René Penn

Writer. Aspiring author. Blogger. Follow me.

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12 Things to Know About Diana Gabaldon

No one can combine science, suspense, sass and romance like Diana Gabaldon does in her bestselling novels. When I saw her at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, she repeated a rhyme that she recited as a professor, one she used to get the attention of the sleepy football players taking her science class. Let’s just say that the rhyme had to do with contraception practices from centuries ago: a man would “use a sock to wrap around his…” Well, I’ll let you fill in the rest yourself. And before you get on me about being PG-13, I’ll remind you that Diana said it, not me. *smile*


Here are some other things that I learned about Diana Gabaldon.

  • About her background: She is a scientist, by education and by trade. She has three science degrees, including one in zoology. Makes sense when one thinks of the technical care that she gives to the medical and botanical topics in her Outlander series.
  • About writing before she was a novelist: She wrote Walt Disney comic books “on the side” for about 18 months.
  • About the concept of not having enough time to write: She wrote a book while raising three children under the age of six. “If you have 10 minutes a day and do that (write) every day, by the end of a year, you’ll have a book.”
  • About her writing process: “I don’t write in a straight line. I write while things are happening.” She jots down scenes that come to her mind as they unfold, even if they’re “out of order.”
  • About writing historical fiction: She researches and writes concurrently. And if she reads an interesting historical fact, she’ll make a side note of it and see about weaving it into her manuscript later.
  • About the hit show Outlander: “They listen to about 90% of what I say.” She is a consultant for the series, which she recognizes is a rare situation for an author. She also noted her appreciation for the fact that they take heed of her opinions. When they don’t take her advice, it’s usually because of logistical reasons.
  • About the character Jamie: She was watching an episode of the TV show Dr. Who one day when “a nice-looking Scotsman” from 1745 “showed up in a kilt.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, was how James Fraser came to be. 20161024_124000
  • About why she finds a man in a kilt so appealing: “It’s the idea that you could be up against the wall in a minute.” Well, well, well—no additional commentary needed.
  • About writers block: “Keep putting words on paper.” Work on something else, other than your main work-in-progress. Eventually, “you’ll get unstuck.” She claims to have worked on 3, 4, 5, 6 projects at a time.
  • About killing off a character: “I don’t plan to kill people; they die.” She specifically mentioned one of her Outlander-series characters who she wouldn’t have imagined dying, until she heard his neck snap. Ouch!
  • About the 9th book: She hinted that it takes place in North Carolina, and it involves beekeeping. Is her character Claire the beekeeper? It’s anyone’s guess, because she gave no more hints than that.
  • About her husband: She met him in the French Horn section of the Arizona Marching Band. They’ve been married 45 years. I personally don’t see how that’s possible, unless she married him in kindergarten.

Do you have any other fun things to share about Diana Gabaldon?

Also while at the National Book Festival, I learned 10 things about David McCullough.


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10 Things to Know About David McCullough

David McCullough is downright huggable. He’s whip-sharp with a clever wit and a memory longer than Michael Phelps’ wingspan. And he’s an incredible writer, storyteller and historian. But it’s all of that plus his affable personality and charm that make him downright huggable. There’s something about him that makes you wish he were your grandfather or uncle. If he were your next-door neighbor, you’d shovel his driveway or save his newspapers from a heavy rain. I imagine toddlers gravitating toward his knee and mouthing, “Up, up.” There’s just something about him.

20170902_102112I attended the National Book Festival on September 2 in Washington, DC, where he talked about his books and writing process. Here are 10 things to know about David McCullough.

  • About writing: “I’m not a writer, I’m a rewriter.” He mentioned how important it is to write and cut back, write and rewrite.
  • About how many pages he writes per day: “It used to be four pages per day. Now, it’s two pages per day.”dung-anh-64706
  • About how he writes: “I am proud to say that I work on a manual typewriter.” It’s by Royal, and he paid 75 bucks for it at a second-hand store. He’s written everything on it over the last 50 years. And get this: it’s never broken.
  • About women at work: “Some of the best people I worked with were women.” He briefly spoke about the challenges women face–like working harder for less pay than men.
  • About writing The Johnstown Flood: “I wrote it at night and on the weekends while working full-time.” He left his job to write The Great Bridge, the Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.
  • About writing The Great Bridge: “I wanted a symbol of affirmation.” After the big success of his book Johnstown Flood, he had been approached to write about other American disasters. He turned those opportunities down, as not to be coined a bearer of bad news.
  • If he could invite a non-living president to dinner, it would be: “John Adams.”
  • About perseverance: “My favorite people are the ones who don’t give up.” He cited Harry Truman and George Washington among that group.
  • Did you know? He has 55 honorary degrees.
  • In case you were wondering, his next book is due to be published in 2019.

