Category: creative writing

WWW and Seven Kinds of Rain

October was a great month for travel, and the Pacific Northwest put on a beautiful show for Women Writing the West in Redmond. This month also brings a sense of direction for my latest novel, SEVEN KINDS OF RAIN.

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In Oregon we walked and drove through breathtaking landscapes, visited the Imperial Livestock Ranch where we met an amazing Western woman entrepreneur, learned about the latest trends in publishing and honed our craft. Not to mention having a great time catching up with old and new friends! Endless inspiration . . . I came home energized to write more. I also met some very nice sheep.

I appreciate receiving an honorable mention for my short story, “Fool’s Moon,” which you can read along with other LAURA Short Fiction Award winners here. I read an excerpt at the awards dinner and people laughed in all the right places. A writer always hopes for that!

Since returning from Oregon, I’ve been editing my novel-in-process, which I’ve titled SEVEN KINDS OF RAIN. Yes, this the working title announcement and you saw it here, first. I’ll publish a sneak-preview synopsis soon.

While I had expected to self-publish this novel and its sequel, my professional editor surprised me with her favorable response to the manuscript. When she said loved it so much, she’d be reading it in “all six of her book clubs,” I began to rethink my publishing and marketing strategy. I’ve already designed a book cover and a book trailer. It felt good to move in that familiar direction, but . . .

I’m not one to think less of a self-published novel, or more of one that’s traditionally published. Literary excellence can rise or fail and there can be pitfalls, either way. But after self-publishing THE DARKWATER LIAR’S ACCOUNT, I understand more of the difficult aspects of doing everything myself. The most difficult parts are gaining reader and professional reviews, garnering publicity and otherwise expanding my reach to more readers.

Of course, an author gives up control when she joins with a professional team to produce a book. It’s business. It’s about sales number and the bottom line. I will face difficulties, simply different ones, if a publishing house sees potential in my novel. I’ll still be engaged in the marketing, as every author must be in today’s competitive marketplace.

So, SEVEN KINDS OF RAIN now begins the query circuit, seeking literary agent representation. I’ve done this before, so I’m pumping up for the emotional and mental exertion—many successful novels have endured more than seventy rejections before an agent fell in love. Each one of those attempts signifies selecting and researching an appropriate agent, crafting a personal pitch letter, tailoring a novel synopsis and then waiting, sometimes from 6-8 weeks, for a reply. My first novel, THE DARKWATER LIAR’S ACCOUNT, went through thirty attempts before I decided to self-publish. It takes a thick skin to find an agent, then to endure numerous rejections by publishing houses. So, we’ll see how it goes . . . because unexpected, amazing things can happen.

And one can always use  one more item to cross off the Bucket List.

Exceed seventy literary agent rejections for one novel manuscript.

Better yet, let’s be optimistic. Send your good wishes to SEVEN KINDS OF RAIN, my latest and best story yet. I hope to share it with my faithful and new readers, soon!

Magpie and Ancestral Voices

Mr. Magpie photo by Keith Williams to be used on Seven Kinds of Rain book cover

In my upcoming novel, the title of which I will soon announce, Magpie and ancestral voices are inseparable. Magpie is a figure of myth and a real bird, but also the nickname for one of my central characters. In the story, Margaret Rose doesn’t choose that nickname for herself, but it is apt. She’s both dark and light, smart, vivacious and a bit of a thief. Like the bird, she’s smart, sensitive, loyal and eager to make use of what others leave behind.

I harbored some reservations about including magpies in my Nebraska stories. I wondered if they truly inhabited the Republican River valley, as I couldn’t remember seeing one when I was a child. I try to mind regional details, as well as historical ones, in my writing. As if to answer my concerns, when I drove along the Republican River last year for my research trip, a magpie flew low along the roadside where I traveled, showing me his white belly and glossy blue-black plumage. It seemed more than a random wildlife sighting, perhaps even a blessing on how I’m weaving the birds, the characters and the myths of Magpie into my novels.

Magpies, mystery, meaning and myths run through my writing, alongside what history would retell and science would prove. Margaret, my novel’s Magpie, loves both stories and science, as do her friends. In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss about other folktales, rhymes and mythical threads I’m weaving into the early 1900s characters, along with scientific theories and historical events.

The epigraph I’ve chosen for the book is a verse from Psalm 78. I claim no Biblical authority with these words, nor do I announce any religious theme or agenda for my little book. Rather, the quote expresses my belief that we should hold on to all the stories we receive from ancestors, and bring them to light for generations.

