A story that twists like the Rio Grande



Review of Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III

One of the most satisfying literary discoveries is a truly unique story. This is particularly rare in the mystery-thriller genre. Many thrillers seem to be emulating another derivative book, trying to ride a bandwagon to market success. Far too many read as if the author were trying to write an episode of his or her favourite TV show.

So when I opened Place of Skulls by Caleb Pirtle III, I was prepared for disappointment. But what I found were realistic characters, solid writing and a satisfying, completely original story.

The plot twists and turns, but holds the road.

Place of Skulls is the fourth in Pirtle’s Ambrose Lincoln series, a spy-thriller set during the Second World War. A lot of authors give their main characters a huge character flaw—alcoholism, a history of abuse, a physical disability—and Lincoln has what seems to me to be the most debilitating for a spy: amnesia. Ambrose Lincoln has no memory of his past, and cannot remember why he knows the things he does and cannot account for certain skills he has, such as the ability to pick a lock with a hair pin.

But he does have ghosts—at least one. He’s followed by a dead man only he can see, and only at night, the ghost of a man he killed in a military engagement that he cannot remember.

A rich Dallas oilman named Eliot Bergner hires Lincoln to find whoever killed his brother, Danny. “Danny B.” is a DEA officer who was investigating the smuggling of drugs from Mexico into the U.S., carried by poor, desperate migrant workers. One night, his mutilated body arrives in Texas in an empty boxcar. But not before he sends a message to his brother, Eliot—an observant Jew—that he has found incontrovertible proof of Christ’s appearance in Mexico before the Spanish Conquest in 1492.

Drugs and religion: that would seem to be enough for one book, but then the author adds the idea that Nazi Germany is lacing the cocaine and heroine the migrants are smuggling with Thallium, a potent and undetectable poison. Their idea is to addict as many Americans as possible, and then kill them.

As if that’s not complex enough, shady U.S. government operatives are about to launch an invasion of Mexico to stop the influx of addictive poison, but because Mexico is a sovereign nation that, at the time the story is set, has not yet declared which side of the war it’s on (which would have to make it between December 7, 1941 and May 22, 1942, when Mexico declared war on Germany), they have to keep it secret, even from the President.

No, it’s not impossible to make this story plausible.

If any author had come to a publisher with an idea for a novel about a detective finding incontestable proof that Jesus Christ came to Mexico before 1492, and getting caught up in a US government plot to invade Mexico to throttle the drug trade, mixing in Nazi spies, he probably would have been advised to pick an easier mystery to pen. But Pirtle handles the challenge well, giving the readers just enough information as the plot builds to keep us readers turning pages.

There were a few places where I was afraid the novel would become excessively Christian, where a plot point could only be explained by a miracle or an answer to true faith, but thankfully, Pirtle avoided that. Everything made sense, and while there is a definite religious motif to this book, it makes sense.

The characters ring true.

Author Caleb Pirtle III

Pirtle gives us a wide range of believable characters, all with strengths, weaknesses and flaws. I loved some of them, and detested others, but I reacted to each one. All their actions and reactions logically proceeded from their situations and personalities, with no unbelievable transformations. Eliot Bergner’s agonized family relationships add some surprising depth to the story. I suspected the femme fatale at first, but Pirtle’s iron-tight plot made her completely believable.

The author  gives us a satisfying closing.

Pirtle also avoids a facile story arc. Lincoln struggles against drug cartels, traitors, cowards and ghosts, all of whom leave scars. At no point do we know for sure who’s going to survive the next battle, and it’s never certain who’s going to win.

Pirtle doesn’t cut corners. The book has been produced professionally, meeting or exceeding the standards of commercial fiction. In fact, this book was much better than the commercially published stuff I have read lately.

5*

Visit Caleb Pirtle III’s website for links to buy this and other books.

Bringing history to life



As you, my faithful readers know, I recently published the third book in my Eastern Front trilogy about the experiences of my father-in-law, Maurice Bury, during the Second World War. Writing those three slim books took me more than 10 years. Not only because the story itself is dark and difficult, but also because it required a lot of research to get the details right.

