I can’t visualise myself writing about an important political issue, real or imagined.

John,  Jamie’s brother in Fishing in Foreign  Seas, wants to be a politician.  He gets elected and eventually ends up as a US senator.  Gary, in Sin & Contrition, wants to be a politician, and moves up through the ranks to become a senior member of the US House of Representatives.  But, neither character faces a real political challenge, other than getting elected.  Both of them are motivated primarily by ego.  In fact, Gary vetoes the opportunity to be a well-paid lawyer so that he can gain political power.  John is a likable, devil-may-care character, and a bit of a skirt-chaser until he (at Caterina’s urging) meets a comely French nurse. 

Gary is a darker character.  The product of a broken family, he is a selfish bully, who commits adultery, misappropriates campaign contributions, becomes an alcoholic, and abandons his ill parents.  It’s hard to like Gary, but one wonders how he can get so many things wrong and still land on his feet with a devoted wife and two normal children.  I think we all know people like Gary.

Perhaps my attitude toward politicians is influencing my selection of political characters.  At the moment, in both the US and the UK, it seems to me that the number one objective of politicians is to  get (re)elected, and that number two is toeing the party line.  Whereas, I feel that the number one objective should be doing what’s best for the country and number two should be looking after the interests of constituents.  What do we have to do to change their priorities? 

Interestingly, here in the UK, about half of the MP’s (Members of Parliament) who voted against the directives of David Cameron (the Prime Minister) and in favour of a referendum on the relationship between between the UK and the European Union were newly-elected MP’s.  They said they voted the way they did because their constituents are very much in favour of a referendum.  They hadn’t yet been contaminated by the system.

When I worked for Westinghouse, I got to know a Congressman named John Murtha very well.  He died a few years ago; he was a long-serving Democrat in the House, who became chairman of the Armed Services Committee.  When I knew him, the coal gasification plant for which I had responsibility was in his constituency.  We were working on a new technology to give the US energy independence.  We could always depend on John to set aside the funds we needed to keep our research project going.  But it wasn’t just money, he believed in what we were doing and he gave us his time and attention.  He was a down-to-earth, likable guy – a family man,with a good sense of humour.  He wasn’t perfect, but he was a lot better than many of his present-day colleagues.


 I think that dialogue is very important in fiction.  It can make the characters seem more real than they would otherwise be if what they said was merely described.

An example from every day life: a friend tells me that he’s had an argument with his girlfriend, and leaves it at that.  How much more real (and interesting) the argument becomes if he says, “She said to me . . . . and I said to her . . . . but then she said  . . . well, then I replied . . . .”

Dialogue also helps to define the characters; we know them better when we hear them speak.  For example: two characters have a headache.  One of them says, “Oh, I feel poorly today.  I’ve got one of my headaches.   I’ve taken some tablets, but it’s still there, throbbing away.”

The other character says, “I’ve got a bit of a headache at the moment.  Nothing to worry about.  I’ve taken a couple of tablets and it’ll be gone soon.”

You might say that the first character is a bit of a hypochondriac and a pessimist.  The second character you might decide is an optimist with a stiff upper lip.

Good dialogue can also move the story forward.  Facts, impressions, attitudes and values can be revealed.  Decisions can be taken (or not).

The dialogue I write is probably a bit artificial in the sense that real people seldom speak so concisely.  We all tend to use a lot of extra words when we’re talking.  Rather than telling someone, “I saw a fox in my garden this morning!”  We’ll say, “I saw a big red fox in the back of my garden this morning!  You know, right where I have those white chrysanthemums, to the left of the garden furniture.”  The essential facts are contained in the first message: we can visualise a red fox in a flower bed.  The second message is friendlier than the first: it’s reminding the listener that s/he knows the garden, and since s/he knows the garden s/he is certainly a friend.  But for the reader (who probably doesn’t care about the layout of the garden), it has too much information, and therefore invites that deadly criticism: boring!

Here is a piece of dialogue from Fishing in Foreign Seas.  Jamie has just lost a huge order and his wife, Caterina, has just discovered something in his desk.

She didn’t answer, left the room and returned with a small piece of paper.  She gave it to him and asked: “What’s this?”

His premonition suddenly turned to dread; ‘Oh shit, why didn’t I throw that away?’ he thought, but he said: “It’s an advertisement for a bit of jewellery.”
“I can see that!  And why was it in your desk?”  Her tone was cold, and her face was hostile – untrusting, as she looked, unflinchingly, at him.

“I was going to buy it for someone” He paused. “but . . . .”

She cut in: “Did you buy it?”

“Yes,” he said softly, eyes on the floor, anticipating the next question.

“For whom?”

I’ll have to tell her,’ he thought, ‘maybe she knows – anyway, no good to lie.’  His eyes were still on the floor.

“FOR WHOM?” she repeated.

Softly, he said: “It was a birthday present for Mary Beth.”

“A birthday present?  For five hundred dollars?  For your secretary?”  She was almost shouting now.  Her face was red with anger.

“Well,” he responded lamely, “she gave me those nice trout cuff links, and I . . .”

