Jess Wells

Author of Modern and Historical Fiction, Instructor in the Craft











Jess's books




War and Peace


5 of 5 stars




So glad I finally was able to read/​hear this book, all 43 discs unabridged, while commuting to work. He has a wonderful sense of irony, of humor, a jaded eye to the aristocracy. Marvelous ability to describe emotions in a single line. Lo...




Dear Life: Stories


5 of 5 stars




Tremendous work, though the prose is a little sparse for my taste. Nice to see a combination of both open-ended and concluded short stories. And I'm still thrilled that a short story writer has won the Nobel Prize.





The Luminaries


5 of 5 stars




Engaging, great use of language, and a fast-paced whodunit that I couldn't put down.






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Blog

HistFic Questions On Character Development and Scene

July 4, 2018

Tags: Writer's Life, Women in History, A Slender Tether

Much of the discussion around historical fiction has centered on two questions: a) why write historical novels and b) what are the requirements for accuracy? It seems a bit narrow in focus, so I'd like to suggest discussing:

How Do You Write About Outmoded Beliefs?
* Eras in the past are marked by more than just a difference in fashion or modes of transportation; there have been profound differences in beliefs and mind-sets. How do you effectively write about people who believed that pixies and spirits sprang from the dirt or that the sun-god had a direct hand in shaping daily events, without making your characters seem foolish in the eyes of the reader? (In the movie Troy, for example, the Trojans seem silly to consult and trust in the sun-god so much.) It’s a bit like a murder mystery where the reader knows the culprit before the characters unmask him.

How Do You Capture Social Forces That No Longer Seem Relevant?
* Seems to me that some things that were of great concern in the past are not relevant or interesting any more: people’s focus on getting into heaven; the presence of the Devil in every-day life. Even social conditions that had a pervasive impact such as sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, even classism, can only be mentioned once: women weren’t allowed to do that…and the reader thinks ‘yes, yes, get on with it.’ What topics are now off-limits, or at least to be down-played? How do you handle this dismissal of such incredibly powerful social forces?
(I'm thinking partly of my project writing on Christine de Pizan; she is best known for being the first woman to make her living as a writer but saying ‘women didn’t write books back then’ isn’t really that interesting because they certainly do now. But she also wrote a manual on warfare, which elicits incredulity in a modern audience so it highlights the situation better than the book that is actually the one she’s known for (The City of Ladies, the first feminist treatise.) I’m highlighting the lesser accomplishment of the warfare manual, because it still has cultural relevance. So, in fact, you’re challenged (more…)

Chicken or Egg? Hobby or Character Development?

February 23, 2018

Tags: Writer's Life, History

Where can I learn to be a blacksmith, I muttered to myself last week, as I decided to put a blacksmith in a new book/project. Might be fun to learn, I thought.

The night before I had packed away my (at this point fairly extensive) collection of chocolate molds and tools, having recently sold my new novel, Straight Uphill: A Tale of Love and Chocolate to Fireship Press.

So it made me wonder: which came first, the desire to learn something like confectionary, or the desire to have a character work in a trade that, for the sake of verisimilitude, I need to learn. I don’t necessarily need to master the craft, but I need to know the smell of it, the heat, the feel of the tools in my hand. One can learn the process from a book but there’s so that you have to actually experience.

So, which came first?

I wrote the chocolatiers in Straight Uphill because I was taking on chocolate as a hobby. (I’ve never actually had a hobby. Work, writing, motherhood, relationship, house; that was all I could handle. I had never even asked myself what I might want to do as a hobby, that’s how remote the prospect was.) Chocolates moved from a temporary pastime to a dedicated hobby when I realized that I had just spent hours, transfixed, as I worked with the stuff. The ‘languid quality’ described in the WWII section of the book is how I felt making my first ganache. So, in the case of Straight Uphill, the hobby came first.

