Posts Tagged With: #writing

The Tale of Two Boarding Houses

This is the tale of two boarding houses in Raton, New Mexico. I had gone to this town in northeastern New Mexico to traverse the territory that Sally Porter lived in 1898. Who is Sally Porter, you may ask? She is the protagonist of my current work-in-progress (WIP).

While in Raton, I learned about two boarding houses that were in operation in the 1890s. The first is now a bed & breakfast called Heart’s Desire, where I stayed for several days. Situated near the heart of the town, it’s location was perfect. The historic district, quaint shops, a museum, and the library were all within walking distance.

The house, painted sweetheart pink, was built in 1895 by the first U.S. Marshall of Raton and served as a boarding house run by his wife. She not only fed the residents but also cooked the meals for the occupants of the jail. The footpath between the house and where the jail once stood is still visible. One story is that when the jailhouse was full, the sheriff would lock prisoners in the house’s carriage house.

 

The hostess, Barbara Riley, has restored the house and decorated each room with a delightful theme, showing off the place in Victorian splendor. Upon my arrival, she greeted me with a warm slice of apple pie and cup of tea. After the refreshments and conversation, I was shown my room, the Blue Willow Room. It had a lovely view over the town’s historic buildings and the fall foliage.

Each morning, I was treated to some of the best cooking I have ever had while traveling. Barbara put a lot of love into each breakfast she served. It fortified me as I headed out on my adventures for the day. On my return in the evening, I was greeted by the official welcome committee, Guinness, a sweet-tempered Yorkshire terrier. I would settle into one of the couches in the sitting room with a cup of tea and write up my notes for the day listening to Barbara play the piano.

I felt very spoiled.

I would recommend stopping for a night or two at the Heart’s Desire Bed & Breakfast. Barbara’s enthusiasm and knowledge of the area, the comfortable environment she created, and the location made this pleasant stay. It is also pet-friendly and has wi-fi.

Let me introduce you to proprietress of the second boarding house, Cathay Williams –slave, domestic worker, soldier, and businesswoman.

Cathay was born a slave in 1844. At the start the Civil War, she was on a plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. When Union soldiers marched in she was considered “contraband,” and like many slaves, she was pressed into service as a cook and laundress. At one point, she was transferred to Washington D.C., where she served as a cook for General Philip Sheridan.

After the war, Cathay found herself unemployed, and with no money and few opportunities, the tall, lanky woman made a drastic decision. She posed as a man and joined the army, using the name William Cathay. She was assigned to the 38th Infantry Regiment, one of six all African-American regiments that would become known as the Buffalo Soldiers. She was hospitalized several times during the nearly two years she served and was never examined closely enough to discover her secret until she let it slip. She was given a medical discharge in 1868.

After her discharge, Cathay joined family members in Colorado, where her mother was a matron at the Lincoln Home for orphaned and abandoned black children. The one known photograph of her was taken during this time in Pueblo. Then she moved to Trinidad where she worked as a seamstress. While there a reporter from Saint Louis came to visit her, after hearing rumors of a black woman soldier. Her story was published in The St. Louis Daily Times in 1876. Shortly after her story was published, she became ill, suffering from neuralgia and complications from diabetes. In 1893, she applied for an army pension, as had Deborah Sampson, who served as a man during the American Revolutionary War. Her claim was denied, despite her having to walk with a crutch (her toes had been amputated.)

Many biographies of Cathay Williams report that she must have died shortly after her 1893 pension claim was denied as her absent from the Trinidad census rolls of 1900. But according to two sources I spoke with in Raton, this is not the case. Both the historian at the Raton Chamber of Commerce and the curator of The Raton  Museum reported that she moved from Trinidad to Raton, where she lived the last three decades of her life. According to them, she ran a boarding house. However, it’s location is not identified on any period maps. She offered room and board to the local railroad workers, and when General Sheridan’s son passed through the area, he stopped and stayed with her a few days.

Williams died in Raton in 1926 at the age of 82. Her body is thought to have been returned to Colorado to be buried with her family, in either Pueblo or Trinidad, but the location of the grave has been lost.

Cathay Williams’ story is a tale of resilience. She rose from being a slave to a businesswoman. It is also a story of racism. As evidenced in the medical care African-American soldiers received. It must have been minimal as she was “examined” multiple times and the doctors didn’t realize she was a woman. Also when she applied for her pension, she wasn’t a white woman represented by John Adams like Deborah, but a poor black woman with a lawyer who did little to push her claim through. In spite of these, she left her mark. In 2016, Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum in Leavenworth, Kansas dedicated a bust of Cathay Williams (AKA Private William Cathay), recognizing her place in history as the first African-American female soldier.

