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.


Garden Library DIY

Garden library DIY project

This crafty do-it-yourself project has been months in the making. I’d been aching to improve the dreadful view outside my home office window for a couple years. Inspiration for a garden library DIY project finally struck early in 2020.  

I began stopping my car and hopping out to rescue stray bricks and busted pavers from curbs, gutters, sidewalks and embankments. These orphans would become my garden books. A busted, stained shipping-pallet and a weather-worn lattice would be reincarnated as trellis bookshelves. Splashes of old paint would be mixed from buckets left in the garage by the previous homeowner. A little money was invested in a fresh box of wood screws, a few drought-resistant plants and vines, and a couple other decorative touches.

I just had to wait out the summer heat to begin assembling the pieces. So, I waited. And I waited.

The mercury in Phoenix exceeded 100 degrees for nearly five months in 2020. Fifty-three of those days, the temperate was more than 110 (pulverizing the 33-day record set in 2011). This was just one more aberration among the many that made 2020 a painfully-weird year.

At the end of October, I stopped waiting for the crispness of fall weather. The mid-90s would have to be cool enough. I needed to get outside – hammering, sanding, drilling, painting, planting and sweating my COVID-lockdown, presidential-election stress away. It was just what I needed.

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero #brickbooks #DIY #booknerd #writingcommunity

I hope you enjoy the before, during and after photos. This remains a work in progress, though I already love my new view! My husband is happy I had fun with the project. My son thinks I’m weird. What do you think?


Video Teaser for Novel in Progress

People always ask authors, “Are you working on another novel?” The answer is yes. Always yes. Yet, we all write and create at a different pace. I’m an avid reader, too, so I understand the enthusiasm and anticipation one feels while waiting for a favorite author’s next book. So without further ado, I’ll share a brief, sneak peek at the idea board — imagery and themes — for my current historical novel-in-progress. Enjoy!


Nonfiction Book for a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig is a fabulous read for anyone feeling unsettled, stressed out or anxious. In other words, pretty much everyone. It’s a small book packed with wisdom in bite-sized pieces – some sections are a few pages, others are a few paragraphs, or a poem, or a short list of things like “5 reasons to be happy you are human and not a sentient robot.”

Haig experiences anxiety, panic attacks and depression. His books – both fiction and nonfiction – tackle issues of mental health with the humility and insight of someone who has been there. In Notes, he applies research, wit and a touch of humor in exploring the complexities and ironies of modern-day life.

He waxes both poetic and philosophic on topics like “the big picture” and “internet anxieties,” as well as the “shock of the news” and “phone fears.” He offers thoughts on sleep, wanting, despair, happiness, self-image and transcendence. Haig doesn’t tell you what to do or that everything is OK. He does offer ways to help you get a handle on your life, to take control in small ways, to make things less-bad. He also offers hope that life can be OK, maybe even be better than OK.

Some reviewers lamented the repetitive nature of the book. It’s true, Haig does repeat certain points and ideas multiple times. That’s part of the book’s beauty.  He keeps reminding you (gently, prudently, clearly) of important things that are so easy to forget.

I marked dozens of passages and pages so that I can return to them later. One section in particular hit me right between the eyes: Algorithms Eat Empathy. In two succinct pages, Haig explains how algorithms can make our lives easier and, seemingly, make us happier. When we shop online, we are shown things we may like, things “people like us” buy. Easy-peasy. On social media, we’re shown lists of people who are like the people we already follow. More people like us. Great.

“We are encouraged to stay in our zone and play it safe,” Haig writes, “because the internet companies know that on average most people generally like to listen and read and watch and eat and wear the kind of stuff they have already listened to and read and watched and eaten and worn.”

