A Writer’s Vacation

During my career as a civil engineer and land use planner I learned more outside the classroom than I ever did within. I’m not talking about working in the field on road construction or utility installation—although watching skillful craftsmen at their trade certainly helps to educate an engineer—I’m talking about what I learned by looking more closely at the details that make up our everyday world.

I’ve been known to be, shall we say, distracted by things that are of no interest to my family. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy every minute of vacation with my loved ones—but while they’re browsing souvenir shelves, my attention might be drawn to the building’s support structure—while crossing a picturesque foot bridge, I might be found admiring the beautiful flora while mentally dissecting the bridge’s construction—I could be captured by how cleverly a handicap ramp is disguised as part of the landscaping, I might contemplate the walkways, or whether the trees had been arranged to optimize shade on benches. Oddities might appear in my vacation photos. The picture sequence might be something like: my wife, my kids, a tree grate, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, a retaining wall, Dumbo, Snow White, flower planters … I thought I was the only fool with this affliction, until I found that many of my engineering buddies did the same thing.

Now I write historical novels. And while this profession is somewhat different, my habits haven’t changed all that much. I’m still likely to be drawn to things that others don’t notice—curiosities that relate to my writing. They say write what you know, but maybe that should be write what you’d like to know. Whether I’m at an amusement park, a historic site or at home on the internet, I look for details that will improve my writing. After all, it’s the details that help readers feel as though they are living in the world of the story be it ancient Rome or a planet in some far away galaxy.

I’ve always been interested in history. I want to know how horseshoes were forged in the 1700s. I want to eat in a colonial tavern and taste meals cooked on an open hearth. I want to smell the fresh leather in a shop where shoes are being cobbled and watch grain being milled. I want to hear the music young people listened to before going off to fight in WWII or learn what it was like to work in a factory at the turn of the last century.

Judging from the popularity of stories set in historical times, I suspect there are plenty of other people whose imagination is also piqued by glimpses into the past. So now when I become lost in my historical forays, or return home with photos of sadirons, powder horns and tin toys, I just chalk it up to a writer’s vacation.


As I write this, there seems to be two things on everybody’s mind—the corona virus and the U.S. presidential election. I’m not going to write about either. Well actually, I guess you could say this post’s about something related to the virus—the quarantine. Sitting in lockdown trying to find ways to stretch our food supplies and paper and cleaning products has reminded me how helpless we’ve all become compared to our ancestors.

Back in February, on behalf of the local historical society, I published a column in the local newspaper about canning tomatoes when I was growing up, entitled, “Tomato Wars and the Italian Elixir of Life” (published in the Suburban Newspaper September 4, 2019). On another occasion a friend and I interviewed a lady who had grown up in rural America at a time when people baked their own bread in outdoor ovens, sewed their own clothing and canned anything and everything, including sausage. These two remembrances remind me how dependent on others I’ve become.

Some years ago, I got the bold notion to can tomatoes as my parents and grandparents had done. Buying two dozen mason jars, lids and caps, I fantasized about the rows and rows of puree and whole tomatoes that I would put up. But dust was all those jars ever saw.

Lured by the cheap convenience of the well-stocked grocery store, I allowed my self-sufficiency to be snatched away like some victim of a 1950s sci-fi movie. My independence faded as I was drawn deeper and deeper into this advanced alien civilization—a world of quick and easy. One by one my survival skills were erased from my memories. I became comfortable with having bread already baked, vegetables that appeared before me on my grocer’s shelf without me ever having to pull a weed, and meals that could be cooked in a flash in my microwave. I yielded to the luxury of having fresh fruit anytime I wanted, no matter the season.

I regret having become so lazy that I no longer have the skills to be self-sufficient. I have to give my wife credit for making delicious bread and pizza during our stay-at-home time. I’ve come to appreciate toilet paper like never before.

I know we’ll recount our adventures of making bread with brewers’ yeast before my sister found us packets of bakers’ yeast in Florida and mailed them to us. We’ll tell the next generation the toilet paper jokes that went around—offering toilet paper in exchange for a condo, betting rolls of toilet paper in poker games, rationing it, using both sides …

One thing the pandemic has taught me is to be more conservative. I’m not so quick to waste food or paper products anymore. I know I’ll never learn to put up jams and jellies like my mom did, or cure my own olives and make eggplant salad like my dad, but being in quarantine has given me new respect for how much more self-sufficient our ancestors were than we are.

Perhaps one of the TV food programs will teach me how to preserve my own food. I’d be interested in seeing how it’s done—but I know I’ll never get off my butt to do it myself.

What’s So Great About Malt Shops?

