The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 13: Interviews

One of my basic beliefs in writing a novel is the importance of interviews, of speaking to real people face to face. Internet research, reading books, attending seminars or listening to podcasts; all of that helps, but nothing will substitute for a face to face encounter.

You get more than words when you speak with someone. You get intonations, hesitations, loudness, softness and excitement. You see sadness, gladness, fear, and joy when you look into their eyes.

What started out as a simple few questions can easily morph into hours of information. When I first met Libby Vance, a lady trucker, our basic lunch went on and on. We liked each other and I felt comfortable asking difficult questions and she was comfortable answering them. Now I have a friend in the trucking business who is supporting my efforts to research my next book.

This has happened to me time and time again. When I was a correspondent for the Asbury Park Press, I frequently connected with the subjects of my interviews and sometimes what began as a single feature story grew into a series of articles.

Working here in North Carolina for the Brunswick Beacon, I was assigned to do an article on Hospice Care. As I researched the topic, it occurred to me that the best way to tell the story was to find an individual who was in Hospice care and to follow his progress from life to death. I found a gentleman who was willing to talk with me. I spent hours with him over a six week period as he slowly moved from this life to the next. My series, “One Man’s Life and Death” won an award from Landmark Publications that year.

The same thing happened when I researched FIND EDSELL! Several men in the New Jersey Forest Fire Service spent hours with me, taking me out to active fire scenes and arranging visits to fire towers and fire stations. One later moved on to be the head of the NJ Forest Fire Service. I’ll always be grateful because I could not possibly learn this stuff from books/manuals or the internet.

In my style of writing fact-based fiction, the interview is key!  Here’s a picture of a recently burned pine forest.

My next blog will explore “dialogue”. How it moves the story forward and why a writer must have keen ear in interviews.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 12

Characters: As I have said many times before, I write “fact-based fiction”. That means my novels are based on facts, real places, and real people.

I do a lot of research. I read books, search the internet, take photos and actually visit the places where my stories take place. On September, my husband Gene and I drove from Princeton NJ to Hartford CT to Scranton PA to Bozeman MT because that is the route that my next thriller takes. It is a cross-country chase story.

When I wrote FIND EDSELL, my first book, the characters were patterned after folks I knew or got to know in the process. A good friend of mine was married to a former Army Commando. Joshua, the male protagonist in FIND EDSELL, is a version of Don. He is a former Commando; he knows weapons and hand-to-hand combat. He is also a bow hunter and an all-around tough guy with a heart of gold.

The teens in that book (Edsell, Borderline, Mark and Stacy) reflect the many teens I knew when I was a Girl Scout Leader, Softball Coach, Youth Group Leader, chair of the Junior Golf Program at our club in New Jersey and later on the Board of Directors of The First Tee of Brunswick County (now The First Tee of Coastal Carolina). I raised four daughters and our house was often a hangout for their friends. We usually had an extra place setting at our dinner table for whoever was visiting or spending the night.

Now, as I work on “Losing It”, the process is the same. Laura is a conglomerate of some of the women I knew while living in New Jersey. She has led a somewhat sheltered life, but now she must flee a killer.  Because he can trace her through her phone or credit cards, she must become homeless to get away.

Luckily, I am a farmer’s daughter from rural Maryland. I know how to handle firearms (my father taught me).  I roamed the woods, camped, fished on the Chesapeake Bay and in the creek behind our farm. I know what the forest sounds like at night. As I kid, I slept on the ground under a canvas strung between two trees with just a blanket around me.  I can write about Laura’s experience in the outdoors.

Stay tuned for more installments of “The Adventure of Writing a Book”. Now that the holidays are over, I promise to write at least once a week.

The picture is 12-year old me on the farm.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 11

Writing a book is a big job, but it is also the most interesting, exciting, challenging task in the world. Just think: while you are writing, you are god. You create a universe populated with animals and people and events drawn from your own imagination and research.