ArmyofWornSoles-smallerUnderTheNaziHeel.jpgCover-WOOW-500x800 (1)

While there must be thousands of books and other sources about the Second World War, most of it, at least those in English, focus on the western part of it, with a British, American or, sometimes, Canadian perspective. There is relatively little in English about the Eastern Front, where Maurice was drafted by the Soviet Red Army.

My research for the books began with the subject, my father-in-law himself. While he had occasionally mentioned something about his time in the army, at one point in the 1990s I decided I would write a book about his story. So we sat down in his kitchen, and I took notes.

But before I could complete writing the book, Maurice passed away. Which meant that any information I still needed, I would have to find in other sources.

Trusting memory

When I began writing the story, I realized I would have to turn to history books for essential background information about the war, the politics, weapons, organization of the armies and so much more.

Maurice’s memory of his own experiences was excellent, but he did not remember the exact dates, nor the number of his unit. When he told me how he sustained his wound, he remembered the weather, the German fighter planes arcing in the sky. But he did not remember the exact date. I had to do some research to work out when the Germans got to Kyiv, and the extent of the fighting there in 1941.

I also had to research the weapons used. Maurice told me as a Third Lieutenant, he commanded eleven men in an anti-tank unit. When he described fighting against the German tanks, the Panzers, it seemed to me to require some precision. The shell had to hit the tank at just the right angle to penetrate the armour and detonate inside. The challenge was that the modern Panzers had sloping armour to deflect anti-tank shells. The Soviet tanks in the early part of the war, on the other hand, had straight armour, making it easier for an armour-piercing shell to strike at the right angle.

But I neglected to ask him to describe the Soviet anti-tank gun. When I came to write about it, I realized I had no idea what it looked like. The answer surprised me. I had thought of a kind of cannon, but the PTRS-41 and the similar PTRD were strangely delicate-looking. They looked more like long rifles with extended, slender barrels. My first thought was “That little thing can knock out a tank?”

Image source: 13thguardspoltavaskaya.com

It turns out, it didn’t manage to do that very often. The shells could not penetrate the Panzers’ front armour, so the Soviet anti-tank gunners would try to shoot at the sides or back of the tanks, where the armour was thinner. That was an extremely risky tactic, requiring the gunners to allow the Panzers to pass them before shooting.

Finding this information in historical sources brought me back to the notes I took when interviewing Maurice before he passed away. He once told me that his men destroyed a Panzer by shooting at the back, hitting the exposed fuel tank.

As a writer, this was a satisfying—to find confirmation of Maurice’s memories and stories in the history books and websites.

What’s your experience?

Have you ever found that kind of confirmation of a relative’s or friend’s memory or story in an official or historical reference? Share that in the Comments.

A look back at a tough year



To many, 2016 has been a horrible year. The war in Syria, the loss of refugees from that conflict and others, the record number of celebrity passings, record homicide numbers in my home town, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency … I won’t go on. It’s too painful.

For me, it’s been a turbulent year, too. I broke my knee in May and went through months of intensive physiotherapy and exercise to get back the range of motion and strength I needed for my two-week whitewater canoeing trip. My son had appendicitis, my other son had some issues with school and work.

In the fall, I came down with a wicked case of pinkeye. There were more problems in this single year than in many that I can recall.

On the other hand, there were some “ups,” as well.

  • I published three books this year:
    • IMG_0020.jpgUnder the Nazi Heel, Book 2 in my Walking Out of War trilogy based on the World War 2 experiences of my father-in-law, Maurice Bury.
      It won Second Prize in the East Texas Writers Guild 2016 Awards for nonfiction/memoir.
    • The Wife Line, a Sydney Rye Kindle World book that features my spy-thriller characters, Van Freeman and Earl LeBrun.
    • Dead Man Lying, my third Lei Crime Kindle World title, featuring my FBI Special Agent character, Vanessa Storm. It won First Place in the 2016 East Texas Writers Guild Mystery Awards.WifeLine-final-small
  • I edited three very strong books by independent authors:
  • I participated in some group publishing efforts along with other members of BestSelling Reads, an authors’ group that cross-promotes members.
  • New members joined Independent Authors International, a collaborative publishing venture where members share skills to provide all the functions of a full, commercial publishing company.
  • PaddlersI canoed 325 kilometres down the Missinaibi and Moose Rivers in northern Ontario to Moose Factory on James Bay, and capsized only once.
  • I visited the Finger Lakes in New York, and met some very nice, interesting people and drank some excellent wine.
  • I crafted an outline for The Triumph of the Sky, the follow-up to my first full-length novel, The Bones of the Earth.
  • I outlined a new Lei Crime novel featuring Special Agent Vanessa Storm: Echo of a Crime, and have so far written about half of it.
  • And I came up with a concept for a new Sydney Rye Kindle World novel which will feature Van and LeBrun.

