boatIn junior high school, I became enthralled with novels about the great sailing ships of old. I read every book I could find on them. But my only sailing experiences back then were on a friend’s small sloop and ice boating. (Our ice boats were simple, sail-driven platforms more like go-carts on asphalt than boats on water.) My interest in sailing ended in high school, or so I thought.

Years later Tom, a friend I worked with at IBM in Madison, Wisconsin, came into my office and asked if I had ever thought about buying a sailboat. I assumed he was talking about something small to use on one of Madison’s lakes.  When Tom said he knew about a 36-foot sloop for sale in Green Bay that we would cruise on Lake Michigan, I was immediately sold on the idea!

Since neither of us knew much about sailboats, the seller spent two weekends instructing us. We learned that our Columbia was a heavy boat. It weighed about 11,000 pounds with 5,000 pounds of lead in its keel. The seller said the weight made it very forgiving –all those pounds gave the sloop stability and lessened the risk of capsizing if (when) we made mistakes. The weight also gave it momentum that made docking the trickiest part of handling our sailboat.

I described in the novel why docking the sloop was so hard. I always enjoyed this challenge. Surmounting other challenges such as storms, high winds, cold weather, and biting flies, also gave me, to varying degrees, the joy of accomplishment. What I did not like was seasickness. This affliction hit me about half the time I went out. I never figured out what caused it. It did not always happen in rough seas, on an empty or full stomach, or with lack of sleep. Dramamine, fresh ginger, and other remedies did not work. Once it started I stayed sick until I was on land.

In Dreams of Life, Steve’s experiences during his crossing to Muskegon were based on events that actually happened to me, though not on a single cruise or while I sailed alone, with one exception. I was alone the one time I ran out of gas. The time I fell overboard occurred the first weekend Tom and I had the boat to ourselves.

When you fall into the cold waters of Lake Michigan the danger is that those still on board lose sight of you in the waves, hypothermia sets in, and you die. Even on a clear day, the waves can hide the person in the water, pushing him away from the boat as critical time is lost while the boat turns, loses wind power, and then slowly regains speed.

That particular sunny June day was ideal with a 15 mph breeze making the hot day comfortable. Tom, his girlfriend, and I took turns practicing “man overboard” drills. This entailed Tom and I alternating duties as captain and first mate. From time to time the first mate would throw out a seat cushion, which represented a person, and yell, “Man overboard!” The mate would pretend to throw the victim a life preserver, keep pointing at the cushion (person) to maintain sight of it, and then retrieve the cushion once the captain completed the rescue maneuvers.

After a couple of hours doing this, when Tom was captain, the jib (front sail) got tangled up, and he ordered me to fix it. I went forward wearing only my cutoffs and tennis shoes. As I freed the jib, I realized it was between me and the wind. Before I could even drop to my knees, air filled the sail, and it flipped me off the deck.

As I summer-salted toward the Lake, my forehead slammed against the hull loud enough to be heard by Tom and his date. My first thought, “Oh shit,” was immediately followed by the fear I would be knocked out. I then hit water so cold it forced the air out of my lungs like I had been slugged in the gut. Gasping for breath, I watched Tom and his date sail by, staring at me with open mouths. No doubt they would have eventually implemented the rescue we had practiced, but I was understandably impatient. I managed to get enough oxygen in my lungs to yell, “Throw me a life preserver!” With this encouragement, they sprang to action.

I have cruised to Mackinac Island, northern Lake Huron, around Isle Royale in Lake Superior, and to every port on Lake Michigan. I enjoyed these adventures, but after years of being seasick in every kind of weather except snow, I agree with the sentiment that the second happiest day in a boat-owners life is when the boat is sold…

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Writing a Book

typewriterI get many questions about how I came to writing a book. My journey took a while.

Growing up, I loved reading. I read while watching TV. I read during meals until my parents ordered me to stop this habit. In high school I blasted through homework so I could read. In college I learned to avoid novels because I would read them instead of studying. I have even read while driving. (Yes, it was stupid, and I quit long ago.) I admired all authors, especially of fiction, but I never considered myself much of a writer until I began working and received compliments about my business correspondence.

