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Keep Those Questions Coming

I’ve made more than 630 appearances as an author, and by far the most enjoyable part of those events for me are the questions I receive from attendees.  It’s a chance for me to hear from the audience (most of whom are my wonderful and loyal readers!), to interact with them, to broaden the discussion into other areas beyond the book topic we’re discussing, and – in general – to keep me connected to readers and what they care about most.

There are many common questions, of course, those that come up at almost every presentation.  Most of these relate to the research / writing process (which I love talking about!).  For those of you who can’t make it to an appearance, I thought I’d share some of them here.  I’d still encourage you to attend an event when you can – the energy in the room is impossible to replicate, either on Zoom or in writing – and you can always ask me more specific questions (as many readers do) by emailing me at

Meanwhile, here are a few of the most frequent questions I receive:

  • Do you do all of your own research? (or, alternatively, Do you have a “team” of researchers?) – My “team” is small, but mighty.  I do about 90-95 percent of my own research.  For my last several books, I have been blessed to have a very able research assistant help me on each one, which has been a real bonus for me.  I direct all the research, and for the small percentage of it that I ask an assistant to handle, I am very closely involved with it.  I’m also responsible for all of it – if there’s a research mistake in any of my books, it is mine alone.  As you might expect, I love history, so perhaps by extension, I love research.  I never view it as a chore, and always feel that it helps me immerse myself in the era about which I’m writing.  It’s a very different process than writing, and it’s one I truly enjoy.
  • Do you have a particular time of day that you prefer to write? – My reflexive answer to this question is the early morning.  I believe I do my best writing in the quietest part of the day (no surprise).  However, I write at all times of day, including sometimes when I get a second wind late at night.  I also (literally) keep a notepad on my nightstand; I can’t count the number of times I’ve awakened from a deep sleep, and scrawled a quick note about a chapter or scene I’m working on.  It’s usually all I need to jumpstart me the next morning.
  • Do you do the research and writing simultaneously?  Separately?  Do you do some writing and some research?  In general what process do you use to mesh the two? – Different nonfiction authors handle this in different ways.  For me, I’ve found the most productive to be 1.) complete my research first; and 2.) write.  I always find it helpful to “know what I have” in terms of documents, records, diaries, letters, etc., before I begin to write.  It helps me think “several chapters ahead’ since I know what supporting documentation I’ll have to work with.  Also, I almost never have writer’s block (frantically looking for some wood to “knock on” here), but even if I’m a little stuck on how to start a scene or a chapter, sometimes I’ll recall a letter or diary entry that lights a fire, or produces an “aha!” moment.  There is a danger to waiting for the “end of research” to begin writing, and that’s the temptation to “never end the research.”  Indeed, there is always another letter to find, or another court transcript to pore over.  What saves me then is the sheer contractual-obligation terror on when my manuscript is due (OK, not literal “terror,” but certainly pressure!).  I need to estimate how long it will take me to write the book, and work backwards from the due date.  So, in a sense, this deadline almost forces me to say, “I have enough,” and stop the research.  One caveat: of course, if I come across a “Eureka” document after writing begins, I’ll most definitely add it to my research cache!
  • How do you decide on your book topics? – I’ll start with the blindingly obvious: the topic has to interest me.  If you’re going to spend 2-3 years researching and writing a book, my advice to any author or would-be author is to make sure you like your topic!  If you get bored as you’re working on a book, it will show (negatively) either with sloppy research or less-than-inspiring writing.  Assuming that I’m excited about a topic, I use a few criteria to determine whether it’s a candidate for a full-fledged book: 
    • 1.) How often the topic has been “done” – Not every topic has to fall into the “never-before-written-about” category, but for me it certainly helps if the surface has barely been scratched.  The less written about an event, the more fertile the ground.  Put the opposite way, if you’re planning to write a biography about Abraham Lincoln, you had better have a truly unique perspective or “first time ever” material to take to a publisher.
    • 2.) The event has to fit into a “big historical picture” – A particular event can’t stand by itself – if that’s all there is, better to write a magazine article or a blog.  The event needs to fit into context – not only into the timeframe in which it occurs, but have ramifications far into the future, maybe even to the present day.  For this category, I always start with: Why is this event important beyond the event itself?
    • 3.) Compelling real-life characters are a must – History and nonfiction have “characters” in the same way fiction does.  The difference is – I can’t make them up.  I have to build my real-life characters according to the historical record that is available.  Characters – real people – drive nonfiction in the same way they drive fiction.  Readers need to care about characters, regardless of the genre.
    • 4.)  Primary sources are essential – You can’t write great history without great primary sources.  As I mentioned above, good sources place you back in the time period, and provide you with the foundation you need upon which to rest your story.  A strong foundation allows me to construct a book almost any way I choose, and that freedom almost always improves creativity, pacing, and the story arc in general.

