2 Stiffs Writing Historical Fiction

One of my favorite things about being a writer is connecting with other writers, and one of my favorite literary humans lately is Jeffrey K Walker, author of “None of Us the Same” and “Truly are the Free”.

Two Stiffs Writing Hist Fic (Part the Second)

He’s taken it upon himself to share some of our correspondence in a running feature on his blog called “Two Stiffs Writing Historical Fiction.” If you’d like a peek inside the minds of two guys who are trying to figure out the whole “writing about the past” thing, take a  look.

Here’s this month’s edition

And the first conversation we had.

Beau Brummell by the Fashionable Erato

I know nothing about fashion, but both my wife and my mother ( and there’s nothing creepier than when they both say the same thing to you) referred to my attempts at dressing up as “very Beau Brummell.” I had no idea who that was, but now I’m smarter because of this week’s interview.

Erato, (yes it’s a pen name) has written about the ultimate 18th-century fashion plate in her new novel, The Cut of the Clothes.

What’s your story, Erato?

Erato writes under a pen name. She obviously doesn’t have my crying need for validation

So, Erato is my pen name — and no, it doesn’t mean I write erotica (what the hell, people? It’s not even the same key vowels, but people mistake it all the time for “Erotia” or something.) Editor’s Note: an overwhelming majority of people are idiots. Don’t let it get to you. In any case, I write historical fiction. So far all of my books are set in the Georgian/Regency era, which I am finding is a bit of a misfortune, as “Regency” has become a modern genre of its own that I don’t actually write; consequently people who like “Regency” stories don’t usually seem to like my work and other people who might actually like them don’t want to read them because they think they don’t like “Regency” stories. It just means they’re set in the late-18th/early-19th century in Great Britain, it doesn’t mean they’re about rakish noblemen having dubiously consensual sex with reluctant heroines, or that they’re Christian propaganda for clean living, or that they’re Jane Austen fanfiction where Darcy and Elizabeth have a secret baby the entire time of Pride and Prejudice.

Duly noted. It’s rough when genres constrict your subject matter. What’s the book about?

It tells the true story of Beau Brummell and the Prince Regent. It’s a story that’s been done a few times before, since it seems everyone agrees that was the most interesting part of Brummell’s life — when he was in London and at his peak. Brummell seems to possess such a natural charm, good looks, and a talent for matching his clothes together that he becomes an instant star once the Prince befriends him. My version is different from the other tellings for a couple reasons: first, it is the only one I know of that didn’t make up a fictional character to serve as a love interest for Brummell and then try to tell it as a love story. Secondly, it’s told from the Prince’s point of view, in my best attempt at historically accurate reproduction of the way he wrote.

I’m going to confess that fashion and talking about clothes bores me to tears, despite being strapped to the couch and forced to watch 13 seasons of Project Runway with the Duchesss. What is it about this story you find so fascinating?

I had heard the name Beau Brummell a bit, and when you mostly write Georgian/Regency fiction you know a little about him and his contributions to fashion from your research. I wrote kind of a knockoff version of him into the book None But Fools (as “Beau Bancroft”) but nothing very studied. While I was writing my upcoming book The Virgin and the Bull (it was written before Cut of the Clothes but only now getting published) I had needed to look up some fashion vocabulary term — I think the word I needed was the fall of a pair of breeches — and when I did so online, the page I found happened to also have a video of the opening scene of the BBC film Beau Brummell: This Charming Man. I watched the opening scene, which is not really anything more than James Purefoy as Brummell getting dressed and then walking down a hall, but on that basis, I thought, “My next book should be about Beau Brummell.” I deliberately did not watch the rest of that movie until after my book was done, and indeed our final takes on the story were quite different, but that was the inspiration.
What’s your favorite scene in the book?

