Monday, April 30, 2012

Tell Your Story


Do you know who Flora Thompson is? I didn’t either until I stumbled onto a BBC series called Lark Rise to Candleford. I happen to be a You Tube junkie and I go there looking for entertainment all the time. When I found Lark Rise I was cruising through the site hoping to find something British and wonderful. I’d done all the Dickens like Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend. Loved Daniel Deronda, Cranford, and so many others. But I guess it was this title that arrested my attention. What on earth was a Lark Rise?

I brought up episode one and found out. Absolutely fell in love with it. It has everything the ‘moral romantic’ (coining a phrase here?) is looking for in the way of absorbing entertainment. I’m not the only one. Turns out it’s one of the most popular series BBC ever and it has a near cult following.

Briefly – The story of two rival towns in rural England in the late 1890’s. Brilliant actors like Brendon Coyle (Downton Abbey), Claudie Blakely, Dawn French (Vicar of Dibley) and so many others make Ms. Thompson’s remembrances of her Oxfordshire childhood come alive. One of the main characters, Dorcas Lane, is played delightfully by Julia Sawalha. Olivia Hallinan plays the young and dewy eyed Laura, and Mark Heap is a joy to watch in his role as Thomas Brown. The stories whirl through the daily activities of the Candleford Post Office and if you don’t think that sounds engaging – well – you’d be wrong. On the flip side are the doings in Lark Rise, the less economically advantaged of the two towns.

My enchantment with the series led me to seek out the book it was based on. When I found Ms. Thompson’s hefty tome – a trilogy - I bought it. Before I bought it, though, I read several reviews and was warned the book was Nothing like the series. I bought it anyway. The reviewers were right in that the book isn’t laid out in neat little episodes. It’s a memoir strewn through five hundred some odd pages peeking into English country life at the turn of the last century. I found it quite enjoyable.

But what I appreciate most about the series is the sterling work of the writers who picked apart the book in order to write episode after episode for our enjoyment. Bravo! In one instance they were able to round out a whole character, Minnie, from the mere mention of a maid who had worked for a villager. Minnie, played so well by Ruby Bentall, is a kook and one of my favorites.

Here’s the deal. Even if you’re not a ‘writer’ try to get something of your own life and times down on paper. This is the best way to keep history in its truest form. It comes from the minds of the people who live it with no agenda other than to leave a legacy for loved ones.  

I still have the diary my mother gave me when I was a  young girl. I wrote in it pretty faithfully for a kid. I even tucked in favorite poems, old funny paper panels and the front page of our local newspaper from the day President Kennedy was shot. A few years ago one of my sisters was visiting and I let her read it. As she thumbed through she chuckled, shook her head, and mumbled to herself, “I remember that!”

Finally she looked up at me and said, rather wistfully, “ I can’t believe  you saved all this.”

Reactions like that are one of the reasons I keep writing. I think Flora would approve.

PS: I’ll tackle ‘moral romantic’ in some other post.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Check out Susan's Extras today for a great homemade crouton recipe. Sooo good!

Friday, April 27, 2012

My Book

I live in one of the nicest communities in the world. 

This morning I had a dentist appointment and, as we finished up, Dr. Boynton said he’d like to know more about my writing. On a previous visit, I’d told him and his staff about my book. So I gave him my card, and suggested he visit my blog. Then he told me if I’d like to give them something for the waiting room to help promote my book, I could do so. I let out a little gasp of surprise.

“We’ve been friends for many years, Sue. Of course we’d do that for you.”  

A few weeks ago I ran into a friend at the local dollar store. She had her grandson in tow and I know she loves to read so I told her about my mystery. She asked where I’d be promoting it and suggested I talk to her son who is opening a flower shop in town soon. Perhaps he’d let me do a signing. I felt honored and humbled that she would think my work worthy.

My hairdresser asks about my writing every time I bow my head to her shears. Bonnie has been doing my hair and been my friend for many, many years. I just love her.  My recent appointment was a few weeks ago and as I prattled on about The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery, she told me, “Go talk to Rhondy. Tell her she should do your launch.” Rhondy co-owns the indie bookstore in Kinderhook and is also one of Bonnie's heads - uh - clients.