So those are a few questions readers ask me at virtually every presentation.  It’s always gratifying for me to see such interest.  People who care so much about good writing make the best readers, and I’m thrilled so many of them read my books!

 Many thanks – and keep those questions coming.

Dad, There’s No Need to Worry

I taught my World War II class at UMass-Boston in the Fall of 2021 and emerged with a sense of optimism and hope.

First, a little background.

Many of you who have been loyal and kind enough to follow my “author life” know that I’m proud of my dad’s service as a World War II Army veteran.  Tony Puleo was a Purple Heart recipient who served in both the European and Pacific theaters.  He was also immensely (albeit quietly) proud of his service, and in the late 1990s, when I was interviewing him and preparing to write his war memoirs for the family, he said to me more than once:  “Please make sure young people remember the Second World War, the sacrifices, the heroism, and what it meant to the world.  As time goes by, people tend to forget their history.  I’m worried that young people will forget.”

Dad died in January of 2009.  I spent the next several months designing from scratch a college-level World War II course, in his honor, that I taught at Suffolk University in the fall of that year.  After teaching at Suffolk for several semesters, I moved to UMass-Boston, where I’ve been thrilled to teach the course at my alma mater.  “World War II: The Global War” is an upper-level elective, attended mostly by juniors and seniors, but I’ve had numerous freshmen and sophomores in the class and they’ve done remarkably well.

And that brings me to the hope and optimism part.  You’ve read and heard about the surveys as I have:  college students don’t know anything about history; ask them who fought in World War II and on which side, and you get blank stares; kids aren’t interested in anything that happened before they were born.

And on and on.

This past fall, my students debunked all of these canards.

I had a class full of engaged, interested students who worked hard, expressed thoughtful curiosity during discussions and demonstrated shrewd analysis in their papers and in-class exams.  These young people were truly interested in the Second World War.  It’s true that many had never studied it in high school – someday I’ll write a blog about that! – yet all of them knew the war’s scope on some level, that it was perhaps the largest and most all-consuming event in history, and each student wanted to know more.

I was also impressed all semester with their dedication and responsibility.  My class began at 8:00 a.m., a difficult time for college students to be sure.  UMass-Boston is still largely a commuter school, so for most students, arriving on time for an early-morning class is more than a matter of rolling out of bed a few minutes before class begins.  There’s perhaps an hour or more of commuting time, driving or riding the “T,” before these students arrive on campus.  And yet, their attendance was outstanding (I had several students with perfect attendance).

Great attendance.  Hard work.  A passion for learning.  I was proud of my students – they taught me something.

As a teacher, I couldn’t have asked for more.

And dad, don’t worry:  I think the future is in good hands.


America’s Remarkable First Humanitarian Mission: Widespread Aid to Ireland During the Great Famine

