Wednesday, August 21, 2019

So You Want to Write a Book . . . 6 Things I've Learned!

By Kay Kendall

By now I’ve written fiction long enough to trust my own habits. Once, when I was a real newbie, I believed I must do just as the experts advise. But now I know on some points the experts differ.

1.   If your process works for you, trust it. For example, while most experts advise to rip through your first draft quickly, without editing as you go, I just can’t. I used to feel guilty—since I was doing things WRONG. Finally, lo and behold, I learned about other authors, bestselling authors, who also begin their writing days by editing what they wrote the day before. Whew. What a relief.
Here are some other habits I’ve also learned to trust:
2.     2. Keep reading. If you’re writing your own book, don’t stop reading other ones. I’ve read more, not less, since I began to write fiction. I submerged myself in the mystery/suspense genre for almost two years before I started Desolation Row—An Austin Starr Mystery. Picking up the tricks of the trade by osmosis works better for me than gulping ten dry how-to tomes. 
3.     Keep a notebook beside your bed. “Brilliant” thoughts are fleeting. Pin them down before they get away. I learned the hard way that wonderful ideas at 3:00 a.m. disappear by the time I awake in the morning. 
4.     Keep exercising. Health gurus are adamant that sitting all day is a terrible habit that can lead to early death and/or dementia. Besides, when I’m on my exercise bike, I zone out and then ideas for my writing zone in. The mind-body connection is worth protecting with sufficient exercise. However, it’s time for a true confession. I have trouble with this one, especially when I’m on deadline. 
5.     Keep up with your pals. Writing can be a lonely pursuit, and trying to get published these days is a killer. I needed all the support I could get, and my friends stepped up and stayed there right beside me on my journey. They kept me going through the darkest days and have been my staunchest supporters and shared my joy upon publication. I’ve also made new friends as I’ve joined writers’ critique groups and associations. I’m a staunch believer in the truth of what Barbra Streisand sang back in the sixties. “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”
6.     Keep the faith. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.” When I saw that on a coffee mug for sale 15 years ago, I was too scared to pick it up. How dare I think I could write a novel? But I forced myself to buy that mug, and after using it for two years and writing my first manuscript, I began timidly to call myself a writer. Hold fast to your dream. Keep it alive by doing it.
I have faith I will complete new books because three of my mysteries are published and the fourth is in progress. I’ve pushed through the dark times, “getting by with a little help from my friends.” (Footnote to the Beatles) Moreover, if I’ve done this, then you can too. As we used to say back in the day, just keep on truckin’. And find what works best for you. Your mileage may differ from mine, but just do it.

NOTE: This post originally appeared one year ago to great acclaim from other authors. I am recycling it so others can read this who may have missed it last year.
Meet the author

 Author Kay Kendall is passionate about historical mysteries. 
Her second book Rainy Day Women won the Silver Falchion for best mystery at Killer Nashville. Her newest is After You've Gone.
Visit Kay at her website  or on Facebook

Monday, August 19, 2019

What’s Today’s Celebration?

by Paula Gail Benson

Did you know that today, August 19, is National Soft Ice Cream Day? Shari Randall, you should take note of this commemoration!

According to the National Day Calendar website, while no one has been clearly identified as organizing the special designation, soft serve ice cream began around Memorial Day in 1934 when an enterprising salesman with a flat tire pulled into a parking lot and knew he had to get rid of a load of melting ice cream quickly. Later, he patented a machine and developed a secret formula. The product’s popularity caused a decrease in business for hard ice cream and the Minnesota legislature briefly required that it had to be pre-packaged instead of sold from a machine. The site suggests that people observe the holiday by getting a dipped cone or sundae.

The site boasts of over 1,500 national days. It also lists some international ones. For instance, today also is International Bow Day, a tradition started by Claire’s.

August 20, tomorrow, is National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day. Not to be confused with National Pecan Pie Day (observed July 12) or National Pecan Torte Day (August 22) or National Pecan Month (April).

You can check out the recognitions that share your birthday. For example, my birthday, on September 13, is National Celiac Disease Awareness Day (based on a 2005 unanimous resolution passed by the United States Senate) and Uncle Sam Day (because New York meat packer Sam Wilson, born on September 13, 1766, supplied meat to soldiers during the War of 1812 in containers stamped “U.S.” and they called it Uncle Sam’s grub).

The website allows you to register a national day, shop for merchandise, search for recipes, and play National Day trivia.

What does this site have to do with writing? (Please note that World Calligraphy Day is celebrated August 14.)

Occasionally, writers are asked to submit a holiday story for a collection. You can imagine that well-known holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Valentines Day will have numerous stories, but going with something like Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19), as Cathy Wiley did with her “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” published in Homicidal Holidays (Wildside Press), an anthology organized by the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime, could be unique. Barb Goffman currently is editing a collection of time travel stories to be released on December 8, Pretend to be a Time Traveler Day.

