Sunday, December 20, 2015

Thoughts on Christmas

Thoughts on Christmas

The snow is falling on a slant in big, crowded flakes over Windy Bay. We had fog this morning, and then rain, and finally snow, all pointing to a cozy day inside. Christmas cards and wrapping gifts can wait. I want to think about Christmas.
snowy Idaho
We used to do so much running around. The first year America shopped online, I worked for Coldwater Creek on the web team. Terrified of the Internet, people would call and ask if they were online. We would politely have to reply that they were still on the telephone. At first, everyone forgot their passwords, but we could look them up. “That is my dog’s name,” they would say.

As the days progressed, the anxiety and stress would increase, and yes, sometimes the call center agents, myself included, would be on the receiving end of a lot of harsh words and yelling. We had to ask if the customer would care to share their email address.
Most responded with, “Certainly not.”
With each increasing year, online shopping became more of the norm. During those years, we scrambled to keep up with the volume of business, and we did everything in our power to keep the customers happy. We were proud to work for a company founded by good people and housed in the beautiful town of Sandpoint, Idaho.
Codwater Creek Store
Sometimes, between calls, my fellow agents and I would commiserate. We bonded. We talked a lot about the meaning of Christmas. It sure didn’t seem like we were hearing it. If packages had yet to arrive, if something did not live up to their expectations, or God forbid, the wrong item got into the box, we had to hear about it. We would wonder what happened to the idea of an old- fashioned Christmas with good food and even better good cheer?
We look back; we look around, and we look forward. We think about the story. It is one of the greatest ever told. As a child, it used to make me wonder why Joseph did not start our earlier, why did Mary have to be dragged along if she was having a baby, why didn’t some nice person give up their room at the Inn so that she could have a bed? Why weren’t they better prepared? Times were different, my Mom said. She was glad she had all of us in a hospital.
On Christmas Eve, in the city of Toronto, we gathered around the radio, listening for the first reports. They came from the military. As the sky turned dark, regular programming would be interrupted with a news bulletin. A sighting! Clearly visible from NORAD bases in the far north, a sleigh, flying through the pitch black sky pulled by reindeer, he was on his way! Santa’s journey had begun. We had the cookies and the milk ready. Why were there two Christmas stories, I wondered?
On Christmas Day, we looked forward to another tradition. My mother insisted we eat breakfast in the dining room with good china and silver, bacon, eggs, toast and fresh orange juice. It seemed to go on forever, but when we finished eating, we gathered by the radio to hear the Queen. She reminded us, year after year, every year of my life to date, that we should focus on serving others. Wherever we happened to be in the Commonwealth, she wanted to wish us all a happy Christmas with our families and to be mindful of those in need. She was right, is right, and will always be right.
There is meaning. There is hope. There is kindness in this world, and there is love. Stress? Who needs it? What we could use is more of the story and more peace.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Thoughts for Thanksgiving

 going to the execution
What happens when you are interested in a particular period in time? If you like to read, you will be drawn to books about that era. When I was writing My American Eden, I was tasked with researching Colonial America between the years of 1635-1660. It began when I found a tidbit in a history book about a woman who walked into Boston with her shroud in hand. She walked to the hanging tree twice, had the noose around her neck twice, and her face covered with her Pastor’s handkerchief twice. A last-minute reprieve by the Governor spared her the first time: the second resulted in death. This story struck me as one that every American should know. Because a law was passed banishing Quakers on pain of death, Mary Dyer challenged it with her life. As I began researching the event, I quickly realized that history is far from simple.
Amazon Link to mae
I found that perspectives differed depending on the author. Then something else came to light. The story tended to change over time. Quaker historians had one perspective, British authors had another, and then American academia added more confusion to the mix. I began to wonder if history is based on myth or fact and wondered how to find the truth. Official court documents, dates and times, all came up with discrepancies. Initially, I was obsessed with every detail. My first draft ballooned to eight hundred pages. When I learned that Mary Dyer traveled back to England and spent seven years there, I had to accept the challenge of understanding the English civil war. The Puritans and the Roundheads, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, and his destruction of Parliament were vague recollections from high school. I turned to my favorite historian Sir Winston Churchill. It was his description of a rising merchant class gaining sufficient power to challenge the established ruling class that piqued my interest. The more deeply I delved into the conflict, the more understanding I gained of what unfolded decades, and then centuries later. I learned of that the roots of the American Civil War stretched back to the events of the 1650s. One side, the Royalists, eventually gravitated to Virginia and the southern United States while the Puritans sailed to Boston. The events in New England also had an effect on the American Revolution and the founding fathers. Mary Dyer’s protests did not go unheeded. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, he immediately passed a law forbidding such discrimination.
JFK the Unspeakable
As we watch history unfold, try as we might, it is often difficult to find the truth. When asked if history would be kind to him, Winston Churchill replied that it would indeed because he intended to write it. As a child growing up in a military family in the post-war fifties and sixties, the shadow of war hung over the conversations by the adults. Watching the first reports of the news from Dallas, fifty-two years ago today, I had nothing but questions. At that point in time, I was obsessed with the Nancy Drew series. Even in the midst of the emotional wallop that hit us all regarding the assassination of the President, I sensed a murder mystery. People crave a simple explanation, but I feel we must be sleuths. What could be murkier than the events of November 22, 1963? One book leads to another; facts are disputed, and some facts are indisputable. The deeper one delves, the more confusion one is likely to find until at last the truth emerges. Should we accept the fact that we will never know? I have never thought so. The Unspeakable by James W. Douglass and The Devil’s Chessboard, by David Talbot have shed new light. Both books are thoroughly researched and beautifully written.
The final paragraph of the speech President John F. Kennedy was to deliver in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963:
We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility — that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint — and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal — and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”
SOURCE: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Two statues in front of the Massachusetts State House: One by Sylvia Shaw Judson depicts Mary Dyer, and the other is Isabel Mcllvain’s President Kennedy.
bigger statue of Mary Dyerjfk statehouse
This week we will gather with friends and family remembering those first families who came to the New World seeking freedom. Some of us will pray for those around the globe who are fleeing terrible circumstances and conflict. Hopefully, we will all give thanks for the simple things: a roof over our heads, a warm house and a bounteous feast on the table. I hope we will all remember to cherish freedom too.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Good Books for Damp Days