I will open my mouth in a parable, things we have known from of old, things our ancestors have told us.         Psalm 78

When we braid the old stories with our own, our lives become an extension of those who stood in this place before us. Even if the storytellers are not related to us by blood, their stories are one with this place, and their voices can deepen and amplify our own accounts.

No longer wandering alone in the midst of our facts, may we find ourselves illuminated by the multitude of ancestors, their presence, whimsy and wisdom. May our children and grandchildren, well-educated in science, consider also the light of history and myth.

(I’d like to give special thanks to Keith Williams, the photographer who captured this brilliant photo of Mr. Magpie, which I use as the featured image for this post. He kindly gave permission for me to use the image on the book cover of my upcoming novel…what a great guy, and an amazing photographer!)

Magpie and Myth

The word “myth” in conversation is often used to label something untrue, but in many dictionaries, that definition is secondary. Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of myth is “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” The word “ostensibly” raises doubts of factual truth, but doesn’t rule out aspects of truth in cultural myths, or their important purpose of explanation. Those who study Greek and Roman myths, for example, understand that while the more magical antics of gods and goddesses are likely not factual, they speak a sort of truth about our human foibles, while mentioned battles, conquests and heroes may originate in recorded events and real people.

Science poses questions, ventures hypotheses and seeks proofs to determine what is fact. I love science, and believe that anything true has nothing to fear from science. Yet, science has yet to develop measurements or proofs for every aspect of human experience. Therein remains the margin, the mystery and the role of myth, even in an age of science. Because of the space between fact and meaning, there lingers our human need for a good story, to enlighten and explain.

So the magpie remains, not only as genus and species, but also a meaningful figure. Sometimes heralds of disaster or bad weather, in other cases, magpies are considered good omens. Mixed human feelings about the noisy birds are evident in nursery rhymes, first noted in European print in 1780, in John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities:

charhallmagpieptgOne for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
And four for death.
This beautiful illustration, titled “One for Sorrow Two for Joy” was painted by Char Hall. (Prints are for sale here on Etsy.)

Combing world history and literature for magpie stories, I focused on Magpie as a figure in Native American, specifically Pawnee, tribal lore. Readers of my first novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, may recall what seemed like a throwaway line on page 257. While mowing her lawn, Bridget wonders who will take up that chore after she dies. She considers, “Maybe it will just go wild, back to tall prairie grass. Better yet, back to the Pawnee, who hunted here.” (I have since writing that line met a person who did exactly that—he returned his Nebraska land to the Pawnee tribe. More on that, later.)

In my next post, I’ll explore how the Pawnee and their mythic Magpie became central to my upcoming novels.

A Special Sort of Patience

Thirty years ago, I was a young mother with two preschool children, one of them less than a year old. The necessities of life transplanted me to a tiny house in a tiny South Dakota town, where I was lonely and exhausted, with a touch of the postpartum blues. There were cloth diapers to wash, a home to maintain on a shoestring, cheap meals to prepare, a baby to nurse, kids crying and laughing, me crying and laughing and not one friend within a 500 mile radius. Life took a special sort of patience, then.

It was a good, messy, joyful and hard time, and I sensed even then that my children would bring me a lifetime of rewards. Yet, in the midst of it all, something was missing, specifically the creative writing process that inspired me as a college student. In a life-changing moment of temporary insanity, I resolved to add fiction writing to my hectic days.

So at five a.m., while everyone else slept, I would seclude myself in our little enclosed front porch. There were no heat vents out there and the chill poured off the old storm windows, requiring socks, sweaters and, if memory serves me, a blanket over my shoulders. I wrote for a while by hand, then bought a used typewriter (a major investment in those lean days). Between ideas, I’d sit looking at my reflection in the glass (which is all you can see at five a.m. in South Dakota in winter, in case you wondered) and make up stories. Some were long and some were short, and few were notably good. But I knew I ‘d learn, if I didn’t give up.

In order to have something else to look at besides my own ghostly pre-dawn image, I took a 3×5 piece of notepaper and wrote on it a quote from Gustave Flaubert.

Talent is a long patience.

I taped that quote to the woodwork between the windows above the typewriter. Of course, the day I copied it down, I didn’t imagine how long my patience would need to be, to become the writer I hoped to become. And yet, I was already a writer from those first days, because I was putting down stories, editing them and sending them out.

This was back when we ambitious, wordy folks with delusions of publication typed stories on paper and sent them through the mail. With stamps. You know, to publishers and editors, who sent back rejection letters. If you remember, you probably did it, too. I looked forward to the rejections and those mostly-kind editors sent many, but I kept writing. I took pride in having been gently, even personally, rejected by some of the best publishing houses in New York. Yes, a personal rejection with a note of encouragement went a long way, in those days. I even had a close call, coming a hair’s breadth from having a short story published in Redbook. An agent represented my second novel manuscript, and I felt discouraged when that story didn’t become a book. Now I’m glad it didn’t. It wasn’t ready and neither was I! But I kept writing, and more short stories and novel manuscripts followed, along with skill and confidence. They were just the practice I needed.