So consider taking a look at the National Day Calendar website, for a story idea or just to celebrate a slice of life. Happy holidays!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Visiting a Favorite Lighthouse

By Shari Randall

Sometimes I forget to enjoy the things that are right outside my front door here in Connecticut. I’m glad when friends visit and we do all the fun tourist things including one of my favorites, the Lights and Sights Cruise out of New London Harbor. On Lights and Sights, the tour boat parallels the coast, gliding along the shore past lighthouses, seaside mansions, fishing villages, and secluded beaches and parks.

This past weekend we boarded the Cecelia Ann, a high speed catamaran that does a two hour tour of Long Island Sound, and visited some of my favorite lighthouses.

One of the most unique is the New London Ledge Lighthouse. It looks like a wild gust of wind blew a charming three story French Second Empire-style house with a mansard roof to the mouth of the Thames River (by the way, we pronounce the “h” here). Built in 1909, the Ledge Light was managed by the Coast Guard through1987, when the lighthouse was automated. The light is visible from 18 miles away and has a distinctive pattern of three white flashes then one red flash every 30 seconds.

The New London Ledge Light was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1990. Its original fourth order Fresnel lens light can be seen now at the Custom House Museum.

In addition to its stalwart service to mariners, the Ledge Light has another claim to fame – its resident ghost, Ernie.

You can pick your Ernie story: Ernie was a lonely lighthouse keeper who decided to end it all after the love of his life threw him over for the captain of the Block Island ferry. Ernie went over the side of the lighthouse after a tussle with another keeper. Ernie slipped from the roof on a foggy night … Well, you get the idea. The lighthouse has been featured on several paranormal television shows, Scariest Places on Earth and Ghost Hunters, and if you’d like to try your luck at meeting Ernie in, er, person, you can visit during one of several haunted lighthouse tours in October.

If you want more information, check out the New London Maritime Society website at

Shari Randall writes Lobster Shack mystery series. Her debut, Curses, Boiled Again, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Fifteen Minutes

by Bethany Maines

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this year is all about trying new things for me. From submitting to contests and magazines to trying different kinds of writing I’m attempting to push myself into growth. I truly want to understand not just what makes good writing, but how to construct a story. One of the things I’ve discovered is that forcing boundaries onto a work can actually improve the work itself.  From outlawing specific words (swear words, oh how I miss you!) in some pieces to declaring that certain elements must be included (there has to be a dog, OK?) by working against/with a constraint it forces creativity. But one boundary that I consistently seem to be rubbing up against these days is time—I don’t have enough. Particularly since the birth of my daughter, the effort to carve out extended periods of time to be creative is monumental.

I have managed in some cases to do this by ignoring other areas of my life (Dishes? What dirty dishes?) or through the understanding of my husband who swoops in and carts our kid off while I’m furiously typing up some scene or another.  But on many days, there is no “vast, unbroken slab of time.” Which is why I found this article about What You Can Achieve in 15-Minute Bursts of Creativity to be an interesting articulation about the approach I’ve developed. Working on a project in smaller chunks does allow the project to always stay fresh in my mind and churning away in my subconscious. It also forces me to stop waiting for the perfect time to think or do something. I had not realized that the “perfect time” was such an illusion or that I clung to the illusion so much until I switched to a “do it now” approach. The accumulation of tiny chunks of time allows for a productivity that would have seemed impossible to me before the process was forced on me. This bit by bit approach does work. It may be a constraint I didn’t want, but like many of the other boundaries, it has forced me to come up with creative solutions that I might not have otherwise discovered.

So if you’re out there despairing of finding the few hours you want to do something – don’t give up.  Take your fifteen minutes and do the thing (whatever the thing is) now. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can undo half of it tomorrow if you like, but it’s still more than you had before.

Check out the most recent accumulation of fifteen minutes. (Cover reveal coming in September!!)

The Second Shot:A drunken mistake in college cost US Marshall Maxwell Ames the love of Dominique Deveraux. Six years later, he’s determined to fix the slip-up, but there’s just one tiny problem – someone wants the Deveraux family dead. Now Max must make sure that the only one getting a second shot at Dominique is him.

Join my mailing list to be alerted when additional platforms become available or pre-order now on Apple

Bethany Maines is the award-winning author of the Carrie Mae Mystery Series, San Juan Islands Mysteries, Shark Santoyo Crime Series, and numerous short stories. When she's not traveling to exotic lands, or kicking some serious butt with her black belt in karate, she can be found chasing her daughter or glued to the computer working on her next novel. You can also catch up with her on Twitter, FacebookInstagram, and BookBub.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Flexing, Resilience, and Going Home

By AB Plum

In a little over three weeks, I'll board a plane for a twelve-hour flight to the US, headed for:


Silicon Valley.


