To Publish or Not to Publish

IMG_0138Back in the 50’s, Chevrolet launched a TV ad campaign based on the slogan, “See the USA in your Chevrolet” (it was, as usual then, sung to a catchy tune that became branded on our brains). Well, I haven’t had a Chevy in many a moon. But these past eighteen months, or so, I have seen a lot of the USA through the windows of my Toyota Highlander, cruising the Interstates to visit family and close friends in Maine, Florida, Kentucky, Kansas and Colorado (Some of it was viewed through the window of a jet at 38,000 feet, but you don’t really see much from up there). As seen in the photo, I had my daughter and grandkids along part of the time. But much of the time I was traveling alone, so needless to say I had much time to ruminate and cogitate.

One topic that occupied my mind a fair amount was “Whither Del Hayes Press?” That is, given the changes in my life situation, the question naturally arose as to whether I wanted to continue with the responsibilities and time involved in my publishing business, microscopic though it might be, or rather spend that time at other pursuits. The pros and cons of both alternatives were significant, and not easily weighed, one against the other.

The appeal of spending more time visiting my grandchildren and family, as well as with friends scattered about the country was obvious. There are still many places I would enjoy visiting in this country. I’ve always wanted to go to Australia, and given that much of my novel Ad Astra was based in Sydney, I’ve especially wanted to see how well my research checked out (of course, it took place during World War II, so anything that might not appear as I had understood it to be could easily be blamed on poor maps from seventy years back).

Thus, the pros in favor of devoting all my time to personal pleasure were obvious, and I couldn’t seem to come up with any cons except that…there would be little, or no, time to be a publisher. And, the only con I could come up with where my publishing business is concerned is the obvious one that places it in conflict with the traveling, etc. Thus it appeared that the issue filtrated down to the question of whether I get sufficient pleasure and benefit from doing so, to offset the time taken from other pleasures.

The short answer to that question is, “Yes. I like my little publishing business and want to keep it going.” Why I feel that way is worth pursuing a bit, I think, especially for anyone who might be considering starting down that path.

To answer that question necessitated looking back over the five years, or so, that I have been Del Hayes Press to review what I have accomplished and measure what it has meant to me. In short, I had to answer the question: Has being a “self-publisher,” and then a publisher for the others that I have assisted, been worth it? And of course, to answer that I first had to answer—or remind myself—“Why did I do it in the first place?”

Most of the salient details of how, and why, I started Del Hayes Press are included in the “About” section of my Del Hayes Press website, so I won’t repeat them here. It occurred to me, though, as I thought about it that I started feeling best about it all when I changed from being a “self-publisher” to a “publisher.”

That happened when I succumbed to a request from a close friend to publish her book for her. When she approved the proof copy of her book, Taking Restorative Justice to School, and it became available both on Amazon and for direct orders through the printing company, suddenly I was a bona fide publisher. Okay, I had only the one title in my stable, other than my own, but it changed how I began to look at the whole affair.

On February 19, 2009, I uploaded to Lightning Source, Inc. the cover and interior files for my first self-published book, Happily Ever After; A Tribute to Marriage by a Fifty-year Veteran. Since that time I have published a total of eight titles, five for myself and three for other authors. In the ensuing five years, Del Hayes Press has seen more than 4,500 books printed under those eight titles. Interestingly, there has been an almost even split between sales through, and direct sales by the authors.

Perhaps it sounds a bit pretentious, but I now recognize that much of the reward to me has come less from being able to claim that I am a publisher, and more from how that has helped others. How so, you ask? Start with that first book, Taking Restorative Justice to School, by Jeannette Holtham.

Restorative Justice is a form of anger management training that has been instrumental in helping numerous at-risk kids, many of whom were already drop-outs, begin to get their lives back on track. Jeannette has been tireless in pushing the program in schools in Colorado, and the state legislature is beginning to take action on instituting it in Colorado. Her book has been a key tool, or weapon, in that effort.

She could have, of course, followed the traditional route of submitting the scores of query letters to agents, battled to overcome the scores of rejection letters that are guaranteed to be a part of such an effort and with pluck and luck, she might have—I emphasize “might”—finally got an agent and eventually got it published. Then she would have had to begin doing all the same hard marketing work she had already been doing all that time. The obvious difference is that she had been selling many hundreds of books while doing so. And—there is no real guarantee the book would have ever seen the light of day in today’s commercial publishing environment.