I learned to ride a horse for two reasons: (more…)

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New Book Club Discussion Guide for The Mandrake Broom

February 14, 2018

Tags: Writer's Life, The Mandrake Broom, History

Book Club Guide for The Mandrake Broom

Description of the book: A historical novel set in Europe 1465 – 1540, The Mandrake Broom dramatizes the courageous fight to save medical knowledge during the witch burning times and answers the question “what if the witches had fought back?” Based on extensive research of historical sources, herbal remedies and the medicines of the time, this novel has been called “is "stunningly good...tremendously involving and impressive." Meet:

Luccia Alimenti, daughter of a medical professor at the University of Salerno, Italy, destined to carry ancient texts and herbal lore into the dangerous and groundbreaking future.

Fiona, her Irish godmother (more…)

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Differences Between Fiction and Non-fiction: More Complex than Just True or Imaginary

August 2, 2017

Tags: Writer's Life

I am preparing to teach a new class entitled to “From Daydream to Story: An Introduction to Fiction” – a class specifically designed for nonfiction writers and journalists, or people with story ideas but no experience in fiction. In the process, I have discovered that most explanations for the difference between nonfiction and fiction have to do with the reality of the material in nonfiction. Nonfiction is true and fiction is from the imagination. I would suggest, though, that there are a number of other distinctions:

Fiction is a close-in view of life. Think of going from nonfiction to fiction like the process of Google maps as it zooms in from a position in the stratosphere, zooming down into your backyard. And even closer than your backyard, zoomed in to the exact expression on someone’s face (more…)

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The Writer's Life and the Allure of the Keyboard

July 4, 2017

Tags: Writer's Life

How many arggghs are there in arthritis? What a drag – the thing I love to do most in the world is now so painful that every time I think of something to write I ask “is it worth the pain?” Every task around the house is judged according to its impact on my hands. (A friend called it ‘wrist cycles.’) Do I really want to spend my now limited wrist cycles on pulling weeds, untangling that extension cord, chopping (more…)

Six Ways That Setting Can Drive Plot

May 12, 2017

Tags: Writer's Life

Setting is not simple backdrop, like a green screen on which a film is shot. Setting in fiction plays an important role in plot and characterization. Whether you write sci-fi, historicals, or modern fiction, your setting can make or break your story. So, what are some of the keys to a well-drawn fictional world?

Four Major Mistakes with Setting
Setting is frequently considered the easiest and most fun part of writing. A writer seems happiest when describing rooms, clothing, smells in the air, the look of the lights, the weather. This focus makes sense, since we’ve spent a lot of our lives deciphering objects and their meanings. As fiction writers, we’re focused on the close-in vision of things. Big-concept people write essays. Fiction writers know that it says a lot when the curtains are torn versus curtains festooned with gold thread.
But I’m finding that there are at least four major mistakes with setting. Many writers:
1. Over-do it with too much explanation and description, getting lost in the wallpaper and descriptions of the light < (more…)

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The Mathematics of Fiction

December 23, 2016

Tags: Writer's Life

I have seen it so many times: the look of a young writer who is calculating the odds that they will ‘make it’ in literature. They are checking the ranking of their book on Amazon.com, the hits to their blog, books sold, hours clocked, word count checked daily, tracking shares and likes or any other mathematical measure to give one solace, or some faint indicator that they are approaching their goal of success, at the same time that they practice an art that always raises the bar on quality and holds many in obscurity without reason.

It is akin to using a ruler to judge the taste of cake.

Since we do these numerical calculations while we know that the quality and impact of art cannot be measured with mathematics, I would like to offer some additional math about fiction and the writing life:

First, the math of the art:
• You will have 10 ideas for every story you complete
• It will take up to 20 published stories to discover the thematic thread that runs through your work (more…)

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Good Storytelling Techniques are Required for Family Stories

December 16, 2016

Tags: Writer's Life

The key elements of good storytelling apply to writing the story of your family. I teach a five-week course or one-day workshop that focuses on the material above and the keys to storytelling below:
• concentrate on the place where the action is greatest
• be very clear about the catalyst for change– the pogrom, the famine, the opportunity
• begin on page one with as much of a punch as you possibly can
• evoke many if not all the senses
• make sure that all characters are nuanced. Even villains must have redeeming qualities or flaws that can be understood.

