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The Burning Insecurities of Writing Fire

 

SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK

 

 

            All of you authors out there with high self-confidence levels, please raise your hand.

 

            Okay, I see you there, Anne Rice. Anyone else? Not many …

 

            My career as a writer has been a series of battles in which my insecurities are fought, sometimes overcome, but at least revealed. It took many years to convince myself I could write well. Then it took more time to convince myself I could sell fiction, and I was really only sure of that when I – well, sold fiction. Now I work toward convincing myself I can someday write for a living, and considering the pathetically small percentage of writers who manage that, I’m assured of plenty insecurities to come.

 

            On that subject, it doesn’t help that I plan to make no profit from my newest writing project, despite working on it for 25 years.

 

            That project reveals a whole raft of new insecurities, drifting steadily toward me.

 

            Why? Because Smoky Days and Sleepless Nights: A Century Or So With The Albion Fire Department is, in addition to having a way too long title, a work of non-fiction. Writing non-fiction has one major, stressful drawback.

 

            It’s not fiction.

 

            In my novel Storm Chaser, and my story collection, Storm Chaser Shorts, two of the characters are volunteers for the Albion Fire Department, that very same department I serve on. We even get to see them in action. But that differs in a very big way from Smoky Days, because those are works of fiction, and the two guys aren’t real (although one’s a barely disguised and slightly better looking version of me).

 

            Smoky Days is about the real department, and the real people who served on it. You can’t make stuff up; you can’t put words in peoples’ mouths; and if events don’t flow in a nice, narrative manner, you can’t change them around for a better narrative flow.

 

            So let’s count the ways in which I’m nervous:

 

            First, there’s the usual process of selling myself, bragging, and book signings. I’m not good at the first two. I’m at a disadvantage with the third, due to my terrible memory for names and faces.

 

            You want stress? Try looking at a line of book buyers, recognizing half as people you’ve known all your life, and drawing a complete blank on their names. Then finding out you know the others, too. That’s stress.

 

            Worse, I wasn’t able to get the time off from my day job, which is at night, which means I’ll be going into the signing on July 20th with about two hours of sleep. Have you ever fallen asleep while signing someone’s name? Embarrassing.

 

            Second, what if I screw something up in the book?

 

            I’m not talking typos, although that’s possible. This is my first self-published effort, which means I was responsible for layout, editing, formatting, cover design … oh, who am I kidding? My wife did all that. She’s amazing – and she did all that stuff while suffering through various illnesses over the winter and spring. I’d give her part of the proceeds, except we’re donating profits to the Fire Department.

 

            Seems only fair – it’s their story.

 

            But that also reveals my biggest area of stress. I can live with a few typos – even correct them, if I sell enough copies for a second printing. But some of the people I’m writing about are still alive, and I know for a fact that many of them are gun owners.

 

            That’s part of the reason why I concentrated much of the book on the origins and early history of the fire department. Former fire chiefs William E. Worden and George O. Russell Jr. aren’t going to beat me up for not including more information about them in the book, unless they’re ghosts floating around the firehouse. They aren’t, are they?

 

            (Another reason is that I loved the detective process of uncovering old historical details, frustrating as it could be.)

 

            On the other hand, I’ve compiled a list of eighteen known Albion fire chiefs since 1887, and ten of them are still alive. All ten could snap my spine like a twig. Half of them are experienced hunters. I’m just saying.

 

            My book mostly ends in 1988, for reasons I explain in the opening. I did my best to stay accurate, or at least to spell it out when I had to speculate. Although there’s probably a lot of stuff I missed, I’m fairly confidence things held together despite my 25 year writing time. I’m also hoping the book will generate interest in people who will come forward with new information, new stories, and maybe even new photographs for inclusion in a second addition – assuming there is one, which is a question for the buyer to decide. I could buy a truckload myself to get my numbers up, but then what would I do with several dozen bundles of my last novel?

 

            There’s still that fear. Fear that every single person who reads it will find some glaring error, or that just a few will find errors that they feel are major enough for a good, professional tarring and feathering, which isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. Just remember, getting the facts wrong isn’t as much of a problem when writing fiction, so don’t let this put you off my next novel.

 

            And believe me, considering the time, effort, and stress I put into this, I need a break from non-fiction.

 

            I guess I’ll find out how my change in genres goes over starting at that first book signing, at the AFD’s anniversary celebration July 20th. Then things will settle down, as they tend to do. And after that?

 

            Well, there’s always the next insecurity.