There’s a joke, and I’m afraid if I explain it it’ll be ruined for like, the one person who will ever read it and actually get it without needing to look it up… ah well, they might not be amongst the same people who reads this blog, right? What are the odds? Prinny is sick in bed and is reading a book with a French title: Les Bijoux Indiscrets. I deliberately went out of my way to find the trashiest possible 18th century book for him to be reading. It’s a book by Denis Diderot of all people (co-creator of the first Encyclopedia.) It’s about a king with a magic ring that causes women’s vaginas to talk, and to declare their sexual histories. That’s as much of a plot as it’s really got. So, that’s what Prinny reads there.
Worth being said, the real-life Prinny had one hell of a pornography collection. If I remember correctly, when he died, it took three days of continuously burning fires to destroy it all.

Where can people learn more about you and your books?

The Cut of the Clothes – Amazon.com:
Amazon UK:
Google Play: 

Erato’s Author Pages –

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2H3M6eD

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15113073.Erato

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EratoWrites

Subscribe to my newsletter and get a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Acre’s Bastard.  Each month you’ll receive links to interviews with great authors, news about upcoming events and previews of my work in progress, Acre’s Orphans. Look at the bottom left of the page for the sign-up sheet. No spam, just once a month updates and a chance to learn about great new Historical Fiction of all types from around the world.

 

The Long-Distance Leader is Almost Here

Readers of this blog usually don’t care much about my day job, but I do. My latest book is “The Long-Distance Leader-Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.”  It is the culmination of years of work and research that I, and my co-author Kevin Eikenberry, are very proud of.

 

Hear Kevin talk about it in the publisher’s official video trailer.

 

Then you can order the darned thing. Publication date is officially June 5. If you like it, please leave a review and tell all your coworkers and peers. It’s available worldwide in paperback, Kindle and Audio book.

If you are interested in the topic, check out the website and blog of The Remote Leadership Institute.

My Week with Harry Anderson

Image result for Harry AndersonWhen you reach my age, the passing of people you’ve known becomes a part of life. In fact, Facebook is good for only two things: knowing your life turned out better than your ex’s and learning when people from your past die.

Most people know Harry Anderson from the sitcom Night Court, but I met him back in 1982, when he was excited because he was going to be a regular on a “new show that might last a season or two,” that went on to be Cheers.

I was working my first time ( in the US illegally, under the table, and underage) at the Comedy Underground in Seattle, Wa. Back in the day you usually had to share a “condo” with the other acts if you weren’t local. That meant poor Harry, the headliner, had to share an apartment with a young act he knew from San Francisco, and some weird ginger kid from Vancouver. That would be me.

In that week, not only did I discover what a kind, humble and hard-working act he was (for someone who was already a big star in the stand-up world and about to break out) but I learned some valuable lessons that stayed with me my entire professional life, in and out of show business.

  • Treat the staff like gold.  On Keith Tomasek’s “The Inadequate Life” podcast, I was asked why everyone remembers me as such a nice guy and so easy to work with.  (I’ll post the link when it airs, I promise) Looking back, I never really thought there was another way to be. But working with Harry, I remember he told me flat out, “Treat the staff like gold. They will make or break your week, and you want them to remember you.”  He did just that, and I never forgot that advice.
  • Old fashioned southern manners aren’t just a Southern thing. Harry treated everyone he met in the club as “sir” or “ma’am” until instructed otherwise (and he was always instructed otherwise- people loved him.) He also always told me to call waitresses “darlin’ ” –a habit it’s taken me years to break, but not all advice is evergreen.  He always read a person’s nametag and called them by name, something I do to this day and wrote it into the character of Byron de Prorok in The Count of the Sahara. The point was to be polite but not obsequious and people would treat you the same way- and boy did they.
  • Always work a hustle. Harry grew up on the streets of New Orleans, and his entire magic act was a take on the street hustlers and con men he knew. He never (to my knowledge) used his powers for evil, but I also saw fewer men work so hard. Most comics on the road do the promotion necessary, but you can still work a full schedule at a comedy club and have 20 hours a day to kill. Harry spent every day in Seattle visiting magic stores. He designed magic tricks, and he’d pop in to get the stores to buy his latest invention, or his newsletter, or just to know he was in town and drum up an audience.  I tagged along as he rose early every day with a printed list of every magic and joke shop in the area. I gawked and basked in reflected glory as he got treated like royalty everywhere magicians gathered, and was one of the most respected people in his craft. He’d been poor and had no intention of ever being that way again so he hustled his skinny butt off. He was a good role model in that regard.
  • It doesn’t hurt to be nice to the opening act. Harry was a pleasure to hang out with- and he didn’t have to be. He could have objected to being cooped up in an apartment with two young idiots, but he seemed to enjoy the big brother role (although there was a hysterical practical joke on the other comic I’ll remember to this day and take to my grave.) He treated us as peers. We’d write jokes (he actually did 2 of the jokes we wrote that week on Saturday Night Live a couple of weeks later and I bragged about it for years) and laugh. There may have been alcohol involved.
  • I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I stole the hat thing from him. At various times in my comedy career, I’ve worn suspenders and arm garters, totally inspired by Harry’s style. I always talk like a bit more of a hick than I really am, because you could sneak up on the suckers. I also noticed that his trademark hat made him instantly recognizable, and even years later people would talk about “the magician with the big hat” and I knew who they meant. Plus it was cool.

