A New Generation of Student Writers

Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting some bright young writers at Marble Valley Academy in El Dorado Hills. At this private school, students are encouraged to create their own hard-bound books of poetry each year, documenting their growing writing skills while building up a library of their own writing that they and their families will always treasure. It was impressive to see not only the literary skills and insights of these young people’s poetry, but the care and artistry they put into decorating their covers, some of which were absolutely beautiful.

As I told these young writers about my own journey to becoming a published writer, it occurred to me how much influence my own teachers had, passing on their love of literature and introducing me to writing techniques that I still use today. It was heartwarming to see this process continues.

This past week was Teacher Appreciation week. To all of you teachers out there I extend a heart-felt thanks for what you do, and how you influence new generations.mvs-0043_1_orig

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Beautiful Library Discovery

Today I discovered a treasure: The McClatchy Library.

The recent Academy Award-nominated movie Lady Bird showed many of Sacramento’s landmarks, and visitors now tour the spots featured in the movie. It’s nice to see people discover what California’s capital city has to offer, and here is one more site for the list: the Ella K. McClatchy Library

I stumbled across this historical jewel box by accident. I was early for an appointment nearby and decided to hunt for a library to kill some time. Libraries are pretty much my favorite places in the world because they are open to the public, free, and offer water fountains, restrooms and, best of all, rooms full of books.

The building was older than most libraries I frequent, and as I walked up the steps my eyes were caught by a historical marker. “Hmmm,” I thought. I can’t resist historical markers, either.

It said the house, which was built in the early 1900s and renovated in 2013, was once inhabited by the McClatchy family, owners of the Sacramento Bee. Two of their daughters donated their home to be used as a library in memory of their mother. As a former newspaper reporter and editor, and fan of the Sacramento Bee, I was intrigued.

Moments later I found myself inside a charmer of a house, lovingly turned into a public library without losing an ounce of the warmth and welcoming feeling of the family home it once was. The dining room, living room, and other rooms are now lined with bookcases with mystery novels, children’s books, magazines and more. There is an intimate computer room. Halfway up the wooden staircase, the landing glowed with light passing through a gorgeous stained glass window, with inviting-looking, green-cushioned window seats. Upstairs, former bedrooms turned into reading rooms  furnished with the house’s original sofas, armchairs, and rugs invited visitors to come in, sit down, and stay a while.

The library has not exactly spent all these years unknown to the public. The Sacramento Historical Society and the Newton Booth Neighborhoods Association have honored the Friends of the McClatchy Library for their superb stewardship of this lovely building. I debated whether to post this blog, however, because this quiet weekday afternoon, I got a whole room with a fireplace, comfy couch, and a view over the tree-shaded street all to myself. Selfishly, I didn’t want to share it with anyone else.

But now I have.

 

http://www.saclibrary.org/Locations/Ella-K-McClatchy

 

Books on the Shelf and Left Coast Crime

While visiting family in Utah I had the thrill of seeing my first two novels in bookstores: Chance’s Bluff and the just-released A Place Called New Hope. It was my first time seeing my books on the shelf beside my favorite writers. Of course I took lots of photographs in Deseret Book and Seagull Book stores to document the occasion.

Soon after, I was lucky enough to attend the Left Coast Crime mystery writers’ convention in Reno, where my friend and fellow-author Michele Drier, president of the Sacramento chapter of Sisters in Crime, spoke on one of the panels. The discussions ranged from writing political thrillers to cozy mysteries to writing in several genres. Best of all, I came home with lots of books for my ever-growing to-read pile!

I may have said this before, and will probably say it again, but one of the greatest pleasures of writing is not just putting down stories on the page, which I love. It is getting to know fellow writers, who, it turns out, are some of the nicest, most generous people on earth. Whether household names or still developing their skills, they are witty, warm, and, surprisingly not at all competitive. When one succeeds, everyone else is thrilled for him or her.

In a way,  seems counter-intuitive because many writers, including me, are naturally introverts. In fact, part of what attracted me to being an author was the idea that I could stay at home and play with my imaginary friends without having to go out and make conversation with real people, a thought that used to strike terror into my heart.

So why is it so easy to mingle with other writers?