The Personal Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
Anyone who writes, and anyone contemplating writing knows that it can be a daunting task. The New York Public Library article also reminds us of the personal advantages of writing this story: a better understanding of (more…)

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The Advantages of Fictionalizing Your Family Story

December 3, 2016

Tags: Writer's Life

I am obviously a big fan of historical fiction (my last two novels are based in the Middle Ages) and I tell my students writing their family stories that there are advantages to crossing the line into fiction – either fictive biographies or historical fiction.

First, fictional characters can be the personification of important forces (more…)

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How and Why You Should Write the Story of Your Family and When to Veer into Fiction

November 14, 2016

Tags: Writer's Life

Happily, my new course on “Crafting the Story of Your Family: For Writers and Non-Writers Alike” at The Writing Salon has begun and I am reminded of what the New York City Library has listed as one of their “20 Reasons You Should Write Your Family History”: the historical and literary record needs more material from previously underrepresented people – women, people of color, the poor and working-class, the disabled. In short, if you think the historical record is too filled with privileged white men, get writing. (more…)

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Please join me Oct. 22nd for a Special Reading at The Writing Salon, Berkeley

October 4, 2016

Tags: Writer's Life

San Francisco Bay Area writers and readers: Please join me at The Writing Salon in Berkeley on Oct. 22nd, 7-9 p.m. as I read new work, introduce my student Agatha Hinman to her first public reading, and share the stage with Karen Bjorneby and her student.

I'll be reading from my unpublished collection of short stories, The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, featuring a story that is particularly appropriate for an audience of writers.

The event is free but space is limited. Refreshments will be served and my books will be available for sale.

Please join me at The Writing Salon, 2121 Bonar St., Studio D on the Second Floor, Berkeley CA, 94702, October 22, 2016, from 7-9 p.m.

Looking forward to seeing you!
Jess
(more…)

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Reading and Writing -- Pleasures from the Same Wellspring

July 10, 2016

Tags: Writer's Life

It is my contention that the desire to read and the desire to write come from the same place – a longing to live in fantasy. They are both great brain candy (but good for you so perhaps ‘brain fruit,’ though more substantive than that so perhaps ‘brain kale’ but that sounds unpalatable. Clearly the metaphor needs some collective work.) An interesting piece recently ran in the New York Times Book Review, in the back section called “Bookends” – always one of my favorites in the newspaper because of the quality of the writing and the subtlety of what they discuss. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, the question was whether or not it is harder to be transported by a book as you get older. And what Benjamin Moser says is “the problem is that the deeper you go into your own writing, the harder it becomes to enter someone else’s. If pursued seriously, writing demands a kind of obsessive concentration that came, at least for me, to preclude reading.”

Reading great stories or novels adds another dimension to one’s life as if having a secret (more…)

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Join Me in the Workshop: How to Write Historical Fiction, in Berkeley, CA

May 21, 2016

Tags: Writer's Life

Really happy to be back to teaching, and back to The Writing Salon. If you're anywhere near the SF Bay Area, I would love to see you at this fun and affordable one-day workshop:

Writing Historical Fiction – Weaving Past and Present into Art

Historical fiction can transport you into worlds that are incredibly fun to write. Do you want to reintroduce a little-known hero/heroine into popular culture? Would you like to tell the sweeping saga of your own family’s struggle in America? Is there an event from long ago that seems hauntingly relevant today? Any story that is more than 50 years in the past is considered historical fiction, so sometimes one’s own childhood can be the source of inspiration.

Historical fiction has its own unique demands, though. I'm fond of mentioning that “You can’t just throw a tapestry over the flat screen TV in your scene and call it historical. There are real differences between modern life and life in the past, which require real differences in your writing. And that, to me, is the greatest thing about it.”

