It’s my annual end-of-the-year post where I share what I’ve been doing creatively and my favorite reads. I know this year has been challenging for so many, but I hope you are doing well and finding avenues for joy.
I had one book published this year - my very first picture book, Matching Costumes. It came out at the end of September, just in time for Halloween. It’s published by MacLaren Cochrane Publishing and is illustrated brilliantly by Cason Rome.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do any in-person events in October to promote it, nor was I able to get it to many reviewers prior to Halloween. So…. I’ll just pretend it’s debuting again next year. That’ll work, right?
My only self-publishing venture this year was a middle grade Christmas story called Sharing the Spotlight. This story was originally featured in the anthology Winter Wonder. I revised it and arranged it in chapter format. I put it on Kindle as a companion to my novel No One Needed to Know. I decided to do this on a whim while in quarantine at the end of November. I’m very grateful to the five people who downloaded it.
I did manage to get in one school visit this year. Believe it or not, it was right at the beginning of March, one week before the shutdown. It was my first high school visit, where I spoke about The Juniper Sawfeather Trilogy and gave some tips about recycling and reusing to help our environment.
I wrote quite a bit this year. Like many people, my work was closed for two months in the spring. I took that opportunity to finish the women’s fiction novel I’d been working on. It’s called Attitude of Grace and is about an aging amateur ballet dancer getting a second chance at love and life. I’m querying it to agents right now.
Working with composer Caleb Dinger, I wrote a sweet romantic musical called Songwriter Night. We recorded it as a full cast audio play. We’re working now on getting it published.
In addition to that, my co-author, Jeni Richard, finished her edits on our middle grade fantasy novel Dragon Surf. We have that out on query to agents as well.
As I’m in waiting mode for all of those projects, there’s not much else left to do but start writing another book. I’m only two chapters in at this point, but it’s a beginning. This new one is also a women’s fiction about a child care teacher (write what you know) with an It’s a Wonderful Life type of theme.
My other creative outlet—theater—has been on hold. I directed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the beginning of the year. It closed the last weekend of February, and I had just started rehearsals for Mamma Mia when the theater had to close its doors. Fingers crossed that we can start live theater again in the new year. The set that my husband built for the show is finished and waiting for us to come back to it.
With so much more time at home than usual, you’d think I’d read more, but I didn’t. I definitely chose TV as my first mode of entertainment and watched more than I’ve ever watched in my whole life. There were some really good shows, though. Some of my favorites were Hollywood, The Royal Gambit, Mrs. America, Lovecraft Country, The Good Place, and Ted Lasso.
As far as reading, I did make my Goodreads Challenge goal – barely. There are a couple picture books on the list and I didn’t finish three books on there. Having had two months off from work, I didn’t listen to quite as many audiobooks as usual, and I also chose some of the short Audible Originals titles between my monthly free credits. My list is a bit all over the place with genre too. I made a point to read more women’s fiction and romance, as I feel it’s important to read the kinds of books you want to write. I also wanted to make a point to include more diversity on my list. There are still a few young adult and middle grade books on the list. As usual, there’s a good mix of books from indie authors, small press and large press.
If you want to see all the books I read this year, here’s my Goodreads challenge. I'm currently nearing the end of two more books, so I hope to pop this up to an even 40 before New Year's Eve.
Now, for my faves:
The Wish List of Albie Young by Ruby Hummingbird
I picked this book up from a Bookbub listing without knowing much about it. The story sounded interesting and right in line with the kind of book was looking for. It was a charming story about an older woman rediscovering the joys of life thanks to discovering wish list left unfinished by a friend that passed away. I’d love to see this one made into a quiet movie starring someone like Judy Dench.
Best young adult or middle grade book:
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
I read a lot of great YA and children’s books this year. Historical fiction always rises to the top, though, and this one was no exception. It was about a Chinese girl and her father living secretly underneath a home in Atlanta in the early 1900s. She writes a column on manners for the local newspaper without anyone suspecting who she is. Fantastic book.
Best indie/small press book:
Top Producer by Laura Wolfe
Laura Wolfe had a big year with publishing three thrillers in one year. Two of her books are with a small publisher, and I haven’t had a chance to read them yet. This one she published herself (which I only found out today when researching that fact). This book about a young realtor and the conniving, ruthless woman she works for was thrilling and had me in its grip from beginning to end.
The Institute by Stephen King
The narrator! Santino Fontana! Oh, I love him so much. You might know him from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or the Broadway musical Tootsie. He read this book deliciously, and I didn’t want it to end. I will hunt down every book that he narrates and listen to them as well. (He narrates You, eek!) The plot about kidnapping children with supernatural powers was riveting too. Always and forever a Stephen King fan.
The Diviners by Libba Bray
I started this series a couple years back, but getting a subscription to Audible helped me finally listen to the remaining books. This series is wonderful historic fantasy/horror. The characters are diverse and each one is fully drawn out and captivating. The spooky plotline is intricate, and the setting of New York in the 1920s is divine. On top of all that, the audiobook narrator, January LaVoy, is one of the best out there. I truly believed all of her voices for all the characters. Brilliant all the way around.
Best large press book:
The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall
This book was another Bookbub surprise. It was on sale and looked interesting, so I snatched it up. It has a dual storyline between the 1940s and present day, following two young, ambitious women trying to figure out what they truly want from life. Although the title has the word “girls”, it's a book about women in their twenties. It also has a great afterward with some extra history to learn. I loved every word of this novel. If you like League of Their Own, this will appeal to you. I want it to be a movie or series. Come on Netflix, make this happen.
Best book of the year:
The Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepetys
Ruta Sepetys can not fail. I’ve read every book by her and always will. She’s a true genius, and I’m so grateful I had an opportunity to go to one of her presentations about this book to hear her talk about it. This story is based on history I knew nothing about: the selling of babies in Spanish orphanages. As usual, her book was rich with detail while simultaneously moving fluidly through a complex and fascinating plot. Brilliant. You must read this. It’s classified as YA, but, as with every Sepetys book, it appeals to anyone who loves amazing historical fiction.
Well, there you go. My year in a nutshell. Here's hoping 2021 will find everyone healthy and by the time I write my year-end post next December, all the troubles will be behind us. In the meantime, get yourself a couple good books to read and cozy up for the winter ahead. Roam around my website and see if anything I've written or the books listed above appeal to you.
I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a comment and say hi. Wishing you all the best.
I’m not big on wearing costumes for Halloween. I haven’t attended a Halloween party since my early twenties. Even when my daughter was still little, and I took her trick-or-treating, I only dressed up one year. My husband and I went as the Phantom of the Opera and Christine. We gathered with the rest of the family to trick-or-treat in my parents’ neighborhood, and my brother, Steve, teased me for dressing up.
And that’s the thing. I think I have emotional scarring from being teased for the costumes I wore. I remember distinctly one year in elementary school when we were doing an “Outer Space” theme and we were invited to dress up as aliens for the day. I invented my own alien, something about rainbows. Like most of my Halloween costumes as a child, I used an old dance costume as the base and then added onto it. In this case I put a rainbow on my face and had bright ribbons. When I entered the classroom, nearly everyone had on something Star Wars related (it was new then). Expensive Yoda masks, plastic light sabers, so many Princess Leias. I was not an identifiable alien. I wasn’t even green. I got laughed at and picked on. So, I went to the bathroom and changed into my regular clothes and wiped off the makeup.
Of course, I wore costumes every Halloween throughout my childhood. Simple things like a witch or a pirate. Easy to assemble and recognize. When we were very little, my brothers and I still wore those costumes that came out of a box with the plastic face masks. The funny thing is, I don’t have any pictures. My family wasn’t great with taking lots of pictures anyway, but we have nothing. Not one single Halloween picture in my albums. The only pictures of me in costumes are from shows I was in.
Nowadays, if given the choice, I don’t wear a costume or I’ll do the simplest thing possible. I’m a big fan of wearing Halloween-themed T-shirts in October and have donned my Peanuts Halloween shirt every year for as long as I can remember. I’ve worked at my school for 15 Fall Festivals now and have only dressed up four times and always at the urging of a co-worker. This year I invested in a $5.00 pair of cat ears, and my assistant and I went way simple by wearing black and drawing cat faces on our masks. (In my defense, I do work with infants, so it’s hard to wear a complex costume and do my job.)
I just don’t love wearing costumes. It might be part of my intense shyness. Costumes draw attention. They draw judgement, whether good or bad. I feel the scrutiny, and it makes me uncomfortable. Did I dress up enough? Am I too dressed up? Do I look silly or stupid? Despite my experience in elementary school, I still prefer to make my own costumes as opposed to buying ones, even though I know I will feel awkward next to people who spent a lot more money on theirs. While I know this perception is skewed, that people just want to have fun at Halloween, old feelings create a barrier to my ability to enjoy this activity.