Another good example is For All the Wrong Reasons, by Dan Benavidez. I like to refer to Dan as the Hispanic Martin Luther King, Jr., of Longmont, Colorado. His courage, and quiet demeanor, in leading a candle light protest march on the Longmont City Hall, back when racial tensions were at a fever pitch in the city, defused what could have turned very ugly that night. His life story, as told in his book, is a compelling read. But once again, Dan has virtually no “platform,” as the agents and publishers like to call it, for elevating a book to national prominence.

That does not mean, however, that the story is not worth telling. And because he just happened to be a friend of Jeannette Holtham, he was put in contact with a “publisher in Texas” to talk about  getting his story published. Less than six months later we had a compelling cover designed featuring a photograph taken by a Longmont newspaper photographer the night of that march, the manuscript had been carefully edited, and we had a proof copy ready for Dan’s approval.

The same can be said of my book, Grace Will Lead Me Home; the Albert Cheng Story. Whether I could have ever been successful at getting that book accepted by a commercial publisher is difficult to answer. But we have sold a pleasing number of books and raised a significant amount of money for the non-profit organization HANDS for Cambodia, which supports the efforts of Albert Cheng’s brother, a doctor in Cambodia who treats the poor in the small villages there.

Why someone else would choose the self-publishing route would obviously be a function of their own interests and reasons. And certainly I had a self-interest in doing so. But being able to help others get their story between book covers has proved to be far more rewarding to me. I look forward to doing even more in the months and years to come.


Brighten the Corner

A quick perusal of the dates of my previous posts will show that quite some time has passed since my last one, and some explanation is in order. I’m too new to the Blogosphere to know its protocols, as to what is appropriate and what is not. This post is going to be quite personal. Perhaps that’s not appropriate, but for me it is unavoidable. One of my primary emphases in this blog is oriented toward writing, and self-publishing. Germane to those topics are factors that have influenced my writing, the books I have written or plan to write, my very motivation for doing so. Soon after my last post, I lost the greatest source of my inspiration,  my most dedicated advocate, the one who has most influenced my writing. After a brief illness, Colleen, my best friend, my wife and dear companion for over fifty-five years, left this earthly vale for a heavenly one.

When I was first attempting to wean myself from years of engineering writing and stick a toe in the water of fiction, I created a novel I called The Old Man. I had told Colleen as I was working on it that the story was a “character study.” When I had a draft sufficiently well done that I was willing to let her read it, after doing so she smiled at me and said, “Mister Engineer, you do realize you’ve written a love story, don’t you?”

“No,” I insisted, “it isn’t a ‘love story.’ It’s a story about love—how love should be, between two people.”

“Well, perhaps,” she replied, “but it’s still a love story.”

I suppose we were both right. It is a love story. Likewise for my second novel, Ad Astra. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Good things happen. Bad things happen. But one thing is clear. For two people truly committed to each other, love always transcends, always survives the bad and nurtures the good. To the extent my abilities as a writer permitted, the stories reflect life and certainly reflect my perception of how love between two people should be.

It was our marriage, our life together, that gave me the understanding and experience that make those two stories feel real to the reader, and that led directly to my writing Happily Ever After: A Tribute to Marriage From a Fifty Year Veteran. It was Colleen’s gracious hosting during the many hours of interviews in our living room with Albert Cheng that smoothed over the pain as he relived his tortuous years of captivity by the Khmer Rouge, as I prepared to write Grace Will Lead Me Home: the Albert Cheng Story. Obviously, she deeply influenced all I have written. How her loss will affect my writing I cannot speculate.

But that is not the take-away I want to leave from this post. No, what I want to leave is the realization that has come to me over the past months of how profoundly our lives can be affected by something so simple as a smile. As I read through the many sympathy cards I received, and was supported by our friends, the one constant that was near-universal in the comments was “I’ll miss her sweet smile.”

When we graduated from the small community college where we met, there was a tradition of signing our classmates’ yearbooks. Usually, we penned such memorable lines as “Don’t forget the fun we had in Chemistry Lab.” But in Colleen’s book, most of the comments were variations on the theme of “I’ll always remember your smile.” Of all her accomplishments in her life, and there were many, in the end what we all remember is “her sweet smile.” Such a simple thing, but what better legacy could there be?

My dad was a dedicated Christian, and as we three kids grew up in the Hayes household, it was a rare Sunday that did not find Dad’s old Chevy one of the first to arrive at the small church in our hometown. One of the hymns we sang there, of the many that became part and parcel of my life, was “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” As we would finish each verse and move into the chorus, the singing became quite enthusiastic as we all exhorted ourselves to

Brighten the corner where you are!
Brighten the corner where you are!
Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
Brighten the corner where you are!

