My first novel was Vipsania: A Roman Odyssey (2006). I had dabbled in fiction before that, but always in short formats and with the support of illustrations. Vipsania was my first attempt at a full length story – and what a story it was – a fact-based “alternative history” of the Roman emperor Tiberius and his first wife Vipsania. At its heart was a theory I had developed based on research for my non-fiction book about the Roman Empresses (Great Women of Imperial Rome, Routledge 2006). As such, it was a story that only I could tell.
But could I write a novel? I certainly didn’t read novels – partly a consequence of traumatic school experiences and partly because I preferred less time-consuming art forms. However, to my surprise, I really enjoyed writing Vipsania, it sold fairly well, and those readers who bothered to write reviews rated it good to excellent! I felt like I had found my niche.
A few years later, I wrote another historical novel set in Roman times. This is the story of a 3rd Century Roman outlaw: Bulla Felix: The Roman Robin Hood. Once again, I was pleased with the product, and very encouraged when a prominent literary agent took an interest. However, I wasn’t prepared for his verdict:
The story is solid, good, nice plot. The characterization and involvement of the reader is insufficient to warrant interest from the publishers with whom we transact. I wish I could be hopeful here, but whilst you have a very interesting story to tell, it is not told in such a way as to enthrall the reader, involve the reader, win over the reader. You tell me what happens, you do not share what happens, you do not fully describe/impart what happens.
Well now! I realized that I didn’t really know what he was talking about, or how I might rectify things if I wanted to. So I did some dipping into well-reviewed, best-selling historical novels on Amazon (using the “Look Inside” feature) to see what I was missing. To my surprise, I found the highly regarded books almost unreadable. They made me feel claustrophobic and thoroughly manipulated. Every detail of action, emotion, and physical surroundings was described using literary devices that, though often clever and sometimes beautiful, often seemed forced, pretentious; even oppressive.
I had always preferred movies to novels because watching something on a screen allowed a sense of separation and independence, while a novel – especially of this sort – got into my head in a way that manipulated my emotions and my imagination. It was just too close for comfort. When I read nonfiction, I was still able to maintain some distance and perspective, but this kind of fiction was just too overbearing for me.
So I decided I didn’t want to rewrite Bulla Felix: The Roman Robin Hood in an effort to make it “warrant interest from the publishers with whom we transact”. I would trust my own taste and publish it as it was.
I immediately received some good reviews, but when I gave copies to a couple of literary-minded friends, they echoed the agent’s opinion. One of them even said “this is terrible writing!” And then, though the reviews for my works of fiction were mostly positive, averaging 3.5 to 4 stars out of 5, I received a couple of very negative reviews for Vipsania in the same vein: “terrible writing!”
This was disheartening because I enjoyed writing historical fiction, I had some interesting stories to tell, and the majority of readers really liked my books. So I did some more “dipping” into novels in Amazon. Whenever I got a negative review, I would read portions of the novels that had received positive reviews from those readers. It was the same story – I rebelled utterly. I realized that I didn’t want to write like that – even if I could!
Now this isn’t to say that I don’t respect these writers – I do. I admire their craftsmanship and ability to use language – I just don’t want to subject myself (or my readers) to such a controlling style. I would rather tell (or read) a straightforward story and leave the peripheral details to the imagination.
An analogy comes to mind. I greatly respect Classical music and enjoy many bits and pieces of it. However, there are few complete symphonies or operas that I would want to hear in their entirety – and I wouldn’t want to write music under the constraints of sonata form or what have you, either. I do write songs, but they are short, sweet, and rarely feature more than six guitar chords. When it comes to writing fiction, I am a rock and roller.
Of course, I know there are readers who insist on a more sophisticated, more literary approach than I can offer. They are free to avoid my writing – and to return it for a refund if they buy it unwittingly. However, I know that there are many others with tastes like my own because my books sell and my reviews to date (over 150) are overwhelmingly positive.
In view of all this, I have just polished up good old Bulla Felix and given him a new cover. Enjoy! (or not). As rock and roller Ricky Nelson said “You can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.”
So I’ve been drawing for publication for 33 years now; seems like a good time to publish a volume of collected works. This book contains well over 100 drawings, about half in color and most full-page (8″x10″), ranging from landscapes to meticulous portraits of fossils, bugs, and Roman empresses, to abstracts and fantastical art.
Most of these images have appeared in published form before (a list of 32 publications is included), but some have never been reproduced in color or at this scale. Also, 8 unpublished landscapes of the Sierra Nevada in California and Nevada are included.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think these pictures speak for themselves. Also, many of them simply defy description. Therefore, I have not included captions or explanations. This is a collection of images that reflect my interests and imagination. Hopefully, there’s something here for everyone.