So I popped into Blackwood & Brouwer the following Friday. Rhondy greeted me cheerfully and could not have been nicer. She and her mom, Jean, have run the bookstore for twenty-two years. The place simply reeks books and all things related. They have a special corner just for mysteries and have had many signings at their place. I have an appointment to work out launch details next Friday. If you love books, old wooden floors, that wonderful book smell, and a huge selection of good reads, go there.

A few weeks ago our local library, in Kinderhook just down from the bookstore, had a Sunday afternoon meet and greet for their new director, AnnaLee Giraldo. I took myself on over and was introduced to her as a writer with a book coming out in the fall. AnnaLee favored me with a big smile and  immediately asked if I’d like to come in and do a reading or an event. I could have hugged her.

Well, after my dentist appointment I had to stop at the post office to pick up our business mail and got to thinking. How many towns are left in this country where you can leave your car running and run in to grab your mail? Or stop and chat with six people you know in the grocery store - something like this.

“No little one today?” asks Donna behind the bakery counter. I frequently shop with Sierra, our youngest granddaugher, on Tuesdays while her sister, Melodi is in pre-school. But it’s Monday so . . .

“Not today,” I laugh as I bypass the free cookie container that Sierra always has an eye out for. Then I wave at Donna as I head to the deli and see Charlie, the bread delivery guy, who happens to eat at the local Elks lodge with his wife the same night my husband and I always do. He's setting his bulkie rolls out and accepts my condolensces on the recent death of his dad.

Yup, I live in a great community. One where so many people, some who don’t even know me, are happy for me and willing to help with a smile and an invitation to invade a part of their world with, among other things, my little book.

How many places like that are left?

I hope there are thousands, my friend, and that you live in one of them.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

House Hunting in the Days of Yore

Remember the first time you went looking for a house? How about the second or third time? It's the great American Dream to own a home and my husband and I have owned three. The following is the story of Hunt #2 from way back in the 'olden days' as our granddaughter, Anna, would say.

Dining Room With a View

About the only thing that appealed to my husband and me was that the realtor had said it was in the country. Or sort of in the country considering it was central New Jersey, near Trenton where we’d just been re-located from upstate New York by his company. It was the mid seventies, we had two rowdy young boys and we wanted a house – fast. So off we went to see the ‘attached house’ as it was called. This would be a large house, divided down the middle with two front doors, renters on one side, us on the other. Okay, we’d look.

Our concern level began to rise the minute we saw the tiny kitchen.

“What do you mean there’s no heat in here?” I asked.

“Well, no central heat,” said the realtor, “but there’s this nice little stove,” she added quickly, sweeping her hand over the little wood burner. “You can even cook on it!”

I tossed my husband a look as we continued to the upstairs, via a very narrow stairwell with a shaky banister. Concern level, up a notch. Okay, the upstairs wasn’t too bad, had just been done over, in fact. My mind began to solve some of the problems, including a heating duct to the kitchen. I mean, how hard could that be? After all the house had a nice yard, an income opportunity in the other half of the house and a dining room, something I’d always wanted. We saw that room next. It wasn’t huge but it had possibilities. My small table and chair set would probably fit and I imagined a happy holiday or two with Grandma at the head of the table. Then I noticed a flowered, cloth-covered screen at the end of the room, blocking one corner. I asked the realtor what is was and she sighed as she walked over to it.

“Well, now remember, the family had an older member who couldn’t get up the stairs anymore . . .” she said, hesitating as she assessed the anticipation on our faces. Then she pulled the screen aside. “It’s the bathroom.”

Sure enough, there it sat, the toilet in all its white enameled glory. It was positioned very near where I’d imagined Grandma would be enjoying her apple pie come Thanksgiving. Somehow I didn’t think she’d appreciate the view. Sides splitting, we gathered up our rowdy boys and left.    

Image: Salvatore Vuono                                                               Free Digital Photos

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

For Writers

Does Your Character Have An Interesting Flaw?

Character is one of those words, that, when you hear it, you know exactly what it means. Someone will say to you, ‘he’s a real character’, and visions of your uncle Bob or that wacky used car salesman you talked with recently come to mind. Politicians often tout character as a mark of their moral constitution and fitness for office. Writers must imbue their characters with distinctive qualities and traits that will capture the imagination. And nothing is quite so intriguing as a flaw.

