All posts in Dark Tide

On My 20th Anniversary as an Author: A Few Things I’d Like to Share

When I try it on for size, it hardly seems to fit – 20 years as an author!  Hard for me to believe.  But it’s true: my first book, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, was published in September 2003.  I’ll spare you the “Can you believe how time flies?” incredulity, but then again…whew.

When people ask me what I’ve learned in the last two decades – and I appreciate their interest in doing so – my answer is a variation on the question:  “What haven’t I learned?”  Writing narrative history teaches you a lot – about yourself and others, about time management and creativity, about the big picture and the small details, about balancing nose-to-the-grindstone work with time to allow my subconscious to sift through stuff while I’m watching football, about getting history “right” – or as close to right as possible – about the importance of human connections when working at a task that is essentially solitary.  

There are a few big things that jump out at me, over and over again, that I’d like to share with you.  I’ve grouped them under three categories – I hope you enjoy them.

1. My readers (YOU) are amazing – and I’m grateful for your support.

Confession time – before I became an author, I don’t think I EVER wrote to an author to comment on a book, or suggest a book topic, or swap historical tidbits, or anything of the sort.   My readers (YOU!) do it all the time and I love it.

You are the best in the business!  You communicate with me often (and I with you), share your own stories, and tell me frequently how my books affect you.  I can’t imagine an author with more loyal and engaged readers – nor can I imagine an author more grateful for such reader support.  

There’s an age-old question that writers get asked:  “Who do you write for?”  The standard “writer” answer goes something like: “I write for me and everything else takes care of itself.”  To some extent, I suppose that’s true – but for me, I also spend a great deal of time envisioning you when I’m crafting a sentence, or a scene, or a chapter.  I don’t write for reviewers, or other authors, or academics.  I write for my readers, the thousands I’ve met over two decades, and hopefully thousands more who will enjoy my books.  I write for YOU, the person with one of my books on the nightstand who has only a few minutes to read before sleep; or who has worked hard all day and wants to knock off a few pages before dinner.  So I wonder as I’m writing: Is this scene too long without a break?  Is this chapter too dense?  Is there a way to cut this material so the action moves faster?

I fully realize and respect that I’m in competition for your time and with other demands you have swirling around you – family, friends, work, personal issues.  My job – my obligation, as I see it – is to make my work as interesting and as fulfilling as possible so you’ll be drawn to it despite your other commitments.  

You have always been honest about how I’m doing  – please continue to be!

2. My experience has taught me to “give back” whenever possible.

I’ve worked extremely hard in my career, but I also know I’ve been fortunate.  As the years have passed, I’ve become more aware of this and have done my best to assist others with their writing and research projects whenever possible.

I’ve spoken to many fine writers who have had trouble publishing their writing, or even finding an agent, through no fault of their own.  In some ways, the writing business is serendipitous and random, and even cruel sometimes.  Getting published is hard, and often there is no seeming rhyme or reason as to who gets a “yes” or who doesn’t.  I’ve been truly blessed in my career – I found an agent (a great one!) quickly, publishers have signed eight book deals with me, and readers have been incredibly generous in buying my books.  If I can help new writers get published (and I have!) by encouraging them to take a risk and WRITE, by reviewing their proposals, sample chapters, or completed manuscripts – and it gets them closer to experiencing their own joy – that’s a win for them and very satisfying for me.

I’ve also tried to extend this assistance as often as I can to students – from middle school through college and even graduate students.  I speak often at schools and conclude every event by telling the kids to feel free to send me samples of their writing if they’d like comments, or reach out if they need help on a history project.  I’m happy and honored to say that MANY have done just that.  I’ve reviewed and offered advice on History Day projects, college entrance essays, and Ph.D. dissertations.

 I’m always impressed with students – connecting with young people about history, writing, and life in general has been one of the lasting and profound gifts I’ve received over the last two decades.

3. I’m humbled by the support of others.

I’m certainly not the first author to say it, but I say it often and will say it again – writing is a solitary act, but “authoring” requires a great deal of support.  I’ve been blessed to be the recipient of so much wonderful help and assistance.  

It starts with my wife Kate, who has been by my side since the beginning of this author (and life!) journey, and it ripples out to family members, friends, colleagues, and professionals who have offered their unwavering encouragement and extraordinary talents to help make me a better author, and in the process, a better person.   

When Kate and I first made the decision (together) in 2000 for me to give the author gig a chance, it certainly was a risk; neither of us knew what to expect.  I had a full-time career in the corporate communications business – public relations, speech coaching, speechwriting, sales support, and marketing.  But even in those very early days, so many people fueled me with their encouragement (support that has only blossomed over time).  When Dark Tide was accepted for publication, Kate and I jumped for joy, and so did many people who were in my corner from the outset!  