After two-plus months in Copenhagen without a dishwasher, I'm really looking forward to that luxury. (No, washing dishes by hand wasn't the hardest adjustment. But … I washed enough dishes growing up as the oldest of six kids to say:  been there done, that).

On the other hand, washing dishes here three times a day reminded me of how many people in the world lack water to drink or cook or bathe or clean their teeth. Our three-room Danish apartment would make those resilient people think they'd entered Heaven. Nobody forced me to take this sabbatical so no whining allowed.
Frankly, I'll miss the incredible public transportation. It took me a day or two to remember to click on and click off trains and buses—not too different from San Francisco. And maybe the easiest adjustment. Never having to drive or find a place to park has reinforced how glad I am that I like to walk (because the train doesn't stop in front of my apartment).  J

Returning home, I'll have to re-adapt to shopping for groceries once a week instead of every day. Having three niche markets fifty feet from our apartment has changed our buying habits. I wonder, though, if I've seen the future here? Consumers load their own grocery bags (plastic, paid for if they forget to bring one). Plastic surprised me since in our part of California, plastic is banned from supermarkets.

When we first arrived in Denmark, I vowed to learn to speak Danish.

Didn't happen. I've learned to read and understand quite a bit. My vocabulary has expanded and my pronunciation is somewhat understandable to a tolerant native. But speaking full sentences? Expressing more than the basics: Where is [the bathroom]? What time is it? How do you say … In most cases, Danes reply in English. But the majority of grocery store clerks still greet me in Danish and ask if I want a receipt.

The elevator continues to require an act of faith to step into, but my heart rate kicks up only about ten beats instead of twenty. Flexibility. Resilience. The little steps matter.
Going to the airport is the next big step. We've opted to go by taxi because of our luggage—too much to handle on the train. We've about accepted the fare—almost a quarter of one airline ticket. We congratulate ourselves on our adaptability. The fare still feels outrageous …

We leave on a Friday—bedlam at the airport as we know from our earlier flight to Scotland. We're flying on a budget airline. The gates are practically in Germany. We'll probably worry until we board about what we've forgotten. Maybe our new-found flexibility will extend to asking, What difference does it make what we've forgotten?
Because … the one huge change we soon embraced after our arrival?

We can live quite comfortably with far less "stuff" than we have.

If we had to walk out of this apartment with nothing but the clothes on or backs, our medications, our wallets, our passports, and nothing else—not even our laptop—we'd get along fine.

Have you spent an extended stay in a foreign country?

What was your biggest adjustment?

Did you feel a bit smug about your resilience to new customs, food, language, etc.?

AB Plum and her alter-ego, Barbara, have spent the summer in Denmark, making sojourns to Scotland and Finland. The first trip required a great deal of flexibility to resolve some immigration issues. The second trip required a whole new mindset relative to Finnish.

Despite a few turbulent days, Barbara will meet her deadline for publication of Crazy Daze and a Knight, a romantic comedy exploring a second chance at love. Available on Kindle August 27.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Cutting ties

I've been thinking lately about relationships.

I've been married almost twenty-four years. My husband and I dated about a year and a half before we were married, so we've been together just over twenty-five years.

But my marriage is not my longest monogamous relationship. Not even close.

The same man has done my hair since I was sixteen. Sure, there were the college years. But, as soon as I moved back to Kansas City, I moved back to Dale's chair.

Dale retired.

I knew his plans, but ostrich-like I pretended his move to Florida would never come.

Until the day actually came.

Today I have a first date with a new stylist.

It won't be the same. 

And all this has me wondering, what would Ellison do? Could my favorite country club maven need a new stylist too?

I'll be taking notes...

Julie Mulhern owes her blonde to a man who's left her for warm winters and ocean breezes.

She is a Kansas City native who grew up on a steady diet of Agatha Christie. She spends her spare time whipping up gourmet meals for her family, working out at the gym and finding new ways to keep her house spotlessly clean--and she's got an active imagination. Truth is--she's an expert at calling for take-out, she grumbles about walking the dog and the dust bunnies under the bed have grown into dust lions.

She is the USA TODAY bestselling author of The Country Club Murders and the Poppy Fields Adventures.

Action, adventure, mystery, and humor are the things Julie loves when she's reading. She loves them even more when she's writing!

Friday, August 9, 2019

Learning to Write from TV Commercials

Learning to Write from TV Commercials by Debra H. Goldstein

Lately, I’ve vegged in front of the TV. It isn’t the shows that attract my attention, but the commercials. They are a perfect lesson in storytelling for a writer to observe. Why? Because they must tell their tale in thirty to sixty seconds in a way that we remember. They achieve this through tight scripts, careful casting of actors, and specific product placement.

Like short stories, commercials limit themselves to a single or simple story arc with a final twist. Let me give you some examples. Some of the longer commercials, which are shown on stations that run golden oldie procedurals, run more than a minute. Two, which target different groups, show children or veterans with challenges and how the advertised hospital system or non-profit improves lives through the aid being given. These commercials depend upon characterization and the emotional strength of their stories to attract supporters to make donations when the ad concludes with a plea for money.