That simple philosophy was as natural to Colleen as breathing. Her smile brightened all our corners, and helped family, friends, neighbors, people she didn’t even know, regardless of how far from harbor they might have been.

Can any of us leave a better life-lesson from our own life? Each time we greet our children, deal with a co-worker, check out at the supermarket, let the cable guy in, say good morning to our mate or pass a stranger on the street, what a difference it would make if each of those times that person could be greeted with a smile, their corner brightened if only for that moment.


Why Am I a Writer? (Part Deux)

So, why am I a writer? In introducing this question in my previous post, I made two points: (1) by “Writer,” we usually mean someone who writes books for the purpose of getting published, and (2) although that is certainly true for me the over-riding reason why I write is that I simply enjoy writing—very much so, as a matter of fact. But as I also said, most of my writing during my career years was of a technical nature. It wasn’t until retirement that I got into “real” writing. How’d that happen, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

It was much like a story I read recently about a youngish man who had become a published poet. I don’t remember his name, but he said that because he was a sickly child, and spent a lot of time in the presence of pediatricians, he decided he wanted to go into medicine. So, he got himself into medical school, where he had to take an anatomy class. After the third time of fainting during some of the stuff they had to do on cadavers, he got tired of dropping to the floor and dropped the class.

In looking for a replacement class, curiosity got the best of him and he joined a poetry class. The first assignment was for the class to write a poem, which the professor planned to distribute to other classmates to read and appraise. He had written his poem, and was waiting in class for his review. A girl came in, sat next to him, and began to gush over how much she liked his poem. Soon, another girl sat down next to him and did the same and others joined in the praise. “And that,” he said, “is how I became a poet.” Praise will do that to you.

I’ve known since high school that I can write well. I know my subjects from my predicates and have a decent vocabulary. My papers in school always received good grades and my technical articles were well received. But college girls don’t gush over “The Role of Airport Surveillance Radar in Weather Avoidance.” By the time I had left the technical arena behind me, I began to feel a need to be more creative, more personal, in my writing.

During the latter years of my business career I had taken to writing in a journal (I mean real writing, with a fountain pen and ink, on paper). But as time passed, an itch began to develop to do some creative writing—something, anything, just to see if I could express myself the way I would read in Steinbeck, or Fitzgerald or Hemmingway. As I attempted to scratch that itch, a strange scene came to mind. Where it came from, I have no idea. That’s a topic for later.

In this mental image, I saw an old man sitting alone at a crude wooden table in a run-down, nineteenth-century tavern. The man looks beat down, defeated. As the cowboys say, he looked like he’d been “rode hard and put away wet.” There’s an anemic fire in a nearby fireplace. As a creative-writing challenge to myself, I decided to try to describe that scene the way it might appear in a novel written by some of the well known authors I had always admired.

It didn’t go well, at first. I would write well-crafted sentences, read the result and think, This just doesn’t seem like the way Steinbeck or Hemmingway would write it. What’s wrong, what’s different? Over many drafts, the imagery improved. I had a much better picture of the tavern and the context. But still—it just wasn’t interesting. It didn’t grab me.

Finally, it hit me. In a talk to the TED group, Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton told the audience that if you want to write a good story, “Make me care! Make me care about your character, make me care what happens.” I finished reading yet another technically well-crafted draft and realized, “I don’t care why the old man is there, or why he is so despondent. I don’t even know him. Why should I care about him?”

I knew then what was wrong with my writing. Until the reader knew something about that old man, why he was so disconsolate and lonely, why he looked so defeated, there was no story. I had to make the reader care. Stanton added, “Story telling is like joke telling. You have to know your punch line.” He went on to say there should be some “truth” to your story, something that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings. And that was my fundamental problem with my creative writing experiment. There was no story, no punch line, no reason for the reader to be interested. If I wanted to be creative, I had to create a story. That old man had to come alive in my pages.

And that’s when my first novel, The Old Man, was given birth.

There will be more about creating The Old Man in future posts. But suffice here to say that after completing the story, Orwell’s “sheer egoism” got hold of me. I wanted to see it in print, so paid to have a so-called vanity press publish it for me. I gave copies to several friends, and nervously awaited their response. In not long, I began to receive very flattering—gushing, even, in one or two cases—praise for my “sweet love story.” And that is how I became a writer.

