Thursday, July 29, 2010

"The Writer You Will Become" by Andy Straka

The great thing about writing novels is that every now and then you get to feel victorious.

When you type those final words THE END at the conclusion of your manuscript.  When you’ve completed a first draft, a second, a third, and a fourth, or more of your book, and when at long last you start to get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you can begin to call what you’ve written a novel, the feeling is like nothing else on earth.

This afternoon, I emailed a copy of my sixth novel to my agent in New York.  It’s been a long time coming, for a whole host of reasons. Suffice it to say that as a writer this book has pushed me, punched me, shaken me, stirred me, and spit me back out again so many times that at one point just six months ago I had nearly given up hope of ever getting this one done.  Now, it’s finally, finally out the door.

I know, of course, my agent will have suggestions and want me to revise some more.  And then, if we’re fortunate enough to make a sale, another editor or two will have a crack at it and there will be even more tinkering, waxing, and polishing.  But for now, at least, I can safely and honestly say the project feels substantially complete.

As I reflect tonight on the struggles we all go through as writers, I really only want to tell those of you who write one thing:  It’s worth it.  It’s worth all the pain and aggravation, late nights and early mornings, heartaches and joy.  No matter what may happen to your writing; whether you ever gain the recognition you deserve, whether you earn zero dollars from it or a million, it’s all worth it in the end.

Not because of the writer you are, but because of the writer you will become.

Andy Straka is the author of the Shamus Award-winning and Anthony and Agatha Award-nominated Frank Pavlicek novels. A licensed falconer and co-founder of the popular Crime Wave at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, Andy is also the author of Record Of Wrongs, which Mystery Scenemagazine calls "a first-rate thriller." His latest novel is Kitty Hitter (ISBN 1594148120 Cengage/Five Star $25.95).

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shadow Books: The River of Shared Life by Susan Cushman

The books on our bedside tables speak volumes—literally and metaphorically—about what makes us tick, as human beings. My husband is a physician and a priest. The books in his pile usually include scientific and theological works, with the occasional novel like Mayflower (about his ancestors) or a nonfiction book like Salt: A World History. A scientist usually reads more for information than inspiration or entertainment.

Glance across to my bedside table—wobbly from three stacks of books in various stages of interest, ingestion, or review—and you’ll find a mix of memoirs (primarily dealing with abuse, addiction, and dysfunctional families) by Mary Karr, Haven Kimmel, Augusten Burroughs, Neil White (In the Sanctuary of Outcasts) and Kim Richardson (The Unbroken Child); gritty fiction, from Southern classics by Flannery O’ Connor and Harper Lee, to contemporary favorites like The Prince of Tides and South of Broad by Pat Conroy and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Books on spirituality, psychology, and the craft of writing complete the stacks. As an artist and writer, I read for inspiration. As a wounded woman, I read for entertainment, spiritual and psychological healing, and to understand myself and the world that formed me, especially the “Christ-haunted South.”

Recently I came to realize that those are the same reasons I write. And the “muses” for my art—whether I’m “writing” Byzantine style icons for a church or penning personal essays or chapters of my novel-in-progress—are often those same books, and the wounded writers who crafted them. The prolific author, Francine Prose, published a book in 2002 called Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired. Prose cast the role of the muse in a different light, suggesting that “…the human psyche is too complex to derive something so tough and enduring as art from something so fragile and transitory as love.” She offers the following as potential muses: “Nearly anything—geography, ambition, expensive tastes, an abusive childhood, poverty—seems a more probable motivation for making art than the promptings of longing or love.''

Geography can be a muse? Why not? Pat Conroy has his protagonist Tom Wingo say in the opening paragraph of The Prince of Tides, “My wound is geography. It’s also my anchorage, my port of call." Perhaps South Carolina's beautiful forests, rivers and tidal marshes, along with Conroy’s own broken family, do serve as his muses. He continues to mine treasures from his dark past, mastering the art of literary fiction one book at a time. He opens his latest novel, South of Broad, with these words: “It was my father who called the city the Mansion on the River. He was talking about Charleston, South Carolina, and he was a native son, peacock proud of a town so pretty it makes your eyes ache with pleasure just to walk down its spellbinding, narrow streets.”

Making art—that’s the goal, right? I think this sometimes gets lost in the rush to embrace our painful past and heal our primal wounds. There’s a place for that—whether one chooses the sacrament of Confession, the psychologist’s office, or both—but the process of healing shouldn’t usurp the graceful dance of the artist’s brush or the writer’s pen. Not if one wants to create art.

Last September I was a presenter at the Southern Women Writers Conference at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. I read my essay, “Are These My People?” on a panel with two other writers. Our shared theme was “Old South Ideologies.” My muses? The “Beautiful People” at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi… and their conspicuously absent African American neighbors. My co-panelists’ muses were the contemporary novelist from North Carolina, Jan Karon, and the nineteenth century writer from Natchez, Mississippi, Sarah Ann Ellis Dorsey. Talk about variations on a theme! But hey—all muses were welcome!

One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Connie May Fowler, author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including Before Women Had Wings, which she adapted for film for Oprah Winfrey. Having survived a life of abuse, Connie May encouraged us, as women and as writers, to “operate as an artist first” or your story won’t be successful.” She said that “stories save lives and we must keep writing, but do it as artists and not as confessors.” Excellent point. Anyone can go on a talk show and tell their story of abuse or neglect, but that doesn’t make it art. We have to get up and above the abuse and weave a story that will grab the reader by the heart-strings and not let go until the (hopefully redemptive) end.

How does a budding artist learn to do this? From where doe she draw inspiration and learn the skill? Fowler encouraged all of us at the conference to have a “shadow book”—someone else’s story that “puts you into the river of shared life with others on the journey.” I contend that we need many such shadow books, which is why my bedside table resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

One book which spent many months on that table is Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Since L’Engle’s death in 2007, I’ve revisited her books more than once, for inspiration. She’s definitely one of my muses. L’Engle believed in a creative world that had a place for everyone’s art. “We all feed the lake,” she wrote. Even someone as gifted as L’Engle was quick to add, “… other artists teach the rest of us, offering their vision of truth.” None of us should be too proud to stand on the shoulders of the giants.

But not all my “shadow books” are written by giants. Some of my greatest inspiration continues to come from other writers who are just starting out, like my writing group buddies. And those just a little further down the path, the ones who just got an agent to read their manuscript. And the ones who recently got their first book deal and are waiting for publication. But especially those whose life stories contain elements similar to my own, who are finding healing through writing and publishing their stories.

A newcomer to my bookshelf is Allison Hedge Coke’s memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer: A Story of Survival. It’s a redemptive story of a childhood filled with rape, but told with beauty and courage. Coke (left) is a mixed-blood native American poet, and one who hasn’t allowed her abusers to silence her voice. The leaning tower continues to grow faster than I can read and shelve those “shadow books.” As I close the covers of one and open the next, I pause to give thanks for this river of shared life in which I find myself and my muses.

What is your shadow book? Which writer (or writers) puts you into the river of shared life? Please leave a comment! (And by the way, thanks to the 22 people who commented on my post of May 27, “Call for Names.” Just to let you know, I settled on “Mare” as the name for the hippie-graffiti artist, and “Cherry Bomb: A Novel” for the book title. I’m having a blast writing the story!)

Susan's essays have been published in The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal (2007 finalist),  First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, skirt! Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Mom Writers Literary Journal, and Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. Later this year, her essay, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” will appear in the second volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan’s blog, Pen and Palette, was recently voted one of 50 Top Creative Writing Blogs by Awarding the Web.

Monday, July 26, 2010

3 Thoughts On The Challenge of Writing

by Karen Harrington

I have three disparate thoughts on the topic of writing challenges:.