The weird thing is, I like making costumes. I do. I had a blast helping my daughter with her Halloween and spirit day costumes over the years. My stepdaughters love to cosplay, and I pitched in a couple times when they were still teenagers to help put something together for them. I’ve costumed myself and others for several plays I’ve done. If I knew how to sew better, I would love being an official costumer for theaters. Searching through Goodwill for the perfect piece to make an outfit work is a blast.
Perhaps this is why I wrote a book about a little girl making costumes for Halloween. I wanted to show the fun that can be had in creating a costume. The frustration of it not working. The elation when it finally comes out right. While Matching Costumes is for the very youngest of children and focuses more on the developmental skills of matching and sequencing, it also lends itself to discussion of making costumes out of things already in the house. If more families made their own costumes instead of purchasing them ready-made, maybe kids like me would feel less embarrassed or ashamed of their creations. Maybe a little girl dressed in rainbow colors claiming to an alien could be cheered for her imagination instead of bullied out of her costume.
I learned something important today. Despite having an autistic brother and working in special education, I was unaware that the puzzle pieces used so often to promote autism awareness were problematic and being rejected by the autistic community.
This issue came up when I did a promotion of my middle grade novel, No One Needed to Know, on a Facebook group called Kids’ Books for a Better World. A person helpfully commented that the cover of my book and ad copy being heavy with puzzle pieces indicated an insensitivity to this issue. I immediately stopped what I was doing and began researching to understand my mis-step.
Sure enough, I found many articles supporting this claim and a lot of upset voices from #actualautistic people on Twitter. The history behind the puzzle pieces is unfortunate. It was originally created as a logo for Autism Speaks with the implications that autism was a puzzling disease that needed fixing. Well, as we all know, autism is a lifelong condition and doesn’t need healing or fixing.
The puzzle image concept caught on, however, and the puzzle pieces were added to a ribbon that is put on everything supportive of autism awareness. I see it everywhere with regard to trainings I’ve done and merchandise for purchase. I have shirts and a bracelet with the puzzle pieces that are intended to share my alliance as a sibling and educator.
Here are some comments I found from articles: “…the puzzle piece also represents viewing us as ‘puzzling’ or a ‘mystery’. Often terms used in the past referring to autism. For autistic people this is problematic, as we don’t wish to be viewed as akin to a puzzle that can’t be worked out.” Altogether Autism
“Autistic people reject the puzzle piece symbol for multiple reasons, but the main reasons are that it is infantilizing, it promotes the mentality that autistic people are incomplete or are missing puzzle pieces, and it treats autism as a disease that needs to be ‘treated’ or ‘cured.’ The primary colors of the autism awareness ribbon supports the misconception that autism is something that only appears in childhood, and autistic adults are largely ignored in the conversation about autism.” In the Loop about Neurodiversity
In fairness to those who, like myself, have been unaware of this growing frustration with the symbol, there are people who still view the puzzle pieces with affection and in a positive way. These two articles show some differing perspectives and how this is still a hot, unresolved issue.
The new symbol that is widely accepted is an infinity sign. It is either in rainbow colors to reflect the spectrum of the disorder or it is gold in reference to AU on the table of periodic elements.
My novel No One Needed to Know is from the perspective of an 11-year-old younger sister of a teen autistic brother. She deals with the frustrations and responsibilities of being his sister and must learn to love and appreciate her brother for who he is. Only then can she help others accept him too. Based on the theme of my novel, I need to be sensitive to the autistic community. I decided that it was time to take the puzzle pieces off of my book cover and create a new design. It’s been three-and-a-half years since the books was published, and, frankly, it needed a new cover anyway.
(I spent a lot of today redesigning and uploading the new covers. They may not be available for a couple days.)
The bikes represent Heidi and her older brother, Donald, who love to go on bike riding adventures together. I hope that you like it. I’d love to know what you think. Please leave a comment below.
You can learn more about the novel, read an excerpt and reviews, and find purchase links here.
I was going through the listings on my TV this morning to see what would be on tonight. (I'm watching Hamilton tomorrow to celebrate the 4th of July). I saw that on the local PBS station they were going to air the annual Smithville Fiddler's Jamboree this weekend. I thought, "Oh no! Please tell me they aren't doing the Jamboree right now during Covid!" After a more in-depth search, I found out that it's all virtual this year. Thank goodness. No in-person events. This is safe, yes, but also sad. Like a lot of events cancelled this year, the Smithville Fiddler's Jamboree is a fun one. It's a craft fair centered around Bluegrass performances and competitions. It happens every year on the weekend closest to Independence Day in this small rural town near Center Hill Lake in Tennessee, a couple hours east of Nashville. I went to it one time. It was deathly hot, but it was a good time.
When I was writing Lost on the Water - A Ghost Story, I remembered the quaint town of Smithville and decided to use it as the setting. I wanted it to be a summer story, so I set the beginning of the book on Sunday, July 5th, the day after the giant event ends and the world has gone quiet and still again.
Today, I thought I'd share the opening chapter of Lost on the Water, introducing this little town and my bratty main character Dannie. (I promise she grows as a person.)
THE CABIN BY THE LAKE
The greatest adventure of my life happened when I was three years old, and I don’t remember any of it.
According to my mother, the one and only time we visited my grandparents’ house there was some drama about me wandering off down the road and getting lost when they weren’t looking. Their house was surrounded by woods and near a big lake, so there was a great deal of panic. They found me hours later asleep on the side of the road.
The way the story goes, when Mom woke me up, I told her I’d been following some boy. He was a big boy. Mom said I was specific about that, but she had no idea if it meant the boy was big in size or older than me. I didn’t have a lot of words then. I was mad at him, apparently, because he pushed me, and I fell into the dirt on the side of the road. I skinned my knee and started crying. I looked up to yell at the boy, “I don’t like that!” But a car zoomed by—fast. Then the boy was gone, and I thought he’d been hit by the car. I cried and cried until I fell asleep.
My parents assured me that no boy had been hit by a car. My grandparents had no idea who the boy could have been. No one lived near them. They let it all go as the active imagination of a little girl.
In the end, the incident freaked them all out so much that we never went back to visit them again. I’m still not clear on if it was my parents’ refusing to bring me back, or if it was my grandparents’ refusing to have me. Or all of the above. Whoever it was, eleven years later they finally changed their mind. Whatever was the big deal didn’t seem to bother them anymore. All worries of me chasing after invisible boys were pushed aside, because my parents decided it was perfectly fine to abandon me with Grandma for two weeks.
I secretly hoped to top that previous adventure just to spite them. I’d already been brainstorming ideas to destroy a few hours of my parents’ vacation.
“I can do it myself.”
I lunged in front of my father and yanked my suitcase off the baggage claim conveyor. The weight of it almost caused me to fall backward, but I played it off like nothing happened. I refused to look at my parents to see them covering their snide smiles. Nothing about what I was doing was “cute” or “funny.” My desire for independence wasn’t “charming.” I’d had it with them. Two hours of traffic to Los Angeles. Two hours waiting at the airport. Five hours crammed together on the plane. I was so over “family time,” and now they were telling me it would be nearly two hours again until we got to Grandma’s house out in the country. I wanted to die.
I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t have made this flight on my own. They could’ve dropped me off at the airport, and I could’ve been one of those unaccompanied minors. A bunch of my friends with divorced parents did that all the time. It would have been liberating to take this trip instead of stifling. Mom insisted she wasn’t being overprotective of me. Her reason for them tagging along with me was that she didn’t want to make Grandma drive all the way to Nashville to pick me up and have to drive back home again. It was too far, and they were asking so much of her to put me up for the next two weeks.
Put me up or put up with me?
I rolled my suitcase down to the car rental, and I shoved it in the trunk on my own. Dad could figure out how to maneuver it to make room for their baggage. I slipped into the backseat and plugged in my earbuds, so I wouldn’t have to listen to the country music oldies station my parents settled on. They didn’t even like country music, but this was, as they put it, “the good stuff ” because it was the Judds, Reba, and Randy Travis, the ones they remembered from their younger line-dancing days. Age didn’t make it better in my opinion. It was still all twang and steel guitars. I didn’t look out the window one single time until 50-plus minutes had passed, and my parents pulled off the freeway—excuse me, interstate—to stop at a gas station.
Mom told me to use the bathroom at the gas station because we wouldn’t see another toilet until we got to Grandma’s house. I didn’t listen, and she wasn’t kidding. Forty-five minutes had passed already, and there hadn’t been any more gas stations, fast food restaurants, or even a row of trees since we pulled out of that station. All I saw were fields of grass and the occasional farmhouse. Only ice was left in my thirty-two-ounce soda cup, and now I really had to pee.