PS: I have recently cancelled the contract with iUniverse, and am in the process of re-releasing The Old Man under Del Hayes Press. It won’t be available for ordering for a bit, until I can get that all done. I’ll post when it’s available.

Why Am I a Writer? (Part 1)

Why am I a writer? Interesting question, that. Probably a little like asking why I went into engineering, or am obsessed with flying and airplanes. George Orwell, author of  1984, his disturbing look into the future that has become a disturbing assessment of the present, said he knew by the age of five that he wanted to be a writer. I can barely remember being five, so I can’t make that claim. He also claimed, in his 1946 essay Why I Write, there are four reasons why people are motivated to write: (1) sheer egoism, (2) aesthetic enthusiasm, (3) historical impulse and (4) political purpose. I imagine we can all relate to reason number one, but the others require some navel gazing.

As is often said, words have meaning and the most challenging part of answering my title question is the meaning of the term “writer.” A person who paints, we call a “painter.” One who plumbs, we call a “plumber.” I write—quite a lot, actually—so I guess that would make me a writer (in truth, few of us “write” nowadays—to be literally correct, we are all “typers”). But I don’t know if I would claim to be a “Writer,” with capital W. That is, one whose motivation is to be successful at selling what he writes, and presumably to make a living doing so. My observation is that most of the people who say they are, or are attempting to become, a “writer” mean by that they are or hope to be successful at getting published and selling their books.

I confess to being subject to Orwell’s “sheer egoism” when it comes to my books. Of course I would be ecstatic if they sold by the jillions and made me disgustingly rich. I would also be ecstatic if I lived to be a hundred and retained the body of a thirty-year-old. But none of that answers my question. That answer, I believe, was stated most simply, and best, by a comment I read in a blog post by Jimmie A. Kepler where he stated “I’m a writer because I enjoy writing.”

And that’s pretty much it. I write because I enjoy writing. I can’t remember a time when writing didn’t interest me (when I was old enough to remember much of anything, that is). In high school I entertained the notion for a while of following in my favorite uncle’s footsteps, and going into journalism for a career. But I enjoyed my math classes more than I did my English classes, and engineering won out for a career. The closest I came to journalism was to author a “Moments to Remember” piece that was published with our Yearbook when I graduated from Iola Junior College.

Even in the arcane world of engineering, my interest in writing was evident. At Bell Labs, my first job out of college, I published two technical papers. At Texas Instruments, we had to win all our government business by submitting huge, multi-volume technical proposals showing why we were best in the business. My talent for writing became quickly evident to my bosses, and I soon became responsible for creating those proposals. That involved a lot of technical writing, but it also involved editing (where we would “cut and paste” with scissors and Scotch tape). We published our proposals internally, so I also got a lot of experience at layout, printing and the merciless master of a drop-dead due date. And, along the way,  I also published some more technical articles.

Still, little of that is what people have in mind when they talk about being a writer. Real “Writers” have their names on the front of books. For me, that came much later, as I was approaching retirement age. How that came about, what lead to my first novel and how I decided to get into self-publishing are all the subject of future posts.


Missing Mrs. Miniver

 I miss Mrs. Miniver. She was much older than I. In truth, I didn’t come to know how much I missed her until many years after her passing. Mrs. Miniver was the movie, released in 1942, that won the Academy Award for Greer Garson, who played the title role. I was six years old when the movie was released. I was seventy one when Colleen and I watched it for the first time. Now that I have come to know Mrs. Miniver, I have become acutely aware of how much I miss her.

Mrs. Miniver was a simple, yet profound movie. The movie was profound, in the way it portrayed the quiet courage, resolve and character of the British people, and of the Miniver family, as they were drawn into the maelstrom of Britain’s desperate struggle to survive Hitler’s bombs during the crisis months of 1940. The movie was simple, in that it was done in black and white, relying on light and shadow and the skills of talented actors to play on our every emotion. The hell of war was shown us not by violent battle scenes, but by the emotions evident on the faces of the people who were living it. The physical realities of war, the bombs, blood and destruction, were largely unseen. Few special effects were available to a movie director in 1942, and few were required. We understood well what was happening. Graphic scenes would have been less painful than the look in the eyes of Mrs. Miniver as her life as she had known it was being destroyed.

