Posts Tagged With: #writing

Rabbits and Writing

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them,

and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

 John Steinbeck

As a writer and a storyteller, friends ask me questions about my writing process. With my London Fog Latte in hand, I’m going to answer some of those questions.

Where do you come up with your ideas?

Like Mr. Steinbeck’s rabbits, I find ideas can come from anywhere: a photo, an overheard conversation, or a museum display. My favorite source of ideas is woolgathering. As Joyce Carol Oates said, at the 2017 LA Times Festival of Books, “Only for the writer is wool-gathering work.” Just letting my mind wander in the forest of my imagination, I find wonderful people and events. And when I find one, I add it to my list.

In the case of The Princess of Sweetwater, I was muddling about looking for an idea for my 2011 National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project. Earlier that year, I had gone the Antelope Valley Alfalfa Festival and Fair and visited the Antelope Valley Rural Museum on the grounds. I learned about ranching and farms during the area in the late 1800s from the displays. A few weeks later, I was watching my favorite movie for the hundredth time, Roman Holiday. Now the wool-gathering begins. What if a princess ran away in 1886 and came to the Antelope Valley? What if she fell in love? What if she was forced back home against her will?

The Western Hotel Museum

The Western Hotel Museum, Lancaster CA – The inspiration for one of the story’s locations.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’m not a plotter/planner in the strict sense of the word. I research the historical period, I study maps, and I visit the locations.  I do write an outline, but it is a simple one with just the main plot points noted. Some plotters, when done with their outline, have a ten-page plot synopsis with every detail listed. I do plan, but I also discover my story as I write. The outline is just a roadmap, and if I find an interesting detour, I’ll follow it and see where it leads. In this, I share traits with the discovery/intuitive or pantser writer. I am a hybrid. When I reach the end of my first draft, the story may be very different than I first envisioned it during the outlining stage.

When do you edit/revise?

Until I finish the first draft, I do very few revisions, if any. I just put the story down with its awful and awkward scenes, misspelled words, and grammatical errors. But that’s okay; it’s the first draft. I just want to get the idea down on paper and resist the urge to go back to revise and edit.  James Scott Bell wrote in his book Revision & Self-Editing, “Give yourself permission to be bad. Write first, polish later.”

If I find I’ve drifted off the main road and it will require a change in a previous scene, I make a note in a different color to remind me to fix the continuity. If I find a scene no longer will fit, I don’t delete it. I line through it, so I can still see it, because during revisions I may find it works better elsewhere.  I do set a daily goal. If during NaNoWriMo, it’s 1750 words a day to make the 50,000 words by the end of November. Over the rest of the year, my daily goal is three pages or about 900 words. If I stopped to revise, I’d never make the deadline. When I finished the first draft of The Princess of Sweetwater, I had 50,613 words of which a third would find themselves chopped when I began to edit. The first draft was just a skeleton, with only Princess Victoria’s story told, no backstory, a flat male protagonist, and no subplots.

I’ll admit edits and revisions are hard work and painful. I start by reading the manuscript and find I have plot holes big enough to drive a stagecoach through. Despite the pain, I chop and rewrite.  As Stephen King wrote, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Sometimes it’s the best thing you can do. I cut out several lovely scenes in The Princess of Sweetwater, beautifully written, but they did nothing to move the plot forward and as a result had to go.

 Do you let others read your stories in progress?

I do have readers for my work-in-progress (WIP). I have Alpha Readers. These are fellow writers who help me shape the work as I am writing the first draft and before any serious revisions start. Often, they give me a hand with finding kinks in the plot, to avoid dead ends, and discovering something that was missing.

My Beta Readers review the manuscript when it is finished. These are readers who love the type of stories I write and will be honest with me if something doesn’t work, or if I’m just wrong about a historical fact. I choose some Betas because of their expertise in the era or industry used in the story. Their comments help me tighten the story before I sent it to a professional editor.

 Of course, at some point in the process, my husband reads it and gives me his thoughts and corrections.

How long does it take to write a novel?

The process of writing is different for every writer. In the case of The Princess of Sweetwater, it has been a long journey from its beginning in 2011 to now.  (I don’t say the end because the end is publishing and marketing.) Part of that is due to me setting the book aside to give me a break from it. Sometimes I need to step away from a project to see it with fresh eyes. After each revision, I tucked Princess Victoria and her friends away until I could return to them later.

Are you going to self-publish?

At this point, no. I am in the process of submitting The Princess of Sweetwater to agents.

How do you handle writer’s block?

I don’t. Writer’s block happens when you sit around and wait for inspiration to arrive. But as Jack London said, “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.” So even if I don’t feel like it, I make myself write every day. It may end up being poor writing but as Jodi Picoult said, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

For inspiration, I have a sign on my desk that reads, “You fail only if you stop writing. – Ray Bradbury.”

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What is a London Fog Latte?

A London Fog Latte is a latte made with Earl Grey Tea and steamed milk.


