Research: A Mainstay of Historical Fiction

Jerry AmernicJerry Amernic is a Toronto writer who has been a newspaper reporter and correspondent, newspaper columnist, feature writer for magazines, teacher of journalism, and media consultant. His first book Victims: The Orphans of Justice was a true story about a former police officer whose eldest daughter was murdered and who became a leading advocate for crime victims. This resulted in Jerry’s column about the justice system for The Toronto Sun. More recently Jerry co-authored Duty – The Life of a Cop with Julian Fantino, the highest-profile police officer Canada has ever produced and now a member of the Canadian Cabinet. In fiction, Jerry’s first novel Gift of the Bambino was praised by The Wall Street Journal in the U.S., The Globe and Mail in Canada, and others. His latest novel is the historical thriller The Last Witness. Just released is the biblical-historical thriller Qumran.

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My first job as a writer was that of a newspaper reporter. I would cover the local municipal council and its long-past-midnight meetings, then scurry back to the newsroom in the morning to write up to 20 stories before deadline. It was a good lesson in how to discipline yourself and write quickly. Another important lesson I got from being a reporter was research. Research is key to any writer, and for one who is into historical fiction, it is essential.

The Last Witness is a book that crosses genres. The last living survivor of the Holocaust in the year 2039 might sound like sci-fi or fantasy – a literary agent once told me that if I’m writing about the future it has to be sci-fi – but it isn’t. Not even close. It’s a realistic portrayal of a 100-year-old man, the last survivor of the Holocaust, caught in a near-future world where knowledge of the past is pathetic.

Yes, I did seek out a techie expert who could tell me things about life one generation down the road … like self-starting cars and palm readers that open doors for you … but aside from that, my research concerned past historical events.

The Last Witness has flashbacks with my main character living as a hidden child in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz in Poland. He was born in 1939 – not a good year to be born a Jew in Europe. The Nazis had already occupied the country, so the little boy in my story had to be hidden, as many Jewish children were in the ghetto. I read everything I could find about life in the ghetto to make it realistic for my reader; I wanted to put the reader right inside that crowded collection of streets where people had to live like rats. I also sought out real-life, former child survivors – some who had lived in Jewish ghettos – to learn even more.

Other flashbacks focus on the boy and his family being transported to Auschwitz, and for that I also immersed myself in research. One chapter is about the family’s arrival by train – cattle car actually – to the death camp, followed by the ever-present selection. Another focuses on daily life in the camp, and keep in mind it’s life for a little boy of four who has lost his family. Yet another is his encounter with the notorious Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele who performed brutal experiments on children.

Alongside these flashbacks is the near-future story with the old man’s role in a missing-person investigation – a police investigation – involving his great-granddaughter. A schoolteacher. A schoolteacher who teaches her students about historical events like the Holocaust and must fight the authorities for doing so.

It’s a thriller. It’s historical. And it’s a warning about life down the road if we neglect to teach history to the young. And we are neglecting that today. If you don’t believe me, check out my video in which I interviewed university students in Toronto, and asked them questions about the Holocaust and World War II. This was probably the most important research I did for the book and it took place after it was finished. But it did validate the point of my story. Here is a link to the video …


The Last Witness


Title: The Last Witness
Author: Jerry Amernic
Publisher: Story Merchant Books
Publication Date: October 29, 2014
Genre: Historical Thriller



The year is 2039, and Jack Fisher is the last living survivor of the
Holocaust. Set in a world that is abysmally complacent about
events of the last century, Jack is a 100-year-old man whose worst
memories took place before he was 5. His story hearkens back to
the Jewish ghetto of his birth and to Auschwitz where, as a little
boy, he had to fend for himself to survive after losing his family.
Jack becomes the central figure in a missing-person investigation
when his granddaughter suddenly disappears. While assisting
police, he finds himself in danger and must reach into the
darkest corners of his memory to come out alive.


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Book Review: A Cry from the Dust by Carrie Stuart Parks

A Cry from the DustA Cry from the Dust
A Gwen Marcey Novel
Carrie Stuart Parks
Thomas Nelson, August 2014
ISBN 978-1-4016-9043-4
Trade Paperback

You can read a story blurb about A Cry From the Dust anywhere, so I’m going to talk about other aspects of the book.

