Writing to Grab the Reader

Historical novelist and creative nonfiction author Jessica McCann answers two questions from aspiring writers in this four-minute video.

  1. How do you write an opening line that will grab readers?
  2. There are so many entertainment options out there today. Do you think it’s getting harder to catch the attention of readers?

Contemporary Fiction Spotlight: Afraid of the Light

Guest post written by Barbara Anne Waite

Afraid of the Light

Paperback, 352 pages

Published June 16th 2020 by Kregel Publications

Written by Cynthia Ruchti

Buy Afraid of the Light at Bookshop.org and support indie bookstores and authors

Afraid of the Light is a contemporary novel that taught me some interesting, yet disturbing, facts about a serious subject.

Often when I read, I wince at parts of a story that seem unnecessary or too much fluff. This story fell into the wonderful category of perfect – no wincing, no disappointment, no fluff. I liked that there were not too many characters; and those main people became disclosed layer by layer, making it a bit like a mystery.

My all-time favorite books are Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, which some might call romance novels. But they are character driven, observations of behavior. That’s why Cynthia Ruchti’s character-driven novel was a perfect book for me. It is the story of a troubled clinical psychologist and some of her clients who are hoarders. Her rescue comes from a man driving a garbage truck. Yes, a character-driven contemporary mystery/romance that satisfied. It contains touches of humor and valuable truth woven throughout. It was an out-of-the-ballpark 5-star read for me, a totally satisfying novel.

This guest review was reposted from Goodreads with permission. Barbara Anne Waite is a nonfiction and historical fiction author. You can follow her reviews on Goodreads and learn about his books on her website. Waite’s most recent book is the historical novel, The Colour Box, about sisters Anne and Elizabeth Hart and their struggle against the injustice of slavery on the British island of Antigua in the eighteenth century.

Historical Fiction Spotlight: When I Last Saw You

Guest review written by Lynne Spreen

When I Last Saw You

Paperback, 358 pages

Published May 4th 2021 by Bent Pine Publishing Corp

Written by Bette Lee Crosby

Buy When I Last Saw You at Bookshop.org and support indie bookstores and authors.

Margaret, in her late 60s, is recently widowed. When going through her husband’s files, she finds a receipt from a private detective. She calls him and finds out that he did some work for her late husband, years ago, trying to uncover the truth of Margaret’s childhood. Margaret hires Tom to get back on the case, because she wants to know the truth, finally. Why did her large family break up? Why did their mother send the children away?

Although Tom is retired, he’s intrigued. After a bitter divorce, he doesn’t have that much going on in his life, so agrees to investigate, spending many hours talking with Margaret about her family, trying to get leads. He sets out on the road, but after his initial foray, asks her to fly in and join him. She agrees, and they begin their search together. As they drive around the South, investigating (it’s set in 1968, so there’s no Google), they grow close.

As they return to Margaret’s roots, another story begins to unfold in parallel: that of Eliza, Margaret’s mother, and the early years of the family, before all the children were sent to live away from their mother. Dirt poor, living in a shack in West Virginia coal country, Eliza is married to the brutal, selfish Martin. He gets a job in town, leaving her to raise their ever-growing brood in desperate poverty while he lives well and has other women to entertain him. Eliza is a good woman, and the children are loved. Martin visits occasionally, keeping Eliza pregnant and the children frightened.

As Margaret travels with Tom and begins to learn what happened to her family, she is also learning about herself, coming to understand the cost of the life-changing concessions she made to her late husband. Will she finally, now, prioritize herself and seize happiness? Is it too late?

When I Last Saw You is a beautiful story, richly detailed, with characters who stayed with me after I finished the book. Highly recommended.

Review reposted from Goodreads with permission. Lynne Spreen writes midlife fiction and romance, because she believes life after 50 is a rich, untapped literary vein of human drama.  You can follow her reviews on Goodreads and learn about her Dakota Blues book series on her website.


Newsletter about Reading, Writing and Life

I’ve launched an email newsletter and monthly giveaway to shine a spotlight on reading, writing and life. It will feature content that isn’t on my website (so be sure to subscribe even if you follow my blog), highlighting interesting books and articles, writing tips and inspiration, motivational quotes and ideas, and more. Plus, every month one newsletter subscriber name will be drawn to win something fun and bookish (like a bookstore gift card, signed paperback, audiobook, journal, etc.).

Go to the newsletter sign-up page and enter giveaway by clicking here!

(You can also earn bonus entries for the monthly giveaway by using the Rafflecopter form on the sign up page to share this with others.)


Writing Deadlines and Goals

Historical novelist and creative nonfiction author Jessica McCann answers two questions from aspiring writers in this five-minute video.

  1. You said when you’re writing a book, you should take time to get it right. But how do you take your time when you’re on a deadline?
  2. Do you set daily word count goals to get your book written?

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Elephant of Belfast

Guest review written by Annette:

The Elephant of Belfast

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published April 6th 2021 by Counterpoint Press

Written by S. Kirk Walsh.

Buy at Bookshop.org and support indie bookstores and authors.

Inspired by the true story of Denise Weston Austin, the “elephant angel.”

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1940. An orphaned elephant leaves an island of Ceylon to make a new home at Bellevue Zoo. At the docks, Hettie Quin, zookeeper, meets a three-year-old elephant named Violet. Violet becomes Hattie’s favorite charge. They bond. Hattie cares for Violet. And Violet trusts Hettie. When bombs fall on Belfast and the city becomes an inferno, people rush to shelters and Hettie runs to the zoo where animals are scared and agitated. Hattie calms Violet.