Many commercials are set in a kitchen. A husband, boyfriend, or child asks a wife, girlfriend, or mother about a specific food product or if they have more of an item. The woman provides a taste of the food or directs the individual to where the product is. The man or child is satisfied by the taste or being drowned in the product. The stories in these commercials are not as important as selling the name of the product or service. Consequently, there is product placement of a bag of the frozen food or a dish made with the advertised food. My favorite, which advertises a buying club, has roll after roll of paper towel dropping on a man. After the wife explains that without paying much, this service allows one to get quality and quantity, the twist is a child asking if next time they can order cookies. One laughs at the joke, and remembers the buying club.

Other commercials, like books in a series, build upon memories from previous commercials. The Budweiser Clydesdales were introduced in 1933 when prohibition ended. At that time, they pulled a Budweiser beer wagon. Today, they advertise beer for Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company, the parent company that subsequently bought the Budweiser brand. People wait for each year’s new Super Bowl ad in the same way readers wait for the next book in a series by a favorite author.

Commercials hold our attention by using scripts that address topics from purely realistic or sentimental viewpoints or by mixing what people know with moments of fantasy. If the commercial is successful, the viewer remembers the product as opposed to only the story line. If the writer succeeds, the reader subconsciously thinks about ideas the writer planted while enjoying the plotline. 
What commercial makes the biggest impact on you? Why?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Give Peace A Chance by Juliana Aragon Fatula

Dear Reader,

The photo above is my manuscript laid out in chapters. I'm so proud that I've completed it but now the hard work begins. Revision.

Writing is hard work. It takes dedication and solitude to write. I have the dedication. I need to work on the solitude. So, I'm in the wilderness, my husband took our dogs, Bear and Yogi, to the lake. 

My husband fished. I wrote. He bought a camper for us so I could go hunting and fishing with him. I don't hunt or fish. I read. There was no wifi, no cable TV, no nosey neighbors knocking on my door. There was peace, quiet, gentle cool breeze, sunshine, and wildflowers covered in bees and butterflies. There were fish jumping, hawks soaring, and a Border Collie and mini Aussie swimming in the lake. 

The wind blew, the air smelled clean. The lake reflected the azure sky. In the meadows I collected yarrow, sagebrush, prairie grass, wildflowers: salmon, red hot fire, lemon, lavender, and a dainty star shaped white blossom of wild chives. The hills of sandstone were covered with shades of sage, evergreen, pine, and feathery grass with pink tips. The granite boulders, covered in ancient moss, red soil, and blue sky created a scene of beauty and peace. 

A storm blew in from the East. The sky grew dark, clouds amassed in thick billows from the snow melt in the Rocky mountains. I watched for wildlife near the campsite: bears, elk, deer, mountain lion, and moose hid in caves, trees, and in the shadows. They kept their distance and waited for twilight to eat and drink at the lake. 

The peacefulness, the isolation, ignited a desire in me to strip naked and run through the wilderness howling at the full moon. I controlled the  urge and crawled out of my Levi's, socks, and boots and lounged inside my "Love Shack" on my queen sized feather bed with Egyptian cotton sheets and began reading, The Red Queen Dies by Frankie Y. Bailey. 

I couldn't wait to get started. I  have always followed a routine when I read a book. I removed the jacket and examined the hard cover. I read the jacket front and back and moved on to the publisher's information. It was published in 2013. 

The following is a book review.

I finished reading the Red Queen Dies in one day. It held my interest and kept me riveted to the mystery, the who dununit. The story was intriguing, but honestly, the ending left me unsatisfied. Is that all there is? I learned from the author how to hold the reader's attention, however, I expected more of a dramatic ending. It left me with more questions. I guess that's the point? It hooked me to read the sequel, because of the incredibly interesting characters and the hints at something hidden, the unknown, more questions to answer. Who was the mystery man in Detective McCabe's life?

I'd rate it a four out of five stars. It did keep me turning pages and told a good story. Maybe I expected too much from the book, Perhaps all the great writers I've read in my studies gave me high standards. I do look forward to reading her next book. Maybe I'll learn something else to improve my own writing.

The story takes place in October 2019. I read the dedication: to my family, who always believe in my dreams. I understood the writer's sentiment. The dream of writing a book and seeing the dream happen when it gets published. Minotaur books of New York published the novel; they are part of St. Martin's Publishing Group.

The Thomas Dunn Book for Minotaur books stated. This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. I liked that disclaimer.

Mine will read, this is a work of fiction and the characters and events portrayed in this novel are figments of the author's imagination and or are compilations of real and fictitious characters in my reality, dreams, and observations. 