One of my favorite literary characters is Scarlett O’Hara, the heroine of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. She was charming and intelligent, but also willful, vain and self-centered. All of these traits in one package made her interesting. And even though her vanity and selfishness were balanced by her love for Tara and her tenacity in the trials she faced during the Civil War, she rang true. She was flawed.

In taking on the role of creator, some writers find it easier to build a hero and give him all the strengths and virtues that are often lacking in real people. But will that reach our audience? That old adage ‘nobody’s perfect’ should weigh in and count for something. A flaw gives balance.

Flaw Types

To see a flaw, hold up a mirror. We have physical and emotional flaws. We have skill and intellect flaws. Some flaws are endearing and some are annoying while others are all too common like Scarlett’s. As you weave your story and develop your character the appropriate flaw may make a sudden appearance. While sorting out the strong points of the young boy’s personality in one of my manuscripts he began to bore me a little. Then I discovered that he didn’t like animals; in fact he was often unkind to them. Yikes! How could any kid not love animals or worse yet be unkind to them? Well, in real life all children don’t love animals. Allowing this flaw gave me a character in need of reform keeping me from getting bored and my reader turning the pages.

Many serious adult flaws begin in childhood. If it’s your habit to do character sketches, start there. A ten year old may think he hates his cousin who comes from the rich side of the family. In fleshing out his character you can direct his path in various ways. Perhaps when he realizes his cousin is deathly afraid of snakes, he becomes more sympathetic. Or, on the darker side, he may use that fear to devious advantage in your plot design.

Your secondary character may be able to have the most interesting flaws. In the wildly popular children’s series, Harry Potter, we have an excellent model for this. If Harry hadn’t had such a miserable counterpart in Dudley Dursley we wouldn’t have rooted so hard for Harry to escape his surroundings. Dudley was loud, self-indulgent and a snitch – one of the worst flaws of all. You can often have more fun with the secondary character because sh/e needn’t triumph in the end. Just resist the urge to go overboard!

Flaw Resolution 

In the real world we often hang on to our flaws if only in some form modified by time and experience. All through life we chip away at our flaws a little at a time. A good story finds a way to modify the flaw, but lets the reader know that it takes more than one encounter with the devil to tame him. Too swift a change will make the reader doubtful and suspicious. The resolution (or semi-resolution) of your character's flaw can take as many forms as the flaw itself. It may be wildly explosive, a quiet moment of introspection or a more protracted ordeal that flows over into another book. Perhaps it will even be informed by a personal experience of your own. 

So go ahead, mold your character. Make her a strong, beautiful and kind tax cheat. Is your Buck Trueheart a wonderful doctor, husband and father? Great, but he needs to be rude to his nurses or ashamed of his mother.  As with Scarlett  O’Hara and Harry Potter and your exciting hero, a well-developed character mirrors the real world where there are flaws enough for everyone. Let your characters have some.

Image: Free Digital Photos

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pleasant Bits of a Day

There was a break in the clouds right after lunch today so I grabbed my camera. I wanted to see if anything in the garden had responded to the much needed rain we got last night. The potatoes and peas have popped through nicely and I’m sure the warm sun will send them soaring for the clouds – soon.

As I snapped away little memories popped up, too. When I was a very young girl we lived in Minnesota, upstate. Grandma Blaine always had a garden out back and the pea rows were my favorite. We kids were allowed to walk the rows and snag the pea pods from the twining plants. Then we’d pull the little string from one end to the other, a pea zipper – kind of -  and break the pod open. There sat the little emerald jewels, a row of the sweetest peas you can imagine. I loved them and un-zipped pod after pod. My second favorite way to eat them was when Grandma would cook her spring vegetables in cream and butter. There were carrots and green beans in there, too, I think. And the butter and cream were from her own cows, of course. I hope somewhere kids still get to eat like that. What bliss!

A few weeks ago I pulled what was left of a bag of potatoes out of the basket in our pantry. Ewww. Eyes all over the place. Not suitable for eating, but maybe for planting? I made the suggestion to the master gardener and he said, “Sure, why not?”

So they're coming up, too. An old friend once told me she loved digging potatoes because it was like a treasure hunt – searching for gold. I remember her every fall when I sink the spade time after time in a wide circle around the near dead potato plants. After the ground is loosened I go in gently with a gloved hand and the fun begins. Each plump starchy globe goes into my waiting basket and all I can think of at that point is sour cream and chives. Yum!