So 2016 has been a year with ups and downs, and now that I look at it, for me at least, there were more good points than bad. And for the family, too.

But for the world, it’s been a tough year. For Aleppo and the rest of Syria, for Iraq, for France, Belgium and the U.K., for Japan, Italy and Fort McMurray. For the U.S., 2017 is going to be … interesting politically.

I wish you all a healthy, happy, loving, peaceful and plentiful 2017.

Independent book review: My Last Romance and Other Passions



A cliché-busting collection of romances by Kathleen Valentine

As an independent author, I find it important to write an independent book review from time to time — my own, unasked-for review of a book from a fellow indie. Here is my review of one such.

Kathleen Valentine is a literary leader. As a writer, she follows her own path and creates original, beautiful stories with characters readers can recognize because they’re taken from reality. 

I’m not normally a fan of romances. But I have to say that I was turned on, in many ways, by the collection of romantic short stories for grown-ups by Kathleen Valentine called My Last Romance and Other Passions.

Most “romance” novels I have encountered seem to be aimed at women who never emotionally got past high school. (To be fair, most action/adventure novels I have read seem written for men who never matured past Grade 8). They tend to follow one of two or three models:

  • the nice, middle class girl fixes the tortured billionaire—50 Shades of Crap was far from the first of this cliché
  • the two young lovers with damaged childhoods find safe havens in each other
  • the nice girl is drawn to the bad boy, and either
    • decides on the nice boy next door, or
    • fixes the bad boy.

There’s a lot of fixing in romance, and almost always by the female protagonist.

These are the tropes no matter the “hotness” level. There are these plots in sexy, steamy romances; in hot romances about Highlanders, cowboys, firemen and pirates; and in the “clean” romances — which means romances without sex.

The clean romance is the genre I hate the most. What are these writers saying — sex is dirty?

When Valentine breaks the rules

I guess it was inevitable that a writer named Valentine would write romantic stories. I’m just so glad she didn’t fall into the Hallmark Card type of romance trap. I found the stories in My Last Romance and Other Passions to be insightful, believable and entertaining — in other words, real literature.

Most romances, whether independent or commercially published, also feature characters with British, Celtic or otherwise very Western European names. Kathleen Valentine is one of the few writers in any genre I have read who’s willing to be inclusive and realistic in reflecting the diversity of Western culture today, and her characters have names like “Silvio” and “Asa.” And they’re not all middle-class suburbanites or billionaires or expatriate European nobility. They come from isolated towns in the Appalachians or fishing villages in Massachusetts or from poor farms in Texas. They’re people we know exist, but they rarely feature in literature or genre fiction.

Kathleen Valentine is breaking down the rules that have accreted over romance like so much mould, and revitalized it.

Grown ups do grown-up things

Another thing I really appreciate about these romances — the last and otherwise — is that they’re about adults, and they do adult things. Okay, I admit I have a bias at my age, identifying more with people who’ve lived longer and had more experiences.

But Valentine’s characters have businesses and hold down jobs, and it’s clear that the author understands everything this entails. They’re musicians who never sold a million albums but know how to rock the house down. They’re artists who capture beauty and truth but never get known beyond their home town. They have children and marriages, and occasionally — no, more than occasionally — they fail at their obligations, they stray and they cheat and they enjoy it.

The independent book review

9a285-kathleenvalentine1948_sx200_Kathleen Valentine is an accomplished, professional writer with a lot of successful titles on her Author page. This collection is an excellent introduction to her work, and should stand as a model for would-be romance authors.

5*

You can find My Last Romance and Other Passions either on Amazon, but I got my copy as an even better value, as part of the BestSelling Reads Valentine Bundle, featuring full length books from nine professional, independent authors. For more great values, don’t forget to check them out.

