Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

26 November 2008

Historical fiction author Dianne Ascroft

Nonfiction writer Dianne Ascroft published her first novel this year, a historical set during and after World War II. Hitler and Mars Bars (Trafford Publishing) is the story of a lonely German orphan boy rescued by Operation Shamrock and taken to Ireland, where he must face more than the ordinary challenges of growing up.

Welcome, Dianne, and congratulations on the publication of your first novel!

Thank you! I’m pleased to be here today.

Although Canadian, you live in on a farm in Northern Ireland. That sounds very isolated. Have you found a community of writers there or a critique group, or are you completely on your own as a writer? How do you do your research?

There are quite a few writers in the county where I live, and we are loosely connected to each other through the Fermanagh Authors Association. The main aims of the group are to promote our work, individually and as a group, and to publish group anthologies. The Association doesn’t devote much time at meetings to critiquing each other’s work so I am on my own in that respect. That is one aspect of a traditional writers group that I miss.

There was a lot of research involved in writing Hitler and Mars Bars. Although the book is set only sixty years ago, it was before I was born so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of the era. I did a lot of background reading about Germany and Ireland during that period. They were two very different countries—Germany a battle-scarred, industrialized nation and Ireland a quiet, mostly rural place. I read general histories as well as biographies.

I couldn’t find much information about the Irish Red Cross initiative, Operation Shamrock, except a chapter in one book about German-Irish relations after World War II and an RTE, Irish television documentary exploring the German children’s experiences in Ireland. So I had to do my own research. I spoke to people in the communities that hosted the children—the former evacuees, their foster families, their neighbours, their classmates, their friends, and the local clergy. I also requested information from the Hattingen Archives in Germany about the children’s lives during the war.

Period photographs, from both countries, were important to allow me to see what life was like and to get details such as how they dressed and what certain machinery looked like. Photographs helped me understand some of the information I found in my background reading.

Whenever possible I visited the places where I set the story. I wanted to get an overall impression of the areas. During these visits I often spotted little details that brought the place to life when I wrote about it.

Writing a historical novel takes a lot of research. How do you know when it’s time to stop researching and start writing?

I think the two go hand in hand. Even once you start writing you are always checking details and doing that little bit more reading to make things clearer. When I began my research, Ireland and Germany sixty years ago were completely foreign worlds to me. Though it involved more time and effort than I’d envisioned before I started, I tried to be as thorough with my research as I could. I have to admit that I didn’t really mind as I found the research fascinating. Sometimes I had to tear myself away from it to write.

Before I could begin writing I needed a good background knowledge of the historic events that related to my story and the era in general. Once I had a clear understanding of what was happening in both countries at the time, I was able to write about it. I spent a year doing the initial research before I started writing. As I’ve said, I continued to research as I wrote. There were always details that I needed to find—when was electricity installed in rural Ireland, how much was a farm labourer paid, what year was Dublin’s main street named O’Connell Street, how old were boys when they began to wear long trousers. The list of details that occurred to me as I wrote is almost endless, so the research was never done. But I did get to a point during the initial research when I felt I knew enough about life in the era to begin writing about it.

What was your favorite part of writing Hitler and Mars Bars?

As I’ve said, I really enjoyed the research. Some of the background reading I did was fascinating. I read quite a few biographies and autobiographies and loved learning about these German and Irish people’s lives. Ireland sixty years ago was so different from the Ireland that I live in. It was like stepping into another world. Memoirs such as Alice Taylor’s To School Through The Fields, Bryan Gallagher’s Barefoot In Mullyneeny, Sean McElgunn’s Charleyhorse Rider, and William K. Parke’s A Fermanagh Childhood opened up a new world for me. It was so absorbing that I had to drag myself away from it to write.

Once I did drag myself away from my reading, I loved getting the story down on paper. Initially writing each scene, before the revising and editing begins, is exhilarating. I can see the story in my head, almost like watching a film. Then I write down what I imagine. Although it will need editing later, the words just flow at this stage. It’s exciting to see the first draft of each scene finished and added to the manuscript.