“Seriously, Mom,” I squealed from the backseat. “How far into country-bumpkin land is her house? I gotta go!”
“I told you,” Mom said.
“That’s right, Dannie,” Dad chimed in. “She did tell you.”
“Could you just pull over somewhere?”
“Where?” Mom asked.
I had one of those moments when I seriously wished I was a guy, so I could just make use of my empty cup.
“We’re almost there. You’ll make it.” Dad pointed out the front window. “Oh, look, you can see the lake from here.”
I groaned. I didn’t want to see any form of water at that moment. I kept my eyes trained on my DS, trying to concentrate on my game even though I couldn’t sit still. I missed the glimpses of big, beautiful Center Hill Lake that was geography’s purpose for this remote town in Tennessee. The car slowed and stopped.
“Are we there?”
“No,” Dad said. “Stop sign. We’re entering town.”
“Stop sign?” I asked. “It isn’t even a big enough town for a stoplight?”
From my view out the window, I could see a row of small, one-story shops with their lights off and Closed signs in the windows. A page of newspaper tumbled over itself down the sidewalk in the light breeze— the only movement around. Although the scene was in full living color, if you call drab beiges, yellows and dirty whites colors, it kind of looked like the backdrop for an old black-and-white Twilight Zone episode. There are always Twilight Zone marathons on the Fourth of July, so the images were fresh in my head. I imagined that at any second that skinny guy in the suit, Rod Sterling, would come out one of those doors and let us know we were about to enter a life-changing spook story.
“Oh look!” Mom blurted out, making me jump and come way too close to wetting my pants. “How quaint! There’s a quilting store! An actual quilting store. I wish I had time to stop there.”
Okay, so that was a weird comment. Come on, Rod, I thought. Come on out and explain why my mom is behaving like she’s never been here. Interrupting Mom’s reverie, what I said out loud was, “Mom, why are you acting like all this stuff is new to you? Those shops have been here a hundred years probably.”
She cleared her throat but then didn’t say anything.
“Mom?” My dad answered for her. “Your mom didn’t actually grow up here. And she hasn’t been here too many times.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “Grandma and Grandpa always spoke about this place like they’ve been here forever.”
A weird silence filled the car for a moment as we rolled down the street, as if they were trying to decide if they wanted to tell me something or avoid it. What were they keeping from me? I was about to bug them about it when something caught Mom’s eye and she was back to the passenger window again. “Oh! Look at all the antique shops!”
“You sure you don’t want to stay and vacation here? Since it’s so charming and all?”
My parents weren’t taking me to Grandma’s house for some holiday weekend. No, this was the middle of summer. A time when I should be back home in Corona Del Mar, California, riding bikes with my friends, taking the bus to the beach, having tons of fun hanging out at Fashion Island, seeing movies, playing the arcade games at the pier, and maybe taking a trip to the water park. But no. My parents were going to Paris.
“That’s Paris, France, not Paris, Tennessee.”
My dad liked that joke and told it about a hundred times to everyone he met between the LAX and Nashville airports. Dad had some business trip he had to go on, and he was taking Mom with him. “A chance of a lifetime,” they said. A chance of a lifetime for them—not me.
“Besides,” Mom went on in her defense when she insisted I couldn’t come with them, “you would hate Paris. What would you do there? It’s full of fine art museums. Couture. Fancy food. It’s not exactly pizza rolls, video games, and skateboarding over there.”
Okay, so I wasn’t exactly a fashion expert or a big fan of the pretty stuff. Let’s take my hair, for example. I kept it short-short, dirty-dishwater blonde, and never combed. In fact, I about made my mom’s hairdresser pass out when I told her I wanted “a boy’s cut.” She refused to do it, so I walked out on her. I saved up some allowance and went to one of those walk-in haircut places on my own where they gave me just the cut I wanted, trimmed over my ears, above my neck, and a touch longer on top so I had a little bit of bangs that I swept to the left. I’d been getting it trimmed every couple months ever since.
I tried makeup once, but it made my face feel dirty. My figure is about as thin, gangly, and flat-chested as they come. Mom said some girls were slower to develop a figure and not to worry about it. I was concerned for a while when all the girls changed, and I didn’t. When I hit fourteen I stopped caring. My body suited me just fine. I didn’t have to wear a bra, and I certainly didn’t deal with all those stupid boyfriend problems that Jenna, my best friend, had to go through all the time.
Still, not being built to look good in dresses didn’t mean I didn’t want to fly to Europe and eat some authentic pastries and good cheese and get a couple new T-shirts with French writing on them.
Mom’s stance on the issue of me going with them wouldn’t budge. “I’m not buying a plane ticket and spending a fortune to hear you complain the whole time. Besides, your dad and I could use some private time together.”
All right. That’s fair. But couldn’t I stay with friends at home? Jenna’s mom said it was fine with her. No. My mom had other ideas. Why don’t I have a nice visit with Grandma in Tennessee? I don’t get to see her much. Wouldn’t that be nice? She could really use the company now that Grandpa is gone.
I love Grandma. She’s pretty cool. I didn’t see her often, but she’s got this really subtle Southern accent and she knows how to play a lot of different card games. Grandpa had been awesome. I remember when he built a tree house in our backyard one time when he came to visit. From scratch—not from a kit. The tree house is still standing. I still play in it. Well, not play so much as hang out in it. Sometimes. Usually by myself lately, because a lot of my girlfriends don’t want to climb up there anymore. Splinters and bugs, you know.
Well, ever since that weird incident of me getting lost, Grandpa and Grandma always came to visit us. They said it was more convenient for them because my mom had an aunt in California, and if they came out West they could visit all of us in one trip. Auntie Brenda died a few years ago, but they still insisted on visiting us and not the other way around.
Grandpa died this past January. My parents went to the funeral, but they left me at home because they thought it would be “too much” for me to handle. I might not have been graced by puberty, but that didn’t mean I was a little kid. At any rate, with Grandpa gone, Grandma said she wouldn’t fly anymore and didn’t want to go far from home.
Kudos to my mom for trying to get Grandma to come to our house to stay with me. She explained many times about how much easier it would be to get one ticket for her than arrange three flights for us. She bribed her with offers to send her to a spa treatment and told her any kind of food we wanted could be delivered so she wouldn’t have to cook the whole time. Grandma said no. Nothing could make her ever leave Tennessee again.
Now that I was here, I wish I could understand why she felt that way. I didn’t, though. It looked boring here. Just houses and grass and a lake and a place they called a town. Apparently, they didn’t know the definition of “town” was supposed to be a place full of activity. There weren’t any cars or people visible anywhere.
“Does Grandma live close to this cosmopolitan mecca?” I asked. “Cause if not, I think I see a pizza place over there that might have a bathroom.”
Dad drove right past it. “She’s only a few miles from here. Just hang on.”
“I can change my clothes, but you may have to pay extra for the urine-soaked seats of the rental car.”
“Funny, Danielle,” Mom said.
Ooh, she used my whole name to emphasize how not funny I really was.
“Where is everybody?” I asked, squirming in my seat.
“It’s Sunday,” she said. “Shops are closed on Sundays.”
“Are you kidding me? Whoever heard of that?”
Dad laughed. “It used to be like that everywhere, Dannie. Not every place is full of heathens like where we live.”
Once we got past what Mom kept calling “The Downtown Square” we made a few turns and went uphill a bit. The view out my window got a lot greener. Trees popped up everywhere and there were houses instead of farms. I gathered we were pretty close to the water, because a lot of driveways had boats in them along with pickup trucks or SUVs with hitches. I saw some jet skis in one yard. I wondered who lived there and how I could get to know them.
Then we broke through the little smattering of houses and continued on the two-lane road up a rise. Seemingly endless amounts of tall green trees lined both sides of the road.
“Where does Grandma live, exactly?” I asked.
“Well, it’s not a house, per se,” my mom answered. “It’s a cabin.”
I wasn’t sure if that excited me or scared me. A cabin would be a cool thing if I were with my dad and some friends going camping. I pictured a rustic, old place where we’d drop our gear and collapse for the night before getting up and starting out again the following morning for some hiking, fishing, or whitewater rafting. But as a place where I’d be wasting ten days of my life with a lady in her seventies, the word “cabin” filled me with dread about the extreme lack of activity I’d be facing.
We came over a ridge, and a considerable portion of the lake came into view. It was a large body of water, but it was curvy with tons of inlets and coves forcing the water to twist and wind around them. It didn’t look like any lake I’d ever seen before.