Any other great tidbits about the incredible David McCullough that you’d like to share?

You can read more about McCullough and other speakers from the festival at The Washington Post. Their article just won’t include words like “huggable.”

Photo by Henri Meilhac on Unsplash

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Seven Black Authors Who Write Historical Romance

I am currently writing a historical romance novel, which means that I love to read historical romance novels, too. One day, I went to the Google machine in search of historical romance novels with black or African American characters—or historical romance novels written by black authors. The list is small. (Sad face.) Here’s what I found, in case you’re also looking for books in this niche market.


Beverly Jenkins

  • Ms. Beverly is like the Aretha Franklin of black historical romance. With about 50 books sold, she definitely deserves R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And like Aretha, she’s left an imprint on individuals of all cultural backgrounds. In 2017, she was awarded the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award by the Romance Writers of America.

Kianna Alexander

  • Ms. Alexander writes historical (let’s talk about California in the 1880s), as well as contemporary romance. And she shouts out the Twitter hashtags #WeNeedDiverseRomance and #WOCinRomance, which are both worth checking out.

Roberta Gayle

  • Ms. Gayle’s books must be amazing, because her novel Sunrise and Shadows is on sale on for $2,003.98. (Huh?) Well, at least the shipping is free.

Patricia Vaughn

  • The novel Murmur of Rain, by Patricia Vaughn, is about a musician set in Paris in the 1890s. Oh la la…

Gay G. Gunn

  • One of Gunn’s novels, Nowhere to Run, captures a love story during slavery times in America.

AlTonya Washington

  • Ms. Washington is best known for her contemporary and erotica novels, but she has also penned two historical novels. She received Romantic Times Magazine’s Reviewers Choice Award in 2012.

Alyssa Cole

  • Let Us Dream was nominated for Best Romance Novella by the Romance Writers of America (RITA’s Award nominee). Besides historical romance, Ms. Cole also writes contemporary romance and sci-fi.

What do you think of the novelists on this list? Please help me expand it. Which authors have I missed?


Photo by Henri Meilhac on Unsplash


Why Aspiring Authors Are Really MathWriterMeticians

Aspiring Author + Word Count Fixation =  MathWriterMetician. I’m coining this term, because we writers are obsessed with numbers and math, whether we want to believe it or not.


I find myself crunching numbers almost daily. That’s how I track my WIP. I can’t help myself. One number buzzes around me at all times like an eye floater: 80,000. The coveted word count goal. Everything revolves around it.

  • I always want to know my current word count.

Since I’m writing my first draft by hand, I constantly add up how many words are on each new page. I’ve become very well acquainted with the calculator app on my mobile phone. You can also use Scrivener to track your word count and progress.

  • I have my mind on the end goal: 80,000 words.

Since 80,000 words seems to be the ideal word count for a manuscript, by agent and editor standards, I use that as my guide. I subtract my current word count from the magic number of 80,000. That way, I know how many words I have to go until I reach my goal.

  • But that’s not enough. I’ve gotta crunch the percentage, too.

I’ll divide my current word count by 80,000. I use division to get to the percentage. Right now, I’m 43.92% done with my draft. But if anyone asks, it’s quite possible that I’ll round up to 45%. (Shh…don’t tell anybody.)

  • I calculate how many words I write in a week or day, on average.

I’ll divide the word count I have left by the amount of words I write on average to determine how many weeks it’ll take me to get to 80,000. And if I want to be done faster, I’ll calculate how many more words I have to write per day to meet the new schedule. Famous authors run the gamut for average words written per day.

  • I can go on and on…

Obsessed, I say. Are you a MathWriterMetician, too?

Photo from Pexel:



What Has Possessed Me to Write My Novel in Longhand?

What the heck possessed me to stop typing my novel and to start writing it longhand, instead? Especially since I have short hands with small fingers.


A couple of years ago, I had dinner with bestselling author Michelle Gable. (Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Actually, she was a keynote speaker at an event where me and about 250 other conference attendees were listening to her speech during dinner.) And she mentioned that she wrote her book, A Paris Apartment, by hand—like pen to paper, pencil to notebook. I was stunned; I may have even dropped my fork. She explained that:

  • It works better-on-the-go

It’s more discreet and portable than a laptop. Makes sense. Lugging around a 13″ laptop can be tiring and clunky. And a tablet isn’t very writer-friendly, as far as the keyboard goes.