Those who are taking this journey with me – some for two decades and others who have joined more recently – have humbled me with all they’ve done. My gratitude knows no bounds.

You have given me the chance to live the dream – that is to say, my dream. I recognize it and count my blessings every day, and never, ever take it for granted.   

Thank you so much for riding along with me.  I hope you’ll always stay on board.

The History Puzzle: Never Finished, but Always Clearer with Time

“The cadets lost no time in getting into the ruins, scouring every corner and pile for dead and injured…the prompt action of the ship’s medical officer resulted in the saving of human life…”

John W. Thompson, navigator, USS Nantucket, January 18, 1919, report on crew members assisting in the aftermath of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

The history puzzle is never finished – but its image almost always becomes sharper with the passage of time.

I learned this lesson (again) recently when I visited Massachusetts Maritime Academy (MMA) to discuss a fantastic new program the college is launching for students in grades 5-12 related to the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, part of its renowned Sea, Science, & Leadership Program (SSLP).  I’m honored that high-achieving high school students will be reading Dark Tide when the program is held for the first time this summer, and excited that the school has invited me to participate in preparation activities and the SSLP graduation on August 3.

The historical connection between MMA and the flood is rich and compelling: cadets aboard the MMA’s USS Nantucket training ship (MMA was called the Massachusetts Nautical School at the time), docked in Boston Harbor on January 15, 1919 when the molasses tank collapsed, were first on the scene to rescue survivors, gather the dead, and maintain order on Boston’s waterfront.  The ship was under the command of Superintendent Charles Nelson Atwater, and among the brave cadets on board were three men shown here – 1919 MMA graduates Guy McKinny Hanna from Waltham, MA; Carl William Holmes from North Easton, MA: and Ronald J. Macintyre from Fall River, MA.


Now here’s where the history puzzle becomes clearer:  Dark Tide was published almost nineteen years ago, and I examined thousands of pages of primary source documents to provide the underpinning for the book – court transcripts, damage awards, letters, government records, etc.  I believe I know as much or more about the topic as anyone.  Dark Tide continues to be the only adult nonfiction book on the subject. If you had asked me whether any primary source material existed that I hadn’t at least seen, let alone studied, I would have answered with an unequivocal “no.”

And I would have been wrong.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the good people at MMA let me know that, as part of preparing for the SSLP program, they had discovered a scrapbook of letters, reports, and newspaper clippings compiled by Atwater. Would I be interested in examining it?

Would I?  Of course!  I was stunned such a report existed!

Atwater’s Report of the Superintendent and Clippings Regarding the Accident Occurring near North End Park, Boston, January 15, 1919, contains some rich and important details that I wish I had known about when writing Dark Tide.  Consider some of the information from the report:

  • From Watch Officer N. Silversteen – “I ran all the way to the wreckage, wading in molasses from 4”-12” deep. I first came across cadets carrying a stretcher with a body all covered with molasses. [Then] we heard moaning from under a pile of debris, and with several cadets, found a man lying there.  We extricated him with all possible speed and carried him in a stretcher to the ambulance.”
  • Atwater’s report to Board of Commissioners – “I heard a deep, rumbling, crashing roar of sustained duration, and saw, two hundred yards away…billowing movement and collapse of a line of buildings. Roofs, sides, and partitions moved into the North End Park like the…pushing over of a house of cards.”
  • Atwater again – “In a short time, cadets dripping molasses from the waist down came running back for supplies of oilskins and rubber boots, and others came for overcoats for the policing sentries…some of the cadets had varnished faces and dripping garments that looked as if they had been swimming in molasses…the cadets behaved admirably, and the commissioners may well take pride, as I do, in their work.”
  • Atwater – “By posting cadets with fixed bayonets at the street ends, [we] kept open North End Park and Commercial Street for the coming of fire trucks and ambulances. The police officials thanked us for this…other officer formed squads of cadets and from various points waded into the molasses of the wrecked area to rescue the injured and bring out the dead.”

The vivid writing certainly surpasses the bureaucratic report-writing of today, and offers much more than a glimpse into the “first responders” of 1919 – the cadets aboard the USS Nantucket.  I wish I had access to this – or even knew about it – when I was writing Dark Tide.

The MMA scrapbook illustrates the dilemma for historians and narrative nonfiction writers: at some point, the research has to stop and the writing must begin, or else the story might never get told.

And it highlights the fact that there are always new puzzle pieces that emerge on any historical topic, and no matter when that is, they enrich our understanding and cause us to take another look – and that’s a good thing.

I eagerly await the next primary source that I don’t know about to bubble to the surface about the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

Meantime, my thanks to Mass Maritime Academy for sharing this gem with me.

Click here for more information on Mass Maritime’s Sea, Science, & Leadership Program (SSLP), and to sign up for this summer’s molasses flood program!