In this lively, one-day workshop, we will:
• Identify where each of you is in the process of your project – idea, complete research, plot obstacle
• Discuss how to research and when to stop researching
• Discuss how settings can help your plot
• Consider how to tell the story of famous people told from a fresh angle
• Identify ways in which historical stories illuminate modern truths
(more…)

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Tell Your Family Story in a Private Book?

July 22, 2015

Tags: Writer's Life

Frequently I have people sign up for my writing classes – both the classes on general fiction construction and historical fiction – because they want to tell the story of their grandmother's trek across the American prairie by covered wagon; or their grandfather’s disappearance in World War II Germany; or even their own story from the Summer of Love. In all of those instances, I am struck by the notion that these writers are hemmed in by facts as well as by their desire to paint their ancestors in a favorable light. This doesn’t necessarily make great fiction, especially when fiction requires that you sometimes bend the facts to serve a larger truth.

So I was particularly interested when (more…)

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Wise Words on Novels from Jane Smiley

January 10, 2015

Tags: Writer's Life

Remarkable wisdom from Jane Smiley in her new book "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel." So many fascinating things to say about the novel, its history and structure, and the writing life as well. She suggests that it's not necessary to read the book cover to cover but I plowed through it with delight. Because this list of quotes is so enormous, I think I might post single quotes on Facebook, one at a time, and yet enable the really hungry go-getters to read them all...

Two little asides, remarking on modern culture: when you read on a tablet with Kindle you don't get page (more…)

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New Book Idea, New Neighbors

November 28, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

Thrilled to say that I’ve come up with an idea for a new book and I’m struck by how it’s like having neighbors move in next door: I can hear them through the walls, characters behind the conscious/subconscious barrier, rattling around. I’m not quite sure who they are or what makes them tick, what their (more…)

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The Little Ice Age as Setting for A Slender Tether

September 14, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

Few people are aware that Europe suffered through a Little Ice Age during the Middle Ages, a time of unprecedented cold which I was drawn to include in my new book, A Slender Tether, because of its current relevance: the inexplicable weather, severe storms, and global warming that are in the news on a weekly basis these days. It’s my suggestion that these had a profound effect not just on the lifestyles of Europeans, but also their sense of consistency and predictability.

“Speak the words “ice age,” and the mind turns to Cro-Magnon mammoth hunters on windswept European plains devoid of trees,” suggests Brian Fagan, author of The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850, on which much of my research is based. “But the Little Ice Age was far from a deep freeze. Think instead of (more…)

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The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

September 14, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

I love historical fiction but it’s a recent appreciation and it was born of a reading of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind because it’s a historical setting but a modern novel form and it is incredibly artful; it is literature because the period of time involved is usedas another device to examine a universal truth. It’s not just a story of the building of a bridge or a queen, a beheading, a war. It’s art.

I think it’s important to remember that fiction, regardless of genre, setting or format, is about illuminating the human condition; it’s not about “gosh, something interesting happened.” That doesn’t work for modern stories either. It has to be “gosh, this interesting thing happened and look at the fascinating emotional transformations that happened as a result.”

But historical fiction faces at least two additional challenges, (more…)

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Ride a Horse to Imbue Your Writing with Truth

September 14, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

If you write historical fiction that’s based in a time-frame prior to the invention of the car (and most is), here’s a tip: learn to ride a horse. It was virtually the only mode of transportation for most of our characters and the experience of riding long distances and/or the relationship that one had with a horse can add to your historical fiction. The good news is that I’ve found a place where one can learn from a woman who loves historical fiction almost as much as she loves her horses. It’s called Wind In Your Hair Stables in Wanship UT and it’s a joy.

