Winter. Outside my office window, rafts of ice cover the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The crew of a dredge crew climbs aboard a tug, headed to work on the icy water. In the distance, hunters are setting up decoys around their blind for goose season.
It’s also a good season for writing. The project that’s on my mind is the upcoming Eastern Shore Writers anthology, tentatively named, Bay to Ocean. I am working on a short story to submit. I don’t write much short fiction, so I turned to some of my favorites for inspiration. At the top of the list were “They” by David Morrell and “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall.
Hall’s hunting story is more famous; you can find it in more than a few anthologies for high school and college classes where fiction is still taught. Written 60 years ago, the story has a timeless quality, perhaps because it’s so easy to imagine ourselves in the hunters’ boots as the tide comes in.
“They” is more of a twisted take on Little House on the Prairie. Written by David Morrell, best known as the creator of Rambo, this is one of those stories that I turn to again and again when I need a refresher in voice and pacing and tension. In getting to the climax of a short story, there’s no time for the long slope of rising action; there’s an escalator. As writers, our best teachers are these great authors. Writing this story for the anthology has been a good excuse to dip deep into my Kindle and bookshelf.
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Favorite pens for writing.
Another reason that I’m excited about the anthology is because I remember well the Shore Sampler that ESWA published many years ago. I was a student then at Washington College in Chestertown, and one of my classmates, Dean Hebert, had a poem in the anthology. Another writer, Douglass Wallop, had a piece in the Shore Sampler anthology. This interested me because as a student I had been granted use of the Douglass Wallop room at the O’Neill Literary House at the college.
Due to fire codes, students were no longer allowed to live in the Lit House, but it was a fine place to write and study and hang out. On the desk was the typewriter on which Wallop had written The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. I had actually read the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books version as a bored kid one summer afternoon, in the days before smart phones and the internet. That story became the basis for the hit Broadway musical, Damn Yankees.
The upcoming anthology is picking up where a great tradition left off, and it’s long overdue. What will you submit? If you don’t have a story, essay, or poem ready, there is still time.
Pour a cup of coffee. Read. Gaze out at the ice. Write.
(This piece appeared in Running Times magazine. These days I really prefer walking, but this is a good time of year to think about getting outside and exercising, no matter what form it takes.)
by David Healey
Because I’m a writer and a runner, I’ve often noticed that setting pen to paper is a lot like setting foot to pavement. Both take will power and the ability to go the distance. Writers and runners enjoy a challenge, something to test their limits, like finding a good metaphor or tackling a five-mile run.
Considering that writers turn to the same inner place as runners, it’s surprising that there are no great novels about running. Whole shelves are filled with novels about baseball and fishing and even football. There aren’t any writers who are famous for their running. Maybe running isn’t glamorous enough. Or maybe it’s not possible to fully capture the intangibles of running?
That’s too bad, because running can open up the senses as much as the pores, especially during those runs away from the blacktop. In my head, I try to compose descriptions of leaves crackling under my running shoes or the squish-squelch of wet grass. On my laptop computer, however, the words get all tied up in double knots.
For those who have felt it, a good run builds like a good story. Those first strides as I find my rhythm are like the opening lines of a novel: It is a crisp autumn evening when I set out on my run, heading for the trails along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. (PROLOGUE.)
Cold wind rubs like sandpaper across my puffing cheeks. (RISING ACTION)
I come to a hill, pumping my arms and leaning into the grade. Halfway up, a cramp gnaws at my side. (CONFLICT)
Then I coast down the hill, the cramp gone, the cool air smelling of leaves and so rich my lungs can’t get enough. (THE DENOUEMENT)
Back at the edge of town, the wild land gives way to yards and gardens. I sprint the final few hundred feet to the house, energized by that fall air. The water is blue as a vein and the sky is turning cobalt as I coast to a stop. (EPILOGUE)
That final sprint felt great. After all, most runners, like most writers, enjoy a good ending.
