Friday, May 15, 2020

John Vanek - Mystery, Medicine, and Spirituality

“Medicine was my first love, but mysteries and poetry became my drugs of choice,” says St. Petersburg writer John Vanek. Although he spent his professional career as a physician, he now spends his time living “happily as an ink-stained wretch” penning mysteries that combine medicine, religion, and spirituality.

Vanek first discovered his passion for writing while he was a student at Case Western University, but it wasn’t until he had earned his medical degree from the University of Rochester that he began to delve into the nuts and bolts of the craft. “I began honing my skills in creative writing workshops and college courses and was gratified when my early work won contests and was published widely,” he says. His writing has appeared in numerous literary journals, anthologies, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Stories of Strength, and in 2009, he published a collection of his poetry titled Heart Murmurs: Poems.

In 2018, Vanek published the first of what would become a series of mystery novels featuring an unusual protagonist. Deros, the story of a series of murders that occur after a high school reunion, introduces Father Jake Austin, a physician and Vietnam veteran who entered the seminary after the war and became a priest. “Although Father Jake Austin is a fictional character, aspects of his personality and struggles are modeled after two Catholic priests who became my close friends and confidants while I was practicing at a Catholic hospital,” Vanek explains. “When I first met them, I expected the usual stereotypes, but when their Roman collars came off, I found that they were simply human. I portray Father Jake as a spiritual man, but as realistically and human as possible.” Publisher’s Weekly described Deros as “…a mystery that’s as much a character study as a whodunit …. Readers will look forward to seeing more of Jake.”

Miracles, the sequel to Deros, follows Father Austin as his life is hurled into a vortex of three storms – a dying nun, a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary, and an infant in a neonatal intensive care unit. Published in 2019, Miracles was easier for Vanek to write because he was more familiar with his characters’ personalities. N.Y. Times bestselling author Michael Koryta praised Miracles for “bringing the reader into worlds of mystery, medicine, and religion — and the human connections that bridge them all.”

Vanek’s latest release, Absolution, is  Book 3 in the Father Jake Austin mystery series. In the story, Father Austin is forced to decide whether to turn his back on his biological father who deserted him as a child, or turn the other cheek and save his father from a vengeful drug lord, even if it would risk his own life and the lives of his loved ones. “I didn’t struggle at all with the third book because its plot was the logical extension from the first two mysteries,” Vanek says. He is currently finishing the first draft of the fourth book in the series (as yet untitled) involving human trafficking. 

Vanek hopes readers will enjoy a protagonist who is out of the ordinary. “It seems as if child molesters, charlatans, and thugs dominate the headlines these days, while those who sacrifice personal needs for the sake of others are seldom thanked, let alone celebrated,” he says.  “Besides spinning a good yarn, I hope to honor all those who pit their will and faith against their human frailties and daily temptations, not just in the clergy or in medicine, but in all walks of life.”

For more information:

Twitter: @JohnVanekAuthor

Friday, May 1, 2020

"Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know" - How I Made Lord Byron Into A Believable Character - A Guest Post by Marty Ambrose

This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Marty Ambrose. Her writing career spans over fifteen years. She has written nine novels,including Claire's Last Secret, a nineteenth century historical memoir/mystery that centers around the Lord Byron/Percy Bysshe Shelley literary circle. Her most recent release, A Shadowed Fate, is the sequel and the second of a planned trilogy. Ambrose was our featured writer on October 14, 2018.
Now that I write historical memoir/mysteries, I am often asked how I manage to include “real” figures into my books who are believable within the story.  It was daunting to take on this task, to say the least, as I wrote my latest book, A Shadowed Fate—the second work of a trilogy about the nineteenth-century Byron/Shelley circle.  Bringing in actual writers from the past requires a lot of research, a delicate balance of the real and the imagined, and a fresh perspective—especially if that person is someone as famous (and infamous) as British Romantic poet, Lord Byron. He, and the other members of the brilliant literary group, presented quite a challenge to me as an author—one that kept me up at night as I mulled over how to include enough historical details about these beloved literati while making each one come alive within my plot.

Okay, it was beyond daunting—more like impossible.

First of all, including Lord Byron as a character required massive amounts of research.  His lover, Caroline Lamb, once defined him as “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know,” and this scandalous phrase has lingered throughout the last two-hundred years.  Yet, he was a much more complex man than the rakish image she portrayed. I found that moving beyond this “celebrity cliché” meant plowing deeply into the man behind the mask.  I’ve studied Byron during much of my academic career, but making him into a character required including subtleties that, initially, seemed elusive.  One of his acquaintances, Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, captured this dilemma perfectly when she wrote:

Byron is the perfect chameleon, possessing the fabulous quality attributed
to that animal, of taking the colour of whatever touches him.
What to do to accomplish my task?

I read the latest biographies.  I studied his poetry.  Most of all, I devoured his letters and journals.  The latter seemed to provide the most insight.  Often written late at night when Byron was alone, he would pen his innermost thoughts.  When I was researching A Shadowed Fate, some parts of the book take place when Byron lived in Ravenna in 1821 and was part of the Carbonari revolutionary movement that sought to free Italy from Austrian rule.  Byron was hiding guns in the cellar, writing poetry about Dante, and visiting his mistress, Teresa Guiccioli—but underneath all of this frenetic activity was a restless, discontented exile.  In Byron’s Ravenna Journal, he describes a wistful longing for his years in London and dismay that, in spite of his love for Italy, he still felt like an “outsider.”  Those thoughts provided insight to “shade” Byron as a character:  he was a lonely man in spite of his messy life in Italy.

