About the Author
Jim Snyder has won numerous awards for historical fiction novels ranging from the genesis of Christianity to the Spanish discovery of Florida to the story of a young woman caught up in high-stakes blockade-running during the Civil War.
"The common thread among them," he says, "is an effort to help the reader grasp the essence of a dramatic historical period through the lives of individuals who lived through it."
The same approach applies to Snyder’s latest work, Jonathan Dickinson. It describes the desperation and decline of Florida’s Spanish colonizers and Native Americans through as they are encountered by a shipwrecked English Quaker family.
In addition to his novels, author Snyder writes and speaks about the colorful history surrounding his home on the Loxahatchee River in South Florida. Five Thousand Years on the Loxahatchee is a pictorial history of Jupiter-Tequesta, FL while Black Gold and Silver Sands describes the hard-scrabble beginnings of Palm Beach county. A
Trip Down the Loxahatchee shows the river's beauty through the eyes of 52 painters and photographers. Life and Death on the Loxahatchee tells the story of a larger-than-life "Tarzan" who fascinated locals until his mysterious death. A Light in the Wilderness shows how a lone lighthouse in forlorn Jupiter became the magnet that drew a throng of early settlers.
Jim Snyder has been a writer and editor since graduating from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and The George Washington University graduate school of political science. Soon afterward, he founded what would become the largest independent Washington news bureau for business and medical magazines. In 1984 it became Enterprise Communications Inc., publishing its own magazines and trade shows.
In 1997, when the company was sold to Thomson-Reuters Corp., Snyder was able to pursue a second career as author-historian. Today he is also active in several organizations to protect the Loxahatchee River and its rich history.
Decades ago I had a neighbor who was a compulsive house cleaner. Once when her family rented our beach house for a vacation, she spent the whole week cleaning and re-lining the kitchen cupboards. She couldn’t explain why.
It’s the same strange compulsion with me and writing. And when combined with a surplus of curiosity, it can add up to serious frustration – unless one can figure out a way to make a living at it.
My first inkling of the affliction goes back to 1945 when I was eight. My enfeebled grandfather (actually younger than I am now) suddenly turned purple at the dinner table and was ambulanced to the hospital. When he died two days later I got out my lined school notebook and wrote about it with the cool detachment of an Associated Press reporter.
In seventh grade, when the school drama teacher mentioned that she was looking for a Christmas play the class could put on, I felt compelled to write one. She actually produced it, with me prodding actors at rehearsals like a young Arthur Miller.
And Now….A Longer Version for Family and Friends
The story should continue that I was destined to become editor of my high school paper. Truth is, I never thought about it. I was swept up in a dead-end compulsion that I was destined to become a baseball star – and swept off my feet by a girl named Sue who would later become my wife for nearly fifty years.
Indeed, my only memorable encounter with writing in high school came when our English teacher assigned everyone to compose a short story on the most difficult challenge we’d met during our skimpy lifespans. After frittering until the day before the paper was due, I climbed into our attic where my parents kept boxes of old Reader’s Digests, which they revered too much to toss out. There, in these yellowed pages I found a conveniently short article entitled “How I Climbed the Eigerwand,” one of Switzerland’s mightiest mountains. Although my hometown of Evanston, IL was tortilla-flat and I’d scarcely been east of Lake Michigan, I mindlessly copied the whole thing in long-hand and submitted it the next day.
Well, the English teacher must have had her own stash of Reader’s Digests. The next day she read aloud my work in class. I was beaming until she put down my paper and began reading the Reader’s Digest twin version as I shriveled from boy to prune at my desk. To this day that serving of humble pie has made me fastidious about attributing anything that I may have copied when researching a book.
On to Northwestern University, where the renowned Medill School of Journalism stood waiting to re-ignite my writing career. And how prescient my judgment was that I should decide to major in radio-TV news (NU had an imposing campus broadcasting studio) in an era when television news had only Huntley, Brinkley and Edward R. Murrow as its adults of note.
Truth is, I was a late sleeper. All the other disciplines (newspaper, magazine, etc.) met at ungodly early hours. Broadcasting classes started at 11:30.
Luckily, I found I was a very good on-camera anchorlad. My baseball star was flickering after mostly riding the bench on a championship NU team and this was the first indicator that I could do something well enough to have a career at it. But then I found another confidence builder that turned my head like a sailor’s siren. Money! I had bought a day camp from a graduating fraternity brother and found I could make $4,500 for six weeks of teaching swimming, baseball and the like to sixty boys of wealthy suburbanites on Chicago’s Gold Coast.