I noodled this approach, and decided to carry around a pen and journal-sized notebook to continue my WIP. I have to say that I’ve been writing that way since. Here are some other reasons why:

  • I did it as a kid

When I was 10-years old, writing my first fiction stories, there were no computers. There was a typewriter that you used for special occasions, and you loathed when those occasions occurred, because the typewriter was a baffling piece of equipment that required lots of patience and white-out. I had no choice, really, but to write my stories by hand. girl-kids-training-school-159782There’s something nostalgic about carrying on the same creative process I enjoyed so much as a kid.

  • I get out of my own way

When I’m working on the computer, I can’t disconnect the editor-part of myself. That part is a cynical, judgmental, crotchety lady. And she can be a bit of a killjoy when I hit a good writing flow. The less of her while I’m in brain-dump mode, the better.

  • I wonder if it falls into the “working with your hands leads to better creativity” category

I’ve heard this theory. Working with your hands can spur and engage your imagination, because it stimulates the part of your brain that’s associated with creativity. I don’t know if writing longhand can be included in the category of working with your hands, but it’s definitely a better writing experience for me than typing on a keyboard. It’s as if there’s a clearer path from what my brain is thinking to what actually appears on the paper, as opposed to brain to keyboard to computer screen.

What about you? Have you tried writing your manuscript by hand?

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Writing Tips from Reading Gail Carriger’s Soulless

Years ago, I didn’t read as much as I should have, much to my mother’s chagrin. Of course, that changed over the years. Reading became one of my absolute fave activities. Not only is it a wonderful experience, it provides inspiration and a great teaching tool for me as an aspiring author.kate-williams-40159

A friend recently told me about the author Gail Carriger, because she knows I’m working on a comedy-of-manners novel. Carriger’s novel, Soulless, is that–plus a historical romance, plus werewolves and vampires, plus a who-done-it plot. I must admit that I’m not usually into paranormal romance, but I’m all for trying new things. Frankly, I enjoyed the read. Here are some lessons I learned while reading Soulless by Gail Carriger

Reading Carriger’s novel inspired me to toggle between reading her book and writing my own. I want people to enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed reading hers.

  • She shows that witty description can be just as important as witty banter

In the beginning of the novel, the heroine is being attacked by a vampire. The heroine is annoyed by the attacker’s futile attempt, as well as his “overly starched shirt.” I learned that dialogue doesn’t have to be the only place to express humor.

  • She singlehandedly convinced me that werewolves can be sexy

Like I said before, paranormal romance isn’t really my thing. But Carriger made me think differently about big, hairy beasts. Uh, moving along…

  • She makes an alternative world seem believable

The novel is set in London, 1800s, where werewolves and vampires are part of British society. An unbelievable concept, but she sold me on it. She provided lots of information and tidbits about this other society–sometimes repeating them to make sure the reader’s got it. It helped bridge the gap between a far-fetched idea and magical make-believe. Nicely done.

What should I add to this list? How much do you love Gail Carriger’s Soulless?

Photo by Kate Williams on Unsplash

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How I Read Books as an Aspiring Author

I don’t know when I turned a corner and started reading books with my “writer hat” on. vanessa-serpas-270252

You know what I mean: The moment you change from a passive reader to an active one. When you’re no longer escaping when you pick up a book, you’re analyzing. Instead of holding a cup of tea (or coffee, if you so choose) with your free, non-book-wielding hand, you’re holding a pen to mark notes, scribble and underline within passages. Here’s what I look for, as an aspiring author, when I read books.

  • Tone

Tone comes across immediately. It’s more of a feeling than anything I can pinpoint–I’m just immersed. It’s like swagger; you know it when you see it. When I see it, read it, feel it, I want to emulate it in my own writing. Example: My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante.

  • Dialogue

I love dialogue. This is why I have half-written scripts collecting electronic dust. And it’s why I love movies. I know dialogue is good when I can imagine it playing before me like a film. Example: One Day, David Nicholls.

  • Pace

When a book is not going too slow, nor too fast, I note the pacing. It dives into details when needed and trims the fat at the right times. I don’t walk away feeling like pockets of the plot are missing. Example: Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese.

  • Length

I’m not usually a fan of long books. I blame it on graduate school, where I had to read Mason & Dixon. I’m more impressed by a book that is compact and concise but still leaves me feeling full as a tick. Example: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison.

  • Setting

This is when the sights, sounds and tastes throw me out of reality–and I have to look out the nearest window to remind myself where I am. Example: Faith for Beginners, Aaron Hamburger.

There are a million great examples for each of these. Which ones have inspired you?

Photo by Vanessa Serpas on Unsplash