God is good. Rain, wind, sun, a vegetable garden and memories. What other riches could one ask for?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

When Rock Was Us

Today marks the day 45 years ago when I partnered in marriage to the blue-eyed blond guy who asked me to ice skate one night and sealed our fate. We've stuck it out through love and laughter, snarls and snaps - all the stuff of life. So, I guess I'm waxing nostalgic. I wrote the following a number of years ago for Chicken Soup. Alas CS passed on it, but I hope you enjoy the read - especially if you're an old rocker. 

I looked around the table at the six of us. The same six who have played pinochle on Saturday night for over twenty-five years; three guys, three gals, all married couples. We look the same to each other, as though we aren't aging, because love doesn’t see wrinkles and age spots. But Karen is a cancer survivor and Marie’s battle with infantile paralysis (polio) over fifty years ago has left her with multiple health problems. Ben’s only brother was killed in Vietnam. My husband, John, served in that awful war but came home whole. All of our parents are deceased. This card game marks time for us. It’s proof that we’ve survived another week; proof that we care enough to tell each other about it. On this particular night though, something was different. A spur of the moment decision by Ben, our host, to play a new CD soon had us all wrapped up in pleasant reverie.

It’s natural to divide life into ‘eras’ and the one that had us floating that night once screamed Rock ‘n Roll to a monstrous generation of teenagers. The music was from ‘American Graffiti’. It even seemed possible that we were hearing the music as we had the first time. Between snacking and bidding we each had the satisfaction of recalling a prom, an old flame or some glorious moment enhanced by a thrumming backbeat.

The familiar tunes rolled out one after the other and we bumped along with music whose singers had names like Fats, Chubby and Elvis. The important thing was that some long ago happening was recalled and played out in our minds as we listened. Like a fantastic still shot from an old movie it was our own youth come to vivid life just for an instant around the card table. No recent bad day at work or trouble with our kids could ever diminish the delightful recalling of the first time we heard ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘Pretty Woman’ or ‘Surfin Safari’. I could easily imagine a great swirling gust carrying the six of us to some long ago teen strewn dance floor.  

“And now ladies and gentlemen,” croons the DJ, “a slow dance.”  Okay, so this was the moment you had talked to yourself about in the mirror that morning. Would your steely resolve to be a study in utter coolness overcome the rising panic in the pit of your stomach? Or will the spotlight just over the gym teacher’s head ping off your braces as you throw your head back in a charm-laden smile? You don’t even have time to worry about it because a set of earnest eyes meets yours—and then it happens.

“Do you wanna dance?”

The question comes as from a long way off and it seems like your answer is in slow motion. Of course you want to dance. You’ve got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow morning and relive every excruciating moment, so you say yes. You get up and after the first nerve jarring steps you somehow manage to disregard your damp palms and your friends who crowd, giggling along the cinder block gym wall. But then everything else fades as Paul Anka aches out the lyrics to, “Put Your Head On My Shoulder.” You’re waltzing on a memory making cloud, and it touches something deep down and soul satisfying. You feel lifted from the dance floor and transported . . .

. . . to the pinochle table where someone asks, “well are you gonna bid or not?” And then you’re tugged back to the time-softened faces and basketball bellies of good friends. Hearts and spades stare up from your hand and you re-focus for the familiar role of Saturday night card player. And you bid. You realize it’s a different era of your life now. One   where the laughter is more than genuine, the friends forgiving and then the night rambles on in good-natured remembrance.

I’ve heard it said that age is just a number. I don’t agree with that sentiment at all. Age is everything we are. Yeah we’re older and a bit jaded. Our bones creak a little when we get up to leave, and sleeping in our beds sounds better that doing anything else in them   But the six of us – we’ll take it. Wouldn’t want it any other way in fact. We’re born when we’re born and know we have to take whatever the times give. So we’ll keep our era, thank you, saluting the days when our generation ‘rocked’ and grateful for the occasional bargain pack of CD’s that allows us to visit it once in a while.

Image: Phil                                                        Free Digital Photos

Friday, April 20, 2012

Guest Blogger

Today my guest is Christine Collier. She's been a fantastic writing buddy for many years. We've been through the wringer together and have propped each other up more than once!