Most readers don't literally read a book from cover to cover, but as a writer, I do. I took in every aspect of this mystery novel and studied it as thought it were a textbook. I'm a life long learner and I continue my education into how to write. I study the master writers I admire, mostly writers of color and mostly by women of color. I noticed the very first page and Library of Congress data and ISBN numbers.

Bailey, Frankie Y.
The Red Queen Dies: a mystery 1st ed.
1. African Americans - Fiction

So I tried it on for style.

Fatula, Juliana Aragon.
The Colorado Sisters: a mystery 1st ed.
1. Chicana, Latina, Mexican Indian, LGBTQ, not Hispanic, not straight nor narrow - Fiction.

That's how I'd like to be catalogued. I've heard writers like to envision their books on a shelf in a bookstore or library and watch as someone takes the book off the shelf, looks at the cover, reads the author reviews, and cracks the book open and peers inside. The next thing is to watch as they take the book home and read it from page one to the end - nonstop, until finished.

I picture myself, as I complete writing my book, and then submit it for publishing. It arrives in the mail from the publisher and I open the box to that new book smell. I close my eyes, exhale and smile.

I'm teaching myself how to write a mystery by studying great writers who write great mysteries. I'm learning the do's and don'ts of the genre while enjoying reading the books and authors I love. Someday soon, I'll see my hard work come to fruition and my first great mystery being read by readers like you.

It's a process. I get discouraged. I feel like I'll never finish my reading and writing and get to the end product but I have friends who are writers and they encourage me to push on and do the work. A post it, Just tell the fucking story, hangs on my fridge reminding me, I have to finish. I have to tell my story.

Dillon Beach, CA where the story percolated in my mind.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Clicking Our Heels - Writing or Reading Long or Short?

Writing or reading long or short? The Stiletto Gang members confess their personal preferences when writing and when reading. They also share what each are reading behind closed doors.

Linda Rodriguez - I prefer to write long and to read long. I'm a novel reader as well as writer. I admire the artistry of good short story writers, but whenever I come up with short story characters and situation, so much more starts to unfold for me. I'm just a natural teller of longer stories. And when I read, I want to be immersed in the entire world. This is something novels give me. I'm currently reading to Fear a Painted Devil by Ruth Rendell, Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison, and The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.

Judy Penz Sheluk - Long, definitely long. I can write short, and love to read it, but it’s hard for me. Maybe because I’m such a pantser? Currently reading Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside.

Shari Randall - I like writing and reading both! My current read is One Night Gone by Tara Laskowski, who does fine short stories and now novels.

T.K. Thorne - For me, short stories are harder than a novel. Not sure why. Perhaps I feel more that I need to have the story laid out prior to beginning it,  and with a novel, I am more interested in who the character is and having the space to explore that. As a reader, I like having a thick, juicy book and the anticipation of more to come with a series.

Julie Mulhern - I am a short writer and prefer reading shorter books. Right now I'm reading Caimh McDonnell's Dublin Trilogy (there are four of them). McDonnell also works as a stand-up comedian.
No surprise, his books are funny and raunchy and filled with memorable characters.

Kay Kendall - I’m like the baby bear in the children's book who tried two beds--one too hard, one too soft--before she hit the third one that was just right. The story I’m reading or writing should take up just as many pages as it needs. It should not be so wordy that it goes way too long, whereas conversely sometimes a story can be too laconic and I want to read (or write) more detail.
What I’m reading now is the multi-award winning historical mystery, THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL by Sujata Massey. At 400 pages (hardback version) it is just right.

Bethany Maines - I have been working on writing short.  I feel like so much of my early writing was packed with details that were important for me to know, but not necessarily important to either the story of the reader.  So I've been steadily trimming my word count on my first drafts which is making editing easier!  But in general I prefer novel length over short stories in both my reading and writing.

Dru Ann Love - Right now I’m reading an ARC of Forgiveness Dies by J.J. Hensley.

Debra H. Goldstein – “I love the one I’m with” because I write both long and short and my reading reflects that. Presently, I’m reading Fishy Business, an anthology of short stories by members of the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime and Murder On Cape Cod by Maddie Day.

Lynn McPherson - I like both. Right now, I'm reading a really fun book called Survival of the Fritters by Ginger Bolton. 

Mary Lee Ashford - I write short because I write a lot of dialogue my first draft. I think that's because I'm mainly interested in the people in the story. I tend to have to go back and make sure I've included the right amount of setting and description. In reading, I also am mostly interested in the story people and so I prefer books that are very character driven. As far as reading, I read both short and long. I'm currently reading a non-fiction book called Atomic Habits by James Clear. 

 J.M. Phillippe - I do enjoy a single-sitting book (when I get those rare "spend the day reading" days). I think I tend to write something that I hope can be experienced in the same way -- something you get so into you don't want to put it down. 

Cathy Perkins - I prefer writing novels because subplots that enhance the main plot are fun to develop and reveal so much about the characters. Those subplots plus the usual twists and turns of a mystery generate word count. I recently finished A Man Called Ove and really enjoyed it.

