The First Coast is home to many creative people, including authors. Some write fiction, some nonfiction. Some write novels that make New York Times Best Seller lists, and have years of experience. Others write in their spare time while working full time day jobs – because it’s their passion, and they’re excited to see where it may lead.
First Coast Magazine reached out to six writers living in our region to share with our readers their journeys as professional authors.
Books make great gifts, even if the person you decide to give a book to is yourself.
Steve Berry had a successful law practice in St. Mary’s, Georgia, but a voice in his head kept telling him to write a novel. After ignoring it for 10 years, he finally listened, and in 1990 wrote a book.
Titled Til Death Due Us Part, “it was awful,” Berry says. “I took me a year, but the important thing was that I started it and finished it.”
And that he kept writing, even though he didn’t sell his first word until 2002. The Amber Room was published by Random House in 2003, and he is now the author of 13 books, with 19 million copies in print in 40 languages in 51 countries.
His latest novel, The Lincoln Myth, was published last May and his next, The Patriot Threat, is due out in March.
He gave up practicing law after book seven, when he was making more money as a New York Times best-selling author. It was “a terrifying” decision, but “it turned out to be the right one,” says Berry, who now lives in the King & Bear community in World Golf Village with his wife Elizabeth. “In the writing business, very few people get to make a living at it. But I was lucky enough to be given that opportunity.”
He specializes in international suspense thrillers with “action, history, secrets, conspiracies and international settings,” he says, because that’s what he loves. They take place in contemporary times, but also incorporate a real element from the past, something intriguing that has been lost or forgotten, and is in some way dramatically impacting the present.
Evolving into an internationally successful author was not in his plans, he says, “It just happened,” because he kept writing – every day. Arriving in his law office at 6:30 a.m., he’d write until 9. Now he goes to work every day in his home office, a warm masculine room decorated with many items represented in his books.
He keeps his Til Death Due Us Part manuscript, which he never sold, in his desk because it reminds him how far he has come, and the persistence it took to get there.
“Horrible book, but 90 percent of writers don’t finish what they start,” he says. “That’s the greatest malady a writer suffers from, the urge to stop.”
Berry and his wife teach writing at workshops around the country through their History Matters Foundation, which raises money for historic preservation, a cause dear to his heart.
They also travel the world, because they enjoy it, and because Berry uses as many real locales as possible in his novels. Although the contemporary characters are fictional, “I found the closer to reality I can keep the book, the better the reader likes it,” he says.
He acknowledges he’s living the writer’s dream.
“But it is a job, and it is stressful,” he says with a smile. “It’s challenging. But it’s one that I wanted.”
One historic house in Mary Atwood’s new book was home to Florida East Coast Railway foremen in the early 1900s. Another served as a convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph, where they operated a school for children of freed slaves after the Civil War. And the Prince Murat House, on St. George Street in St. Augustine, was once the home of Prince Achille Murat, crown prince of Naples and a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.
While researching the book Historic Homes of Florida’s First Coast, Atwood discovered the Prince was “a real character” and a good friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“I loved finding out all the details about the people, not just the structures,” says Atwood, whose book was published last month by History Press. It profiles 22 homes, and includes historic images as well as present day photos by Atwood, a fine arts photographer.
Featuring homes in Jacksonville, the Beaches, St. Augustine, Orange Park and the Gainesville area, the book began as an art project with a grant from the Community Foundation of Jacksonville.
It took Atwood – whose day job is secretary to the assistant superintendent for school choice for the Duval County School District – five months to research and write the book. It documents historically significant houses that are open to the public, because she says she only wanted to profile places where readers could go.
“I found real treasures,” she says. Written in collaboration with another First Coast writer, William Weeks, she enjoyed doing the book so much, “I’m already playing around with two other ideas.”
Publishers find Charles Martin’s novels tough to pigeon hole. His latest book, A Life Intercepted, is about a football player who reconnects with his true love. Another, Unwritten, is about an actress at the end of her career. The Mountain Between Us is about two strangers on a plane who crash into a remote wilderness and must rely on each other to survive.
And his latest, due out in May, is about a drug dealer in Miami, with much of the action taking place in Nicaragua, where Martin does mission work.
He says his books are “a little bit of romance, a little bit of mystery and a little bit of adventure.” He doesn’t always know where his ideas come from, they “just sort of bubble up. I’ll see scenes in my head and I’ll start asking questions about those characters.”
By doing so, he’s built a successful career as a full time author, working with several publishers: Thomas Nelson, Random House and now Hachette. His book due out in May, Water From My Heart, will be his 11th in print. His books are published in 18 languages in 22 countries at last count.
Twentieth Century Fox has the movie rights to The Mountain Between Us, which made the New York Times Best Seller list. Filming is slated to begin this winter in Vancouver, if all goes according to plan.
“It’s exciting,” Martin says. “But it’s been six years in the making.”
Martin began writing at 27, completing his first book, The Dead Don’t Dance, in nine months. It took almost three years, however, to find a publisher and two years after that to get published. It was rejected 86 times.
He was able to keep going with the help of his wife Christy. A full time interior designer, she put him through graduate school, where he earned a master’s degree in journalism and a PhD in communications. After working for three years in the insurance business, he left, “and we took a chance on my writing.”