I miss Mrs. Miniver, the movie, for what has been lost as movie making has substituted dramatic special effects for drama. We knew that Vincent Miniver, the twenty-year-old son who in a matter of weeks was transformed from idealistic Oxford student to embattled RAF fighter pilot, was facing death each time he took to the air to combat the overwhelming Luftwaffe. But we never once saw him in his Spitfire.

We knew the middle-aged, successful architect, Mr. Miniver, was courageous. We saw him leave his upscale English home in his small cabin cruiser, joining dozens, then hundreds, of his fellow citizens to help rescue the hundreds of thousand of soldiers facing annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk. For five days they made countless trips across the forty miles of open sea in the English Channel, under the guns of the German armies and aircraft, ferrying those soldiers home in boats intended for leisurely cruising about on inland waterways. But we only saw him leave, then return to his home and wife, bone-weary and his lovely boat smoked and damaged. We didn’t see the epic rescues, or need to. Our imagination painted the pictures for us in vivid detail. We knew what he must have braved, and endured.

We saw Mrs. Miniver stare out a window at outnumbered British fighter planes climbing to join the battle, knowing that some of those planes would not return and that one of those pilots was her son. We saw her, with her husband and two small children, cringing in a makeshift bomb shelter as her beautiful home was heavily damaged by enemy bombs. And we saw her cradle her daughter-in-law of two weeks in her arms, watching helplessly as life drained from her young body after being hit by the bullets of an enemy plane. The irony of her son surviving combat with those enemy planes, while his new bride lay dying from a stray bullet from one of them, was as stark as the black and white of the film. We saw Mrs. Miniver melt the iron heart of the aristocratic mother-in-law. We saw the smile in Mrs. Miniver’s eyes as a friend named his prize-winning rose for her.

That’s what we saw. What we did not see was gratuitous violence shown only because technology makes it possible. We knew Mr. and Mrs. Miniver loved each other. We saw that in the way they looked at each other, and in the quiet way they smiled and talked and strengthened each other. We did not see them in bed together, nor was there a reason to. We  did not hear a profane word. We did not have to cringe at the “f-word.” We did not hear expletives fill the air as Mr. and Mrs. Miniver stumbled over the bombed shambles of their once-glorious home.

That’s why I miss Mrs. Miniver. I miss movies that end with me feeling uplifted, and not in the need of a shower. I miss adult conversation not laced with vulgarity. I miss movies where we can know that two people love each other by the look in their eyes, by the way they act, and by the way they talk to each other. I do not need to be a spectator to more than that. I miss movies that don’t insult me with banality, where everybody over age twenty behaved as an adult.

In 1942, when I was six years old, that movie depicted my world. It was a world where adults would have been mortified to be seen in public not appropriately dressed, where “please” and “thank you” were commonly heard, and swearing was not. It was a  world where every failing of human nature was as present as it is today, but those failings were not paraded or celebrated in public. As I grew, the grown-ups in my world guided me, educated me, corrected me and set examples for me. Theirs was a world I wanted to join, but I had to first earn the right to do so. I wish that I could know Mrs. Miniver again.

Marriage—the payoff

In my previous post I mentioned the Amtrak trip Colleen and I took to celebrate our 55th wedding anniversary. Shortly after our return, our son, Clint, posted a picture on Facebook with the caption “What 55 years of marriage looks like.” I’ve inserted it here, so you can see what he posted. We were taking our daily stroll up our lane as Clint was leaving our place, and he took the picture before running us off the road. Whether our anniversary prompted the posting of the picture he didn’t say, but the two events have caused me to do some reflecting and ruminating on the true meaning and significance of “marriage for life.”

It really started with the celebration of our Golden Wedding Anniversary, when I made a video about our fifty years together. Over these past five years a feeling has evolved that our marriage feels “different” now than it used to, and I’ve wondered how, for sure, and why.

A common first reaction to celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary is disbelief. “How can it have been fifty years?” A second common reaction is the growing awareness of the truth of the old aphorism, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” Life becomes all too involved with the consequences of having made it this far. We’ve lost friends to cancer, to heart attacks and just “old age.” When we gather with friends it is all too common to spend our time in an “organ recital” as we discuss our various infirmities. But underlying all that is a growing sense of…what? It’s not just a feeling of accomplishment, although that is certainly a part of it. And it’s not just bragging rights. Looking at that picture above, I began to realize that these are the “payoff” years. It is the difference between “contending” and “contentment.”