1. Radio host and author Dennis Prager’s philosophy on the importance of happiness
2. The novel A Thousand Splendid Sons by Khaled Hosseini
3. Embracing discomfort

Bear with me. In that giant Mash of Random Sticky-Note Thoughts (also known as my brain) these three subjects have a connection to the topic of writing struggles.

From my own experience, there hasn’t been a time when I didn’t ride a roller coaster while writing. I’m prone to getting very excited about a new story. That first rush of adrenaline sends me to the blank page and I write, write, write until a raw story appears. This is probably the time when I experience the pure joy of writing. This is the discovery draft. There aren’t any mistakes yet. My internal editor hasn’t switched on yet. And this is probably the only time I could say that writing is fun.

But then the editor doth appear and with it, struggle. 

And so it goes. This is the cycle of writing for me. I think one of the ways writers are uniquely challenged is that they must play both a sensitive creative role and an objective, analytical role during the creative process. These two forces can and do produce good work, but they are at odds with one another. It's a little bit like having a scientist tell a five year old that surprise is not the color of confetti. They are both right, right? Well, this is probably why E. L. Doctorow said "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." 

This is where my three disparate thoughts come into play. I have three ideas that help me stay on track, if not totally insane. Perhaps they’ll aid you, too.

First, allow me to introduce you to Dennis Prager and his philosophy of happiness. Prager suggests that we have an obligation to be happy because it makes us better people; that this road will always be challenging and requires a constant counting of blessings to maintain. His ideas have influenced my personal and writing life. Like most writers, I’ve had a healthy dose of literary rejection (my publisher folded, my first book went out of print, my subsequent book is in the black hole of "gee, this is great, but....) Sigh. But I always give that sadness a deadline. I feel responsible for my own happiness and part of that is getting up and going on with life because I’m blessed to have a life where I can write at all. 

Which brings me to disparate thought number two: Khaled Hosseini’s remarkable novel A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS - a book every woman in America should read. Why? It depicts, among other things, the bleak existence of a pair of strong women in Afghanistan. Their every move is scrutinized. They can be reprimanded for making rice wrong. They aren’t allowed to get an education, read whatever they choose or even go to a store without a male companion. Worse yet, their focus is so much on daily survival that they don’t have the luxury of dreaming. Yet, they do! They dream. They hope. So during my writing struggles, I like to stay mindful that the very fact that I am in pursuit of writing a story is a gift. Because there are women out there somewhere who live lives of subdued, desperate dreaming, I am compelled to work even harder on their behalf.

This brings me to my third and last disparate thought. The notion of discomfort. If you are going to write, one of the struggles you will (and must) embrace is discomfort. Discomfort has been my unwelcome companion and my faithful muse. I’ve come to believe that discomfort is a key ingredient in the novels I've never forgotten (The Prince of Tides, To Kill A Mockingbird, The English Patient, Ellen Foster, etc.). Here’s a quote that describes this idea and changed my life: “So much of successful fiction hinges on one successful ploy: discomfort.” – Robert Newton Peck

If you think about it, this speaks volumes of truth. We love to read stories filled with the kinds of conflict we probably wouldn’t want to personally experience, but being a voyeur during the reading hours is an adventure. My novel, Janeology, is a story so many readers tell me they were afraid to pick up, but then were glad they did. Its genesis began with my own discomfort over the topics of nature and nurture and what makes one person snap and another remain sane. So I’d expand Peck’s quote by adding that successful fiction WRITING also hinges on discomfort. The discomfort a writer feels over a subject – those questions that keep you awake at night, that angst one feels to complete a project – are going to be fuel for the story you will wrestle with for a year or two.

I’ve been Karen Harrington, author of Janeology. Visit me sometime at or drop me a line at

All best wishes,


Sunday, July 25, 2010

South to Home

by Augusta Scattergood

Once I tried to set a story someplace other than the South. I really did. I described walking in the snow, kicking at drifts taller than the fire hydrant on my maple tree-lined street. Eating Italian ice and searching the grocery shelves for something my friend called Taylor Ham. But I was living in New Jersey, where I'd lived for 25 years, and it just didn't work.

There's something about Popeye's biscuits and cheese grits, mosquitoes and mimosa trees that speaks to me.

I began writing in earnest when I'd lived in New Jersey long enough to miss Mississippi. When I couldn't find a fig or a fig tree, I remembered my grandmother's tree and visits to my sister's and I wrote about them. When I missed congealed salad and cheese grits and barbecue, I wrote about toting food to funerals and church suppers.

And then a novel for children started percolating in my imagination. And guess where I set it. Mississippi, summer, 1964. I couldn't help myself. The lightning bugs, the swimming pool, the mimosa trees just wouldn't go away.

I've lived in a lot of places, but there's really only one thing that's deep enough inside me to permeate my writing. Someone whose name escapes me- although it must have been a source worth trusting because it resonated and keeps bubbling up- once said that you write about the place deepest inside you and you best write about it when you yearn for it. It might have been fellow Mississippian Willie Morris. When I lived in Boston, I read his book after a local (AKA Boston Yankee) asked me: "Have you read that book by Willie Morris who used to work at Harpers? The one about the fictional place called Yazoo?"

I need to read that book again, with the distance that comes from many years of living North Toward Home. But whoever said it, it's true. We do write best what we yearn for. I feel that way about the South. Even if he needed to get his facts straight and realize Yazoo City, Mississippi, wasn't entirely a figment of Mr. Morris's imagination, that Yankee from Boston made me think about my home as others saw it.

It's not that I don't try to take in everything around me, no matter where I am. Right now I'm dreaming up a new kids' book and it's set in Florida. Florida, right? Disney and Miami Beach and the space shuttles? No. Not Miami, not even the beaches. But rather a place where kids run wild and get into trouble, eat snowcones in the summer, where the blacktop parking lot squishes beneath my character's feet, so hot his shoes feel like they may melt. The part of Florida that's really just small town South.

I set things in places I see in my imagination, and  imagining places in the South is just easier when it's so much a part of you. At least that's the way I look at it.

This July, early in the month when the temperatures were over 100 degrees even New Jersey, I felt right at home. I was hot, but somehow it felt like summers used to be. And just the other day in Baltimore where I once lived and always felt was The South, my friend showed me her shoes, how the bottoms had melted when she walked on her blacktop road.

All that summer heat? Roads so squishy you shouldn't walk on them in your Sunday shoes? It didn't surprise me a bit. It had already happened to a character I know.

Augusta Scattergood reads and writes from both Florida and New Jersey, but her heart remains in her home state of Mississippi. You can follow her blog at

Friday, July 23, 2010

Opposite Day--by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, 1656–57 There was a funny episode of Seinfeld ages ago where George Constanza decides that all his instincts in life are misguided and that every life decision has been wrong. His life is the direct opposite from everything he’s set out to accomplish.

His solution? Do the complete opposite from every instinct he feels. He approaches attractive women and asks them out, introducing himself : “My name is George. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.”

Immediately he encounters great success with this method and begins applying it to job-hunting (“My last job was in publishing ... I got fired for having sex in my office with the cleaning woman..” he confesses during his interview), and even his choice in food (“Nothing's ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of tuna on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted ... and a cup of tea…”).

Sometimes I feel like I know my characters so well that I’ve stuck them in a rut. It’s particularly easy to stick them in a rut since I’m writing series. I know what they would do when faced with a dangerous snake in their yard. I know which ones would run off screaming, which would shoo it off and continue gardening, and which would get a hoe and commence whacking the creature to death.

What interests me is eliciting different reactions from characters. The bigger the stretch, the better:
Timid, tiny Tina flings herself at the armed man because her small son is threatened. (Unusual courage under duress.)

