Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.
Hello Martin, first of all thanks very much for agreeing to talk to us. For those of our readers who don’t recognise the name, you’re a prolific fiction writer, editor and reviewer working in various genres. So how did your writing career come about?
I set out to become a novelist in high school, but it was a long, meandering journey. I obtained a bachelor’s degree in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter, investigative journalist, and newspaper editor for more than twenty years. During that time, I wrote numerous short stories, published a few of them, and started, finished, or abandoned several novels—none of which saw the light of day.
In the Nineties, I finally finished two novels and started hawking them around. I gained a lit agent who ended up doing nothing, then signed with a second agency, which went out of business. Not exactly a stellar start.
I was on a reserve boat crew in the U.S. Coast Guard when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred in 2001. Unlike Britain’s Coastguard, ours is a military service and I did a stint of active duty performing homeland security missions as part of Operation Noble Eagle. After that, I decided I needed a change from journalism and—based on my military experience and my experience as a wilderness medic and tactical medic with the local sheriff’s department reserve search-and-rescue unit—got a job as a U.S. Navy analyst in combat casualty care. Shortly after that, the U.S. invaded Iraq and our op tempo was so high, I didn’t have time to do any fiction writing for nearly ten years.
In 2012, I finally started writing again. That’s when I first heard about independent publishing. Since my wife and I both have backgrounds in publishing, I thought I’d it a try. As a sort of proof of concept, I published a collection of short stories called DUTY and it won an award. I haven’t looked back. Since then, I’ve published nine books, including five mystery thrillers, two sci-fi thrillers, DUTY, and a book on military history, and they’ve earned several national awards
I retired from my Navy job in 2018 and started a freelance book editing business to supplement my retirement income and book royalties. Since then, I have edited close to forty books, both fiction and nonfiction.
One thing though. I don’t review books professionally. I simply publish my reviews on my writing blog.
You’ve lived a long and active life as a soldier, a coast guard and journalist, experiences you obviously draw on in your thriller writing. One of the services you offer on your website is advice for writers wanting to write about the military from someone who was there. What do you see as the main errors people without that experience make when writing about the military
One of the biggest errors I see in books and movies is the idea that all that expensive, high-tech equipment you hear about actually works. I call this the Tom Clancy Syndrome, because Clancy’s books always have military tech that is capable of incredible feats. The truth is it often doesn’t work the way all the hype says it will.
For instance, our Navy’s premier cruiser, the Aegis-class cruiser, had a weapons computer system that was already ten years obsolete when the first ship of the class came off the ways. It was an Aegis cruiser that accidently shot down an Iranian airliner in the late Eighties. The now defunct F-22 Raptor stealth fighter had to be dumped when it started poisoning its pilots and ground crews.
Our military and political leadership too often believes technology can solve all problems and win any war, even low-tech wars. But we had superior technology in Vietnam and that still didn’t go well. We had superior technology in Iraq. The insurgents successfully responded by using improvise explosive devices based on 1800’s technology. How did we respond? By building MRAPs—mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles—that had been in use in South Africa and Rhodesia since the 1970s.
Television and movies add to the problem. If you’ve watched the TV show NCIS, you’ve seen the characters going into a comms center called M-Tac that allows agents to have videoconferences with people deployed aboard ships or combat zones. First, M-Tac doesn’t exist. Second, videoconferencing takes up a lot of broadband. What band width exists aboard ships or in immature combat zones is taken up with communications and controlling drone aircraft. During my Navy work, I had many teleconferences with people deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, but no videoconferences. There’s just not enough band width.
You’ve said on your website that any book must first of all entertain, that must be their primary purpose. With that in mind how important do you think accuracy is when writing a thriller. Do you think something obviously unbelievable breaks the immersion and takes the writer out of the story or would most reads rather the action be interesting than realistic?
