Thursday, March 29, 2012

Civil Inspiration

I had always wanted to write a novel.

I was telling stories long before I could even write. I'd stand up in front of class in first grade and tell stories, stuff I made up or scenes I had played out with whatever action figures I used the night before.

But the writing the novel goal just never seemed to materialize. There were various attempts. There are numerous notebooks tucked away in the KCM archives with partial stories I had created and gave up on.

It wasn't until I read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and the other two books in the Civil War trilogy – Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, both by Jeff Shaara – that I saw potential for a novel. And it wasn't just one, it was three.

That's how my career as an author began.

I thought I might take a look back at some of the authors that have inspired my work. Not to give away too much of the speech I deliver to various historical societies and libraries, but my novel Sons and Daughters of the Ocean and its followup, Breakwater, would never have happened had it not been for the works of the Shaara's.

It really was the movie Gettysburg that inspired it all. I first saw that film at the State Theater in Portland, with the full sound system that made every cannon boom shake the walls and ring your ears. I loved that movie, and it quickly became one of my favorites. Afterall, its historical, its has a great music soundtrack, it's about Maine and it has some family connections (my great grandfather's brother was in the 20th Maine) – all things I like.

The movie made me want to read The Killer Angels, the book that the film was based on. After reading that, and loving it, I followed with Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure. Ted Turner later made a movie version of Gods and Generals as well.

What I liked about those books was how the author took certain major characters during that period and brought them to life. It was a non fictional tale written like a novel, not a text book. I came to learn a wealth of things about such vital historical figures like Joshua Chamberlain, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. I can almost guarantee if you see me eat a lemon, I'll make some sort of Stonewall Jackson reference – because I learned that Jackson loved lemons by reading this series.

For anyone interested in the Civil War, this trilogy is a must. It inspired me to create a historical series on my ancestors that made for a must read, whether it be about the privateering age or life of a small shipbuilding community.

I subsequently read Jeff Shaara's work on the Revolution – A Glorious Cause and Rise To Rebellion. Both were written in the same style of the Civil War trilogy. They're historical novels in the truest sense. I may read them again, just to bolster my knowledge as I write my next historical novel.

During that period of time, I had spent many years researching family history. I had produced two books as a result. One was on the Mills family and another was on the life of my grandfather. I printed a batch of copies for various family members and then went looking for another project. I had unleashed the creative beast within and not had to feed it again.

I concluded that my next move was to write a novel. With all that family history swirling around in my head and the work of the Shaara's fresh on my mind, the idea of my own trilogy was born.

Sons and Daughter's of the Ocean would be first. It would be a historical novel based on my ancestors that were shipbuilders and merchant mariners in Brooksville, Maine. I'd follow that with another historical novel set during the Revolution and one of my ancestors that was a privateer. The third book would be based on the life of my grandfather or father.
I knew I had the makings of my own trilogy and went to work. As it turned out, Sons and Daughters of the Ocean was published and subsequently Breakwater followed in December. I switched up the order, which has a long story in and of itself. Sea of Liberty, a tale about the privateering age is currently in the works.

For both Sons and Daughters of the Ocean and Breakwater, there were numerous authors that inspired, informed and help shape the books that were eventually published. Just like more authors are helping as I write Sea of Liberty.

But the Shaara's came first. As a journalist, I've learned to "write what you know". I knew my family history, and the Shaara's showed me how to tell its story. Following their lead and being inspired by their work, I achieved the goal I had had for decades.

 Now if Ted Turner would just call to offer to make the movie versions, I'll be good to go.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Something New at the DCU

It didn't seem all that long ago that I'd been in the Worcester Centrum.
But it had been so long that the arena in Worcester, Mass isn't even called the Centrum any more. It's now called  the DCU Center and doesn't even sport the ugly Home Depot orange d├ęcor any longer.
The arena inside still looks pretty much the same, but the whole building has been spruced up and expanded.

