When you get to be my age—old but young-at-heart—you start wondering if you had to do it all over again, what different choices would you make. Life is about choices, of course—choices covering an entire spectrum, from small to big. You might have some regrets too. That’s only human.

I don’t regret the choices I’ve made in my personal life. Given the same circumstances, I’d make the same ones. I wouldn’t have minded if some of them had turned out differently—I’d like to decrease the bad experiences and amplify the good ones—but I generally wouldn’t change the choices I made that led to these experiences.

I started publishing my fiction 10+ years ago (the first edition of my second novel, Full Medical, was published in 2006). At an early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’m a practical person, though, so I made the choice to become a scientist, figuring that being a successful writer was too much like winning the lottery. It is, no matter what some authors or writing gurus say. Don’t give up on your day-job just yet. I think Dean Koontz’s wife gave him a year or so to achieve success. That’s unheard of nowadays, unless you win the lottery like Hugh Howey, J. K. Rowling, or Mark Weir. Writing good fiction is a necessary condition; there are no sufficient ones.

Science might not seem like a career that forms a basis for writing success (except maybe for sci-fi—many successful sci-fi writers are ex-scientists). One can wonder what careers are best for that. A love of languages has always accompanied my love for writing. I have a modest ability with languages. Given other circumstances, I might have become a linguist. That seems to be a fulfilling career for putting food on the table while you write stories and wait for some modicum of success. Probably not as lucrative as hard science and technology, though, which everyone calls STEM nowadays. While a journalism degree is probably better than an MFA (the former produces more understanding of and exposure to the human condition), the study of languages is undeniably related to what a writer does all the time: putting ideas into words and choosing the right words and logic to do so.

Of course, any writing career does this, even writing verses for Hallmark. But the study of languages goes far beyond writing skills. Understanding the linguistic history and structure of languages, especially one as dynamic as English, offers the future and present writer an incredible base for the logical choices s/he must make in her or his writing.

I don’t own many print books now. Although I have enough to keep bookshelves sagging, I generally find ebooks more practical—they’re easy to read, very accessible, and don’t take up any physical space beyond my Kindle. But there’s one print book on my reference shelf that I greatly value, David Crystal’s The Stories of English. Even if you ignore current dialects and regional variations, English is a complicated amalgam of many bits and pieces that has seen a dynamic and rapid development. The Spanish reader can still read Cervantes; we struggle with Shakespeare. And these men were almost contemporaries (Shakespeare died one day after Cervantes).

While most modern languages are amalgams—only dead languages are immutable—English is the most complex. It’s also the most dynamically growing one. All this adds to its beauty as well as making it difficult for anyone trying to learn it. It’s often illogical and disorganized. Russian and Spanish have logical rules and are nearly phonetic. English doesn’t and isn’t—it probably has as many irregular verbs as regular ones, for example. And while Russian and Spanish delete pronouns that are obvious, you’d better not try that in your English classes (minimalist writers do it all the time, of course—in crime fiction, that’s called “hard-boiled”).

I’ve always been a bit nerdy, so I’ll go out on a limb here—English teachers do NOT teach English. They probably haven’t read The Stories of English, for example. Sure they teach some basic skills—reading, writing, grammar, and spelling—but they don’t teach love for the language in general. Of course, that’s a real challenge. Teaching love for the language is hard when most students are only interested in getting through what they consider a boring course. And teachers often make it boring by focusing on that average student who doesn’t really give a damn.

I was fortunate to have a few good language teachers, both in high school and college, who taught me in such a manner that they didn’t destroy my love for language and writing—English, French, and Russian teachers who prepared a fertile ground for that love to grow. Alan Agol, a high school teacher, made Shakespeare come alive and encouraged me to write. N. Scott Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize winner, made poetry come alive at UC Santa Barbara. Ruth Green, my high school French teacher, allowed me to better understand the human condition as we read Les Miserables. And my second-year college Russian teacher (I regret that I’ve forgotten her name, but I took two years of it one summer) showed us the beauty of that language with the poems of Dr. Zhivago. There are a few others that solidified my love of language and writing.  Courses with these teachers weren’t choices I made. I was lucky. It’s like winning multiple lotteries. I’d like every student to have that opportunity.

You don’t have to wait for the lottery, of course. I had no formal course in Spanish, but I learned the language as a matter of survival when I went to Colombia to teach and do research—total immersion is a great way to learn a language. In that country, almost every department (what they call a Colombian state) speaks Spanish differently, and the variations in Spain and across Latin America are many. But I also discovered Spanish fiction—Borges, Garcia Marquez, and Vargas Llosa, as well as many popular authors whose books haven’t yet been translated. There is fun to be had with that discovery, of course. You’ve probably had it in English, the thrill of discovering new and entertaining fiction by an author who is new to you.

Readers often have that love for language. Writers must have it. Love for language is an essential ingredient of storytelling.


Rembrandt’s Angel (a mystery/thriller from Penmore Press). To what lengths would you go to recover a stolen masterpiece? Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques Inspector Esther Brookstone goes the extra mile. She and paramour/sidekick Bastiann van Coevorden, an Interpol agent, set out to outwit the dealers of stolen art and recover “An Angel with Titus’ Features,” a Rembrandt painting stolen by the Nazis in World War Two. Their efforts lead to much more, as they uncover an international conspiracy that threatens Europe. During their dangerous adventures, their relationship solidifies and becomes a full-blown romance. This book is available in ebook format at Amazon and at Smashwords and its affiliate retailers. It’s available as a print version at Amazon, B&N, or your favorite bookstore (if not there, ask for it). Happy reading!

In libris libertas….

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