Because practice didn’t put bread on the table, I pursued other lines of work, some quite happily. I went to grad school, studied writing and medicine, ran a home-based writing and graphic design business, learned about the world from different viewpoints and raised my family. Writing fiction and telling stories ran through it all, like an underground river, coursing unseen while sustaining me.

The tools changed . . . I graduated from typewriter to word processor to computer, from dot-matrix to digital printing and from typed letters to email. Publishing changed, too . . . it opened to everyone, even as it became more challenging to land a book contract with traditional publishers.

an occasional payment for words

an occasional payment for words

Inevitably, I changed, as well . . . there were personal problems, life problems and health problems. Unforeseen interruptions appeared to veer me off track, then turned out to be the stuff of life and writing. It’s been quite a time, the past thirty years. Good news, though. Everything got better! (Everything that matters, anyway.) Even my writing skills, apparently, because a few stories found publication in journals and in an anthology, The Arduous Touch: Women’s Voices in Healthcare. Every now and then, a check came my way. I went out on a limb and embraced publishing my own novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, in 2013, a grand adventure because talent isn’t only a long patience, it’s being willing to take a risk now and then. I have two more novels sitting on my desk right now. One is en route to an editor, and the other, its sequel, is a completed first draft.

In thirty years, some things haven’t changed, perhaps most notably that I’m still writing. I enjoy research and growing stories out of what I learn, about life on the Great Plains and in the West, history, family life and health. That scrap of note paper with its message is constant, too. Eleven different apartments and homes have housed me since I first taped up that quote. Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s followed. The tape’s changed so often, the paper’s upper edge is tattered as if someone’s been chewing on it. It’s a little wrinkled, too, like me. We’ve both proven ourselves in ways that the twenty-something girl I was wouldn’t have expected, and may have terrified her, had she known.

Talent is a long patience.

 As I write this, I look up and it’s there, between the windows in my workshop, over my desk. The words still inspire me. After all this time, I don’t intend to lose them.

Kent Haruf, a Benediction

Readers lost a great novelist, and Great Plains and Western writers like myself lost a mentor, on Sunday.

Colorado should be proud of, and surely grieves for, Kent Haruf, a resident of Salida, Colorado, who wrote about a fictional Colorado Eastern plains community in Plain Song, Eventide and Benediction. Just prior to his death, he finished the copy edits for his upcoming novel, scheduled for release next year.

His fiction resounds with thoughtful observations of ordinary people, the bonds and limitations of community life and a special appreciation for the sugar beet farming country of eastern Colorado. His characters run from infants to the aged, from unwed mothers to bachelor farmers. In portraying all, he shows the grace of compassion and an exquisite mercy. His language is simple and strong.

After first reading his novels this year, I’d hoped someday to meet this national treasure and warm human being. An acquaintance from the Women Writing the West Conference, Susan Tweit, wrote an engaging post about her relationship with Haruf, her neighbor. Her words make me even more sorry I’ll never have the chance to know him, but his work inspires me to write clear, heartfelt stories about the Great Plains and West, focusing as he did on broken, yet redeemable, hearts and relationships.

I encourage you to feed your hearts and minds on Kent Haruf’s fiction. You may soon share my gratitude that his words live on. May he rest in the peace he shared in writing with all of us.

Golden Women Writing the West

Go West, Woman Writer…

IMG_1498Women weren’t specifically encouraged to “Go West” as pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but many did, nonetheless. They went as single women, wives, entrepreneurs, investors, farmers and ranchers, including and beyond the stereotypes of madams and soiled doves. (Hollywood’s John Wayne in his Western characters never met most of those women, but if he had, he may have been delighted and a bit intimidated by their strength and spirit.) Some of their genetic and spiritual great-granddaughters, Women Writing the West, gathered in mid-October in Golden, Colorado, at The Golden Hotel and The Table Mountain Inn. I was delighted to join them as a new member. We came not to pan gold or rope steers or run hotels, and not even to brew beer (a nod to Coors, at home in Golden), but to consider what it means to write the history and experience of the West.

WWW logoWomen Writing the West is a nonprofit association of publishers and writers who set down the Western North American experience via journalism, nonfiction articles and books, screenplays, mass media and children’s literature. They write contemporary, literary, historical and romance novels, short stories, and poems, but these categories only begin to describe their artistic ventures. This year was the twentieth anniversary of the organization, and many Founding Members were present for special honors.