  1. 1 cup (8 oz) strongly-brewed Earl Grey Tea (I add a pinch of dried lavender, optional)
  2.  1/2 cup (4 oz) steamed or scaled milk (any kind)
  3. 1 Tbsp. simple syrup,  granulated sugar, or sweetener of your choice (adjust to taste, I often leave it out entirely.)
  4. 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

After steeping the tea and lavender, pour into a cup and add the other ingredients. Stir gently. Enjoy.


Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Finding My Tribe

This morning I’m in a fog, caused by a mixture of exhaustion, joy, and inspiration. I’m still processing my week at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference (SBWC), five and a half days of workshops, panels, speakers, and networking.



The Hyatt Santa Barbara – host to the SBWC 2017


Going to the SBWC has been on my to-do list for a long time. I had been a storyteller since I could talk, but I stopped when traumatized by the critique group for a creative writing class in college. In November of 2007, a friend dared me to join her for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and complete a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in thirty days. Flash forward to November 2010, I went to an event with my husband and took my notepad with me, after all, I had to get my 1667 words done that day. I planted myself in the corner of a couch and scratched away. With my nose buried in my words, I was unaware of a man’s approach until he spoke. “Young woman what are you doing and why aren’t you enjoying the party?” I look up, and it was Ray Bradbury. I had met Ray at other events and had found him easy to talk with. I told him about NaNoWriMo, my word goal, and my story. He smiled broadly, complemented my plot, and then said, “When you’re serious about your writing, you need to go to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.” He made me promise I would go one day. Ray, I kept my promise, and I’m glad I did.

I know that most think of writing as a solitary endeavor. While the actual writing is often done holed up somewhere and shunning the world, writers are very social creatures. Writes go out into the world to gather information, observe, and get ideas.

At a conference, it’s finding like-minded people.  When you discuss writing with non-writers, after the initial expression of admiration or surprise if you continue to talk about writing their eyes glaze over or they begin looking around the room for an escape.  When you talk writing with writers, they nod in understanding, sympathize, and celebrate. You understand them and they you.

As I sit sipping Sweet Tea with Lemon (What else would I be drinking? It’s ten in the morning, and it’s already 101o F), I reflect on the past week and realize have found my tribe, as it was described by Grace Rachow, Director of the SBWC. Among a group where I’m not thought of as weird or a few degrees of center because this is family and they understand.

When I looked at the schedule for the week, I became overwhelmed. Even conferences for my pay-the-bills job were this full of choices. The day ran from 9 AM to 9 PM, and beyond. After I started to breathe again and Grace’s reassurance that I didn’t have to nor should I try to do it all that I came up with a plan.



Bill helping me review the schedule.


There were two sets of workshops – morning and afternoon – with ten to fifteen choices each. Some ran the whole week, other just one or two days. I chose to spend most of my mornings in the Mystery Writing with Leonard Tourney. Leonard’s novels can be described as Elizabethan Mysteries. I’ve read The Bartholomew Fair Murders, I enjoyed it and can recommend his books.  My afternoons were spent in Crafting Short Stories with Yvonne Nelson Perry. She is the author of many short stories about life on the Pacific Rim. I also attended two one-day workshops, Submitting Short Stories with Mac Talley and The Art of the Query with Trey Dowell.

Lecture was limited, the workshops were mostly discussion and critique. For me, there were several key take-home points.

  • The reader participates in the creation of the story in how they interpret the images, actions, and voices in your story.
  • Even in a plot-driving story (such as mystery or fantasy), it’s still about character. If your reader doesn’t care about your protagonist, they’ll stop reading no matter how wonderful your plot is.
  • Dialogue has two purposes, to give information to the reader but mostly to help define the character.
  • Every scene must have a purpose, if it doesn’t move the plot forward, cut it.
  • Follow the directions of the agent/publisher when submitting.
  • Query letters should be mostly about the story and less about the author.

I’ll admit I was a little nervous about the reading my work in front of (what was then) strangers. My college critique group was more, “let’s see how many we can make cry today.”  My critique group back home in the high desert cut me no slack and were hard on my stories. I would sometimes go home licking my wounds, only to review  it a few days later and saying, “Damn, they’re right.” The critiques during the workshops were spot on but very gently delivered. I have some changes to make, but I will have a better story in the end.

In the afternoon and before the dinner break, there were panels with agents, new authors, navigating Amazon’s publishing platform, and Catherine Ryan Hyde, an SBWC alumna and author of Pay it Forward. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear her speak, I was taken out for the afternoon by friends who lived in the area.

One of the highlights of the day was the evening speakers.  Each had an inspirational message about writing and our role in the universe.

  • Fannie Flagg (The Whole Town’s Talking) “If you can’t not do it, you’re a writer.”
  • David Brin (David Brin Presents Chasing Shadows) “I’m paid to be interesting, not right.”
  • Lesley M.M. Blume (Everybody Behaves Badly) “There was a time when Hemingway was a struggling writer among other struggling writers.”