“Are you sure that’s not a river?” I asked. “Lakes are supposed to be round. Lake Arrowhead? Lake Tahoe? Big round lakes.”
My dad slowed the car to a stop and pointed off to the left. “It’s a reservoir, Dannie. Way up that way is a dam that was built in the forties, and it caused the water to pool up here. It’s sixty-four miles long with almost four hundred fifteen miles of shoreline.”
“That’s huge!” I said. It didn’t seem that big looking at it, but I guess I wasn’t seeing the whole thing. “How do you know all that?”
“When your mom and I were here for your grandfather’s funeral, we needed a little diversion. So, one afternoon we took a tour of the dam and drove around the lake,” Dad told me.
Mom piped in then. “The whole thing is taken care of by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They own all the land around it, and there are a couple state parks for camping and hiking. You should have a good time here.”
That all sounded great except that my hiking and camping buddy was going to be an old woman. So…probably not going to happen.
Dad resumed driving again, and we went downhill toward the water.
“If the lake is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, whatever that is, how does Grandma have a cabin here?”
“This cabin has been in my father’s family for generations, long before the dam was ever built. He managed to hang on to it, but they bought up the rest of his land from him and put some more cabins up as rental properties. During the big holiday weekends, the cabins fill up with tourists.”
She gave my dad a look then, and he rolled his eyes and shrugged in response. I’m sure that all had something to do with them trying to convince Grandma to sell her cabin or use it as a rental and make money off of it. I’d overheard a lot of that from their heated phone conversations. The walls in my house are thinner than my parents think.
The road turned parallel to the water, and I saw all the reddish log cabins. There were about twenty of them, all identical to one another, with nifty little front porches filled with rocking chairs. I noticed that some of the cabins looked like they had covered hot tubs out back. It seemed like a cozy place for a family trip. There was a small dock out in the water that I guessed all the renters were supposed to share, and the pebbled beach was wide and ready for families to set up chairs and picnics.
Down at the far end, this small beach gave over to the woods again, and that was where the one cabin that was different rested. It was not a log home in a neat, spiffy, cookie-cut design. This ranchstyle place was a little longer than the others, the logs rough and gray with age. Pretty flowers lined the front windows to each side of the wide front door, which was inviting and showed that someone lived there. However, I couldn’t see a path to the front door, making me suspect that Grandma didn’t want the tourists in the nearby cabins to come knocking.
My parents turned into the gravel driveway that sliced a wide grassy yard in half and followed it until it curved behind the house. The gravel drive faded into a rocky, overgrown backyard marked with a dozen or more trees. It struck me as weird that Grandma kept the front yard so neat and trim, while the backyard looked avoided. Maybe it was difficult to mow around the rocks and trees, but it came across as worse than that, as if she preferred it wild and ignored.
A smallish garage stood opposite the driveway from the house. I’d never seen a house that didn’t have a garage attached to it, and I thought about how inconvenient that must be for Grandma. The big green door on the front of it was down and locked with a padlock, and her car was parked on the driveway in front of it, letting me know right off the bat that the garage was not used much. At least not for her car.
A long wooden deck with a hip-high railing ran along the entire back wall of her house. It was decorated with some simple furniture, potted plants and wind chimes. And there, sitting in a worn-out, upholstered swing, was Grandma waving a glass of iced tea at us and smiling.
I had the door open and had jumped out before Dad fully stopped the car. “Love you, Grandma!” I shouted. “I’ll say hi in a minute, but I gotta find your bathroom.”
I ran past her, into the house, and heard her call after me, “Down the hall and to the right!”
I’m sure I could have figured that out. Her house wasn’t exactly big. It had a kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms and one bathroom between them. However, her directions kept me from having to think, so I did as she said. A moment later, I felt a lot better and was able to smile and think again. I returned to my family a whole different person.
Except for the fact that I still didn’t want to be there. Grandma had poured everyone a glass of her “sweet tea,” and they were all seated around her picnic table. She gave me a glass, and I plopped down on the squeaky swing with the faded yellow upholstery. One sip made me gag slightly. I couldn’t believe how sweet the tea actually was. It was like drinking a piece of melted sugar cane. And though it may sound strange coming from a fourteen-year-old kid, I didn’t like it. While I listened to my parents catch up with Grandma and show her pictures from their brochures of all the places they were going to visit, I twirled the ice around in my glass until it melted.
The creaking of the swing helped me tune out their voices. I’d heard all about the Louvre and Notre Dame and the Arch de Triomphe a thousand times and didn’t care to hear about them again. Somewhere in the distance I could make out a motor running. I tried to see where it was coming from, but the wooden railing of the porch was in my way. I stood up and leaned on it, gazing out at the backyard. A forest of trees wrapped around the back of the garage like a cloak. More trees stood like a troop of guards at the far end of her wild lot, attempting to block the way down to the lake.
One of those many bends in the river-ish lake went right around her property. Between the trees, I could see only the tiniest swath of deep blue water from where I was standing. It was almost as if the overgrown grass and trees were purposely arranged to block my view. No matter how far I leaned forward, I couldn’t get a better angle to see more. The motor sound grew louder. I wanted to see what kind of boat it was.
Then, as though someone read my mind and wanted to help me out, some of the tree branches blocking my view spread apart. It was just like if someone had grabbed them and pulled them aside for me. It could have been a breeze, but I didn’t feel one. Also, if it had been a breeze, the branches would have snapped back in place after a second. These held open for a solid moment, long enough for me to clearly see a speedboat whip by.
Oh, sweet! One of her neighbors had a speedboat!
I jumped over the rail and started running down to the shore to see it.
But Grandma’s shrill cry made me stop in my tracks.
“Dannie! Dannie, don’t go down there!”
I hope you enjoyed that opening to my novel. The pictures are of the actual town of Smithville (where I've done a couple booksignings) and Center Hill Lake (where I wish I was on a boat right now). If you're intrigued and want to read more, my publisher has the book temporarily enrolled with Kindle Unlimited. The ebook is only $2.99 or you can get it for free if you're a KU member. You can also order a paperback copy at Amazon, Lulu or through the indie bookstore Parnassus Books in Nashville. Find all those links, another excerpt, and reviews here.
Have a great holiday weekend. Stay safe. Wear your mask when you go out. Leave a comment if you'd like to let me know how you're spending your holiday.
The other night I was watching an episode of The Good Doctor where a girl was going to miss her prom because she had cancer. Once the doctors were out of earshot, one of them quipped, "Prom sucks," and it made me laugh really hard.
He was right. Prom wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Not for me anyway. That's me with the very short black hair in the black dress with all my girlfriends at my senior prom in 1987. That was one of the very rare moments I actually spent with my friends that evening. My boyfriend at the time was in a different clique than my Drama group, so I spent most of the evening with a bunch of people I didn't know or like very well. (Shockingly, he and I broke up a couple weeks later.)
And yet, I do know how important going to prom feels. I've helped both stepdaughters and my own daughter get gussied up and pictures taken for various proms. So much excitement and anticipation. They were all gorgeous, every time. And, let's face it, the dress, shoes, hair, and makeup really is the point, isn't it?
Oh, in case you're wondering, the doctors didn't remain jerks on the The Good Doctor. They arranged for the girl to have her own private prom at the hospital with her boyfriend the night before her surgery. It was very sweet.
My heart aches for all the high school kids who can't go to prom right now. Whether it was going to be the hopeful dream come true or the disappointing, "I can't believe I spent so much money on this," it's an experience that doesn't come around again. I wish I could help like those doctors on the TV show and give everyone a special moment. Alas, I cannot. All I can do is share a prom night scene from my YA romance novel All the Love You Write for you to enjoy.
This scene is pretty far into the book, so I can't share too much of it without giving away spoilers. I can tell you that Bethany and Mark are high school seniors who have been struggling with a new relationship all semester. There are two ghosts in this story meddling with the relationship. Eileen is the ghost that constantly tries to make Bethany feel that she's not good enough for Mark. It works, which is why Bethany is spending prom night at home with her best friend Kat, having an anti-prom sleepover. Kat has just fallen asleep after a long heart-to-heart chat...
I watched Kat sleep for a bit. She looked so peaceful, and I wondered what she might be dreaming about. I knew I’d never guess correctly because despite knowing her nearly my whole life, I realized I didn’t know her as well as I thought. How could I not have seen it? How could I not have guessed? Why hadn’t she trusted me enough to tell me until now? Here I’d been thinking she was a horrible friend to me over the past few months, but maybe I was being just as horrible to her.
Hopefully we’d broken through a barrier and we could be more face value than we’d ever been before. What an amazing friendship we could have now if we tried a little harder.