Monday, August 5, 2019

#Lake Superior

Judy Penz Sheluk

I'm lucky in that my husband and I own a camp on Lake Superior, near Sault Ste. Marie (pronounced Soo), Ontario. The US (Michigan) side is known as the Upper Peninsula (known as the UP).
Now the downside is it's a long way from where we live (about 8 hours by car) so it's not the sort of place you drop by for a weekend. I've just come back from 6 weeks there and let me tell you, it's hard getting back to reality,
In the meantime, here are some facts about Lake Superior you might not know:

1. Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes, shared by Ontario to the north, Minnesota to the west, and Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the south.
2. The Ojibwe name for the lake is kitchi-gummi or gichi gami, meaning great sea or great water. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the name as “Gitche Gumee” in The Song of Hiawatha, as did Gordon Lightfoot in his song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
3. According to the University of Wisconsin, the Objibways believe Lake Superior is protected by Nanabijou, Spirit of the Deep Sea Water.
4. The average depth of Superior is about 500 feet. The deepest point in Lake Superior (about 40 miles north of Munising, Michigan) is 1,300 feet (400 meters) below the surface.
5. Superior holds about 3,000 cubic miles of water— enough to fill all the other Great Lakes plus Lake Erie three times over. Its volume is second only to Russia’s Lake Baikal.
6. The surface area of Lake Superior (31,700 square miles or 82,170 square kilometers) is greater than the combined areas of Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
7. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum approximates 6,000 ships and 30,000 lives lost in Lake Superior shipwrecks. Thanks to Gordon Lightfoot, one of the best known is the Edmund Fitzgerald, which lost her entire crew of 29 men on Lake Superior November 10, 1975, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan.
8. Because of its location north of Lake Huron, which was discovered first by Brûlé, the lake’s name comes from the French word lac supérieur, which means “upper lake.” 
9. The lake is about 350 miles (563 km) in length and 160 miles (257 km) in width. If straightened out, the Lake Superior shoreline could connect Duluth and the Bahama Islands.
10. In the summer, the sun sets more than 35 minutes later on the western shore of Lake Superior than at its southeastern edge. 

And one final fact: my publishing imprint, Superior Shores Press, will be releasing A Fool's Journey, book 3 in my Marketville Mystery series on August 21st. Pre-order on Kindle or in trade paperback at your favorite online bookseller.
About the book: In March 2000, twenty-year-old Brandon Colbeck left home to find himself on a self-proclaimed “fool’s journey.” No one—not friends or family—have seen or heard from him since, until a phone call from a man claiming to be Brandon brings the case back to the forefront. Calamity (Callie) Barnstable and her team at Past & Present Investigations have been hired to find out what happened to Brandon and where he might be. As Callie follows a trail of buried secrets and decades-old deceptions only one thing is certain: whatever the outcome, there is no such thing as closure.
“A missing man, a case gone cold, and a trail potholed with lies, A Fool’s Journey is a classic mystery with a twist. It needs a determined detective who won’t give up or give in. Whip-smart and with a heart for adventure, Calamity Barnstable is on the case, and is certainly nobody’s fool.” —Laura Benedict, author of The Stranger Inside

Friday, August 2, 2019

Writers Don’t Come From Nowhere

by Linda Rodriguez

I’m a poet and novelist of Cherokee heritage who writes about a Cherokee protagonist and also reviews books, so people send me just about every novel written that has a major Indigenous character in it. A terrifying number of them are romances with generic spray-tanned hunks on the cover, love interests who are half-Cherokee, half-Navajo, half-Sioux, or just plain half-Indian (these authors don’t seem to know any other of the 500+ tribes exist) and written without the least tiny bit of knowledge of any of these different cultures.

I also get contacted repeatedly by people who want me to give them a crash course in being Cherokee (or even just Native) because they’ve decided to make the protagonists of their books, or even a whole series, Cherokee (or just Native). These are people who know nothing about the Cherokee, not even the most basic information, and apparently have no Cherokee friends or acquaintances. My attitude toward them, I’m afraid, is not much more sympathetic than toward the authors wanting reviews for their books with “Native” characters. Basically, these folks are saying to me, “I want an ‘exotic Indian’ protagonist and the Cherokee are the most famous tribe, so I’ll choose them, but I have no real interest in the culture or knowing anyone in it. I’m too lazy to do any research on the most documented tribe in American history (the Cherokee were over 90% literate in their own written language and had a bilingual newspaper long before the Removal in the 1830s), so please do my research for me—and maybe I’ll use it or maybe I’ll just do what I want to do, whether it’s true to the culture or not, while putting your name down as the ‘expert’ I consulted. Because I clearly don’t give a real damn.”