Can you tell us more about Operation Shamrock? Do you consider it a success or a failure?

Operation Shamrock was an Irish Red Cross project, in co-operation with the German Save The Children Society, which helped hundreds of children recover from the deprivation in post-war Germany. After the Second World War conditions in Europe, including Germany, were appalling and many people were near starvation. Ireland was one of the first countries to send donations of money and goods to the damaged country. Irish people were particularly moved by the plight of the children, and, as a result, the German Save The Children Society was formed in October 1945. Its stated aim was to bring German children to Ireland to save them from starvation.

In March 1946 the Irish Red Cross, on behalf of both organisations, applied to the Allied Control Council to bring one hundred German children to Ireland. The request was approved on 31st May. On 27th July, 1946, the first eighty-eight children arrived. By April 1947 over four hundred children, aged between three and fifteen, were in Ireland. Most of them came from the devastated Ruhr area, which had been heavily bombed by the Allies during the war.

On arrival the children were taken to the Red Cross Centre at Glencree, Co Wicklow, where they were cared for by nurses and Red Cross workers. Malnutrition and other health problems were treated, and when their health improved sufficiently they were placed with foster families. Each child was fostered by a family of the same faith as himself. The children received good care and nourishing food. Most of these children formed strong bonds with their foster families and many were loath to leave them when the time came to return home.

At the end of the planned duration of the three-year project, between April and September 1949, most of the children were returned to their families in Germany. They returned home healthy and happy though many missed their foster families. Approximately fifty children, for various reasons, remained in Ireland permanently.

I would consider the project a resounding success. Its stated aim was to save German children from starvation in the aftermath of the war. Over 400 of these children were brought to Ireland and cared for. There were very few reports of mistreatment. The children were well fed and cared for. They returned home much healthier than when they arrived in Ireland. The Red Cross did exactly what they set out to do and many children, who may not have done so in their homeland, survived and thrived. Operation Shamrock was a very worthwhile humanitarian aid initiative.

Did your experience writing nonfiction for newspapers and magazines help or hurt when you began writing a novel?

A bit of both, really. My experience researching articles, as well as my history studies at university, taught me how to do the research I needed for my novel. I was well prepared to get my material together. But then I had to learn to let go and fictionalise the facts I had. Because the story is loosely based on real events, I wanted to portray Operation Shamrock accurately. So sometimes I hesitated when I moved the storyline away from the real events.

You chose to self-publish Hitler and Mars Bars with Trafford Publishing. What did Trafford do to market your book? What are you doing to market it?

Trafford’s active marketing efforts focus on the book’s release. They send out press releases to their mailing list, announcing the release. They are able to reach a larger circle then I would be able to do. In their ongoing program they provide a Webpage for the book, in their online catalogue, which includes information about the book, the author and review excerpts. Additionally the author can choose to list the title in printed catalogues and/or have the book displayed with other Trafford titles at major book fairs, including the London Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Trafford’s marketing program is a general one. I have had to target specialised groups that fall outside their standard contacts list myself.

Hitler and Mars Bars has been released for just over six months now, so I’m still finding out where best to target it. But I know that personal recommendations are important for any market. Nothing can beat them. Positive reviews and comments from others in the writing world and the media are vital for my marketing efforts. So, before I undertook any promotional activities, I sought reviewers. I received favourable reviews from many regional newspapers as well as a Belfast daily paper, The News Letter, and the BBC broadcaster and journalist Brian D’Arcy. I quote from them in my publicity material; their comments have been very beneficial to my marketing campaign.