It was only a week. While we crossed paths once more after that and he was kind enough to sort of remember me, he made as big an impression on my comedy career and what came after as almost anyone from that time.

He passed today, and like so many people he probably has no idea of the impact he had on this kid he shared an apartment with and helped clean up the peppermint Schnapps puke. God love him.

 

The First Draft of Acre’s Orphans is Born–Be Very Afraid

If you’re one of the many people who enjoyed Acre’s Bastard, you’ve probably figured out that there’s at least one more book to come. Well, I’ve finally finished the first draft. Here’s photographic proof.

The first draft of Acre’s Orphans does exist

That said, it’s a first draft. Here’s what that feels like in my head…

A first draft is like giving birth… even if it is an ugly, demonic little darling

If you’ve seen David Cronenburg’s  1979 movie, The Brood, this makes a lot more sense. It’s a deformed, demonic little creature but mama loves it. That’s how I feel about the first version of Acre’s Orphans. (Yes, that makes me Samantha Eggar in this story. Don’t read too much into that.)  I am hopeful to have this revised and beta-read in time for a late fall launch.

If you’re a fan of Lucca the Louse, be prepared. You can drop me a line or join the newsletter using the link on this page to be the first to know when Acre’s Orphans is ready for the world.

Subscribe to my  newsletter and get a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Acre’s Bastard.  Each month you’ll receive links to interviews with great authors, news about upcoming events and previews of my work in progress, Acre’s Orphans. Look in the bottom left of the page for the sign-up sheet. No spam, just periodic updates and a chance to learn about great new Historical Fiction of all types from around the world.

Searching for the Nile, with Ken Czech

I am a sucker for stories about the British exploration and colonization of Africa. Maybe it’s being a child of the Commonwealth, or maybe it’s because when I was 8, I nearly wound up living in Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe) except for a paperwork error (long story, not enough whiskey to tell it right.) Just maybe it’s because,  regardless of your political opinions of it (and it ain’t easy on a white boy’s conscience), it’s exciting and makes for great storytelling.

Among my favorite tales (and, full disclosure, this is in my file of novels I might want to write someday, so I’m a little cranky Ken beat me to it) is “Beyond the River of Shame,” the story of Samuel and Florie Baker. A middle aged hunter and railroad man took his young wife- purchased from the Turks at a slave auction no less- into the heart of Africa to follow the Nile from stem to stern in search of the river’s source.

Let’s let Ken Czech tell the story himself. Ken, what’s your deal?

I’m a retired history prof, and though I’ve had numerous history articles and books published, my new love is writing historical fiction. Beyond The River of Shame is my debut novel. My
second novel Last Dance In Kabul will be released in August.

I’m also an on-line antiquarian book dealer specializing in 19th and early 20th
century sporting and exploration books. I do my writing from wintry Minnesota.