And of course, you should visit Kathleen’s own website and blog for thoughts and ideas from a real, talented designer and author.

How to find funds for your novel: Guest post by Roger Eschbacher



Finding the funds to cover editing, design and production of a book is a challenge every independent author must work out. This week, the award-winning Roger Eschbacher describes his solution.

This post originally appeared on the old Scott’s Written Words blog.

As just about any “indie” author will admit one of the biggest knocks against our tribe is that often self-published books are rife with errors (punctuation, grammar, typos, continuity problems, etc.). We know how jarring it can be to run across a typo in a traditionally published book, so imagine how distracting it can be to be poked in the eye by dozens of them.

Why does this happen? To be blunt, it’s because the author didn’t have the book properly edited. And by “properly,” I mean professionally. No matter how good at catching errors you think you might be, you’ll never get them all. No matter how good you might think your beta reader/proofreader friends are at finding embarrassing mistakes in your text or story, there are always more hiding in your manuscript. Always.

I can verify this through my own experience. I can’t tell you how many “final” reads I did on Dragonfriend, my 2013 self-published MG fantasy novel. I’d go through it, find and fix a bunch of errors, only to go back to the beginning for one last look and find even more. I realized I needed professional help. I needed a paid editor with a trained eye to go through my manuscript and find the mistakes that would embarrass me if they ever made it out of my computer and into the wild.

What does any of this have to do with finding funds for my novel?

Well…having come to the realization that I was in over my head as far as editing goes, I started looking around for someone to help me out. Guess what? Editors can be expensive! My manuscript was in the 75,000-word range, and quotes for an edit on a book that size ran from the upper hundreds to the low thousands on the sites I checked. Google “editing, novel, proofreading” yourself and be prepared for your jaw to drop to the floor. This is not a knock against the editors, by the way; what they do is very time- and labor-intensive (= expensive).

So what was I going to do? I knew I had to get my book properly edited, but I also knew I wasn’t exactly dripping with cash. I was frozen in place until I could scrape together enough funds for a professional editor. Frozen, that is, until I ran across Kickstarter.

How Kickstarter works

Kickstarter.com is a site that exists solely for raising funds for “the arts.” Based on the artist/patron model of old, Kickstarter provides a platform where you can raise money from friends, family, and total strangers without having to beg in person. You simply set up an account and direct people to it with a “Hey, if you’re interested in backing my book project…” Amazingly, to me anyway, a lot of folks were willing to pitch in and help me out.

If you head over to the site, you’ll find that everyone from filmmakers to graphic artists to greeting card makers have a project going on. Oh, and authors too.

Here’s how it works. You sign up for an account, then pitch your project to the Kickstarter folks. My “project” was to raise enough money to have my book professionally edited and pay for its setup (cover design, proof copies, Createspace Pro Plan, etc.). Frankly, I think this step is included to make sure that only “creatives” get in the door. They’re very specific about not accepting charity or non-arty business projects. This site is about raising funds for projects with artistic content.

Thankfully, my project was approved and I set about trying to determine the amount of funding I would need. Having priced out the costs listed above (I picked an editor quote somewhere in the middle of the pack) and factoring in Kickstarter’s five percent account fee, I determined I’d need about $2,100.00 to properly prepare Dragonfriend for publication. Kickstarter recommends that you research your costs and pick a sum that is very close to the amount of funds you will actually need. They say that an appropriately priced project is more likely to succeed, and I think that makes sense.

Next, you determine how long you want the project to go. The allowable range is between 30 and 90 days. Kickstarter recommends 30 days, advising that if a project is going to be funded, it’ll usually happen within that period of time. I wish I had listened to them. I chose 45 days, only to have my project achieve full funding at around day 25. You have to wait for the project to play itself out before Kickstarter releases the funds, so I found myself cooling my heels for the balance of time left in the project. Another reason not to inflate your request is that if you don’t reach your funding goal within the allotted time, the project fails and no one (yourself or Kickstarter) gets any money. The backers who pledged prior to fail won’t be charged either, which is good, but you obviously don’t want to fail. In short, determine a reasonable goal and don’t be greedy!