Of course, it wasn’t all work and not play. There was time to socialize and network. I enjoyed the Opening Banquet where Monte Schulz (Crossing Eden) told us, “I want you to be persistent. I want you to be passionate.” Midweek, as we were “hitting the wall” there was a poolside cocktail party. The event closed with an Awards Banquet, where the best work presented in workshops were honored.

Even though each day’s events were officially over at nine, it didn’t stop there. At 9:30, the Pirates came out to play. The Pirate sessions were time to workshop stories into the wee hours of the morning. I joined the Pirates let by John Reed most nights, getting an average of five hours sleep each night, which explains why I’m so tired today. It was interesting to hear works from writers that were not in my daytime workshops. Even when I wasn’t reading my stories, I was learning from the techniques and comments of the other writers in the room.

There were a few times I wander away from the conference. Most morning, I took a leisurely walk down the beach and ate breakfast at the East Beach Grill. It was pleasant sitting on a patio just feet from the shore, watching the waves roll in, and the birds fly by. One morning, my walk to me past the bird sanctuary. The sound of large cat announcing its presence startled me until I realized I was by the back fence of the Santa Barbara Zoo.

One dinner break, I walked toward Sterns Wharf. It was much further than I thought so I was late getting back but it was worth it. I found a Louisiana-style seafood place, The Drunken Crab. I had a lovely bowl of King Crab Bisque. The staff was welcoming and attentive. Nothing fancy, but it would be a good place to go with friends.

Before driving home, I made one last stop. I went to Sambo’s by the Beach. The original and only remaining Sambo’s Restaurant. There was one thing I had to order – pancakes of course. Looking at the decorations brought back a memory from 1979, the last time I ate at a Sambo’s. Following my senior prom, a group of us were hungry and stopped to get a bite to eat. Situated across the street from the beach, it has a beautiful view of Stern’s Wharf and the marina. That morning there were also runners as the annual 5K /10K Solstice Festival was that morning.

At the Awards Banquet, I was asked if I would come back next year. Ray Bradbury once said, “First you jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”  I jumped off the cliff, and I not only found some stronger wings, but my tribe was there to catch me. I’ll be back.

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Living the high desert of Southern California, I hear two things consistently:

“I’m sorry.” Yes, people apologize to me when they tell them I live in Victorville. For those who live down the hill in San Bernardino or Los Angeles, Victorville and the High Desert Communities are the middle of nowhere. But the truth is, it isn’t. I live ninety minutes from some of the best skiing, camping, and hiking in the country. It’s two hours from the best beaches in the world.  And sixty minutes to three hours, depending on traffic, to some of the best music and theater venues in the solar system (okay, maybe I exaggerate a little.) I like that I easy access to both nature and culture.

“The weather must be boring. You’re either roasting or freezing.” Most think Southern California as a whole doesn’t have seasons, but that is misconception held by those who live in a place where the seasons are spectacular. Yes, it can be extremely hot in the summer, 120o degrees Fahrenheit, but it will cool down at night, unlike Las Vegas, NV. Autumn is cool, crisp, and golden as the mulberries and cottonwoods turn bright yellow; if we’re lucky we might get a little rain. Winter is our wet session. The surrounding mountains are blanketed with snow. Sometimes the desert valley will get snow or frost and when the sun reflects off the Joshua trees the effect is a crystalline landscape. This year, the rains were plentiful, so that means spring will be colorful, and so it has.


Joshua Tree in Winter

We are transitioning from winter to spring, and the desert is draped with wildflowers. This brings the big city folks out into the desert and with them a few traffic issues.

I went out into the desert this week, early before the tourist arrived, and enjoyed the colorful show. They are starting to fade and may only last another week or so.  The most crowded location was the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve State Park, but I also visited the empty Saddleback Butte State Park, Old Route 66 between Victorville and Barstow, and Rabbit Springs heading east toward Lucerne Valley.

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If you decide to come out, remember to bring water and sunscreen, stay on the paths to not only avoid damaging the flowers but also the emerging rattlesnakes. Also, if you are blessed to see a desert tortoise, DON’T TOUCH! The tortoise is very susceptible to human bacteria.

The seasons are not the only thing in transition this time of year, so are the people. I have three friends beginning final preparations for retirement in June. This moved me to look at my planning, if all goes well, I will retire from the school district June 2022. It seems so far away, but it’s only six years.

And what will I do when I retire? Write, of course. At this time, I only write about fifteen hours a week. I look forward when I can do it full time.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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I’m at a crossroads, staring at the intersection in front of me wondering which way to I go. I can even imagine the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz telling me, “That way is very nice. It’s pleasant down that way too. Of course, people do go both ways.”

I’ve just finished my most recent draft of The Princess of Sweetwater. It’s been through my critique group, beta readers, and historical fact checkers. I have been working on this story off and on now for six years. It’s ready for me to send to the editor for final revisions before submitting it for publication.

It begs the question, what do I do while I wait for the editor to complete her part segment this journey?

I can stay where I am. Sitting on the fence, waiting, and stewing about what the editor is doing, while I work on query letters and pitches.


