Deirdra: When did you first know you wanted to be an author?
Jeff: It’s sort of strange; I still remember my first day of kindergarten. The teacher asked the class – “What do you want to learn? My hand shot up and when she called on me, I knew I had the best answer of all: “I want to learn to read and write.” From there I remember being drawn to Science Fiction (the local library was three blocks away), and the more I read, the more I realized I wanted to write. I was about eight years old when my mom got a typewriter and after much begging, she let me use it for about an hour. I started a story about a boy going to the moon on a rocket and decided, “I could do this.”
Deirdra: What is your writing and educational background?
Jeff: I have a BA in English, with a minor in Writing. I’ve done a fair amount of technical writing in my job, written a couple of grants, but the desire has always been for fiction.
Deirdra: What makes you passionate about writing?
Jeff: I saw a quote a couple of weeks ago that I really like. It was by Toni Morrison. She said: “If there is a book that you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I read a lot and try to keep up on news and every once in awhile I will learn something new and think ‘”There’s a great idea for a story!” I’ll ponder it awhile and if it’s still with me after several days, then my interest level kicks up a couple of notches. If I can come up with a good story to carry the idea…at that point I’m excited.
Deirdra: What is your writing schedule like?
Jeff: For me, the writing schedule isn’t just about sitting down at the keyboard and typing words. There is research and thinking time. I take the bus to work and it’s about a forty minute trip. I get on the bus and close my eyes because unfortunately I get motion sickness. But it’s perfect, because that’s the thinking portion of my writing, forty minutes each way, planning out what I’m going to be writing next. At that moment I have nothing ready to put down on paper, it’s still percolating. So when I’m actually at the computer I may be doing research. But in a couple days that next chapter will somehow come together in my head and then I’ll have a burst of writing. Because of work, family and other responsibilities, I usually don’t get started writing until about 8 PM, but then I may go until midnight.
Deirdra: Can you tell us a little about what your Dark Age Fiction project is about?
Jeff: My agent recommended a book for me to read called Booklife, by Jeff Vandemeer. It’s all about how to live your life as a writer. One of the things he says you must do is get on Facebook. I wasn’t on there yet, so I signed up and found it to be a pretty good place to do networking. He says you must do a blog. So I started Dark Age Fiction. It’s primarily to promote my writing and I’ve discovered I like having a blog. He also said you have to do Twitter, but I haven’t really committed to that yet.
I always wanted to be a Science Fiction writer, but I somehow got the idea for a Historical Fantasy, and decided to write it. I discovered I liked the genre and most of my newer ideas seemed to come from the dark ages, so hence, Dark Age Fiction.
Deirdra: What has your experience been like to work with a professional literary agent?
Jeff: It’s been both rewarding and frustrating. Up until a few years ago I figured once you got an agent, you had it made. My agent likes to take on a new writer every once in awhile, and I’m her current project. She’s made me realize how much I still have to learn. But she said, don’t worry, after you get a few novels under your belt, it gets a lot easier. She’s tough, but I’ve learned a lot.
Deirdra: Where do your ideas come from? How do you know the idea is good enough to write a book about it?
Jeff: The ideas can come from anywhere. The final idea is often the juxtaposition of two or three different ideas. For example, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of all cultures having a dragon myth. I’ve been intrigued by Stonehenge. I’ve been intrigued by Hadrian’s wall. All that was kicking around in my head for awhile and I thought…I wonder who would be the main character in a story like this. The story takes place in the time of King Arthur, but I didn’t want to use him. I found Coel, a semi-legendary king of Northern Britain. And then I found the Picts. I mulled that around for awhile and finally decided I could tie them all together. The next thought was…now, there’s a story worth telling.
Deirdra: When did the idea of writing a book first come to you?
Jeff: I was always planning on writing short stories. I’d written a number of them. Finally several years ago I decided, short stories are great, but if I could write a novel, that would not only be a challenge, but if I could sell it, who knows what might happen. Back in the mid 90’s I gave it a try, an adventure story that was only 40,000 words. It fell short, but it was good practice. I tried again a few years later and hit about 50,000 words. I finally wrote a full length story I felt good about a couple of years ago with Draegnstoen.
