History That Bears Repeating

Writing graduate, historian Bill Truran writes about his local legends

Writing certificate graduate and author Bill Truran next to a red sports car with hills behind him. Photo.

When I first contacted Certificate Program in Writing graduate and author Bill Truran, he had just heard back from his editor about his first manuscript since finishing the certificate. And how did that conversation with his editor go? “It was good,” Bill replies, “giving me hard feedback that what I had learned—my use of the tools, techniques, knowledge and experience—was worth it.”

How did Extension prepare him for the writing of this new book?

He tells me, “The feedback from several people who have read my work prior to my taking UC Berkeley Extension writing courses was that I had an enormous improvement in my writing ability—creative writing and its application to fictional writing. My writing has better composition; is more readable; and certainly has better character arcs, development of scenes and all those attributes that one gains by taking the Writing certificate. Editors are stern and very professional people, but I feel that if it were not for the Writing program experience, I would be far less competent in creating decent manuscripts than I am now.”

So let’s back up a bit and get to know this New Jersey–based engineer-turned-writer whose passion for local history has led him on a path to discovering his own tales to tell.

You are an electrical engineer, an industry-affiliated instructor and a former business owner. How have these experiences influenced your desire to write?

Almost 50 years ago, I had obtained an electrical engineering undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and begun a career in this field. I have always enjoyed science, and engineering is the application of science to technology.

Over the years, I grew as an engineer, project engineer and project manager. Eventually, my entrepreneurial aspirations led me to earn an M.B.A. from Fairleigh Dickinson University.  Subsequently, I built my own firm that would design, build and service industrial controls, which I ran from 1984 until 2007. Eager to learn, I also obtained an M.S. in industrial engineering and operations research from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Stevens Institute of Technology, where I then taught for a decade as an industry affiliate professor. Currently, I am working with the U.S. government in engineering and science.

As for the influence on writing, my dad and Grampop had worked in the local zinc mines (and had a keen sense of “making something,” which also influenced my career choice). Overall, I have a desire to understand the world around us and apply my skills to make it better. And I want to do some of that through writing.

Did that desire inspire you to write nonfiction books in the first place? What are your books about?

The inspiration to write was a result of a passion for history. I had a strong curiosity about where old roads went, how people lived 200 years ago and generally what life was like then to get us to where we are today.

Talking to older people, recording their stories and piecing together aspects of local history—like where the stagecoach turnpike was—gave me a lot of information. I wanted to get this out to readers, and this became five books that portrayed what life had been like in Franklin, New Jersey, and nearby locales.

More recently, in my full-color coffee-table book Country Lanes: Portrait of a Century Past, Featuring the Complete Works of Louis Larsen, I showed about 90 or so extant paintings and provenance from a colorful local painter, Louis “Louie” Larsen, and described the circumstances by which they came about.

But then, I had additional tales to tell that were not facts. They were mostly legends and disjointed pieces of what were probably some of the most important people and events from our region. For example, there is the untold story of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and other stories concerning George Washington, Thomas Edison, Babe Ruth and more. These are artifacts and legends.

I felt that the only way to tell these was in story form, filling in the blanks, using artistic license to make it logical and reasonable. I needed to transform my work into human-experience stories and seam together parts into what would be a fictional piece. I realized I needed training in creative writing. I asked knowledgeable people, and this led to UC Berkeley Extension being recommended to me as a top provider in the field.

Why did you decide to register for the Writing certificate program as opposed to taking individual courses?

As can be seen in my track record of learning, I like to achieve a certain level of competency and complete a goal so that I feel confident I am doing a good job and using all the tools that can be applied.

You took online classes. What was that experience like?

The Writing program was fantastic. It delivered what it advertised. It was done with great instructors who are knowledgeable, passionate and student-centered. While I had my “day job,” I kept studying to finish the certificate—and considered it a joy—and apply it to my ongoing life’s work.

All of my courses were worthwhile—both in terms of money and time spent. As a cautious and wary newcomer from another field, the first course I enrolled in was Developing the Novel with Rachael Herron. She was so welcoming.

Writing Skills Workshop with Holly Thompson was great to gain the basic skills, and American Fiction was intense and lengthy but well worth it to understand the progression of writing in America.

I acquired several friends, and we do periodically keep in touch. They were mostly California locals, but there was a blend of people from all around the world, and that makes it a fun time when hearing what others have to say.

Ten years from now, what will you be writing about?

I have developed a writing regimen from around the turn of the century (with my dissertation and then the factual books), and I really enjoy writing the legends of the American experience into a form that people can appreciate and can feel comfortable reading with their feet up, wanting to turn the page for what happens next.

I have about six of these manuscripts that are close to finishing, and then I may write in smaller bites but in a serial form. The genre would continue to be historical novels, taking real people and making their legends readable and of some kind of moral value.

It takes passion to continue a hobby or to enjoy what you do for your career. “Be happy in your labors and never work a day in your life” is one interpretation of how I view writing. The experience at UC Berkeley Extension helped enhance my path forward and will probably be a mark remembered in my life’s journey in 10 years’ time.

What advice would you give somebody who is thinking about starting the Certificate Program in Writing?

I would say, “Go for it!” The Writing certificate was totally worthwhile for me, and it can raise a person’s ability—and the ensuing level of confidence in their competence—significantly from where they were before taking the courses.

I believe in doing things with an underlying purpose and maintaining your way with a navigable goal in mind. Whether it’s preparing for an M.F.A., or improving the skills in which you are weak, or a pleasurable endeavor, or to get a new job—“Go for it!”