Her phone on the table buzzed. A text message. It wasn’t my business, but we did know all the same people so I picked it up. If it was her mom or something, I’d wake her.
All I saw when I turned the phone over in my hand was the image of Mark and Sadie dancing again. I closed out of the picture and opened her text messages. Nope. Nothing new.
The phone vibrated in my hand. The picture popped up again.
This wasn’t funny. Why would Lissy send this picture over and over again? That wasn’t like her. Besides, by now she was probably at a prom after party—hopefully staying out of trouble. I shivered with new worries. I closed the picture.
The phone buzzed and the picture reappeared.
I closed it.
The phone buzzed and the picture reappeared.
Oh no. This wasn’t Lissy’s doing at all.
“Eileen,” I whispered sharply through gritted teeth. This had to be her handiwork. Although I couldn’t imagine how the ghost knew how to manipulate a cell phone. I closed the picture. It reappeared. “Okay, rub it in. He went to the dance with someone else. I get it. Thank you.” I closed the picture.
I breathed slowly through my nose. “I know you’re trying to tell me something. What is it?”
There wasn’t any kind of response, so all I could do was study the picture again. I went past noticing how handsome he was in his uniform and how Sadie had this Cinderella Ball makeover thing happen to her. I enlarged his face to study his smile to see if it was genuine. Seemed to be. It was hard to tell. Did he like being with Sadie? Did he like her more than being with me? Was that what Eileen was getting at?
“Sadie’s an okay girl, I guess,” I admitted. Then I wondered something about Eileen. I looked up at the ceiling. I don’t know why I thought her ghost would be hovering above me like that. For all I knew she was sitting next to me on the sofa or standing on the coffee table. “Did you and Joe ever go to prom? I know you probably couldn’t go your senior year because of the war, but did you go your junior year or anything?”
The photo on the phone began to disintegrate. My heart started beating so fast as I worried Kat’s phone had some horrible virus. The screen went blank.
“Oh no. Oh no,” I moaned.
After a moment, the screen brightened again, and the image had been replaced with a new one. I’d never seen this picture before, but I had no doubts about what it was. Eileen wore a creamy white sundress with strings that tied around her neck. The cotton was thin, and although it hung all the way to the grass they stood in, I could see her legs through it. She held a bouquet of daisies in her hand and wore a crown of them in her golden hair. Beside her, Joe wore a white button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, tucked into a pair of pale blue, bell-bottom slacks. He wore a thin tie, and he had a daisy pinned to his shirt pocket. His brown hair was overgrown. Perhaps he’d been letting it grow as long as possible before he had to report for duty. Otherwise, his face was the spitting image of Mark. Both of them were barefooted. This had to be a wedding picture of Joe and Eileen.
In my ear I heard a soft voice say, “We did better than dance.”
The phone went dead in my hand.
I hope you enjoyed that excerpt. If you're intrigued enough to find out what happens between Mark, Bethany and the ghosts, please get yourself a copy of All the Love You Write. It's free for Kindle Unlimited users. Another novel I know of that has an "anti-prom" scene is The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner. I highly recommend it, but have some tissues handy. Do you know of any other YA books with grat prom or anti-prom scenes? I'd love to know about them. Please leave a comment below.
In this crazy time where most of us are sequestered to our homes and going a little stir crazy, I thought I'd share a short story I wrote about a mom who gets a fresh outlook and invents a way for her family to have a really good day together. It's a feel-good piece that I wrote when I was still living in California, and I cleaned it up today for you.
Everywhere I looked I could see them. On the walls, in the shelves, above the mantel, even attached to refrigerator magnets. Pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Dean Morgan on their exotic vacations. According to their photographic exhibit, these two had been all over the world, to every fascinating destination one could imagine.
The cocktail party at the Morgan’s house quickly grew tiring. I didn’t think I could handle hearing another tale of finding off-the-beaten-track sights or staying at lovely bed and breakfasts with gorgeous views and splendid hospitality. Watching my husband, Craig, nod his head over and over again, then hearing him repeat, “We’ll have to check that out when we go,” made my stomach tighten. A world of bills, responsibilities, children, and tight schedules swirled around me, making me desperate for some fresh air.
“Let’s go outside and see the garden,” I said to Craig, tugging on his arm.
“I’m sure it’s precious.” I felt certain that some of my bitterness escaped with that sentence, but neither Mr. or Mrs. Morgan seemed to notice.
“Oh, do have a look,” Mrs. Morgan said. “All of the Birds of Paradise were imported from Fiji.”
I smiled as politely as I could and tugged my husband away, pausing only to refill my wineglass on the way out.
“I can’t take this anymore,” I said as we stepped into the tropical garden of imported flowers probably kept up by imported gardeners. “They make me feel like the most boring person on earth. Do you realize that I’ve never been out of the country? Not even to Tijuana or Vancouver. I haven’t even been to Hawaii!”
Craig put his arm around me and gave me one of his comforting squeezes that hurt sometimes when he does it too hard. This was one of those times. “We could go somewhere if you want.”
“Really?” I asked. “Where? When will we have the time or money?”
“Um…” he hummed. He always did that when he had no answer. “We could always win a trip from the grocery store sweepstakes.”
I felt my eyes roll up into my head. “Can we leave before I hear any more stories about hidden paradises?”
Craig agreed, and ten minutes later we walked out the front door with this haunting farewell to follow us: “Let’s do it again,” Mrs. Morgan suggested.
“Yes,” Craig agreed, adding, “but at our house next time.”
We argued all the way home. We argued into the night. The “How could you say thats” and “What do you means” went round and round for hours.
Finally, exasperated from it all, I muttered, “I just can’t bear for them to see that we have no life.”
“But we do have a life, honey,” he assured me. “Look at our pictures. We have tons of them.” He pointed at framed pictures around our bedroom. “There’s us with the kids at that massive family reunion picnic at the lake. There’s the one of Kelly’s pony ride at the fair. Remember this one, when Kenny graduated from kindergarten?” He pulled the picture off the dresser and put it in my hands. It was one of my favorites, little Kenny standing there in his oversized gown, wearing a cap made out of cardboard and black construction paper. We called him, “our little scholar.”
“It’s not that,” I told Craig. “I didn’t even notice our lives were lacking anything until standing in the Morgan’s house with this constant reminder that there is a world out there—a world we haven’t seen even the slightest piece of.”
At that, Craig threw up his hands. “Well, I don’t know what to do about that.”
We turned out the lights and went to sleep without saying another word to each other.
In the morning, after feeding the kids and sending them outside to play, I cozied up with the Sunday Times on the couch. Purposely, I hid the Travel section from myself and instead pulled out the Calendar. I thought I might find a carnival or kids’ show that we could go to that day to ease my mind and give us all something to do. Glancing through the events pages, I came across an advertisement for Huntington Gardens.
According to the ad, this was a huge garden in Pasadena designed painstakingly by the best groundskeepers in the nation. Plants were brought in from all over the world and raised in environments that resembled their foreign habitats. Kind of like a zoo for flora. Supposedly, if I went there, I would see a Japanese tea garden, a Chinese bamboo forest, a New Zealand jungle, and a Moroccan desert.
This gave me an idea.
Within an hour the family was packed into the car along with a couple duffel bags full of hats, sunglasses, some changes of clothes, and a camera. Craig thought I was crazy at first, but he soon got into the spirit of it. After all, my plan was anything but boring.
We spent the whole afternoon exploring the garden. Each time we found the perfect location, we’d call on some stranger to snap pictures of us standing there. I put Kelly in charge of wardrobe, Kenny took care of making sure no people stood in the background, Craig was in charge of finding the best angles, and I just had a great time.
At the end of the day, exhausted but giggly, we headed over to the convenience store and uploaded our digital pictures into the kiosk and clicked the box to have them developed in one hour. We ate at the burger place across the street and waited for our pictures to develop. As the sixtieth minute passed, we raced over to tear open our results. The pictures couldn’t have been more perfect.
A few weeks later Mr. and Mrs. Dean Morgan came to our house, along with some other work friends, for a get-together. Our new “worldly” pictures hung on the walls, rested on bookshelves and the mantel above the fireplace, and a couple sillier ones were held in place by refrigerator magnets.
Mrs. Morgan ogled a pose of Kelly and I standing in front of a Zen rock garden. “Isn’t Japan wonderful in the summer?”
“Quite,” I agreed, sipping my wine to keep from giggling.
“And Australia,” Mr. Morgan said, studying another picture. “You really had to take one of the hidden trails to get this shot, didn’t you?”
“The kids loved it,” Craig replied, winking at me.
Originally, I had only planned to put those pictures up for the cocktail party, just for the purpose of impressing the Morgans. After the party, though, I decided to leave them up.