  • The writing is clear and sharp, with good flow.
  • The subject matter is extraordinary. Domestic terrorism; the Mormon Church; plural marriage.
  • Gwen Marcy, the point of view character, has a history too many of us can relate to; cancer (Gwen is bald), a messy divorce, single motherhood. All this, plus she’s kidnapped, branded a terrorist and murderer, and tasked with stopping a major terrorist attack. Whew!
  • I loved that, just like the author, Carrie Stuart Parks, Gwen is a forensic artist, so the story drips with authenticity. Be prepared to learn something along with being royally entertained.
  • The villains could be real people, with aspirations and desires outside the mainstream, but certainly imaginable. They could be going about their everyday business and we’d never know.
  • Beth, Gwen’s sidekick, is almost as interesting as Gwen herself.
  • Gwen has the constant worry of a teen heartbroken by her parents’ divorce, and we’re shown the girl’s emotions and exactly how she acts out.
  • The depth of the novel is astounding.
  • Best part, there are at least two more Gwen Marcy books in the pipeline.
  • There’s a dog.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, March 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

Skidding in Broadside

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

While excavating my garage in an attempt to bring order to the refuse heap I call home, I found a few disintegrating pages of a novel I wrote in 1969 during a road trip from my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia to Steilacoom, Washington. The yellowed, handwritten pages lay moldering at the bottom of a cardboard box that had obviously provided shelter and nutrition to generations of mice and moths. I tried to remember how many garages in how many towns that box had been stored over the decades – too many to recall. In a misty-eyed glow of nostalgia, I sat down on a crate of old Betamax tapes and other relics of the past and started to read. The first few lines yanked me back in time and mood.

We gazed out at the deserted highway that stretched across a barren waste into infinity. Time dragged, as if our little car were being pushed back by the relentless Wyoming winds. When at last we pulled into the one-pump town of Bill, Pat said, “God, if I lived here I’d kill myself.”

That sentiment became the working title as we traversed the mind-blowing emptiness of the Great Plains.

The impetus for the trip had begun when Pat’s friend David called to say he’d soon be shipping out to Vietnam. He felt uneasy about the future and yearned for a summer of love before going off to war. It was a year when everyone felt uneasy about the future. I certainly did. I hated teaching school and, once the summer ended, I hadn’t a clue what to do with the rest of my life. David shared a house overlooking Puget Sound with two army buddies and he assured us there’d be plenty of room for both Pat and me. That was all the persuading we needed. We hit the road.

I owned the most road-worthy vehicle, a ’68 VW bug. Pat owned the maps, the guidebooks, and a Triple A card – just in case. We decided to make the drive from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest an adventure, taking in as many sights along the way as possible. We included on our zigzag itinerary the literary stomping grounds of several notable American writers. We visited Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri; Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska; and we got as close to Hunter Thompson’s digs in Aspen, Colorado as we dared. Frequently stoned, he had been known to shoot at uninvited drop-ins.

Where the Bones are BuriedAt the time, Hunter was gearing up to run for Pitkin County Sheriff on the Freak Power ticket and he was also inventing a new writing style called Gonzo – exaggerated, wildly subjective, and shamelessly self-conscious. He declared that the only people who know where the edge is are the ones who’ve gone over it. In both his personal life and his writing, he sought the dangerous edge of things and he wasn’t afraid to dive off. He believed the journey to the grave should not be a safe ride. He wanted to “skid in broadside, shouting ‘Wow!’”

As I reread my long-ago account of our cross-country odyssey, I detected an undeniable strain of Gonzo. The landscapes smacked us in the eye with their transcendent beauty, or else pierced us to the heart with their desolate bleakness. The characters we encountered didn’t just make us laugh, or touch our hearts, or change our minds. They transformed us forever. The story’s action whipped along at breakneck pace from the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the yippee-ki-yay of the Calgary Stampede; from an August blizzard atop Mount Rainier to a tequila-fueled psychotherapy session that ended in tears. My descriptions were simultaneously florid and frantic, my dialogue fraught with exclamations of imminent peril and moments of burning insight. I wrote with particular emotion about my discovery that the platform bed I had been sleeping on at the house on Puget Sound was set on top of crates containing live ammo.