What’s the story behind “Beyond the River of Shame?”

Beyond The River Of Shame is based on the real life adventures of 19th
century explorer Samuel White Baker and Florie, the young woman he
buys at a slave auction. After thundering the winning bid, Sam
realizes that owning a slave girl would be a huge scandal in Victorian
England so he abandons her and continues his trek to discover the
source of the Nile River. Pursued by the slave traders, Florie refuses
to stay abandoned. She joins Sam on an epic journey into the depths of
Africa where they struggle against wild beasts, killer diseases, and
the horrors of the slave trade. Though their courage and new found
love will be driven to the breaking point, the lure of the mysterious
“Dead Locust Lake” draws them to their climactic showdown with the
slave catchers.

The title is a bit of a metaphor for both the Nile River (their search
for its source keeps Florie and Sam together), and the angst Sam feels
in owning a slave girl coupled with the priggish judgment English
society would level at his reputation and family.

I’m halfway through the book now, and really enjoying it. I know why I’m fascinated by it. What is it about this story that got you going?

My specialty while teaching was Modern European History, including English exploration and imperialism. I became acquainted with the
story of Florie and Sam through the books he wrote describing his adventures. While Florie appears in his writings as his companion (usually identified only as ‘F’), there is no mention of her past or
their physical and psychological relationship.

My story combines fact with fiction as I tried to fill in the blanks about them. By the way, according to several biographies of Sam, Florie was purchased at a slave auction, something she admitted to only later in her life.

What’s your favorite scene in the book?

In Beyond The River Of Shame, my favorite scene takes place after a
Cape buffalo has charged Florie. She is escorted back to a tribal camp
where the women cleanse her in a cone of incense. Invited to a victory
feast that evening, she is quiet and reserved, while Sam dances around
the campfire. Later, after all have retired, she visits Sam’s bed for
the first time, breaking the barriers that have separated them.

Yeah, about that. If we lived closer, I’d buy you a couple of beverages and we could argue the historical merits of that particular detail, but that’s what makes historical fiction so much fun.  Besides, after Count of the Sahara, I’m hardly in a position to judge filling in the blanks in people’s sex lives. Where can people read more about you and your work?

Here are some links that readers can find out more about my books and me.

http://www.kenczech.com

The book on Amazon

My Goodreads page

http://www.allthingsthatmatterpress.com/buynow.htm

http://www.fireshippress.com/fireship_authors/ken-czech.html

https://historicalnovelsociety.org/directory/ken-czech/

Subscribe to my  newsletter and get a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Acre’s Bastard.  Each month you’ll receive links to interviews with great authors, news about upcoming events and previews of my work in progress, Acre’s Orphans. Look in the bottom left of the page for the sign-up sheet. No spam, just once a month updates and a chance to learn about great new Historical Fiction of all types from around the world.

Why I write in first person…

If you’ve read any of my fiction, you’ll see that a surprising percentage is written in the first person. That’s a lot of “me” I grant you, and that’s a mixed blessing. Of course, I’m not really a 10 year old half-caste kid in the 12th Century (Lucca the Louse in Acre’s Bastard) nor a first generation German-American from 1920s Milwaukee (Willie Braun in The Count of the Sahara) and I’m certainly not a 1950s Korean Vet car salesman (my latest short story on Scriggler. Check it out.)

It’s really not an ego problem. I don’t set out to be the center of attention (shut up!). In fact, I never noticed I was actually writing so much in that voice until someone in my writer’s group pointed out that the same curmudgeonly middle-aged loser keeps showing up in a lot of my stories. For the record, he’s not the same guy (the anti-social railbird in On the Rail, and the eaves-dropping alcoholic in Through the Arbor Vitae,) but I suspect they’re closely related and may have gone to the same middle school.

They’re also not me, although my own appreciation for cigars makes it easy to describe a lazy smoke on the deck and my experience as a comedian and professional speaker certainly influenced the way I captured De Prorok’s barnstorming tours. But just because I use “me” and “I” doesn’t mean they’re my thoughts and actions.  In fact, I’ve been judged pretty harshly by the thoughts and comments of some of my characters. What can I tell you, people used different words to describe people 75 years ago. I sometimes blush writing them. (My work should have a disclaimer that the opinions of the characters are not necessarily those of the management.)