What is special about this story is the warmness created from the very first pages between Hattie and Violet. But there is much more to the story. I’d say majority of the story is character development of Hettie, her family, friends and others. It makes the story very dynamic and interesting.

I warmed up to the main character right away. After losing her sister and the abandonment of her father, Hettie finds solace in caring for the young elephant. She feels more comfortable with the animals than people. She works hard to be the first female zookeeper.

It was interesting to get a glimpse into people’s minds. How some Irish viewed Nazi. They wanted to be rid of Brits for good from Northern Ireland, thus they’d welcome Germans with open arms. Also, the rationing of food affected not only humans, but also the animals at the zoo, which further affected some decisions in handling the animals.

When the city is bombed, you can see the massive destruction as buildings are turned to rubble. You can feel the helplessness when trying to find someone who is missing. And the heart-wrenching effects on animals at the zoo. The rescue efforts of Violet kept me on edge.

Richly imagined and vividly presented. There is so much deepness and liveliness in descriptions. Thus, resulting in a very vibrant story with characters you deeply care for and prose you greatly enjoy.

P.S. This brief article gives a bit of history about the true story that inspired this work of fiction.

This review was reposted with permission. You can follow Annette’s reviews on her blog and Instagram (@AnnetteBReviews)


Life Essentials

Food, shelter, purpose, companionship, and books: essentials of a happy, meaningful life. They don’t always have to be in perfect balance, but they are a package deal. #lifetip #writetip #FindYourPurpose

#FindTheBeautyInAdversity #PeculiarSavageBeauty


Writing Advice and Lessons Learned

Historical novelist and creative nonfiction author Jessica McCann answers three questions from aspiring writers in this five-minute video.

  1. What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a writer?
  2. What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started writing?
  3. What is the most important thing you’ve learned in your writing career?

Book Recommendation: Travels with Charley in Search of America

Steinbeck’s ability to create a sense of place and tell an entertaining story has always impressed me. This nonfiction account of his cross-country road trip in 1960 did not disappoint in that respect. It also gave me a new perspective of Steinbeck as a man and of the era during which he lived. 

He was 58 when he and his dog, Charley, set out in a modern, fully-stocked camper truck for a months’ long journey. Steinbeck’s goal was to rediscover the America and the people he’d spent decades portraying in his novels. He took the trip in late fall and early winter, specifically to avoid tourists and engage in conversation with the average woman and man. His description of driving isolated back-roads and eating in small-town diners, of laundering clothes on the road and cooking beans on a camp stove were transporting and evocative. It alternated between poignant and funny.

Like many of Steinbeck’s works, Travels with Charley in Search of America, provided an intimate view and insightful interpretation of human nature.

Here’s one example. Midway through their travels, Charley became ill and Steinbeck took him to the nearest veterinarian. The author quickly assessed the doctor was likely an alcoholic with a serious hangover. When the vet touched the dog with “his unsteady, inept hand,” Steinbeck wrote, “I saw the look of veiled contempt in Charley’s eyes. He knew about the man, I thought, and perhaps the doctor knew he knew. And maybe that was the man’s trouble. It would be very painful to know that your patients had no faith in you.”

Though Steinbeck was unhappy with the doctor’s gruff bedside manner in the moment, he later reflected on the experience with some empathy, even a touch of compassion. “It wasn’t that this veterinary didn’t like animals. I think he didn’t like himself, and when that is so the subject usually must find an area for dislike outside himself. Else he would have to admit his self-contempt.”

This travelogue also gave me insight about Steinbeck himself and of the era during which he lived. Critical reviewers of the time lauded his searing interpretation of our nation’s shortcomings in “political apathy, environmental degradation, and strident racism.” Yet, reading many passages through today’s lens, I was struck by the irony of such praise and by a renewed sense of pride in how far we have come the past 50 years.

Steinbeck believed in racial equality. He railed against segregation. His words sang with a sincerity I believed. At the same time, some of his expressions made me wince when measuring them against today’s standards of racism.

With regard to the environment, Steinbeck’s prose reflected a man who loved nature and wild places, who championed the preservation of forests and wildlife. Indeed, he was. On the other hand, he viewed those places through the narrow view of a mid-20th century outdoorsman. He didn’t see them as ecosystems vital to mankind’s survival, but rather as playgrounds vital to man’s amusement.

In one passage, he extolled “modern designs for easy living” that made his forays into nature more convenient and enjoyable. “On my boat I had discovered aluminum, disposable cooking utensils, frying pans and deep dishes. You fry a fish and throw the pan overboard.” In another passage, he described camping in the Mohave Desert and setting two coyotes in his rifle sights. “Coyotes are vermin. They steal chickens. They must be killed. They are the enemy,” he wrote. It broke my heart, even though I know that was common, accepted belief in his day.

This memoir smashed the rose-colored glasses through which I viewed my literary hero. That doesn’t mean I no longer admire Steinbeck’s writing and storytelling talents. In fact, it may have deepened my appreciation of his work now that I have a deeper understanding for the real-life man behind the author persona. If you’re a fan of Steinbeck, or if you’re interested in learning more about life in 1960s America, this is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

* If you decide to purchase Travels with Charley using the button above, a portion of the sale will support indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Writing Research and Fieldtrips

Published author Jessica McCann spoke online with high school students about her writing and research process. The students were awesome and asked several great questions. In the coming weeks, this blog will feature video segments from the class. In this first post, McCann talks about how technological advances during her career has made book research much easier; yet, she stresses how also getting offline and away from technology can improve your writing in different ways.