I grew up in the 1950’s. TV was ruled by westerns. I loved to make up western stories. My brothers and sister would act out many as family plays. In order to get them to learn lines and participate I would have to let them each get shot and die several times per story. I built miniature western towns in the back yard and acted out my stories with toy figures before I wrote them down.
Did you write stories when you were growing up?
Yes. Certainly by the time I reached fourth grade (before that I made them up but didn’t write them down). However, I was a bad speller and had poor penmanship. (No computers to write on back then.) So I never let anyone—anyone—see any of the stories I wrote. Some that I wrote in Junior High (Middle School) were well over 100 pages long. I wrote them and hid them—and now have no idea what ever happened to them. Some of them I would like to have now. But they were all lost during our many moves during my growing up years.
What was your first job when you graduated from college?
I went to West Point. That means that I spent five years as an army officer after graduation. When I got out, I got a doctorate in Oceanography from Oregon State University and spent 8 years leading a small research team conducting studies for the Department of Energy on the environmental effects of advanced energy technologies. Then I dropped out of science to become a fulltime storyteller (a story for a different time). I always wrote my own stories to tell. Much of my writing technique I developed by testing stories, story structures, and story wording on live audiences during my many performances each year.
Was your first book accepted immediately?
Actually, a publisher approached me and asked to publish one of my performance stories (THE KILLER BRUSSEL SPROUTS) in book form. They had heard me tell it and thought it would make a cute book. I thought all publishing would be that easy! Since, I have collected many rejection slips (all on fiction book proposals), but have had great success with my nonfiction proposals.
Do you focus on fiction or nonfiction?
I focus on fiction stories for the performance pieces I use for school or public performances. My book publishing to date has focused on nonfiction. I hope to slide into writing historical fiction within the next five years.
Are some of your fiction stories about real people?
Yes. Two of my early performance stories were about things one nephew did. He, however, didn’t want his name used, so I created a mythical son, Andrew, and had the stories happen to him. There are now over 30 stories in that series. All are based on moments I have experienced or have witnessed. The characters I use in the stories, however, are fictional so that I can have them do and say anything I need them to for the sake of the story.
Do you enjoy researching?
I love doing historical research. I love finding inconsistencies between different accounts and then getting to decide what I think is the most likely version of the truth. There are so many fascinating periods, events, and people to research...and so little time.
Do you work on more than one book at a time?
Usually I work on two at a time, but occasionally three. I think it is important to periodically get away from a story for a while so that I can then look at the words I’ve written fresh and unencumbered with what I was thinking when I wrote them. This means I may work on one story over the course of three or four months once the research is done—write on it; set it aside; write and edit; set it aside.... In this way, I am often working on two books each with 30 or more stories all during the same time period.
Do you write every day and do I have set hours?
I write every day unless I am performing from early morning straight through to night. This includes birthdays, Christmas, and New Years. I find I do my best writing early in the morning and so usually get up by 5:00 AM to write. In the afternoons and evenings I can edit and revise, but find that writing I do then lacks energy and power.
Do I like to include humor in my stories?
Absolutely yes! Humor carries energy. Humor reveals character. Humor draws readers into a story. Humor sets up serious and somber moments in a story. Writing without humor is like cooking without spices.
What do I most want students to get out of my school visits?
I spend well over 100 days each year in schools. Here are the three things I always want students to carry away: First, a sense that stories are amazingly powerful, wonderful, and delightful. Second, that writing (conceiving, developing, and drafting a story or other narrative) should be and can be fun. Third, I want to show them the essential core elements that define successful stories and that should be the bedrock of their writing habits. I spend so much time in schools because I have developed ways to consistently succeed at all three of these goals.