Stern Gertrude bites her tongue instead of scolding her sassy son-in-law Simon during Thanksgiving dinner. But her restraint results in a wild rainbow of color across her face. (For comedic effect.)

These are cardboard cutout examples, but I’m going to spend time today playing around with the idea.
What I don’t want to do is manipulate the character in an unnatural way (the usually intelligent heroine irrationally descends into the dark basement after hearing a suspicious noise scenario.) That’s the kind of thing that makes me throw books across a room.

But I also don’t want my regular characters to become predictable. Maybe they won’t have the success with their opposite-day approach that George did, but it might provide them with some opportunities for growth.
And, I think it could be fun. A bonus is extra internal character conflict. It’s stressful to leave our comfort zone(although, maybe, not for George Costanza.)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams
Pretty is as Pretty Dies--Midnight Ink
Delicious and Suspicious--Berkley Prime Crime...July 2010

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What Was I Doing?

by Zachary Steele

Distractions.  They happen.  Usually when you aren't expecting them, and always when you don't want them.  Much like in life, much like to everyone, they are a constant nuisance in writing, and can splinter a thought with the ease of a brushstroke.  Nothing can ruin a good meal like a spontaneous bedroom fire that mysteriously coincides with unexplained disappearance of a lighter, and the innocent protestations of a small child.  Likewise, nothing can ruin a fluent stream of thought like...

What was I saying?  Sorry, my cat started chewing on the cord to my mouse, and no matter how many times I read that first paragraph, I've lost my train of thought.  Well, regardless, I have a blog to write, and nothing is going to keep me from finishing it.

I was at a book event once, and during the Q&A, a book enthusiast asked me a question I'll never forget: "What is your real job?"

Now, I should have probably been offended by this, but ultimately I just laughed.  I mean, it's a ludicrous question to offer an author--one just simply grateful to have the spotlight and glory for just a few moments--and yet I couldn't help but acknowledge that being a writer does not necessarily preclude me needing to pay my bills.  Utility companies, much to my surprise, do not accept signed copies of my book for payment.  So, until the Great Contract From the Sky happens to fall in my lap, I am required to work, which also means that I am left to struggle with time management in order to find the space, and time, to actually write.  It isn't easy, especially when there are so many distractions getting in the way.  It's actually quite amazing how they accumulate while you work, biding their time, so that they might spring upon you all at once when you finally have time off.

I smell cake.

It was tasty.

Um...where was I?

I bought a flat screen television recently, rather than fix the AC in my car.  That has nothing to do with the topic, but I thought it said quite a lot about me.  The Braves are playing on the flat screen that doesn't cool my car.  I keep running into the living room to get updates that I could easily get by simply clicking over to the Gamecast tab I have open alongside the blog.  But I prefer to actually watch the action, if possible, despite the fact that I have to stop after every sentence, or so, to do it.  I also play a lot of fantasy baseball, which I also currently have up on the computer.  Between the sprints to the living room, and sentences here, I keep checking to see how my team is doing.  Not well, in case you were wondering.

My forthcoming novel, Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction isn't so much an opportunity to parody the world, and its incessant desire to be distracted from life, as much as it is to make fun of people like me.  I'm not ADD, or ADHD, or any other acronym that I'm too lazy to look up.  I just get distracted.  Easily.

People are booing on the game.  Hang on.

Anyway, what matters most here, is that nobody is immune to distraction, or to the struggle to remain focused on the task at hand.  It's just part of who we are, and of what life is made of.  There's really nothing you can do but fight through it, forge on, and try not to have the ball game on a television that doesn't cool your hot ass car while writing a blog.

Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, and the forthcoming Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction, and has been featured on NPR and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher's Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. He can be found boring the world with his thoughts on his blog, The Further Promotion of ME.

Guest Blogger: Lila Dare

The call I want to tell y'all about is the one I got from my agent, offering to represent me. It was such a huge turning point in my writing career and the start of many wonderful things. I began writing full time in 2004 and "finished" a mystery manuscript about six months later. I started sending out agent queries, confident I'd soon have representation. (Cue evil laughter.) Rejection piled on rejection. I'm pretty sure agents I didn't even query rejected me, just to get in on the trend. Finally, at a writer's conference, a kind agent told me my manuscript was too long at 120,000 words and I'd need to cut a third of it. I did. Painfully, and at times one word at a time, I trimmed it to about 84,000 words. I began getting requests for sample chapters and then for the whole manuscript. I continued to work on other projects as I sent the first manuscript around. Finally, it caught an agent's eye and she and I went back and forth several times with her sending critiques and re-write suggestions and me revising and re-sending. Finally, after several months of this, she said it just wasn't her kind of thing. (Cue tragic music.) I was crushed. But . . . she said she had a friend who repped mysteries and she'd like to send it to her. I, of course, agreed, especially since her friend was an agent who had rejected the manuscript a year earlier before my latest re-writes. The friend liked the manuscript and called to chat. She didn't offer to represent me in that first conversation--I'm pretty sure she was feeling me out to see if she thought we could work together. Finally, a week after the first call, when I let her know another agent was interested (yes!), she offered to represent me. I immediately called my husband and he brought home a bottle of Champagne to celebrate. It was a wonderful day, a validation of all my work, the promise of book sales to come. Since then, she's sold ten books for me, the first of which, Tressed to Kill, hit bookstores in May. (Let me add that we never sold that first manuscript, so it's CRUCIAL to keep working on new projects . . . never quit!


Author of the Southern Beauty Shop mysteries, Lila Dare was born in Georgia and has lived in Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia. Although she has never worked in a beauty shop, she frequents salons and likes to tell her stylist: “Surprise me.” Maybe that’s why she looks nervous in her photo. She currently lives west of the Mississippi with her husband, two daughters and dog, and misses Southern cooking and friendliness, but not the humidity. (

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Life-Writing Balance

By Nicole Seitz

Here's a photo of me in North Carolina during the only snow of my children's lifetime. Problem was, we live in South Carolina. Yes, I missed their first snow. By the time I drove home, it was melted. I drove out of state for a book signing that was virtually snowed out. Cold? Yes. But sometimes this can be the life of a writer.

If you're a writer, you understand the obsession, the focus, the TIME that the writing life takes out of you. I'm talking....writing around the clock, some of your best ideas in the shower, thinking of characters when you're at the park or the beach, listening to the cadence of the elderly or the slang of youth just so you can use it in some future book as dialogue that "works." Sound familiar? Oh yeah, baby, you're a real writer.

I've written books, characters, plot lines, scenes that breathed themselves to life through me. It's amazing. Humbling. Awe-inspiring to experience it. The more authentic the experience, the better is comes through on the paper and the more people are touched when they read your writing. But if we're talking about writing struggles, I think we've covered the fact that it's hard to write. It's hard NOT to write. Hard all around. But you know what's harder? Figuring out the life-writing balance.

My fifth novel will come out in February. In the last several years I have gleaned that writing is something I have to do, been gifted with, charged with. But what about everything else in my life? I have also learned the difficult juggling act between writing and family. I had an unexpected hospital stay this year, and you know what I thought about while lying there, unable to attend the SC Book Festival? Books? No. Family. My family.

Here's what I've learned (as if I didn't know it before): Family trumps writing every time. Yes. I do feel the Good Lord gives me the words and allows me to touch people through my writing, and I don't discount the importance of that--but I have experienced first-hand the seductive pull of writing. Don't be fooled. It is addicting, yes, because writing allows you to tap into something much larger than yourself--STORY. You think about it every waking moment, don't you? My personal favorite is in bed when I'm about to fall asleep. Some people count sheep. Me? I say my prayers, then get into my character's heads and see where they might take me tomorrow, struggling to remember so I can write it all down at a decent hour.