I describe my book, Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission as a story about hope, generosity, and soaring goodwill against a backdrop of nearly unfathomable despair. And like any story with such powerful themes, its lessons run deep and its ramifications are measured in decades rather than days.
Voyage of Mercy recounts for the first time the remarkable and unprecedented relief effort by the government and citizens of the United States to assist Ireland during the terrible famine year of 1847; remarkable because the mission undertaken by Captain Robert Bennet Forbes and the crew of the USS Jamestown to deliver tons of donated food to Ireland was the first step in a monumental effort that involved contributions from citizens of virtually every community in the United States, and the official imprimatur of the U.S. government; unprecedented not only for the size and scope of American participation, but [create a callout of this phrase: because it was the first time the United States—or any nation, for that matter—extended its hand to a foreign neighbor] in such a broad and all-encompassing way for purely humanitarian reasons.
Prior to 1847, the bulk of interaction between nation-states consisted mainly of warfare and other hostilities, mixed with occasional trade; the entire concept of international charity existed neither in the moral consciousness nor as part of the political strategy of monarchs or elected leaders. If anything, such a gesture toward a foreign nation would likely have been viewed as a sign of weakness.
The Jamestown mission was, in modern parlance, the “tip of the spear,” the most visible [CONTINUE READING] create a jump to the rest of the blog entry and most celebrated component of America’s first full-blown charitable mission. The U.S. relief effort encompassed far more than Jamestown, but it was the historic voyage of a retrofitted warship embarking on a mission of peace that most visibly symbolized the widespread willingness of the American people to offer up enormous stores of food and provisions to assist victims of the Irish famine. More than 5,000 ships left Ireland during the great potato famine in the late 1840s, transporting the starving and the destitute away from their stricken homeland. The first vessel to sail in the other direction, to help the millions unable to escape, was the USS Jamestown, a converted warship, which left Boston in March 1847 loaded with precious food for Ireland.
In an unprecedented move by Congress, the warship had been placed in civilian hands, stripped of its guns, and committed to the peaceful delivery of food, clothing, and supplies in a mission that would launch America’s first full-blown humanitarian relief effort.
The voyage itself and the subsequent outpouring of charitable relief captured hearts and minds on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition, the events of 1847 have served as the blueprint and inspiration for hundreds of American charitable relief efforts since, philanthropic endeavors that have established the United States as the leader in international aid in total dollars and enabled it to assist millions of people around the world victimized by famine, war, and catastrophic natural disasters.


Two compelling individuals occupy the center of this story.
Sea captain Robert Bennet Forbes of Boston was one of the most dynamic, determined, resilient, adventurous, well-traveled, generous, and interesting men of his age—or any age, for that matter—and until now, his story has never been fully told. I am grateful that he was also an excellent, frequent, and descriptive writer, able to relate both meaningful context and colorful details, understand the nuances of human nature as well as his own virtues and shortcomings, and express himself with passion, pathos, drama, and humor. In addition, he was the consummate collector and keeper of documents—a bit of a hoarder, actually—which has provided us with a rich trove of what others thought about him, his mission, and his world.
The Reverend Theobald Mathew, known best as Ireland’s “Temperance Priest,” was the heroic and indomitable figure on the Irish side of the Atlantic, fighting—though mostly in vain—to save the lives of his starving countrymen and convince British authorities of the speed of the famine’s onslaught, the extent of its horrors, and the desperate need for additional relief. In the decade before the famine, Father Mathew had achieved fame on both sides of the Atlantic for his efforts to convince hundreds of thousands of Irish to sign his temperance pledge; in fact, history records his crusade against drinking and alcoholism as his signature achievement. But his work in the trenches during the worst of the famine—offering food, shelter, medical care, and comfort to those suffering from near-starvation and debilitating disease—would forever endear him to the Irish people, especially those from his home parish in Cork city. Still revered in his native country today, Father Mathew, like Forbes, is little known in the United States, despite a lengthy and controversial visit to America shortly after the famine.
What truly inspired me about this story were the actions of what I’ll call thousands of other real-life characters, who together make up a single collective character of sorts: the American people. I had known something about the Jamestown voyage before researching this book, but I was completely unaware of the enormous scope of U.S. relief effort to Ireland in 1847–48, the widespread generosity of Americans from all walks of life during a time when the very act of survival and supporting one’s own family presented a grueling daily challenge and was far from guaranteed.
That Americans from across the United States contributed to Irish relief was extraordinary enough, but it was the nature of most of their donations that was most impressive. This was not a matter of entering credit card information or dropping off a bag of canned goods, though these are certainly generous acts in their own right. While many people sent small amounts of money, most donated food that otherwise would have been used to sustain their loved ones. Farmers furrowed the ground, laid the seed, nurtured the plants, and harvested the crops—beans, corn, barley, wheat and much more. Then they took a portion of those goods, packaged them in burlap sacks or wooden kegs, and delivered them by horse-drawn wagon to river ports, where rafts and small boats carried them to larger ships that navigated broader rivers and the Erie Canal. From there, the food made its way to major Atlantic ports like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where dockworkers loaded it upon ocean-sailing vessels bound for England and Ireland.
Farmers and planters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, western New York, and western Massachusetts, in the mid-Atlantic states, across the South and along the Mississippi—all of them literally took food out of the mouths of their own family members, or food they would normally sell at market to buy goods for their cabins and farms, and shipped it to strangers thousands of miles away.
It was as though Americans looked at their own children and felt the pain of Irish parents who were watching their own youngsters starve. Or perhaps Americans appreciated the poetic, if mournful, symmetry of sharing the abundant bounty produced by their fertile fields with people whose land was blackened by blight and whose major crop rotted with disease.
Whatever the exact reason, such sacrifice and generosity were breathtaking to me, and I’ve thought about this often, especially when I walk into a supermarket and, almost without giving it a second thought, reach for virtually any food item I choose to buy. How much food would we give to strangers today if our survival, our families’ survival, depended on planting, growing, cultivating, and harvesting everything we needed?
And maybe because Americans knew they were part of something much larger than themselves in 1847, the widespread desire to provide relief to Ireland also unified the United States—for a short time at least—in a way it hadn’t been since the adoption of the Constitution sixty years earlier, and probably not again until the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly a century later drew the United States into World War II.
Charitable contributions of any kind at any time are worthy and noble; the American humanitarian mission to Ireland during the 1847 potato famine was something special altogether. The Jamestown voyage not only represented a spark of color across the bleak grayness of Ireland’s landscape, but was part of a larger national charitable tapestry that would signal a seismic shift in international relations. Beyond Ireland and outside of the United States, the American “warship of peace” had delivered—along with precious food and supplies—a message of fellowship to the rest of the world. Wars and hostilities continued between countries, and will continue always, but the Jamestown and the United States’ response demonstrated that it was acceptable, appropriate, and—as unlikely as it seemed before the voyage—perhaps even obligatory for countries to assist each other for purely humanitarian reasons.
Not only did the Jamestown mission and the widespread U.S. relief effort define the country’s generosity and establish its emergence on the world stage, not only did it cement bonds between Ireland and the United States that remain strong to this day, it also signaled a sea change in the affairs of nations, advancing the notion that gestures of philanthropy and brotherhood, rather than signs of a nation’s weakness, were displays of quiet strength and moral certitude.