I approach my marketing in manageable segments—moving outwards in ever widening circles. Initially I concentrated on the counties of Ireland where most of the book is set. Now I’m widening the circle to include the rest of Ireland and Irish communities elsewhere. I sent press releases to the media, especially the newspapers, to encourage them to write articles about the book. As soon as they printed articles I contacted bookshops and libraries in the area to offer the book for sale. The media coverage is crucial to arouse interest. Many people won’t buy a book if they haven’t heard of it. Even if they see it sitting on the shelf and it seems appealing, it won’t tempt them unless they know something about it.

The Internet is also very important to my promotion efforts. It gives me the opportunity to publicise the book to a much broader audience around the world than I would have direct access to. So I have a Website and a blog, and I am always willing to visit other sites to talk about Hitler and Mars Bars. And because the material stays on the Internet indefinitely, the entries on these sites will continue to publicise the book for me.

So I have found that a combination of targeting specific markets where the book is particularly relevant and trying to reach the broader reading public is a good strategy for me.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

As is the case for many writers, writing has never been my primary occupation. I’ve always held a day job and written in the evenings after my household and farm chores are completed. I don’t manage to write every evening but I usually spend a couple hours, several evenings each week, writing. I’m up early each morning, but I have chores to do so I don’t manage to do any writing before I leave for the office. I do carry with me the piece I’m currently working on and spend any quiet times during the day revising it. When I sit down to write later, I look over what I’ve already done and then continue on. On the weekends, after the chores are done, I also spend as much time as possible writing—that’s usually no more than a couple hours at a time.

I would love to spend more time writing but I have to balance it with the rest of my life. I would advise aspiring writers to spend as much time as they can writing. If they don’t have a lot of time available, then plan ahead carefully so that writing time will be spent writing and not organising files or thinking about what to write. With organisation you can make the most of your writing time even if it isn’t as much time as you would like to have.

What will your next novel be about?

When I finished writing Hitler and Mars Bars I didn’t know what would happen to Erich next. But about a week after I finished writing ideas started popping into my head, and Erich’s future started to take shape. So I would like to write a sequel to Hitler and Mars Bars. It would begin in 1955, when this book ends, and probably continue through the rest of Erich’s teens and into his twenties. I have some definite ideas about what I would like to see happen in the next book—but I’m not giving anything away yet!

Thanks again, Dianne.

It was my pleasure, Shauna. Thanks for hosting me!

You can learn more about Dianne and Hitler and Mars Bars by visiting her Website at and her blog at Her book is available from Trafford Press and


I’ll be speaking on “Myth and Folktales in Science Fiction and Fantasy” at the Orange County Science Fiction Club on Wednesday, November 26 (the night before Thanksgiving), at 7:30 in Fullerton, California. Everyone is welcome to come. For directions, please see

18 November 2008

Debut fantasy author Leslie Ann Moore

Leslie Ann Moore’s first novel, the fantasy Griffin’s Daughter (Avari Press), was awarded the 2008 Benjamin Franklin Award for First Fiction by the Independent Book Publishers Association. Griffin’s Daughter is the story of a half-human, half-elf woman and her struggle to find her place while, unbeknown to her, an ancient evil has awakened and plans to use her to destroy the world.

Welcome, Leslie Ann, and congratulations on the publication of your first novel!

Thanks for having me, Shauna.

Could you tell my readers about the encounter with fantasy author Terry Brooks that changed your life?

In 2001, I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival Of Books specifically to hear Mr. Brooks speak on a panel of fantasy writers. He discussed his creative process and recommended that every writer own and read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, one of the best books on writing available. The book deals with how to use mythic structure to create strong plots and characters.

He then talked about how he’d written his first published novel, The Sword Of Shannara, while still in law school. It took him many years and several best-selling novels before he could give up practicing law and become a full-time writer, but the point that I remember best is that he did it . . . he successfully transitioned from making his living as a lawyer to making his living as a writer. A light went on in my head . . . I thought, well, why can’t I do the same?