Be warned. At one glance, author Sheila Lowe can almost instantly know your deepest secrets and take the measure of your personality. For these insights, she does not rely on clairvoyance or palm reading, but on something seemingly more mundane.
Lowe is a professional graphologist, or handwriting expert. In fact, she is one of the leading experts in the United States, if not the world, and serves as president of the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation. She has written nonfiction books on the topic, Adobe has employed her knowledge in developing its signature recognition software, and Lowe has weighed in on the handwriting of President Trump in media outlets such as CNN and The Boston Globe. (“It’s like a big fence,” she says of the president’s jagged signature.)
It is an expertise that serves her well not just in the corporate world, but in the world of fiction. Since 2007, her popular “medium-boiled” series featuring handwriting expert Claudia Rose has been engaging audiences. Her newest installment is WRITTEN OFF, in which Claudia finds herself flying from sunny California to wintry Maine in order to retrieve the manuscript of a murdered psychology professor. Claudia’s expertise enables her to gain insights into the characters who are now persons of interest in the professor’s death.
There’s more at stake here than catching the killer. The dead professor has left behind a considerable fortune and a mansion. She also has left behind a ragtag mix of troubled students. Again, handwriting plays a role in seeing beyond the facade that characters may be presenting to the world.
Like her character, Lowe lives in California, writing from a curving desk in her Ventura home that her friends call “the command center.” It occupies half her kitchen and is filled with monitors and stacks of folders and notes. There is even a microscope for Lowe’s other professional pursuit, which is handwriting analysis.
In a phone interview from that desk, Lowe comes across as wise and kind and insightful, much like her character.
Lowe was born in England, but has lived in the U.S. since she was a teenager. Lowe’s bio prominently mentions family. One son, Erik, is a tattoo artist. Another son, Ben, has performed for many years with the band Snap. (Lowe’s adult daughter, Jennifer, was the victim of a domestic homicide in 2000.)
A tattoo artist? A rock star? This is someone who encouraged her children to follow their bliss.
“It makes me the cool mom,” she acknowledged with a laugh. “It’s OK with me. I just want them to be happy.”
She noted that Erik helped with some insights into tattoo art as part of Lowe’s fifth novel in the series, Inkslinger’s Ball. “He took me to a tattoo convention for research,” she said.
And for the record, Mom did not get a tattoo.
An interesting quality of WRITTEN OFF is that while handwriting analysis features prominently, it is not necessarily the tool that brings the killer to justice. Instead, Lowe noted, the handwriting analysis helps to give Claudia insight into the other characters.
I sent Lowe a sample of my handwriting, which she was kind enough to analyze. Her response was intriguing: “I’d guess you write thrillers to give the rather dark side of your personality an outlet.” What I deemed as sloppy handwriting, she described as impatient. Based purely on handwriting, Lowe went on to theorize about a childhood experience that shaped my adult personality. Her insights from a single hand-written page were revelatory, and quite unsettling.
Suddenly, I felt like a character in one of her books. I was reminded of the captivating scene in WRITTEN OFF in which Claudia analyzes the handwriting of skeptical faculty members during a cocktail party. The scene serves to offer insights into characters who might be suspects in the professor’s death. In the process, Claudia reveals traits and histories that leave some characters reeling. It’s anything but breezy party entertainment.
As a graphologist, she spends several productive hours early in the day on her consultant work in the field, before moving on to writing.
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Presidential autographs for sale.
As for her writing habits, Lowe said that she is “allergic to mornings” and tends to start writing around 10 p.m. and work until 1 a.m. or so—unless there’s a deadline looming, in which case she gets an earlier start. Her daily goal is to edit the writing from the previous day and then produce around 1,000 words of new material.
“Writing is hard,” she said. “I like rewriting. I like having written.”