Indigenous cultures have been misrepresented by Anglo anthropologists and folklore collectors for centuries. An awful lot of books, especially novels, written by outsiders to a culture end up written from the viewpoint of caricatures rather than real people, and the culture is presented as a collection of stereotypes of that culture (often derived from those misrepresenting researchers). These books almost always, in one way or another, diminish or denigrate those cultures.

Still, as writer/editor, Bob Stewart, once said, “Writers don’t come from nowhere.” He’s absolutely correct in saying that, and it speaks to a constant problem I see with manuscripts. Among other things I do to make what is laughingly called a living, I screen manuscripts for several national book contests, evaluate manuscripts for several university or small presses, and review fellowship application packets for two artist residencies. One of the problems I constantly encounter when reading slush pile or contest entries or fellowship application manuscripts is the writer who seems to come from nowhere and to exist in no particular space in the world.

Unfortunately, I read a lot of manuscripts with good technique but no life, and with no roots, history, or culture to feed them, they’re not likely to ever develop any. These writers are trying to be universal, I suppose, but they haven’t learned the lesson that the specific and particular embody the universal and make it come to life.

Everyone comes from somewhere. Perhaps from an urban slum, perhaps from a pristine upscale suburb, perhaps from an up-and-down series of foster homes, perhaps from great wealth or poverty or anything in between. Everyone comes from some place, some culture, some family. Somewhere where people talk and think a certain way and hold certain expectations. Too many otherwise good manuscripts, however, exist in limbo, in a cultural vacuum.

I suspect, in part, this has become so prevalent because writers think their own backgrounds are not interesting or “exotic” enough.  It seems to me that America has a paradoxical relationship with difference. We fear and hate the different, the Other, but we also exoticize it, investing it with greater interest and excitement than ourselves. These attitudes are actually two sides of the same coin since exoticizing the Other renders it even more foreign and Other and thus worthy of fear and hate. The result for writers, however, is that many writers feel their own backgrounds can never match the interest of the Other.

One evening at a lively, crowded Latino Writers Collective event, a young woman was talking with two of us and the half-Iranian wife of another member. This young woman lamented that she had no culture to draw on for her creative work and wished she were Latino or Native American or Middle Eastern since that would give her cultural richness to write about.

As I questioned her, however, I found that her father had come from Norway as a young child with his parents and her mother’s father emigrated as an adult from the Ukraine—two places rich with history, art, culture—but she knew nothing about them, had pretty much scorned them.  I recommended she learn about where and what she came from instead of wishing she were someone else, someone “exotic.” These cultures and the upper Midwestern place in which she’d grown up were her donnée, her given.

In a wonderful short story, Daniel Chacón has a Native American character and  a Latino character—the only students of color in their MFA program—discuss their fellow students at a party: “They don’t even recognize what’s good about their own cultures, so how can they recognize it with anyone else’s?” one says to the other.

All writers have roots, the details of memory and obsession that make up their backgrounds and their finest, most charged material. I know a gifted poet who grew up in a trailer in a mining town in the Appalachians. Rachel has struggled to get an education, ending up with a Ph.D. from a highly regarded university. Always, she felt looked-down-upon because of her hillbilly background and accent.

Instead of running from it as many have and trying to pretend to be from one of those upscale suburbs, when Rachel writes, she writes powerful poems from those very roots. And her poems are compelling in large part because of those roots. She writes about the prejudice she’s run into all her life, about the poverty and ignorance she left behind, but she writes also about the good in her culture, the richness and humor of the stories, about the art (mostly unrecognized as such by mainstream America), and about her family.

Roots isn’t just a miniseries. Ancestral culture is something we all have, whether we know it or not. It’s a little easier for those of us who can’t escape it because of the faces, eyes, and hair in our mirrors or the names or accents that set us apart from the mainstream. For us, it becomes one of our obsessions because difference per se is an obsession with most Americans. And because, too often, difference equals less than to a number of Americans. This fact, underlined by radio and television daily, leaves us scribbling away to try and show that our people, our cultures, our languages are rich and beautiful and not less than anyone else’s.
We all have our own specific roots, though, every one of us. And even if we’ve fought hard to escape from them, they leave a lasting impact on us, on the way we use language, and on our worldview. Witness F. Scott Fitzgerald who returned to the status of the once-poor outsider futilely trying to enter the ranks of wealthy society and win the rich girl of his dreams for his greatest work, The Great Gatsby. If Fitzgerald had tried instead to write from the viewpoint of someone born to that wealthy stratum of society, think what his novel would have lost. If we try to whitewash our roots out of existence so we’ll fit in better with the homogenized culture around us, we’ll inevitably shortchange our work.

Increasingly in America, many of us are now what the Indigenous community (using imposed BIA terminology) call mixed-blood, what the Latino community (using imposed Spanish colonial terminology) call mestizo. We can pass as homogenized, middle-class, white/Anglo Americans (though many doing that are not really Anglo-Saxon, such as my friend of the Norwegian-Ukrainian background).

