Month: August 2017

In Appreciation of Teachers

Teachers see potential in all of us

Bishop McGuinness

I spoke recently at Bishop McGuinness High School at the invitation of Martha Lawrence, one of the English teachers there.  We had a few moments to chat before my presentation, and of course we talked about our mutual love of reading and our favorite books and authors.  Beyond that though, our conversation provided a refreshing reminder of how dedicated our teachers are, and how the enthusiasm of a teacher for the subject matter he or she is relaying to students can change that young mind forever.  I’m a living example of that.

My third book, The Road to Devotion, is dedicated in part to my English teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Virginia.  Julie Wilson was the first teacher to introduce me to the great American writers; Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Wolfe.  The passion with which she revealed to us the greatness of A Farewell to Arms, Tortilla Flat, and The Grapes of Wrath has stayed with me forever, and no doubt been one of the reasons I wanted to become a writer.

At Wake Forest University I distinctly remember Professor Gary Ljungquist brimming over with excitement as he extolled the virtues of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Heavy material, but he not only taught us to understand it, he taught us to love it.  My English composition professor at Wake, William Moss, urged me to discover the great Irish poets and writers like James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, and I’m forever grateful for him guiding me toward such brilliance. He explained to me that their works are best consumed while sitting high on a hill in the Irish countryside, something I’ve yet to do.  Add it to the bucket list.

My favorite author, Pat Conroy, often gave credit for his enormous literary success to his English teacher in South Carolina, Gene Norris.  Conroy said of Norris, “my entire body of work is because of men and women like them. “ I can’t imagine higher praise for a teacher.

It is conversations with high school English teachers like Martha Lawrence that remind me of how important those instructors are to young and impressionable minds. They don’t usually receive the credit they deserve.  (Nor the pay, but that’s another essay in itself.)

I am the only member of my family who was not a teacher.  Perhaps there’s still time.

What’s in a name?

What is in a name?

The greatest works of literature usually also contain the most memorable character names.  When you hear the names Atticus Finch, Scarlett O’Hara, or Ichabod Crane, you immediately know who they are and from what story they derive.  I spend an inordinate amount of time naming my characters, trying to make their names not only memorable, but also meaningful.   Sometimes the meaning is known only to me, but it’s important to how I view that character I’ve created.

The Road to Devotion

In The Road to Devotion, the main character is a runaway slave named Jacquerie, (pronounced jack-er-REE) who is from Louisiana and thus exposed to the French influence in that region.  The “Jacquerie” was a popular revolt by peasants in northern France in the mid-1300’s during the Hundred Years’ War.   A more modern definition of “jacquerie” describes it as a communal uprising.  My character has a French background and on the brink of an uprising, so it seemed to be the perfect name.

When The Ravens Die

In When the Ravens Die, the intensely loyal bodyguard for the Princess is Trevor McFarlane, perhaps the bravest character I’ve ever created.  I came up with the name by searching through crests and mottos of the Scottish Clans.  The motto of Clan MacFarlane is “This I’ll Defend”.   It seemed to describe my character’s best motives, a man who would defend his Princess to the death if need be.

The Sea is Silent

In my latest novel, The Sea is Silent, there’s a running thread of terms and phrases that have to do with water.  “Drowning in an unforgiving sea of printers’ ink” is one example of that aquatic undercurrent I tried to lay in throughout the story.  Perhaps that’s why one of the characters is named Dr. Bethesda, which is any location whose waters are believed to have curative powers, and another is Dirk Hartog, named for a sea captain from the early 1600s.

Make Me Disappear

My main character in my young adult novel, Make Me Disappear, is named Sam.  When I speak to school groups, I inform them that in my mind, the name Sam stands for Smart, Adventurous, and Magical. It was a good reminder for me of who he was as I carried him through the story.

In the book I’m currently working on about a young girl who runs for mayor of her corrupt small town, many of the characters are named after famous women from the suffrage movement.  I include a short biography on each one at the end of the book as a learning tool for young readers.

I like character names that alliterate, like Colin Crowe and Duncan Danforth.  Comic books, with their Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, and Pepper Potts, figured out long ago that these are memorable monikers.

I also take names from people I’ve met who I find interesting or admire.  Fionnuala, Crumrie, Smithwick… all names of people with whom I’ve crossed paths over the years.  My journalism professor at Wake Forest, Bynum Shaw, seems to always find his way into my character names in some form or fashion.

So if I meet you and you have an interesting name, fair warning:  you just might end up in my books someday.

How Is Retirement?

The question I’m asked the most

For the last seven months, I’ve been asked the same questions everywhere I go: “How’s retirement?” I usually respond with something like “Great! I’m good at it!” Truth is, it’s not an easy answer. Even though I was ready to hang up my notebook as a reporter and move into the next chapter of my life, I do miss a lot of things about working in a newsroom. The day to day excitement of breaking news, the challenge of making sure our reporting is accurate and fair, and the pure joy of meeting interesting people and having the privilege to tell their stories. Most of all, I miss my co-workers, many of whom are among my best friends. WXII is filled with wonderful, dedicated people, both on and off the air. I miss the daily exchange of creative ideas, and the camaraderie that only comes with working so closely with people under the intense pressure of deadlines and live television. I still keep up with many of the people at WXII, but it’s just not the same as being there.


How's Retirement?

That said, I’m extremely happy in my new career as a full-time writer. Creative writing was always something I did in my spare time, but when you have a family and a job that often required 60 or 70 hours a week, there wasn’t much “spare” time. Penning a novel used to take me years of late nights and early mornings. Now it’s just a matter of months before I can complete a good first draft of a project. I try to go at it like a regular job, keeping normal office hours and putting in overtime when necessary, or when the spark of creativity hits me and I just have to get my thoughts down on paper.

So far I’ve been able to write a Christmas musical (Welcome to Virginia, which will be performed at Theatre Alliance in Winston-Salem starting November 29th), the screenplay for The Road to Devotion which has been picked up for a movie, and my latest novel, The Sea is Silent, which should be out in just a few weeks. I’ve also completed the first draft of a young adult novel which I’m letting some friends read now. In addition, I’m reading more, especially local authors. I’m so busy, I really don’t know how I ever had time to hold down a real job.

So the while the short answer to “how’s retirement?” is still “Great!”, the complete answer is “I do miss the news business, but I’m as happy and fulfilled as I can be in pursuing my passion of creative writing.”

I look forward to sharing more words and thoughts with my readers!

All the best,