 

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Cathay Williams (AKA Private William Cathay)  Willam Allan Cultural Center & Museum, Leavenworth, Kansas

This veteran salutes you, Private Williams.

 

In the late 1800’s, Raton was a bustling railroad town with many boarding houses and hotels. These were just two them.

Until next time, remember . . .

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

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A Simple Question: “What do You write?”

It’s a simple question, “What do you write?” I’m asked it often, which got me thinking.

Every writer focuses on a specific genre; it is their brand, their identity. I have many writer friends. Three stand out to me, as truly knowing who they are as a writer, Molly Jo RealySierra Donavan, and Brent A. Harris.

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Molly Jo Realy, author of NOLA

Molly Jo writes “location mysteries,” a genre she created for her up-coming novel NOLA, set in New Orleans, Louisiana. The location is essential and integral to the plot. The mystery can only happen in this setting. If the tale, if it took place in another city, would be altered significantly. In NOLA, a young woman’s trip to the Crescent City takes some unexpected turns as only the old city can dish up – there’s fried alligator and voodoo, too.

Sierra writes “sweet romances.” These romances do not have the “heat” of other romances with little or no steamy scenes or foul language. Her most recent book, Do Not Open ‘Til Christmas, tells the story of what happens “when a Scrooge-like boss and a determined young woman have to work together during the holidays.”

Brent writes “alternate history.” This type of historical fiction is referred to as conjectural or speculative because though based on historical events it asks “what if?” at a crucial point in the action. In his recent book, A Time of Need, the question is “What if George Washington fought for the British?”

I ask myself, “What do you write?” The fast and simple response is historical fiction, primarily romance. This historical romance isn’t accurate. A better answer would be Victorian romance. Even that is too broad.

So with a cup of vanilla chai tea, I settled into my chair to define for myself the historical period I write.

First, what is Historical Fiction? According to Dictionary.com, it is “the genre of literature, film, etc., comprising narratives that take place in the past and are characterized chiefly by an imaginative reconstruction of historical events and personages.” How far back in time does a work need to be to be considered “historical”? Depending on whom you ask that changes. According to the Historical Novel Society, how it is defined is debatable, but they considered a story historical if set fifty years or more in the past and the author is working from research and not personal experience.  So using this definition, and given I was born in 1961, anything I write set before 1960 is historical fiction.

I could use the term Victorian as I write primarily during the years between the Civil War and World War I (1865 – 1914), which overlaps with the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) of the British Empire and La Belle Époque (1871 – 1914) of continental Europe.  True, the United States did follow some of the English mannerisms and morals of the time, but I write stories take place, not in England or Europe, but America.

In the United States, 1865 – 1890 is called the Gilded Age and is followed by the Progressive Age (1890 – 1914). Mark Twain coined the term Gilded Age when he titled his 1873 novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Though not well known, the story is remarkable because it is the only book Twain wrote with a collaborator, Charles Dudley Warner.   It satirized the post-Civil War era’s greed and political corruption. Twain and Warner took the title from Shakespeare’s King John  “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily . . . is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” (Act IV, scene 2). They did not mean it as a compliment.

This period is a tapestry of vast contrasts. The rich lived lavishly, building seaside mansions. The poor worked twelve-hour days, six to seven days a week for barely enough pay to support their families. However, it is also the time of social reform, including the rise of the unions that brought in the eight-hour workday and end to child labor. In spite of the political corruption, it was also a time of political reform; civil services workers had to start taking a test to get their jobs, reducing cronyism. It was also the time of the women’s suffrage movement.

Territory

Western Territory Map

This is the background of my historical period, but my stories take place mainly in the western regions of the United States: the territories of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah; and the states of California and Nevada. Historians call these years the Wild West period (1865 – 1895).  It is a time of westward expansion, wagon trains, homesteaders, gold and silver, bandits and cowboys.

Now that I have defined the historical period, what about my writing?

Princess Victoria

The Princess of Sweetwater

I just completed a short novel, The Princess of Sweetwater, which I am presenting to prospective agents. The story of a privileged  La Belle Époque aristocrat, Princess Victoria, in 1886, who runs away from the Gilded Age city of San Francisco to a small town in Southern California and falls in love with a rancher. It has a romance, life on a Californian ranch, and some international intrigue.

