Sunday, December 6, 2015

Blue Christmas

I live in Southern California just a few miles from the site of the San Bernardino shooting that took the lives of 14 innocent people.  The news coverage of the shooting has blanketed the headlines in large print, overshadowing all other events.  It hits you like a cold slap in the face. “How can this happen?” you ask yourself.
This is the time of year for peace and goodwill. This is the celebration of light and love. And yet tragedy happens. For many the approaching holiday does not bring with it the joy and happiness that is advertised on television or in greeting cards.  The tragedy in San Bernardino brings home to us the fact that even during this time of joy and renewal, people are suffering loss and sadness. They may be facing a holiday after the death of a loved one or after a divorce.  Perhaps they have been unable to have a child, or have suffered through an emotional trauma.  Or perhaps they feel pressured and overwhelmed by holiday preparations. For them, the holiday is the most difficult time of the year.
Who doesn’t remember the sad strains of Elvis’s “Blue Christmas”?  For many of us, the song is a melancholy reminder of those who are gone or must face the holiday far from home or loved ones.  Most of us collect memories around holidays and seasons. For those who have experienced loss or hardship, there is a sense of absence during this time of year.  The memories are still there, but the human beings are missing or the rituals have changed.
Across the country churches and houses of worship are starting to recognize the need for Blue Christmas services.  These are sometimes called the Longest Night services because they tend to be held around the time of the winter solstice with the least amount of daylight of the year. On this night, we remember those for whom the holidays are not joyful; they are lonely, in mourning, feeling alienated and cast apart from family celebrations.  They are experiencing depression and sadness and yet are often compelled to “put on a happy face” for others, denying their true feelings. On the surface, they go through the motions.  They put on a smile and pretend all is well.  They may even attend a holiday party, but their heart is not in it. 
These services provide an uplifting experience to remind us of the love we had for those who are no longer with us. They also provide a time to show support for those who are grieving or just a time to escape the stress and commercialization of the holiday. It’s a way to celebrate quietly with a focus on light and warmth and comfort.  Such services are reflective, accepting where we really are, and holding out healing and hope.  They remind us that even though it is a dark and difficult time, there is always light.
I urge you to remember those for whom this holiday is not a joyful time and reach out to them with hope and understanding.  Be the candle that helps to light their way out of the darkness.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Carousels and Roller Coasters

Remember your first visit to an amusement park?  If you were like most of us, your eyes were drawn to the bright lights and colors. You were enticed and entranced by the overly sweet smell of cotton candy mixed with the saltiness of popcorn. And the sounds!  The lilting music of the carousel and the rattle of the roller coaster overhead. All of this mingled with the sound of laughter and the squeals of fright and delight. 

Where did you begin? Were you drawn to the brightly colored horses on the carousel, suspended in time and motion? They seemed to be moving in time to the music, but in reality, they just kept going in circles.  Parents were always nearby to protect you from falling and soothe your fears. It appeared very predictable and safe.

Or were you drawn to the excitement and thrill of the roller coaster?  It lulled you into complacency on the steep climb to the top and then plunged you into the frightening unknown. There were no parents to protect you through the jerks and bumps or the sharp twists and turns.  You had to hang on tight and face your fears until you finally screeched to a stop safely back where you started. Then your momentary fear was quickly forgotten and you couldn't wait to start the journey all over again.

I like to think of this as a metaphor for the paths we choose in life. However, sometimes those choices are taken out of our hands. One may prefer the safe predictability of the carousel, and then suddenly find himself or herself on a roller coaster of unpredictability.  Life is like that. Our tendency is to turn and run back to the safety and security of the past. But the way back is blocked. There is no turning back. The key to our success in this new endeavor lies in whether we are able to change and cope with this sudden change in our circumstances. Those who cling to the safety of the past will find it difficult to adjust.  They will be miserable. Those who let go and make the effort to adapt to the change and face their fears are more likely to persevere and overcome their fears.

This is the predicament in which I place my characters.  They must navigate their way through life and deal with unexpected hardships as well as changes in social and political mores. They experience the extreme highs and lows of life.  Their struggles reflect those most common in life:  relationships, prejudice, financial security. But most of all, the characters must struggle with their own moral dilemmas. They must adapt or perish. 