You can imagine a cruel evil villain, a beautiful princess, a sweet baby, a scheming dishonest stockbroker or a witch. You decide how tall they are, how old, what color is their hair or skin. Are they educated or ignorant? Is your hero a genius or does he have Downs Syndrome? Is he addicted? Is he/she jealous, wicked, or kind and loving?

The characters in your book are in your head and they enter the world through your hands tapping the computer keyboard.  Maybe you write your rough draft in a notebook, but still your hands create your new world.  Maybe you dictate, but still it all comes down to words from your mind to the mind of the reader.

Then you manufacture the universe of your novel. Does your story unfold in the United States (city or farm or suburb)? Perhaps it all happens in a foreign country or distant planet? Is it winter, summer, hot or cold, dry or wet?  Present, past or future?

Now comes the plot: is your story an adventure, a thriller or a love story? Is it about war? Or the inner workings of an advertising agency? Perhaps your people inhabit a palace in the 14th Century or a ghetto in Nazi Germany.

Whatever you decide is fine.  YOU are in charge.    

Perhaps you want to create a three-book series like my daughter (Kim Campbell) did with her “Triple Crown Trilogy”. Her story takes place in and around the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. She was quite ingenious in creating her world of Thoroughbred racing. The cast of characters is basically the same in each book, but the primary character changes with each one. Check it out at Two books are out, the third will be published next year.

Many authors create a primary character and then design a whole series around him (her). Perhaps it’s a detective or an explorer or a spy. If the primary character (protagonist) is believable, folks will continue to buy the books to see his (her) next adventure.

Writing is truly and adventure. When I’m really into my research or writing a rough draft, a whole day will simply fly by. I can begin at 9:00 and discover that it’s now 2:00 p.m. and I’ve missed lunch. Not every day is like that for a novelist, but the best days are.

I’m taking a break for 10 days. I will resume “The Adventure of Writing a Book” on January 2. Stay tuned and have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Kwanzaa, or Winter Solstice.

Happy New Year and continue to read and write.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 10

Helping the Homeless

Last month, just before the wonder and excess of Thanksgiving weekend, I attended a Hunger & Homeless Banquet and Soup Luncheon in Leland NC.

The luncheon was put on by the Brunswick County Homeless Coalition. Several speakers from state and local agencies/organizations that work with homeless people gave short talks.  Also speaking were several former homeless people who now have jobs and homes. They confirmed everything I have learned in my last six months of talking with homeless people here and in other areas across the United States.

Homeless people are not necessarily lazy, alcoholic or addicted to drugs. They’re not homeless because they don’t want to work. Trust me, no one wants to sleep on a park bench, under the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk or in an abandoned house or barn. No one wants to live in their car for three years. No one wants to hold up a cardboard sign and beg for food next to a highway entrance.

Granted, there are homeless people who suffer from addiction, depression and/or mental illness and they need our help.  But, many of them are in this terrible situation due to circumstances beyond their control like a sudden illness, accident, loss of job or spouse, a fire. I have heard stories over the past six months that shocked and horrified me. As I listened, I thought: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

We live in a complex, detail-oriented world.  What do you do when you have no documentation?  No way to prove who you are?  No driver’s license, birth certificate,  cell phone, credit card, or bank account?  No Facebook, I-Pad, car, apartment or house?   

Many homeless children and adults are illiterate. How can they hold down a job or attend school if they cannot read or write? Even a waitress, cleaning woman, mechanic and dog sitter must fill out forms, write orders.

In addition, many homeless people are financially illiterate. They don’t understand how checkbooks, saving accounts and credit cards work. It they manage to get a cash-paying job, how do they pay rent, buy food, save for a rainy day? How can they qualify for a rental apartment or a mortgage? How can they buy a car to get to work?

These individuals are stuck in a precarious place where they must live from day to day, hour to hour, finding food in dumpsters or food pantries. When they get sick, they go to emergency rooms instead of a doctor’s office.

My next book, “Losing It”, will focus on a woman (Laura) who becomes homeless to escape a killer. This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever written.