So why do I do it? Truthfully, it’s an accident.

I’m not a 10 year old Syrian boy…. but I play one in Acre’s Bastard

I always start with a character who is another person. Ramon Pachecho is a Puerto Rican boxer I invented, and I was able to maintain that distance throughout the story. Lucca Le Peu was born when I saw a news picture of a Syrian boy in the back of an ambulance after his village was bombed. Willie was a simple way to narrate the story of Byron de Prorok from a neutral standpoint—I needed an innocent observer. Somehow, they go from “the old guy at the cigar lounge” to “I”. How come?

First person allows me some advantages as a writer. One of the comments I got from “Arbor Vitae” when it posted on Scriggler was from a fellow author who appreciated the way I do interior monologue. That only happens because I put myself so deeply in the character’s place. Inevitably it starts with “why does he/she do this?” and eventually becomes “if it were me, why would I act that way?” At that point, it’s just easier to capture those thoughts and expressions in their voice. Maybe I’m just not that good a writer.

First person for me is an exercise in empathy. I was taught early to put myself in the other person’s shoes (fortunately I have small feet). While I’m wide open to charges of “cultural appropriation” or telling stories that aren’t mine to tell (I’ll pour the anejo and we’ll have it out in person,) I also believe it gives me deeper insight into character. That’s where you find the humor, the emotion and the tension. Something is far more dramatic if it happens to you than to someone else. Watching someone’s horse die isn’t the same as having your own pet’s life drain away in front of your eyes. (Spoiler alert?)

For me, insight comes from within. Even going back to my standup days, I was more of a commentator than an observer. Some comics can neutrally observe from outside (Jerry Seinfeld is the ultimate example.) I usually found the humor in how I react and process something, and hoped the audience would relate. I’ve never taken an old man to a cockfight, but I suspect if I did I’d sound a lot like the narrator in Tio Fernando’s Field Trip. It’s just funnier.

I don’t set out to write everything in first person, it just usually works out that way. I hope you check out a couple of the examples and keep reading.

 

 

Latin American Drama w Charles Ameringer

One of the great joys (for me) of reading historical fiction is finding out about people, places and times I either never heard of or gave no previous thought to. No offense to those who spend their entire reading hours in the Civil War or dealing with the Tudors (the hell with it, offense meant. Change the menu on occasion, it’s good for you!) When I heard about Charles Ameringer’s novel of 1920s Venezuela, “The Sons of Hernan Garcia,” I figured it was worth speaking to him. It’s not like I have a shelf full of early 20th Century Latin American stories taking up space. What about you?

Charles Ameringer, born in Milwaukee, WI, September 19, 1926, is professor emeritus of Latin American History at Penn State University.  During his academic career, he published eight scholarly books.  Now, in retirement, he has drawn upon his travel and research and unleashed his imagination to produce works of fiction, namely, the spy/thriller, “The Old Spook” (2012), the urban drama, “Duke Wellington: East Harlem Lawyer ” (2015), and “The Sons of Hernan Garcia” (2018). (Editorial note, that makes him nearly ninety-freaking-one, and he’s still writing. I am out of excuses.)

What’s your novel about?

The book takes place during two years (1920-1921) within the rule of Juan Vicente Gomez of Venezuela (1907-1935) and Hernan Garcia’s tyrannical rule is based upon that of Gomez.  It was a rule that was extremely cruel, and although the book is fiction it spares no details about  the evils perpetrated by a dictatorship.  That which the fictional characters endure and try to repay in kind makes for a thrilling game of cat and mouse.