It must be that we face similar struggles and challenges and share some of the same interests, twisted or otherwise. A writer of cozy mysteries told me that the readers of these sweet stories are surprisingly blood-thirsty, which I suppose is true of the writers as well! Historical writers share fascinating and amazingly specific details of life in the past, that make me try to figure out how I can include them in my stories.

In spite of all the fun, I confess to being a tiny bit relieved when it was time to go home and return to my laptop and plotting–and resting up for the next writers’ convention.

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A Place Called New Hope on the shelf at Deseret Book Store

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Edgar Alan Poe and me at the Left Coast Crime Convention

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Friends from the Capitol Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime

Busy New Year

Oh my goodness, I am so swamped! I will write more later, but I do want to note the official publication today of Chance’s Bluff, my first novel published by Sweetwater Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort Publishing. So exciting! This is a day I have looked forward to a long time.

Today also happened to be the date my final edits were due for my next novel, A Place Called New Hope, which comes out in March. There is so much more I want to say, but it will have to wait–no time now.

I hope 2018 is the year that your dreams come true. God bless.

Twelve Days of Christmas

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I’m so excited that my novella, Abby Rose’s Christmas, will be included in The Singing Librarian Blog’s Twelve Days of Christmas countdown on Dec. 18. The blog is at https://www.singinglibrarianbooks.com/adults/12-days-of-christmas-count-down-giveaway.

Every day from now until Christmas Eve, The Singing Librarian will be including author interviews, guest posts, quote memes, snippets from books, and giveaways. I hope you check it out!
This is the first time I’ve written a Christmas story, and it was a lot of fun. I’d already been thinking of doing a story about a character who links my stories The Gardener’s Tale, and Chance’s Bluff. This seemed a perfect opportunity!
As I was writing it, the story began to take on a life of its own, taking a twist that surprised even me. I hope you read it and enjoy it!

So much to be grateful for!

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What an incredible year. As always, there have been ups and downs, but I have to say, in many ways this has been one of my best years ever. This Thanksgiving has been a great way to think over my blessings, which I won’t list here, but trust me, it is a long list.

Does that mean there have been no hardships? No. But if there is one thing I like about growing older, it’s that it brings perspective. Once, when things were going badly, I felt that they would always continue that way. Now I see life more as a succession of rolling hills. Things go up, and they go down. And then they go up again. And then they go down again. The Romans had a saying for this: “This too shall pass.” Whether joy or sorrow, eventually it will pass.

Perspective is maybe the greatest blessing of all. It helps me appreciate the things that are important–health, family, love–and pay less attention to the things that aren’t–cobwebs, a cluttered garage, a car that needs to be smogged.

I hope that you and your loved ones enjoyed Thanksgiving, that happiness comes your way, and that you have a wonderful upcoming holiday season. And never forget the things that are truly important.

Here it is…the cover!

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Here it is, folks, the cover of my first book with Cedar Fort Publishing! I love the tenderness it shows between my main characters, which reflects their relationship in the story. Benjamin Marlowe, a former Civil War captain, is inspired by Walt Whitman (yes the poet shows up in the story) to travel the country while avoiding anything that will hold him down. Yet when he meets Annabelle, an orphaned pioneer girl who has grown up in a hidden valley in the Cascade Mountains, his plans unexpectedly change.

The publication date of “Chance’s Bluff” has just been moved up to December, which means I’ll be busy the next few weeks working on getting reviews and publicity … my least favorite part of being an author. I don’t mind appearances–those are actually pretty fun. It’s organizing my calendar, planning, sending out emails, and all the practical stuff that make me want to procrastinate. Ugh! I need a secretary to do all that for me.

In the meantime, I’m also busy putting final edits on a Christmas novella, “Abby Rose’s Christmas.” The story will be featured December 18 on “Singing Librarian Books” blog’s ‘ “12 Days of Christmas Countdown” Blog, with five free giveaways. I’m excited not only because this is my first Christmas story, but because it features one of my favorite characters, whose story connects those of two of my other novels.

Who is that character, you ask? Why, Abby Rose herself. She’s the high-spirited, red-headed daughter of Tom and Abigail Westerly from The Gardener’s Tale, and the grandmother of Chance McInnes from Chance’s Bluff. Although I barely mention her in those books, she’s a very important character in the lives of those around her. Her fun-loving personality frequently gets Abby Rose into trouble, and that is the case in this romantic and adventurous Christmas tale, where she meets her future husband.