This new ease of getting and doing stuff has only been possible in the past two decades or so. Think about that. For thousands of years before, Haig explains, “We had to go out and compromise and deal with people who weren’t like us. With things that weren’t like the things we liked. And it was horrid. But now it might be even worse. Now we might end up utterly hating anyone who doesn’t think like us…. People with similar views end up falling out, unable to stomach even the slightest difference of opinion, until they are trapped in a little echo chamber of one, reading a million versions of the same book, listening to the same song, and retweeting their own opinions until the end of time.”

No wonder we’re all so stressed out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology is still so new. We still have time to take control of it. Haig reminds us that we are humans (which, per the list referenced previously, is something to be happy about). We can resist being confined. The internet can be our ally. It can be what we want it to be. “We just have to make sure that we – not the technology, not the designers and engineers able to manipulate our every mood – are the ones doing the choosing.”

Well said.

Here are few more sections and lines from the book that spoke to me:

  • Future Tense details out how we are not encouraged to live in the present. Starting with Kindergarten, we’re taught “to think of the future, of a time different to the time we are in. Exam time. Job time. When-we-are-grown-up time. To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. The act of learning… is an end in itself. It is a way to love living right now.”
  • In a one-paragraph entry about happiness, titled Maybe, Haig proposes several ideas. Among them…

“Maybe happiness is not about us, as individuals. Maybe it is not something that arrives into us. Maybe happiness is about what we already have. Maybe happiness is about what we can give…” ~@matthaig1 #NotesOnANervousPlanet #bookreview

  • Finally, I leave you with this. A section under the heading Fiction is Freedom. “Reading isn’t important because it helps you get a job. It’s important because it give you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”

* If you decide to purchase Matt Haig’s book, consider using the Bookshop.org link below. A portion of sales at the site helps support indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Book Recommendation – Simon the Fiddler

Paulette Jiles has secured her place among my list of favorite authors with her latest novel, Simon the Fiddler. Set in Texas, 1865, the book paints an evocative picture of life in the young, rough-edged state at the conclusion of the Civil War. It tells the tale of 23-year-old Simon Boudlin, an ambitious Kentucky fiddle player, and “the ragtag band of musicians with whom he travels ,” as well as the lovely Irish immigrant who captures his heart.

I loved Jiles’ novel News of the World for its economy; it’s similar to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (one of my all-time favorites) in the way it delivers richly-drawn multi-dimensional characters and a dramatic story with so few words. Both are slim novels – at roughly 200 pages each in their first edition hardcover formats – that pack a powerful punch.

Simon the Fiddler captivated me for different reasons. It could have been equally potent at 200 pages. Yet, Jiles flexed her descriptive muscles, filling another 150 pages with details of time and place, poverty and longing, music and love. While some readers may be put off by her lyrical and often lengthy description, I was transported. It was an unhurried deeply-satisfying read packed with fully-realized, endearing characters.

In describing Galveston immediately following the Civil War, Jiles wrote, “The lamps in the saloons burned coal oil or whale oil, the beams overhead creaked in the wind of the Gulf, the streets were incandescent under the gas lamps. Sometimes bats streaked through the white light, moths danced in a city of seagulls and scarred buildings.”

Simon loved music and hated cities. He dreamed of owning land near a river.

“There would be a spring of clear water and around it great pecan trees, deer would bed down in the post-oak mottes at night. Wild horses would tread the smoking earth in dimly seen caravans, the breath of the great brown buffalo drifting white in the winter air.”

These are just two examples from a book brimming with evocative description and a strong sense of place, which secured its 5-star rating from me. If you enjoy historical fiction that immerses you in expressive, detail-packed passages that make you slow down and go back to reread them, pick up a copy of Simon the Fiddler. If you prefer a faster-paced read that stirs emotion, News of the World is a fabulous choice.