A charitable reader would say God, If I Lived Here is melodramatic, naïve, overwrought, and dense with purple prose. A less charitable one, well . . . best not to speculate. But I was young. It was my first bash at a novel and no writing is ever wasted. It’s a learning experience. Time brings perspective. It brings fewer breathless verbs and extreme adjectives. It brings focus and puts one’s sense of self and personal history in context. The Gonzo days recede in the rear view mirror, replaced gradually by a more restrained and mature style. And yet I can’t help but feel a wistfulness for those girls who drove so many thousands of miles looking for the edge, and for the wannabe writer who was so thrilled by the adventure that she skidded into her story broadside, shouting “Wow!”

Jeanne throwing a live 811 mm mortar (one of several which had been stowed beneath her bed) into Puget Sound

Jeanne throwing a live 811 mm mortar (one of several which had been stowed beneath her bed) into Puget Sound

Book Review: The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry

The Jesus CowThe Jesus Cow
Michael Perry
HarperCollins, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-228991-9

From the publisher—

Life is suddenly full of drama for low-key Harley Jackson: A woman in a big red pickup has stolen his bachelor’s heart; a Hummer- driving developer hooked on self-improvement audiobooks is threatening to pave the last vestiges of his family farm; and inside his barn lies a calf bearing the image of Jesus Christ. Harley’s best friend, Billy, a giant of a man who shares his trailer house with a herd of cats and tries to pass off country music lyrics as philosophy, urges him to sidestep the woman, fight the developer, and get rich off the calf. But Harley takes the opposite tack, hoping to avoid what his devout, dearly departed mother would have called “a scene.”

Then the secret gets out—right through the barn door—and Harley’s “miracle” goes viral. Within hours, pilgrims, grifters, and the media have descended on his quiet patch of Swivel, Wisconsin, looking for a glimpse (and a per- centage) of the calf. Does Harley hide the famous, possibly holy, calf and risk a riot, or give the people what they want—and in the process raise enough money to keep his land and, just maybe, win the woman in the big red pickup?

Harley goes all in, cutting a deal with a major Hollywood agent that transforms his little farm into an international spiritual theme park—think Lourdes, only with cheese curds and souvenir snow globes. Soon, Harley has lots of money . . . and more trouble than he ever dreamed.

There are things about The Jesus Cow that take me back to simpler times in my younger days, most of them very positive memories even if colored by the mists of time. I miss the old days when we children could be gone for hours at a time and no one worried about horrible things happening to us. I miss having multiple families operating almost as one, i.e., having picnics and the like and all of us, kids and adults alike, just enjoying the comfort of familiarity. Today, we would say that kind of atmosphere is found most often in small towns and, if I could just bring myself to give up the creature comforts of such things as nearby grocery stores and movie theaters and restaurants, I’d move to a small town in a heartbeat. (Not in the Midwest, mind you—I’d have to stay in the South.)

It’s Michael Perry’s evocation of that atmosphere that I enjoyed most about this book, along with his gentle humor. Nothing made me guffaw but I frequently smiled at what was going on and the reactions of Harley and everybody around him to the so-called miracle living in his barn. Mr. Perry is spot on with his pokes at townsfolk and spectators alike and Harley is one of the most appealing characters I’ve come across.

Imagine if your quiet, rather mundane, life was suddenly turned topsy-turvy by the hoopla created by media. Would you deny it all, turn the miracle-seekers away and close yourself off to the world? Or would you say “what the heck” and jump into the middle of it? The tale of what happens when Harley takes that leap will keep you entertained for hours and maybe make you think just a little bit about people’s motives for the things they do.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2015.



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About the Author

Michael Perry

Michael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485. He lives in rural Wisconsin with his family.

Find Michael at his website,, and connect with him on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.


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Cover Reveal: Tarnished by Kate Jarvik Birch



Title: Tarnished
Series: Perfected #2
Author: Kate Jarvik Birch
Publisher: Entangled Teen
Publication Date: 2015



Freedom comes at a cost…

Ella was genetically engineered to be the perfect pet—
graceful, demure…and kept. In a daring move, she escaped
her captivity and took refuge in Canada. But while she can
think and act as she pleases, the life of a liberated pet is just
as confining as the Congressman’s gilded cage. Her escape
started a revolution, but she’s trapped, unable to get back
to Penn—the boy she loves—or help the girls who need her.