Good Books for Damp Days

Elena Ferrante

It is raining and damp on Windy Bay today. The lake is still and apart from the odd shot fired now and again, we hear almost nothing, save the delicious sound of raindrops falling on a metal roof. After a long walk and discussion about driving to town to see a movie, we opted, as we so often do, for a cozy afternoon with our books. My goal was to finish this month’s selection for The Best Food Ever Book Club.
If we had first come to see Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, the two main characters of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, as young women, it would have been our loss. By describing the friendship of two little girls with all of its inherent passion and intensity we, as readers, never lose sight of those children. This device, whether intentional or not, gives the book much of its power.
Set in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, we learn of a society struggling to cope with post-war conditions in Italy. As the girls observe events in the neighborhood, we see the volatile and frightening conditions in which they live. Girls are neither highly valued nor are kept very safe. It is this anxiety that creates a never-ending tension in the book.
As in most tales of girlhood friendship, there is a divergence in their respected paths. One will be continuing her education, and the other will have to work in the family shoe repair shop. As fate would have it, the girl with the greatest ability is the one who is stymied.
Knowing the rivalries, the competition and the gut- wrenching power these emotions have with both girls, the split is painful to imagine. Perhaps readers with a memory of such times and similar decisions made regarding the fate of sisters and neighbors, feel this more keenly. I will wait until the Best Food Ever Book Club discusses this work to see if anyone agrees with me. Perhaps I will share a personal story. It happened in a similar fashion. Sent to a private school, and then to compound matters, moving to a new house, drove a wedge between  my best friend from childhood and me. She went on to new friends as did I, and we were not able to maintain our former bond.
Even if the parting of the ways had not been centered around school, I was reminded of other factors that seem to break those incredible ties of friendship one feels in elementary school, and how something along the way always seems to come between cherished friends. If it isn’t school, it is a boyfriend, or lack thereof, or some change that often splits them apart. After reading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables so many times over, and at least once per decade throughout the course of my life, my last go-round brought me to the understanding of the diverging paths between Anne and her friend Diana. With mouths to feed and a farm to run, Diana’s father decrees that she will not go on to further her education while Anne receives a scholarship. There is no remedy, no matter what the intention. Neither girl will be the same.
Anne of Green Gables
Elena Ferrante does a brilliant job of zeroing in on the truth of these girl’s circumstances. Neither one is safe. Not entirely, and the women who should be protecting them seem unobservant, distant, and oblivious. For how many centuries were girls and women told to accept their lot in life without complaint. For how long did we have the merest of choices over our destinies? While I would not call My Brilliant Friend a feminist novel, it certainly stirred those emotions.
My Brilliant Friend is the first in a series of four books. Whether I continue, or leave off here remains in the hands of my book club. Knowing some have already galloped on through, I expect to hear some heavy lobbying.

This post is from

Saturday, April 18, 2015

It's a wrap for Writing North Idaho

The Blogettes Summer of 2011
(From left to right) Jennifer Rova, Jenny Leo, Elizabeth Briton,
Mary Jane Honegger, Nancy Owens Barnes and Kathy Dobbs
After nearly five years we have made the decision it’s time to move on to other writing adventures and end our Writing North Idaho blog.  We thank those who joined us as Followers and those who merely stumbled upon one of our posts through the serendipity of the World Wide Web. 

Now for analysis of our little online adventure. 
1. Did we reach our goal?
2. What did we gain from the experience?
3. Is writing a blog a worthwhile endeavor for a writer?