When another writer specifically asked for this subject I immediately thought of Christine. I'm sure you'll find her article on a writer's writing space as useful as I did. And don't forget to check out her bio to find out where to get her books. That's her writing space in the picture. Nice, huh?

Where Do You Write?

A few years ago, we remodeled our smallest bedroom into a real office. Our children had flown the coop and we had empty nest syndrome. I dreamed of my own writing office but also realized I’d have to share with my hubby. Our room is small but it has worked out well.

Wall cabinets with under cabinet lighting, a ten foot beige countertop, and base cabinets with files were how we started. Room at this counter for two chairs and two computers would add to the room’s utility. I got the chair and computer by the window!

What was the ideal color for the walls and ceiling? We decided on cinnamon toast for the walls and eggshell for the ceiling and cabinets. A nice color choice, before breakfast, on my morning computer email searches.

Would my new office increase the volume of my writing? How about the quality? Does a quiet atmosphere help writers with ideas? Can you get just as many ideas at a crowded kitchen table?

I’ve come to the conclusion that where you write does matter. You might find a great story at the family table. If, however, you have a place to go to think, research and read, the odds are your story will move much more smoothly.

Having organized files are essential. If everything is at your fingertips you will use it! File your guidelines, cover letters and market guides within easy reach. For instance, I wrote an excellent description of a middle grade mystery for my cover letter. The story was rejected, time to resubmit. If I hadn’t filed my cover letters by date, I might not have bothered to search for it. This way I found it immediately and was able to use the description again. Sometimes we forget how we worded something the first time.

A neat, clutter free counter is priceless. When you have room to spread out research books and study guides it helps greatly. Get a good dictionary and thesaurus or a combination one. Make sure you have good lighting in your writing space. Avoid harsh or fluorescent lighting. You need to be able to see your computer screen and books with ease. Under cabinet lighting is very easy on the eyes and will increase the time you write.

A comfortable office chair on wheels that can be adjusted to either a desk level or counter level is another plus.

What is your view? The view from our office is our backyard which runs into the woods. A tom turkey visiting one day inspired, “Over the River and Through the Woods,” about a boy that secretly buys a turkey call so he can call out a turkey for his grandfather. His grandfather has a photo album of all the forest creatures and he needs one of a turkey. This story was published in the summer 2008 issue of JAKES, a four page feature with wonderful illustrations. Another writing inspiration from our office window was a three legged deer which visited often. This resulted in a second feature story, “Club Secret and the Surprise Visitor,” at JAKES in the fall of 2010 and the sale of three pictures of the actual deer.

Put things in your writing space that you cherish. Objects which motivate you, perhaps old books with wonderful covers. Hang framed diplomas, contest winnings, or achievements on the wall to encourage your writing. When you enter this room it will be a happy reminder of what you are and want to become.

Have you published anything, even once or maybe many times? Frame the article or story or cover so you’ll remember the day you received that first acceptance. Make a copy of your first check or the one you are the most proud and display it. It’s a happy reminder that someone liked your work enough to pay for it, especially on days when a fat rejection waits in your mailbox. You might ask are rejections really fat? Actually they are very skinny; too skinny in fact, which usually tells you they’re rejections before you open them. However, contracts are nice and chubby!

Okay, maybe you don’t have a spare bedroom or a beautiful office. Even if your writing space is a closet, a corner in the laundry room or a desk in your bedroom, make it your designated area for writing. Make or buy a sign that reads Writer at Work, Storyteller, or something funny concerning the writing world. Play it up. You’re a writer in your heart; make a real spot for it in your home. Your writing space really does matter!

Christine is married, the mother of three, and grandmother of eight. She lives in upstate New York. She's been published in many children’s magazines, print and online. Her life stories are included in several anthology books and she's the author of eight mystery books. Her newest, “Solve a Cozy Mystery-35 Mini-Mysteries with Solutions,” is available online, in print, Kindle and NOOK Book.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

For Writers

Re-purposing Your Inventory

I’m not talking about that job at Walmart your first year of college where you filled out inventory forms until you were ready to scream. No, I’m referring to the pieces of writing you have available for re-sale as well as those hang around pieces you love but haven’t sold. I think we’ve all done this; gone skimming through our submissions spreadsheet and noticed some great unsold pieces or see one that did sell, but to a small market but, with a little nudge, could be ready for another shop around. That skimming is a good habit to get into because more markets are turning up all the time for those bits of work.