She needs to start with a title, which is a quirk of many writers. The next step is to rough out the plot in a notebook so that she knows where the story is going. Once that is done, and the story is formed in her head, she sticks to the keyboard. The writing all gets done at that command center.
“I don’t feel tied to those notes,” she said. “I really don’t look at it again until my book is finished and I just go back to make sure I got in everything that I wanted to.”
If she gets stuck along the way, she finds that employing “grapho-therapy” is useful. The technique uses handwriting exercises done to music to encourage creativity.
What’s next for Claudia and this intriguing handwriting series? Judging by her brush with a Maine blizzard in WRITTEN OFF, Claudia may be taking some time off to warm up while Lowe writes an altogether different novel.
Until then, there are six previous novels in the series to catch up on, and a lot of handwriting clues and insights to consider.
The mother of a tattoo artist and a former rock star, Sheila figures she’s a cool mom. She lives in Ventura with Lexie the Evil Cat, where she writes the award-winning Forensic Handwriting series. Like her fictional character Claudia Rose, she’s a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in court cases. Despite sharing living space with a cat, Sheila’s books are “medium boiled,” psychological suspense, definitely not cozy. She puts ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances and makes them squirm.
Her non-fiction books about handwriting include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, and Handwriting Analyzer software.
To learn more about Sheila, please visit her website.
(David Healey is a contributing editor at The Big Thrill.)
During the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon to be drafted against one’s will and forced to put on a blue uniform. One Delmarva man hated the Yankees so much that to avoid this fate, he spent several years living in underground hideouts.
The ordeal of John Long, “Caveman of the Civil War,” is certainly one of the stranger tales from the Civil War era on Delmarva. His story was described at length in the Salisbury Wicomico News on May 27, 1920.
It is, unfortunately, a second-hand story, recounted from the childhood memories of the newspaper columnist. The newspaper article, and Long’s experiences, have been summarized by the Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History & Culture at Salisbury University.
“Having made up his mind that he would not obey the call of his country to duty, his chief thought was to find some place where he could hide until the ‘unpleasantness,’ as he termed it, ‘had blown over,’ ” the columnist wrote.
Long’s solution was to build “two or three” underground caves. Like most of Delmarva, the region around Salisbury is a flat and sandy place where caves do not naturally occur. It’s likely that Long built his shelters in stream banks and also along the edge of a place called “Polk’s Pond.”
These caves were more than crude shelters. Long made them big enough to stand up in, with sides and ceilings finished with boards. He built bunks for sleeping but probably had no stove or hearth that might give away his hiding place. The entrance was more than likely disguised somehow to avoid discovery.
Long was able to keep a sharp eye out thanks to “portholes” he built to give himself ventilation and as a means to keep watch. The columnist wrote “Hundreds of times, he said, the (Yankee) soldiers were within a few feet of his hiding place, but by good luck he escaped.”
It seems that the Caveman wasn’t just a draft dodger and Southern sympathizer, but had somehow gotten himself into trouble with the local Federal authorities. A reward was offered for his arrest, and troops combed the countryside looking for him.
Friends apparently kept Long supplied with food, bringing him supplies under cover of darkness. The Caveman, however, wasn’t content to spend all his time hiding out. On several occasions, he donned a disguise— sometimes dressing as a “Negro woman”— and ventured into town. Long was described as being a big man who weighed 240 pounds, so the sight of him in a dress must have been interesting, to say the least.
One of his favorite haunts was a saloon run by “Old Man Hawkins” that once stood on East Camden Street. As the columnist described it, “Here the friends of the north and of the south often met and many a wordy conflict finally terminated in a ‘knock down and drag out’ fight.”
It’s a good bet that John Barleycorn played a role when the Caveman got himself into more trouble than he bargained for one night at the saloon. He got in a fight with several Yankee soldiers. He knocked a few of them down, then punched an officer so hard that he knocked the man out cold. “After a great deal of work on the soldier he was finally revived averring that he had been struck many a time but never so hard as that Negro woman struck him.” Somehow, the Caveman must have made it safely back to his hideout.