These compliments eventually enticed me to consider writing a book about some subject that interested me. I soon realized I was not an “expert” in any of them, nor did I have the passion to become expert. I thought about a memoir, but quickly discarded this idea because there were not enough compelling events in my life for a book. This left fiction.

Once this decision was made, I knew I had to learn the writing craft. I then took courses in creative writing from two excellent instructors, and I read books about writing written by successful authors such as Stephen King. I also set the following goals for my book:

1) Story, Story, STORY:  I agreed with King who said that these were the three most important elements of any novel.

2) Emotional Journey:  I challenged myself to seize the breadth of the reader’s emotions.

3) Fictionalize Truth:  I intended to adapt some of my experiences and those of people I knew to the story. As the saying goes, “Strange but true, truth is stranger than fiction.”

4) Premise: King said the idea for his books began with a single question. Mine was why would a man who appeared to have everything going for him have low self esteem?

After this preparation, I began my novel and immediately ran into three frustrating problems. First, I did not enjoy writing. Second, although I had the experiences mentioned above to write about, there was not enough material to wrap a novel around. Third, I doubted my writing ability. As I forged ahead, my frustration grew.

Fortunately, a friend who was a business consultant helped me with the first problem. At the end of a phone conversation with him I lamented, “I’ve got to write some more today.” He advised me to change my perspective; instead of looking at it as I’ve “got” to write, think of it as I “get” to write. I don’t know why his advice worked, but it did. After this, I loved writing.

Once writing became a joy, the second problem took care of itself. Not knowing where my novel was going turned out to be the best part of writing it. At the end of the day, I would pace across my redwood deck with ideas flowing to me about what would happen next. In this way I became both the writer and reader as I watched the story unfold.

My third problem remained. I had ten people read sections of the manuscript as I finished them. They liked the story, but I still questioned my writing quality. Then, serendipity struck. One of the readers owned the local coffee shop. She introduced me to a writer who frequently vacationed in our area. It turned out the woman was also a writing coach; however, she did not want to mix work with her holidays. I used my sales ability to convince her to assess my first chapter only. When we met again, her thoroughness astounded me. Her penciled comments covered my document. She reviewed each one, showing me where I demonstrated skill and where I could do better. She then offered to take me on as a client.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this was not the beginning of the end of my writing journey, but it was the end of the beginning. As my writing improved, I alternated between creating new prose and editing the old. I calculate that by the time Dreams of Life attained its current form I had written and rewritten it three times.

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The Spiritual Side of Dreams of Life

Image credit pareeerica via Flickr.

Books, TV shows, and movies about experiences that go beyond our five senses are more common than ever, yet the spiritual/paranormal still seems something not easily discussed on a personal level. Put another way, I feel the paranormal is more normal than we realize, it is just that the people we know who have such experiences do not talk about it.

For example, a friend of mine told me that when she was an ER nurse, on a number of occasions she saw a patient’s “spirit” (she described as a “light energy”) hover above their body. She kept these sightings secret because she feared co-workers would think she was having hallucinations, and she might get fired. When she trusted other nurses enough to share what she had witnessed, she discovered some of them had also seen such phenomena but had been afraid to talk about it.

Another friend, one of the first to read the Dreams of Life manuscript, told me a few days ago that the three times he has been under general anesthesia in the thirty-five years I have known him, he has left his body and observed what was being done to him. When I asked him why he had not told me this before, he said in so many words that the subject had not come up.

This conversation reminded me of when I worked for IBM in Madison, Wisconsin, and my interest in the spiritual had been reignited. (At another time I will write more about when my interest first developed and why it returned.) While in Madison, I read a number of books on near death experiences, psychics, and similar topics. I never told my friends about this interest, believing they would think I was odd. But now I wonder how many of them had had “weird” experiences such as I read about?

I have never been out of my body, seen spirits, or heard voices, but I believe my friends. I guess this is because as a child, I assumed that if the mystical happened in biblical times and to saints, it could happen in any age. As an adult, I read books about the mystical occurring to people in our current era that seemed to confirm this.

But the reason I included the paranormal in my novel was because of a friend I met ten years ago. She radiated joy and an appreciation of life. As I got to know her, I learned that like most of us, she had had some rough times but always managed to see that her glass was half full. One day she told me why. The experience that changed her life was so amazing that I asked if I could use it in a book I might write someday. She agreed, and the idea she gave me became Rena’s story in Dreams of Life.