Sally

Sally Ann Porter

My current work-in-progress (WIP) is a novel, Sally of Rancho Terra Linda (working title).   Though still very much a rough outline and a loose series of scenes, it is the story of a young woman in 1898 territorial New Mexico that must deal with her father’s remarriage to a Chicago widow and new siblings while still getting her chores on the ranch done. Planned subplots include a murder and a romance with the local doctor.

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Mary Cogswoth

A third story, on the back burner, is The Cogsworth Files (working title). It’s a serial tale about Mary Cogsworth, a Secret Service Agent, and her companion, Seamus, an Irish wolfhound. Together they work to protect America in 1885. It has elements of romance, western, and steampunk.

Victoria’s story is clearly a romance set against the backdrop of “fish out of water” story during the Gilded Age in a small town with some elements of a western.

Sally’s story is more of a western set against the backdrop of a clash between Progressive Age expectations with western reality.

Mary’s story is more an adventure story set against the backdrop of the Gilded Age featuring trains and steam-powered gadgets.

 

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Manuscript

So again, I ask, “What do you write?” After some thought, I would narrow down my genre to “Gilded-Age/Progressive-Age/western historical fiction” But that’s a bit of a mouthful, so maybe “Late 19th century historical fiction.”

Will I stray out of this historical period? Yes, every once in a while I will. I’ve written some contemporary romances, as well as stories set in the 1960’s, 1920’s, 1500’s, and the first century.

Two more questions: Why do I prefer historical fiction? And why late 19th-century? I grew up reading historical fiction, history books, and biographies. I found it fascinating. I chose this period because I live an area where there are ample sources for me to explore the history and geography.

I’ve shared some of my explorations with you in the past and will continue to share those stories with you over a nice cup of tea.

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Vanilla Chai

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

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What is a Writer?

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I had just about given up on writing. I’ve not written anything much of anything, except reports for work, for nearly six months. A part of me wanted to stay in “not writing” mode, but my brain kept thinking and churning. Characters kept talking to me, wanting their story told.

So, it begs the question, “What is a writer?” One silly meme defines a writer as “peculiar organism capable of transforming caffeine into books.” I know it is more than that. I’ve been telling stories for as long as I can remember, and it didn’t take much to get me started. Sometimes the stories were made up, and some were just telling the day’s events. But they were stories. Telling stories or writing them down, I think is something I’m driven to do. I can’t help myself. If I’m not writing them down, I’m telling them to myself as I go about my daily duties.

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Some writers describe their need to write on a deeply instinctive level. For example, John Steinbeck said, “I nearly always write just as I nearly always breathe.” And Ray Bradbury wrote, “Every story I’ve written was written because I had to write it. Writing stories is like breathing for me; it is my life.”  Breathing is involuntary. Of course, we can hold our breath for a while, but eventually, we’ll pass out, and our lungs will do their work unhindered. Writing is involuntary.

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Others speak of writing as being a compulsion or obsession. Anne Rice admitted, “Obsession led me to write.” For J.K. Rowling it will never stop, “I’ll be writing until I can’t write anymore. It’s a compulsion with me. I love writing.” As long as I live I will feel compelled to tell tales, even if only for my own entertainment.

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And for some to not write is to court insanity. Umberto Eco wrote, “To survive, you must tell stories.” Franz Kafka put it more bluntly, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Many writers of fiction will tell you that their characters live in their heads and talk to them. If they didn’t write it down the chatter would keep them from sleeping. The voices in my head taunt and entice me to tell their tales.

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Isabel Allende said that “Writing is a calling, not a choice.” A calling is sacred, it cannot be refused for long. Every time I turn around I hear the siren’s song beckons me, it won’t be denied.

Once-writing-has-become

And Ernest Hemingway observed, “Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it.” When I’m not at work, I’m either reading or writing. (I’m working under the assumption that research, outlines, and edits are writing.)

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Eugene Ionesco reminds us that “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.” As I learned these past few months. Victoria demanded to be completed. Sally and Mary want their stories told. All three keep chattering away, denying me peace and sleep. And every once in a while, little Bitty will wake from her nap and ask, “What about me?”

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Does this mean I can quit? Not if my friends, both real and imaginary have anything to say about it. Ray Bradbury often repeated, “You fail only if you stop writing.” And James Scott Bell asked, “Are you a real writer? Then keep writing, And don’t stop. Ever.” Or as Alton Gansky shared on the Firsts in Fiction podcasts: Al’s Axiom #88 – You can quit anytime, but you can’t stay quit.

What is a writer? I am a writer, and I shall write. Now to make some tea.

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

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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.

Ingredients:

  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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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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Transitions

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.

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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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Crossroads

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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:

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 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

 

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 –

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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