I’ll post more on “Abby Rose’s Christmas” later. For now, it’s back to writing and trying to whip my promotional calendar for “Chance’s Bluff” into shape … a month earlier than expected. Yikes! I feel myself procrastinating already.

 

Book Signing Today in Walnut Grove, CA

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If you’re in the Walnut Grove area today and looking for something book-related to do, drop by the library at 14177 Market Street, where I’ll be signing books from 1-5 p.m. with fellow Northern California authors.

You’ll find everything from crime, children’s books and nonfiction to, of course, historicals and clean romances.

More good news: my books will be discounted since I am clearing out my inventory before they are republished by Cedar Fort Publishing (with new covers) starting in January.

Hope to see you there!

How I Finished those Novels I’ve Been Working On Forever

With two novels coming out early next year (one in January, one in March), friends and acquaintances have been asking me, “Wow, how do you write so fast?”

The truth is I started those novels (along with several others) many more years ago than I like to admit, some stemming clear back to college days. Recently I learned how to finish those partially written stories, which is why they now seem to be coming out one after another.

Although there are many methods that work for different authors, this system works for me. (By the way, I can’t take credit for any of these ideas, since they all came from workshops, books, and classes. If  you’re a writer, you’ve surely run across some or all of them.)

First: The Idea

This is the easy part! The spark for an story can come from a news event, a friend’s experience, a dream, or just imagination. Far from a developed plot, it’s merely an image, a character, a conversation, a setting, or a fragment of a scene that pops into my head.

However I used to think that, armed with only this tiny idea, I could sit down at the keyboard and create a beautifully composed masterpiece with intricate layers and fascinating characters. Disappointingly what actually happened was, after about three chapters of pointless twaddle, I’d realize the story was going nowhere and give up.

That was because I had not yet learned “Plot Structure,” which I’ll return to in a minute. However, every one of my stories did start with that spark of an idea.

Second: The Story Goal

In retrospect, I’m embarrassed how long it took to realize that a story must have a plot. In a screen-writing class I took at UCLA, the instructor taught us that a hero must have a worthy goal that means everything to him, and during the story he must overcome powerful obstacles that try to prevent him from obtaining that goal. (This is not necessarily true for depressing literary fiction, of course, but then I don’t write depressing literary fiction).

The next step in my writing process is to fill in the blanks of the following sentence: (Name of character) wants (story goal), but (antagonist / conflict), so (what he/she does to overcome the antagonist). This simple rubric has provided an effective basic road map to the stories I want to tell.

Third: Outline

Much has been written on plot structure, beginning with Aristotle’s observation that everything should be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I never had trouble coming up with beginnings and endings, but what to do in the middle? That’s the source of the famous Hollywood executive’s complaint: “This has no second act!”

I don’t have time to write in detail about plot structure, and others have done it far better than I could anyway. However, without an outline I would bog down hopelessly, with no idea how to find my way to the end. On the other hand, too detailed an outline can take the fun out of actually sitting down and writing a story, which entails imagination, discovery, and freedom.

To solve this problem, I usually start with a very simple structure (“the skeleton” of my story) to help me know where I’m heading. No more tearing up pages and pages of writing that doesn’t work. Who has time for that? Certainly not me!

As more ideas come to me, I write them down as scenes and plug them into my rough draft, which I’ve usually already started, because I just couldn’t wait. (Yes, I’m an impatient sort.) The outline helps me know where these new scenes should go.

Act 1 – The Beginning

I introduce the main character and her world, which is about to change drastically. Then something happens that forces the main character out of her old life. She must make a difficult decision that propels her into a new world (often leaving home). I jot down what that that decision is, and what forces her to make it.

Act 2 (First Half)

She encounters more obstacles to her goal, and tries to overcome them. She meets allies and the antagonist.

Mid-point:  A twist happens, or the heroine reaches a turning point where she is tempted to quit. Instead, she recommits and throws herself whole-heartedly into overcoming the antagonist (or whatever is preventing her from achieving her goal.)

Act 2 (Second Half)

Difficulties worsen.  (Sometimes I’ll take time to make a list of all the worst things that could happen to the heroine, so I won’t run out of ideas. I hate doing that to the poor girl, but without problems there’s no story!)

Black Moment: Some terrible crisis happens, making it appear that the heroine cannot possibly succeed. She experiences grief and despair, and nearly gives up before rallying.