Do the characters choose the path of righteousness or the path of least resistance? What motivates their choices? Do we respect or condemn them for their choices?  These are the questions only the readers can answer. And in so doing they will reveal a bit more about the values and morals that affect their own choices in life.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Virtual Hugs

I laid my head on the side of the bed next to her.  She was finally quiet.  Maybe I could catch a few minutes of sleep. I had just closed my eyes when I felt her hand on my cheek.  Her touch was soft and gentle...a caress. Mother was never one to demonstrate soft emotions. She was always strong and stoic. She seemed uncomfortable with a hug or a kiss.  But this was definitely a caress.  I opened my eyes and stared into eyes filled with sadness and remorse.  No words passed between us.  But I knew.  And she knew.  I kissed the translucent skin of her fingertips and she closed her eyes.  In a few minutes the screaming would start again, but in this moment, I understood and I was at peace.

Now that she's gone, I cling to that final memory.  It is my solace, my hug when the world is weighing too heavily on my shoulders. And I feel comforted.  In these times, when families are fractured and scattered, I am thankful for the technology that makes them all feel closer and more immediate.  I can reach out in seconds across the miles and send a "virtual hug" to those who need it. It's not as good as the real thing, of course, but it sends the same message:  "I care about you.  You will get through this.  Everything will be alright."

The human touch is a marvelous thing.  It requires no words. Its warmth and protectiveness penetrates the sadness and the stress and gives us strength.  We must seize those moments when we are together to touch each other with love and reassurance so that when we're apart, we can find comfort in the memory of that moment. Sometimes just the reminder of a virtual hug is all we need to experience anew the warmth and support of the actual touch.  I hope so.

So today, whether you think you need it or not, I'm sending a virtual hug to all my family and friends. May you feel the warmth of my love and support across the miles wherever you are and know that you are not alone.  I am with you.  I will always be with you.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Importance of Place

Some time ago, I wrote a piece about the importance of the setting in a story.  I decided to revisit the topic since so much of what we appreciate as readers is the ability to get lost in the if we were there on the scene with the characters. Thanks to today's technology, we no longer rely solely on the dialogue to move the story.  Many scenes have no dialogue at all...just a character standing alone on a long stretch of empty beach while the sun sets on the horizon and the waves lap at his feet.

The setting is not just a backdrop for the action, it is a living, breathing real as the characters who converse and participate in the action. While the characters breathe life into the story, the setting breathes energy into the story and moves the action forward. While the characters provide motivation for the action, the setting provides mood and intensity. It is what makes us feel that we are there. It activates our senses.

It is so much easier to imagine ourselves standing on the beach next to the character, if we can actually smell the salt air and feel the wind in our hair. And once we stand next to our character, we understand why he is there and what he is feeling without the addition of unnecessary comment from the author telling us these things.

A full rich setting that appeals to our senses and connects to our memories provides dimension to the story. It makes the action jump off the page and it drags us, whether we like it or not, into the story itself. We not only care about what happens, we also experience it along with the character.

In Windborne, I wanted the reader to experience the extremes of Kansas weather to understand the hardships the women faced that were beyond their control. In The Stone House Legacy, the reader must feel the isolation and neglect of the stone house to understand it's legacy. As I write the second book in this trilogy, I am trying to capture a different vibe.

Every large city has a heartbeat that beats to the pulse of its people. Cities have their own majesty just as the mountains do. There is a power there that cannot be denied.  Throughout time, men have tried to conquer and own the cities, but they have succeeded only is leaving behind a small reminder that they were briefly there.

Just as mankind has helped to shape the cities, the cities have shaped mankind. They leave their mark on who we become as individuals. They remind us of where we began. They encourage our successes and scoff at our defeats.

This is the feeling I hope to capture in the pages of The Steel Canyon Legacy. My characters must not only overcome the obstacles life places in their way, but they must do it in the belly of the beast, so to speak...they must coexist with the city and use its power to their advantage.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Literary Risk-Taking

Being a writer means that you put yourself out there bare-naked for everyone to see. You put your feelings and beliefs on display for anyone to take a shot at. Whether you write fantasy, mystery, romance, or historical fiction, you will always find those who take issue with what you say.  And this is a good thing!

Good writing should be thought-provoking. It should generate discussions and ideas. I'm sure that there were those who took issue with the themes presented in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird when it first came out. However, the novel has been a staple for high school literature students for many years, and continues to inspire those who seek a better understanding of the prejudices that still color our perceptions of the world we live in.

Writers who never take risks, who always present a safe, albeit idealist view of the world,  may find some success among those seeking escape from the imperfections of the real world. And I admit that I have enjoyed an occasional escape myself.  But the writing that stays with me...that continues to haunt my the writing that makes me think differently about the world or questions my perceptions and beliefs.