“Those ‘nice trout cuff links’ couldn’t have cost her more than fifty dollars!  But you, Jamie, felt you had to give her a present worth ten times as much!”

He said nothing.

“What’s going on between you two?”  Her voice was insistent, now.


“Some nothing!” she shouted.  “You give your pretty, young secretary with big boobs a five hundred dollar bracelet covered with hearts!”  She paused, studying him.  Then, in a low voice, she asked: “are you in love with her?”

“I don’t believe you!”

“Caterina, I swear to you – No!”  He paused.  “I just . . . “

Her anger returned.  “YOU JUST WHAT?”

He shrugged.

Have you f***ed her?”  She spat out the words.

He recoiled with shock: “No.”

“I don’t believe you!  . . . Your pretty young secretary with big boobs reminds you of Alice – doesn’t she? . . . I looked at Alice’s picture in your Yale year book, today.  They could be sisters!”

“I haven’t . . .” he faltered.

“You haven’t what?”

“I haven’t had sex with Mary Beth.”

“But you were hoping to, weren’t you?” Her malice was evident.

He nodded.  “Oh, Caterina, I’m so sorry.  I really am.”

She ignored him: “why didn’t you?”

“Why didn’t I what?”

“Why didn’t you f*** her, you bastard?”

“Because . . . because she said ‘no’.”

“She said ‘no’?” she asked, incredulously, “at least she has a little sense to go along with her big boobs . . . When did this happen?”

“Last night.”
“Last night when she asked you to go to that country bar and she asked you to go to bed with her, but she changed her mind?”

“She didn’t ask me, but she said ‘no’.”

“So you asked her.  You were feeling low because of your precious Mid America, you tried to have a pick me up with your pretty young secretary.  But she wouldn’t have it.”

He said nothing.

“Why didn’t you come to me?”

He looked truly forlorn.  “I don’t know, Caterina. . . . I’m so sorry!”

She suddenly turned, walked away, went upstairs, and he heard their bedroom door slam.

What happens in this dialogue is a role reversal between Jamie and Caterina.  Jamie, the ever-confident, masterful husband is reduced to a shamed, naughty child.  And Caterina, the beautiful, compliant wife, fuelled by her anger, suddenly takes charge.

(For more information about my novels, see www.williampeace.net.)


Those of you who have read my novels know that the characters are sometimes engaged in discussions about religion.  This is particularly true – unsurprisingly – of the characters in Sin & Contrition. Before I explain, I should tell you a little about my religious background.  In a word: checkered.  I grew up in a family where my father was an atheist, and my mother was agnostic.  Still, my mother thought I ought to be introduced to the church (Episcopal), and I was pressed into service as an altar boy.  I particularly remember, at the age of about eight, nearly fainting from a combination of incense smoke, heat, and sacred solemnity.  I also went to Sunday school in the same church.  When I was a little older, I was sent to a private Quaker day school: William Penn Charter School.  I wasn’t sent because it was Quaker, but because it was a good school, and my father had attended it.  Once a week, there was an hour long Quaker meeting, which was silent unless someone felt moved to say something religious.  (I was never so moved – mostly for fear of saying something stupid.)  I then went through about ten years of hibernation: in high school, college and in the Navy.  During this time, I went to church when it was socially necessary: weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc.  When I got married to my first wife, we were married in a Congregational church, and most Sundays we attended the service there.  But, because it was closer to where we were living, we joined the Presbyterian Church, and it was here that I was inspired by the minister, Joseph Bishop.  Those of you who have read Sin & Contrition will recognise that name as the minister I interview in the last chapter.  The real Joseph Bishop has been transformed into a fictional character preaching in New York City.  But his sermon about praying with Christ at the bedside of the dying woman is absolutely true.  So for a good portion of my adult life, I was a Presbyterian: teaching Sunday school and serving as an elder.  When I moved to England, I attended the Church of England, but this wasn’t particularly satisfactory because my wife, Anna, is Catholic.  When she found a church and a priest she liked, I went to see him, and he invited me to attend.  When I said that I wanted to take communion, he said I should do so.  So now, Anna and I go to mass on Sunday, and even though I’m not officially a Catholic, I behave like one.  Why have I not made it official (as Tony Blair has done)?  Because, while I have great respect for the Catholic Church, I don’t agree with some of its dogma. So, why do my characters talk about religion?  Because it says quite a lot about their character and values.  Caterina in Fishing in Foreign Seas is a committed Catholic, but she doesn’t question it.  Her faith is just ingrained in her: she believes in doing things the right way, which is what she was taught as a child.  Bettina in Sin & Contrition was brought up a Catholic, but she becomes a member of the Presbyterian church so she can meet the right people who will get her into the right country club.  She’s an amoral religious opportunist.  (And a little immoral.) Also, I think that a novelist should encourage his readers to think: to examine their own views and values.  Several of my characters are agnostic.  They have doubts of various kinds.  None is an atheist, because I regard atheism as a logical impossibility.  How can one say categorically that something doesn’t exist without proof?  Merely naming it suggests at least the possibility that it does exist.  In my third novel (not published yet) there are Muslim and Jewish characters, and for two of the characters, their faith is explored to reflect their values.  While I’m a Christian, I have respect for the Islamic and Jewish faiths, because we worship the same God, and because those religions have some core beliefs which I find attractive: a daily regimen of prayer in the case of Islam, and the strong sense of family and community in Judaism. As good as their core messages are, I have little interest in the polytheistic religions like Buddhism and Hinduism.