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Work healthier with a standing desk.
Was there really a John Long and did this actually happen to him? When one takes a harder look at his story, parts of it appear to be nothing more than a tall tale, perhaps embellished by the columnist or by the Caveman himself. After all, it seems to stretch the imagination that a young white man, powerfully built at that, could get away with disguising himself as an African-American woman … one who hung out in saloons, no less. And would the Caveman really have stuck around to hear the Yankee officer compliment him on that knockout punch? If he felt so strongly about the South, he could have slipped into Virginia to join the Confederacy, like so many other young men from Delmarva. But perhaps John Long was a gentle man and something of a loner, happy to mix things up in a relatively harmless barroom brawl but not eager to join the killing fields of the war.
Census records do show a John Long in the Salisbury area. There’s no mention of him living in a cave, of course, but by then the “unpleasantness” of the 1860s was long since over and the Caveman of the Civil War had become a local legend.
Robert Bidinotto is an accomplished thriller writer from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but it’s his own story of success with independent publishing that many writers find thrilling.
The author has shared his success story at the Bay to Ocean Writers’ Conference held each year at Chesapeake College, and his will return again in March 2018. Here is some of the author’s story.
Having lost his job as a magazine editor, and entering his sixties, his employment prospects looked bleak. That’s when, with the encouragement of his wife, he finally wrote a novel. The result was Hunter, a self-published Amazon super bestseller. The author has been a tireless supporter of other writers with his “how to” advice on his popular website http://www.bidinotto.com/.
For self-published writers, Bidinotto stressed the importance of writing the best books possible by using advance readers, volunteer editors to stop every typo in its tracks, and great cover design.
Bidinotto offers tips for thriller writers and readers, starting with classic examples of great thrillers, including Peter Benchley’sJaws and Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean and Wilbur Smith’sHungry as the Sea. He also noted the thriller elements of classic films like High Noon.
As Bidinotto points out, thrillers come in all shapes and settings, but they have a common thread of often larger-than-life characters who overcome impossible odds, whether it is stopping a killer shark or the gang of killers due to arrive in town on the 12 o’clock train.
“Your job is to keep the reader riveted in that world,” Bidinotto notes. He quotes Lee Child: “Write the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow.”
Bidinotto has written a sequel to his bestselling Hunter, which also has become an Amazon bestseller. Just this month, a third book in the series was released, called Winner Takes All. The story focuses on an attempt to install a puppet president in the White House. Sounds like yet another great Robert Bidinotto thriller!
Tall, white-haired, and with a Virginia gentleman’s accent, William Styron looked and sounded like a Southern writer. But what really impressed me was that we had the same taste in alcoholic beverages.
This was in 1986. I was nineteen and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was visiting Washington College in Chestertown, Md., to instruct and inspire the young writers there, which is why I found myself at the door of the President’s House to have dinner with Styron, faculty and students. The president at the time was Douglas Cater, himself an accomplished journalist and Southerner.
A solemn-faced waiter wearing white jacket greeted me just inside the door of the 18th century mansion.
“May I get you a cocktail?” he asked.
Under the circumstances, it felt more like a pop quiz than a question. It didn’t seem likely that the bar at the president’s house was stocked with Natty Boh.
“Ahh . . . I’ll have a glass of white wine,” I said.
I heard a deep voice behind me. The great man himself was coming in the door. “That sounds like a fine idea,” Styron told the waiter. “I’ll have the same.”
At that point I stammered something witty like, “Hello, Mr. Styron,” and retreated – glass of wine in hand – into the crowded house. I hadn’t read any of his books yet and feared that he might ask me how I liked them. The college had invited prospective freshmen to the event, and they were there with their parents, getting a feel for the place. Several parents looked uncomfortable in that genteel Tidewater setting, or maybe it was only the thought of the tuition that was making them sweat.