But alas, for me, I have also been blessed with a family, a husband and children who need me to be fully present--with them. Story people or real people? I'll admit, it always hasn't been an easy balance. But my stories are in my head. My family is made up a real people--put in MY charge.

In this crazy roller coaster ride from book 1 to book 5, I've learned plenty about writing. What I did not expect is how much I would learn about life itself. We live each day as if it's a gift. We treat each person in our life as if they are treasure. After all that, if we have carved out time aside for it, we open ourselves up to Divine inspiration and work ourselves 150 percent so that other wonderful lives might be touched by ours.

The struggle for me has not been the writing per se, although it goes without saying, that hasn't been easy. The struggle for me has been how to live the rest of my life with that same sense of passion and overdrive that my writing life demands of me. Day by day, I take it. Each day, each story, each moment with family--is a gift.

May God bless your own journey.

Nicole Seitz is the author of THE SPIRIT OF SWEETGRASS, TROUBLE THE WATER, A HUNDRED YEARS OF HAPPINESS, and SAVING CICADAS. Her novels have been nominated for awards and won some. She is also passionate about art and illustrates the covers of her books. Her next novel, THE INHERITANCE OF BEAUTY, comes out in February 2011. Nicole lives with her husband Brian and two children in the Charleston, SC area where she runs a web design firm and will begin teaching art at a local private school in the fall. She is currently working on her next novel.

What I Don't Know

When I was younger, I thought I knew everything. I was confident about what I knew, I was much more assertive about what I know than now, and I liked myself a lot more. My dear grandmother, who died three years ago, once told me on her front porch, "I wish I loved myself as much as you do." Of course, I took that as a compliment, but now I wonder what her wisdom was sharing with me.

Today, I'm not so sure about anything anymore. I'm certainly not confident in what I know. Ten years of college helped me to realize just how much I don't know, and I am constantly learning new things and remembering old things with my son and daughter, which reinforces the idea I don't know much---yesterday, my daughter asked questions about slavery, and I wonder how I will respond to those questions today (since I told her we'd talk about it later and she will not forget to ask again).  Right now, I'm sitting in a hotel in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, gulping coffee. I'm still not completely recovered from the long drive from Tifton, Georgia (near the bottom of Georgia, gnat-infested country, and humid and hot---the kind of heat that sticks to you and makes you feel like your brain is cooking inside your head).

I've learned a lot about Thomas Jefferson--an amazing man who has touched all of us in some form, an almost obessive-compulsive list maker, a lover of good food, an artist in his own right, and while I walked Monticello yesteday and breathed it in, my desire was to live in a home like this on top of a mountain surrounded by vineyards, apple trees, manicured gardens, to live the Agrarian life my ancestors in Savannah, Georgia lived, and to write more on a daily basis and in a disciplined way like Thomas Jefferson. I wondered how he persisted during times of personal and professional adversity, how he overcame his own fears and doubts. His losing family members including many of his own children would be enough to make me give up. His international travels by boat would be enough to send me over the edge, and I complain about traffic and getting anxiety on bridges.

I don't mean the kind of anxiety of just not looking out to see the river or ocean. I mean the crippling kind that if those riding with me knew I was having they wouldn't want to be in the car with me at all. I grip the wheel with both hands, my heart races, I sweat, I can't breathe, and I feel my pulse in my head. I really do try to pick roads without bridges in advance of a trip, but the map doesn't  show this river or bridge in Lynchburg, Virginia. I curse the map maker and I vow not to come this way again. When I've made it across, it's not over. It takes me almost 30 minutes to get back to normal. I keep holding my hands in front of the air conditioner vents to dry them.  I wonder why in the world I experience such insanity. I wonder why it takes so long to recover from such an episode. I wonder and worry if the next curve on this mountain road to Charolottesville has another bridge. I wonder if I should tell my family the extent to which this bothers me. Last summer when we were on the coast for a wedding, I pulled off the side of the road and asked my wife to drive over the bridge at St. Simons Island. That was a first in our sixteen years of marriage. I gave in to it, but it's a huge bridge and it even curves. That late afternoon thunderstorm didn't help as the lightening bolts were hitting the top of the bridge. Even as we crossed, my eyes were closed, and I gripped the seat and door and pressed the imaginary brake on the floorboard with my feet. My five year old son (who is unaware of my anxiety since I could win a grammy for my acting ability) yells, "What happens if we run off and land in the ocean? Will sharks eat us like in that old movie Dad watches?" When we left the island, I let my wife drive and I still close my eyes though it was beautiful outside. My dad who is traveling with us for fun is only six months out from having had six heart bypasses. He's never been to some of these places, and I think he's enjoying the trip. He quizzes me about the bridge and says, "You must get that from your mother." My mother couldn't make the trip because of constant back pain. I wonder if an anxiety is genetic of behavioral. I recall riding over the Tampa Bay bridge in a storm in our VW bus when I was a kid. This was when they were rebuilding it from it having been hit by a ship, sending people to their graves in the bay below. The VW bus rocked back and forth and my mother scared us, telling my dad to watch out, slow down, don't kill us, and my three younger siblings laid on the rubber mats on the floor and prayed. Now, I wonder if they, too, have this bridge anxiety, but my anxiety stretches to high places and planes, too.

My struggle has always been to write what I just wrote---to write those fears we don't show the world, to write those eccentric notions we get stuck on that need to get out. I prefer not dealing with issues (and hell, I've got a degree in psychology and once was a counselor who wasn't much help to those in need), except in my own way. Yesterday, I thanked Jefferson and I thanked God, too. I thanked Jefferson for all he did for us (silently in my head, of course), I thanked God for getting me across that bridge and for giving me the strength to get around and make it this far, to take my kids to Monticello and other historical sites. As I saw people using canes to walk or riding in a motorized scooter, I was thankful for the strength and energy to still walk, for legs. I saw a man in the hotel wearing shorts sporting two good looking prosthetic legs. I thought O'Connor would like seeing this, and I wondered how he lost his legs and wanted to stop him and ask him his story, but didn't. I wonder what struggles we'll face today (other than heavy traffic) as we head to DC for Mount Vernon. I hope my kids are well behaved when we tour the Capitol and White House on Thursday and I hope we make it back home a different way without crossing any bridges.  Today, I thank my grandmother for her wisdom and would like her to know that I still love myself, but it's a different love---one that's more accepting of what I don't know and understand, one that has matured, one that continues to struggle on a daily basis.

Niles Reddick lives in Tifton, GA with his wife, Michelle and two children, Audrey and Nicholas. He was a finalist for an Eppie Award in Fiction for his collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities. He is currently Professor of Humanities and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton. His new novel is Lead Me Home. Web Site:

Friday, July 16, 2010

Q and A with Mindy Friddle, Author of Secret Keepers

Would you give us a brief description of Secret Keepers?

The novel is about a group of characters who are stuck--in a town, in marriages, in estranged relationships with their children and parents, in past mistakes, mired in memories--and how they try to move on. As I mention on my website, The Story Behind Secret Keepers, I started writing SECRET KEEPERS after imagining Emma Hanley gazing at a family portrait, stuck in her hometown. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, she yearns to leave. Just when it looks like she might get her wish, her husband heads off to his morning coffee klatch with a gaggle of adoring widow women, and Emma’s dream of travel is stymied. Again. And then she has her hands full juggling the demands of her adult children. A motley group of gardeners, the Blooming Idiots, complicate matters when they unearth some strange botanicals and the Hanley family’s secrets. Nature, it turns out, is a major character in SECRET KEEPERS. But I hope the reader finds that in the course of the novel -- through regret, broken hearts, and grief -- humor winds like a flowering vine.