The story – the account of my spiritual awakening and growth under the influence of the Indian saint Baba Muktananda (1908-1982) – remains personal and special and is probably still “unpublishable”, though the topics dealt with are far more “mainstream” than they were in 1981. I have added a lot of drawings and some reflections.
Baba blessed this book when I wrote it and told him I was looking for a publisher, so he must have wanted it in print. The artwork won’t appeal to everyone – nor will the story – but it’s probably the most important thing I have to say – and saying it is important to me. Available now on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.
Five years ago, I published “Irish Hammered Pennies of Edward IV and Richard III”, presenting many new varieties of silver pennies struck by these English kings in Ireland between 1461 and 1483. Since that time, 13 new mint varieties and 6 completely new design types have come to my attention, so I figured it was time for an update.
These coins are commonly discovered in England by metal detectorists as they were imported from Ireland in the 15th Century and passed off as heavier English issues, which most of them resembled closely. The second edition is now available wherever Amazon books are offered. More information is offered in my blog entry describing the first edition, which I am now offering at a discount on Amazon.
After my book “Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States” (Johns Hopkins, 1991) came out, I was contacted by paleontologist Dr. Lauck (“Buck”) Ward of the Virginia Museum of Natural History. We struck up a friendship and he arranged for me to illustrate one of his scientific papers and introduced me to the publication staff at VMNH, including its director, Mr. Rick Boland. I was commissioned to illustrate two VMNH publications (“Fun With Mammals” and “The MINTS Book”) and prepare some cover art for another (“Exploring Virginia’s Endangered Species”). After drawing a series of reconstructions of marine habitats for Dr. Ward’s paper, I suggested to Rick Boland that I draw similar diorama’s for the rest of the geologic periods with a fossil record in Virginia and make the series into a children’s book, augmented by drawings of fossil specimens. The result was “Exploring Virginia’s Fossils” (1998).
Unfortunately, the Museum’s publication policy soon changed and all these books went out of print. I never heard the reason for this change, but was sorry to see the fruits of my hard work lapse into obscurity. Many years later, it occurred to me to ask for permission to use my drawings in my own publication. Permission was granted, I “colorized” a selection of the drawings (including most of the prehistoric re-creations) and added some drawings I had done for other purposes of fossils, animals, and plants – and prepared maps showing prehistoric topographies and the modern distribution of sedimentary rocks and deposits for each geologic period in the state. The result is “Virginia Through Time: A Natural History Atlas”. It is large (8″ x 10″) and colorful and appropriate for all ages.
Roughly thirty years ago, my brother Philip commissioned me to draw 19 fish that occur in the Chesapeake Bay of Maryland and Virginia for his proposed guide to fishing. His intention was to compile information about the “where and when” of Bay fishing, based on records and interviews with experts. Somehow the book never happened and my drawings have languished in a cardboard box ever since. I decided recently to resurrect Philip’s idea in slightly altered form. I thought it might be useful for anglers to have an inexpensive digital guidebook to the game fish of the Chesapeake that could be used “in the wind and spray” of the Bay on Kindles and smart phones, with basic information about the different species, their natural foods and favorite baits, fishing techniques, geographical ranges, feeding habits, etc. In other words, the “who and what”. Therefore, I colored my original pencil drawings, compiled the basic information, and published “P. B.’s Quick Index to Game Fish of the Chesapeake Bay” as an ebook and paperback. The name refers to Philip’s classic “P. B.’s Quick Index to Bird Nesting” (1983), which I also illustrated and which sold about 10,000 copies before it went out of print.
Another in my series of family history treasures. This is the account of a tour of Europe taken by my great grandmother Lucy Trice (Minor) and her cousin and close friend, Lucy Minor Davis in 1884. Both were intelligent, well read, highly educated, possessed a keen interest in art and history – and had a mind of her own. (For example, Lucy Davis detested the “Old Master” painters and considered the works of Michelangelo dreadful). Lucy Trice’s complete journal is presented with extensive excerpts from Lucy Davis’s journal and her letters home. Biographical sketches of the authors are included and the book is illustrated with over 160 photographs, mostly contemporary with the journey. The book is available as a paperback and ebook on Amazon.
The tour featured some rare and unforgettable moments. For example: performances by the legendary actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Mary Anderson, a meeting with the American sculptor Longworth Powers (son of Hiram Powers) at his studio in Florence, a minor eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at the crater’s rim, a sermon delivered by the famous preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon in London, and a moving recital in Lucerne by Professor Meyer, the most noted organist of the day. These experiences were in addition to planned encounters with famous buildings, cities, natural wonders, and works of art.