1. Did we reach our goal?
Yes we did.  Much to our surprise and delight, the simple blog we created with the goal of providing a forum for local authors to gain knowledge and find encouragement and support, eventually touched nearly every corner of the world and received 277,719 pageviews as of this morning.  Each time we signed onto the blog and glanced at the recent viewers, we realized the scope of our blog was much larger than we ever dreamed; as readers from China; Sun Prairie, Wisconsin; Australia; Newfoundland; London England; Kazakhstan; Fayetteville, Georgia; Ukraine; and New York, New York had visited to view one of our posts in the past hour.   We found it hard to believe that writers in Russia were second only to our U.S. viewers. 

2. What did we gain from our experience?
Each of us gained knowledge and honed our writing skills as we researched and then wrote over 690 posts.  Our determination to post three times each week required us to meet deadlines and do our work in a timely manner – valuable assets for any writer.

We enlarged our network of writing contacts and corresponded with many writers along the way, but one of the most valuable assets of taking this blogging adventure was the friendships we developed with one another.  Writing is most often a solitary endeavor, so our quarterly meetings to discuss our blog were looked forward to with anticipation.  We met in a home or local cafĂ©, shared a meal, and talked about ourselves, our lives, and our dreams … eventually we would even get around to talking about the blog.  Although most of us are past the age for nicknames, we had fun calling ourselves “The Blogettes” and belonging to a of group dedicated writers.

3. Is writing a blog a worthwhile endeavor for a writer?
Writers are encouraged to blog to raise their presence on the Internet, promote their work, and allow possible editors and publishers to get a look at their writing.  We are uncertain whether or not WNI was valuable to us in that type of self-promotion, but we do know it  gave us great satisfaction.  Just this morning a viewer from Kenya visited to read my 2012 post outlining the AP Guide for using numerals.  It doesn’t get much more rewarding than that.  I encourage you to give it a try.

So we say goodbye to this adventure with a little sadness, and a heap of thanks for the support and friendship of one another as we continue our writing journey.  

 Nancy Owens Barnes – (WNI founder) 
working on a series of poetry and photo books and promoting her first book 
Mary Jane Honegger - working on full feature screenplay
Jennifer Lamont Leo - seeking publisher for first and working on second book 
Jennifer Rova - seeking publisher for first book
Kathy Cooney Dobbs - writing her own blog
Elizabeth S. Brinton - posting at as well as promoting her first book and seeking publisher for second.
Anna Goodwin - promoting her books and working on another
Elizabeth (Liz) Mastin (The Joy of Prosody) - soon to publish a book on poetry 

And special thanks to Lila Bolme and B.J. Campbell for … well they know…

That’s a wrap!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dear Diary and the Art of Journal Writing

My first journal, begun in the summer between the fifth and sixth grade,  sits on my desk as a reminder of my love of writing. I loved that little blue plastic book with its tiny lock. To record my private thoughts, with no worries about uninvited readers, seemed like total bliss at the time. However, as I apparently come from a long line of hackers, it took the spies in my midst all of two seconds to pry their way into my deepest secrets, only to repeat them for general entertainment at the dinner table. Nevertheless, I plodded on, writing diaries and journals through most of my life. I can be sporadic, missing a year or two here and there, but I am happy to say that I can at least fill a modest bookshelf with my efforts. Lest you think they would make for interesting reading, a record of my time as a teen, then a young wife and a mother, followed by the trials of middle age, I can only attest to the fact that, they are nothing short of pure drivel. How did this happen? I tended to use my diaries and journals as a place in which to beef. The stings and arrows of life that tended to swirl around in my mind, distracting me from my goals, were a nuisance, and so I found a way to expunge them. I have had to make it very clear to my husband and children that they are for my eyes only and in no way a record of my happy, family life. My complaints, when read in bulk, are totally depressing to me now. Why did I not record the cute things the kids said, my thoughts about life, my dreams or my aspirations? I can only confess that they record an inner relationship I have with myself where I like to process things slowly.

In the past, I have thoroughly enjoyed well-written journals and have spent weeks and even months reading volume after volume. The top three on the hit parade are as follows: Virginia Woolf, Noel Coward, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Virginia Woolf, like me, set down many frustrations. The unwanted criticisms, the interruptions from writing, and the stings of patronizing male reviewers are all preserved for prosperity. My admiration for her as a writer could never be overstated. Her brilliant work, A Room of One's Own, tells us flat out, what we, as women, will have to carve out for ourselves if we are to have any chance at all. To know that anyone would disturb her clear and acknowledged genius, over a question regarding lunch, made me want to chase her housekeeper around the yard brandishing a rolling pin. Her ups and downs, pain and sorrow, small moments of triumph, gave me a clear picture of the path, the road and the way a writer must take. Her bouts of depression and sad end did not deter me either, as it was clear from the start that she suffered from a malady that had no cure in her day. Describing her struggles, in the light of her illness, afforded an even greater level of inspiration. Her courage astounded me.