Next, you create your backer “rewards,” attaching fun things like bookmarks, signed copies, and future character naming rights to various donation price points. They encourage you to be inventive, so in addition to those traditional rewards, I added stuff like writing a “fake” unmasking scene from the Scooby Doo series I write on. The backer became the villain and was able to pick the name of their evil alter-ego in a customized script. Sure it’s silly, but three backers ended up receiving scenes thanks to some very generous donations.

Then you press the “launch project” button and get the word out that you’re trying to raise money for a worthy project—asking folks to become true patrons of the arts. I ended up raising $2,205.00, which I promptly put into play by hiring an editor. I chose Iguana Proofreading and opted for their complete package of a manuscript critique and proofreading.

I have nothing but good things to say about my Kickstarter experience. It provided the funds I needed to launch my book. Without it, I’d probably still be going through the manuscript and finding error after error after error…

What about you? Do you have any experience with Kickstarter or tips on hiring a pro editor? Please share them in the comments.

c114e-undrastormur2bcoverA native of St. Louis, Missouri, Roger Eschbacher lives in Los Angeles, California, where he’s worked as a writer/actor for over 30 years. These days he works primarily as a TV animation writer. He has written for shows you’ve heard of like SCOOBY DOO: MYSTERY INCORPORATED, WABBIT, and LITTLEST PET SHOP and a few you haven’t. Along the way he managed to get nominated for an Emmy. He’s the author of the middle-grade fantasy adventure novel Dragonfriend (winner of a 2012 BRAG Medallion) and its sequel Giantkiller. Roger’s most recent work is UNDRASTORMUR: A Viking Tale of Troublesome Trolls, a novelette available on Amazon. He’s also written two children’s picture books, “Road Trip”, and “Nonsense! He Yelled,” both for Penguin. 

For a list of all of , please visit Roger’s LinkedIn profile page.

Visit Roger’s

How not to miss an issue of Written Words: subscribe!



For my first post of 2016, I’m going to ask all of you to subscribe to get the Written Words blog by mail. All you have to do is fill in the box to the right with your email address.

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Why subscribe?

You’ll still be able to read it in your Web browser, but with a subscription you’ll get an email to remind you when a new edition is out.

This way, you won’t miss:

Free stuff

You’ll also get a free info-graphic detailing my Get a GRIP writing process. Print it out and tack it up over your computer monitor so you’ll never forget the four steps to help you write well and quickly.

And if you sign up by January 10, I’ll also send you a FREE e-copy of my occult-paranormal-thriller short story, Dark Clouds, Part 1: The Mandrake Ruse.

So there: lots of reasons to subscribe. I promise that I’ll never spam you, nor give nor sell your information to anyone else. And you can unsubscribe at any time. Even after you download the free stuff.

Why am I doing this?

I’m trying to build my “author platform,” of course—to increase the exposure I get and ultimately, sell more books. But as I said, I won’t spam you, and if you’ve read this far, you know I’m not a hard-sell kind of guy. This is just my way of gently letting you know about books and other things from authors, artists and smart people that I think are worthwhile.

What do you think?

Of this strategy? Of the blog? About email? Or about anything else on this website? I always welcome comments (from real people).

 

Writers who love writing: Claude Bouchard and Mohana Rajakumar let it all out



DG EMPL / Creative Commons

Writing is a job, or a vocation or maybe an addiction that requires you to do a lot of things besides writing. Then there are those of us who seem to find a lot of other things to do (hold on while I straighten that picture on the wall) before we can get around to writing.

In this installment of Written Words, thriller author Claude Bouchard from Montreal and Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar from Qatar offer their very different perspectives on the art and craft of being a writer.

Which element of fiction is most important to you as a writer?

Claude Bouchard: If I’m limited to a single choice, the plot is most important as you can’t really have a story without, uh, a story. However, characterization and setting(s) are required elements as well in order to give the story life and dimension. Details are also important in terms of accuracy although I don’t tend toward minutiae. To varying degrees, action is dependent on the genre and, in my case, is also a relevant aspect in my writing. Sex, not as much since I write crime thrillers.

Mohana Rajakumar: I tend to write character driven stories and learned the hard way that what happens in the story is as important as to whom it is happening. I’ve started outlining before writing to help me stay on track.