Climax: With the aid of her allies and/or something the heroine has learned during the course of the story, she confronts the antagonist directly and wins. (In my stories, the heroine always wins. For me, reading is an escape from reality. If you want the bad guys to win, go read a newspaper instead.)

Resolution: Now the heroine experiences the new, better world that she has helped to bring about, with a warm embrace from the love interest and the promise of a bright future. Ahhh! How satisfying a happy ending is.

Fourth: Rough Draft

Now I take the bare-bones ideas in the outline and cobble them into something resembling a real story, dressing them up with dialogue and scene descriptions.

My most important trick is to forge ahead rather than going back to endlessly polish and re-write. I used to spend far too long on paragraphs, trying to get them “just right” before moving on, which kept me from ever finishing the darn book! It is hard to let go of imperfect prose and keep writing, but I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t, a book that should only take a few months to write can take years.

Being the kind of person who occasionally likes to eat dessert first, I often write the “fun” scenes first, and then go back and link them together in order. That is just one reason why the outline is so important: it helps me make sure each scene is actually needed and works for the story as a whole, instead of wasting time on extraneous stuff.

Fifth: Critique Group

Now I’ll go back and fix my rough draft of the most obvious errors, then submit it to my critique partners. This is a humbling and painful process. No matter how wonderful I think my writing is, critiquers ALWAYS find something wrong with it. A lot of things, in fact. Sigh.

The good news is, feedback from a skilled critique group (and thank goodness, I have one), always makes the story better. As a matter of fact, many famous authors of the past submitted their mansucripts to peers for feedback, including Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was interested to learn that To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the great American novels, was vastly improved by the feedback of an editor before it was published. That kind of company makes me feel a little better!

Sixth: Beta Readers

After making changes and edits based on my critiquers’ feedback, I set the book aside for a couple of weeks and re-read it with fresh eyes. Next, I make final changes and give it to a few non-writer friends called “Beta Readers,” who generously provide unvarnished feedback. If the novel passes muster, I make any further small corrections and consider the book finished. It never will be “perfect,” because I always find things that could be phrased better or typos that somehow made it through the process, but at least…it’s done!

Well, that’s it. That’s my process. I’ve left out some other steps, such as research and picking characters’ names and book titles, which is harder than it sounds. I’ll write about those another time, but hopefully this gives you an idea of how my novels grow from a wisp of an idea to approximately 300 pages of (hopefully) thrilling and entertaining story. At least, that’s MY goal!

 

 

 

 

 

Sad to See Summer End

With the temperature at 109 degrees, it’s hard to believe that it’s nearing the end of summer. However, the beginning of school and appearance of Halloween paraphernalia in the stores say otherwise. At least my summer vacation ended with a bang: a wonderful trip to Oregon and the eclipse!

Well…actually, we returned from Oregon a few days BEFORE the eclipse. But we saw plenty of preparations while we were there, including lots of stores stocking those special sunglasses everyone was talking about. My husband and I missed all the traffic, and got to enjoy the gorgeous Oregon coastline virtually by ourselves, and still got to view the partial eclipse from home.

We kicked off our road trip by viewing a fabulous staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the famous festival in Ashland, a production which showed just how timeless that classic is, and how endlessly creative talented theater folk are. It has been a couple of decades since I’d been to Ashland, which happens to be one of a handful of charming small towns that inspired the village of “River’s Bend” in my first novel, “The Jewelry Case,” and part of the plot as well. If you read it, you’ll know what I’m referring to! 🙂

We were hoping for cool weather as we wound our way up toward Washington and the Olympic peninsula but unfortunately, the heat wave followed us. Counter to my expectations, we encountered exactly zero rain. Still, it was refreshing to see all those green trees and the unbelievable ocean views as we drove up from Coos Bay to Astoria … and then, crossing into Washington, the beautiful scenery continuing all the way to Gig Harbor, Port Angeles, and Bellingham.

Here’s a few photos of our trip.

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I hiked down to this waterfall near the adorable town of Sliverton. You can walk behind it, too. This might make a good setting for a chase scene in one of my future books.

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Me in front of the theater where we saw Julius Caesar. If you haven’t been to Ashland yet, you should definitely put it on your bucket list. Unforgettable experience.

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I hope your summer was equally memorable!