“What wonderful knickknacks,” one nervous mother remarked to Libby Cater, wife of President Cater and lady of the house.
Libby, ever so polite, replied, “Oh, do you like my jade collection?”
As the newly educated mother and daughter moved on, Libby turned to me and confided how pleased she was that Styron, a one-time neighbor of the Caters, was visiting the college. The college was small enough then that even the first lady had a passing acquaintance with a college freshman she had seen around the Lit House on campus. Then her voice dropped a note as she added, “You know, one day he was out getting his mail when I was in the yard and he showed me a royalty check for forty thousand dollars.” Libby appreciated good writing, but she also knew the value of all things green.
Over dinner, Styron shared how the idea for “Sophie’s Choice” was born in a flash of inspiration that soon had him on a research trip to a concentration camp. Published in 1979, “Sophie’s Choice” became a bestseller and was made into a film starring Meryl Streep as the pale Holocaust survivor. Styron graciously answered the students’ questions on writing. He was self-effacing, even subdued, which makes sense now: this was soon after he nearly committed suicide, as revealed in his memoir “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.” One thing became clear, which was that Styron was a thoughtful man who loved storytelling and the craft of writing.
He read that evening from a work in progress about his days as a Marine during World War II, tough material for a college-age audience forty years removed from their grandfathers’ war. However, that didn’t stop me from reading “Lie Down in Darkness,” an experimental 1951 novel with echoes of Faulkner that nonetheless seemed as relevant to the ’80s as two other hot novels of self-destruction I devoured about the same time, “Less Than Zero” and “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Late at night, I would plow through all sorts of books that had nothing to do with class assignments. On a Styron kick now, and hoping I might be able to pair his advice to something I found in his writing, I plowed through “Sophie’s Choice.” The true horror of Sophie’s situation wouldn’t sink in until I dipped into the novel again after having children of my own. Now, from a parent’s perspective, Sophie’s guilt and grief seems overwhelming. The novel’s language is lush as a steamy Southern night. This is writing that takes its time covering more than 600 pages.
The book I never got around to was “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” about a bloody slave revolt in 1831. Since I seem to have made a habit of catching up on Styron after the man has come and gone, I’ll have to read that one next.
I’ll never write as well as Styron, but I understand from him that it is the writer’s imagination that matters most of all. You don’t have to be a Polish Jew or an African-American slave to understand your characters. A good writer must be able to imagine his way into his characters’ souls.
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted,” Styron once said. “You should live several lives while reading it.”
I won’t say that Styron inspired me to be a writer, but he certainly taught me that it was OK to be one. . . and that a glass of white wine was a perfectly acceptable cocktail.
(I wrote this essay when the author passed away in 2006, and it was distributed nationwide by by Scripps Howard News Service. Lately, I’ve been thinking of those late nights spent reading his books and how rare it now is to find anything so deeply written.)
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Awesome notebooks for writers.
Eastern Shore potato harvest. Photo courtesy the Cecil Observer.
This is a season for comfort foods and family recipes. In keeping with that spirit, here is a recipe for White Potato Pie, which is a uniquely Eastern Shore dish.
Our family first got a taste of this thanks to our wonderful neighbors and good friends, the late Dot and Sterling Hersch. It was around Thanksgiving one year that Sterling brought over (most) of a White Potato Pie. There was a slice or two missing — no wonder!
Dot and Sterling were longtime Chesapeake City residents and raised their family here. Sterling grew up in the town of Rock Hall, in Kent County, back in the “good ol’ days” of the early 1900s. His father ran the general store there. Dot grew up around Galena. These pies were a popular treat back then, when more exotic ingredients and baking supplies (brownie mix, canned pumpkin, etc.) probably weren’t available or too expensive. There were, however, plenty of potatoes.