Steve appears on C-SPAN’s Q&A

Steve recently traveled to Washington D.C. to tape an appearance C-SPAN’s weekly interview show, “Q&A,” hosted by Brian Lamb. Steve was thrilled with the opportunity to discuss The Caning, and is indebted to Brian, as well as to C-SPAN producer Mark Farkus and the entire C-SPAN team for their hard work and hospitality. The show, which is available for replay, aired on Sunday, June 21 and Monday, June 22, 2015.

Stoughton chooses The Caning for community read

The Town of Stoughton, MA has chosen The Caning as its community-wide read book for the winter/spring. The town has a number of great Civil War-themed events planned over the next several weeks, including Steve’s  April 16 appearance for The Caning. Thanks to the Stoughton Reads Together committee for their selection.

Another town will read Dark Tide

The Town of Whitman, MA has selected Dark Tide as its community-wide read for 2015 — the 21st community to choose Steve’s book on the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Steve is expected to make an appearance in Whitman in the spring of 2015.

And Millis makes 20!

The Town of Millis MA has become the 20th community to select Dark Tide as its town-wide read. Steve will be making appearances in Millis in early 2015 — at the library for an adult evening event and at one of the schools for a student event.


Somerville chooses Dark Tide

The City of Somerville, MA has selected Dark Tide as its community-wide read for 2014. Somerville is the 19th Massachusetts community to choose the book, and Steve will be speaking at the Somerville Public Library on September 17 — which also happens to be the 227th anniversary of the ratification of the United States Constitution, a fine day to do a presentation on a historical book.

Pembroke chooses A City So Grand

The Town of Pembroke MA has selected A City So Grand as its community-wide read for 2014 — the first such honor for the book. As part of the program, Steve will appear at the Pembroke Public Library on May 21.

The Caning selected for community read

The town of Norfolk MA selected The Caning as its monthly community-wide read. As part of the “Norfolk Reads Together” celebration, Steve will speak and sign books at the Norfolk Public Library on January 27.