Steve Piacente says his novels begin with a "light-bulb moment" that he tries to develop into a synopsis, much like a newspaper reporter uses a "nut graph" to summarize a story.
Piacente knows a lot about writing newspaper stories, having worked as a print journalist for 25 years, including a four-year stint as a Washington correspondent for The Tampa Tribune, starting in 1985.
Now, Piacente has two self-published novels to his credit: "Bella," out since June 2010, and "Bootlicker," released Sept. 1.
Promotional material describes the plot of "Bootlicker" this way: "An unholy union exists between a racist U.S. senator and the candidate poised to become South Carolina's first black congressman since the Civil War."
Piacente, who spent 10 years as a Washington correspondent for the Charleston, S.C., newspaper, said "Bootlicker" in part was inspired by his dealings with the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
"While Thurmond mellowed from the man he was in 1948 when he ran for president on the 'States' Rights' ticket, there was no arguing about his segregationist past," Piacente wrote in an email interview.
"How could a man with such a past keep getting re-elected once blacks came to political power? I quizzed many smart people about this over the years, including political scientists, campaign strategists and university professors, and no one had a satisfactory answer.
"So I made one up and wrote a book."
Piacente said another influence for "Bootlicker" was his coverage of the 1992 race that saw South Carolina elect its first black congressman since the Civil War.
"That, of course, is where fact ends and fiction begins in my story," Piacente said. "Rep. Jim Clyburn has done a masterful job as congressman and bears no resemblance to Ike Washington in 'Bootlicker.' "
When Piacente began writing his latest book, which he describes as a "prequel" to "Bella," he had no idea at the time how "Bootlicker" would end.
"… But I knew I wanted readers to take away the feeling that there's always hope and a chance for redemption, even when things seem darkest," the author said in his email.
Redemption is something that one of Piacente's main characters in both novels, reporter Dan Patragno, certainly will need after his questionable personal and ethical decisions in "Bella," which won a National Indie Excellence 2012 Book Award.
It's the story of a widow's quest to prove the military lied about her husband's death on an Afghan battlefield. Isabel Moss enlists the help of Patragno, by then a reporter in Washington, D.C., and the two become romantically entangled.
"… I like to say that Bella and Dan learn about the power of temptation, the futility of revenge and the consequences of yielding to either," the author remarked.
While Piacente can best identify with Dan as a character because of his reporter's background, he takes issue with Dan's willingness to cross professional and personal lines.
And while Piacente makes use of a plot device employed by numerous other authors, he won't "generalize and say society lacks ethics." Still, he finds plenty of evidence to make that case.
"I'm interested in how people act when faced with tough ethical choices — essentially what people do when a decision must be made and no one is watching," Piacente explained. "Sometimes it's minor — what we do, for instance, if we scrape a car in a parking garage and no one sees. Do we leave a note or drive away? The action in 'Bella' is driven largely by ethical decisions key characters make on the battlefield and in the bedroom. …
"The intent with Dan was to portray a guy who's a little too comfortable and cocky, and then have him knocked senseless when Bella walks into his life."
In "Bootlicker," Dan has just been promoted from the night cops beat in Charleston and is assigned to cover the political campaign through which Ike Washington hopes to ascend to Congress. Dan immediately is attracted to Washington's young campaign manager, Ruthie Baines, another major professional no-no.
"'Bootlicker' offers readers a look at the same, albeit younger, version of Dan, and we see evidence of the flaws that will plague him later in his career," Piacente said in his email. "'Bella' ends with Dan's personal and professional life in chaos, though there is a glimmer of hope that he will reconnect with his family.
"There is a strong likelihood that Dan will resurrect his career when an astonishing offer comes his way in a future novel involving many of these characters."
Hometown: Originally from Brooklyn, Steve Piacente grew up on Long Island and now lives in Rockville, Md., with his wife, Felicia. They have three adult children.
Degrees: Bachelor's in communications, American University, 1976; master's in fiction, 2000, Johns Hopkins University
Newspaper career (1976-2001): Sportswriter, Naples Daily News; news reporter, The Lakeland Ledger; Washington, D.C., correspondent, The Tampa Tribune and the Charleston (S.C.) Post & Courier.
Other work: Speechwriter for General Services Administration; now heads the agency's Web, new media and graphics teams; has taught journalism classes at American University for 15 years; writes as an expert on self-publishing on numerous websites.