Stay tuned from more installments of “The Adventure of Writing a Book”.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 8


Learning about whole segments of society that I knew nothing about has been a blast as I research my next book, “Losing It”.

A cross country trucker is an important character in my book. We see these drivers and their big rigs every day, but do we really know much about them? Who are they? Many cabs have sleeping quarters in the back and we can see rows them at truck stops all over the country. Are they sleeping? How many hours can they drive before they must rest? What are the regulations?

How do they pass the time as they drive from California to New York and back again? How do they stay awake? Do they drive as a pair or individually?

I stared visiting trucking companies and asking questions. I called a trucking school in Wilmington and they gave me the contact information for Libby Vance, a woman who had been a cross-country trucker, an instructor at the trucking school and later, the dean of the school.

I called her and she graciously agreed to meet me for lunch and talk about my book. We had a blast and I listened, totally in awe, for two hours. We agreed to meet again.

Now retired from trucking and trucking schools, Libby was full of stories and information. Not only that, but she brought me two of her instructional books, all marked and tagged for the most important information. How cool was that?

She told me that there are many kinds of truckers, local, regional and long-distance. Government regulations abound and each state has its own laws that must be followed. Trucking not an easy job. You must know how to handle your rig, back it up, brake on hills, shift gears, etc. Imagine backing up a big trailer into a small opening in a warehouse or factory. Yikes! Certain states allow double and even triple trailers, and they have their own required certifications and rules.

Truckers haul various kinds of loads. The trailer may be a box, or a flatbed that can carry an assortment of loads, anything from logs to large generators.  Then there are the tankers which carry vegetable oil or chemicals or fuel. Loads can shift. Stopping a tractor trailer in case of an emergency is difficult if you are carrying liquids or a product that can slip and slide.

Truckers haul all the things we use every day.  Whatever you have in your hand right now, a coffee cup or computer mouse or candy bar, it was hauled by a trucker:  the chair you are sitting on the car in your driveway, the shingles on your roof, the carpet in you living room.   

Thank a trucker today!  They are invaluable people doing a difficult job.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 7

The last part of my next book, “Losing It”, takes place in Bozeman, Montana. There will be an exciting finish with a amazing twist. I cannot reveal that now, it would spoil the book.  I want my readers racing to the last page, gasping with excitement and fear.

In researching “Losing It”, Gene and I finished our journey in Bozeman and spent several days there. Why Bozeman? We have been there several times over the years and have good friends in the area who were excited to show us places I needed to see and to answer many of my specific questions.  

Seth and Judy Harter lived across the street from us for 28 years in New Jersey. Sadly, Seth passed away a few years ago. Judy, one of my dearest friends, still lives in New Jersey and we talk regularly.

Linn and Mary, two of their daughters, live in Bozeman and we spent hours with them on our trip.

Let me tell you about Bozeman. It is in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, just north of Yellowstone Park. The town is in a valley surrounded by huge mountains and vast forests.

Linn’s husband Doug has a cabin near the top of one of the mountains. It took us 1½ hours on unpaved steep roads in a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to it. We dodged wild cattle on the trail.

The scenery is breath-taking. The cabin has no electricity or water. A spring just uphill from the cabin, brings clean water via a hose.  

The cabin has cots and a small table with wooden chairs. There is a wood-burning stove plus an outhouse. You can hunt and fish and trap and live there forever if the rest of the world falls apart.

It is breathtakingly quiet on the top of that mountain. There are no roads, no neighbors. At night, no lights. It’s an excellent place to relax and read and regroup.

Linn and Doug often cross-country ski in that area. When the roads (using term loosely) are impassable in the winter, they can ski to their cabin for few days of peace and quiet.

I loved it and decided my heroine, Laura, needed to go there.

Now I’m home and continuing my research.  Last week, I had lunch with a woman who drove a tractor-trailer cross county for years.  She told me fascinating stories of life on the road.   Did I tell you that one of my main characters is a trucker?  Check it out on my next blog.  