I was listening to an on-air personality, today’s politically correct term for what we used to call a disc-jockey or DJ, who was lamenting how lame his father-in-law was for thinking that dancing at record hops and hanging out in malt shops listening to the juke box and drinking Coca Cola when he was growing up was great fun

Hearing this DJ, pardon me, on-air-personality, put down this bygone era got me thinking of what he might tell his grandchildren about his youth:

Yeah, we used to sit around texting each other all day, even if we were in the same room. We’d send pictures of what we were eating and add a little imoji to show whether we liked it or not. If we left the house, we’d send selfies of our faces with a glimpse of background to show where we were. And sometimes we would use an app that made our faces into funny characters and we would laugh and laugh. We’d text and laugh until we were breathless! Boy our thumbs sure did get a workout!

While it was nostalgic for the guy who lived it, it was ancient history to the younger fellow. But it really doesn’t matter which one you are, visiting another era can be interesting and enjoyable.

I guess I’m just drawn to old-timey things. Don’t get me wrong, I love the things we have now, but wouldn’t it be fun to go to a hop like in Back to the Future, dance the tarantella at a 1940s Italian wedding like in The Godfather, or eat Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café? It’s why Walt Disney has a main street in his theme parks with street shows reminiscent of the turn of the last century, and why the entrance to Hollywood Studios is a recreation of the 1940s right down to the music.

We live in our modern world every day. We’ve grown accustomed to our lifestyle. It’s familiar and comforting. But stories that take us to places and times we’ve never visited can be an exciting escape from our humdrum lives.

Actually, the DJ’s lament reminded me to finally get back to work on a novel I had set aside. It’s about kids in Philadelphia and American Bandstand in the 1950s—and yes, it has scenes set in malt shops. So perhaps I should thank him for his rant.


We have been invaded by an army of viruses so small they cannot be seen with the naked eye, yet they’re the most difficult enemy we’ve ever tried to defeat. Unlike all wars before it, this one isn’t fought with guns and bombs. But like all other wars, doctor, nurses, medical professionals and support staff are on the front lines.

I’ve read about and written about ordinary nurses who had been thrust into unimaginably traumatic situations in our nation’s wars. Like their predecessors, nurses and doctors fighting COVID-19 virus had virtually no time to prepare and their resources were so limited that even if they had more time, it wouldn’t have made much difference.

Before December 7, 1941, Army and Navy nurses on Hawaii had been living in a tropical paradise with few medical cases of real concern. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, suddenly their paradise was turned into a horror show of broken bodies, burned sickening flesh and torn limbs that could never have been imagined in a nursing class. On Bataan, nurses not only had to treat their wounded patients who lay uncovered in open jungle wards that stretched for miles. Short on medicine and supplies, exhausted nurses, themselves suffering from malaria, beriberi, dengue fever and dysentery, tended the sick and injured while living on rationed food and little sleep.

Those nurses, just like the ones fighting the COVID-19 virus, were scared to death, but they pushed through their fears and did their jobs because they knew that they were the only ones who could.

Today’s nurses and doctors are praised and told how special they are and how much they are appreciated. Most of them are too exhausted to even think about that. When this is over, there will be residual trauma as the horrors are relived in their minds. I hope that when they need help from us, we will be there for them, to comfort them, to care for them and reassure them that their work to contain the virus saved hundreds of thousands of lives more than they lost.


The best historical fiction breaks free from the confines of its genre.

Unlike fans of Sci-fi, romance, mystery, horror and suspense who generally know what to expect from a book in those genres, readers aren’t drawn to historical novels simply because they’re historical. They are instead attracted to specific eras or events. People who like the Middle Ages, World War II, or Colonial America, may not be interested in a racial tragedy set in the American south in the 1940s.

That’s why it’s so rewarding when an historical novelist lures us in and keeps us reading a story that we didn’t know would interest us. They transport us to bygone places to experience and explore. They introduce us to period characters whose attitudes and expectations are shaped by a world much different than our own. They intrigue us with mystery, ply us with romance, scare us with horror and make us hold our breath with suspense. And they do this while gently folding in details that dress us in period clothing, feed us tasty dishes and fill our ears with music and sounds of the times, all without giving us a history lesson.

Some historical novels which have delightfully transported me to times and places beyond my usual interests are:

Jeff Shaara’s To The Last Man takes us beyond the legend of the Red Baron to let us fly along with the skillful Manfred von Richthofen as he becomes the most deadly and the most feared pilot of WWI. He also shares with us the hardships of the men in the trenches who carry out General Pershing’s plan for bringing the war to a quick and victorious end.

Lizzie Page’s The War Nurses brings us to the battlefront with women whose exemplary courage forever changes women’s roles in times of war. I didn’t know a story about WWI could be so fascinating.