After the talk, I took a copy of one of his novels to get it signed. When my turn came, he politely asked me what I did for a living, and it seemed as if my mouth had a life of its own! Instead of saying “I’m a vet,” I blurted out, “I’m a fantasy writer, like you!” He smiled and told me to never give up and to keep writing. Now, I’m sure he’s said that to everyone who ever tells him that they are an aspiring author, but those words, along with what he’d said during the panel discussion just flipped a switch in my brain.

I left the autograph session, found the Vogler book at the festival and bought it, then went home and dug out an old short story I’d written in college. That evening, I used that story as the basis for my outline of the novel which would eventually become Griffin’s Daughter.

Were there other speculative fiction writers who influenced your writing or career in important ways?

I’m a huge fan of Kate Elliot. Reading her work is like taking a master class in fiction writing. She uses words like a painter uses colors, and she creates the most beautiful descriptive passages.

And, of course, there’s Tolkien, the gold standard to which all modern writers of a certain type of fantasy fiction are held. I happen to think it’s unfair to reflexively compare every novel that utilizes elves and other mythic races as characters with LOTR, but it’s done all the time, despite the fact that stories about elves, dwarves, fairies, and such have been around long before Tolkien ever set pen to paper. My elves are nothing like the rather cold and haughty beings of LOTR. They laugh, cry, eat, sleep, sweat, bleed, make love, give birth, and use the toilet; in short, they are like us except they have pointy ears.

Do readers ask whether half-elf, half-human Jelena, the main female character in the book, is really you?

Jelena is, of course, me in the sense that I created her and like any “daughter,” she does have aspects of my personality in her, but she’s not me in the greater sense. She is a biracial person and so am I, and one of the themes I explore in the story is how racism affects an individual of mixed race and how she copes with the hardships of living in a society that views her as inferior due to something beyond her control.

In the early part of the story, Jelena has internalized the negativity and believes she is, in fact, not as worthy as a so-called pureblooded person, but part of any good story is showing how characters grow and change. Jelena does a lot of growing and changing throughout the entire trilogy.

You chose a new small publisher, Avari Press, to publish your book. What did Avari do to market your book? What are you doing to market it?

Avari chose me, actually. I sent them my manuscript on a tip from a fellow writer. She’d heard that there was a new small press specializing in fantasy fiction that was calling for submissions. They read the book, loved it, and made me an offer.

Avari, being a small company, has a small promotional budget. No full-page ads in the L.A. Times, sadly! What they have done is send out copies of the book to such reviewers as Publishers Weekly, Locus, Kirkus, and The Library Journal, as well as to all the major fantasy book-review websites and blogs. The book did receive a favorable review in The Library Journal and on the Fantasy Debut blog.

My marketing efforts consist of things that don’t cost huge sums of money, because I don’t have a big budget either! I have a website, which just got a brilliant make-over, and I maintain a MySpace page. I have glossy postcards printed with the book cover that I’m constantly handing out. I’m also in the process of podcasting the novel, with my publisher’s blessing. I had a radio interview at a local public radio station here in Los Angeles shortly after the book came out. I’ve had several signings around town, and I participate as a speaker/panelist at our local sci-fi/fantasy convention, LosCon.

Probably the best thing I’ve done to create my marketing platform is to join the Greater Los Angeles Writers’ Society. It’s given me an entry into the L.A. Times Festival Of Books, which I can now attend as an author with selling privileges. That’s a huge advantage.

What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of a small publisher vs. a large publisher?

A small publisher will spend a lot more time with an author and give her/him a great deal of input into things such as cover art. An author would never get any say about the cover at a large publishing house. It’s the personal care I get as an author with Avari that’s so valuable to me. I get to talk directly to the president of the company and he consults me on most issues concerning my books. I’m not sure even the biggest name authors would ever get to talk directly to the presidents of the major houses.

The main disadvantage involves access to markets. The big bookstore chains rarely stock product from the small indie presses, so consequently, sales potential is reduced. Small presses have to rely on indie bookstores, which are, sadly, falling like flies—please, people, support your local indie bookstore if there’s one in your area!!!—or Amazon for the bulk of their sales, along with however many copies the author can sell her/himself at signings.