It’s much harder to find White Potato Pie these days than it probably was back then. Pumpkin pie has largely taken its place. I did find white potato pie for sale at the Chesapeake Folk Festival in St. Michaels, Md. And you can be sure that I helped myself to a piece. Maybe even two.
Dee (Hersch) Thomas wrote down this family recipe and shared it with us. I don’t think she will mind it being posted here. If you want to taste a real Eastern Shore tradition, look no further. And perhaps you will start a family tradition as well.
Hersch’s White Potato Pie
4 cups mashed potatoes
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 stick margarine or butter
4 eggs separated
1 large can Pet evaporated milk
1 tsp. Vanilla flavoring
Mix potatoes, sugar, butter or margarine, egg yolks, evaporated milk and vanilla in large bowl.
In another bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the above mix. Pour into unbaked pie crust and bake at 325 degrees until set. About 45 minutes.
On the Eastern Shore and Delmarva Peninsula, people are known for eating all sorts of things that raise eyebrows elsewhere.
Crabs, for starters.
Up in New England, they look at you kind of funny if you walk into a seafood restaurant and ask if they have steamed crabs.
“No, but we have lobster,” the waitress will say, doing that funny thing with her r’s.
That’s a Yankee for you. Any fool knows crabs with lots of Old Bay seasoning are much better than a boring old boiled lobster.
People on the Eastern Shore and Delmarva Peninsula also eat soft—shelled crabs. They taste great, if you can ignore the legs poking out the sides of the roll (although some say that a true soft-shelled crab sandwich is served only on white bread).
Other regional specialities include oysters, Maryland beaten biscuits, and Smith Island cake.
The one dish that you’re not as likely to see on any tourism brochures, however, is muskrat.
These furry critters live in both fresh— and saltwater marshes on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware. Also known as “marsh rabbit,” they are considered a Delmarva delicacy whether stewed, fricasseed or fried.
The meat is a byproduct of trapping, because what the muskrat is really known for is fur, not food. There isn’t as much demand for the fur these days because of the politics of fur. But at one time, a muskrat coat was warm and stylish.
CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Faux fur
You do not have to be a muskrat trapper to make this dish, although you may have to be just as rugged.
A skinned muskrat in a display case at a country market looks like … well, let’s just say that it does not resemble a New York strip steak.
A muskrat also costs much less than grass-fed Angus. I have seen muskrat for about $1.50 each.
Generally, you have to put in an order for muskrat at these country markets.
If you don’t want to cook it yourself, then you can sample muskrat at various places. A few diners have it on the menu in season. Then there’s the Methodist church in Hancock’s Bridge, N.J., where they’ve been holding annual muskrat dinners for over 50 years. They reportedly cook up 1,800 of the critters, or about one ton of muskrat meat.
For anyone who wants to feel like a real Eastern Shoreman and cook his own muskrat, here’s a recipe from “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker.
Skin and remove all fat from hams and shoulders of l muskrat. Remove musk glands under legs and belly and white stringy tissue attached to musk glands.
Poach in salted water for 45 minutes.
Place cut-up meat in a dutch oven and cover with bacon strips. Add:
1 cup water or light stock 1 small sliced onion
1 bay leaf 3 cloves
1/2 teaspoon thyme
Cover and simmer until very tender. Serve with creamed celery.
With all due respect to “The Joy of Cooking,” I would prefer mashed potatoes with my mukrat. However, I suspect that the muskrat itself will overshadow most side dishes.
Just wait until your guests or family members are saying, “Boy, this is delicious. What is it?” Then tell them they’re eating muskrat. They won’t notice if that’s creamed celery on the side or old boiled socks.
Writing in a comfortable studio surrounded by books, the scenes playing in the mind of Mark Ellis are not nearly as peaceful: German dive bombers machine gunning troops on the run, war-torn London, a woman’s bloody body in a hotel room.