What’s your favorite scene in the book?The Sons of Hernan Garcia by [Ameringer, Charles]

The birthday party of the five sons wherein they express their hatred toward Garcia and the ways they would like to do him in.  Although the sons were “blowing off steam,” the tyrant’s security force takes their remarks seriously and undertakes a deadly manhunt.  The reader is taken for a journey across the great plain of Venezuela, populated by exotic birds and animals (egret, jaguar, and anaconda).

I can safely say that qualifies as a unique story, and one not often told. Where can we learn more about your books and your work?

You can find me on Amazon by clicking here

or on Goodreads

Subscribe to my monthly newsletter and get a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Acre’s Bastard.  Each month you’ll receive links to interviews with great authors, news about upcoming events and previews of my work in progress, Acre’s Orphans. Look in the bottom left of the page for the sign-up sheet. No spam, just once a month updates and a chance to learn about great new Historical Fiction of all types from around the world.

Samurai Action and Fantasy with Travis Heermann

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a Kindle book that looked like fun: “Heart of the Ronin.” Think Yojimbo, if Toshiro Mifune could talk to dogs. (He was so cool, he probably could, but didn’t want to brag about it.) Just go with me on this one. I have already stated my deep affection for samurai cinema and stories, so it’s no wonder I wanted to interview the author, Travis Heermann.

Travis is a novelist, freelancer, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poet, and a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. His latest novel, co-authored with Jim Pinto, is the horror-Western Death Wind. Other novels include The Ronin TrilogyThe Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction published or forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Alembical,Fiction River, and others. His freelance work includes contributions to the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Battletech, Legend of Five Rings,and EVE Online. He lives in Colorado.

Now, on to the questions.

What’s the basic story of your book?

Heart of the Ronin and the Ronin Trilogy in total is about a young masterless samurai, a ronin, and his quest to make a name for himself in a world that despises him. He saves the life of the noble maiden, beset by a pack of bandits led by a terrifying demon. Ronin and maiden fall in love, only to discover that she is promised to another, a political match with a powerful samurai lord.

At its core, the series is about the Zen concept of non-attachment, as its applies to things like love, honor, and duty, all of which come into deadly conflict throughout the trilogy. There’s also some exploration about the nature of evil and how the Eastern notion of evil differs from the Western. All of that couched in an adventure story that takes on an epic scope.

I get that. When I have to explain my samurai fixation, I often refer to them as Japanese Westerns. One of the basic tenets of my own work is that swords are cooler than guns.  What’s your fascination with this time period?

I’ve been a fan of samurai films and director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune since high school. Mifune’s wolfish presence fills a screen like John Wayne did, with larger than life characters. I wanted to write a samurai novel. What started out as a single novel ultimately became a trilogy.

I settled upon the time period, the 13th century, because I fell down the rabbit hole of research. Japan’s history, well documented for almost two thousand years, still fascinates me. There are so many fascinating eras and characters of incredible power, few of which are even barely explored in Western media. In the 13th Century, Japan was the target of two invasions by Mongol Empire, a force of conquest and culture that stretched all the way to Eastern Europe before it fell into decline. This seemed to me like the richest possible ground for some amazing stories, and I was not wrong.

I hear ya. One of my favorite T-shirts asks, “What Would Toshiro Mifune Do?” Without giving away the goodies, what’s your favorite scene in the book?

In Heart of the Ronin, my favorite scene is probably the one where Ken’ishi, our ronin protagonist, saves Kazuko, the noble maiden, from the bandit attack. First, it’s just a ton of great action, and its the first encounter between these two characters, which will shape the rest of the story. Also, the leader of the gang, the oni, or demon, even though he’s defeated, returns over and over thematically throughout the series. He was just an amazingly fun character to write–and to keep bringing back in new and ever more demented ways.

You write more than just the Ronin trilogy. Where can people learn more about your work?

Here are some links to where I and my books can be found.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/ B002E453X4

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ TravisHeermann

Web Site: http://www. travisheermann.com

Blog: http://www. travisheermann.com/blog/

Facebook: https://www. facebook.com/travis.heermann

Goodreads: http://www. goodreads.com/author/show/ 418704.Travis_Heermann 

Subscribe to my monthly newsletter and get a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Acre’s Bastard.  Each month you’ll receive links to interviews with great authors, news about upcoming events and previews of my work in progress, Acre’s Orphans. Look in the bottom left of the page for the sign-up sheet. No spam, just once a month updates and a chance to learn about great new Historical Fiction of all types from around the world.