The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 6

In our cross-country trip to research “Losing” it, my sweet husband Gene was the navigator. He cannot drive anymore because of neuropathy, but he is a fabulous wingman and navigator. He sat next to me for over six thousand miles with his MapQuest printouts, his giant US. Atlas, and Cellphone Siri. (Sometimes he talked to Siri more than he talked to me.)

We had laid out the trip in advance, so that the driving was usually about 6-7 hours each day. Sometimes because of construction or traffic snarls, the day was much longer.  There were times we drive for several hours without seeing any signs of human habitation except for the road before us and the vehicles on it.

Since one of the major characters in my book is a long-distance truck driver, it was great to be on a programmed trip, mimicking what truckers do every day for a living. The scenery was absolutely beautiful and we had great weather on our three-week trip. We saw mountains and more mountains, lakes, rushing rivers, cliffs, gorges, deserts and vast expanses of farmland. There were small towns and large cities with skyscrapers and long bridges over rivers.

You need to drive across our beautiful United States at some point in your life. Flying is great, but you miss the vastness, the beauty, the great sense of space and time. Compared to the villages and the cities, the mountains seemed eternal. The layers of rock that were forced up during eons of natural upheavals humbled me. I could see the bottoms of seas in the wavy parallel lines of the cliff faces. It was totally mind-blogging. I become an insignificant speck in the universe of time.

I am currently researching long distance trucking and have a meeting next week with some professional drivers. I’m also in the process of reading several books about truckers and I learned that one of the lures of the industry is the freedom to see parts of the country that are not the usual vacation or tourist places.

It’s the inside of our country, where the manufacturing happens, where things are built and shipped to the far corners of the world. The people are real with difficult jobs, but they have courage and they stay the course.

When you shave, think of your razor, it was made somewhere in the U.S. by real people. Your shirt? Same thing. Almost everything you touch was made in a factory somewhere by someone. Almost everything we buy today was shipped a long distance to our Walmart or grocery story or shopping mall.

And the truckers do the driving.

Check out these photos we took from the car. Stay turned for more installments of the Adventure of Writing a Book.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 5

As I traveled from Hartford, Connecticut, to Scranton, Pennsylvania, I searched for information, diving deep into the heartland of our great country, talking with folks from all walks of life.  My journey followed Laura’s path as she flees to escape a vicious killer. 

Laura was raised in the lap of luxury, with maids and gardeners, and au pairs to help with the children. Her grandparents live in Palm Beach, Florida and she flies down annually to visit them. She and her husband have a huge summer home in Matoloking, New Jersey, which he inherited from his parents. They belong to a prestigious country club. They attend balls and charity golf events.

For most of her life, Laura did not notice the maids, gardeners, waitresses and drivers who served her and her family. They were largely ignored. They did not have Gucci handbags, Ferragamo shoes, honeymoons in France and vacations in Italy. They had no college degrees, high positions in corporate America or promising careers.  They were unimportant.

Now, slowly and surely, these very people become her friends. They help her find food and clothing and shelter. They hide her and talk her out of her misery. They make her laugh.

Soon, Laura realizes that the homeless, the poor, the working classes are comprised of people who, in many ways, are more real and true than her upper-class acquaintances. It’s easy to write a check to a charity, but who wants to give a homeless person a place to stay? A bed for the night?

Soon Laura is residing in a trailer park. The people around her help each other out. When someone is ill, they cook dinner. They watch each other’s children and they sometimes gather around a small fire at night to laugh and tell stories. She has never been this close to reality, she has never had anyone sacrifice for her or befriend her this way.

My dear friend, Glenn Khoury, set up interviews with folks in a trailer park he owns near Scranton. Gene and I spent a whole day there, talking and getting to know the residents. These were working class people, some of them barely getting by, but they poured out their hearts to me that day. I heard some amazing stories of survival and perseverance and I thank them all.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Adventure of Writing a Book”. As the killer finds Laura, she flees west to Bozeman, Montana.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 4

Writing a book is fun because you meet some amazing people during your research. Because my heroine, Laura, must become homeless to escape a killer, I have been interfacing with homeless people for several months now.