I can march on straight ahead into the high plains of New Mexico to start researching and outlining my next novel.  I do have a research trip already scheduled for October on my calendar. I also have a stack of books to read on ranches, trains, and the state of medicine at that time.


I can turn right and cross the bridge to focus on writing short stories. I have two stories that need revisions, they have been rejected by one publisher but with a little tweaking could be sent to another. It would be a challenge and a little scary. I’m not used to writing short.


I can turn left, go down into the valley, and pull out an unfinished, abandoned project.  Maybe it could be revitalized and finished. I have at least three of those in the files. Okay, it’s more like six or eight, but who’s counting?


These are all constructive. They are moving me toward my goal. Each has a purpose.

There is no shortage of writing I could be doing, the problem is getting passed the paralysis of analysis. That’s what comes a map full of options. Working on the new versus revising the abandoned is the main conflict here. The new is exciting, but eventually, I must run back to adjust the manuscript from the editor, putting the project on hold. The old may have possibilities, they could be rescued, but they were left behind for a reason – they were either bad or boring – could they be fixed?

It is a conundrum. Pick one thing to do or juggle multiple projects?

I know I’m babbling here, partially because my teacup had been substituted with a wine glass – Vino Blanco from Joseph Filippi Winery – partially because I want to do everything. I know if I take on too much the writing will suffer. Perhaps I should focus on those pesky query letters and as well as read my research for the next novel, Sally of Terra Linda. But, April is Camp NaNoWriMo! Dang it, there’s another direction I could go.

So while I bang my head against the wall trying to figure it out, here’s a scene from The Princess of Sweetwater:

oakland station

 At the Oakland train station, Fernando led them to the train platform.

“Our car is the last one,” he said. “Yes, there it is. They are getting our trunks loaded. Let’s get on board.”

He helped the ladies climb the steps.

Once on board their private Pullman car, Princess Victoria removed her cloak and laid it on the settee. “Excuse me, I think I’ll freshen up.”

“Please, Your Highness,” Countess Josephine whispered. “May I go first?”

“Of course.”  The princess smiled.

“The train should depart shortly.” Fernando checked his watch. “We just need our staff to arrive.”

Princess Victoria paced the parlor and rung her hands. She hoped the train wouldn’t depart before she had a chance to try for the service door at the opposite end of the car.

When Countess Josephine returned, Princess Victoria moved toward the lavatory.

“Anna, accompany Her Highness.” Fernando propped the parlor door open giving him a clear view of the corridor.

“Pardon me, sir?” Two uniformed railway staff boarded the car, blocking Anna’s path. “I’m Jordan, your steward, and Philips will be your chef.”

Princess Victoria continued toward the lavatory at the end of the car, silently thanking the railroad staff for the distraction. She stopped, her hand on the lip of the open service door, her heart pounding like a sledgehammer on steel. The train whistle blew, she held her breath for a moment. With a final look over her shoulder, she slipped from the train and pushed the door closed.

A station attendant stopped her. “Miss, you need to re-board. The train is departing.”

“It is the wrong train,” she said, ducking into the depot as the train began to move.

The train would be several miles down the track before they realized she hadn’t returned.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Books to Write By



Writers are always working to hone their craft. We never stop looking for ways to reach beyond our natural gift of storytelling. It can be taking formal course work to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or attending conferences, but it can also be to listening comments of other writers as they critique our work, or working with a mentor.

I have also found books on the topic of writing to be helpful. There are a few old favorites that I return to when I have a question or need to review.

Earlier this week, someone asked me which “writing books” I have found helpful, so here are seven of my “go to” books:


The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: Inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell,  Mr. Vogler take you through the fundamentals of the hero’s journey, character archetypes, and power of myth to tell a compelling story. I found that even romance stories have these elements which have been used by storytellers since we first gathered around the fire and spun tales to entertain and educate.


No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty: Written as a resource for National Novel Writing Month  Mr. Baty takes you through the process from the blank page to the first draft in thirty days. Written with humor and solid advice, I found it got me through the first draft of my first novel without going crazy.


Firsts in Fiction: First line Hooks, Hints, and Help by Aaron Gansky:  This slim volume looks at that all important first line of your story. As a writer and teacher, Mr. Gansky uses this little book to make the process a little less scary. Beautiful examples of the worst and the best first lines are given in the text.


The Irresistible Novel by Jeff Gerke:  We all want to write that “can’t put down” book. Mr. Gerke takes you through “the rules” of writing. He explains the reason for the rule, gives arguments for and against, and then lets you decide if you want to follow or break the rules. He also discusses how to emotionally engage your reading and psychology of storytelling from Jung to Campbell.

These last two are by the same author, James Scott Bell. It was hard to narrow down which of his excellent books in my library which to choose. As an author and instructor, all of his books are informative.  Here are my two favorites –


Write Your Novel from the Middle  – This looks at the structure of the novel, finding that one point in the middle that defines what the story is all about. When I used this to do the last draft of my novel The Princess of Sweetwater, it took on a new, unanticipated direction when I defined the “mirror moment” in the story, and I fell in love with it all over again.