Because all my books have a cultural element, getting the little details right, such as words, clothing, food, etc. is also really important.

What part of writing do you spend the most time on: research, writing, editing, making coffee or cleaning your work space?

Claude Bouchard: In my case, research, writing and editing are all ongoing activities throughout my writing process so they get equal billing. Coffee is a couple of cups in the morning, the machine having been set on timer the night before. As for cleaning my work space, I may have missed the memo regarding that one.

rajakumar-mohana-webMohana Rajakumar: Editing! I can write a manuscript in 30 days but I need seven months to revise it (or more!).

Which of these do you enjoy most?

Claude Bouchard: The pure writing part of my process is what I enjoy the most, especially when I’m on a roll.

Mohana Rajakumar: I love writing a good scene. Nothing can beat the feeling of having created a world others want to enter.

What do you wish you had to do less?

Claude Bouchard: Although I generally like doing research, it would be nice if I sometimes knew everything and could simply spew it out.

Mohana Rajakumar: I wish I could write flawless prose that never needed a proof reader.

What part of writing or publishing do you think you could help other writers with?

Claude Bouchard: Having written and published fourteen works to date, I’ve had a number of writers ask for help or advice in a variety of areas and, to my knowledge, assisted them to their satisfaction.

Mohana Rajakumar: I could help other writers with story structure.

Which of your books or other works are you personally happiest with? Why?

Claude Bouchard: I love all my books and don’t you be telling them anything different. However, I am rather pleased with Nasty in Nice, the novella I wrote for the JET Kindle World. Melding Russell Blake’s characters with mine was a blast, the plot is solid, the action rocks and I put it all together in record time.

Mohana Rajakumar: I do love the new crime series that I started with The Migrant Report because it was a completely new genre for me.

Thank you, Claude and Mohana!

Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian desert was fortuitous in many ways since this is where she met her husband, had two sons, and became a writer.  She has since published eight e-books, including a momoir for first-time mothers, Mommy But Still Me; a guide for aspiring writers, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies; a short story collection, Coloured and Other Stories; and a novel about women’s friendships, Saving Peace.

Her coming of age novel, An Unlikely Goddess, won the SheWrites New Novelist competition in 2011.

Her recent books have focused on various aspects of life in Qatar. From Dunes to Dior, named as a Best Indie book in 2013, is a collection of essays related to her experiences as a female South Asian American living in the Arabian Gulf. Love Comes Later was the winner of the Best Indie Book Award for Romance in 2013 and is a literary romance set in Qatar and London. The Dohmestics is an inside look into compound life, the day-to-day dynamics between housemaids and their employers. Her latest book is The Migrant Report.

After she joined the e-book revolution, Mohana dreams in plotlines. Learn more about her work on her website at www.mohadoha.com or follow her latest on Twitter: @moha_doha.

Claude Bouchard wrote his first novel, Vigilante, in 1995, and two more by 1997, but did not publish them until 2009. Since then, he has also written a stand-alone novel, Asylum, and eight more thrillers in the Vigilante series including his latest release, Sins in the Sun. Two of his novels were included in the pair of blockbuster Killer Thriller anthologies, the second of which made the USA Today Bestsellers list in March 2014. Claude has also penned Something’s Cooking, a faux-erotica parody and cookbook under the pseudonyms Réal E. Hotte and Dasha Sugah. His most recent work, released July 28, 2015, is Nasty in Nice, his contribution to Russell Blake’s JET Kindle World.

Eight of his eleven books in the Vigilante Series have been #1 bestsellers in the Vigilante Justice category on Amazon while the remaining three came close in the #2 and #3 slots. Nasty in Nice made #3 on the Kindle World Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Bestseller List and sat comfortably at #1 for several days as a Hot New Release. Almost 600,000 copies of his books have been distributed to date.

Claude lives in Montreal, Canada with his spouse, Joanne, under the watchful eye of Krystalle and Midnight, two black females of the feline persuasion.

 

Claude’s other interests include reading, playing guitar, painting, cooking, traveling and planning to exercise.

 

His website, claudebouchardbooks.com, has often been described as comparable to DisneyLand without the rides.