It helps to talk with pastors and priests and the folks who run the charities that help the homeless, but it’s far better to talk with the homeless people themselves. Once you gain their trust, they will open up and tell you their amazing stories. Stories of survival and grit, stories of a world gone wrong, of getting injured, losing a job and then losing your house.

A homeless person will tell you what if feels like to sleep on a bench in a park and be told to move along by the police. You’ll learn that sometimes homeless people band together to rent a motel room for the night, so they can all take showers and get cleaned up. They’ll tell you what if feels like to not eat for several days, or to eat only occasionally at soup kitchens.

Gene and I came out of a restaurant one night carrying a couple of Styrofoam boxes with our leftovers. A couple of young men approached us and asked if they could have our left-overs. When we said “yes”, one of them started to weep, the other thanked me, then they both turned and hurried away with the precious food in their grasp.

Another time, a homeless couple I knew were standing on the sidewalk as I walked to my car. I had a container with left-over nachos and I said it wasn’t much, but they were welcome to it. The three of us walked over to a nearby bench to chat and as we talked, they tore into the soggy cold nachos with both hands, scooping up the food with their fingers as fast as they cold. The woman took the tiny container of left-over sour cream and held it to her face while she quickly licked out the remains. The greed and hunger and satisfaction on their faces nearly made me weep.

Many folks say the homeless are lazy or on drugs. That it’s their own fault they are destitute.

That is not always the case. I have heard terrible stories of childhood abuse, of accidents and injuries, of mental health problems, of simple bad luck.

After a few months of talking, really talking with these folks, I say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.

The Adventure of Writing a Book, Part 3

I grew up on a chicken farm in North East, Maryland (yeah, that’s really the name of the town). I was the only child of Finnish immigrants. We were rich in love with wonderful Scandinavian neighbors, and a host of cultural activities, like monthly dances and choral groups. I am still fluent in Finnish.

We lived on a dirt road, five miles from town. We used an outhouse until I was 12 years old when my father was able to add on to our tiny house. We had a cow, fruit trees, a huge vegetable garden and were almost totally self-sufficient.

I did not grow up rich and privileged. We worked the farm ourselves and every day I came home from school and packed eggs for several hours. I cut the grass and cleaned the house for my mother every Saturday. I churned butter. My life was like “Little House on the Prairie” and it was perfect.  I learned responsibility and the joy of working hard with my parents in a joint effort to survive and succeed.

I wanted to write a book about homeless people and working people who live on the edge.  A book where Laura, the heroine of “Losing It” ultimately discovers that we are all pretty much the same despite outward appearances.

My journey to research “Loving It” began in Princeton, New Jersey, (Laura’s home), and moved to Hartford, Connecticut,  where Laura’s son is in boarding school. She is fleeing her husband, who is determined to “make her disappear” to protect his reputation and his future. Laura knows something devastating about him and she has threatened to tell the world.

Laura soon realizes that her husband is able to follow her anywhere through her cell phone and credit cards. She narrowly escapes his henchmen on terror-filled night.  Now she is homeless with no friends and no resources.  It’s May and the weather is warm, but without food or shelter, Laura is desperate.  Dirty and disheveled, she finds other homeless people and befriends them.  They teach her how to survive.     

Now she is washing herself in public restrooms, finding food in trashcans, dodging spiders in old abandoned buses and cars, hiding under overpasses when it rains.

Her long blonde hair extensions fall out, her nail tips fall off. She gets a pair of scissors and cuts her hair. Now she is a short-haired brunette and hardly recognizable, which is what she wants.

A member of our family, Glenn Khoury, owns some trailer parks in the Scranton, Pennsylvania area. He arranged several interviews with residents. I spent a day there and heard absolutely amazing stories. Some were tragic, some were heartwarming. I couldn’t make this stuff up and I didn’t try. Real people with real stories are the best and only way to go.



When I write a novel, I love the research. What comes out is “fact-based fiction”. Stay tuned for the next installment of “The Adventure of Writing a Book”.