* If you decide to purchase either of Jiles’ novels, check out Bookshop.org at the links below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Literary Novel Portrays Life with Huntington’s Disease

Reading novels enables us to understand and feel the thoughts and experiences of another person. Fiction, if it is done well, transports the reader to the fictional character’s world and life. Author Malorie Blackman puts it this way, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

An excellent example of this is Anne Pete’s new novel, The Speed of Life, about a woman coping with the fallout of her Huntington’s Disease (HD) diagnosis. HD is a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates a person’s physical and mental abilities – usually striking in one’s 30s or 40s – and has no cure. May is National HD Awareness Month, the perfect time to read this heartrending, insightful and, ultimately, inspiring novel.

There currently are about 41,000 symptomatic Americans living with HD, according to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA). More than 200,000 are at-risk of inheriting it. HD manifests as a triad of motor, cognitive and psychiatric symptoms, which progressively get worse over time. Its symptoms are often described as having ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases simultaneously. It’s hard to imagine the impact that can have on the lives of people with the disease and of the people who love and care for them.

Pete’s novel sheds transcendent light on those lives with sensitivity, authenticity and literary grace. The story enables you to walk in the shoes of a women coming to terms with a past she tried to ignore and a future she never anticipated.  Please read my full review of The Speed of Life, and consider downloading the ebook at Amazon or your favorite ebook retailer.

May is #HuntingtonsDisease Awareness Month. @AnnePeteAuthor’s novel, THE SPEED OF LIFE, brings sensitivity, authenticity and literary grace to the realities of living with HD. #LetsTalkAboutHD #ReadingFostersEmpathy

If you read The Speed of Life, please share your thoughts about it in the comments below.

To learn more about Huntington’s Disease, visit www.HDSA.org online and follow #LetsTalkAboutHD and #HDSAfamily on social media.


Historical Fiction Makes Us Feel

Novelist Susan Vreeland said, “Historical fiction makes us feel. It presents to us a truth more human than what history books present.” Wise words. In the spirit of that statement, the following historical novels show the human side of history exceedingly well. They make us feel.

  • The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  • All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
  • Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
  • The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

One-Sentence Story Contest

Circa 1950s

The Covid-19 pandemic is bringing the world’s wheels of activity to a screeching halt in 2020 – travel bans, business closings, health worries, financial upheaval. Adding to the weight of these scary things, we must grapple with the weirdness of staying home every day, distancing ourselves from other people, canceling special plans, and hunting for toilet paper. Couldn’t we all use diversion? (e.g. a fun contest and bookstore gift card giveway… keep reading!)

We’re all scrambling for ways to occupy our time and our minds. In my house, that has meant spending a few hours a week in the garage with my husband to sort through the many boxes of old photos we accumulated when his dad passed away. During that process (and speaking of scary and weird), we came across an interesting gem: the 1950s-era black and white photo above.

We don’t know for sure who this is or why they’re wearing masks. Nonetheless, I could not throw the picture away. It’s just too wonderfully weird. Plus, it gave me an idea for a contest that will occupy our minds for a little while and also help support my favorite local bookstore.

Enter to win an electronic gift card from Enchanted Chapters Bookstore.

It’s as easy as 1-2-3!

  1. Write a one-sentence story about the photo and post it in a comment on this blog (required).
  2. Use the Rafflecopter link below to enter the drawing.
  3. Connect and share on social media to get more entries (optional) using the Rafflecopter link.

Entry deadline is midnight April 13. Rafflecopter will select one entry at random, and I’ll email the winner a $25 e-giftcard for Enchanted Chapters Bookstore.

You don’t have to be “a writer” to have a little fun with this contest. Just share whatever your thoughts are when you look at the photo. And then have fun reading the other one-sentence stories.

Rafflecopter link: One-Sentence Story Contest by Jessica McCann

More Weird-Photo Fun

Did you know photographer and writer Ransom Riggs has collected haunting, vintage photographs since he was a child? His collection eventually became the catalyst for his first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The best-seller’s plot was inspired by the dozens of wonderful and weird snapshots featured in its pages. Click here to read a New York Times interview with Riggs.

Click here to buy his first book in the series at your favorite independent bookstore through Indiebound.org