Fiction by its nature requires a certain suspension of disbelief from the reader. That’s certainly true when writing genres that require world building. But if you’re writing contemporary fiction, I think there needs to be more authenticity. In my novel The Killing Depths, a murder mystery wrapped around a submarine thriller, I did my best to make the submarine details and actions plausible if not accurate. Being both a Coast Guard and Navy vet, I know my way around boats and ships, but not subs. I did a lot of research, finagled the Navy to let me tour a Los Angeles-class submarine, and had a retired submariner read an early draft of the book and give me advice on its accuracy.
But is it a totally accurate account of submarine operations? No, of course not. A thriller must be exciting, and the fact is an exciting day on a submarine is not a good day.
You’re also a freelance editor and proofreader, what are the most common mistakes you encounter in manuscripts sent to you?
Far too many people who want to be writers don’t study the basics. They never heard of the Shunn standard manuscript format. If you want a publisher to read your manuscript, it must be properly formatted.
Too many beginning writers don’t understand the conventions of simple punctuation. They misuse and overuse punctuation marks like ellipses (…) and exclamation marks (!). Both should be used judiciously. They are like seasoning for dialogue. When cooking, a little seasoning adds flavor to the food; too much seasoning and the food becomes unpalatable.
Many beginning authors write in the passive voice. That means they use verbs in which the subject undergoes the action rather than doing it. With active verbs, the subject does the action. Active voice brings immediacy to the writing. It also tightens the writing by reducing the number of words used. Though passive verbs can’t always be avoided, writers should strive to reduce their numbers.
Your books are self-published, which means you act as the marketer and press agent for them as well as the writer. How easy is it to build an audience through e-publishing and what would your advice be to an inexperienced writer in terms of getting their books noticed?
These days there’s really no difference between independent authors and traditionally published authors. In the Golden Age of publishing, publishers marketed their authors, setting up interviews, book tours, etc. That’s rarely done anymore. It’s left up to the author. And if your efforts don’t sell books, the publishers dump you. There are so few big publishing houses left anymore, at least in the U.S., that authors are treated more like commodities than creators.
I often say I spend ten percent of my time writing, and ninety percent marketing. Your new book promotion activities should start no fewer than four months before it’s published. That’s when you start sending out advance reading copies, or ARCs, to reviewers. Set your new book up for pre-orders and start promoting it on reader sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. There are several inexpensive press release services that can send out releases about your book. Offer free ARCs to readers and ask them to write reviews. Establish a strong social media presence online including an author website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
It’s also important not to limit yourself to only e-books. While e-books will make up the bulk of your sales, many readers prefer physical books or audiobooks. All my books are available as physical books, and most are available as audiobooks. Each of those types of books represents a separate revenue stream.
You’ve also reviewed quite a few books on your website. Are there any thrillers you’d particularly recommend to our audience, who tend to be more informed about political history than maybe the average reader?
I suspect your audience is already aware of the authors I would suggest. Bob Mayer has written some very good historically-themed thrillers. Stephen King has written some historically-based thrillers, notably 11/22/63, about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Jack Finney’s Time and Again is considered a classic about time travel and altering timelines. And, of course, Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a classic about multiple alternate histories.
As well as thrillers, you’ve written several speculative fiction stories such as ‘Eden’ and ‘The Last President’. Have you always had an interest in sci-fi and as a writer whose stories are often based closely on real events, do you find it freeing to be writing in a genre where you can just throw an alien into the mix?
I consider myself a thriller writer, but thrillers cross many genres—mystery thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, political thrillers, and so on. I’ve read a great deal of science fiction and I enjoy how it can be used to write social commentary. H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds as a commentary on European imperialism. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers was a commentary on citizenship, patriotism, and some of the mythology behind those concepts.
The genesis of Eden—excuse the pun—was an article I read about researchers using satellite imagery to discover two dead riverbeds that once intercepted the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. That’s the description given in the Old Testament for the location of the Garden of Eden. I started wondering what would happen if American soldiers in Iraq discovered evidence if Eden. The story grew into a discussion about what people actually know about science and religion. The plot pits an army historian—a reservist who is an archeologist in civilian life—with a Bible-thumping machine gunner. Too many people who call themselves Christians don’t really know what the Bible says, while much of what we consider scientific fact is actually scientific consensus.
