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What you Sometimes Forget Living in the Northeast: The Amazing “East-West Crisscross”

Traveling east from Branson along iconic US 60 in Missouri, sprawling farms line the landscape.  For mile after mile, cotton, corn, and cattle serve as a reminder of the vital importance of the nation’s interior in feeding and clothing the rest of us.  The feeling is similar riding along I-40 in Arkansas, where soybean, wheat, and alfalfa are as much a part of the region’s culture as razorback hogs and great barbecue.

This fall, my wife Kate and I went on a long and wonderful driving trip – seventeen states and nearly 4,000 miles in all – that took us along the Western spine of Virginia and North Carolina, over the haunting Blue Ridge range and the forest-covered Great Smoky Mountains into Tennessee, across the Volunteer State from Chattanooga to Memphis, before traversing the Mississippi River into western Arkansas, and then turning northward through the beautiful Ozarks into Missouri.  We then returned eastward through southern Missouri’s long and flat farmland region, crossed into and drove through the bluegrass and horse country of Kentucky, crossed the Alleghenies into the spectacular hills of West Virginia, before making a stop in Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow (Tarrytown), New York, and finally, home to Weymouth, MA.

It was an amazing sojourn that encompassed rich history, breathtaking hikes, resplendent nature, delicious food, wonderful people, and a constant and powerful reminder that so much goes on in the center of the country that we in the northeast often take for granted – specifically, the extraordinary production of food and the efficient transporting of goods.  

I refer to the latter as the “Great East-West Crisscross” – or West-East if you prefer – the broad network of roads, rivers, and railroads that make it possible to move tons of food, clothing, fuel, lumber, medicines, machinery, heavy equipment, supplies, and goods of all types across the American continent in a way that is the envy of the world and a feat that takes your breath away just thinking about it – but especially witnessing it.  The phrase “supply chain” that we have all become familiar with in the last months comes alive in the upper South and the lower Midwest in a way we simply don’t see at the “end of the line” in the Northeast.

The East-West / West-East movement simply never stops, whether it’s the staggering volume of goods that float on barges along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the 100+ – car freight trains that snake through the West Virginia mountains, or the thousands of 18-wheelers, flatbeds, auto-carriers, and trucks of every imaginable type that rumble across Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

It’s a sight to behold.

It’s not that we don’t have rivers, roads, and railroads in the Northeast – of course we do.  Plenty of trucks, too, and some farms. We certainly witness logging trucks rumbling through northern New Hampshire and Maine, watch ships laden with cargo containers departing from Boston and New York harbors, and see Amazon vans zipping around making deliveries at all hours throughout the region – all of which keep our commerce humming.

But the scale is so vastly different as you head South and West, and because we’re tucked in the upper corner of the country, it’s easy to overlook the irrepressible and seemingly inexhaustible engines of production and transportation that flourish in the nation’s midsection.  The farms are enormous, the rivers are true waterways of commerce, the freight trains stretch on forever, and it’s not unusual to see fifty 18-wheelers parked in an all-purpose truck stop that includes restaurants, showers, and convenience shops for the drivers who are trekking across the country to deliver their loads on time.  

An added bonus was that our road-trip also conjured up links to some of my books.  We drove past the Fort Knox exit on US 60 in Kentucky, and I thought of the Baltimore & Ohio train that transported the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other precious documents out of Washington D.C. to the impenetrable fortress in late 1941, to protect them after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a story I chronicle in American Treasures.  And the barges on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers were a satisfying reminder of the way in which Americans of all backgrounds transported food eastward to the large port cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore en route to Ireland, during America’s first and historic 1847 humanitarian mission, a story I told in full for the first time in Voyage of Mercy.

Several times on our drive, Kate and I gave thanks to farmers, ship captains and crews, railroad engineers and workers, and of course, truckers. We came away from this eye-opening trip with many memories and thoughts – and most of all felt enormously blessed to live in our great country.  

For that reason and a slew of others, I’d recommend such a journey to anyone, anytime.

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.