Timothy Schaffert may be one of Omaha's hidden treasures.
It's not that the author isn't visible; he teaches in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's English department. And critics have been enthusiastic about his first four novels.
But there are many Omahans who don't know his name and probably haven't read his books.
That could change with his newest novel, “The Swan Gondola,” which comes out today.
Schaffert has combined colorful Omaha history with lovable, unforgettable characters, and a tale of finding love, losing love and finding love again. This melodrama has a villain to hiss, young lovers to root for, and a golden child to love. There's even a ghost and a tie to a famous storybook.
In the book, the year is 1898 and the world is coming to Omaha for the Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, aka World's Fair. There are famous people and visitors from every country, but Schaffert introduces readers to the flim-flam men and carny denizens who work on the midway.
“The Swan Gondola” should appeal to all readers, whether they are mystery lovers, romance fans or history buffs.
In a recent interview, Schaffert said the story required a lot of historical data to be woven in, and he did a lot of his research as he wrote.
“The story goes where it wants to go,” he said, adding that his characters led him to interesting historical tidbits.
He consulted old newspaper stories and ads, sources on séances and spiritualism, information on the Spanish-American War, and genealogy repositories. Then there was the great collection of photographs and memorabilia at the Omaha Public Library.
Although this was his fifth novel, “the writing doesn't get any easier,” he said. “This was the hardest one.”
He said he used to be more leisurely about his writing, but he didn't have time for that with this book. “This one was intense. It was the first book I sold before it was finished.”
He relied on his editors' help, he said. “A scene can be vivid in my head, but doesn't come across when written.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Schaffert has already embarked on his next book. It's another story that will require research as it takes place in Omaha and Hollywood back 60 or 70 years. Hollywood?
“Of course, I'm going there for research,” he said with a laugh.
He's comfortable writing about the past. “For now, I'll stick to the historical vein. I like the details. You have to stay true to time.”
His schedule at the university allows him time for writing his books. He teaches two classes in fall and two in spring, both undergraduate and graduate courses.
Schaffert grew up on a farm in Aurora, Neb., which probably accounts for the rural influences and settings in his books. He graduated from UNL and earned a master's of fine arts from the University of Arizona. After living in New York for a while, he found his way back to Nebraska.
“In Omaha, I can practice my craft without constantly scrambling for money,” he said. “I'm lucky. I have an occupation that is of great interest to me, but I can also stick close to home with my nose stuck in a book.
What kind of advice does he give his students who want to make writing their career?
He tells them the same thing his mentor told him: Writing talent isn't rare. Persistence is.
“You have to really want it,” he said.
He never stopped writing and he hung in there in the face of rejection slips and the non-best-seller status of his early novels.
“The Swan Gondola” will take him on a book tour of Midwestern cities as well as New York. This could be his breakout novel.