Engineers really can write

J.B. Rivard was on the blog in 2017 giving his view on what makes historical fiction tick. He’s back today to share the career he had before becoming an author.

What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?

My years at Mishawaka High School (Mishawaka, Indiana) were supposed to prepare me for college. But then the North Koreans invaded the South. I was drafted, and opted to serve in the U.S. Navy. I was trained in and then taught radio navigation to cadets trying to earn their wings as Navy pilots.

After the war, I finished college with an engineering degree that enabled me to join the technical staff of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Early on at the Labs I served on a radar crew during Operation Dominic’s test explosions of nuclear weapons off the island of Kiritimati (then known as Christmas) in the central Pacific Ocean. Afterwards my job evolved into research on the safety aspects of nuclear reactors, operational power plants as well as advanced concepts employing, for example, sodium-cooled fast reactors.

Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing?

Not really. During my years at the Labs, the bulk of my work resulted in written reports and technical papers, some of which are still listed on Google Scholar. My almost-daily assignment was stating my findings, technical to be sure, in language that might be understood by my bosses and their bosses at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C.—not an easy task, but one that saw my syntactical abilities tested. After twenty-five years of this often-stressful work, I retired with the title Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff (DMTS).

Seeking broader experience, I created and ran an etching workshop for several years, then moved to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico where I worked as civics and political reporter for the South Jetty newspaper and as a ‘stringer’ writing features for WorkBoat, a New Orleans maritime publication. During this period I also served briefly as a mate on a charter fishing boat and crewed on “Bearcat,” a 65-ft workboat serving offshore drilling rigs and other maritime needs.

Do you now write full time or part time?

In 1990 my late wife read the beginnings of a short story and declared I ‘must’ turn it into a novel. Despite assuring her I didn’t have the needed patience, I soon began writing long-form fiction. For that decade following 1990, I struggled through a number of novels, none of which were better than adequate, and several of which were never finished.

Except for periods devoted to artwork and time spent in nautical activities, most of the past 27 years have been occupied writing—as an employee, freelancing, or speculatively.

Early in the 21st century I was inspired to write an historical novel of Chicago, or as I hoped at the time, THE Chicago novel. After four drafts, I considered The Heedless Spring publishable, but agents were massively indifferent. By 2010, I’d shelved the book and turned to writing music and pop songs.

In 2014, however, Anya Carlson read the Heedless manuscript and said I could do better. I planned a total rewrite without changing the thrust of the story, remedying what I thought were the novel’s weaknesses, including its first-person narration. The rewrite resulted in 2016’s Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago, which I also illustrated.

Currently I write a bimonthly blog on the website  I am also working on another illustrated novel in a different genre.

What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?

To me, writing is a very satisfying challenge, with the accent on ‘challenge.’ I also thoroughly enjoy my ability to illustrate my writing.

Unfortunately, although this is the age of the indie author with almost unlimited publishing opportunities, it is also the age of volcanic overproduction of unedited books. Whatever the merits of one’s thoughtfully-conceived, lovingly-written and carefully-edited novel, securing readers for it within this mountainous glut is daunting. Illusions of Magic has earned positive editorial reviews, yet its readership is sparse. What the digital revolution has not changed is that powerhouse publishers are still able to sink millions supporting their selections along the road to massive readership and recognition.

What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?

Success in technological work largely results from aptitude, study, application, and the high quality of the resulting work product. At the Labs it was not forbiddingly difficult to attain ‘expert’ status, garnering kudos and presenting results throughout the U.S. and overseas at seminars, think tanks and before government bureaucrats.

It’s not the same in the creative arts. In any quest for recognition, whether in writing, painting, poetry, etc., excellence of the product is necessary, but woefully insufficient. One’s efforts are as likely to be ignored as to be honored.

On the other hand, each day I’m excited to attack my latest project—a satisfying emotion that was often absent in my previous, high-tech worlds.

Do you have any regrets?

I think many more readers would enjoy my Illusions novel, but knowledge of its existence, not to say merit, is not widespread. I don’t regret the writing and publishing, but this deficiency is disappointing.

What advice would you offer other second-career writers?

Thanks to improved health, longer lifespans and increased affluence, second- and even third-careers are now common. In considering novel writing, careful consideration should be accorded the path: seeking agents/publishers vs self-publishing. Neither path is simple, easy or lacking in pitfalls for the unwary tyro. If recognition is the goal of a follow-on career, I would not advise choosing novel-writing. A better choice would be an alternative where reaching a nexus between effort and reward is more straightforward. However, if the ability to choose your topic and treatment, and the freedom to pursue them are absolutely paramount, a career as a novelist is very hard to beat.

Many thanks for sharing your story, J.B. I remember when my husband studied engineering, he took a class on technical writing. The implication at the time was that engineers struggled to write well – you’re definitely an exception.

Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago by J.B. Rivard

The withering of vaudeville was bad enough in 1933. Because of the Great Depression, bookings for stage magician Nick Zetner disappeared. With his marriage cracking under the strain, Nick reluctantly accepts a devious banker’s deal: He earns a generous reward if he retrieves photos stolen during a break-in at the bank. Along the way, a love he thought he’d forever lost reappears. Despite his skill in the arts of magic, penetrating the realm of the thieves grows increasingly perilous, especially when it endangers his newfound romance.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

From palaeontologist to author

Davide Mana was on the blog last April talking about successful historical fiction and today I’m pleased to welcome him back on the topic of being a second career author. Davide’s latest novel is House of the Gods.


There’s a saying that goes, all kids are fascinated by dinosaurs, then the majority grow up, and the rest become paleontologist.

I am a paleontologist, if a defrocked one.

I was born in 1967, and I grew up with documentaries and books about space and the depths of the ocean, about explorers and travelers, and lots of adventure narratives, in book, films, TV series. Considering I was particularly fascinated by the oceans, by volcanoes  and by dinosaurs, I decided to study sciences, and geology in particular.

I aligned a number of qualifications, including a B.Sc. in Micropalaeontology and a Ph.D. in Geology.

I worked briefly for an oil company, then as a lab assistant and general gopher, then as a lecturer and a researcher. I designed and delivered courses to post-grads and post-docs, I published articles in major science journals, working in teams with some fantastic people. I worked mostly on the Mediterranean, doing environmental models and reconstructions, including present day analyses of pollution and environmental changes.

In 2014 my contract with the University of Urbino expired, with little hopes of renewal as the crisis brought massive cuts to research. A colleague cheerfully suggested now I could post my CV to McDonald’s.

I started writing instead (and killed that colleague in my first novel).

I always loved stories, and writing fiction had been my hobby since the mid ’80s, when I was in high school. I had a few things published, a handful of short stories, a few short essays, some role-playing games material.

In 2014, as I sat by a telephone that refused to ring, I “temporarily” turned my hobby into a full-time job, with a side of translation gigs. Basically, because it was the only marketable skill I had at the moment, and because I could do it while assisting my ailing father.

Right now, I am a hybrid author, meaning I publish both traditionally and independently, both fiction and non fiction, both in Italian and English, both under my name and using an alias. Fiction-wise, I write mostly genre, adventure or fantasy or thrillers, usually with a historical twist.

It’s a sort-of-full-time job, but it comes in a number of different flavors – as I said, I write gaming material and I’m also a freelance translator (an activity I consider akin to writing: translating a text requires human imagination and skill, that’s the reason why software can’t really do it).

It’s like a roller coaster, with ups and downs: on a good day it’s the best job in the world. The simple idea that something that did not exist before and came straight out of my head through a keyboard now’s being enjoyed by strangers and is actually paying my dinner is exhilarating.

But there are drawbacks, of course. And while the thought instantly goes to payments – or lack thereof – the first true problem, for me at least, is isolation: wake up in the morning, start writing, stop writing, go to sleep. I do it at home – writing in public places is too distracting for me – and it can be lonely, and tiring, and depressing. And really, IT IS about money: as a little known author, you must write a lot to pay your bills, so you hole yourself in your writing nook and write write write; and any incident can lead to a missed deadline, a missed sale, and then to panic attacks as the bank rings you up to inform you your account is in the red.

But most of the time it is fun, and one enjoys a type of freedom that’s unknown in other careers.

Of my old job – that’s now turned into my hobby – I miss the research most of all. Going out there, see what it looks like in the field, get samples, develop models, find answers or even better new questions. Solve problems. I miss “doing science”, and I miss the lab just as I miss the classroom. Because I always loved telling stories, but being a scientist, and an earth scientist, was my dream as a kid.

I don’t have particular regrets. What-might-have-beens are great for fiction (and historical-tinged fiction certainly), but they are not something that really makes one’s life any easier. Let’s say I could have been better at managing my academical career but really, it would have required choices and compromises that I would then certainly regret.

As for advice for those that have taken up writing as a second career, I’d say, don’t forget what you learned during your first career, the places you saw, the people you met. The mindset, too, and the discipline and work ethics. But the experiences you had, most of all. Experiences are a gold mine, and a career, no matter in what field, is a huge source of ideas, snippets of dialog, characters.

Characters you can kill in your first novel, maybe.

Many thanks for sharing your story, Davide. I’ll have to be careful in future dealings with you otherwise you might kill me off in a story!

House of the Gods by Davide Mana – High above the steamy jungle of the Amazon basin, rise the flat plateaus known as the Tepui, the House of the Gods. Lost worlds of unknown beauty, a naturalistic wonder, each an ecology onto itself, shunned by the local tribes for centuries. The House of the Gods was not made for men.

But now, the crew and passengers of a small charter plane are about to find what was hidden for sixty million years. Lost on an island in the clouds 10.000 feet above the jungle, surrounded by dinosaurs, hunted by mysterious mercenaries, the survivors of Sligo Air flight 001 will quickly learn the only rule of life on Earth: Extinction.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website