The British author’s latest effort is MERLIN AT WAR, in which much of the plot centers around a mysterious letter left behind by an officer killed by those dive bombers. Interestingly enough, the main character is not a soldier, but Chief Inspector Frank Merlin. While war rages, there is no shortage of home front crimes for Merlin to solve.
According to Ellis, the wartime blackouts created opportunity for criminals. Looting was commonplace in bombed areas. Rationing gave rise to an underworld of black market goods. He noted that 4,300 cases of looting were tried in just four months of 1940.
It is a side of wartime England that doesn’t quite fit with the “Keep calm and carry on” slogans.
“Police were stretched thin by crimes caused by the bombings,” he noted. He added that the ranks of law enforcement had been thinned when large numbers of police officers joined the military.
“I thought this wartime situation was just a great setting for a crime novel,” Ellis explained.
After the sale of his computer company, Ellis found himself with time to write. His initial attempt at developing a crime-solving character proved to be a false start. After a few months of work and a lot of pages, he just didn’t find his original version of the character to be to his liking. It took some ruminating during a trip to Spain to find out who Merlin really was, and to give him some Spanish roots, and thus DCI Merlin was born.
For readers of crime fiction, Merlin is a familiar sort of sleuth, but also original and quirky in his own right. Too old to be in the fight, he nonetheless finds plenty of use for his talents as a detective in wartime London. Merlin is surrounded by an interesting cast of supporting characters, including his Polish girlfriend.
The wartime setting also enriches the story on many different levels.
Ellis explained that his interest in the World War II era comes in large part from his own family’s experiences. His father served in the Navy, where he contracted a chronic illness that resulted in his passing away when Ellis was just seven years old. His mother often shared stories of her own war years, from witnessing the bombing of Swansea near her home, to dance parties in London. Even as the war and the London Blitz raged, life went on.
Like many other writers who set their novels in the World War II era, Ellis has tapped a vein of nostalgia for the excitement of the war years that has cast a long shadow even decades later. It’s as if readers are re-living the memories of their parents and grandparents.
“As things recede in time, people seem to get more interested in what happened then,” he observed.
Beyond his own family’s stories, Ellis’s research involved interviews, exploring locales in the novels, and endless hours of reading.
“I have a lot of books,” he noted, gesturing at shelves that run the length of his studio from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling. Mixed among the reference titles are the novels of Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen, two writers for whom World War II was a current event. Ellis said he finds inspiration and insights in those pages.
His research with an eye for unusual history paid off.
“A lot of my readers respond very positively to the details. They love learning about the odd, quirky things that they didn’t know about,” he said.
The writing itself takes time and a process that in the case of the most recent novel involved 23 redrafts. Ellis said that he typically writes 1,500 to 2,000 words each day. “I will not leave the desk if I haven’t written that bare minimum,” he said.
Most of the work takes place in that book-lined studio. “Sometimes I like to go to the library for a change of scene,” he said.
What’s next for Ellis? He’s planning a trip to New York to promote the American release of his new novel.
When asked about his plots, Ellis explained that he is not a meticulous planner. After he gets the book going with maybe half of the book planned out, he said he then tends to let the plot lines sort themselves out. One imagines these plot points like the loose ends of a frayed rope that need to be intertwined.
What’s next for DCI Merlin? Considering that MERLIN AT WAR is set in 1940, it’s likely that there are going to be several more years of war, murder, and mayhem in his future, which should leave Ellis fans feeling pleased.
Mark Ellis is a thriller writer and a former barrister and entrepreneur. He grew up in Swansea, under the shadow of his parents’ experience of the second world war. His father served in the wartime navy and his mother witnessed the bombardment of Swansea in 1941. Mark has always been fascinated by World War II and, in particular, the Home Front and the criminal activity which sprung up during wartime. He has written two previous DCI Frank Merlin novels, Princes Gate and Stalin’s Gold and is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association. He divides his time between homes in London and Oxford.
Visit him on his website, or on Twitter at @MarkEllis15.