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The longest chapter

Man’s longtime dream realized with publication of first novel

Jess Steven Hughes has published his first novel at age 70 and is working on two others. (Jesse Tinsley)
Jess Steven Hughes has published his first novel at age 70 and is working on two others. (Jesse Tinsley)

Jess Steven Hughes was 40 when he caught the fever to write a book. He reached his goal this year. He’s 70. He’ll talk about his book “The Sign of the Eagle” Saturday in Coeur d’Alene.

But this story isn’t just about Hughes’ book, it’s also about what it takes to pursue a lifelong passion before you run out of time. It could be writing a book. Or learning a language. Or saving the world.

Follow Hughes’ example, and it might just happen. Here’s what it takes:

Be disciplined: Hughes loves history. He wanted to write historical fiction, and so he read hundreds of history books and took notes. When he felt ready to write his book, which takes place in 71 A.D. in ancient Rome, he wrote every day.

“Even if it’s just 15 or 30 minutes a day, do something,” he said.

Pick what you’re interested in, not what others think you should be interested in: Hughes worked as a Long Beach police officer and detective for 25 years before he and his wife relocated to Otis Orchards, where he pursued a second career in the insurance industry.

When he told others he was hoping to write a novel, they assumed he’d write detective fiction. No way.

“I had 25 years of it, and I had my fill of it,” he said. “I can’t stand watching police (shows) on TV. History was my passion.”

Find a support group: Hughes found the Spokane Novelists Group, which meets twice a month at the library in Otis Orchards.

“They kept me honest,” he said. “They continually trashed my book until I got it right.”

Be persistent: Hughes worked on his novel, off and on, for 10 years. It was rejected by 200 literary agents and publishers. Finally, a small publisher in Pennsylvania, Sunbury Press, accepted the novel. It is not self-published, but it’s up to Hughes to promote and sell it. He’s tackling this task as eagerly as Macha Carataca, the determined heroine of “The Sign of the Eagle.”

Challenge yourself: Hughes was not a natural writer.

“I took dumbbell English three times in junior college,” he said. “The first two times I got Ds.”

While earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in subjects related to his police work, he minored in history. This made the research part of writing fun, but the writing never came easy. He rewrote the novel a dozen times.

The aging brain loves a challenge, aging experts say.

“I have known people who had no outside activities before they retired, and then (after retirement) they sat around and started degenerating,” Hughes said. “They have no hobbies. They get themselves fat. They start drinking. They have no future.”

Hughes, who is now working on his second and third novels, lives by the advice he gives others: “You have to keep active – physically, mentally, socially and psychologically, if you are going to live a long life. You can’t sit around and rot.”

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