As I look at them now, I realize that although we may have fooled our jet-set friends, the photos would never fool me. I’d never look at them and think, “Wow, look where we’ve been.” Instead, I’d always look at those photos and remember how much fun we had together as a family, right here in our own home town, traveling around the world in a day.
I hope you enjoyed that short story. I have other ones in my blog if you feel like scrolling down a bit. You might also enjoy my short story "Ticket to Her Heart" published in the anthology Second Chance for Love. Please take a moment to pop around on my website and read excerpts and reviews of my published work. You might find something to help you pass the time.
All my best wishes for you,
Happy New Year, everyone. Today I write my annual reflection post and list my favorite reads of the year. I hope you all had a good 2019 and are looking forward to this coming year.
I kept my calendar pretty clear the first half the year. It was my daughter’s senior year of high school, and she was very active with band and theater. I wanted to keep myself available for as much of it as possible.
I used the time to revise and polish the two books that I published last year. In the spring, I released The Silent Beauty, the third of my original fairy tale novella series Chasing the Romantics. It’s darker than the other two, and I think it’s my favorite. I still have two more fairy tales that I’d like to add to the series, but we’ll see what my time is like this coming year.
In the summer, Fire and Ice YA Books, released my novel All the Love You Write. It is my longest novel to date, a sweet romance with some paranormal activity.
Beginning in May, I got back involved with theater. I directed the classic play Our Town, which was a fun experience. As an additional challenge, one of my actresses broke her leg during the run, so I had to understudy her for the final weekend and get some stage time alongside my daughter who was playing Emily.
During the summer, I had the opportunity to have a large role in an original musical about mental illness called Greener Pastures. It was a very dramatic part where I got to pull out all my acting chops and sing a big ol’ song at the end. It was at a theater where I haven’t worked before, and it was great meeting some new people.
In December, my husband and I played Ralphie’s parents in A Christmas Story the Musical. This was an absolute blast, and I missed it the second it was over.
I had several fun opportunities to speak about my writing this year. One of the coolest ones was recording a podcast about my children's novel No One Needed to Know for Tennessee Library for Accessible Books and Media. It's a 30 minute presentation and basically covers what I say in my school appearances. Pop over to my about me page to find the link to the recording and learn more about my school visits.
One of my school visits this year was canceled for a snow day, but they did buy copies of Lost on the Water - A Ghost Story for all the kids in their book club. That was sweet of them. I thought another of my school visits would be cancelled for snow in November, but even though school opened late, they still had me come. I had the best time at Gladeville Middle School talking about No One Needed to Know and my other YA novels. Truly one of my favorite days of the year.
What does 2020 have in store?
As a writer, I’m not sure. I am about 35,000 words into a new novel that is my first full-length venture away from children's/teen literature. In the briefest of summaries, it’s about an aging dancer trying to figure out her purpose and worth. I hope to finish it by this spring. I have a couple other ideas bopping around, too, for future books.
The only thing that is ‘sure’ is that my very first picture book, Matching Costumes, will be published later this year. I’m soooooo excited about it and can’t wait to see how it turns out. (Sorry, I don't have any images to share yet.)
With regard to theater, I am starting off the year directing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It has been cast, and we have an amazing team involved. Rehearsals start tomorrow night, and I’m eager to get going. There are some shows I’ve got my fingers crossed about later in the year, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
Now…. for my book round-up. I read 41½ books in 2019. There was one book that I read 75% of before finally giving up on it. Click to see all the books of my Goodreads challenge.
Normally, I read a lot of YA and MG books. This year I read a lot more women’s fiction. I feel it’s important to read in the genre you’re writing, so I picked some books that were similar in style and theme to the new book I’m working on. To that end, I found myself less patient with high fantasy books than I have been in the past. I definitely have preferred contemporary or realistic fiction this year. It might be an age thing, too. I’m not sure.
As usual, over half the books I’ve ‘read’ this year were audiobooks, and they tend to be by the bigger, well-known authors. The ones I tend to read in print or on my kindle are usually by authors I’ve ‘met’ in some way, either from an author’s group online or a local author.
So here we go:
Favorite Book of the Year
Refugee by Alan Gratz. This middle grade novel follows the stories of three different children refugees from three different eras. It is brilliantly paced with characters that I couldn’t help but love. I worried and rooted for each of them as they went through their heartwrenching adventures. Of all the books I read this year, this one rocked me the most emotionally. I highly recommend it for kids and grown-ups to increase your knowledge of world history and empathy.
Favorite Book from a Big Publisher
The Good Goodbye by Carla Buckley, published by Balantine Books. This novel is about two cousins who move into a dorm at college where there is a terrible fire. The story goes back and forth between the mother and daughter’s POV, and it also goes back and forth from present to back story. This book kicked me right in the guts emotionally and had lots of little surprises throughout. It was a rare book that made me gasp out loud at one point and cry at another. I suppose the timing of me being a mom about to send her child off to college didn’t help, but I thought this book was brilliant. It’s considered adult, but I think it’s a good crossover for adult and YA/NA readers.
Favorite Book from a Small Publisher
Owl Eyes by Molly Lazer, published by Fire and Ice YA Books. This is a unique spin on the Cinderella story. I do sometimes get bored with Cinderella retellings, but I liked how this one took off and became its own unique, romantic story. I do hope there will be a sequel. This is a good, clean YA novel for 12 and older.
Favorite Self-Published Book
This one came in right at the last moment, as the last book I read in 2019. A Time For Everything by Mysti Parker is billed as a romance novel. While it is romantic, I would definitely classify it more as historical fiction. It is set post Civil War, and it has some amazing themes to it that are much deeper than “I wonder if it’ll work out for the two of them.” I highly recommend it!
Well, I only read one whole series this year, and it was good but not what I would consider a favorite. I read a couple final books of series this year, though, so I’ll count Finale by Stephanie Garber as the amazing, magical ending to the gorgeous Caraval trilogy.
I would love to hear from you. Do you have any plans for the new year? Did you read any books in 2019 that you recommend? Feel free to comment.
And hey, take some time to scroll through my website and see if you want to add one of my books to your 2020 TBR list.
As with most writers, I hold a day job that pays the bills. I’m a teacher at an inclusive early childcare education center. I’ve been at this position for 14 ½ years, and I’ve been working as a teacher for thirty years now. This past week, all the teachers on staff got to attend the national NAEYC conference held here in Nashville. There were over 9,000 people in attendance and something like 500 sessions offered over the four-day event. I think there was a planned ‘theme’ for the event, but the unintended theme that I go out of it was about perception.
Nearly every lecture I attended had something to do with how people perceive the actions or words of other people. Generally, our instincts are to judge harshly, to assume less of a person. “That co-worker didn’t help me because they’re lazy or doesn’t like me.” “That parent brought their sick kid to school because they love their job more than their kid.” “That student is acting up because they just want attention.” “That person thinks what I do for a living is beneath them.” It goes on and on until we have strong feelings that build a wall of frustration and anger.
What we need to do instead is assume ‘positive intent’. Everyone has a story that they are going through, right? In nearly every case, I could argue that people aren’t intentionally being mean. When people are angry or hurtful, they are usually struggling with something themselves. Someone has to rise above. Someone needs to see the bigger picture. Take a breath. Calm the urge to fight or flee. Then see if you can figure out how to address and hopefully solve the problem.
What surprised me was the intense focus on this concept throughout this massive conference. Clearly, how to choose how to fully comprehend a behavior before reacting to it is something people are hungry to understand.
This information isn’t new to me. I’ve been trying hard to live by this method of thinking for the past few years. Sometimes I don’t succeed and my patience is challenged. It’s easy to fall into the habits of complaining about or judging others. I do feel, however, that my life has improved since I started working consciously on seeing the better side of difficult interactions. I’ve also made an effort to embed the concept in my books.
It’s particularly evident in my children’s novel No One Needed to Know. That book is centered around bullying and helping kids understand empathy toward students with autism and special needs. Heidi, the main character, realizes that the reason the kids in her class are being so mean is because they don’t understand what it means to be a person with special needs. They have fear of what is “weird” or “strange” to them, so they are cruel instead of kind. She works on finding a way to help them learn and change their way of thinking.
In my novel Lost on the Water – a Ghost Story, there are many secrets that get revealed. One of them is about Dannie’s grandmother. She lives on a lake but seems to be deathly afraid of the water. She won’t let Dannie play near the lake and acts strange whenever it is mentioned. We later learn about the tragedy she went through that created her fear, and through Dannie’s eyes see that her Grandmother has a very valid reason for being so strict and overly worried.