Do you have a favorite line from the novel?

"For what was marriage but a treaty between two warring little nations, a congress of conflicting desires and wills?"

I know that line by heart. When I've read SECRET KEEPERS to a group, that's the line that gets the guffaws. The women especially. Hmmm.

Did you face any special challenges in the writing of Secret Keepers?

Just the usual "What am I doing trying to write a novel? Am I crazy?" thoughts. SECRET KEEPERS was my second novel. I'd written a novel before [and I told myself that a lot]. Sophomore novels have experience going for them. But they also present a special challenge--you have more expectations of yourself. You know the risks that comes with publishing, book touring, and delivering a good read to all your readers. You have to be even more determined to focus on the work in front of you and turn off the doubts and the commercial noise.

What books are your nightstand right now?

I have an Ipad, so I'm reading a lot on that. In fact, I'm buying and reading even more books these days on my Ipad. Right now, I'm in the middle of Zoe Heller's latest novel, THE BELIEVERS. I recently finished the historical novel WOLF HALL by Hillary Mantel, a Booker prize winner, and THE THREE WEISSMANS OF WESTPORT by Cathleen Schine, a humorous modern day Jane Austen-like story about a woman in her seventies who draws close to her two daughters after her elderly husband asks for a divorce.

You do a lot of book clubs. Got a funny book club story to share?

I've observed that book clubs that serve wine seem to have a lot of fun.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Writing, A Fairy Tale Life?

Writing struggles? Now, there’s a topic anyone suffering under this involuntary affliction that causes it sufferers to lay words on paper (or screen) at all costs can speak to ad nauseam. The American Heritage Dictionary, by the way, defines ad nauseam as “an argument made repeatedly, possibly by different people, until nobody cares to discuss it anymore”, which could suggest that I chose the wrong term, but I don’t think so. More likely, the reaction is relative. Those who love us may tire of our self-imposed trauma but fellow sufferers have huge reserves of patience for our therapeutic tantrums. They understand it’s a law of the universe. We write therefore we struggle, eh Descartes?

I’ve decided to use my turn at the blog bat here to leave a few tips for those who may be a step of two behind me on the writing trail, sort of like Hansel and Greta only I’m afraid I’d be leading y’all straight into trouble rather than guiding you to safety so I guess the Pied Piper would be a more fitting analogy. Question from an unrepentant digresser, have you ever wondered why so many of the old fairytales seem bent on striking horror in the hearts of our children. I did and my curiosity led me to an Internet search. Good heavens. As I like to say, “Oh, the tangled web we weave when at first we Google.”

It may be totally bogus, and it may be the truth and everyone on the planet knew it except for the naïve yours truly, but one source said the tales started out much worse, truly grim accounts that eventually evolved into the much-loved stories we consider the originals. If you can believe it, Cinderella received her evil stepsisters’ eyeballs as a wedding present from the birds and I won’t even share the background I dug up on The Little Mermaid. You’d never look at Ariel the same way again.

I found several theories as to why the fairytale writers had such a taste for tragedy but I think I prefer my own. Perhaps their twisted offerings were an outlet of sorts for their own internal writing struggles, which is all the more reason for us to figure out how to deal with our mantles without scarring future generations, amen? Hence, my humble tips for those coming behind me.

Learn to embrace the empty page. See it as a marvelous challenge that you can fill in a totally unique way than anyone else on the planet. Remember six? Remember an empty coloring book and a box of freshly sharpened Crayola crayons? Color like crazy and forget about the lines. It hurts less that way.

Shellie Rushing Tomlinson is the author of "Lessons Learned on Bull Run Road", "'Twas the Night before the Very First Christmas", "Southern Comfort with Shellie Rushing Tomlinson" and the 2009 Nonfiction Finalist for Book of the Year released by Penguin Group USA, "Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On". Shellie's excited about the Spring 2011 release of the sequel, "Sue Ellen's Girl Ain't Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy!" Shellie is owner and publisher of All Things Southern and the host of a daily radio show and weekly video chat by the same name.


I’ve just returned from a whirlwind book tour through the Mississippi Delta to celebrate the launch of BONE APPETIT, the 10th book in the Sarah Booth Delaney Delta mystery series. That triangle of rich, flat land that extends south of Memphis down to Yazoo City and from the Mississippi River east to the hills has become my second home. 

I did double duty on this tour, because I also signed copies of DELTA BLUES, a collection of short stories I edited centered around the Mississippi Delta blues and a crime noir element. Short story contributor to the anthology, Alice Jackson, was my traveling companion and co-signer and we were also joined by short story author Suzanne Hudson. Suzanne had more sense than to ride with us—but she joined us for the signings at Greenville, Greenwood, Vicksburg, Cleveland and Jackson (all in Mississippi).

BONE APPETIT has numerous scenes set in the Alluvian Hotel and the Viking Cooking School—and as part of the fun, I assisted the resident chef in a cooking class on Friday. We made three delicious appetizers and I didn’t even blow up a single oven! But I have to say, I might enjoy cooking more if I had some of that state-of-the-art equipment. And the class was a delight. Fun, light-spirited and with a real “can do” feel.

But some of the most fun was cutting up with my long time buddy, Alice. We have known each other for over thirty years, and we grew up together in the newspaper business. We took completely different paths, but we have remained good-natured, teasing friends. The Facebook pictures we posted along the way give an indication of how much we torment each other—and what fun we have doing it.

Driving across the Delta (repeatedly!) I surprised myself with the way I’ve come to know this part of the world and to view it as “mine.” I take an interest in new development in the small towns we drove through, in the state of the highways, in the height of the cotton.

Beverly Moon took us to a new juke joint, Po' Monkey’s, and we learned that just last month Eric Clapton put in an appearance there. The Delta is a strange and magical place where anything can happen.

While we were in Greenwood, the film crew for THE HELP was gearing up. And there was a film crew from Wisconsin filming webisodes in the cooking school. Greenwood has suddenly become (much like the contestants in the book) very filmable.
For any student of Mississippi history, the Delta towns have always been an interesting mirror of the soul of this multi-cultural state. The Delta is only one region, but for many decades it was the seat of power, the place of big money and big land and big cotton. In Greenwood, life is good this summer.

There’s a sharp contrast at work here. The Gulf coast, home of casinos and the fishing industry, is shrouded in disaster. The oil spill has taken over everyday life. How will this oil affect this region—which hasn’t even really begun to recover from the effects of Katrina. It is heartbreaking to watch the destruction. And worst of all is not knowing when it will end.
On a personal note, this was one of the best book tours I’ve done. Good company, good food, good bookstores, and great people. I have laughed for a week, and I have also managed to avoid the news. But I am home now, and I look out over my pastures and my horses and I worry. Great changes are taking place in this land that I love. No one is certain of the extent of the environmental damage that this oil gusher will produce. Only one thing is certain: the coast is forever changed. I don’t like this. I don’t want this. And the only thing I can do is write about it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A good setting is more than trees and couches


I started writing fiction after moving from Minnesota to Macon – largely because I was so intrigued and  entranced by my new surroundings that I wanted to share it with the world.  Macon was so unlike any place I’d ever lived … like it was another country or planet. Even the soil was red, like the surface of Mars.

So … to make a mid-size Georgia city even more interesting as a setting for my novel (Southern Living,  Ballantine Books) I decided to relocate an immense Toyota plant there, and bring 3,000 transplanted workers from New Jersey into the heart of Georgia.

Can you say “conflict?” Can you say “Southern culture under siege?”