By contrast, Noel Coward had a much more exciting life of glamor and parties in London, but he had his endless frustrations as well. In reading his journals, I found much to delight in. The obstacles in his life had a similar ring and can be summarized in one word: interference. Again, I was shocked that anyone would dare think they had a better way to say a line or to put on a play than he did. I wanted to shoo them out the backstage door. I also loved his take on critics which would be summarized by, “Insulting review in The Times.” I gained an understanding that opinions that some people seem to value, are often nothing short of hostility, for whatever reason, and the greatest minds in our midst, those who crafted works of pure genius, seem to have a great ability to not listen to any negativity of any kind.

The third and best grouping I did not read until a few years ago, and when I did, I became so involved in them, it changed the way I go about my daily life. For some strange reason, I read the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery, in reverse order. I understood her life from her last days to those preceding The Great War and predating the creation of her most famous work, namely, Anne of Green Gables.  It gives me chills to this day to think of her sitting at the kitchen table, in a simple farmhouse on Prince Edward Island, warmed by the fire in the cook stove, with pencil and notebook in front of her, and no idea of the future ahead,  in the process of composing the greatest selling book of all time. Her novel was rejected, and stuffed in a hat box, shelved in a closet, and all but forgotten until a spring cleaning project had her take a second look. Astonished to rediscover it with the understanding that it was quite good, she vowed to try again, and the rest is history.

In many phases of my life, I have turned to reading journals when I am stuck and casting about for ideas. This often leads me back to keeping a journal once again. As I scribble away, getting things off my chest and out of the way, sometimes new ideas begin to take hold. When we see a published group of diaries, we are looking at entries that have been recopied and reworked. Some editing and piecing together form the finished look, and no doubt a lot of what is mundane and downright petty is discarded.

From the Selected Journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery
The first entry:

Monday, Jan. 20

"Mollie and I have made a decidedly startling discovery about some of our little personal affairs. I am not going to write it down because it is a dead secret. We have refused to tell Nate what it is but we have hinted just enough to fire his curiosity to the blazing point."

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Because We Are Writers

Because We Are Writers
We are writers. Somewhere within us, is the need to communicate our thoughts in some lasting way. To articulate some feeling, the vision within, in the most potent manner. The process can be vital, latent, uncomfortable, and exhilarating all at the same time; experiences richly allegorized in Hemingway's story, The Old Man And The Sea. 
The tale follows an old fisherman, Santiago, as he tries to prove his skill and restore his reputation. For 84 days he has gone out to sea and come back with nothing, not even a guppy. This is a scene familiar to most writers at least oncea period of low production that puts your abilities in question.

The Old Man and the SeaAlone, Santiago leaves the safety of familiar water in hope of catching a marlin. He endures hours upon hours of sweat and discomfort before he feels a tug on the line. In the same way, writers may spend hours researching, brainstorming, rewriting, trying to hook into the big one. We want it to be bodacious, the catch of a lifetime. 
Then, just as the old man pours his strength out to bring the huge fish to the surface, we too work diligently to bring our catch up from the murky deep. On the surface, it's a beauty. The whole glistening thing looks wonderful as we lash the rough draft to our skiff.

Like Santiago, we see our destination far off and wonder if we can really bring it in. On the way, the tides change, our sails sag, and just as Santiago's fish is eaten away by sharks, we are harried by the voracious jaws of editing. They gnash here and there and gouge away chunks. And as Santiago beat at the sharks, we defend our prize viciously, trying to salvage every bit possible.

Writing North IdahoBy the time we reach shore, our beautiful trophy has been ravaged. Sometimes, there's nothing left but a hard beginning, a floppy ending and a bony carcass in between. We're relieved that we've managed to bring some of it in. And we have proof that we aren't ‟salao, which is the worst form of unlucky”. We are encouraged by our friends and reassured of our ability. But for a while, we rest and dream about writing something new...something different.

And we will...because we are writers.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Predicting Success

Predicting Success

It may be a pie-in-the-sky dream but if there was a checklist that I could use to launch my book to the lofty status of best seller, I'd want that checklist posthaste.

Well, we've sent a man to the moon, we've broken the sound barrier and now we may have found the black box of such soaring literary icons as Charles Dickens, Daniel Defoe and Hemingway.

The Department of Computer Science at Stoney Brook University in New York has found a way to predict the success of novels based on writing style. The method they used is called Statistical Stylometry and their findings were accurate about 84% of the time, which seems way better than a wing and a prayer.

Goal: To see if the success of a novel could be predicted based on elements of writing style and to identify what those elements were.

  • 800 books selected from the genres of Adventure, Mystery, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Love Stories, Sci-fi, Short Stories and Poetry.
  • selected on the basis of 2 conditions
    • they had already been published
    • they were written by previously unseen authors

First they differentiated between successful books and highly successful books. They then measured for style elements that were common for each.