Years ago I wrote several pieces for an online children’s magazine. 2008 was the last year that magazine was around. Each of those pieces had an original purpose and one of my goals became to re-purpose some of them. They include crafts, short poems and non-fiction educational articles. I’ll make each piece current and give a day or two over to finding new markets for them. In case you’re wondering, I only do this for writing where I’ve retained rights. They’re mine to revise and re-sell. I’ve done this with many short stories and essays and have recently sold an essay, which originally appeared in a regional publication, to an anthology. Some of your good work may find a second and even third round of life with minimum effort.  

Re-purposing is somewhat different from selling a reprint. Reprints are pretty much a go as they are, but realizing another purpose for your work takes you down new and exciting paths. Try one of those paths for something that hasn’t sold yet or an older piece that needs a facelift. I wrote a contemporary poem that I’d hoped to sell to Blue Mountain Arts. They declined and the poem lingered until I read a call for submissions at New Love Stories. I subbed it; the editor called it a fit and bought it. Alas, that magazine has folded, but I have my poem back. Maybe you have a poem that has failed at magazines, but would make an excellent greeting card. Try here first

If you’ve written a funny family story, an inspirational one, or something about an Aha! moment in your life and have sold it to your local newspaper, twist it a bit and try it next with an anthology. Here’s your starting place

Don’t give up, especially, on the work that hasn’t sold. True, not all of it is wonderful. I have a few pieces that stink on ice. But others are things I love and simply haven’t found a home. One story, about a Christmas gift I received when I was eleven, hung around for a while but eventually won honorable mention in a Cynic Online contest and later sold to Good Old Days magazine. I love it when that happens. So why don’t you take a look at your spreadsheet one more time, looking for nuggets to re-purpose. You can thank me later.

Image: Free Digital Photos

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


A long, long time ago, in a race for town council, my husband threw his hat into the ring. He’s had strong political opinions all his life and finally decided it was time to act instead of reacting all the time. He won. Needless to say it tossed us both into a realm quite different from our pretty normal and kinda humdrum life, but it was exciting and interesting just the same. Suddenly all kinds of people were calling, inviting us to events and seeking his opinion on any number of subjects. The man who headed up his campaign eventually ran for New York State Comptroller. It was heady stuff.

So the invitation came to attend a fundraiser for a congressman with the event taking place in Saratoga, an old city of renown and elegance. Saratoga Race Track is world famous and the city itself is beautiful and noted for its style and upper crust social scene. I was assured that dress was casual but I took care with my appearance nonetheless (I didn’t know about hemorrhoid cream as a beauty aid at the time – thank God!). At any rate I didn’t think my town councilman husband had anything to be ashamed of in me. Off we went.

The large hall was lovely. Red, white and blue bunting graced the podium, people milled about drinking good wine and holding small plates of yummy looking treats. I was abandoned pretty quickly by the councilman, but really didn’t mind since my radar was up for the free food. It was okay with me that I knew almost no one. It gave me a chance to hit the food stations with abandon. There were choice offerings like cheese tortellini in cream sauce, spinach dip, little bacon thingys, fruit platters, shrimp Rangoon and so much more.

Soon, though, I was waved over to speak with our campaign manager and a few other political types and I did my charming best to comment on the proceedings. I smiled and laughed in all the right places and adopted a cool and elegant demeanor during the congressman’s address. I imagined I was being very Grace Kelly-esque. As the evening wound down hubby sidled off to offer farewells to his political buddies and I sidled over for bit more spinach dip and cheese tortellini before my own gracious farewells.

I was one contented councilman’s wife as we drove home. Of course I couldn’t wait to get into comfy jammies, stretch out in my recliner, and delight in how well the evening had gone. But first I hit the bathroom to remove the makeup and brush my teeth. Still feeling all bubbly and Kelly-esque, I loaded my toothbrush and looked into the mirror only to see a goofy looking hillbilly gawking back at me. You know, the gap – toothed goober types you see in old Warner Brothers cartoons?

On closer examination I discovered what made me suddenly resemble Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies and  NOT Grace Kelly. I had a long dark strand of spinach stuck between my two front teeth.

