Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What Genealogy Research Has Given Me

Rose Of Skibbereen would never have been written if it weren’t that I got interested in my family’s history. Growing up, I always liked to listen to my mother’s stories about her Irish grandmother, but I never really got bitten by the genealogy bug till my mother passed away and left me her folders of research, and some old photo albums. 
My mother did her research in the days before the Internet, when she had to take a bus downtown and pore through the Philadelphia City Archives. She spent hours at various government offices, she badgered bored city employees for help, she searched miles of microfilm and made copies on those clunky old machines that smelled like chemicals and took long minutes to make a shoddy, blurred copy. 
When I got involved it was much easier. I was able to search online databases and find records in a matter of seconds that my mother had to wait weeks for. I could connect with other people who had information about my family, and exchange photos and stories with them by email.
And it really got to me. Because what happened is I began to realize there were stories about these people, my ancestors, and some of them were quite tragic. There were men who abandoned their wives with small children, there was alcoholism and insanity, there was poverty, there was abortion, there were unwed mothers, there were immigrants who left Ireland as teenagers who never saw their parents or family again for the rest of their lives.
What I found was the gritty truth about my past. I grew up in the cocoon of suburbia, and I never thought anything dramatic happened in my family. I was wrong, though, because the generations before mine had lots of drama, although it was kept a secret from my generation. 
I got lots of material for my novel, although I used my imagination to embellish the facts in many cases. I got a new respect for the hardships faced by the people who came before me. And I got a new love -- genealogy -- that I’m thinking of turning into a second career. I love family history. Every family has its own secrets, its triumphs and tragedies, and every family is worth researching, I am convinced. 
It’s a project worth undertaking, and I highly recommend it. You may be surprised at what you find out when you do genealogical research, but I can guarantee you’ll get a deeper understanding of your family’s roots. 
If you want advice on how to proceed, contact me at mcdonnellwrite@gmail.com and if I can help you, I will. 






Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Lesson Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters Taught Us

The recent death of Robin Williams has me thinking about one thing: the joy of improvisation. Robin Williams made a career out of ad-libbed comedy, and it was a wonderful thing to behold. He was known for his manic, wild, improvisational routines, and you can see it on display in dozens of YouTube clips. 
Improvisation is a good thing to celebrate these days, because it’s unfettered creativity. The improviser uses anything at his disposal to create comedy, and the results can be hilarious. 
Or not. When you make things up on the spot they can fall flat. You’re performing without a safety net, and you can crash and burn just as easily as soar to the clouds. The number one rule is that you can’t be afraid to make a mistake.
What a good lesson that is for the uptight world we live in. Nobody wants to take a chance on making a mistake anymore, it seems to me. Why? Because the all-seeing media captures every false move and broadcasts it to the world. When an actor who’s had one too many drinks at a party spouts an obscenity it appears on a YouTube video before the day is out. When a football player drops a pass it’s analyzed on sports talk radio for hours. The “news” that a politician fixed a traffic ticket 25 years ago gets broadcast all over the Internet, and that person’s career is ruined. 
The result is that people are afraid to take chances these days. Students take easy courses in college so they can maintain a good grade point average. Companies are afraid to innovate, for fear that their profits might go down if the new product fails. Creative people in every field use well-tested templates rather than breaking new ground. 
Robin Williams made a career out of breaking new ground, and he wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. If he told a joke that bombed, he just moved on to the next one. He said he learned a lot from Jonathan Winters, a master of comedy improvisation himself. In the YouTube clip below, Robin says the most important thing Jonathan Winters taught him was that “the world is open for play”. That’s a great philosophy, and one I wish we could all follow more. Play is something children do, and they don’t worry about making mistakes. They simply follow the creative impulse wherever it takes them, and they don’t care about who’s watching or what they think. They let the ideas flow. You can’t create something without making mistakes, lots of them, so we should never be afraid to make a mistake. 

Watch how joyful Robin and Jonathan are in this video clip, and how they follow the creative ideas wherever they lead.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

13 Horror Story Bundle Is Published

Thanks to everyone who voted in my recent cover poll. As you can see below, I chose Cover #2. Not only did it get more votes, but I liked that it had a certain "Aztec" look to it. There's a story in this ebook that has a definite Aztec connection, so the cover art seemed very appropriate.
"13 Horror Story Bundle" is larger than my previous horror collections, and I think horror fans will definitely enjoy it. Some of these tales are on the long side, but that just gave me more room to sink my teeth (or should I say fangs?) into the story.
I know some of my fans think it's weird that I can write historical fiction like "Rose Of Skibbereen" and then switch gears and write about ghosts and vampires. That's just how my mind works, I guess. I just like creating stories, and some of them are romantic and sentimental, but others happen to be on the scary side. As long as it's a good story, I'm happy.
A long time ago, on the "American Bandstand" program, when the host would ask the teenagers to vote on the latest rock 'n roll songs, many of them would say, "I like it, because it's got a good beat." Well, I feel that way about literature. The story is what counts, like the beat in a good rock song. If you tell a good story, it doesn't matter if it's about two Irish lovers in 19th century Philadelphia or a monster in a coffee shop in present day New York -- most people will respond to it.
I hope you like this collection. And for the people who would like me to get back to "Rose Of Skibbereen", don't worry -- I'm going to work on the next book in the series now.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