Wanship is just 20 minutes from Park City UT and 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, an easy drive through lovely hilly country. The stables and grounds are artfully rustic and pristine, built with rough-hewn wood. The owner, Sueanne, has a marvelous, (more…)

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Paracelsus, Father of Modern Surgery and Chemistry

September 10, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

Here’s for “My Main Character Blog hop”

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
a.Theo Paracelsus, a historic person, is considered the father of modern chemistry and was a brilliant scientist and renegade doctor of the 1400s. He published The Great Surgery Book in 1536, which was an astounding compendium of anatomy and surgical procedure.
2) When and where is the story set?
a. The Mandrake Broom is set in Europe during the witch-burning times 1465-1540 set mostly in Salerno, Italy and Paris, and centers on the fight to save medical knowledge. Paracelsus becomes the colleague and partner of my fictional main character, Luccia Alimenti, whose mandate was to carry the herbal and medical teachings of the famous Trotula throughout Europe. It’s my suggestion that their collaboration united the side of medicine from the wicca that was focused on herbs but not surgery, with the surgical side that cut but didn’t cure.
3) What should we know about him/her?
a. Paracelsus was an astoundingly free thinker, a physician, botanist and the first to champion the theories of psychology and toxicology. After a rigorous, traditional education, he became an itinerate doctor, traveling to battlefields and encampments of the poor to better understand disease and anatomy, which was unheard-of in his day.
4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
a. Paracelsus was a eunuch because of an illness in his childhood and also developed a serious addiction to laudanum, an opiate. The central conflict in his life, though, was his rage against the medical establishment and its close-minded ways. He got a reputation for being incredibly arrogant and incendiary, and in some situations had to sneak out of town for fear of imprisonment. He railed against his colleagues, burning some medical textbooks as evidence of fraud.
5) What is the personal goal of the character?
a. Paracelsus had a hunger for medical knowledge and a refusal to settle for the limits of knowledge of the time. As a contemporary of Leonardo de Vinci and Copernicus, he championed scientific thought at a time when the Inquisition made that extremely dangerous.
(more…)

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Should You Hide the Identities of People in Memoir or Fiction?

September 10, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

Should you hide the identities of people in your fiction or memoir? What’s the impact of revealing family secrets in your work? Two excellent takes on the subject in today’s New York Times Book Review. The decorated Francine Prose says go for broke, except with children: you’re their custodians and it isn’t fair. Otherwise, look at the great fiction/memoirs that have relied on real life and consider what would have been done to them if the writer had been reticent. Of course, she says, you have to be prepared for the consequences.

In counterpoint (though they’re somewhat allied) Leslie Jameson has a wonderful view of the subject. I’ve seen this frequently in my teaching at The Writing Salon: “There’s the danger that overly autobiographical writing will be hampered by serving too many gods (fidelity and artistry at once) or be crippled by the involution of its gaze, made less ambitious by the umbilical cord of its genesis in lived experience.” But actually, she says we’re all creating fictional ‘terrariums’ (love the metaphor) where a certain version of ourselves can survive. And utilizing real people in our work isn’t ‘mining’ or extracting, but creating a type of alchemy, more like agriculture with the truth as the seed.

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Chatting with Friends in #MyWritingProcess Blog Hop

September 10, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

I love a good conversation among friends and that’s how #MyWritingProcess blog tour is shaping up. Many thanks to Nathan ‘Burgoine for his candid and insightful entry, for tagging me, and for being a kind, gracious, witty and talented friend. Did I mention talented? Very talented!

What am I working on?
After immersing myself in the Middle Ages in both The Mandrake Broom and A Slender Tether, I’ve most recently come back to the present (as much as any of us writers are ever actually in the physical moment – and when is that? At work?) And I’ve been trying to come up with another word for ‘work’ when it applies to writing so I don’t feel as if I’m constantly at work. Playing? Sounds silly. Crafting? Sounds like Play-do. You see my quandry…and how easily I’m distracted which is a difficult trait for a writer who has 100,000 words to stick into some semblance of order. Alright, back to the question. My new piece is a series of stories set over 40 years around a small lake in Northern Michigan, an eerie collection, I think. Love, detrayal, an explosion, family dynamics, a soldier gone mad, the exquisite (to me) landscape of pines and loons. At this point it’s called The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, though my editors/publishers are mostly (and thankfully) responsible for the titles of my books. I’ve given each of the stories a different date in time because I realized that because of the profound impact of the cell phone, some of the plot lines couldn’t be modern. And though I’m told that story collections don’t sell (to which I point out that the Nobel Prize just went to a short story writer) I persevere.