Want to read about Rena’s experience in Dreams of Life?  Order your copy today.


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Iowa Farms

IowaBarnI write about Iowa in Dreams of Life because I grew up there and have a good feel for the character of the people and the place.

As a sixth-grader I learned, in a course delivered via TV, that Iowa had the highest percentage of land in agriculture of any state and the best soil of anywhere in the world. Its first settlers grew wheat for the staple crop, but they discovered the climate of hot humid summers were better suited for corn.  The state then became famous for corn and “corn fed Iowa beef”.  There was even a ditty we sang that ended with, “Iowa, that’s where the tall corn grows.” Actually, most years Iowa was second to Illinois in corn production but number one in raising hogs. I guess you can understand why Iowa never pushed this fact. Imagine a song ending, “Iowa, that’s where the big pigs eat”.

All my adult relatives either farmed or were raised on farms. My father worked in agribusiness. Until the age of five, I had lived on a farm. At that time my world was filled endless opportunities to get into mischief with my brothers. Barns offered places to hide, climb, and swing on ropes. Stacks of baled hay could be turned into forts. Cornfields became dense forests. Pastures were huge parks filled with cattle to herd and cow pies to pitch.

Animals were everywhere.  Most farms had cattle, hogs, chickens, ducks/geese, big dogs, and prowling cats. I loved kittens. The scene related in Dreams of Life where four-year-old Stevie became very upset when a tomcat killed kittens, actually happened to me. What my Dad did in response – tried to kill the tomcat but when he could not, had a neighbor do it – was also true. This memory became the seed of the idea for the role cats played in my novel.

In addition to the animals providing food for the table, pigs and cattle could be sold for cash, and fowl produced eggs. Dogs guarded the property. Cats killed rodents.  Crops entered this cycle because they could be fed to the animals in addition to being sold at market.

Farmers could not grow corn only because it would deplete the soil of nutrients. Instead, farmers raised grasses such as oats and corn (yes, corn is a grass) on some fields and legumes such as alfalfa and soybeans on others. Periodically, fields planted in grasses were planted in legumes and vice versa to enrich, or more accurately re-enrich the earth. Fertilizers, including animal wastes, were also used for this purpose with the aroma of manure adding an interesting aroma to the air. In this ecosystem almost all of the parts of the plants that were not sold could be fed to the livestock in one form or another, even the cornstalks.

After my parents moved to town, I still spent many happy hours playing with friends and relatives on their farms. As I grew older, farms were places to hunt pheasant and other small game, but I always appreciated living in town – my friends and cousins living in the country did chores before and after school and all summer long.

Iowa, like most places, can be beautiful in each season. It can also be too hot and humid (which is great for growing corn), too windy, too gray, or too cold. But to the child I was then, everything seemed full of wonder. I remember waking up one morning on our farm delighted to see small snow drifts inside the windows of my bedroom because that meant we were in a blizzard. (It was not that we were too poor to afford a better insulated home. It was simply an old farmhouse like those in which my parents grew up.)  I loved blizzards, being outside in the envelop of pristine white air, jumping into sculpted snow ridges, watching the wind quickly erase all sign of my passing, and then going back into a warm cozy house to enjoy a hot drink.

I also loved history of any sort. The stories my mother told of life on the farm always intrigued me, whether big events or small things. An example of a “small” thing was that before World War II, any of the corn grown on a farm could be eaten at the table. After the war, with the introduction of hybrids, only “sweet” corn tasted good. The corn grown in the fields came to be called, aptly enough, “field” corn.

From her came the seeds for the first part of Dreams of Life such as when I was a child, our first farm had no running water and a wood stove. It did have electricity thanks to President Roosevelt creating the Rural Electric Cooperative. I used my Mother’s description of the house and the work she had to do there and in the fields in the novel. The land around the farm that I describe in the book I drew from my memories.  There actually is a place called “The Knob” and I lived close to it for the first two years of my life. As I grew up we often visited the area because my Norwegian grandparents owned the farm adjacent to my first home.

There is more to be said about how my mother’s memories and my own influenced the novel, but I will save that for another time.

Want to see how Iowa and the farm is incorporated into my novel? Order your copy today.

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