What they found:
Predicting Success
There are elements that are typical to successful literature both within genres as well as across genres.

Less successful books were found to use:
  • cliches & common settings
  • more verbs and adverbs and verbs that describe emotions or actions
  • words that convey feelings
  • words that are considered negative or extreme
  • foreign words
  • simple sentence structure (which, ironically, should give them higher readability)

Highly successful books were found to use:
  • complex and/or inverted sentence structure
  • more nouns and adjectives, a characteristic which calls to journalistic writing
  • fewer verbs and adverbs and those related to thinking

The study then applied the same algorithms to some highly successful prize winning and national award winning books as well as movie scripts and the results were consistent.

So it appears that success doesn't always depend on “readability”.

I guess if I want to elevate my game, I not only have to draw my reader in, I've got to use effective nouns and unique locations, avoid adverbs, passive voice and cliches, and quit worrying so much about how many connectives I use.

in, and, but, which, since, that, what, whenever, where

Thinking Verbs:
remembered, recognized

Action/Emotional Verbs:
cried, cheered, shout, glare, jump

Cliches –
  • Negative words:
    • heavy, hard, prison, never
  • Extreme words:
    • never, absolutely, sacred, breathless, perfectly
  • Love related:
    • desires, affairs
  • Locations:
    • room, beach, avenue, door, boat, bay

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The New Research into Memory: Do we really remember events as they happened?

My book Justice Forbidden: What is memory all about?
Does our brain really remember events as they happened?

Recently I read the quote, "We are now in the age of brain and memory research." It's about time I said to myself. What we knew about these topics until a few years ago was mere speculation and could have fit into a shoebox.

Have you ever wondered whether your memories of the past are accurate? I have. And as a psychotherapist in a private practice working with many clients who had been diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I often questioned and so did they. I had no real answers for them at the time.

And so after my retirement, when I unexpectedly changed my course in life and began to write mysteries, I decided to explore this question and add my own feverish imagination to the plot. Justice Forbidden is a murder mystery/thriller of a psychologist who is being sued for creating memories in a client about previous abuse that she now says never occurred. Were Kera's memories real? Is she lying to get money? Or did Dr. Faythe Bradington implant those memories as Kera now claims? And is that even possible? What does the present research of the brain and how it constructs memories now say?

Did you know that in Freud's day it was thought that the brain worked like a camera? It took an accurate movie of an event and stored it unchanged forever. That meant there was only one true story and all your memories were accurate. Later psychologists realized that each person had his or her own perception of what happened but they believed this perception never changed. Psychologists thought that some people could repress difficult memories and then could retrieve them later. More recently some researchers in psychology conjectured that memory was not completely accurate and that there was no evidence that memories could be repressed and then later remembered. As a matter of fact, they thought that all repressed memories that were later remembered had been merely made up by someone with an overactive imagination or had been programmed into the brain by an authority figure like a psychotherapist. Thus the False Memory Syndrome was born. You have probably heard of it. The topic used to be all the rage and several fiction books included false memories.

In the meantime the question of memory was still not answered and most of us had no idea what memory was really all about. Now that we have Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, researchers can actually see what is happening in the brain as it works and forms thoughts, emotions, and memories. So what is true? Of course the whole truth is still unknown and may take years of research to pin down. But we gradually know more and more.

Yes, first of all, complete false memories can be created by the brain without the person knowing. What is even more interesting is that each time you remember an incident the brain reconstitutes it in a somewhat different way. A new memory is born. The old memory is gone and can never be retrieved exactly as it originally occurred.

So what does that mean for what we call truth and nothing but the truth? Is anyone remembering the "truth" of an event as it really happened? Probably not. That may at least partly account for the fact that you and your sister or brother don't remember the same incident in the same way. Or maybe you remember something she says never happened. Who is right? Possibly neither of you. And what does that mean for the accuracy of eye witnesses? And what about autobiographies and true stories? We may have to call everything we remember just that. "My memories of what I think happened. They are probably based on an actual event."

Researchers now know how we can repress and forget difficult memories, but they are still not sure repressed memories can be recovered. One researcher states he believes he has found the path the brain takes to retrieve them.

Recently the military designated millions of dollars to test drugs that will actually erase PTSD memories. However, actual use of them is still years away. Will the drug eliminate only the memories a person wants eliminated or will they clear out all memories? Or are the memories repressed deeper in the brain?  Only time will tell. Because of the horrendous effects and memories of war and abuse, the researchers already have lines of volunteers waiting to become subjects when human trials begin.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in this puzzling but critical issue. Oh, and in the meantime read my book Justice Forbidden for an exciting and stimulating, can't put down read. It is on as an e-book for only $2.99. I am writing the sequel at present.
Check out my website for my writings

Monday, March 30, 2015

How to Write Humor using Patrick McManus Tricks

How to Write Humor

according to North Idaho's own Patrick Mc Manus

Read it free on the internet!