I knew that tackling the sticky topics of religion and politics during the turbulent 1960's in The Stone House Legacy was risky. Many of us who grew up and lived through the times still have vivid memories of what it was like. Our memories are colored by our personal experiences causing us to react differently to the events in retrospect. My intent was not to present the world as it was, but to show the impact of the times on characters, who like the majority of Americans, were on the fringes of the action.

Just as the country struggled to find its way during this turbulent time, the story is filled with unsavory characters with ambiguous motives and confusing politics. It's difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys.  There is, however, a simple voice of reason underlying all the confusion. It is the voice of Tessa who emerges as a glimmer of hope for the future.  

Watch for her in Book 2 of the trilogy, The Steel Canyon Legacy, as she comes into her own.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Pity Pot for Procrastinators

Okay, I admit it.  I've been procrastinating.  I have a plot outline for Book II of the Legacy Trilogy, a character map, and a notebook full of interesting descriptions for the setting.  I've even drafted out a couple of chapters. I have a research trip to Chicago scheduled this fall to make sure my setting is accurately depicted. But I just can't get motivated to write.

I can think of a myriad of excuses that you've all heard before - not feeling well, too busy, blah...blah...blah...But the bottom line is that I'm just not motivated. I wouldn't even say it's due to writer's block (whatever that is).  I wake up at 4:00 with my head full of ideas and conversations for my characters.  I just can't make myself get to the computer to begin writing. Maybe I need to take a break.  After all, I've cranked out two novels in three years. That's pretty good isn't it?  The truth is, it's just downright laziness.

Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the small things and find that it's easier to procrastinate than get to work on the details that are holding me back.  I need to update my blog page and reach out to other bloggers, update my marketing plan and email list, explore the idea of a video trailer, and on and on. When I retired from education in 2012, I swore that I would no longer be tied to someone else's deadlines.  That's why I elected to self-publish. I wanted to be my own boss. 

In the beginning I was excited to finally be able to pursue my own interests and do what I really loved, but I admit that the new has worn off.  While I still love to write and believe that I have stories to tell that others would like to read, it's beginning to feel like work again. And so I procrastinate.

I tell myself that I deserve some free time, but then I don't know what to do with it. I wonder through the house looking for distractions that will keep me away from the computer. It sits on my desk amid all my notes and stares back at me with it large accusing eye. I feel guilty.

I tell myself, it doesn't really matter. Oprah and Ellen will probably never call me for an interview. Hollywood is not knocking down my door to make a blockbuster movie out of one of my novels. But the truth is, it matters to me. I have always wanted to write. I knew it took time and sacrifice...anything worthwhile does. More than anything, I wanted my writing to be my legacy to my children and grandchildren. I can't leave them a fortune in real estate or stocks and bonds, but I can leave them the gift of experience and the wisdom I have gained over a lifetime. This is really what I hope to convey to those who read my work...a glimpse into the patterns of behavior that shape who we are as human beings. 

Soooo...when I think of it that way, it's almost selfish of me to sit here on my pity pot and avoid the work I feel I was called to do.  

It's time to get busy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Writers as Observers

I had a great time this past week talking to middle school students about the writing process.  They asked some great questions about where I got my inspiration and how I developed the characters.  They were particularly interested in the descriptive process.

I explained that good writers are first of all good observers.  They pay attention to the smallest details that help to evoke a feeling or memory.  It is important for writers to connect to readers on an emotional level and the best way to do that is through a shared experience or memory. Vivid images that take the reader to a place they may never have been, but can imagine in their minds, helps them to connect to the story.

In Windborne, I wanted the reader to understand the importance of the wind in the story.  In Kansas, the wind is a constant, but it sounds and feels different at different times of the year. It can also illicit different feelings and moods. A gentle spring breeze blowing through the tall grasses makes a swishing noise that is calming and even uplifting.  It cools and caresses as it touches you and smells like newly turned earth. A summer wind rustling the leaves high in the trees is lazy and unpredictable.  It comes in gusts and teases you with its coolness.  A winter wind pierces you with its icy fingers and threatens to take your breath away, but an autumn wind is crisp and crackly, bringing the scent of wood and harvest.

All these observations are important to give the reader a sense of time and place. Since I write historical fiction, it is also important to place the reader in the appropriate time frame by using historically accurate descriptions.  In The Stone House Legacy, it was important for the reader to feel the tension of the times even though the characters were geographically removed from much of the action.

This was accomplished by having the characters react to situations and describing those reactions in great detail. For example, the assassination of President Kennedy was an event that affected the entire nation regardless of political, ethnic, or religious beliefs. Taping into those feelings that everyone experienced in some way, helps the reader to connect and identify with the characters.