Baseball batty: age 12, waiting for the spring snow to melt in Chicagoland
Suddenly the richest kid on campus, I was beginning to look askance at the prospect of starting a career in some place like Keokuk, “ripping and reading” the hourly news dispatch from a wire service machine – and for what then was $36 a week.
Tom Brokaw endured the grind, but obviously because he could envision that anchor desk at NBC News. Me? I was destined for the entrepreneurial life! So at age 21 I thumbed my nose at chumps like Brokaw and sunk my savings into a neighborhood hamburger joint. My partner and best buddy had spent his parents’ money on a Harvard degree. We were united in a not-so-farsighted cause: we needed a mindless break from too many years of reading textbooks and taking tests.
I still hope to write a book about the restaurant experience once it has morphed in my memory from hellish to hilarious. Suffice it to say that at a time when some frat brothers from Kansas were starting something called Pizza Hut, making $36 a week in Keokuk seemed alluring when seen from my rear view mirror.
I was inspired to reconsider a career in journalism. But where?
I turned to that reliable source: nepotism. My ever-patient dad was editorial director of a trade magazine called Baking Industry. The Chicago-based company he worked for also produced magazines for managers of hospitals, hotels and restaurants. They had a small Washington bureau that reported on issues like flour prices, health care legislation and wage-hour regulations. The bureau chief, a fifty-something family friend, was being promoted to company president. One night our phone rang and he was on the other end. Would I be interested in coming to Washington to succeed him?
Oh yeah. My journalism sheepskin was still in a file drawer and ready to go on a wall.
With Dad in Chicago office,1960
A Second Chance
I was 23, married to Sue and eager to go anywhere that had hills. And this one had Capitol Hill to boot. Suddenly I was a “Washington Bureau Chief” (so said my first business card) with a secretary and a gnarly gumshoe reporter. Their combined years on the job doubled my years on earth. The antique office building, two blocks from the White House, had vaulted ceilings and a wobbly French elevator that added suspense to each ride. My nineteenth century oak paneled office had a real fireplace (that I never had the courage to light). I earned my $500 a month, but I had ample time to hang out in the Senate Press Gallery or prop a foot on the rail of the National Press Club bar and have a try at hobnobbing with journalism’s glitterati.
Like the TV news career I’d passed up, I was again in the right place at the right time – a chance to combine my journalism career with my business bent. As I watched from the front row as Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the last major speech of his presidency in November 1960, I knew in my bones that the genteel, mostly southern-flavored town that doubled as the nation’s capital was going to become a magnet for action. The newly-elected Kennedy-Johnson team was sure to bring a tidal wave of government activity that would make Washington news much more important to dozens of business and medical magazines.
I could feel it as my own workload increased. But not the rewards. At the end of my first year as “bureau chief,” I got a letter of praise and a raise of $25 a month – a jolt reminding me that I was determined not to depend on the whim of a boss. A Plan B had already formed in my mind, but it got interrupted by an Unplanned C. A blueblood buddy just out of Harvard was exploring his prospects in D.C. while staying at the posh Georgetown row house of a family friend who worked in the White House communications office. Seems that the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) had prompted a flurry of emergency planning and the Office of the President was casting about for a speechwriter who’d help brief visiting delegations of top executives who’d been picked to run this and that industry in the wake of a nuclear or natural disaster. This time a pseudo-nepotism was knocking and I answered “Come on in” without thinking twice.
So here’s the scene: I’m 24, with top security clearance, cranking out presidential welcome speeches in the Executive Office Building, just a few yards from the West Wing. My old employers can’t find a replacement, so they’ve asked me to keep moonlighting my Washington columns for the same old pay. Each lunch hour I walk two blocks to my antique office where Ingrid, my motherly secretary, has calls to answer and mail ready to take home. And before all this double-dipping, I’d enrolled in the George Washington University’s master’s program in Sino-Soviet Studies, which meant classes three nights a week. And at home in Arlington Sue is now coping with two toddlers.
Then it was over with the speed of a bullet. In November 1963 Lee Harvey Oswald’s sniper shot felled Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s people swept through the White House replacing nearly everyone with Texas cronies. Within days I was out on Pennsylvania Avenue looking in with the rest of the Cameloters.
But Johnson, with a massive agenda to make government bigger, meant that Washington would be impacting more industries than ever and I had already dusted off Plan B. I would start Snyder Associates, an independent Washington news bureau for business and medical magazines. Some, like the sprawling McGraw-Hill stable of publications, already had full-fledged Washington staffs, but many smaller publishers couldn’t justify full-time offices when they might need only a half-dozen Washington stories per month.
What if I could provide that service? What if I hired one reporter and divided his time among, say, three client magazines? Even better if the reporter could specialize, such as covering health care issues for separate publications serving doctors, hospitals and nursing homes. In other words, cover one Senate hearing and write three separate stories.
As I’d reckoned, my first employer became my first client, content with the same output at a reduced cost. Soon I was off to New York, canvassing publisher’s row on Third Avenue and landing enough clients to bust out of our three-room vault in a spooky building. (Years later when I visited, it had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.)
Pounding the keys at Snyder Associates
If I told you that Snyder Associates became a $1 million enterprise with twenty employees serving forty magazines and newsletters, it might seem like meteoric success. In fact, it evolved over twenty grueling years.
Consider first that a trade magazine is expected to spot news and trends in its special field well before The Wall Street Journal and certainly before generalists like CNN or The Chicago Tribune. Otherwise it has no reason to exist.
Secondly, we as an independent news bureau had to do it all at less cost than the client publisher could, lest it hire a full-timer and open its own office.
These two factors made us hustle harder than a typical news office. Because each writer worked for several publications, it meant meeting deadline upon deadline with scant breathing room in between. One of my flashbacks is the all-too-frequent rush to Washington National Airport on a late Friday afternoon with a packet of copy headed for one of our New York-based publishers. Spotting the line of people boarding the Eastern Airlines Shuttle, we’d beg one of them to drop our envelope in any Manhattan mailbox when they arrived. This was high drama in an era before Fax, FedEx, email and those airport announcements warning people from accepting anything from strangers.
Some of our work was almost glamorous. For several years I covered Washington for Parade magazine, which led the nation with 19 million readers and opened doors to some high places. For over thirty years we represented Variety – a broad reportorial turf that ranged from analyzing FCC rulings on broadcasting to reviewing first-night performances at the Kennedy Center. But mostly it was grinding out columns for the likes of Modern Medicine and Progressive Grocer.
An outsider might have seen us as a sweatshop, but I’m proud of that experience because nothing before or since has honed my self-discipline more than writing for the “trades.” Our alumni still share a special bond because of those years and most have gone on to successful careers as freelance writers.
1996: CEO with furrowed brow
Somewhere around the twenty-year mark, Snyder Associates sailed into uncharted waters. We began supplying the content for several magazines and newsletters. Often the magazine owner had lots of charisma in selling ads but little knowledge of how to fill the white space around them. Problem: after a few years of success, the owner would sell his progeny to one of the big publishing stables for seven digits and all we’d get was a thank-you pink slip.
Well, darn. When I finally woke up, I announced that “If we can make all this money for other people, let’s start our own magazines.” In 1983 we launched Enterprise Communications Inc. with some outside capital. Over the next dozen years we created five magazines and three national conferences. Along with a
telemarketing research division, it added up to 75 employees in Washington and Atlanta.
The Peter Principal states that ambitious people eventually get promoted to their level of incompetence. By1997 a self-confident writer had evolved into an uneasy, uncomfortable CEO/board chairman whose self-esteem was measured by net worth and net profit. In short, I was a frazzled sixty-year-old, eager to explore other forms of human endeavor before the final deadline. And so, we sold the company to the Thomson-Reuters media behemoth. Today most of our magazine offspring have since been re-shaped into on-line media service to survive in the digital world.
In my newly-won freedom to write anything I wanted, my mind turned first to a subject far from trade magazines. Ever since becoming a church elder in my early thirties and realizing the need to know more about Christian history, I’d become intrigued with the Book of Acts. The four gospels pretty much tell the story of Jesus on earth, but what about the period after the crucifixion? How did the early Christians gain momentum in a world smothered by Roman rule? Alas, Acts is sketchy and one-dimensional in that it tells mostly what happened to the apostle Paul. What about the Jews, Greeks and Romans? How did they view the first Christians and how did each group influence the other?
My search for books with a multi-dimensional perspective came up empty. I began to sense that the subject was too panoramic for a professor of religion to tackle, simply because academicians tend to plow just one furrow rather than encroach on a colleague’s turf. After all, it took fifty professors to analyze the Dead Sea Scrolls and seventy years later their heirs are still bickering over who owns what rights to what portion.
Moreover, Acts offers little help in building a chronology of events. I came to conclude that this was a subject for someone not wearing the academic straitjacket. If I could wrap my arms around it, I might just produce a book of great significance.
My first notes on 3 x 5 cards date from 1983. By then my chief “hobby” had become reading Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, Seneca and every other first century writer I could unearth. Nearly every vacation from then on took Sue and me to places like Rome, Athens, Ephesus and Corinth. Everywhere the apostle went, Jim tagged along 2,000 years later.
Looking back, the desire to write what became All God’s Children may have been a subliminal motivator to sell Enterprise Communications. In any case, the book became my full-time project between 1997 and 2000 when it was published. Today, nine books later, it’s still the one I regard as my most important contribution to historical research.
At one of many Roman Amphitheaters
Writing was always my gravitational pull. That is, I enjoy it – feel productive – but only when I’m immersed in the swing of it. I’d come to appreciate something a grizzled Chicago Daily News reporter told our journalism class on a visit: “I’m going to tell you the most important rule for good writing,” he said.
Yes? We leaned forward in our desks.
“It’s gluing your ass to the chair until you finish.”
Indeed. Today I still approach my desk with ill-explained dread. If the electric bill sits in my in-box, I pay it. I answer trivial emails and sharpen pencils I won’t use. These days I play solitaire on my computer. Only then do I face the challenge of summoning a thought worth typing about.
First book talk, Books-a-Million, 2000
But twenty years later, it has sold under 5,000 copies. Why? Although the book was critiqued by several scholars prior to publication, I lack a Ph D. in religion and the publishing imprimatur of a university press. It’s also a daunting 680 pages, based on my stubborn conviction that because this is one of the most important subjects in human history, the reader ought to know and appreciate everything I had dug up.
I was ruminating on it with the CEO of the book’s distributor one day when he said, “A lot of your battles between Romans and Jews are repeat the same scenario” (meaning: Romans besiege Jewish fortress, starve out inhabitants, kill leaders, march off to next citadel). “Maybe if you put out a shorter, revised edition, more people wouldn’t be so afraid to pick it up.”
I took the advice and then some. I cleaned up some of the blood and gore, removed a fictional narrator’s side story, and added more reader-friendly charts and maps. The result was The Faith and the Power, a straight history of 400 well-honed pages. In 2004 it won the book industry’s Benjamin Franklin Silver Award for the best book on religion. Today it’s used by many church groups when studying the Book of Acts.
At Trapper Nelson's dock on the 'wild and
scenic' upper river.
As I began walking the old homestead, now the state park’s main attraction, I was puzzled that the only information offered about this unusual man was a rain-stained sheet tacked onto a post. After learning that Trapper resembled Tarzan of the movies, performed Herculean feats, and was found dead one day of causes still unknown, I asked a park ranger if he had more information about this Trapper Nelson.
Nope. That was it. One sheet.
The compulsion to write is always strongest when no one has written about the subject you’ve found so interesting. The result, in 2002, was Life and Death on the Loxahatchee, a biographical real-life murder mystery that sought to untangle fact from myth after dozens of interviews with Trapper Nelson’s family and contemporaries. Today the book is still selling respectably after five printings.
The Lure of the Loxahatchee
What I haven’t mentioned yet is that in 1979, to escape the withering pace of magazine deadlines and the weathering I’d taken from Old Man Winter, the Snyder family (now with three teenagers) moved to South Florida. While the company remained in Washington as busy as ever, I could work at home and communicate by phone and (not long afterwards) a new tool called email.
Since kayaking is my avocation, it wasn’t long before I was on the Loxahatchee River in Jonathan Dickinson State Park, gliding into the pine log boathouse of its legendary builder. The long-dead legend was Vince “Trapper” Nelson, who had pioneered this homestead far upriver in 1934 when it was viewed as “jungly” and mysterious as the Amazon.
Life and Death set me off on another road that has led so far to five other books about the rich history surrounding our home on the Loxahatchee River. Whereas humans have been living in the Jupiter-Tequesta area longer than they have in Rome or Stonehenge, I found only a smattering of written evidence of it – pamphlets, yellowed newspaper clips and the like. From that surprising discovery came Five Thousand Years on the Loxahatchee, a coffee table book thick with 250 photos of life around these parts.
A year later I heard from the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. They’d been approached by a group of leading farmers concerned, as one of them said, “that with all this development, our last crop is going to be asphalt.” I wound up being asked to write their history. And after this city fella had interviewed over a hundred growers and ranchers, I had a collection of inspiring stories about hardship and determination: from the days of mules dragging plows through black muck, through a century of drought, dredging, Depression and hurricanes until emerging as one of the nation’s top agribusiness counties. Out of that experience came another book in 2004 entitled Black Gold and Silver Sands (named for the rich muck of the sugarlands and the coastal sand that once sprouted bumper crops of pineapples).
By then I’d become a board member and lighthouse docent of the Loxahatchee River Historical Society. I’d always been bothered when we tour guides would entertain visitors with colorful stories that seemed suspiciously like old yarns that had been knitted into “truths” over the years – including some I’d repeated in my own books. Typical was the tale that Robert E. Lee picked the lighthouse site as a young army engineer, that contemporary George Meade built it, and that the two would one-day face off as generals in the Battle of Gettysburg.
Really? It could probably be checked out because the lighthouse was indeed built by army engineers who sent reports back to headquarters. Soon I was back in Washington copying from musty files at the National Archives and other museums. No, Lee and Meade hadn’t combined talents as local lore had it. Moreover, records of the actual builders revealed dramatic stories of shipping tons equipment from ice-choked northern waters to an isolated tropic land where work crews were plagued by mosquitoes and hostile Indians.
It cried out for another book, which, in 2006, became A Light in the Wilderness, the story of Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and the Southeast Florida Frontier. Although the lighthouse is its centerpiece, the book covers the settling of this 200-mile stretch of Florida from 1830 (when there was almost no one) to the turn of the twentieth century when enough people had clustered to call themselves a village named Jupiter.
That left only one story gap in the area’s amazing legacy: the Native Americans who had lived here for centuries before Florida was even a gleam in Spanish eyes. The Cross and the Mask, which debuted in 2012, covers the classic cultural clash that erupted during 1565-1572 when ships of Spanish soldiers arrived seeking treasure and were startled to confront a fierce, hostile Calusa nation that had endured longer than Spain itself. Although the Spaniards kept meticulous records as to what they saw, the Calusa had no written language. And so to convey their perceptions I reverted to the historical fiction format to tell a saga that won the Florida Historical Society’s Patrick Smith Award for the best book of the year.
Well, that about covered everything, I thought. And yet, I’d always been impressed by the works of local painters and photographers depicting life on the Loxahatchee, all just as poignant as my stories in words. What if the best of them could be combined into one picture book? How about portraying with images what it would be like to take an imaginary boat trip from the Wild and Scenic headwaters past historic milestones in the middle river to the inlet with its lighthouse and iconic buildings? In what became a team effort, 52 leading local artists combined to contribute their works. In a few cases where we lacked images to illustrate an historical place or event, I commissioned original paintings. A Trip Down the Loxahatchee was an instant hit.
I can’t say I’m done with South Florida history because each new book research uncovers more intriguing possibilities. For example, when the Colonial merchant Jonathan Dickinson’s ship ran aground near Jupiter Inlet in 1696, his well-read Journal describes the local Jeaga Indians who swarmed around the survivors as savages with an unexplained hatred of the English. But my research into the previous century shows that England and Spain were bitter rivals and that the Jeaga had long-standing contacts with the Spanish. In fact, the Jeaga and had no doubt aided the crew of the Spanish ship, San Michael de Archangel, after it sank near Jupiter Inlet in 1656. Maybe someone besides me would like to know more.
At home on the Loxahatchee
Meanwhile, research on the lighthouse had made me want to learn more about the Civil War years when it was darkened by Rebel raiders and the grounds turned into a depot for sailboats smuggling cotton and turpentine to The Bahamas. Although 53 Confederate boats were captured by Union blockade ships, I would learn that the action in Jupiter paled when compared to the smuggling that flourished up the coast in big ports like Charleston and Wilmington. Ere long I was writing another historical novel, Amelia’s Gold, which you’ve seen on the first page of this web site.
In between books, I jot down musings, research tidbits and full op-ed articles in the catch-all page entitled “A Writer’s Journal.” Scroll through it and you may find some thoughts and ideas worth reading. If so, you can pen your own thoughts/reactions in the space under Connect. Thanks for scrolling through my lifetime journey as a writer.