More recently, as in my fifth novel, Sable Shadow and The Presence, I have begun to explore the conflicts between good and evil on a theological level: if there is a God, is there also a devil?  If so, who controls our destinies, why and how?  If there is good in the world, is there necessarily also evil?  When I lay out these issues, I try, through the characters, to suggest what the answers may be, but, at the same time there are other characters who will take an opposing view.  Ultimately, the reader must decide.


I suppose every author relies heavily on imagination – I certainly do.  If I didn’t, I would be writing autobiographical, non-fiction: pretty boring stuff.  But I think there’s more to it than avoiding the mundane.  It’s also about surprising the reader with something s/he hadn’t expected.  Reading a novel should take the reader to a place unanticipated, so that it becomes something of an adventure.  At the same time the unfolding scene has to be credible; if it’s just improbable, the reader will lose interest.

For me, there’s also an element of inspiration involved in the process of imagining.  Sometimes I think of the word ‘muse’ when I feel inspired.  Do I have a muse?  There’s no other person involved inspiring me to create a scene or a situation.  Yet it does feel very personal: as if someone whispered to me, “what about saying . . . . “  This often happens when I’m searching for just the right word or phrase.  It will suddenly come into my head.

Similarly, when I’m trying to create an interesting new situation, a concept will spring to mind.  Before calling on my imagination to develop the concept, I’ll examine it.  Is it interesting?  Occasionally not, and it gets discarded.  But if it is interesting (at least to me), I’ll consider its credibility.  Could this follow from what’s happened already?  If ‘yes’, I’ll turn my imagination loose, fleshing out the detail, while keeping it both interesting and credible.

One example from Sin & Contrition: Ellen is making a lot of money as a designer of fashionable, expensive ladies evening wear.  She challenges her husband, Gene, to think of a way for her to avoid paying taxes.  He comes up with a scheme that will allow her to write off non-existent losses against her taxes every year.  In brief, the scheme was that Ellen bought a business, including a package of dress designs, from Aldo, an Italian immigrant, for ten thousand dollars in cash.  The business included goodwill valued at $2.2 million and a long term payable of $2.3 million as an earn-out.  The dress designs were real: they were old pieces of work which Ellen had done and which had been re-labelled with the name of Aldo’s shell company (which Gene created).  After signing the deal, Aldo returned to Italy with his ten thousand dollars.  The accountant at Ellen’s business added the acquisition to Ellen’s business.  Each year, a chunk of the good will was written off, and the write off reduced Ellen’s taxes.  In my final interview with Gene, he admitted that the IRS suspected that it was not an arms-length transaction, and that they tried to contact Aldo for verification, but they were unable to find him.  Gene told me it saved over four hundred thousand in taxes over eight years, but at the risk of a fine of five hundred thousand dollars and five years in prison.  Gene liked to live dangerously.


I do quite a lot of research when I’m writing.  In fact, it’s not unusual for me to spend more time researching a particular point about which I’m writing than it takes for me to write the actual passage.

I was amazed to learn that Jonathan Franzen, the very popular American writer, does not have an Internet connection in his office.  He must have a marvelous imagination – a subject which I’ll cover in a later post.

As for me, I can’t rely completely on my memory and imagination.  For example, I used to live in the town of Aspinwall, Pennsylvania, in the States – a town where much of the action in Sin & Contrition takes place.  But I had to use the Internet to remind myself of the names of streets, churches and important landmarks.  The professional baseball players who are mentioned briefly in Fishing in Foreign Seas and Sin & Contrition are (or were) real people who were playing major league ball at the time in question.  I had to research the Marine Corps training process to write accurately about LaMarr and Jason’s experience of it in Sin & Contrition.  As part of my training to become a naval officer, I went through a month of Marine Corps training at Little Creek, Virginia, but it’s not the same – although I sometimes felt much as LaMarr and Jason did.  Similarly, I had to research the city of Hue, Vietnam to be able to describe the young Marines walk  to the brothel.

For my third novel, Efraim’s Eye, I felt that it was important for me to understand Islam.  I bought English language versions of the Qur’an, and I listened to an audio version for hours while I was in the gym.  (It absolutely amazes me that some Muslim children in madrasahs  learn to recite the Qur’an by heart.   My copy of the Qur’an runs to 440 pages!)

The places in my novels are, generally, real places, as are the hotels and restaurants which are mentioned.  The menus are (or were) real.

For me, writing as I do about largely fictional characters – though some of them remind me slightly of people I know – it’s important to place the characters in real settings.  That way they seem to me more real, alive and credible.

Why the Blog?

I’m planning to  share with my readers some of the joys and sorrows of a writer of fiction.  Sometimes writing can feel like a eagle gliding on gentle updrafts in a clear blue sky, and sometimes it seems like climbing a slippery ice mountain in your bare feet!

(For more information about my novels, see www.williampeace.net.)