How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career – This is one of the newest additions to my library. After participating in a webinar about the book, I decided to purchase it. Writing short for me is a challenge, rarely are my stories shorter than seven thousand words. Since reading this, I have finished two short stories and am submitting them to anthologies.

So how do I chose which ones to plunk down my hard earned cash and take home to read? A quick search online reveals thousands of books on how to write anything. It’s hard to narrow it down. I look for books written by people I like and respect.  If a book is written by someone I’ve never heard of, I will do a little research into who they are and what their credentials are. Also, I have found that recommendations from my writer friends often prove to be good choices.

What are some of your favorite writing craft resources? List them in the comments below.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Criticism and Rejection

Rejection is part of the writing business. I found I need to have a thick skin, or I won’t last long. It is a given there will be things said about my writing that will cut deeply.

Critique groups are one of the places you may feel the sharp knife of criticism and rejection. I hand over my precious manuscript to be read by members of the group, and I have copies of theirs. I spent hours carefully reading and noting, what I believe will be helpful, constructive criticism.  I hope they will do the same for me. Then we meet on the appointed day, sit and wait for them to tell me how wonderful I am.


There are two types of groups – the first is the ones I sat through in college, there are forty or so students and somewhere is that one person who just wants to see if they can make someone cry. They often don’t comment on the writing but attack the writer. Saying things like – you’re the worst writer I’ve ever seen, this was a waste of paper and/or my time, or seriously, you call yourself a writer? The whole time I sit holding back the tears wondering why the professor or grad student who’s the moderator is allowing this verbal abuse. It was because of this type of group I stopped writing for nearly twenty years.

The second critique group is preferable. This is a smaller group, generally no more than five (but there are exceptions.) These are real writers, who want to be their best and want me to also be a better writer. They can be tough. If something in the story isn’t working they tell me with bare-naked honesty. Yes, it still hurts, but it’s the writing, not me as a person. I have gone home several times, mad as a cat forced to take a bath. I lick my wounds for a few days, telling myself they are wrong, wrong, WRONG! Then I look at the chapter and, damn it, they were right, and I make the changes. Real critique groups are a blessing.

Then, of course, there are those dreaded Rejection Letters. I’m sitting here right now with my first rejection in front of me. I’ve re-read it a dozen times, sipping my English Breakfast Tea, and wondering what was wrong with my story? The letter doesn’t give me much of a clue.

March 1, 2017

Tess DeGroot,

Thank you for submitting your short story, Ghost of Tanager Lodge, to XXX’s 2017 annual anthology edition of the ‘XXX’ series, “XXX.” After reviewing your submission, we have decided not to include your story in this installment; however, we look forward to any other stories you submit to future ‘XXX’ compilations. The 2018 volume’s theme, title, submission guidelines, and deadline will be announced April 1, 2017.

Some of the possible reasons for receiving a “1” may have been: more telling than showing, high rate of predictability in the plotline, lack of or ineffective storyline/plot/characters, or poor editing (or not edited at all by a second-party editor), and some failed to meet the minimum requirement of containing a ghost or haunting. You are encouraged to continue to hone your skills and submit again to future ‘XXX’ editions.

Thanks again for submitting.

I’m sure it will be the first of many.

My friend and fellow writer, Brent A. Harris, has been commiserating with me as he got the same later for the story he submitted. He’s been writing longer than I have and has received his share of rejection letters. He said it “took a year and 30ish rejections” before one of his stories was accepted.  He now has two stories published in anthologies, Tales of Wonder  and Tales from Alternate Earths

But we’re not alone in facing rejection. Isaac Asimov displayed his rejection letters on the wall of his office. Stephen King hung his on a nail next to his desk until the nail fell out of the wall. J.K. Rowling recently tweeted some of her rejection letters to encourage new writers.

Nobody said being a writer was easy. When I write, I risk being cut to my very soul every time I share my words. Yes, there will be criticism, rejection, and even have a few bad reviews along the way. But as Brent said, he “will dust it off and revise it to submit elsewhere,” and I will do the same.


Brent recently shared a writer’s prayer with a group we belong to on Facebook:

The Writer’s Prayer:
Grant me the words to write the story
The wisdom to revise and edit
The success to keep me going
And the rejections to keep me humble

These words are now on a card on my desk, a reminder to keep telling stories, to keep taking risks, and to take the writing seriously but not myself.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open and the kettle is always on.

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Train Tracks and Tea Cups


Sitting in my room with my cup of jasmine green tea with peppermint, I can hear the train whistle as it passes through Victorville. If it weren’t for the trains, Victorville and Barstow wouldn’t exist. They were “train towns.” And the sound of them passing through makes me nostalgic.

I love trains. I think it’s in my DNA. One great-grandfather was a chaplain serving workers building and repairing the lines in the Ohio Valley. Another was a coalman for a freight line.


I will ride a train – any train – when I get the chance. Yes, even the replica trains of Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, or the little kiddie trains at the park.