Aside from knowing the multi-dimensions of real historical figures, I found that, while I had to “frame” my characters with actual events, I had to add scenes that could be true.  That’s a tricky balance.  Back to Byron. I know the basic events of his life, but they are simply facts.  I had to create conversations and conflicts that had narrative impact.  For example, when he lived in Ravenna in 1821, he had his young daughter, Allegra, with him.  Her fate is a central part of my book’s plot—as is her relationship with Byron.  I decided a way to show that connection was by creating a scene when Byron decides to send Allegra to a convent school; I set their parting at Dante’s Tomb since it is an evocative place in Ravenna, full of poetry and depth—the perfect place for a father to express his deep regret over parting with his daughter.  There is no documentation that records he ever took her there, but it’s always possible.  Even more importantly, the setting provides a way for readers to emotionally connect with Byron’s sense of loss. 

Lastly, avoiding the “same old, same old” vignettes about someone discussed and dissected as extensively as Byron was the ultimate challenge: including the well-known escapades in a novel can feel stale to readers.  To avoid that trap, I decided to have Mary Shelley’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, narrate my trilogy because she was the “almost famous” member of their circle, and her voice was relatively unknown.  Using Claire as a narrator gave me a chance to create a fresh image of Byron (she was his mistress and mother of Allegra) from the perspective of a woman who felt she had been wronged by him, even as she loved him passionately.  Claire gave me a chance to have the creative freedom to explore how celebrity can create highs and lows for those drawn into their orbit—not always a pleasant way to live, but always dramatic.  Also, I decided to have Claire tell her story from two stages of her life:  a young woman of seventeen (when she first met Byron) and an older, wiser lady in her seventies who has mellowed somewhat with the passing of time.  The dual narrative voices provided me with even more opportunities to give new insights into Byron not just as a character, but a legend who haunts Claire.  It was a fascinating creative process which I savored as a writer.

Of course, aside from Byron, I included the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and novelist, Mary Shelley, as characters in A Shadowed Fate as well—each of whom presented the same problem (though to a lesser extent) of finding the person behind the celebrity.  But surprising nuances were there to be found in the same way I delved into Byron:  discovering that fragment of a thought or brief moment of reflection which pointed the way in their letters and journals.  It felt like digging for treasure, except these riches held value only in the imaginative landscape of my writing.

Still, a pearl beyond price.

Would I do it all again?  Absolutely.  I found once I started including real figures in my books that I would never want to go back to all imaginary characters.   Historical people are just so compelling to research, and I want to keep hunting for new slants on the rich and famous.  And maybe, just maybe, my readers will have a new awareness of how time and notoriety can twist the truth of a person’s true nature.   Hopefully, they will be intrigued enough to keep reading.  

For more information, visit the author’s website at

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Diane Byington - Strong Women, Hard Times, Happy Endings

Dunedin writer Diane Byington wrote her first novel when she was ten years old. It was an assignment for her English class, and the event that started her on the road to writing. That path eventually culminated in two award-winning novels exploring women rising to challenges that result in personal epiphany and emotional growth.
Byington moved to Florida with her family when she was 15. “I love the state,” she says. “I love being by the beach, and I love the people here and how they’re mostly laid-back and often a little quirky.” After graduating from Brandon High School, she attended the University of Florida and Florida State University where she earned a Masters degree and a Ph.D.  Her career included jobs as a college professor, psychotherapist, executive coach, and social worker. It wasn’t until after she retired that she made the decision to pursue writing full time. “It’s a bucket-list thing for me,” she says, “and I’m grateful every day that I have the time to devote to it.”

Byington’s first book was released in 2018. Who She Is, set in a fictional Florida town in 1968, tells the story of Faye Smith, a girl with epilepsy who decides she wants to run in the Boston Marathon. Despite the physical challenges and the fact that women runners weren’t eligible, Faye decides to do it anyway. When she begins to have disturbing flashbacks about an earlier life, her parents try to dismiss them as epilepsy-related, but Faye becomes determined to discover the secret that her parents are trying to hide. Who She Is was awarded a Royal Palm Literary Award from the Florida Writers Association and a Florida Fiction award from the Florida Authors and Publishers Association.

Byington’s most recent release, If She Had Stayed, is an intriguing blend of women’s fiction, thriller and sci-fi, with a bit of history thrown in for good measure This time-travel tale centers around the discovery of an old diary written by Nikola Tesla that contains the plans for a time machine. Kaley Kline, the protagonist, decides to secretly build the machine in the hope that she will be able to travel back in time and undo a decision she has regretted. What she sees as the possibility of a second chance soon has her running for her life. 

The most challenging part of writing the book was figuring out how time travel would work. “The rules for time travel can be anything, but they must be consistent, and the mechanism for traveling must be at least a little bit believable,” Byington explains. “That was tough, especially since my character meets herself when she goes back in time, and the older self and younger self are both in the same mind. Getting that right nearly drove me crazy!”

Byington got the idea for If She Had Stayed after contemplating some of her past decisions. “I was thinking about some things I regret about my earlier life and wished I could go back and change them,” she recalls. “I wondered what my current life would be like if I had that opportunity. Ergo, Kaley Kline was born!” While Byington’s personal life was the inspiration for the character, she denies that Kaley is based on her or anyone she knows. “She has far more courage than I would ever have,” Byington admits. But what Byington likes best about the book is how the character evolves. “I like the lessons Kaley learns during the course of the book and how different she is at the end than she was at the beginning,” she says. “It’s very satisfying to see that she has learned and grown through the book.”

Byington is currently at work on a third novel, tentatively titled Grounded. The story centers around an astronaut who is grounded due to injuries sustained in a terrible accident. Unwilling to accept that she will never go into space, she makes some questionable decisions that put her life in danger. Byington hopes her books will help people deal with regrets. “I’d like readers to take away an acceptance that the things they regret have made them the people they are today,” she says,  “so they can move forward instead of always looking backwards.”

For more information, visit the author's website at