Novice writers often focus so much attention on the action of the plot that they forget to engage their readers.  This, I believe, is the dividing line between a good read and a great read. It is what makes the story continue in the reader's thoughts long after the last page is turned.

Thank you to the students at Americus Middle School for reminding me of this important lesson.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Coming Attractions

I am so excited about the re-release of Windborne with a new cover by Alexander von Ness. Reedited, reformatted and better than ever!  The title refers to dreams being borne or carried away on the wind and I think he captured it perfectly. 

The Flint Hills of Kansas promised bountiful wildlife and fertile valleys, but for Virginia, Helen and Leah it was an empty promise.  Dreams here often withered and died from starvation or the harshness and unpredictability of the climate.
Set against a historical backdrop of major economic and cultural changes of the past century, Windborne is an elegantly timeless tale about the nature of love, loss and awakening.

The Stone House Legacy is the first book in the Legacy Trilogy which follows the family of Simon and Tessa Kingsley through three decades.  The series focuses on the legacies they leave behind as footprints to guide their children through life.
For nearly a century the old stone house has kept its secrets hidden deep in the limestone hills of Indiana.  But when an idealistic young minister decides to develop the site as a religious retreat for ecumenical thought, the secrets of its past cast a dark shadow over his plans.

Set in the Birthplace of the John Birch Society during the turbulent years of the early 1960s, The Stone House Legacy reveals mankind's stubborn inclination to repeat the mistakes of past generations.

Both books are available in paperback and ebook on  I will be signing books and speaking to middle grade students from 1:30-3:00 on May 12 at the Americus Library in Americus, Kansas.  Stop by and say hello!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Dancing with Dad

In continuing my look at the legacies we leave behind, I have been looking at back at some of the things that are now a part of who I am, thanks to the gifts of others.  Sometimes we don't realize the gifts we are given until much later in life. Oftentimes, it only takes a small memory to remind us of that gift.

My dad was a dancer.  He was light on his feet and seemed to glide across the dance floor. He made every move look easy.  As a girl, I used to stand on his feet while he waltzed me around the room.  I learned the box step, the fox trot, and the two-step this way. When I got older, he used to put some old Glen Miller tunes on the phonograph and teach me to follow his lead through the jitterbug and something called the shag-a-lag.

But as I became a teenager, I thought his dances were funny and old-fashioned.  This was the rock-and-roll era. I was learning to do the Twist and the Boogaloo.  The idea of dancing without touching your partner was totally foreign to Dad. Dancing was a form of intimacy and communication with a partner. The kids on American Bandstand seemed lost in their own world, jumping up and down in random, and not communicating with each other at all. Even the slow dances were nothing more than a public embrace in his eyes. I scoffed at his old-fashioned views. "You just don't understand!" I wailed, but there was no mistaking the hurt when I no longer wanted to dance with him.  

As I grew older, I came to appreciate the practiced steps and fluid movement of the steps he had taught me. (I'm sure that is why I'm such a fan of "Dancing With The Stars.") Unfortunately, there were no more partners to share them with.  Dad passed away shortly before my 17th birthday. Men my age also grew up with rock-and-roll and no longer had the energy for those dances.  The music I had loved as a teenager was now too loud and many of the lyrics I had sung to on the radio, now sounded silly and strange.  Instead, I found myself singing along to the old standards Dad had taught me to dance to.

I don't think I can still remember all the moves, but whenever I listen to the swing music of the big band era I can close my eyes and dance with my dad just like we used to.  We move in harmony as people do who have danced together for a long time. I'm sure the judges would give us a perfect 10.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Mother's Legacy

Mom passed away last week, but she didn't go quietly.  Always one to challenge tradition, she left behind a legacy as an independent and feisty woman that will be remembered fondly by her family and friends for many years. 

At the age of 50, she took up motorcycle riding...not just a recreational scooter, but a full on road bike that she rode cross country every summer until she was in her 70's. The bike was so big that if she dropped it, it took several people to help her get it upright. She especially loved being the "cool" teacher roaring up to her middle school classroom when the weather was good, while her students lined up at the window to watch her arrival.

Her students loved her. She was tough on them, but she loved them and they responded with respect and adoration. Her lessons went far beyond the subject matter she taught.  She taught them about the importance of living an independent and productive life. Many of her students continued to stay in contact with her long after they had grown and had children of their own.

Her snow white hair struck a strong contrast to the ever present red she preferred in her clothing and accessories.  Red was definitely her color.  Her house was filled with it. Even her motorcycle and helmet were red! It reflected her love of life and her need to be in the center of the action.