Deirdra: What do you hope readers will someday get from you books?
Jeff: I hope to get people stretch their imaginations, for them to see that good is worth seeking after and sometimes even fighting for. Most of all, I hope to inspire them to stretch and grow.
Deirdra: What is your process of brainstorming a story? Do you just sit down and write, waiting to see what happens next? Or do you outline first?
Jeff: I think that I probably have a rather odd process for brainstorming. I guess I would say I toss a bunch of ideas into my subconscious and leave them for awhile. I check back from time to time and then, one day, there is something there, something tangible to grab onto. From there, somehow the story just seems to come together to the point where there is a framework to build on. For Draegnstoen, I mostly wrote in chronological order. For my current novel, I write whatever scene pops into my head.
Deirdra: Do you ever experience a snag in a story, a form of writer's block? If so, how do you deal with it?
Jeff: Yes. I’m having one right now! How do I deal with it? I don’t panic, I do research on my story, I think to myself, well, the next scene is not coming, how about this one, or this one. Usually in a day or two something starts flowing again and I start writing again.
Deirdra: Do you need absolute quiet to write? Do you listen to music when you are writing?
Jeff: I don’t need absolute quiet, but after I sit down to write, it usually takes me about twenty minutes to get into the zone so I can write. Music? Usually some favorites, like classic rock. Sometimes music that has the mood of my story does the trick. Often no music at all, but I find that when I’m brainstorming, music helps a lot.
Deirdra: What kinds of inspiration do you use during your story creation periods?
Jeff: Well, I’m writing historical fantasy right now, so I read history and myth. I find photos of the places the story takes place. I read about flora and fauna, architecture, customs, tools, weapons, culture and cuisine. Inspiration can come from other literature, or scriptures. Music, movies, it all helps. I am very grateful for a subconscious that somehow sorts it out and then taps me on the shoulder and says…”hey, how about this?”
Strangely enough, the old Dire Straits song “Brothers in Arms” became one of the major inspirations for my current book.
Deirdra: Who has made the greatest difference for you as a writer?
Jeff: It’s difficult to pin down to one person. A seventh grade English teacher who got annoyed with me because I wasn’t doing my best so she gave me a “C” in her class. A High school film teacher who taught me to dig deeper into meaning. A couple of college professors who encouraged my writing. Family members who have cheered me on. Several writing friends who have been enthusiastic supporters in a number of ways, from continually telling me to keep at it, to reading my stuff, and giving me amazing ideas. A number of people in many different ways have made the difference and I am very grateful.
Deirdra: What’s your secret to making the character’s in your books come to life?
Jeff: I write everything in third person omniscient. For me, every scene is like watching a movie. I’m right there at the table listening to the conversations with them. I’m on the battlefield with them. I watch them, I hear them. I feel like an invisible character in the story.
I also realize that to someone who doesn’t write, this writing process all sounds very odd. I am reminded of an article from a medical journal I read a couple of months ago that said very creative, imaginative people and people with schizophrenia had very similar levels of dopamine in their brains. So, there you go, maybe we are all just a bit mad?
Deirdra: Which of your books is your favorite, and why?
Jeff: I suspect it may be the same for every writer who has a work in progress, the book you are currently working on. Every book must be original, better than the last one. So, right now, for me, it’s Highland King. It’s almost half done, pieces scattered all over the place, but it’s coming together nicely. It’s darker than Draegnstoen, more fantasy, but still not over the top; it’s almost plausible. I guess it’s my favorite right now because I’m in the thick of it and it’s exciting to see it come together. I’ve discovered I really like these epic sagas. A huge, sweeping story with chapter names like “The Gates of Dawn” and “The Battle of Heroes.”
Deirdra: What is your favorite snack to have while you are writing?
Jeff: Hmmmm…I always have a glass of water handy. An actual snack? I’d probably have to say peanuts, but writing is so sedentary, I can’t eat much while I write, I would get enormous!
Deirdra: What words of advice do you have for other writers who desire to have their manuscripts become books in print?