Most of the earlier decades of a marriage are years of contending. Contending with supporting a family, with raising your kids, getting them through college, marriages, divorces. Contending with paying bills and fear of the drug culture in our society. If your marriage is a good one, if the bond of love and commitment is strong enough, these years strengthen that bond, deepen that love. But they are not easy years.

Now that is all (well, mostly) behind us. And as the dust settles, our relationship emerges. We get to begin focusing on each other, again, but now with a knowledge and conviction proved in the line of fire. And what emerges is a growing awareness that here beside you is a person who has committed their entire life to you, who stood by you in thick and thin, a person who never has and never will betray you or leave you. It is an humbling feeling, unlike any other I’ve experienced in these five-plus decades. I can’t imagine walking those roads alone.

Our celebrity culture demeans and shuns marriage. Too many are fearful of that commitment, who see no value in it. I can only feel sorry for those who deny themselves the greatest reward they will never get to experience: that of having a person who will walk your roads in life arm in arm with you, and never forsake you. They will never get to have the pay-off years.

I’ve been trained

It was a dark and stormy night. No, I’m serious. It really was a dark and stormy night. Not an auspicious beginning to what we hoped would be a memorable trip. My wife, Colleen, and I had finally agreed that for our 55th wedding anniversary we would celebrate with an extended Amtrak train trip. We had arrived at this choice because she knew three things about me. One, I loved to drive, and as a result we had taken some extended road trips for previous anniversaries. Two, I loved to fly our plane, and as a result we had flown on many trips. And three, with the deterioration of commercial flight service, baggage fees, and TSA agents who had yet to be convinced we were not septuaginarian terrorists, she knew I had come to loathe commercial flying.

So, she had proposed an Amtrak trip because  (a) I could avoid the airlines, (b) I had a few years ago given up private flying and (c) she wanted us to be on a trip where I could just relax and watch the scenery go by. That sounded intriguing, so I researched the train schedules and we booked an Amtrak trip from Dallas to Chicago, then to Los Angeles, back to San Antonio and finally to Dallas. As the departure day arrived I found I was actually looking forward to it. Except for the bus trip part, that is.

Turns out the train tracks were being repaired between Dallas and Longview, Texas, and passengers were not permitted on the trains between those two sites. Thus we went to Union Station in Dallas to start our train trip, only to be loaded on a somewhat dilapidated old bus for the two-plus hour trip to beautiful downtown Longview. As the bus rattled its way out of Dallas, it did, in fact, become a dark and stormy night. Rain lashed the bus and wind gusts rocked it as we plunged through the spray put up by eighteen wheelers along Interstate I-20. Yes, I got to sit and stare out the window. And yes, I wasn’t having to drive in that murk. But it wasn’t exactly a dream fulfilled. We  eventually made it to Longview, got assigned to our sleeper car, and from then on the trip went as planned, and anticipated. It was all we had hoped for.

Here’s where the subject of writing gets into all this. The dining car on the train had limited seating, so all available tables had to be fully utilized. We would be seated with two other passengers at each meal of the day. We had experienced the same on cruises, and on our one previous train trip, so I knew it was coming. I am not what you would call a flaming extrovert, so knew I had but two choices: be a silent, grumpy old man, or man up and enjoy getting to visit with people I had never met and would never see again. In many respects, that proved to be the best part of the trip (visiting, that is, not being grumpy).

Someone once said, or if they didn’t they should have, that “Every person has a story.” We met a woman who was a retired scientist from the University of Wisconsin, and visited until breakfast turned into lunch. We met a young man from New Mexico who was just beginning his mechanical engineering career in robotics. We shared stories with a Louisianan who was as red-neck as they come and who kept us grinning across much of Arizona. We talked with a Catholic spiritual counselor and a young Hispanic single-mom from California struggling to raise teenagers in an environment not conducive to her Catholic values. Each one gave us a perspective on life we would never have gained had I been restrained to life in the left lane of the interstates.

It occurred to me that each one of those chance meetings could be the making of a new novel, or the basis for a character in a story. It reminded me, in fact, of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Like her story, ours took place on an extended train trip. I began to imagine various story lines about our trip; surviving a derailment, a terrorist plot, a chance encounter that leads to a romance, or illicit affair. And just as Murder had a plethora of intriguing and mysterious characters, I would imagine our table-mates as characters in some plot.

I have not yet done it, but it would seem to be a good creative writing exercise to try to describe each of those people, to make them seem as real as if they were sitting across the table from us, and to develop dialogue that would feel as natural as our conversations became as we “rode the rails” across our vast land.