What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?

I used to only have time to write an hour or two on weekends or during my lunch break at work. I also took my laptop with me on every vacation. I was a full-time practicing veterinarian, which is a very demanding and stressful profession. However, recently, I’ve been able, financially, to make the choice to cut back to part-time status, so I can now devote one day a week solely to my literary career. I try to get any chores out of the way by 2:00 pm, and then I write, edit, work on my podcasts, or print story submissions for magazines—anything that has to do with my literary career.

If I had another free day, I’d devote one strictly to writing and the other to miscellaneous literary chores, but I don’t, so it all has to get done on one day. Consequently, I usually only write about three hours at a stretch, which is why it takes me so long to finish a project. Any aspiring writer has to find her/his own schedule that works best.

The only rule is to work on your literary career at least one day a week; that’s the bare minimum. If you can squeeze any time at all during your day to write a little bit, even if it’s only a few paragraphs, do so. Lunch breaks, early in the morning before going to work, after dinner when the family is asleep, grab that time and write. Otherwise, you’ll never get anything finished.

When will the next two volumes of the trilogy come out, and what will the next installment be about?

Griffin’s Shadow, the second book of the trilogy, will be released 2/27/09. The third book, Griffin’s Destiny, has no firm release date yet, but if Avari follows the same schedule, I expect it’ll be out sometime in early 2011.

Griffin’s Shadow continues the story right where Griffin’s Daughter left off. I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t read either of the books yet, but I can tell you that several new and pivotal characters will be introduced, and where GD was about finding love and acceptance, GS is about adversity and loss and how the main characters deal with them.

What was your favorite part of writing the Griffin’s Daughter trilogy?

I loved writing the love story. I’m a hopeless romantic, and my characters became like my own kids to me. I wanted to see them happy!

You have been on the front lines of podcasting as part of Clonepod. Clonepod releases new and previously published science fiction and fantasy short stories as podcasts. Why did you choose to take part in Clonepod? Is podcasting a better medium for fantasy and science fiction short stories than print or online magazines or just an additional outlet?

For a new and relatively unknown writer, podcasting may be the only medium in which to get one’s work out. I look at it as part of a continuum of outlets. There have been writers who’ve started out podcasting their short stories or novels and received such good buzz, they’ve come to the attention of publishers and editors and have gone on to place their work in print magazines, and a few have even gotten book contracts out of it. Those are the exceptions, of course, but it’s possible nonetheless.

I chose to work on Clonepod because, first, I wanted an outlet for my own short stories; second, I like doing voice-over work and wanted to get better; and third, I really like the other people who are involved. We’ve all become good friends.

I think podcasting will only get more popular and important a source as time goes on for all types of things that once were only in print—books, magazines, short stories, etc. As our lives get increasingly hectic and we have less and less time to sit down and read a book, being able to listen to a story on one’s MP3 player while performing another task will be very valuable.

Again, thanks, Leslie Ann, for stopping by my blog. I look forward to your return to talk more about Clonepod and how authors can submit their work.

Thank you, Shauna.

You can learn more about Leslie Ann and Griffin’s Daughter by visiting her Website at Her book is available from


I’ll be speaking on “Myth and Folktales in Science Fiction and Fantasy” at the Orange County Science Fiction Club on Wednesday, November 26 (the night before Thanksgiving), at 7:30 in Fullerton, California. Everyone is welcome to come. For directions, please see

11 November 2008

National Diabetes Month

November is National Diabetes Month. As a long-time writer on diabetes as well as the granddaughter of two people who died from complications of diabetes, I'd like to make you aware of the extent of the problem and what you can do to help yourself and your family.

The problem

Because of video games, fast food, jobs that use computers, larger servings at restaurants, and many, many other factors, Americans today are less active and weigh more than ever before.

