:

When her palm reached his face and her fingers followed the line of his jaw, she asked hesitantly, “How is it that I can—?” She stopped herself. Maybe she didn’t want to know. Maybe if she knew, he would disappear and she would be left alone in this massive castle. Perhaps if he wasn’t here, the moon and the stars would seem to disintegrate as well until she was left with nothing but the inky blackness of a night that would feel too long and too painful to endure.
He placed his hand atop hers. “I am not going anywhere. I swear to you.”
Their faces were inches apart. The heat from his body was immense. She could see the fine pores in his skin, the individual hairs on his brow, the smiling lips that beckoned to her to kiss them.
“Do you know what an aura is?” he asked.
“You mean like colors around a person? A halo?”
He shrugged. “It is—a bit more like an energy field. Close your eyes.”
She didn’t want to close them. She didn’t want to tear her eyes from his face. “Promise you won’t go away?”
He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I promise.”
As she closed her eyes, he continued, “Can you feel your skin?”
“Just where you’re touching me.”
“And if I were not touching you? Say, the skin on your neck. Do you feel it there?”
She giggled. “No.”
“Then you cannot truly feel where your body ends, can you?”
She lay motionless for a moment. “No.”
“The truth is, m’ dear, you do not end at your skin. Your presence reaches beyond it. There is an energy field that encircles you.” A moment later, he said, “Do you feel anything different now?”
“I—oh, it’s my imagination.”
“Tell me.”
“Keep your eyes closed now.”
“I feel a warmth.”
“Just above my torso.”
“Be more specific.”
“Between my neck and my breasts.”
“Open your eyes.”
She opened them slowly. He had shifted soundlessly until his torso lay inches from hers and just above her. His shirt gapped open until it stopped just an inch from her.
“My energy field is far greater than yours just now,” he went on. “I can regulate it. When I do not wish to be seen, I can pull back.”
As she watched, he began to fade from view. “No,” she blurted. She thrust her hand out to pull him back but her fingers went straight through him. She felt a burst of energy pulse through her fingertips, unlike anything she’d ever experienced before.
      “When I do want to be seen,” he continued calmly, returning to a state as clear as she saw herself, “I can become like flesh and blood.”

 Charleigh is taken step by step into the act of sex with a ghost. But the scene means far more than that. The intimacy shared between them triggers memories deep inside her. Little things like a lock of hair falling forward, the sound of his breath against her ear, the touch of his hand against hers. As the book progresses and they move from lovemaking in the bedroom to sex in the solarium, the memories rise to a fever pitch: the sight of a butterfly suncatcher, the vision of making love in the grass atop a cliff overlooking the ocean, even the memory of the moon overhead during their most intimate moments... It becomes those memories welling up inside her that will take her the rest of the way along her journey - a journey she doesn't realize she is taking until the very end.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not read the book, stop here.

Toward the end of the book, Charleigh realizes that she was Sean's wife in a previous incarnation. Part of her process of dying and passing through the veil to the other side meant reuniting with her one great love - her soul mate. It is through his undying love for her coupled with the intimate moments that can only be uniquely shared between two people that awaken memories within her.

When they meet on the parapet as two spirits at the end of the book, they discuss this intimacy:

“This was all part of our plan?” she asked.
“Aye. We discussed it in great detail.”
“Then why don’t I remember it?”
“It is amnesia; yes, it can affect you here just as it could on the other side. You have been through quite a shock. When you returned as Charleigh, you could not recall your life as my wife at all. You had to live as Charleigh Dircks. It has been only a few days since you arrived here; only days since you passed over. Everything will come back to you, I promise; every last memory… in time.”
She nodded wordlessly, allowing his words to sink into her consciousness. “You’ll help me remember?” she said at last.
“Of course I will, just as you helped me when I passed well over a hundred years ago.”
“And the sex—” she began tentatively.
Sean laughed out loud, a boisterous laugh that shook them both. “Ah, yes. In the days before you left for your incarnation as Charleigh, it consumed all our time. You made me promise to make love to you as soon as you passed through the veil—a promise,” he hastened to add with a lopsided grin, “—that I was more than happy to oblige.”
“I remembered things when we made love,” she said, a blush creeping into her cheeks.
      “I hope you remembered our love for one another. That is what I wanted you to remember most of all—that our love transcends time and place so that you would want to return to me.” 

A Thin Slice of Heaven is many things to many people. Those who have lost loved ones have contacted me, letting me know how much comfort there has been in reading this book. Each of us has felt a loved one after they have passed over; each of us have heard their voice, if only for a moment and only in a whisper... Each of us has spotted something that had meaning to us both: a particular type of sunrise or sunset, birds or animals we enjoyed - in Charleigh's case, it was the butterfly suncatcher. Each of us has felt that brush past us, that feeling that someone was at our shoulder, watching over us, and that inspiration that led us somewhere we least expected.

That is what this book is about... It is the eternal love; the soul that never dies.

Buy A Thin Slice of Heaven in paperback at any fine book store, or online at amazon. It is also available in Kindle, Nook, in iBooks and all other eBook formats.