So … how could I best create a setting for this? Instead of describing the landscape with normal descriptions I used a different device. You know how so many southern newspapers have those columns in which people call in, anonymously, and say anything they want to? In Macon, it was called Straight Talk, and I think it painted an emotional landscape of the city and region that was crystal-clear. So … I decided that for my novel I’d create the “Chatter” column in the Selby (Georgia) Reflector. I started each chapter with two or three of these made-up tidbits.

Dear Chatter: I don’t believe one word of that story in the Reflector that talked about pig guts being just like human guts. Maybe your editors need to read the Bible more. God created Adam, and it’s Adam's job to eat that pig. Remember that.

So what does this say about the setting of the town in the novel? It hints at how strong religiosity is in Selby … and maybe shows that there’s a conservative element living there as well.

Here’s another:

Dear Chatter: To all the people who broke the hair-bow chain letter we sent: I just wanna say thanks for ruining my little girl’s day. We were counting on those hair bows.

Dear Chatter: What is it with all the grown women wearing hair bows on Sunday?

Obviously, this shows that people believe in dressing up in Selby on Sunday, and it also shows that there’s a new, curious, skeptical element in town: those Yankees who don’t understand Southern Culture. These Chatter items also show the love of textiles and fabrics and adornment that Southerners love. (Hey, who can forget Scarlett and those curtains?)

Dear Chatter: If a vampire can’t see himself in a mirror, how does he comb his hair? How does he get to looking so nice?

This shows a sense of humor and wonderment in a way that you only hear in the South. Kind of South Park meets Flannery O’Connor.

Dear Chatter: I’m wanting to know who makes the best chitterlings in Perry County, and do they do takeout?
Dear Chatter: The difference between margarine and Crisco is that margarine’s yellow and has salt. You can always add yellow food coloring to the Crisco.

Obviously, this shows the reader a little about the food culture and state of health and exercise (hey, unfortunately, most of our southern states lead the country in just about every health-related comparison)… and they realize that chitterlings are common enough of a staple that someone would even presume  that they’d be available in takeout form.

Dear Chatter: I’m absolutely amazed at how you Southerners can find Jesus and God’s hand in everything. Let’s get some things straight: God has nothing to do with you winning the lottery or the raise you get at work, I’ve lived in Selby for six months now, and sometimes I feel like I’m living with wild natives of some third world country.

Obviously, this shows the un-religious ways of the Yankees who have moved to town … and shows how the cultures are clashing.

Dear Chatter: I’m thinking you need to change the Selby Reflector’s name to the Ebony Reflector.

Ah, yes. Racism. Part of every culture and urban landscape, be it North or South.

Dear Chatter: There is no justice in the world. A security guard who carries a gun is selling his sister’s soul, and I have proof, but the law can’t do anything. The person he sells it to has money – so can someone tell me what to do?

I took this one verbatim out of the Macon newspaper column. I thought it reflected a sense of frustration and helplessness in the working class culture. I also just thought it was funny and odd!

Dear Chatter: The Southern way is to live and let live, so for all you Yankees who don’t like the way we do things down here, I’ve just got one thing to say: Delta is ready when you are.

I thought this showed how non-confrontational and polite Southerners are, even when they feel their culture is being threatened. The caller could have been meaner but instead approached his anger in an oblique manner.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that setting is more than landscape. A big part of a successful setting is the words that come from the peoples’ mouths who live there.
Setting is more than trees and doilies and dried pimiento cheese in the kitchen sink. 

Ad Hudler’s most recent novel is “Man of the House,” published by Random House. He is currently on his Tailgate Tour 2010, visiting Pulpwood Queens throughout the South, who chose his book as their July pick. In this month’s Oxford American he has an essay titled “Tree Bitch.” He blogs at 

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Patti Callahan Henry

“….And the river, even when frozen, arrives at the right place….” Thomas R. Smith

I didn’t write those gorgeous lines. They are from a poem titled TRUST by Robert R. Smith.

But if the subject this month is Writing Struggles, this is what I have to say about struggles in my writing – Even when it is frozen, it arrives at the right place.

Yes, it’s easy to trust in the metaphor when everything is working and the story unfolds and the plot offers me themes and wonderful words, but sometimes of course that doesn’t happen. Sometimes we stand on the riverbank of our story and can’t see anything while we’re stumbling and grappling for vision. The reason I love this river vision for the writing life is because I love rivers.

I don’t know why I love rivers – I didn’t grow up on one or raft down one (unless you count college and the Chattahoochee, which is another story). I wasn’t saved and baptized in the muddy waters. But rivers carve through my soul the same way they carve the land through which they move. For hours I  on a riverbank and watch the water moving by, going somewhere, to some final destination which is predetermined or…maybe not.

I swim in its waters without being able to see what is below the surface. Tidal rivers are my favorite – the way the water swamps the land and then exposes the mud, oysters and life below the surface. I watch it flow over rocks and barriers; I see it nourish the land and the life within. Rain falls into its waters and lightening flickers against the surface.

The river is a living thing, trying to tell me something, but I’m not wise enough or connected enough to understand its language. But every once in a while, in a quiet moment, I’ll hear that river.

So I realize – this is the same way I feel about my writing struggles. I show up on the writing riverbanks every day and hope to hear the words and story. Where is it going? What does it have to say? Are there turbulent or calm words to this part of the story? Is there a storm or a sunset? Is the water pink with twilight or grey and disturbed?

This is the way it is with my story: It might take me hours or weeks or months or years to find out what it is saying – but I still want to show up. I might not know the waters final destination, but I’ll keep going. I might not yet understand what the low tide will reveal, but I’ll wait. There might be rocks and storms and diversions, but my words will ‘arrive at the right place’.

It’s hard – the waiting and the struggle – but what is the other option? To not show up at the riverbank. And that, for me, is not an option.

And here is a picture of my favorite river. Now who woulnd't want to stand at that riverbank?


Her Holiday Novella THE PERFECT LOVE SONG: A HOLIDAY STORY, will be out October 12th.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Telling a Story at The Monti

Growing up, I was always happy when we were invited over to the Waughs’ house for supper. Mrs. Waugh was the only person I knew who still made country ham and red eye gravy, but that was not the main attraction. The main attraction was her husband, Jim Waugh, who ranks as one of the best story tellers I ever knew. After supper, he’d stretch with his hands on the back of his neck. He’d get a certain knowing twinkle in his eye and look around at all of us as we waited to hear what tale he’d tell—maybe it would be about his time as a soda jerk in his hometown drugstore or maybe it would involve some ornery so-and-so he’d met on the road selling pharmaceuticals, or maybe (this was my favorite) he’d tell about how he met and fell in love with the prettiest little girl he’d ever seen.

I remember how the room would go still as he was talking, how we would all together be transported back to the place and time he described. I’d watched carefully because I wanted to be able to tell such stories myself. I was hoping that I growing up, I would encounter some interesting things to tell stories about and that I would learn how to tell them –make that room go still.

Honestly, I think I have yet to accomplish this goal. As I grew up, I found that I was terrible joke teller, and while I could tell a tolerable story, it would never live up to the Jim Waugh standard. So, I quit trying to mesmerize my friends over the dinner table and switched over to the written word. On paper, I do better. I can take my time, go back and revise. I can write and rewrite until my story unfolds exactly as I hear it in my mind. I’ve grown accustomed to this brand storytelling, to the idea that eventually, readers will encounter my tale in their own quiet rooms. This is immensely satisfying, and in many ways it beats telling stories in bars and dining rooms--where a tale can be subjected to interruptions and background noise….

So imagine my reaction a few weeks back when Jeff Polish, the founder of The Monti ( ) , asked me to tell a story at one of his storytelling shows. The rules: my story has to be true, it has to be twelve minutes long, and no notes are allowed. In other words—no hiding! No hiding behind the fiction, no hiding behind a text, and no hiding behind a nice big podium. It’ll be just me and my story. This is a terrifying prospect, but also it is the kind of challenge that I need to take on now and then.