I Need Your Help Again

Hello readers:

I'd like your help in picking a cover for my next ebook. I did this a few months ago with one of my "Rose Of Skibbereen" books and it helped me to decide between two well-designed covers. This time I need help with cover designs for a new horror ebook. It's going to be called "13 Horror Story Bundle" and it's going to have a combination of new and old horror stories by me. I had a great time putting this collection together, and I want to publish it soon. The cover is important, of course, and I'd like to pick one that really grabs potential readers.
I'm going to run a poll, where you can tell me which cover you like best. It will be in the right column of this page. Please weigh in, let me know which one you like.
The one that gets the most votes is the design I'll use.
Cover 1:
Cover 2:


Monday, July 7, 2014

The Stories Are The Same

Many readers know that I based my “Rose Of Skibbereen” series of novels on some family history research, although I embellished the bare facts quite a bit. I got obsessed with finding out the truth about my great-grandfather Peter O’Farrell’s life and although I never did find out everything about him (like where he came from in Ireland), I found enough to quell my obsession for a time. 
Once the genealogy bug bites you, though, you’re never completely free of the desire to learn more of the story of your family’s past. My project now is to research a different part of my family tree, and I got a shock last week when I logged on to Ancestry.com and saw a picture of my mother’s maternal grandmother in someone else’s family tree. Ancestry sends you a link to another family tree if there’s a connection to your tree, and it’s a great help to your research efforts. 
Anyway, this person not only posted pictures from my great-grandmother’s family, she also had a short essay about my great-grandparents that sounded like it could have been written by me. You see, I’m always interested more in the stories than just the bare facts of genealogy, and my mother told me stories about her family that I always remembered. Like, that her great-grandparents were of two religious denominations: Baptist and Roman Catholic. She said that the Baptist father would not allow newspaper reading on Sundays, and he was also opposed to dancing and card playing. He did like ice cream, however, and he and his wife went out for ice cream every night in the summer. 
Those kind of details had to come from someone with a strong connection to the family! I dashed off an email immediately, and sat back and waited. 
And waited. I’ve had no answer yet, but maybe the person just hasn’t checked their email for a while. I do hope they check it soon, because I’m dying of curiosity.

I’ll let you know what happens. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

How To Deal With The Monster Under The Bed

“How can you write a love story and then turn around and write about blood and guts?” a reader recently asked me. “Do you like to be scared?” 
I don’t write horror because I like to be scared. Maybe the answer is that if I’m going to be scared, I’d rather scare myself than have someone else do it. Or, maybe I’m trying to work out some issues buried deep within my subconscious. Or, maybe I just enjoy the adrenaline rush from a good scare. 
All I know is that true horror has nothing to do with blood and guts. True horror hits you where you live, in the subconscious. It’s the reason why you’ll avoid going down in the basement when you’re alone, because you know there is SOMETHING waiting at the bottom of the stairs. Why you won’t look under the bed in the middle of the night because you know there will be a pair of big red eyes staring back at you. Why the closet door HAS to be shut when you go to sleep.
Horror stories have their uses, believe it or not. They can make you feel better about the lousy job you have or that miserable creep who cut you off in traffic today. They make the everyday hassles of life just a little easier to bear. After all, going down in the pit of darkness for a period of time will make you face the light of day with a little more gratitude.
And when the horror is written down, it’s contained and under control. Writing horror lets me face the shadows and the monsters under the bed, to cage them in my words. 

And that’s the best way to deal with monsters.

Friday, June 13, 2014

What To Write Next?

I am in between books right now, and I'm trying to figure out what to write next. I could write another installment of my "Rose of Skibbereen" series, because the last one ended in the mid-1970s, and there are certainly more stories to be told about the descendants of Rose Sullivan McCarthy. I have this perverse character trait, though, that gives me a fear of being stereotyped. I know a lot of writers would keep mining the vein they started, which in my case would be the saga of Rose and her family.
However, the rambunctious imp in me wants to do something different. "How about a horror story?" the imp says. "Or, maybe a one-act play? Now, that would be fun!" Those are the conversations I hear in my head every day when I'm between books. I can't go too long without writing something, so I'll have to choose a project soon. We'll see if the imp convinces me to do what he wants. Anyone want to make a request? I'll consider most requests, unless it involves writing a massive historical novel that would take years to research and write, because, well, I just don't want to be holed up at my writing desk that long. 
Actually, I've got a notebook with some ideas jotted down, and a few of them involve the horror genre. I haven't thought about scary stories in a while, but for some reason the idea of writing a good old-fashioned, hide-under-the-covers yarn strikes me as a worthy project. We'll see what transpires in the next few weeks.