The Huckleberry Murders: A Sheriff Bo Tully Mystery (2010) 

Do any of you write humor? I am probably one of the worst humor writers on the planet, but I'm learning. So here I am, learning quickly---or not. To start off with, write about something you know nothing about and doesn't excite you!

When I was a kid I grew up with a father and his family who had escaped Communist Russia during the Stalin purges. We very rarely laughed.  My father, the head of our household, saw nothing to laugh about. As a matter of fact on my wedding day he became very annoyed that Ron and I were being silly and joking with each other. "Now be serious, Anna," he said. "Getting married is nothing to laugh about." Actually it was probably one of the reasons I fell in love with my husband. He laughed a lot and could find the humor in almost anything. And so in the years we have been together I have learned to laugh.

When I wrote my mystery/thriller book Justice Forbidden I deliberately snuck in some humor even though the plot is serious. And in the next fiction book that I am presently writing in the Justice series, I am adding even more humor. Why?

If we didn't have humor in our lives when things got tough, where would we be? Probably even more anxious and depressed. The thing is, that the world is pretty stressed out right now and many people are reacting with anxiety and anger. That's okay. People have automatic emotions when they listen to the news and for each person the emotion may be different. But don't forget. We all have choices about how we will respond and act. Can you see the problem from a different perspective? Can you turn the picture upside down or at angles and see the funny aspect of it? Comedians have a great way of doing just that. If you can laugh at a situation it will help you cope with what is going on.

Patrick McManus, who lives here in North Idaho, is one of the great humorists in this country today. I hope all of you have read some of his books. My favorite of the books I read was Never Sniff a Gift Fish. Most of his stories are about his adventures in the woods, rivers, and lakes in the Sandpoint area, just north of Coeur d'Alene. The last book before he stopped writing in 2000, is one he wrote to teach humor writing. The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor. In his book he included several tips. So if you are interested in writing humor, here are a couple:

1. Never write real-life humor. I would probably say don't write real life humor if the audience you are trying to reach cannot identify easily with what has happened. Probably Johnny falling off the canoe was hilarious to the family because they knew him, and knew his particular personality, but most of your readers will say, "HUH?"

2. Write about your bad experiences, not your good ones. Write about your failures, your fears, and situations others have experienced as well and say, "Yeah, that's me," or "That's what happened to my dad, alright."

3. Write about personality quirks. My  character, Evelyn Frampton, in Justice Forbidden, is an elderly, eccentric, but very loving neighbor who runs around helping Faythe capture the murderer by hitting the presumed criminal over the head with a wine bottle. She also gets rid of  her dandelions by slurping up puffballs with the vacuum cleaner. Also create two characters who play well off each other like Lucy and her friend in the ancient but very funny show, "I Love Lucy."

4. Use exaggeration but not so much that it seems completely implausible.  You must be able to imagine the situation and see how funny it would look. Of course if you earlier read the title of Patrick McManus' book, The Deer on the Bicycle, you might say, "A deer on a bicycle? That's crazy."  But you can see it in your mind and it would probably make you laugh. Most people are willing to suspend reality for a while if not too absurd. Another one of his stories is called, "A Bear in the Attic," and it's hilarious. I am finding this technique to be one of my favorites to create humor for my books.

5. Say or do the opposite of what someone would expect you to say or do. Although McManus does not mention this technique, I have found that the element of surprise in humor is very effective. I have heard many people use it, including me, and it works really well as long as it is funny and not hurtful to someone. Of course that's true for all humor. Using four letter words over and over for shock value looses it's effect, and for me just turns into shock.

The more I read and learn about writing humor, and practice it in my writing, the more fun it's becoming.  And yes, I'm getting better at it.
If you have any other great ideas and comments about writing humor to help the rest of us schmucks, let us know

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book review of "Writing For Story" by Jon Franklin

Writing For Story:
Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner 1986

Post by B.J. Campbell 

Casually in search of more history on the topic, I Googled “how to write non-fiction.”  Got 159,000,000 hits.  Just for fun, I asked Google for the same info on “fiction.”  Over 28,000,000 came up.

My profound conclusion:  Lots of people have wondered about these two topics.

If you are always able to sit down at your desktop and create a compelling fiction or non-fiction story that satisfies readers, leaving no one confused or disappointed, good for you! Perhaps you are a natural storyteller among writers…or you have read and applied Jon Franklin’s book, Writing for Story.

According to Franklin, what readers most want is story, which is to say---structure. So he dedicates much of his book to the elements of a story.  Whether we write non-fiction or fiction stories, or would write one or the other if we could figure out the structure, his book is for us.  Anyone who is serious about the craft of writing stories should read, enjoy and apply this book.