The biggest difference between my covering Maine hockey last weekend at the DCU and the Portland Pirates playoff game I covered there years ago was how much my job had changed in just a decade.
I sat in the same ice rink, watched from the same press box, wrote in the same press room and left through the same door. But the way I did my job was so different, showing just how fast the world around us is changing.
Fortunately the food at the Centrum, I mean DCU Center, is as good as it ever was. That hasn't changed either. The late hockey scout Ace Baily, who was on one of the planes on 911, was known for going to the Centrum to eat dinner, even though he was going to Springfield to scout another AHL game.
Back when I did that game in Worcester, there was no wireless, no Facebook, no Twitter. Newspapers were still thriving, or at least surviving back then.
Today the job included filing a game story for print additions but also included Facebook posts and tweets and whatever updates we could think off. Many members of the media were for online sites and not for publications. That was unheard of when I was covering the Portland Pirates.
Thanks to a quick look of the career stats for Krys Barch, it looks as though that Pirates playoff game was in 2000. Barch had the overtime game-winner as a rookie. I don't know what's more amazing, the fact that it was a dozen years ago or that Barch is still playing in the NHL.
That Pirates game was quite a memorable one. Portland was favored to win the playoff series but found itself in a 0-2 hole heading to Worcester for an elimination game. The Pirates rallied from behind to take the lead in that game and were up a goal in the final minutes.
I had already started writing a story as if they lost and switched it up after they took the lead. I had much of the story written before regulation even ended. Back then, the press box had no means of filing the story. So I had to pack up the computer and rush down to the press room and use a phone line to file via modem. Every minute counted, especially on a Saturday night in which there are earlier deadlines and there are flights of stairs and a slow elevator in between.
Then Jamie Huscroft took a penalty. It lead to a Worcester power play. That lead to an IceCats power play goal with a couple of seconds left in the game. That prompted a barrage of words that would get my mouth washed out with soap if my mother heard them. But with the roar of the home crowd over the tying goal, I didn't even hear myself cursing the equalizer.
That game ultimately went into three overtimes. Barch had the game-winner early in the third. I was watching from the stands, a pucks throw from the Zamboni entrance that was in close proximity to the press room. I rushed to my computer, updated a story and sent it quickly without quotes via the phone modem. I checked with the editor, who told me my write-through story, with quotes, was due in about 15 minutes.
I got the quotes, filed the story and left Worcester, getting home past 3 a.m or so.
This past Saturday, I didn't have all the drama of that overtime game. Maine lost in regulation in the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal. I had a story without quotes filed within three minutes of the game ending – gotta love boring third periods. I got some quotes and sent a write-through within an hour after the game. I was in my hotel room by midnight.
But what was so different Saturday night was the role technology played.
One of the first orders of business was to get the password for the arena's wireless system. Then it was time to test it out. I quickly got online and all seemed right with the world. I checked my email, created a story file, checked my Facebook posts and opened up Twitter.
That was until the wireless system got so overloaded by all the media for the first game, my computer wouldn't even load web pages any longer. Though I wasn't covering the first semifinal, I was going to post the score on Facebook and Twitter. I did that with my phone, realizing that I could do almost as much with my smartphone as I could with my computer.
I wasn't about to panic. A bad wireless signal is the modern equivalent of the bad phone line, especially for those of us who recall filing stories with Radio Shack Trash 80's and their sensitive acoustic couplers - oh, the stories I could tell. We deal often with places that think they have adequate wireless signals that ultimately don't, especially when they host some major event that is too big for their router's britches - yes, Bangor Auditorium I'm talking about you.
I didn't really need to be online during the first game. My hope was that there would be less traffic in the evening and that I'd have no problem.
Sure enough, I was able to get online during the Maine game and do my thing. I was Facebooking scores, tweeting updates while writing my story periodically during the game. A colleague of mine wasn't so lucky. He had trouble sending his updates on line, which was especially aggravating since it was the only task he had that evening, since his paper doesn't have a Sunday edition.
I was able to email the office and could have called them had I  needed to with my cell phone. Back in 2000, I was hunting down the nearest pay phone to update them after each overtime.
Moments after Maine's season ended, I filed the story, using a web-based system that no other newspaper in the country is using. I was ahead of deadline by 45 minutes. By the time I updated the story with quotes, I was settled back in the press room, still logged into the wireless signal.
The informational super highway that we're on these days moves at such a pace that it is easy to forget how fast we're moving and how much progress we've made.
As much as my job was the same last Saturday night, it had changed completely. Back in 2000, had you told me I'd be booking my room online, reading emails from people reviewing my novels and checking my Kindle sales all by phone or computer, I not only wouldn't have believed you but would have had no idea what you were talking about. A Kindle? A smartphone? I think we had email back then but am not sure.
It's one thing to be able to say how much life has changed since I was a kid but it is another to see how much the world around us changes in just a decade. It makes me wonder what life will be like the next time I'm in Worcester.