Even as she aged and required the help of a full-time caretaker, she clung tightly to her independence. When she had to sell her beloved motorcycle, she took up 4-wheeling in the Arkansas mountains. She required little in the way of comforts, preferring instead, to live a simple life away from the fast-paced life of the city. Nothing pleased her more than spending a weekend with my sister and her friends "off the grid" at a cabin in the Ozarks.

Toward the end, she became cantankerous and hard to get along with, and yet, we forgave her.  No matter how harsh she sometimes acted toward adults, she always had a kind word and plenty of patience for the children. She was, after all, grandma to the entire community.  Many people did not know her by any other name. 

When Grandma Dorothy left us, she left a vacant spot in all our hearts. But memories have a way of softening over time.  Because of her legacy, we will fill the empty spot with fond memories every time we think of her. But most of all, when we feel defeated and ready to give up, we will remember her love of life and how hard she fought to hang on to it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Putting On A Face

With the release of The Stone House Legacy, I have begun to think more about the legacies left for me by those who passed through this life before me. The other day, I told my husband I would be ready to leave the house as soon as I "put on a face." He looked at me with an odd expression and I paused mid-step as a vision of my grandmother flashed through my memory.

NanNan, as she preferred to be called, never left the house without her make-up, hat and gloves. She was hopelessly stuck in a bygone era when ladies never left the house unless they were properly attired. I used to lie on her bed with my chin in my hands watching her morning ritual whenever I had the privilege of spending the night.  It took her hours to get ready to go out while she "put on her face" to greet the public.  Dressing for the day was handled with great care.Her dresser was covered in lace doilies and she had all manner of lotions and powders that were magical and mysterious to me. Her "delicates" were always hand-washed with special soaps and smelled of lavender. She was extremely proud of her small narrow feet and spoke with pride of having to special order her shoes in a size AAA narrow. 

Back on the farm, where we lived, make-up was a luxury we could never afford. I had an old mirror in the room I shared with my sister, but it was cracked and much of the silver had worn off. There was a single light bulb to illuminate the room and a myriad of extension cords running from the single outlet on the wall. We shared the room with all manner of spiders, and wasps lived in their muddy nests high in the window sills. Years ago someone had tried to paste wallpaper over the cement walls, but it had long-ago peeled and hung sadly from the walls and ceilings. When we tried to tear it down, showers of cement dust rained down upon us, so we left it be.

Sleep-overs at Grandma's house were a glimpse into another world. The house was small, but always fastidiously kept.  There were lace curtains on the window and a pink bedspread with quilted dolls on it that made me feel like a princess. Going shopping with Grandma was an adventure back into the times of the great department stores with several floors dedicated to each type of merchandise. I was enthralled by the elevator cages with  the operator dressed in a spiffy uniform who announced each floor. I imagined myself  to be a grand lady tagging along beside her and dutifully stuck out my pinkie finger when we lunched in the tea room on the upper floor.

I am indebted to my grandmother for this glimpse into a world I might never have known otherwise. She helped me to see that we are not limited by our environment. Who we become in life is our choice. We can blame the world for the misfortunes we suffer in life, or we can rise above them. Even today, I feel I must "put on my face" just to go to the grocery store or my Pilates class. It's my way for letting the world know I am ready to face whatever the day has in store for me. This was my grandmother's legacy to me.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

My Mother's Songs

Not too long ago, my 90 year-old mother was introduced to her new great grandson.  Mom was in failing health and not expected to survive. When the child was placed in her arms, she immediately broke into a huge smile and began to sing. I looked at my son who was beaming with pride and we exchanged a smile.  These were the same songs she had sung to me as a child and the same ones I had sung to him. They were silly tunes and I think most of the words were made up as she went along, but the baby smiled and cooed and enjoyed them as much as we had.

As I reflect on the legacy that each of us leave behind on our journey through life, I am struck by the realization that it's often the simplest things we do that make the biggest impression.  My own children are now grown with children of their own and I am constantly surprised by their memories.  As a parent, I worked hard to create what I thought would be lasting memories, but these are not the things they remember.  More often it's things like sharing strawberry milkshakes and singing silly songs that they remember fondly.

If there's a lesson there someplace, it's that we are creating memories every day...not just when we plan an event or make a special attempt at it.  The most lasting memories are those we make unconsciously as we go about the business of living our lives. These are the things that imprint themselves over time and remind us of who we are and where we came from.

My mother survived her near-death experience and continues to sing to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  My birthday would not be complete without a call from her and a croaky version of "Happy Birthday."  We have all continued this tradition with our own children.  Her songs have become her legacy for all of us.