Getting ready for the event has been an interesting process, and it’s been more like my normal writing work than I thought. The story still needed a shape, a beginning, middle and end. It needed a hook, an arc, and a good payoff. I had to review my history for the right details to tell the story. Once I had all of my material gathered and organized in my head, I started telling the story—to myself, to my dog, to every friend who would listen. Towards the end of this week, I had to start bribing my buddies with glasses of wine so they’d listen just to it one more time. Everyone (except my dog) reacted differently to different parts of my tale. This led to many changes in my story—a phrase added here, a section deleted. It was editing with an audience.

My story has gotten tighter, and I hope, better, over the course of this week, but it’s interesting that it will not take its final form until I stand in front of the Monti audience tonight and hold forth. Though I have a good idea of what my story will be, this is not like releasing a book. I’m giving up a measure of control to the moment. There’s something exhilarating about this notion, though it’s terrifying as well. I know that when I walk up in front of people this evening, I will do it in honor of our storytelling friend Jim Waugh. I hope I will do him proud.
Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


The topic this month is Writing Struggles. That really hits home with me when I finish one novel and have to start another.

I just finished two novels. The first one will be released January 2011 by Sourcebooks: ALL THAT’S TRUE. It follows Andrea St. James (Andi for short), during the first Desert Storm war, who discovers her father is having an affair with her best friend’s step-mother. Sourcebooks calls it “an authentic coming-of-age tale with a terrific takeaway.”

The second novel, HEART, has yet to be sold. It was inspired by an actual CBS news program where a man received his daughter’s heart. The tagline of the book is: After a fatal accident sixteen-year-old Lorelei Goodroe follows the lives of five people who receive her organs, including that of her father who receives her heart.

Okay, two books down, a new one to go. But what to write? After several days of contemplating, I get an idea when a character comes to me, a twelve-year-old girl who has a problem. (I tend to write in young voices—I can’t seem to help myself.) The protagonist’s voice is very strong. I hear her words in my head:

“When I was very little my mother told me stories about why my father wasn’t with us. First she said he was away in the war going on in Asia, Vietnam. Then she said he was healing from the wounds in his head that made him forget us. Later she said he was on assignment for the secret service.”

I used those lines for my opening of SUMMER RIDGE and wrote a tagline: Twelve-year-old Mary Alice Munford struggles with the knowledge that her mother plans to marry her father, a man who abandoned them before she was born.

On to the novel and that’s where the real struggle begins. What to write? What will this girl’s problems be? What will stand in her way? What can you say that will keep your reader riveted for three hundred pages? That’s a tall order, but that’s what books ask of us. And your reader expects some good answers.

Early on, Mary Alice states that her household is not a happy one:

There’s me, my mother, Granny Ruth and Aunt Josie, whose husband, my Uncle Earnest, fell under a combine when I was five so I never got to know him good. The day he died, I climbed on Aunt Josie’s lap and wouldn’t leave even when it was time to go to bed. Mama tried to pick me up.

“You been sitting there all day, sweet thing.”

“Leave me lone, Mama,” I said. “I’m helping Aunt Josie cry.”

I loved this protagonist immediately and started to write, regardless of the struggle.

I’m now two hundred pages into the manuscript. Mary Alice is at a fair with her father, who she still calls Hank, seeing as she can’t think of him as a real Daddy. He has picked up a gal from the local café, Wanda Lou, and the two of them are off having a very good time on their own. Mary Alice is busy pitching pennies and is not doing too well when a man comes up next to her and says, “What are you shootin’ for little miss?”

Mary Alice says he is acting like he really cares. She shows him the two little dogs she has won and points to the large one hanging down from the rafters with a big red bow around its neck.

If I get one more, I can trade it for that big one,” she explains.

That’ll be right nice,” he says and hands her another quarter. “Give her another try.”

She takes the three pennies the attendant hands her and tries again, but one by one the pennies bounce off the plates. The man who gave her the quarter takes hold of her elbow and says, “They got a booth across the way. They use bowls instead of plates. It’s easy to win. Come on, I’ll show you.”

Mary Alice eagerly follows the man who says she can win. He takes her behind all of the tents that are set up in back of the booths. Eventually, he spins around and says, “Sorry girlie, I can’t quite remember where that booth is.”

That’s when he grabs her. Mary Alice heart sinks. She realizes now it was not a good idea to follow him, but it’s too late. He already has his arm around her neck.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m still struggling and still writing. Please write back to me and tell me what you think. Your responses count!!

Jackie Lee Miles is the author of Roseflower Creek, Cold Rock River, Divorcing Dwayne and the soon to be released All That’s True. Visit the author’s website at Write to the author at

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Christmas of Muscadine Jelly by Kerry Madden


          Sometimes I remember it as the Christmas of Muscadine Jelly, but this really isn’t true. Maybe I just like the way it sounds. It could be called the Christmas of Ritz Cracker Casseroles, but where is the poetry in that? And besides that isn’t true either. What I do remember is this: We drive from Los Angeles to Nashville with our three kids in order to give them a southern Christmas with my husband’s family, but what I’m struggling to write about takes place just after New Year’s in early 2005. I don’t know why the supper in Memphis is what I remember most, but it’s the memory that keeps returning, and since this month’s suggested topics are about writing struggles and/or setting, I thought I would somehow try to write about both.

On the way back to California, we have a post-New Year’s supper in Memphis at the home of my husband’s sister. The supper consists of Ritz cracker casseroles – green beans and cream-of-mushroom soup on a bed of Ritz crackers and sprinkled with dried onions and a broccoli noodle casserole adorned with Ritz Crackers. I’m relieved to have Christmas over, so this dinner is beautiful to me. We dish up cafeteria style, and I’d like to think there is an apple pie topped with Ritz Crackers too, but that is pushing it. 
My sister-in-law who serves this meal is bossy, sophisticated, and has an answer for everything. After a trip to California when she was fourteen, she could dance the jitterbug to perfection across the living room floor. I don’t associate her with Ritz cracker dishes. As a child, I compulsively read cereal boxes, but when I came across a box of Ritz crackers and studied the different recipes for pies and casseroles I was amazed that a box of crackers could do so many things. Who knew? In my house of standard meatloaf and Hamburger Helper dinners, Ritz crackers were served strictly with cheese.
            A salty ham also sits on the table in Memphis next to the casseroles along with red wine. I’m sure there is also either coleslaw or potato salad or deviled eggs, too. It feels slightly romantic to have supper in Memphis with my sister-in-law, a nonstop talker, where conversation is easy because nothing is expected but vague attention. An evening walk would not be noticed or remarked upon so long as somebody is there to catch the avalanche of words, and I begin to look outside with longing. I’m facing three more days in the car with kids, and it’s a balmy Memphis night in January, no sign of winter anywhere except for the way the naked branches of the oak trees claw the sky. I want to pretend that this is a regular Sunday, and that maybe we are lost characters from a Peter Taylor short story having Sunday dinner in Memphis with the relatives. 
My sister-in-law describes the politics of Memphis and some of the underhanded ways of the city and says, “A lot of people in Memphis have three jobs: politician, appraiser, and preacher.” When I laugh she fires back, “That is not funny!” I grow tired. Okay, it’s not funny. I am blending times and dates and years of conversation, but it’s always the same or a very similar conversation, and I have to remember to be bland, to say nothing, to be quiet, to smile only slightly, maybe. I’m her brother’s wife who writes but that is never mentioned. Writing is suspect. It has always been suspect. Writing is not steady. Writing is not something to consider seriously. Writing is okay for some people but it’s better to be a lawyer or a doctor with health insurance than to gamble with something so risky as a writing career. I don’t mention that I have a book coming out the following March, but the subject never comes up.   
I am also worried about our teenage daughter, Lucy, who is on crutches due to a holiday accident in a crowded Nashville living room at her grandmother’s after a meal of Turkducken (Chicken inside a duck inside a turkey), having stepped on a ball and wrenching her ankle. I am terrified it is broken, but she’s an athlete and elastic and our HMO isn’t in Tennessee, so we ice it up and hope for the best, which is dumb, but who wants to find a doctor in Nashville on New Year’s Eve when it is time to drive back across the country to California. I have visions of gangrene setting in, but I am morbid. There is a spare set of crutches in the basement garage, and of course, we absolutely will take her to the doctor when we get home, which, by my estimation is approximately five days. Will Kaiser call Child Services on us for not flying out into the night to seek immediate treatment? Could we fudge on the days it would take to drive from Nashville to Los Angeles? If this were a Peter Taylor story, the visiting relatives would go to the family doctor in town and there would be no charge.
Back in Nashville before the supper in Memphis when Lucy does whatever she does to her ankle, her cousins bow over her like concerned tulips but her grandmother, my mother-in-law, makes it clear that she does not want her granddaughter to convalesce with her and then fly home to California, and honestly, who could blame her? Eight of her thirteen children have gathered for the holidays, and it is day ten of celebrating. We are all about to implode from Christmas. 