One well-remembered train ride from my childhood was on a Santa Fe Railroad passenger train. We boarded the train at the old Santa Fe Depot (now Amtrak) with a group of friends. The wooden benches faced the windows and were painted yellow and red. They air smelled of diesel fuel and salt water. We disembarked at the small station at Del Mar and hiked down to the beach. Just before sunset, we boarded the train back to San Diego. The next day, there were no more Santa Fe passenger trains.

The summer before I was married I went to Europe and road the rails. From Amsterdam to Vienna, to Istanbul, and Paris. I shared meals and stories with fellow passengers. On the ride to Istanbul, aboard the “Orient Express,” to meet my former exchange student “sister,” as we passed into Hungary. The border official walked off the train with my passport. To say I was panicking would be an understatement.   The father of the family I shared the compartment with ran after him. He returned a few minutes later and reassured me it was “Okay, it okay.” (The only English he knew.) The official was only going to get the three-month stamp for my passport. He had apparently thought I would get off the train in Budapest rather than continue to Istanbul.

The last time I was on a train ride was the year I went to San Francisco for National Novel Writing Month’s Night of Writing Dangerously. An all-night writing marathon. There was a large group of us participating the Great Train Escape. As Amtrak’s Coast Starlight Express left Los Angeles and made stops along the way, more writers joined the car reserved for us. I think about thirty of us were on the train. We talked, we wrote, and we didn’t sleep. I was kept my mind humming with copious amounts of Earl Grey tea and the lovely views from the window. Who knew cows like to wade in the ocean? Or that pelicans would race the train? For the trip home I took the inland route, closer to the route that would have been taken by my heroine, Princess Victoria, as she headed south to find a new life, determined to chart her own course.


When given my choice, I will take the train. Trains were once the preferred way to travel before personal vehicles and airplanes.  To me there is something special about sitting in the observation car with a cup of tea, of course, watching the scenery go by. And if you’re lucky, there will be an interpreter to tell you about the sights and culture you are passing through.

The dining car is a special experience. Maybe not as fancy as it once was, but still you need a reservation for your seating time. Somehow the food tastes better served on China plates than from a paper bag from the café car. Before the addition of dining cars trains stopped at the famed Harvey House to eat and rest.

Yes, I feel romantic about trains, especially the old steam engines. Maybe that’s why they appear so often in my stories. Trains made it possible to get people and goods to the western United States. In the days of the wagons trains, if it didn’t fit in the wagon it was left behind.

I have one train ride I am planning to do in the next year – the Grand Canyon Train. You board the train in Williams, Arizona and then board the train at their 1909 era train depot. The train takes you to the south rim of the canyon. Spend a day or two at the lodge there and then return to Williams.

Riding along the train tracks with a cup a tea will always bring me joy.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open and the kettle is always on.


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Adventures in the Western Mojave

“I’m sorry.” I can’t tell you how often that is the response when I tell people where I live. They don’t understand that it isn’t the wasteland they’ve imagined.

I live in the Victor Valley of San Bernardino County, in the eastern half of the western Mojave Desert of Southern California. Sometimes called the High Desert to distinguish it from the Low or Sonoran Desert It’s a cluster of small to medium size communities: Victorville, Hesperia, Adelanto, and Apple Valley.

Yes, it is a desert. Yes, it gets hot in the summer (it’s 105o F as I write this today.) In the winter, it can get cold; sometimes there is even snow.

The landscape is vast and covered with low chaparral and Joshua Trees. You know you’re in the Mojave when you see the tall shaggy yuccas. Mountains on the southern horizon can be snow capped from November to March. In the spring, when there is adequate rain we have a fantastic display of color as the desert comes into bloom.

And yes, there are things to do here, in spite of the refrain, “There’s nothing to do here.”

This weekend, I headed west into the Antelope Valley. This is a segment of the western Mojave is in Los Angeles County. These Los Angeles “bedroom communities”, dominated by Lancaster and Palmdale, are still known for agriculture and the aerospace industry.

I needed to take a look at some things as I polish the final draft of The Princess of Sweetwater.

My first stop was in Lancaster at the Western Hotel Museum, operated and maintained by the Lancaster Museum of Art and History. It also is the office for the local genealogy association. Open on the second and fourth Fridays/Saturdays of the month. Admission is free. Built in 1874 the two story structure is the oldest still standing building in Lancaster. As I wandered the hall and climbed the narrow stairs, guided by the docent, Amanda, I could picture my characters spending the night here before crossing the desert.



Western Hotel Museum


My second stop was in Palmdale. I headed to the William J. McAdam Park. The park is small and well shaded, but my purpose here wasn’t to have a picnic. On the park grounds is the Old Palmdale Schoolhouse. Built in 1886 (or 1888 depending on source) as the school for the children of Palmenthal (Palmdale’s original name), a German Lutheran community. When the school closed in 1908 it was moved to Lancaster and was a private home, then in 1960 it was relocated to the park. The one-room schoolhouse is in disrepair and cannot be entered, but you can walk around it and peek into the windows from a distance. The architecture is simple with decorations typical of the late nineteenth century. The peeling white and green paint, a reminder of when it acted as someone’s home. From the glimpses I got through the windows, it appeared the two-thirds of the building was the calls room. The back third seemed to be a storage room filled with old desks, but my sources tell me it could have also acted as an apartment of a teacher.