Jeff: It sounds trite, but don’t give up. If you are trying to get an agent, don’t send a query letter and sit and wait until you hear back. I know one writer who was trying to get an agent the same time as me. She asked me how many queries I had out. I was rather proud…fifteen I told her. “Are you crazy?” She said. “I have a hundred and twenty five out, get busy!” So I did. At one point I had forty queries out. That’s what did it for me. Also, consider signing up for a website like Writersmarket.com. I think it’s about $39 a year, but you have access to a continuously updated database of agents and publishers by genre. It’s a valuable resource. Finally, don’t stop writing while you are waiting. Writing makes the waiting easier.
Deirdra: What are you working on now?
Jeff: Highland King. When I finished Draegnstoen I had a few people read it. After my brother read it he said “you need a sequel!” I laughed and said “there is no sequel.” My agent told me to start thinking about a sequel. Then I was worried. I hadn’t left a place in Draegnstoen for a sequel. But turns out there is one.
Draegnstoen takes place in Northern England. I moved the sequel north to Scotland. I also decided to write it with a bit of a Scottish accent. That adds a more challenge to it, but it feels more authentic. There’s an extremely reluctant hero and a truly terrifying villain - an eight foot giant. That makes for an interesting dynamic. It’s a BIG story with allusions to King David, the stone of destiny, the coming of a legendary king. It’s the story of the Picts, a people almost unknown in the history books. And of course, it’s a love story. There has to be a love story.
Deirdra: What is the most difficult thing about being an author?
Jeff: The Internet. It’s completely turned the publishing business upside down. Traditional publishing is going through tumultuous changes. We have POD, ebooks, Kindle, Nook. It’s changed everything and people are still figuring it all out what it all means.
However, it has also made writing so much easier. We can do research from our computer. Not just text, but photographs, maps, movie clips, sound clips. I have part of Highland King take place on Unst, the northernmost Shetland Island. It’s extremely remote. I found photos, sound clips of their accent, tide tables, their diet, information about sunrise and sunset times, all within a couple of hours.
Deirdra: What is the best thing about being an author?
Jeff: Taking some ideas, combining them in your head and creating a story. The story affects you, it moves you. And then you find the right combination of little black marks to put on paper. And if you do it just right, those little black marks will invoke those same emotions in your reader. That is magic.
Deirdra: What are your goals as an author for the next three years?
Jeff: To have Draegnstoen published, to finish Highland King and have a contract for that to be published and to be writing my next book, Woden.
Deirdra: Where is your favorite place to write?
Jeff: I do most of my writing in the den. It’s usually quiet and out of the way. Sometimes, when the weather is nice I will take my laptop out on the deck and write.
Deirdra: How do you come up with your character’s names?
Jeff: This is a topic that a writer must never take lightly. The names must fit, in more ways that one. They have to fit the time, the place and the type of character. You can write against convention, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a new writer. A strong character needs a strong name. If you want a tough Viking, you name him Erik, not Jeremy. Strong names usually have stronger consonant sounds. People also have perceptions about names. My heroine in Highland King is “Morag.” I love the name, it’s a strong name and it fits the story perfectly. I don’t think people would respect the strength of the character if I had named her “Debbie.” The reader wouldn’t accept the name because it’s not old enough, or the right heritage. It would grate on them, every time they saw it. A name has to blend seamlessly with the rest of the story.
Deirdra: What is the best compliment you could receive from a reader?
Jeff: Your story brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat.
Deirdra: Any final words you would like to share?
Jeff: Writing is a strange vocation. For the ones really caught up in it, we can’t stay away from it, if it draws us back time and time again. The only thing we can do is embrace it, because it’s part of who we are. Getting rich and famous might be nice, but the reason we write is because there are stories to tell, and we must tell them.
Highland King, the sequel to Draegnstoen, continues the saga of the royal families in 5th Century Scotland and Northern England.
Doncann (nephew of Coel from Draegnstoen) is a young Pictish prince. Swept up in the politics and murderous infighting of claimants to his grandfather's throne, he is falsely accused of murder and exiled to the north. Often fighting for his life, he is protected by the magic of women, mentored by a Celtic demigod and shown how his fate is part of the collective future of his people.
Who can unite an ancient kingdom broken apart for generations? Stand up to an invading army threatening to overrun the entire country? Learn of the magic of women, the power of silver, and the secret of the Stone of Destiny?
No one but the Highland King.