James Ullrich is a freelance travel writer, editor, and author. His work has been commissioned and published in nationally distributed publications including The New York Examiner, World War II, Aviation History, Renaissance, Global Aviator, Military, and Weider Publishing Group among others.
He’s also contributed European-based travel guide material on popular websites and blogs including Travel Addict, Vagabondish, Compass, Backpacker, InTravel, and Writer Abroad. He contributes a weekly blog post to Vagablogging ( www.vagablogging.net ).
In addition to writing, James has given talks on affordable independent travel to audiences interested in getting more out of their travel experiences for less cost.
Originally from Chicago, he’s previously worked as the Chief Managing Staff Writer for the Chicago Music Guide and served graduate internships in the Political Affairs Office of the US Embassy in London and the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence.
His first novel, a suspense/thriller set in Prague called The Vanishers, was finished in 2012. He’s recently finished his second novel, Dangerous Latitudes, an adventure (about a travel writer, of course).
In his free time he enjoys wandering through Europe with a backpack and a journal. He hangs his rucksack in Seattle.
What inspires you to write?
The desire to tell a good story, and to tell it well. It stemmed from my travel writing, and that in itself happened by accident when I decided to blend my two favorite things, writing and traveling. I’d always had a knack for writing; it’s what came the most naturally to me. I was always good at painting a picture with words and telling a story. When traveled I kept a journal (something I recommend to all writers and travelers).
One thing that marked my travel experiences was a tendency to have encounters with interesting people, to find myself in strange or funny situations, and to observe a lot. So before I knew it I was writing down some of my stories for friends back home. They liked them and told me I should try to get published. I submitted some of my reports from various places, and to my surprise, they found interest. Lots of people write about their travel experiences, and some of them do it really well, but never get published or noticed. I think it was my approach to the writing that helped to set me apart.
The idea of an adventure/thriller novel with a travel writer protagonist—the basis for my Matthew Hunt character and series that begins with Dangerous Latitudes—was my writing teacher’s idea. One day he told me, “You have a unique advantage; not many people are travel writers. Write what you know. And there are a million story possibilities for a travel writer protagonist!” And just like that, the light bulb went off in my head and a character, novel, and series were born.
Tell us about your writing process.
My approach is that any story has to pass my “would I buy it?” test. If someone told me about the plot or the characters, would I be interested in checking out the book? If so, then it’s a worthy idea to pursue. Then I begin outlining. I draw up a blueprint for the plot and crafting twists. Some authors boast about how they never outline, or just plunge ahead with only a vague notion of the plot. That works fine for certain types of stories. But stories like mine rollick right along with an international scope and lots of twists to keep the reader engaged. So I like to blueprint it down to the most minuscule details of plot and characterization. I diagram scenes, and sometimes I even storyboard action sequences like a movie director.
At the same time I create characters, deciding who’s going to be exactly who they seem to be and who’s got a hidden agenda or a secret that rocks the plot. Plying them with quirks and attributes and flaws is essential. They need to pop off the page. Then I decide where it’ll be set, but that’s usually predetermined by the nature of the plot or the characters involved. I spend lots of time making sure the elemental competencies of concept, character, theme, and narrative are strong. Dialogue comes later, during the drafting. Without any of these, the boat won’t float.
Theme is a big thing for me. I don’t like books that are entertaining but ultimately devoid of a theme or larger arc. Adventure, thrillers, and suspense novels really seem to lack these sometimes, and are the poorer for it. When the elemental competencies are in place, I focus on the executional competencies like scene construction, pace, and writing voice.
By the time I’m done I can more or less see it all play out as a movie in my mind. And I work on it until that movie is great. My books are crammed with stuff happening around the world, so I need to be on top of the narrative before writing the first word. Then I put pen to paper and write, “Chapter One”.
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) to your characters?
I listen to them. I like stories that are driven by characters, not story. Some writers, who are better with words than with life, fail to create textured characterizations; they have their characters act. But humans don’t act; they behave. They’re incredibly complex and often have conflicting motivations they’re not even consciously aware of. Their little tells—which are unique to every person—give them away.
So I try to paint the picture using those little details to inform your understanding of them and where they’re coming from. I try to ply them with as many layers as I can, because people are multilayered. I also do it to increase the suspense—I want readers to keep guessing as to what the characters will ultimately do or feel. It’s not really hard to achieve that effect; we humans are subject to so many competing drives and desires and impulses, and that in itself creates lot of suspense, and I try to convey that while still keeping a tight, fun, suspenseful story going.
What advice would you give other writers?
Write everyday. Your creativity is a muscle that needs to be worked. Also, seek out other authors and join a writing group. I’ve been extremely fortunate to know some great authors who’ve shared the fundamentals of their craft with me. I studied with the legendary Don McQuinn, a fantastic author here in Seattle. I was encouraged to apply his writing critique group, and sent him some samples of my work. He liked them and admitted me into the group. It’s him and four of us lesser mortals (me included). Every week we work-shopped each other’s latest chapters under his mentorship. This sharpened the material–and my own sense of the craft–into a fine point.
Also, study story architecture. Learn the dynamics that must exist for a good story to function. For example, I’ve studied story architecture with the brilliant Larry Brooks. He’s unmatched when it comes to conceptualizing story dynamics. I attended his workshops and swapped emails with him. His work taught me to identify the six core competencies of a story and make them shine. He also showed me how to rip a great story into its component parts and then to put them back together again, exactly the way a mechanic-in-training deconstructs a car’s engine and then reassembles to learn the physics of the thing. It helped me to understand the physical dynamics that produce a cohesive, satisfying story.
How did you decide how to publish your books?
I chose to indie publish; the option to release directly as ebook onto Amazon, nook etc and keep 70% royalty rate and all rights in perpetuity made the decision a no-brainer. Why sign away your rights and get 10% royalty from a traditional publisher? Just to see a copy in your local bookstore? That’s just a vanity thing. I’d rather be free!
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
I believe we’re in a golden era of publishing thanks to the internet. It’s been the most revolutionary communications change since Gutenberg invented his printing press. The big traditional “gatekeepers” are losing their grip on their power, and it’s all for the better. The reader now has so many more options due to the indie publishing revolution. More a stuff out there–all very inexpensive, too–is available than ever before in human history. That’s pretty incredible. I believe it will continue, and the big corporate publishers will adapt or die.
What do you use?
Professional Editor, Professional Cover Designer, Beta Readers
What genres do you write?
What formats are your books in?
Your Social Media Links