Old Palmdale School House


My final stop returned me Lancaster and the Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Historic Park. I hadn’t visited this museum since I was sixteen. At that time the museum was privately owned by Grace Oliver. What I remembered was there were boulders in the main room and it chockfull from floor to ceiling with artifacts. It is now part of the California State Parks system and is open on weekends. Admission is $3.00. The Tudor-revival structure that is built into the rocks was constructed by H. A. Howard in 1928 as his home and incorporated his collection of Native American artifacts in a museum. The museum is very casual with thousand-year-old artifacts sitting out on tables and mantles. The walls painted by Howard are beautiful murals and colorful pseudo-kachinas.


indian museum

The Antelope Valley Indian Museum State Park


The State Park Rangers and the docents are very knowledgeable about the history of the area and the artifacts collected from all over the American Southwest. The docent on duty this weekend was Darrell. He shared the history, showed pictures of the building under construction and answered questions with enthusiasm.

Warning: because to the unique construction of the building you are walking on the rocks of the natural butte. This makes the stairs very uneven, and the museum loft floor, The California Hall, difficult to navigate. With my short little legs, I had difficulty with some of the steps.

There is a short, thirty-minute nature trail also on the grounds. It is best done in the cooler parts of the day in the summer as there is little shade. The sandy terrain is unsuitable for most wheelchairs, but they do have an all-terrain non-motorized wheelchair that you can borrow.


The State Parks schedule weekend and evening activities for families. On the day I was there was a visiting artist from New Mexico with jewelry she had made from ghost beads (juniper seeds), beads and turquoise.

An upcoming event that looks well worth the trip is their annual American Indian Celebration, October 15 and 16.  Admission will be $8.00. There will be artists, musicians, dancers, storytellers, food and kid’s activities. I plan on going; maybe I’ll see you there.

At this point in the day, it’s now getting hot. The weather app on my phone said it was 103o F and the afternoon winds were driving dust devils across the desert floor.

Even though I grew up on the beach, I like living in the desert. There is so much history and natural beauty; you don’t need to apologize. I’m sorry you don’t live here.

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Writing In Public


Writing doesn’t have to be a solitary thing.

Most people think of writing as a solitary occupation, with romantic visions of a starving writer holed up in an ivory tower away from the world creating reams of prose and poetry. There are times when we writers do need to be alone with the written word. But that is not always the case.  Sometimes writing and be a very social event.

I write in public. Writing in public is not something non-writers would consider helpful to the writing process. To be honest, I’m not as fast putting word-to-paper in public as I am in my little room at home, but it does garner some interesting conversations.

Why do I write in public? The reasons are many but here’s a few:

It’s a NaNoWriMo thing.

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and participants will gather at coffee shops, libraries, and schools to write together for a “Write-In.” The goal is to complete a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. Can it be done? Yes, it can. I’ve done it now nine times. Now some of those first drafts may never see the light of day, but I did write them. At a write-in, everyone is working on their own masterpiece in a public space. The gathering may vary from two to twenty people, each typing or hand writing their stories. Not talking to each other, just writing. Then every once in a while there will be a question; for example, in one story I had a character named with the very British name of St. John (pronounced Sinjin) and the question was how do I tell my readers how to correctly pronounce this name? One gentleman in the group suggested that I have someone mispronounce it so the character could then correct him. Problem solved. Back to work! Then there will be the challenges – someone, usually the Municipal Liaison (ML), will yell Word War! And everyone will write frantically for the next ten, fifteen, thirty minutes. The person with the most words during that time wins.


I am the ML for my region, so it’s my job to schedule these write-ins. Plan the challenges – sometimes it’s use this weird obscure word in the next scene or your main character’s house just burned down, now what?  I also provide the prizes, usually small trinkets. I show up early and save the table. No one has any problem finding me, I’m the person in the Viking helmet. When someone comments on my headgear and asks why am I wearing it while I’m typing, it gives me a chance to explain NaNoWriMo and invite them to join in the fun.

As I write this blog, I’m at a write-in, but we’re calling it a “campfire” because July is Camp NaNoWriMo. Earlier while setting up and chatting with the barista, Cory joined in the conversation. He’s a NaNo from Northern California, who just moved into the area. So we pulled up a chair for him, and he joined in the writing, working on his own story.


It’s a change of scenery thing.

Sometimes I get bored looking at the same four walls in my writing room. So I pick up my tablet and move outdoors. This being in a new location can be a distraction, and I may get less writing done, but I find inspiration in watching people and listening to the birds.