This autumn, Golden beckoned farmers, scientists, ranchers, teachers, and even businesswomen, from Canada, Alaska, South Dakota, Virginia, California, Oregon, New York, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico…well, you get the idea. The West lives everywhere.

Key conference speakers included Sandra Dallas, Susan Wittig Albert and Corinne Brown. Panelists led us through sessions as varied as Writing the West for Kids, Women’s Fiction, Place as Character, Self-Publishing, Trends in Publishing, Social Media and Collaboration Strategies. Mystery series author Margaret Coel led an inspiring session, My Journey with the Arapahos, that I’ll never forget. I learned so much, and came away so inspired, it’s hard to sleep at night…but I keep a notepad on the bedside table, to catch ideas.

IMG_1524The Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum hosted the readings by, and reception for, this year’s WILLA/LAURA awards finalists. There were beautiful quilts on display, including the one WWW members made for this 20th Anniversary celebration.

CherokeeOn Friday Night, we met at the American Mountaineering Center to screen a new film, The Cherokee Word for Water, about Wilma Mankiller, the late Native American activist and modern Cherokee Chief. Her husband, producer and director, Charlie Soap, film producer Kristina Kiehl, and the young star who played Wilma in the film, Kimberly Guererro, met with us for a Q & A after the screening. View the film trailer and watch for this amazing story of how a community saved itself with hard work and “gadugi,” soon showing online or in a theater near you.

IMG_1508While the West is a physical region and encompasses an historic era, it truly lives, as one conference writer said, as a state of mind. In the West of the imagination, anything can happen. Fortunes can be won and lost, lives are wagered on a bright future and the wealth of our nation daily expands beyond our founders’ dreams, out where the tumbleweeds roll, the buffalo snort and the silicon harbors data.

418px-Baby_Doe_TaborBeing a woman in the West was always something special, yet usually untold. Many have heard of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, or even Baby Doe Tabor, Colorado’s Silver Queen, who lived in glitter and died in squalor. But if you want to know Grace Robertson, a teenage bride alone on the South Dakota Prairie, read Dawn Wink’s novel, Meadowlark. Karen Casey Fitzjerrell’s Forgiving Effie Beck, which just won the 2014 Will Rogers Gold Medallion Award, leads you through a mystery of a woman gone missing in 1930s Texas. To see frontier justice through a woman named Emilee, read Retribution, by Tammy Hinton, which garnered the 2014 Will Rogers Silver Medallion Award. To learn the secret of the Little House on the Prairie writing process, read Susan Wittig Albert’s A Wilder Rose, about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. For heartwarming Women’s Fiction, try Journey to Sand Castle, by Leslee Breene. If you prefer nonfiction and want to consider health, ecology and the power of connection with the natural world for healing, begin with Susan Tweit’s Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey. I met each of these women, and I’m saving more to write about in future posts, as I experience their work.

IMG_1586The highlight of the conference was the women themselves, and I basked in their warm welcome. Their voices, their love of writing and their encouragement inspire me to both live and write more deeply. As Margaret Coel put it in plainspoken Western style, “People tell you all the time what you can’t do. Don’t listen to them.”

IMG_1564On Sunday morning, to send us off in high style, many of us gathered for a High Tea, featuring our best historical costumes. Corinne Brown presented an amazing array of Western women characters telling their stories, deepening my appreciation for our foremothers’ sacrifices and endurance.

The great beauty of the West is in its still-to-be-explored history, changeability and multicultural fabric, reflected in and by this happy gathering of writers and publishers. Among them, this writer has claimed a new homestead.

WWW 2015 CatalogFor a pdf catalog of more great books by and about the Great Plains and West, go to this link and click on the “View the 2015 Catalog” button at mid-page. Take a leisurely walk through wild country…no cowboy boots or turquoise jewelry is required… but then again, they might get you faster service.

Water, Anywhere But Here

Water, Anywhere jpgMy new short story, “Water, Anywhere But Here,” appears in the July/August edition of a very “green,” pdf-only literary journal, The Broadkill Review. This tale is set in New Mexico, one of my favorite places in the world. If you’re in the mood for great poetry and an intriguing interview with author and poet Marge Piercy, you’ll enjoy this issue.

I’ve been following this journal for a while, and I appreciate what the editor, Jamie Brown, assembles for our literary pleasure. I also appreciate that he published my story! This link will take you to a page with subscription information, if you’re in the mood to add another journal to your reading list…this one won’t even add to your straining bookshelf, and will go with you wherever your pdfs can travel; computer, smartphone, tablet…you get the drift.