It’s almost always easier that way—leave behind the non-Anglo-Saxon background, the poor or working-class background. Leave behind the chance of ethnic slur (there’s one for just about every non-English background). Leave behind the chance of socioeconomic slur (poor white trash, trailer trash, redneck, anyone?). But I believe the decision to leave our histories behind is a mistake. When we do this, we rob ourselves of riches we can use to make our writing come alive.

Two of the most powerful aspects of writing that has a unique voice, writing that comes alive are detail—the detail that only you would have noticed and invested with emotion—and obsession. The best writers write from their obsessions, and obsessions start in childhood and adolescence. They start back there in their family histories and the cultures in which they grew up. Dorothy Allison and Sharon Olds grew up in familial cultures of childhood sexual abuse. That’s one of the obsessions that fuel their work, but each one’s work is still very different from the other’s because they also grew up in different social cultures, Allison from a very poor rural Southern background, Olds from a working-class urban Californian background.

We all come from several different cultures at the same time—familial, social, educational—and these may change as we grow and age. A friend of mine was born in Colombia and came to this country as a young boy. When Joe arrived in this country, he and his brother knew no English, so his mother, who had immigrated several years ahead of her children, refused to speak Spanish with them, insisting they speak only English. Though Joe has never lost his slight Spanish accent, he had to work hard as an adult to regain his fluency in Spanish. His education was all in American schools and universities, so, often, the topics of his poems and stories may not seem outwardly Latino. He will write about classical Greek myths and classical American myths, such as Hollywood stars, because these were part of the culture in which he was educated and grew up. Still, Joe’s stories are also rooted in the experience of that young boy whose mother left him with relatives for years and would only speak a language he didn’t understand when they were finally reunited in a strange, new country. Joe’s stories and poems are always rooted in the experience of being an outsider, even in his own home.

Language is a key to culture. Scientists tell us that people with different languages think about the world in different ways. Indian writer Bharati Mukherjee once spoke about this and about the way that knowing multiple languages opens up your world because you learn to see the world from different perspectives and experience reality differently depending on the language which you are using as you experience it. She grew up in a border area where everyone had to know four or more languages just to transact the business of daily life. When she moved to the United States and later Canada, she was amazed at the narrowness of thought she found among monolingual North Americans.

The language of your home will influence the way you think even today. But we’ve all gone to college and learned to homogenize that language or idiom out of any distinctiveness--so we won’t be viewed as “low-class” or different in some other way. I know. I spent critical growing-up years in Oklahoma. You can still hear a little Oklahoma in my speech. When I was growing up, though, we called a “washcloth” a “warsh-rag”, used “y’all” all the time, and instead of saying “I’ll pick you up” or “I’ll give you a lift,” we said, “I’ll carry y’all to church with me next Sunday.” In my memory are stocked a slew of phrases like that and other odd word usages. They feed my writing.

I know. I know. It sounds like the old “write what you know” stuff, doesn’t it? I don’t mean to set limits, however. If you find yourself obsessed with some other culture in which you didn’t grow up—the way John Steinbeck did with the Okies of the Dust Bowl—throw yourself into that culture. Live with it and learn it. Steinbeck “embedded” himself with the Okies as they trekked from Oklahoma to California and as they tried to live in California. That’s the way he was able to write The Grapes of Wrath with such powerful authenticity.

Writers who ignore their own roots often try to write from the viewpoint of someone very different from their own experience—without bothering to learn much about that community. When you read their work, you can tell immediately that they have no real basis in that character’s world. It rings false, and that’s always a death knell for any writer, whether poet, writer of fiction or nonfiction.

If you’re going to write from inside a character from a different culture, spend real time in that culture with its people. Talk with them, but more importantly, listen to them. Ask questions. Learn the culture. I guess it is the old command of “write what you know,” after all, or rather, what you have taken the time to learn about.
My advice is to root yourself as a writer. Go back to your own origins. Mine your memories, seeking those emotion-freighted, telling details and your own obsessions. Learn about your own history and culture—all of it if you’re a mix of more than one, as most of us are. Remember the language and idiom of your earliest family. And if you want to write about cultures and people foreign to your experience, root yourselves just as deeply in those also.

Find your roots as a writer, and I believe you will find your voice. Isn’t that what we all look for when we read—a unique and distinctive voice that allows us to see the world in a way that’s slightly different from the way anyone else does? What’s the old adage about giving your children roots and wings? Well, give your writing roots, and you’ll give it a chance to take flight.

Linda Rodriguez's 11th book, Fishy Business: The Fifth Guppy Anthology (edited), was recently published. Dark Sister: Poems is her 10th book and was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published in 2017.  Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery featuring Cherokee detective, Skeet Bannion, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in 2020. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, Every Last Secret—and earlier books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Native Writers Circle of the Americas, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Learn more about her at