Some of my outside writing is being in the location of the scene I’m currently writing. For example, for a short story I’m currently working on, it takes place in small mountain town not far from where I live. I spent some time visiting that town. I sat at the local coffee shop, sipped coffee, and wrote the scene that takes place booth next to where I was sitting.

Sometimes I see things that give me ideas for stories. Sometimes I talk to those around me, mostly they’re curious to see someone typing in the park or on the beach. Now I’ve learned what the speech pattern of someone living in that community sounds like and can try to imitate it in print.

It’s things at home are too crazy thing.

Let’s face it working at home isn’t always easy. And even though I have a writing space, things still intrude. The dogs need attention. My husband is watching his beloved Giants trounce the Dodgers and being loud enough the team can hear his support all the way to San Francisco. The phone won’t stop ringing with unimportant calls.

Sometimes my writing room isn’t the fortress of solitude I need it to be. So off to the coffee house or the library I go. I find an unoccupied corner, settle in, and write.

Yes, sometimes I’m interrupted, but I don’t mind. It gives me a chance to talk about writing. To explain why I have pictures of cowboys and Victorian princesses on my notebook – my current novel in progress. To talk about NaNoWriMo and invite them to sign up. To encourage them to check out my friend’s newly published book.

Yes, I write in public. It inspires me. It lets me be social. I can share writing with others.

Until next time, remember the door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Two Ways Dogs Can Make You A Better Writer


Yes, dogs can improve your writing. Actually adding any animal to a story can improve it significantly, but I am a dog parent, I live with two dogs, so I’m going to use dogs.


Argos and Rowdy Girl, my fur-babies.

We’ve all noticed there are people to whom dogs are naturally attracted or just the opposite, they avoid them as if they were the dog-catcher. Dogs are good judges of character. We can also judge a person’s character by how they treat dogs.

This is the first way adding a dog into your story can improve it. We want to let our readers know if this is a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” right? Having them interact with a dog is a way of showing, rather than telling, that the person is gentle or harsh. For example, your main protagonist is eating a hot dog, in walks stay dog (or his girlfriend’s dog), and he ignores the big brown eyes. In fact, he turns his back on the animal. What do we know now? He’s not such a softy after all. Or what if your main antagonist can’t resist taking home every stray dog she finds? Maybe there are some redeeming qualities there after all. What if a character is growled at every time the dog is present? That might be someone who is not trustworthy.

In the above example, the dog is primarily a prop, no different than a gun or umbrella. But a second way to include an animal is as a full-fledged character. There are lots of examples of this. Lassie and Big Red, of course, comes to mind. As does, Buck in Call of the Wild. These are main characters, but they can also be supporting characters. Think of Fang in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone, Nana in Peter Pan, and Pilot in Jane Eyre. These dogs are not primary characters, but without them, the story would be diminished.

Here are some examples from The Princess of Sweetwater using the dog to tell the reader something:

After dinner, Victoria sat on a stool in front of the big fireplace reading one of the textbooks, while Ox rested his massive head on her lap.

“I have never seen that dog take to someone the way he’s taken to you.” Hiram stretched out in his chair. “Did you have dogs at home?”

“Not as pets. My father keeps deerhounds and wolfhounds, but they’re hunting dogs.”

“Maybe he misses a woman’s attention. Marta spoiled him, and Maria won’t have anything to do with him.”

“You’re always welcome to join me by the fire, big boy.” She buried her face in his thick fur.

Ox is the ranch dog, and he likes Victoria, maybe he’s telling Hiram, she should stick around

And here’s Ox again:

At five o’clock, the boys washed up for supper. They ate in silence. Victoria saw a mix of worry and fatigue in the older boy’s eyes.

As Maria began to clear the table, a dog’s bark mixed with the clinking of the dishes.

“That’s Ox,” said Harvey, shoving away from the table.

He ran to let the dog in, the wind rushed through the open door blew out most of the lamps.

Ox continued to bark and ran back to the barn. Halfway there he stopped and looked back.

“I guess he wants us to follow him,” said Harvey running after the dog.

Victoria and the other boys followed.

On the barn floor, they found Hiram wet, muddy and bloody.

What happened to Hiram? You’re going to have to wait until the book release in March 2017.


Ox, an English Mastiff, 150 lbs of slobbering love.

And here’s a cute little beagle named Dudley:

Kate came out of the kitchen when she heard voices in the inn’s main room. The dog bounded after her.  She found two men in suits going through the cabinets and drawers. “Can I help you, gentlemen?”

“We’re from the Pinkerton Agency,” said one of the men. Both pulled out their badges.

Dudley growled at the men. They took a step back.

Maybe Kate shouldn’t trust those Pinkerton agents.


Dudley,  a Beagle pup

And here’s a bonus on how dogs can make you a better writer – owning a dog will get up and moving. You can’t sit at your desk and stare at the computer screen all day. You need a break. Take the dog for a walk, go play in the yard, or visit the pet supply store. While you’re taking that much need break, your brain will still be churning, and when you come back, there will be fresh ideas waiting for you.

Until next time, remember the door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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