In All the Love You Write, there’s a scene where Bethany’s mother insists that they spend Valentine’s Day night with each other instead of letting her go out on a date with her boyfriend. Bethany is devastated by this, and the whole evening is ruined with her tears. Once they get home, Bethany learns why her mother was insistent on spending that time together. She’s not just being difficult, like Bethany thought. Her mom has some complicated feelings of her own left over from her divorce. When Bethany learns this, it changes her heart toward her mother.
Another example is from my novel Whisper of the Woods. Juniper’s uncle comes across as the villain for wanting to chop down the 1,000-year-old Red Cedar tree, but we learn that he has genuine fear of the tree based on a tragedy that happened there when he was young.
If we think of our favorite novels and movies, if they are well-written at all, there is always a backstory for every main character. Villains are often victims of trauma. Heroes have risen above adversity. Parents have baggage. Writers do this so that we can have empathy for the characters and care about what happens to them. (My step-daughter has a real affinity for a tragic backstory of a handsome villain.) It also helps us forgive a character (like a wayward parent) when they come around and prove themselves at the end of the story. I’m a sucker for these storylines.
Yes, I spent four days at a conference about the care and welfare of small children, and I walked away with ways to apply what I learned not only to my day job, but to my writing and personal life. Some messages are like that – universal. I challenge you now to think about how you can apply the concept of ‘positive intent’ or ‘benefit of the doubt’ to your life. Think of how it can change the nature of your relationships with your family, friends, co-workers, etc. If you’re a writer, think how it can enhance your stories.
This Thanksgiving I’m grateful for learning new things and to all of you who come to visit my blog. I’d love to hear an example of how ‘positive intent’ has worked for you in your experience. Please leave a comment if you like, and have a great holiday season. And hey! If you're looking for some great reads for your long weekend, click here and take a look at some of mine.
My newest novel, All the Love You Write, has recently been released. This isn’t my first book, by any means, but it is the book I’ve struggled the most to write. It’s the manuscript where I stared at my computer screen for long minutes that wielded no results and finally had me switching to other projects or simply turning off the computer to go watch TV instead. It was my first real fight with writer’s block.
Toward the end of 2017, however, I had a sudden flash of inspiration. What if, instead of making the existing story longer, I simply added on to it? What if I wrote the history of the ghost and the tragic romance he’d had back in 1970 during the Vietnam War era? What if I then wrote what happens next in the relationship of Mark and Bethany through Bethany’s eyes? Three related stories, told in three parts. I got really excited about this concept, and I wrote Part 2 of the book in just a few short weeks. The love story of the ghost as the teenager he had once been, told through a collection of old love letters, flew out of me.
I was so excited. I thought I’d have the rest of the book finished within a month or so.
Then I was on to Part 3, and this was where my struggles began.
Bethany is having a hard time with this new relationship. It’s the final semester of high school, and she’s not sure how much she wants to invest herself. They don't have much in common or a lot of time to spend together. Mark will be joining the army right after graduation, and she’ll be going to college. Is it worth it? Sometimes I worried that the reader wouldn’t like Bethany not readily accepting Mark after all he’d done to win her over. I’d stop writing when I felt like she was being too hard on him or making a choice that would hurt his feelings. Was this going to be okay? I didn’t want the reader to hate her.
Then there was the haunting to consider. This got me stuck a few times, too. I had Mark haunted by a helpful ghost in Part 1. There was barely any paranormal activity in Part 2. I needed to keep the ghostly aspect of the story going in Part 3 to stay true to the genre of book I was writing. I decided Bethany would be haunted by a different ghost. This ghost wouldn’t be helpful at all. In fact, she’d be pretty angry and spiteful about how Bethany was treating Mark. This ghost is very protective of the boy. (I’d like to tell you why, but spoilers, you know.) As I wrote, I’d get stuck because there didn’t seem like enough interaction with the ghost to match Part 1. I revised my outline multiple times to come up with how and why this ghost was bothering Bethany. Like I had with Bethany’s choices, I also worried too much what readers would think about this ghost being so aggressive.
But the biggest problem I was having with my writer’s block was the length. My original novella Passing Notes was shy of 60 pages. I did revise it and added on to the ending, but it didn’t get much longer than that. Part 2 wound up being about 100 pages. My original plan was that each part of the novel would be about the same length – the book winding up at between 60,000-75,000 words, similar in length to my other YA novels. This is not what happened. Part 3 wound up at about 180 pages, the entire second half of the novel.
See, Part One, takes place over a week. Part Two is mostly one day of reading letters. Part Three takes place over half a year. That’s a lot of time to fit into a short space. The words took me way past 60 pages and then past 100 pages, and I knew I wasn’t even close to being done. My writing came to a halt. I was afraid to keep going. I mentioned it on my Facebook author page, posting that I’d hit writer’s block because I was worried I was over-writing. A friend teased me, responding that he wished he had that problem. And I know it sounds strange to say that my ability to write froze because I thought I was writing too much, but that’s what happened. I stopped right in the middle of a chapter and let a couple weeks pass. Then a couple months. I worked on other projects. I directed a play. I wasn’t sure if I would come back to it.
Last fall, I read the whole book again from the beginning and decided I was okay with where it was going. I revised the outline for the billionth time and picked up where I’d left off. It was still pretty stop and start, but I eventually got through the whole thing.
Then I had to go all the way back to Part 1, my original story. Details had to be changed: character descriptions, names of people, jobs, and a bunch of other details. Also, as to be expected, I had more revision to do once my editor from Fire & Ice YA Books gave me her notes.
Now the book is out in the world, ready for readers to enjoy and leave their opinions. Some will like it, and others will not. That’s out of my hands now. The thing is, I was paralyzed with worry about what people would think of this book as I was writing it. Over-thinking made me second guess, doubt, and even quit for a while. This is part of being a writer. It takes courage to overcome all those negative inner monologues and keep going. We have to make choices, and then we have to stand behind them. In the end, I pushed through to write the story the way I wanted it. I hope readers will enjoy what I’ve created.
If you’d like to learn more about All the Love You Write, visit the page on my website. You’ll find an excerpt, some review quotes, and links to all the online booksellers.
I’d love to hear from you. If you’re a writer, have you ever struggled with writer’s block? What caused it? How did you get past it? If you’re a reader, do you ever wonder about what was going through an author’s mind when they wrote a book or scene you loved or hated? Please leave a comment below.
I woke up this morning and found out that it is #NationalCameraDay. Who knew? Well, I've been meaning to do a new blog post for a while now, and I remembered that I had once written a short story about a magical polaroid camera that reveals more than it should at a high school reunion. I hope you enjoy it.
A short story by
D. G. Driver
“You think that’ll work?” Bill asked, tipping a beer to his lips. I noticed Blaire, his wife, gesture that this would be his last beer.
Next to Bill on the picnic tabletop, Christy looked dubiously at the Polaroid camera in my hands. “I didn’t these existed anymore.”
I shrugged. “I found it in a box while searching for my yearbooks at my mom’s house last night. It might not work.”
“They’ll probably come out black,” Eddie chimed in. He and his newest wife, Hallie, cuddled on a blanket separate from the rest of us.
“We’ll see,” I said, quickly snapping a picture of Eddie and Hallie. If I was going to get a ruined picture it might as well be of them.
Once the picture slid out of the camera, I joined the rest of my old buddies at the picnic table. Jennifer, the buddy I once considered best, grabbed the picture from me and shook it. “You’re supposed to do this.”
I laughed. She always had her peculiar habits. It was kind of nice to see that after twenty-three years that part of her hadn’t changed.
“It sure is great to have everyone together, isn’t it?” I said.
No one jumped up and shouted, “Yes! And we should stay together like this, bonded in friendship for the rest of our lives and never let life tear us apart again!!!” like I hoped. Instead everyone did a sort of sighing, nodding head thing as though to say, “Yeah, it’s sweet, but can we wrap this up soon?”
The reunion wasn’t my idea. Some teenage girl planned it. Our high school drama teacher was retiring, so the current students hosted this big event, reuniting everyone who ever once graced the stage in an embarrassing moment of Thespianism.
As the event strolled through the afternoon, we alumni slowly split off into chunks by graduating years. My group consisted of the ’96 graduates and their current spouses. I hadn’t seen most of them since graduation except on Facebook and hardly recognized them as the people I used to love more than life.
“It came out!” Jennifer shouted, holding up the photograph.
I studied the picture closely. Strange. I swore I had taken a picture of Eddie and his wife, but Hallie wasn’t in the shot. And another thing. I thought Eddie had been sitting, but in this picture, he was standing with his hand over his heart in that romantic Gene Kelly gesture that used to drive me, and every other girl in the school, wild.
Couldn’t be, I thought. I’m just over-do for new contacts. I picked up the camera and aimed the lens at Christy.