And then, of course, as I shipped the collection out to my private editor, the Muse delivered (more…)

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Lessons from AWP 2014

September 10, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

The first day of #AWP2014 ended brilliantly with Annie Proulx’s keynote, a witty, acerbic and delightful look at the history of publishing since the 1940s, the advances and retreats, the blindness of many to the changes until they were ‘cattle in the feedlot.’ With her hair sticking out in odd directions, a woman far older than I expected who rarely looked up from her script to make eye contact, she charmed the audience utterly and completely, nonetheless.

The panel discussions on craft were standing room only, all the aisles packed with people sitting on the floor, as opposed to the sessions on marketing or publishing. As this is my first AWP, I would say this is predominantly a writer’s conference, or maybe that they’ve underestimated how many writers vs. professors/publishers there are in attendance.

Interesting panel on “How Many Readers is Enough” with outstanding insights by (more…)

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“A Most Expensive Book” in the Library Battle

September 10, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

The news behind the upcoming auctioning of one of the first public library books printed in the US isn’t the price it’s going to fetch. The important issue, to me, is the shrinking public access to libraries and resources. Privatization is a genuine threat to the public access that is at the heart of our definition of the ‘written record.’ Deep in this story is the report that libraries are selling off volumes which leaves great work out of the public record and thereby lost to time. And shrinking budgets which sounds to me as if there’s less money for acquisition as well. The written record of human existence cannot be left into the hands of people with money, or companies who could easily profit from currently non-profit ventures such as Google’s current endeavor. Like the roads and the military, the written record of global life must be available to all.

The American Library Association itself has issued a task force report (alas, no link is provided in the NYTimes article) called “Keep Public Libraries Public.” I’d love to see their plan of action.
(more…)

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The Art of Being Still as a Writer

September 10, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

The Art of Being Still, by Silas House

"We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened. The wonderful nonfiction writer Joyce Dyer refers to this as seeing like an animal… We writers must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.
We are a people who are forever moving, who (more…)

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Would You Want an Android Promoting You? Phillip K Dick's Head Lost

September 7, 2014

Tags: Writer's Life

I’m struck by the recent book review of “How to Build an Android: The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection” and I’ve been puzzling over some questions it raises for writers.

First, the facts. The book “explains how a team of researchers at the Univ. of Memphis collaborated in 2005 with an artist and robotics experts to create what was then the most sophisticated android anywhere, a replica of the head of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick” (science fiction author of Blade Runner etc.). The android’s face was sculpted with a skin-like polymer, his non-functioning body was draped in Dick’s clothing donated by the family, and his speech was assembled “through an immense database of Dick’s own words as expressed during his lifetime in books and interviews…Phil could spit out an accurate Dick answer to a specific question if it found a match.” Or he was programmed to improvise.

But here’s the part straight out of a Dick novel: his creator was taking the head to Google for a meeting (more…)

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"What really ties the stories together is Wells' wry sensibilities and lyrical prose. She mixes tragedy and comedy to great effect; producing stories that feel true as if it were gossip heard first hand." - Amazon.com Review
Historical Fiction
The early adulthood of Christine de Pizan, called "artfully captured with economy and delicacy [that] comes across beautifully in this well-written and researched work." - The Historical Novels Review
"Historical events…are elegantly woven into the plot. The well-rounded characters, constant action, and captivating subject matter unite (in The Mandrake Broom) to enlighten as well as infuriate as the atrocities of the time period become real through Wells’ vivid writing…. Reminiscent of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series, Jess Wells’ third novel belongs on everyone’s reading list”– The Historical Novels Review