What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing The Murder of Adam and Eve?
I was surprised by the current scientific narrative of human evolution – not just that we could genetically trace our ancestors back to an ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ but that our species had expanded, shrank back to very small numbers in Africa for unknown reasons, and then expanded again. We’re the product of a narrow escape with possible extinction, which is hard to imagine given our planetary dominance today.
How long does it take you to write a book?
I wrote historical fiction at a rate of one a year, but the books gestated in the thinking stage before that and then took a year after completion to go through the publishing process. “The Murder of Adam and Eve” rattled around in my head for several years, and was abandoned for a while before I came back to it. A recent nonfiction book, “Napoleon’s Rules,” was actually written in several months but is the product of a decade of research for my novels. Another nonfiction book took about three years of work.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I write most days, including weekends, but with breaks for errands, exercise, chores, and so on. Research, family, or vacations can take me away from the computer entirely. I typically start at mid-morning and, if I take a break, come back until 5 or 6. A productive day is actually three or four hours of real writing, the rest squandered in thinking, researching, or looking at the Internet when I don’t really need to. I could be more efficient, but this somewhat humdrum, unregimented pace seems to work for me.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
My characters reveal themselves to me slowly, emerging as I rework plot and dialogue. Sometimes new ones pop up that I hadn’t planned for at all. This creative process doesn’t feel magical, it feels plodding, but I have to think about a story for a long time to get it to work. So I often lie down with a yellow legal pad to jot notes about what might happen, and then have to persuade my wife that I’m working.
What does your family think of your writing?
They’ve been very supportive. My Mom is my Number One fan, of course. My daughters watched me start this process when they were growing up, and my younger daughter is a writer too – though very busy with babies at the moment. My wife travels with me for research, serves as a good first reader, and is a pretty darn good copyeditor.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and so like to hike, stroll, boat, bike – get outdoors. I have grandkids now, and enjoy family. I also enjoy a diversity of reading – both fiction and nonfiction – and the cornucopia of programming on TV these days. One change has been much easier access to documentaries or independent movies that might never have come to local theaters.
Do you have any suggestions for amateur or aspiring writers? If so, what are they?
It’s a tough business, so first of all consider nursing school, that real estate license, marrying well – don’t quit your day job! But beyond that, aspiring writers need at least four things: practice at writing (which requires discipline), talent (some have the knack, just as some of us are athletes or salesmen or musicians), perseverance in the face of almost inevitable rejection or failure, and luck. Life isn’t always fair. But one definition of luck is preparation plus opportunity. Get yourself ready to take advantage of opportunity by investing in your education and practicing what you love.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Readers are almost always generous and supportive. Few are critical, and their criticism is often well-meaning: ‘here’s an error you should know about.’ While every author gets some bad reviews, writers hear much less from readers who don’t like them – they simply go on to someone else. Those who like you tend to ask for more of whatever they like. A number have asked me to continue my Ethan Gage series of Napoleonic adventures, which I’m doing.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I was encouraged by English and Creative Writing teachers in junior high and high school. I think this is a prime age to get students excited about possibilities in life. In college I settled on journalism as a fun and creative way to make a living as a writer, and was a career journalist for many years. I didn’t write my first nonfiction book until my late thirties and my first fiction until my late forties. I needed that much practice and experience to be ready to write books.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
My latest is a collection of Napoleon maxims and leadership lessons, both inspiring and cautionary, called “Napoleon’s Rules.” It just came out. I’m in the middle of the next Ethan Gage novel, titled, “The Trojan Icon.” I hope to finish it later this year.