Franklin, pioneer in creative nonfiction, demonstrates generally basic, yet amazing, insights into the craft of writing.  He delivers those so easily, I wonder why I didn’t think of them myself.  As his innovative approach, he looks at old familiar issues for writers from a new perspective.  Franklin offers two of his own short stories for scrutiny, the book’s Chapters 2 & 3, responsible for two of his Pulitzer-Prizes.  In the rest of the book, he analyzes these two stories.  The result is a clear, manageable, step-by-step guide to constructing a convincing story in either fiction or non-fiction.

Franklin studied repeated patterns in successful stories.  Naturally, his own writing style came to rely on, and handily illustrates, how writers can apply most structural concepts of his plan to both genres—fiction and non-fiction.  He wants to help us make our plots work in either genre.  Then, with his engaging approach, he shares the secrets of writing non-fiction in a fiction style.

As one sample of his approach, he bases writing on his theory that all dramatic stories have three parts, components or focuses.  He defines and examines them with key words, like this.

·       Complication:  simply any problem encountered by any human being.  It is an event that triggers a situation that complicates our lives.
·       Development:  the character’s actions as he attempts to resolve the complication.  This tends to be long but easiest to write.
·       Resolution:  simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication.

It is from this structural beginning that Franklin launches his plan for a story-development technique that applies to both fiction and non-fiction writing.  Subsequent chapters give writers further insight to apply his practical theory, and literary techniques of complication/resolution, flashback, foreshadowing and pace.

Writing for Story is well worth more than one read.  I recommend this significant book to any author who wants an effective delivery plan for a good non-fiction or fiction story.  If writers practice what Franklin advises, some day, eventually, our writing will not only improve...our writing will shine.

Notes from Reviewer, BJ Campbell:
All of the stories listed below are from my book, Close Calls: The True Tales of Cougar Bob.  At   under the section heading “About the book,” these non-fiction stories are posted.  You are invited to read Franklin’s book first, then to read the Campbell stories below and decide which stories employ Franklin’s method.

          “Going Bananas”
          “Learning to Count”
          “Hound Music”

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Proper English? I Don’t Think So

Noah Webster wrote a dictionary published in 1826 incorporating the words Americans used. Notice I wrote “Americans” not “English speaking people.” During the Revolutionary War, he felt strongly that the geographical area of what soon became the United Sates of America make a total break from England. No more aristocratic rule, no taxation without representation, no ruling from afar, no more class system and no more aristocratically separating speech. In working toward this goal, Webster expounded every chance he had that there should be a new country with its own rules and its own language. 

Webster went about changing British language to American language. He heard new words being used like moccasin, skunk, tipi and raccoon. He saw that many words in British English did not make sense so why spell them that way? Gaol was pronounced ja-il so why not spell it similarly? We say theater but it was spelled theatre, center but spelled it centre and judgment not judgement. Besides wanting to change language to be more logical, he wanted to unify a group of states that spoke different dialects and native languages brought from Europe that made it hard to understand one another. Standardization of language and writing brought unification that was needed to build a united country after the Revolutionary War.

What happened to our language in 239 years? English speakers today are governed by Strunk and White and other rulers of grammar and punctuation. They and grammarian gurus dictated what
proper English was well into the 20th century. All other uses of the language are wrong, wrong, wrong I say to you! But, the Internet has changed what English is and how it is used. Yes, we have to have some cohesive standards so we can understand other English speakers and writers but why do we say we cannot end a sentence with a proposition or split an infinitive? The (ironic) definition of a preposition is "A word you mustn't end a sentence with". Winston Churchill once used a preposition at the end of a sentence and was called to task for it. “Do you know who you are dealing with?” As the story goes, Churchill replied, "That's the sort of pedantry up with which I will not put."

Why are we so worried about the correctness of our writing and speaking when so many rules no longer make sense? It now sounds awkward to say “Firstly, I want to…” versus “First I want to…, second ….” Either way is correct in today’s American language but to grammaticians “Firstly” is formal usage.  Creeping into common use is “they” as a single pronoun. “Somebody left their umbrella on the table.” To some “She will blame you and I” sounds correct so why not use it? 

A rule written in the 1800’s states writers are supposed to learn not to split infinitives. Infinitives are “to” followed by a verb. “To diligently follow “ or “To graphically illustrate his point” are examples of split infinitives. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” sounds perfectly normal. “She urged me to casually walk up and to quietly introduce myself ” sounds normal. It sets in the reader’s mind the picture more quickly than “She urged me to walk up casually and introduce myself quietly.” The newest Merriam-Webster dictionary, a many times updated version of Noah Webster’s first dictionary, lists hundreds of words and phrases that do not meet the stuffy rules of a former era of grammar but instead reflect how Americans speak, write and spell today.

If it is general use, then that is what the preferred language is. Pedantic rules insistently enforced are becoming old fashioned. In society today, people want quick, fast, immediate. The emphasis is on being understood rather than being grammatically correct. Of course, in some writing such as formal, literary, scientific papers and for your dissertation, following the rules is wise. In a lot of other venues, to go boldly where no man has gone sounds good and it is accepted by your reader.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Do you want to own a bookstore?