Diabetes rates are shooting up as a result, particularly in the South. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the rate of newly diagnosed cases of diabetes has nearly doubled in the past ten years. As a result, nearly 24,000,000 Americans now have diabetes. When I first started writing about diabetes, the number was 15,000,000.

Why you should care

You want to avoid getting diabetes if possible because it can lead to or contribute to a host of ills—eye disease, blindness, nerve disease, kidney disease, foot ulcers, amputation, digestive diseases, gum disease and other infections, tooth loss, heart attack, stroke, and depression—as well as disability and even death.

Risk factors

Type 2 diabetes (which is the kind 90% of people with diabetes have) usually comes about when genetic predisposition meets a diabetes-friendly environment.

Thus, your risk of diabetes is higher if it runs in your family or if you belong to an ethnic group particularly prone to getting diabetes. (In the United States, high-risk groups include blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians.)

Genetic predisposition alone is usually not enough to cause diabetes. It needs the right environment to manifest itself. Possible risk factors for type 2 diabetes include excess weight; excess fat around the stomach; a high-calorie diet; being 45 or older; physical inactivity; high blood pressure; high cholesterol levels; heavy alcohol use; lower income; less education; lower social class; living in an urban area; having had a baby weighing more than 9 pounds; and having had temporary diabetes during a pregnancy.

You can calculate your personal risk of diabetes with an interactive risk calculator provided by the American Diabetes Association at

Save your family, save yourself

You cannot change some risk factors. Still, even if you are at high risk, you can lower your chances of getting type 2 diabetes and at the same time become healthier.

Lose weight if you are overweight. Any weight you lose will help, even if you are still overweight. To find out whether you or your children are overweight, use the calculators at

Eat a more healthful diet. To find out what the government currently considers a healthful diet, check out the 2005 Dietary Guidelines at

Burn more calories. A formal exercise program is not the only way to achieve this. Many household, gardening, and lawn chores are calorie burners. So are some fun activities such as sex, dancing, playing tennis, playing certain musical instruments, walking your dog, playing with your children, and walking around a shopping mall. The government’s 2008 report on physical fitness (with hints for increasing yours) can be found at

Know the symptoms. The earlier diabetes is caught, the earlier you can start taking steps to control it and so lessen your chances of complications. Not everyone who gets type 2 diabetes has symptoms. However, when they do, they have some of the following:
•increased thirst
•weight loss
•blurred vision
•frequent urination
•increased hunger
•sores that do not heal

03 November 2008

Equality and justice for all

I rarely mention politics on my blog. But tonight, with the polls so close on Proposition 8, I feel compelled to urge my California readers to vote "no" tomorrow on Prop 8.

The proponents of Prop 8 hope tomorrow to take an important constitutional right away from some Californians—the right to marry the person you love and want to spend the rest of your life with.

When one person's rights are threatened, no one's rights are safe.

If tomorrow homosexuals lose rights and become second-class citizens, who will be next? Lefthanders? Like homosexuals, we are this way because of a biological predisposition, not by choice. Black people? Pigmentation, or lack thereof, is not a "lifestyle choice" either. Women? Not my choice either. The equipment was there when I was born.

Think my examples are extreme? It's happened before. Black people in many parts of the country lost rights during Reconstruction that they did not get back until during my lifetime and probably yours as well. The rights of Americans of Japanese ancestry were taken away during World War II—still within the lifetime of some of my readers. The rights of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were abrogated by our current president.

I believe no American should be a second-class citizen.

Please vote "no" on Prop 8.

Do it for Ellen, who has entertained you for years with her comedy.

Do it for your relatives, friends, and neighbors who are homosexual.

Do it for my relatives, friends, and neighbors who are homosexual.

Do it for your children to teach them that all Americans are first-class citizens and to ensure they can marry the person they love when they grow up.


When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

(English translation of a poem attributed Lutheran theologian Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller, who spent eight years in Nazi concentration camps)


Protect your rights by protecting the rights of others. Vote "no" on Prop 8.