When working on a manuscript, he often begins writing at 4 a.m. and works until noon. When doing final editing, which “takes different energy,” he usually works from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
He just finished a book tour that took him to five states, which he says he also enjoys. It’s social, “talking to folks from all over,” in contrast to the creative and introverted behind-the-computer writing process.
“I’m grateful to get to do what I do. But books don’t write themselves,” he says. “I show up every day to a blank page – and I treat it like work.”
Rob Hicks was born and raised in Fernandina Beach, is a guidance counselor at Fernandina Beach High School, and delves into local history as a hobby.
So writing Amelia Island Then and Now was a natural fit for him. Published by Arcadia Publishing in February 2014, it documents the history of the island from the 1940s through the 1980s. The book compares the way the island looked then with the way it looks now through historic photos and present day photos taken by Hicks.
The book is his sixth. He is also the author of two other books for adults: Images of America Amelia Island and Images of America Gainesville, also published by Arcadia. In addition, he has self-published three children’s books with his wife about Amelia Island, St. Augustine and Charleston.
He was inspired to write about Amelia Island history after teaching a television production class at the high school. His students created a documentary about the island during a four year long project that won an award at the Amelia Island Film Festival. The Images of America book featured the island’s “golden age” from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, so he wrote the Then and Now book as a sequel.
His favorite photo in the Then and Now book is iconic Centre Street looking east from Front Street in the 1920s. Compared to today, “if you took out some of the landscaping and took out the cars it is really not that different,” he says. “It’s neat to see the town has remained intact.”
Laura Lee Smith
A life-long writer and journalist, Laura Lee Smith lacked the confidence to tackle a novel until she was in her 30s. But when she finally decided to give it “an honest try,” she found success.
Her debut novel, Heart of Palm, was published by Grove Press in April 2013, which Smith says was an honor because they are well known for publishing serious literary fiction. Oprah Winfrey recommended it in Oprah magazine, “which was huge” for buzz. And on the book’s cover, Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo writes that the story has “Intelligence, heart, wit…Laura Lee Smith has all the tools.”
The book is about a loving, but dysfunctional family in a small Florida town, modeled after Palm Valley in St. Johns County. It won the 2013 Florida Book Award silver medal, which Smith says was also a wonderful recognition.
“It’s wonderful, it’s thrilling, it’s surreal,” says Smith, who began writing the novel in 2008. “I walked around with these characters living in my head and nowhere else. Now, people talk to me about them.”
She’s now working on her next book, set in Jacksonville. She’s completed the first draft, which means she’s a quarter of the way there. “I’ve built the raft, so I’m not going to sink,” she says. Still, there’s a lot of revising and shaping to do.
Smith still works full time as a freelance copywriter while writing fiction in the early morning hours, usually starting between 4 and 5 a.m. Heart of Palm has done very well for a literary novel, but not well enough for her to quit her day job, she says.
After earning a B.A. in literature and a master’s degree in English from the University of North Florida, she worked as a copywriter for the Robin Shepherd Group in Jacksonville, where she says she learned to work hard, produce, and “adhere to a very high criteria for quality.”
After her husband Chris got a job at Flagler College, they moved to St. Augustine, where she went out on her own. Her clients include Steinway and Sons Pianos, Flagler College and Hybrid Design.
Before beginning her novel, Smith wrote short stories, many of which were rejected by magazine publishers. “Every writer is rejected a lot,” she says. “Really, you have to make rejections the goal because that means you are sending stories out.” One that was published caught the attention of an agent in New York City, who encouraged her to write a book.
The writing and editing process took several years, but it was well worthwhile, she says. When people talk to her about the book, they say they can relate to the characters. “That has been a real measure of success,” she says. “I feel like I hit the bullseye.”
Her career as an art director and creative director for an advertising agency led Annette Simon to begin writing children’s books. Colorful books about robots who become zombies and robots who burp.
Robot Zombie Frankenstein! is about two robot friends who play a silly game with each other that gets progressively sillier. The rival robots return in Robot Burp Head Smartypants! to play another game of “top this” that involves “burping to ten,” and “burping the alphabet.”
The art incorporates many graphic shapes, which kids learn to identify, and the words are at a beginning reader level. Both books, published by Candlewick Press, come with activity kits that can be downloaded for free from Simon’s website annettesimon.net.
The books are also fun for young “reluctant readers,” who are often boys, Simon says. She once received a note from a first grade teacher who said one of her students who had struggled with reading declared “I like books now” after reading Simon’s.
The story lines also encourage kids to learn to count, and Simon likes to visit schools to read aloud to students and have them read aloud with her.
A Ponte Vedra Beach resident, she published her first children’s book in 2005 while working in Austin, Texas. At the agency where she worked, “there were so many creative people that everyone seemed to have a project on the side,” she says.
Simon now works part time as a bookseller at The BookMark in Neptune Beach, where her books are sold. She is also writing additional children’s books, including one about robots.
Getting into the business of writing children’s books took persistence, she says. She realized that in order to be published by a traditional publishing company she would need an agent, which took two years. Through the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, she learned what publishers are looking for, and how to format a manuscript.
“I quit counting my rejections” at first, she says. “You have to have a thick skin.”