Eden’s plot is also rooted in the Ancient Alien theory proposed by Alexander Sitchin. Ironically, in a podcast interview, I was asked if I believed Sitchin’s contention there was a tenth, unknown planet in our solar system name Nibiru. According to Sitchin, Nibiru’s orbit is perpendicular to the normal orbital plane and takes five thousand years to complete. I said I didn’t believe Sichin’s theory because scientists would be able to detect such a planet through gravitational disturbances in the solar system. Six months later, scientists announced they had, indeed, discovered such a planet through gravitational disturbances and it has an orbit perpendicular to the normal orbital plane that requires five or six thousand years to complete one orbit. What was scientific fact—that our solar system had only nine planets—turned out to be only scientific consensus.
‘The Last President’ is a dystopian tale set in a USA in either the near future or an alternate present. Does it represent real fears you have about the country?
Yes, it’s a cautionary tale about corporate influence in my country’s government. I spent nearly ten years as the editor of a business newspaper and that experience taught me the greatest threat to democracy is corporate influence on government. That, after all, is how the father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, defined fascism.
The conservative party in my country is hell-bent to privatize all government functions—the postal service, prisons, security, even warfare as they tried in Iraq with the use of “security contractors,” which were nothing less than mercenaries. The Last President takes place in a not- too-distant future in which corporate interests have taken over all aspects of our government—city councils have been replaced by corporate councils, Congress has been replaced by a Corporate Congress, and the president is simply a figurehead who is finally replaced by a CEO. All public services such as firefighting and policing have been privatized, and most private homes have been replaced by “company towns.” A sergeant in a contracted police force meets an old man who tells him the story of The Long Coup leading to the downfall of the last president of the United States and the rise of fascist corporatism.
You’ve also written one straightforward Alternate History novella, ‘Hitler is Coming’ about an American security agent having to protect Hitler on a state visit he makes to the US after Germany wins WWII. How did that come about as an idea and did you have any interest in Alternate History as a genre before you wrote it?
Hitler Is Coming is actually a short story, one of two featuring former OSS agent Paul Klee and originally published by ALTHIS. A third is in progress. After the election of President Barrack Obama, I watched the rise of the mis-named Tea Party Movement in this country. The sight of armed protesters carrying signs with racist sayings reminded me of the Nazi Brown Shirts of the 1920s. It also reminded me that there was a large pro-Nazi fascist movement in the United States during the Thirties, as there was in Britain and other countries. I wrote the original Klee story as a reminder to others of that dark part of our history. I revisited that theme in another alternate history short story called Hitler’s Grave, about a Bilderberg-like group of corporatists who meet each April in Patagonia to honor Der Fuhrer in a graveside ceremony. It’s also revisited in my latest Peter Brandt mystery thriller, The Fourth Rising.
I’m something of a military historian, having written many articles on the subject and a book, War Stories. My interest in alternate history extends from that. So much of what people think is historic fact is, in fact, alternate history, isn’t it? For instance, ask most Americans who won the War of 1812 and they’ll say the U.S. did. Ask anyone from Canada or Britain the same question and they will say they did. (I tend to agree with the latter.) In the U.S. we still celebrate Columbus Day even though we now know Norsemen reached the North American continent hundreds of years before Columbus stumbled onto Cuba. Remember the old quote, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”
What can we expect to see from you next?
I’m nearing completion of a sequel to my military sci-fi novel Polar Melt, which featured a special U.S. Coast Guard team assigned to investigate mysterious happenings that might threaten maritime commerce. In the new book, the team is called on to investigate incidents of high strangeness on a Pacific atoll called Chimera Island. I also have in process another Linus Schag, NCIS, thriller that takes place in Iraq during the ISIS crisis.