Back in the United States, pets are turning up dead. With
help from a very unexpected source, Ella slips deep into
the dangerous black market, posing as a tarnished pet
available to buy or sell. If she’s lucky, she’ll be able to rescue
Penn and expose the truth about the breeding program. If
she fails, Ella will pay not only with her life, but the
lives of everyone she’s tried to save…



PerfectedBook One: Perfected

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Praise for Perfected:
“Compelling, imaginative, and unique. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!”
— Mary Lindsey, author of Shattered Souls


About the Author


Kate Jarvik BirchKate Jarvik Birch is a visual artist, author, playwright, daydreamer, and professional procrastinator. As a child, she wanted to grow up to be either a unicorn or mermaid. Luckily, being a writer turned out to be just as magical. Her essays and short stories have been published in literary journals including Indiana Review and Saint Ann’s Review. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband and three kids. To learn more visit

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Letting It Rest: Sometimes a Book Just Needs Some Alone Time

Pete HautmanPete Hautman is the author of many novels for adults and teens, including the 2004 National Book Award winner Godless, Los Angeles Book Prize winner The Big Crunch, and three New York Times Notable Books: Drawing Dead, The Mortal Nuts, and Rash.

With novelist, poet, and occasional co-author Mary Logue, Hautman divides his time between Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Stockholm, Wisconsin. His latest book is Eden West, the story of a boy growing up in an isolated doomsday cult in Montana.

Learn more about Pete Hautman on his website: and his blog And check out his Eden West Unboxing Video.

Sometimes when I’m working on a puzzle—a crossword, maybe, or a knotty relationship issue—I get hopelessly mired in a feedback loop. The same unproductive thoughts form a conceptual whirlpool leading to the same dead ends. The solution comes only after I set the problem aside for a bit. If it’s a crossword puzzle, I might glance at it hours later and say, “Oh, of course! The answer is obvious!” If it’s a relationship issue, after sleeping on it I might realize, “Oh! I get it! She was right!”

Back in 2002 I started work on two novels exploring a similar theme. They both had a teenage male protagonist, and they were both about that boy’s struggle with the religion in which he’d been raised.

One of the novels, Godless, was the loosely autobiographical story of Jason Bock, a Roman Catholic teen who rejects his parents’ religion outright and sets out to create his own custom religion worshiping the local water tower. The second novel, Eden West, was about Jacob, a boy raised in an insular doomsday cult in Montana, whose faith is torn from him when outsiders enter his cloistered world.

For a month or two I worked on both books, going from one to the other as the mood took me. I saw them as two sides of the same story. In Godless, Jason was impelled by internal forces—his doubts came from within. Eden West’s Jacob is secure in his faith. He does not question, and he has no doubts—until he meets two “worldly” teens from outside the compound.

By the time I had a few chapters written in each book, Eden West ground to a halt. It was too complicated. There were too may unknowns. The characters were blurry. It would require at least one trip to Montana, and a ton of research about cults, and I would have to drown myself in scripture. I didn’t have the confidence to move it forward, so I set Eden West aside.

I finished writing Godless about a year and a half later. Enough about religion, I thought. I had plenty of other less contentious things to write about. But Eden West kept niggling at me. Every few weeks I’d look at it, Eden Westmaybe add a scene or a few paragraphs, do some reading and thinking, just to keep the idea alive. Over the next ten years the novel grew, slowly and steadily. I read everything I could find about doomsday cults. I began to understand my characters. Ideas sifted, settled, and sometimes went away. I kept the good stuff and let the wind take the chaff.

Eventually I drove to Montana. When I returned home I immersed myself in Judaic and Christian apocrypha. I went back to Montana again the next year, and when I returned from that second trip in 2011 the landscape of Eden West—the characters, the fictional epistemology, and most of all the essential and very human story of family, faith, love, and loss came together. I had all the pieces. I began writing in earnest.

I’ve always had a lot of overlap in my writings. Right now I’m working on and off on five different novels—three middle-grade, one YA, and one adult. When I get stuck on one, I set it aside and work on something else. I know that “system” doesn’t work for most writers, but because my process tends to be protracted, it works for me. Sometimes a book needs to rest for a bit and wait for the author to catch up.


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