Christy groaned, “Don’t. I look soooo bad.”
Right. Like leggy Christy, who taught yoga and won swing dance competitions had anything to worry about. She was the only one of us still performing. She and I were the only single adults at the table, yet I’m certain her singleness was by choice and not default like mine. I joined the others in groaning right back at her.
I took a few steps back in order to get a good group shot. I was still centering the picture, when Bill asked Jennifer about her kids.
“I hear your boy’s an ace at T-Ball.”
Jennifer blushed with a parental modesty nobody ever buys. “His dad thinks he’ll be on the Dodgers one of these days.”
She elbowed her husband in the ribs. Ronnie nodded, mouth full of hamburger.
“How about you, Bill?” Jennifer asked. “Any kids yet?”
“Nah,” he said. “Blaire and I decided not to have kids.” He rubbed his wife’s neck as he spoke.
I snapped a picture of Eddie and Jennifer, thinking how funny it was to hear them talking about their spouses and family life. It was like they had forgotten that they once couldn’t keep their hands off each other. I wondered if Ronnie or Blaire knew about that as I handed the picture to Jennifer to “air out”.
“Don’t you think Mr. Grant looks old?” Christy said. She pointed at him where he sat, two tables away.
I swung the camera around to get a distant shot of our old teacher. “He’s looked better,” I admitted.
“Not much,” Eddie chimed in. “Remember? He was so fat that when he sat slouched in the theater seats his stomach used to touch his chin.”
We all laughed at the memory of that image as I snapped the picture.
“Oh my God!” Jennifer screamed. She dropped the picture she had been “drying” as though it had bitten her.
I picked it up and dusted it off. To my amazement, the picture was not of Jennifer and Bill. At least not as they were today, forty-year-olds with bellies and hips.
The picture revealed a much younger version of them in an intense embrace.
“Oh my God is right,” I said.
“What? What is it?” Everyone wanted to know.
“Don’t you dare show them,” Jennifer warned.
But it was too late. Christy had already snatched it out of my hands and was sharing it with Bill. “This is so weird,” she said, as though we hadn’t all figured that out.
Luckily for Jennifer, Ronnie was still only interested in his meal. Bill’s wife, however, got a good enough glimpse to warrant him a harsh look and a quick exit from the scene.
“Blaire!” he called after her.
I let them deal with their soap opera moment. I needed to know how the other picture I took came out.
The image struggling to brighten looked to me to be Mr. Grant slouching in a beach chair in the park. Only, we were all in the picture too, sitting in the grass with our backpacks and scripts. This time, I dropped the picture.
Eddie joined us at the table at last, curious to see what was going on. Bill couldn’t find it in him to leave this phenomenon to chase after his wife, so he leaned in too.
“Take another one,” Christy said. “Take one of me.”
As she flung her hair back over her shoulder, I clicked the button. We waited wordlessly for the picture to develop.
Nothing unusual. It came out as a picture of Christy flipping her hair over her shoulder.
“Well, that’s not fair,” she whined.
Of course not. I knew she just wanted to see if it would show us a picture of her once glorious star-of-the-senior-musical self.
Jennifer, studying the pictures, said, “Here’s what I think. When you took these two pictures we were talking about memories.”
“But we weren’t talking about these memories,” Bill said.
“Take another one of all of us,” Christy ordered. “While she does that, we all have to talk about something. Okay? Let’s talk about a play we all did or something.”
Every face went blank for a moment as they calculated which play to talk about. Between us, we had performed in over twenty of them. I aimed the camera and waited for someone to start.
“Remember the auditions for Guys and Dolls?” Jennifer asked, pushing it for a believable delivery. “We all had to do that dance to Luck Be a Lady and it was so hard.”
Christy jumped up. “I choreographed that number.”
Bill cringed. “I remember looking like an idiot.”
“But you got the part,” Christy reminded him.
“Well, yeah,” he admitted. “But Nathan Detroit doesn’t really dance, you know.”
I let them go on a bit longer about the auditions and the show before I took the picture. I wanted to capture them when they truly had forgotten to keep posing for the camera.
A deep debate about the pros and cons of seniority casting occupied them. By the time I approached them with the developed picture they seemed surprised that I had it already. I dropped the picture on the table and the conversation came to a halt.
No one spoke.
How could they? Who would have imagined that the picture would not be about the show? Who would have dreamed that the picture would not include any of us? Who would have thought that the picture would reveal Susie Talbert, the girl who should have played Sarah Brown that year.
We all just stared, silently moved by the fact we had forgotten all about this girl who had once been our friend.
The silence caught Ronnie’s attention. “What’s going on?” he said. “Is it another picture of my wife smooching some kid?”
“Uh, no,” I said quietly. I didn’t know what to say. Apparently, no one else did, either.
Ronnie picked up the picture. “She’s pretty. Who is she?”
We all looked at each other, hoping someone else would answer. Eddie finally spoke up.
“That’s Susie. She was killed in a car accident about a week before the school musical.” He paused, and I could sense the need in him to explain things. I felt it welling up inside myself too. I had denied what happened for so long.
After a deep breath, Eddie continued. “It had been prom. We had planned to all go together instead of separately with our dates. Only, Susie’s boyfriend was the school president, and he hung out with a different crowd than us, so she decided to go with him and hang with his friends that night.”
I interrupted to say, “She figured she’d be spending the whole next week and weekend with us because of the play.”
“Anyway,” Eddie said, “some of us were kind of pissed off that she chose this guy and his jerk friends over us. She was like a real turncoat, you know. Four weeks from the end of school, and she’s hanging with the people who always trashed us.”
Eddie was getting worked up about it, so I took over. “We ignored her at the dance. Didn’t give her an ounce of attention. We actually booed and hissed when she won prom queen. I don’t know why we were like that. I can’t remember why…” That’s when I had to stop.
Ronnie raised a hand and said, “I don’t need to hear any more. I think I got it.”
“No, you don’t,” Jennifer said to him. “I need you to know this about me. About my friends and me.” Ronnie let her talk. “Susie was so depressed that night ‘cause we were so mean to her. I mean, we were her best friends. So, she went to some party after the prom with her boyfriend and got wasted. She’d never done that before.” Jennifer bit her lip in an attempt to control the shaking of her voice. “They were driving home from the party, drunk, and they crashed into a stoplight. Her boyfriend broke both his legs. Susie was killed.”
Christy, who had jumped all over the leading role in the musical as soon as the news came out about Susie’s death, started bawling. Of course, none of the rest of us were exactly dry-eyed.
Nobody had anything left to say. We sat there in a funk for about five minutes or so. Eddie’s wife came over to comfort him in her snuggly way. Only Ronnie moved as though unaffected. He got up to dump his paper plate and napkin in the trash. When he came back to the table he took the camera from me.
“Do you mind?” he asked after the camera was already in his hands.
“I guess not.”
A hint of a smile crossed his otherwise blank face. “Thanks.” He took about three steps backwards and lifted the camera to his eye. “Hey, everyone,” he said.
“Oh, not now, honey,” Jennifer said. “No one wants a picture of this.”
The words didn’t daunt him one bit. “Think about this Susie girl,” he said. “Think about what you should have done. What you would have done if you could do it again.”
Before any of us could protest, he snapped a picture.
We waited anxiously while Ronnie fanned the shot just like his wife had before. Finally he walked over to us and held the picture up for us to see.
There we all were, sitting at a picnic table in our modern-day clothes with our modern-day wrinkles and weight. Only one thing was different. Susie was there with us. She had her arms wrapped around Jennifer and my shoulders and was squeezing hard. A great grin stretched across her young face.
As we enjoyed the sight of our angelic friend, I could feel my friendship with Jennifer return and my awe for Christy’s talent swell up inside me. The way I used to always appreciate Eddie’s frankness and Bill’s sweet demeanor came right back to me. Everything fit right back in place—twenty-three years of distance suddenly erased.
Ronnie flipped the camera over in his hands to inspect it. “This is a great thing,” he said to me, bringing me out of my reverie. “Mind if I borrow it for my reunion?”
“It’s yours,” I whispered. I knew I didn’t need it anymore.
I hope you liked that. If you did, you'll probably enjoy my other ghost stories Lost on the Water and Passing Notes. And hey, my newest novel All the Love You Write (a contemporary teen romance challenged by a couple meddling ghosts) comes out in about a month. I'll be having a cover reveal really soon! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to keep up with all the book release news.
D. G. Driver
Author D. G. Driver's
Write and Rewrite Blog
“There are no bad stories, just ones that haven’t found their right words yet.”
A blog mostly about the process of revision with occasional guest posts, book reviews, and posts related to my books.