as our guest military historian, as well as an award-winning
journalist and author Gina Maria DiNicolo. Gina is the author of
nonfiction The Black Panthers: A Story of Race, War and Courage. The
761st Tank Battalion in World War II and Blood Stripe: The Susanna
Marcasi Chronicles, a fictional tale of suspense.
Gina has written on military topics for nearly two decades. She was also a contributing editor at Military Officer Magazine, where more than twenty of her stories graced the publication’s cover. She is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in history, and served as an officer in the Marine Corps.
Norm: Good day, Gina, and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Gina: Norm, thank you for having me. I have been writing mostly on history since my undergraduate years at the Naval Academy. After graduation, while serving as a Marine Corps officer, I wrote here and there on defense, but in 1998, I got my real start as a defense writer for a national veterans’ magazine, Military Officer. I created its blog and wrote as a paid defense blogger. I also penned more complex defense articles for the magazine.
Variety keeps me going and something struck me around 2010: It was time to move to writing books. Growth and telling a good story also keep me moving forward. If I get a hold of a great story idea, I will work almost nonstop to bring it to publication.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Gina: I have been fortunate to write what interests me. That interest keeps me focused. Some might say I remain obsessed and hungry for more and accurate information. I read my drafts to improve the manuscript, but as any writer knows, that only goes so far. There is no substitute for a good substantive editor. Once published, I don’t read my work. Writing is very emotional and private for me. Sending the manuscript to the publisher signals the end of an intimate relationship with my characters. I mourn and move on to the next work.
Norm: Did you read any special books on how to write and do you work from an outline?
Gina: I don’t read on
how to write, but I recommend Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir
of the Craft. It is more philosophical than technical, and it is an
I learn about writing from reading and studying other authors. I learned about nonfiction story telling from Erik Larson and his works of narrative nonfiction. I have learned by studying the writings of military historians like Stephen Ambrose and other historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin. I learn by writing every day. One may look up a certain writing convention, but improved writing comes through doing.
Outline? I keep my plan in my head. I know I need a beginning, middle, and end, a climax and tension all put together to enthral the reader. I know what I want, and I research and write. With the nonfiction Black Panthers: A Story of Race, War, and Courage, despite prior knowledge of the topic, I did not know where I’d begin and end the book. I was unsure of the climax. But I knew I wanted to tell the story of the 761st Tank Battalion as a unit and as individuals. I wanted to recount the larger story of the Army, Washington, and a world on fire. I had to see where the primary sources would take me. There is no outline for the way I work.
With Blood Stripe, the fictional thriller, I had ideas, but did not know where I wanted the story to go. I wrote more than 137,000 words to get the 91,000 that leave the reader breathless. This book was more like a sculpture. I left my options open. An outline would have been pointless in this case. But I have considered an outline for a possible upcoming nonfiction work because I have a better idea of the elements I want in the narrative. I am writing the second Susanna Marcasi book, again with a vague storyboard in my head.
Norm: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing and do you have a specific writing style?
Gina: I was fortunate to have brilliant teachers in Catholic primary and secondary school demanding perfection. I found the same at the academy. My work ethic comes from those years as well as my time in the Marine Corps.
My Style? I suppose I have a style. My style is narrative nonfiction, and I have found it carries over to my fiction. In nonfiction, I compose detailed back stories and layered characters. I weave complex elements. I write stand-alone chapters that can be rearranged with ease. I add the bizarre and shocking to entertain the reader. I use humor even in the bleakest moments. I present over-the-top characters and plots, but I try to ensure readers can relate to these characters as they would the guy next door.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for Blood Stripe? As a follow up, did you write the story to express something you believe or was it just for entertainment?