Soraya Lane’s The Girls of Pearl Harbor. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder existed long before we had a word for it. We know that WWII soldiers suffered what was then called shell shock, but we too often forget about the nurses who lived through the sickening horrors of trying to save broken and mutilated men.


At a recent talk, author Steve Snyder discussed his book, Shot Down, the story of how his father trained as a WWII B-17 bomber pilot, bailed out over Belgium, was aided by the underground and fought with the French Résistance.

What culminated in an informative PowerPoint presentation began with an email I sent to Steve to let him know that I enjoyed his book and that I was particularly interested in one of the crew members who was from our town. The program took shape by networking with the Mayor’s office, the Library Board and the Historical Society.

IMG_1858 Snyder talk 1IMG_1856 Snyder talk 2IMG_1855 Snyder talk 3

The takeaway from all of this was how connections between writers can lead to opportunities for authors as well as people in the community. It also reminded me how slide shows and other visual aids help hold the audience’s interests and provides those of us historical writers, who would rather write than lecture, prompts to help us stay on track and keep our talks moving smoothly.

This came at a good time for me because I’m working on a PowerPoint of my own to supplement my talks about the underground in WWII. So I’m soaking up what I can by attending presentations such as this, arranging photos and working up a dialog to go with the pictures that will be both informative and interesting.

One thing I’ve learned through all these years is that the only antidote to those flashbacks to oral reports in front of high your school class is preparation.

G.W. The Father of our Country

“G.W.,” our history teacher would shout as he pranced from one side of the room to the other. “Come on. You know this. G.W … father of our country … chopped down a cherry tree …”

“George Washington,” someone would finally respond and end the torture.

To drum history into those students who find the subject duller than watching cement trucks drag race, teachers have resorted to things like dressing up as Abraham Lincoln and reciting the Gettysburg Address, tying a cloth around their head and marching around the room playing Yankee Doodle on a fife, or standing on a desk rowing an imaginary boat across the Delaware River on Christmas eve, 1776.

I admit that sometimes when I’m researching for a book, the stuff I’m reading makes me sleepier than a bear in winter, but I’m always hoping to find that rare fact, that yellow nugget in a prospector’s pan, that autographed Mickey Mantle rookie card in the drawer of a ten dollar desk I bought at a yard sale, that tidbit of information that makes me want to jump up and yell, EUREKA!

Of course, it doesn’t have to be grand and glorious, something small and simple can also be rewarding (although maybe not monetarily rewarding like a Mickey Mantle baseball card!)

In my novel-in-progress, Night and Fog, for instance, I had written in my first draft about how Dédée de Jongh, the daring twenty-four-year-old Belgian girl who organized the brilliant WWII underground line, Comet, had been ambushed by the Gestapo while helping allied airmen escape over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. All I knew from my initial source was that it happened one night in the fall. Then, while reading reports by the airmen evaders, I discovered the same incident told from the evaders’ points of view. Now I knew who was present, when it happened, what the weather was like and how they got away. I also learned that it wasn’t the Gestapo, but French police!

A historical writer discovering a new fact is like a detective finding a new clue in an unsolved crime. It’s not the dull history teacher prompt of “G. W.” It’s the guide at the Natural Bridge in Virginia pointing out the initials, G. W. carved into the rock by George Washington himself.

That prospect of discovery is what makes research fun. It’s like stopping at a yard sale of history on a fine spring day.

You just never know.

You just never know.

For quite some time, my only contribution to the local historical society was a check for my annual dues. This was an embarrassingly poor showing on my part. I resolved to do better and get more involved.

I don’t act, so getting dressed up in period costume to partake in skits or demonstrations was out. I don’t bake pies, so I’m pretty useless when it comes time for the fall apple festival. But when Jeff, the Board secretary, and I discussed the Society’s newsletter, an idea struck. We thought that by publishing a short nostalgic piece in the local newspaper, we might interest others in sharing stories of bygone days with the Society. Jennifer Amato, editor of the Suburban Newspaper, liked the piece and offered to run a periodic column by the Society.

In the meantime, an opportunity came along to meet Lt. Helene Cattani, a WWII army nurse who served at the Battle of the Bulge. I was thrilled to chat with this wonderful war veteran and my enthusiasm came out in my writing. Although the article, with its magnificent photos taken by Jeff, was twice as long as the normal column, we pitched it to the newspaper anyway. Newspaper space was hard to come by, Jennifer explained, but she loved it so much she not only published it in the Suburban, but subsequently in a number of other weekly newspapers.

Volunteering to help others is its own reward. But sometimes it pays surprising dividends, like when you get to share those unexpected delightful little nuggets of history with others.