Being an avid reader, my dream job has long been to own an independent bookstore. That was until I met the real owner of a new indie bookstore. I decided it was not the life of sipping tea and reading all the New York Times best sellers that I envisioned. In May 2014, Melissa Demotte opened The Well~Read Moose, a delightful, well-stocked bookstore in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Running a successful small bookstore has many more facets than appear on the surface and not all of them have readily available answers. The following questions and answers are paraphrased but the recall is true.
ROVA: What is your background?
            Melissa has a background in business administration and is a CPA. She earned her living as an accountant before taking on the exciting task of running her own bookstore. She has had a long passion for books, travel and the outdoors.
ROVA: How did you learn what to do?
            There is a company that runs weeklong seminars on how to own and operate a bookstore. She took this class and was able to brainstorm with the class teachers afterwards to discuss specific questions and answers. The name of the store, The Well~Read Moose, came about over a cup of coffee during this meeting. Ms Demotte has a love of anything to do with moose. Her store logo is a sophisticated, whimsical moose with Harry Potter glasses reading a book and sipping a hot beverage. The seminar teachers and Melissa worked on the size of a potential bookstore as well as how to find the right location, how to determine inventory levels and how to handle consignment programs.
ROVA: What is the hardest part of owning a bookstore?
            Inventory management. What to buy, why to buy it, what not to purchase, how long to keep a book on the shelf and anticipating consumers' needs. Her accounting background means that she is organized and likes things to be in logical order. This doesn’t stop her from moving around the books in her store especially during this time of a high learning curve. She wants the store to look curated and fresh. She and her employees are continually straightening, dusting and changing “face outs.” ( Face outs are books that are displayed with their front covers showing versus the books' spines.) Ms Demotte feels it would be much more difficult to manage a bookstore without a business-accounting background
ROVA: What is the best part of this venture?
            Talking to the customers. Learning what customers like, what they are looking for and having conversations about favorite books or the latest best sellers. Part of this philosophy is that the employees build a relationship with frequent customers so they are able to recommend books that the patrons will buy. The customers learn to trust what the employees are telling them.
ROVA: What tools are available for bookstore owners to select books?
             Memberships in The American Booksellers Association and its regional arm the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association are the biggest aids in determining what is happening in the industry, what are hit sellers, and trends and predictions. The PNBA covers the states of Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Montana. She spends a lot of time reading these web sites gleaning trends, spying potential problems and sharing the foibles and pleasures of running an independent bookstore. She reads galleys and constantly does searches using, among other web sites, Edelweiss, an e-list she subscribes to managed by smaller publishers. Paper catalogs are also a part of her options. Ms Demotte says there is an overwhelming amount of data available and she is learning which sites help her the most. Her goal in her work has always been to be as efficient as possible.
ROVA: How do you target readers?
            The staff found that a book display of books made into movies was instantly popular. The Well~Read Moose is half a block from a large theater complex and people wander in before or after a movie or a restaurant meal. The genre of Young Adults is always changing and there is a need for good literature here. She feels a big challenge is to figure out what the next popular fad will be.
ROVA: Are there genres you do not stock?
            Mass romance, pornography, obscure subjects and used books.
ROVA: Can you send back books that do not sell?
            Yes. She buys eight per cent of the inventory through wholesalers. However, the return numbers and prices are not as good and she has to pay the freight and restocking charges. With bigger publishers, there is no restocking fee. She is finding about 18% of orders are returned which is average for the size of the inventory. The Well~Read Moose sells two to three hardcover books to every twenty paperbacks.           
ROVA: What strategies have worked so far and what surprises did you encounter?
            A billboard close to downtown drew a lot of tourists as well as advertising the new bookstore to locals. Displays of books that are specific to this area and activities available locally have sold well. Seasonal books displayed prominently are also on the learning curve. She said she missed the garden books season because she opened the store in May but when I was in the store in late February, I spotted a large cabinet holding regional books and general gardening books that were selling well. Children’s books are flying off the shelves. Parents will buy a hard cover book as a present and then buy some paperbacks for themselves as well.
ROVA: What drove the idea to serve coffees, teas, wines, muffins plus hand made candy?
           Melissa determined she wanted an atmosphere of comfort and the ability to linger if the shoppers chose. She overruled staff objections and allows people to walk around the store holding a cup of hot liquid or a glass of wine. There has been only one minor spill and it resulted in a purchase.
            There are several book clubs that meet at the store and she gives a 20% discount to members of those book clubs when they purchase any of the listed books. A frequent purchase discount is also available.A successful idea was to offer a children' story time where adults could enjoy a glass of wine and browse while their children were listening.

Melissa Demotte generously shared her insight during a long session of questions and conversation. She is a delight to talk to and willing to share her love and knowledge of books. Her deep understanding of the business world coupled with an enthusiastic, well-trained staff almost guarantees The Well~Read Moose will be operating in Coeur d’Alene for years to come.