 

The One Book I’ll Never Get Rid Of. What’s Yours?

What’s the one book you’ll never get rid of?

I don’t mean the book that changed your life, or the title of the book that you’ve reread the most—I  mean the physical piece of paper and ink that has made multiple moves, survived periodic purges and you expect to have with you til you die? Since yesterday was #worldwidebookday and #nationalbookday, it got me thinking….

This is mine, a 45-year old ratty paperback version of Roget’s Thesaurus.

It’s not that I use it often in my work—I can’t remember the last time I actually opened it to find something. It’s old and fragile and I’m truly afraid it will crack or crumble into dust with use. I can find any word I’m looking for on my phone—and they’ve invented quite a few new words since this was written. But this is the book that helped make me a writer, and like most things we get emotionally attached to, there’s a story…

The last time I spent a night in the hospital was 1973. I was 12 years old and had a bad flu that landed me in the Mission Memorial Hospital for rehydration and overnight observation. I was fine, and bored, and wanted to just go home. Then I met the man who gave me this book, and a huge reason you’re reading anything I write to this day.

A big, friendly British man stopped by my room and asked if he could just pop in for a chat. He was Neville Cox—the hospital administrator. Of course, in the way of small towns everywhere he was also the Mayor of Mission for a time, and the regular speaker at Remembrance Day at the Legion, a newspaper columnist, and a lot of other things. He liked to visit patients in the hospital and (maybe he was just bored) spent some time with the weird ginger kid in room 214.

We talked about a lot of things, but when he learned that I was an avid reader, and thought maybe I might want to write someday (kids in small-town Canada just didn’t have those plans. I got my ass kicked by Randy Simpson regularly just for reading in public) , he did two things that altered my future in ways neither of us could have imagined.

The first, was he asked me if I’d ever read The Hobbit. Remember, I was barely 12 at the time, and that was pretty grown-up stuff. He gave me a very English “harrumph” and probably a “nonsense,” and insisted that I was certainly smart enough to read it, and I might enjoy it. It was the first adult book I ever took out of the library and sent me on a lifetime of reading things that well-meaning people thought I probably shouldn’t. We don’t do that enough for kids today.

When our visit was over, he went away, but returned about an hour later with the second thing. “No writer can be without one of these,” he said. “Words are your tools. You need to know the right one.” It was a cheap paperback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. I don’t know if he’d just grabbed one lying around, or he actually ran down and bought it, but he presented it to me, signed on the inside cover in pencil.

“Presented to Wayne, August 1973, by Neville Cox”

This book saw me through high school writing and public speaking contests, college in Vancouver, the move to pursue a writing and standup career in Toronto, on to Los Angeles, then to Chicago and now, as I’m clearing out my life in preparation for our next move to Las Vegas, I realized that it will make that trip as well.

That well-meaning visit and off-hand gift to a young stranger has been fundamental in my writing 8 non-fiction books, 2 novels, (the Count of the Sahara and Acre’s Bastard) countless blog and magazine articles, and altered the way I think and view the world.

Since the town was minuscule, I encountered him a couple of times before I left Mission for good, and always thanked him politely. He never failed to ask how the writing was coming. (I was 17 the last time… I think I grunted and said, “good.” Not exactly proof of concept.) Mayor Cox, as my mother insisted I call him, passed in 2013 (here’s the hometown article. He was an amazing person, do yourself a favor…) That thesaurus still sits on my bookshelf, and will til I can’t protect it any more.

What about you? What’s the physical book that you will never, ever relinquish? Maybe it’s a children’s book you really loved, or something your grandfather gave you that you didn’t appreciate at the time. Tell me and share the question with your friends and others. It’s amazing what you’ll learn about them.