And so I pretend I am a Peter Taylor character visiting a sister-in-law in Memphis at the tail end of a Christmas holiday with my children. After the salty Memphis supper, I walk toward the railroad tracks, happy to leave the talk behind. I think about my sister-in-law who is divorced with adult children and a boyfriend - a kind man with a vast knowledge of the Blues in Memphis. He is Jewish, and my sister-in-law once talked about learning to sit shiva for his mother. (She will later sit shiva for this good man but we don’t know this yet.) The walk to the railroad tracks makes me think of my other Memphis friend, an actress and comedian, who sells Jewish cemetery plots in California. She is Catholic but has had to learn to sit shiva too, and thinks it’s a tradition the Catholics would do well to learn a thing or two about. She believes people of the Jewish faith are more evolved when it comes to death and funerals.
My Catholic friend who sells Jewish cemetery plots once said, “With the Catholics, the family of the deceased has to parade down the church aisle crying and carrying on in front of everybody, but the Jewish family in mourning sits there and lets everybody else walk by them. Highly evolved people.”
My sister-in-law has never married her Jewish boyfriend, and on this January night in 2005, I wonder why. Her own ex-husband has long been remarried. Clearly the boyfriend is kind and devoted and loving, but these are questions not to be asked except maybe to the ghost of Peter Taylor. Where had he lost that poor girl from THE OLD FOREST? In the story, a boy was engaged to the right kind of girl but had a car wreck with the wrong kind of girl who then disappeared. Where in Memphis had this happened? And part of me just wants to keep walking the Memphis streets and disappear into his Collected Stories and maybe I’ll see this girl walking through a park or a maybe I’ll find a young couple having a fight upon leaving the movie theatre or maybe see a woman in a camel hair coat smoking a cigarette.
But eventually, I go back to the house, the lonesome sound of Memphis trains steady and sonorous. And to make conversation, I tell my sister-in-law that we want to bring simple little gifts to our friends in California – something from the South that they couldn’t easily find out west, and she says, “Oh muscadine jelly. Everybody loves muscadine jelly.” And so it becomes a mission to find muscadine jelly. She knows that muscadine jelly is the right thing to bring west, and we will make this happen. I am grateful to her for this idea.
After we say good-bye the next day, we find some muscadine jelly in Ozark, Arkansas at one of the wineries. At a gas station, a man says, “California? Wow. How did y’all find Ozark? But I’m not surprised. Everybody’s been coming here lately. Did y’all come all this way to see where they filmed ‘The Simple Life’ with Paris Hilton? It’s just right up the road where they shot it.”
I grit my teeth. Paris Hilton? Paris Hilton does not belong in my story of muscadine jelly and Peter Taylor and my sister-in-law with her Ritz Cracker casseroles. Paris Hilton is an interloper and she has nothing to do with any of this, but there she is anyway in a black and white photo above the cash register.
I tell him, “No. We’ve come to Ozark to find muscadine jelly.”
He directs us to a few wineries, and eventually we find dusty jars of it on the shelves. It’s also known as scuppernog jelly, another delicious word. We buy ten jars and do a wine tasting. Our kids look at us like we will become drunk before their eyes. Then we stop to eat barbecue at a place that is packed on Saturday night before the long drive back to California. We buy a coffee cup with a pig on it, and the kids love it. And on those long winter days driving back west we listen to Blues CDs from my sister-in-law and her boyfriend, who give us music for the road. I try to decide which friends will want a jar of this sweet southern spread. Our daughter’s ankle heals a little more each day. We see moose in the Grand Canyon. Our teenage son films everything, even his sister sleeping, which infuriates her. Our youngest wants a dream-catcher at the Continental Divide to keep away the bad dreams.
And that was the Christmas of muscadine jelly before my children grew up.
  • Kerry Madden is the author of six books including: OFFSIDES, WRITING SMARTS, GENTLE'S HOLLER, LOUISIANA'S SONG, JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN, and UP CLOSE HARPER LEE. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham and divides her time between Los Angeles and Alabama.

Friday, July 2, 2010


By: Mary Alice Monroe

I do all of my writing on the computer, so the rapid clicking noises my fingers make on the keyboard are the sounds of progress, a story in the works. That is, until the so-called “writer’s block” strikes, forcing my cursor to a blinking halt.

The most recent time it happened was while I was working on THE BUTTERFLY’S DAUGHTER, which is now in revisions and set to be published May 2011. The specifics of my struggle are not as important as what my husband said to me while I was venting my writing frustrations to him. He reminded me that my temporary storyline roadblock, was just part of the process I endure with every novel; a metamorphosis of sorts that I must go through for my story to emerge into what it is intended to be.

Looking back, I see now that I was much like the monarch butterfly I was detailing in my story. This period of writer’s block was similar to the chrysalis stage when the caterpillar quietly transforms into the beautifully painted winged insect. The struggle lasts for days, but soon enough, I emerge renewed, refocused and ready to return to the creative process.

Before the creativity returns, the period is a source of temporary anguish and frustration. American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne acknowledged this struggle when he once said,
Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
There are a few things I do to move beyond the writer’s block. I sometimes call my sister whom I lovingly refer to as “my muse.” I can talk out a scene with her to get inspired again. I have also done this countless times with my husband, another special person whose conversation opens up my storytelling vision.

Sometimes I just have to step away from my work. Immerse myself in something else to temporarily forget about the book. Taking time to garden, swim, walk the beach and step outside of my writing cave is often just what I need to feel inspired again.

When I am not writing, I am reading. I like to revisit the classic works of my most favorite writers when I need inspiration-- Charles Dickens, William Blake, Henry David Thoreau, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, John Steinbeck and Edith Wharton. Sometimes, I’ll re-read southern classics by Marjorie Rawlings, Eudora Welty, or Tennessee Williams. And I also find modern poetry to be inspiring as well.

My final tip-- don’t ignore your dreams. The images and words provided by the subconscious mind can be a great source of creativity. I trust my dreams, and I often feel most creative and ready to write first thing in the morning.

Whatever you do, just don’t dwell on your frustrations or fears during a state of writer’s block. Instead, take heart knowing that you will find your way back to your story again.  What things do you do to move beyond moments of writer’s block?

Mary Alice Monroe is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels.  For more information visit or her weekly blog.  You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter