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Jeff Nania on Going Beyond the Story

Jeff Nania is the author of the Northern Lakes Mystery series. You can find out more about him on his website,, or by clicking here, read his last post here, and see his books here.

Earlier this month, I traveled to the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire to talk with the students in Joel Pace’s English class about my first book, Figure Eight, which is used as a course text. Each semester, we spend two and a half hours exploring the story within the story and the nuances as we travel page to page. They are free to ask me questions and I am free to ask them. Nothing is really off the table. I can’t remember anyone asking me an inappropriate question.  

Book cover of Jeff Nania's Figure Eight: A Northern Lakes Mystery. Background has a topographic map overlaid with a large red eight with a fishing lure on it.
Figure Eight is the first book in Nania’s Northern Lakes Mystery series.

These students, led by their professor, move quickly to open the discussion. It is mostly about writing but often our discussions go to places that tend to be of interest to all.         

One student asked about a part in the beginning of the book. A reporter interviewing John Cabrelli, my friend and protagonist, referred to him as a hero. Cabrelli responds, “I am no hero, and never refer to me that way. I have met real heroes, and I don’t hold a candle to them.”  

“Why does John Cabrelli say he is no hero, even though he is?” she asked. A simple heartfelt statement by John leads us somewhere else. Maybe he’s not a real hero, if not then who is? Is it someone who can throw a football fifty yards? Or is it a teacher who brings hope to students at an inner city school day after day? Who are the heroes in our lives? We soon realize there are many heroes among us, people that fill our lives every day. 

This leads us to another more complicated question. Is this book, or any book like this, a conversation between the protagonist and the reader or the writer and the reader? Don’t the writer and reader engage on every page? Is it fair for the writer to put readers in a situation where they have to ask themselves, what would I have done? To ask them to make difficult decisions?  If they engage those decisions, does it change them or are they just another page in a mystery book?  

I address these questions with a story. An older woman is upstairs in her home in bed reading. Suddenly, she hears the sound of glass breaking in her front door. She walks out of her room and looks down the hall. The woman sees a hand reaching through the broken pane and trying to turn the deadbolt on the lock. She is terrified and quickly returns to her room to call 911. 

Author Jeff Nania sits with students in a class discussion.

Somewhere out there a police officer takes the call. Maybe a mother, father, sister or cousin, but tonight just a police officer. The officer drives fast knowing that a home invasion is a serious situation. The officer arrives at the house and can see the person of interest in the dark doorway still trying to get into the woman’s house. 

The officer approaches, and she can see what appears to be a male wearing a black hooded sweatshirt. She carefully closes the distance, her gun drawn, then hits the individual in question with a bright flashlight beam and says loudly, “Show me your hands!! Show me your hands!!” 

The suspect turns rapidly to face the officer and raises a dark object he has in his hand. The woman from inside screams. 

What happens next? Is it an armed violent felon being chased by police and is the object in his hand a gun? Or is it the boy next door who lost his keys after drinking too much beer while his parents were out of town for the weekend and confused his similarly looking townhouse with his neighbors’?  

How does this end? Is there a hero? The writer or the real world participant is bound to resolve the issue. Dr, Pace’s clever students are well equipped to make the journey.  

Jeff Nania

Award-winning author Jeff Nania draws upon careers in law enforcement, conservation, and a passion for our natural resources in his bestselling Northern Lakes Mystery series. Jeff’s narrative non-fiction writing has appeared in Wisconsin Outdoor News, Double Gun Journal, The Outlook, and other publications. Download a free short story and read more of Jeff's writing at, or follow him on Facebook, Instagram, or Goodreads.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Jeff — I loved the story example of the older woman you used. It certainly got my attention!

  2. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    What a great discussion. That must have been a lot of fun. I think every major character in a story goes through a hero’s journey, some of them for the wrong goals.

  3. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Jeff, thanks for your engaging story of classroom visits. It appealed to the teacher in me. Your questions were provocative and I’m certain they helped the students.

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    Writing is to reading as teaching is to learning. All writers are teachers, and you’ve taught some important lessons, Jeff.

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    Interesting note about a modest hero. We could use more of them!

    1. tracey64p

      I love hearing about the discussions that books provoke. Stories are meant to be shared, and each reader takes away something new. Thanks for sharing, Jeff

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    Jacqueline Vick

    How interesting to hear what college students thing about your book. It must be a fun (and intimidating) experience.

  7. Valerie Biel
    Valerie Biel

    What a fun experience working with these students! And what a intriguing set up . . . what DOES happen next??

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      Margaret Mizushima

      Enjoyed this post, Jeff!

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      Avanti Centrae

      How cool that your book is used as a classroom text! Humans love learning from stories. I hope the 911 call had a happy ending…

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