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

Inside Historical Fiction with J.B. Rivard

illusions-of-magic-jbrivardJ. B. Rivard, author of Illusions of Magic, is a creative man. He’s written songs as well as orchestral works, exhibited award-winning paintings and etchings, worked as a reporter and journalist, published cartoons and illustrations, written novels and short stories. Today he talks about writing historical fiction.

MKT: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

JB: Historical fiction has the potential to relate more closely to readers’ actual experience by transforming the often dull, complex, or mundane events and conditions of history into exciting, dramatic reading. To make this successful, good historical fiction writers bring honed skills of storytelling together with a judicious infusion of authentic history to forge a creative and exciting combination. And a little humor never hurts:

Connie said, “…Hizzonor has given his ‘enforcers’ orders to take out the Mob.” She stood before the oval mirror in the Horn front parlor, teasing at her hair with a fountain pen. “They’re [the Mob] not going to rest easy with that.”

Noddy stopped, her crochet hooks poised above the ball of blue yarn. “You mean to clean up Al Capone’s old gang?”

Liver Jack stuck his cigar into the side of his mouth. “Well, the Chicago Times says—”

“You mean the Chicago Daily Times,” Noddy said, correcting him.

“Yes, yes, Noddy. The Chicago Daily Times says Zangara—the shooter—was trying to assassinate this guy Roosevelt. That he’s some kind of socialist nut.”

Connie said, “You mean Zangara is some kind of socialist nut.”

Liver Jack frowned at her. “For crying out loud, isn’t that what I just said?”

“No. It sounded like Mr. Roosevelt was the socialist nut. And Mr. Roosevelt is not just a guy, Jack. He’s the President-elect.” – from Chapter 6, Illusions of Magic

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Most historical novels are more restrictive than contemporary novels. The HF writer often portrays a true-life event or situation during its time, either as background for a fictional story, or as a fictional re-creation of that historical event or situation. This contrasts with contemporary novels, which suffer no such restriction. I grew up spending time as a youth in Chicago, and was drawn to its fascinating stories. When I came across the events surrounding Mayor Cermak’s wounding and death, I knew I had three weeks of drama to explore in the form of a novel.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel?

For me, the aspects to be highlighted depend on the nature of the story line. Because Illusions of Magic is set in Chicago during the Great Depression year of 1933, I highlighted the city’s desperate financial condition and its legions of unemployed. The novel’s protagonist is a magician, so I emphasized conjuring as practiced by magicians of the day. Finally, it was crucially important to highlight the turmoil that beset the City Council: They faced the death of Chicago’s mayor without a legal way to replace him.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue and characters are true to the time period?

I use two techniques. First, I try to read as much actual history of the period and location as allows me to understand its milieu, appearances, culture and language. Second, I locate and study as many photo, illustration, map and other visual resources as are available from the period and location. Combined in my imagination, these components help me create the elements needed for the story.

For example, before its demolition in the 1980s, the Chicago and NorthWestern Railway Terminal occupied the block on Madison from Canal Street to Clinton Street. Easily the most monumental structure on the city’s Near West Side, its waiting room served as many as 50,000 passengers a day. Old photographs enabled me to determine its appearance and understand its layout and functions. This equipped me, in the final chapter of my novel, to describe how a character, “…seeing his mother coming into Northwestern depot’s street-level lobby from the Canal Street side, leaped from the steps, raced across to where she’d stopped—unbelieving, tears coming—while Liver Jack stood by confused, holding the travel bag…”

This knowledge also allowed me to imagine and create a drawing of the interior of the immense 12-track train shed that stretched for the length of three football fields to the north of the terminal.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a world for your readers?

For me, the paramount aspect is creating an authentic setting through description, dialogue, and nuance. For the fiction to be convincing, readers must feel they are actually living in that historic time and place.

For Liver Jack’s house, built after World War I, I envisioned “a snug one-and-a-half story with wide overhanging roof, deep front porch, and three small windows peeking from a front dormer.”

To describe a passing man, I wrote “…a felt hat pulled low over his big nose. Under his arm was a package, perhaps tonight’s sausage or bread in a rolled newspaper tied with a string.”

Finally, to visualize conditions in Cicero, Illinois in 1933: “Mud still seemed to be the main paving material, and where blacktop existed, it cracked and flaked soon after installation.”

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Illusions of Magic centers on a true-life, yet little-known historical incident: the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. The shooter, Giuseppe Zangara, fired five shots but missed Roosevelt. One of several people wounded was Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Cermak was hospitalized for nineteen days before dying.

This incident forms the backdrop of the novel featuring struggling professional stage magician Nick Zetner. The story mixes Nick’s love life with a challenging case he takes on for a devious banker. His adventures propel the reader through highs and lows with punchy dialogue and easy humor.

After writing the novel my partner Anya and I discussed a tangent that would, we hoped, make this novel more memorable. Having lived with its fictional characters for a span of years, I knew each like a close friend; over the next several months I created pen and ink illustrations of each of the main characters. To these I added illustrations of particular events. These became the fifteen illustrations in the eBook, including the drawing of Nick that appears on its cover. It’s our attempt to return the illustrated (adult) novel to the popularity it once enjoyed with readers the world over.

A novel with illustrations – how novel! Many thanks for being on A Writer of History, J.B. I wish you great success with Illusions of Magic.

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 and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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