Gina: Blood Stripe has
been with me for 7 years, interrupted by the research and writing of
Black Panthers. Several issues came together in Blood Stripe. I had
long wanted to write about my period at the Naval Academy in the
early 1980s and my follow-on years in the Marine Corps. I wanted to
touch on the marginalization of women, specifically sexual assault
and gender bias—but no one wants to read the nonfiction version of
At the same time, I had a friend secretly involved with a member of Congress. I was his confidante and learned more about the pair than I ever cared to know. I told my friend I planned to write their story as fiction. This person agreed. But, it was the Susanna Marcasi character that took off. With her came the links to the Naval Academy and Marine Corps and the unflattering secrets I wanted to reveal. Blood Stripe can be read as the thriller it is or for the metaphors that address deeper issues.
Norm: Where did you get your information or ideas for the book and how much of the book is realistic?
Gina: As I mentioned, I had a friend in a relationship with someone on the Hill. The settings are real – Memorial Bridge, Arlington Cemetery, New Orleans; much is described as it stands today – or did in 2000. Much of the book is realistic. Suicide, PTSD, corruption, assault, abuse of power. I pull from my experiences and those of others. Some are accurate, others are embellished. The diabolical plot? Plausible but not factual. Do Marines beat women with pipes? Technically no, metaphorically, maybe.
Norm: How much of you is in the book?
Gina: When I spend countless hours immersed with these characters, each one will take on a bit of me.
The characters are composites of people I know, have seen, and have created. There is a bit of me in several, especially Susanna Marcasi, Manfred Stahl, and police chief Roscoe Russell.
Norm: How did you go about creating the characters of Susanna Marcasi, Manfred Stahl, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Earhardt and Lori O'Reilly?
Gina: Characters grow like people grow. Events impact characters, Characters impact events. Characters change and evolve through the writing process. Lori and Joe, based on real people, were much stronger when I started, but Susanna took over. She had the bigger story. Higher stakes. More to lose. Stahl? As I learned how evil Stahl really was, his character grew more outrageous. The writing process builds the characters. I find I have to go back and rewrite a character to plot him or her to where I have gotten the person in the story. I give the main characters an arc. It takes draft after draft to layer and map these characters into 3-D powerhouses.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
Gina: The most difficult part of writing a book is cutting this lengthy (but wonderful) exposition I have written. I love back stories, but they drive my editor crazy. They can adversely impact the action and the progress of the story. I find it hard to cut information. A second challenge is keeping that tension on every page. Also, there is a love story in Blood Stripe, but I did not want this to lapse into romance. It doesn’t. There is a love story in Black Panthers, and it remains a war story.
Norm: Did you learn anything from writing the book and what was it?
Gina: First, I like writing violence. Second, I learned about my past. I also found I am bothered more about gender bias than I thought. This book is no political or social statement. It is an entertaining thriller. But issues are touched upon metaphorically.
Norm: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Gina: I hear from the readers on the 761st Tank Battalion through FaceBook and email. They seem thrilled as well as grateful for an accurate history that reads like a novel. I also get detailed questions from other writers about the unit.
Blood Stripe. Early reaction from those who know the academy is, Wow, that was dead on. It was like I was there. In fact in both books, readers say they felt they were in the middle of the action.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Gina: My WEB SITE
There are three FaceBook pages.
I am also happy to make appearances and participate in interviews.
Also, Blood Stripe: The
Susanna Marcasi Chronicles is available beginning November 10 on
Amazon and others,
The Black Panthers: A Story of Race, War and Courage is currently available at many outlets including Amazon
Norm: What is next for Gina Maria DiNicolo?
Gina: A lot. The second book in the Susanna Marcasi Chronicles series is moving along. It takes place on September 11, 2001. A wedding. Saudi Arabia. Everyone’s invited. A third book about her academy years and a fourth placing her in Iraq are planned. Susanna’s Blood Stripe blog entries may come out as e-books soon.
Nonfiction. Currently, I am editing a series on the Iraq war. I also am in the query phase on several historical topics for my next narrative nonfiction.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Gina: I am asked about writing both fiction and nonfiction as a military historian. My response is story telling is story telling. The research may vary, but good writing is good writing. Writers can craft what they want if the topic interests them and if there is a market. Writing takes work. I tell people to more than learn their craft. If they can become their craft, they can write anything.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Gina: Thank You