I decided to laugh instead of cry because I just knew that’s what all those influential politicians had done every time I’d grinned back at them all evening.

I’m sure glad the guy I live with never wanted to run for president!!   

Image: Salvatore Vuono                                                 Free Digital Photos

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bold Women, Libraries, and Violets

I had a super day yesterday. The wonderful women at my church executed beautifully a skit I wrote for Bold Women Sunday. We had charge of  the entire service – our pastor was in Las Vegas. No, we are not such a difficult congregation that we drove the poor man to Sin City. His daughter, son-in-law, and grandson, Slater, live there. He went with his wife and he’ll be back next week. But the women did a grand job of demonstrating our considerable strength in showing compassion and giving aid to those near and far. Many of our own are included in that definition. Our group does amazing things like making pillowcase dresses for the Little Dresses for Africa program and sponsoring one of the free dinners the church holds during the winter months. And lots more. We'll be going on retreat into the Adirondack's soon and I can't wait. I love these gals.

In the afternoon I took myself off to the library one town over, Kinderhook , where a reception was being held for the new library director. I renewed my very beat up library card, had some punch, saw a few friends and was introduced to the director, AnnaLee Giraldo – a very upbeat and eager young woman. She even had her little dachshund with her - you gotta love it. I asked her if there was any special procedure for donating a copy of my mystery to the library this coming fall. She said there was not and would I be interested in doing a reading or an event? Oh, my stars! I assured her that I would and left with a happy heart.

I stopped on the way home to buy carrot seeds for the husband who is designing a giant garden this year. He’s got his schematic (for heaven's sake!) on a clipboard and refers to it often. Boy, am I going to be a busy wifey canning and freezing at the end of summer! But he was pleased with my seed choice and we walked the rows of what’s already been planted and together hoped for rain. On my way back towards the house I saw these beauties and ran for my camera.

This year the violets are scattered in profusion – like the rainbow sprinkles on a toddler’s cupcake. They’re  in the grass, poking out from under loose stones, dancing along the tree line, and a few rose up in the gravel driveway. I love violets wherever the pop up. Their cheery little faces tell me good things are on the way.

In addition to all this there was a big fat stuffing filled chicken roasting in the oven. After dinner, while John took a little trip to the lake for some fishing, I Skyped with my granddaughter, Elaina, who lives in Washington. She's a hoot! And later in the evening I watched The Mystery of Edwin Drood on Masterpiece Theater. We even got a smattering of rain.

Now was that a good Sunday or what?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bread - The Staff of Life

Beautiful Errors

Writers are always looking for markets. We're told we should read the publications we'd like to submit our work to and I take that to heart. Trouble is, I don't have the money to subscribe to every one of them. But when hubby asked me to ride along with him to Tractor Supply, his favorite store in the whole wide world, I perked up. I knew they carried a magazine called Grit, a down home mid-western publication, and I'd grab one to get an idea of the magazine's editorial slant.

I knew this wasn't going to be a trip where we were in the store long. Hubby was only exchanging a pair of jeans and didn't need much else. So I scooted over to the magazine rack and there it was - a shining copy of Grit. I grabbed it and went to the checkout where he was finishing up the exchange. I plopped the magazine on the counter and paid for it. I was a little surprised that it cost almost seven dollars, but thought it would be worth it if I could sell them something.

About half way home I pulled the magazine from the bag only to discover that this wasn't the regular magazine at all, but a special issue dedicated solely to bread. Aghh! I was so annoyed. When we got home I threw the thing on the end table in the living room and felt completely disgusted with myself for not being more careful. I always leap before I look - a lifelong problem.

The next day I picked up the magazine and thumbed through it. Might as well, I thought. There I found a lengthy, but quite charming, article about baking bread in five minutes a day. Ha! How is that possible I wondered. But I read the whole piece and the writer, Becky Sell, convinced me it could be done. So the next day I gave it a go.

It's the best bread I've ever made, no kidding and no kneading! Here's how you do it - the short version.

Put 3 cups of very warm water in your stand mixer.
Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt
Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of yeast
Add  6 1/2 cups (exact) of flour

Attach the dough hook and mix for about a minute, until there's a nice ball in the bowl. Cover and let rest for 2 hours or so. Place in fridge for an hour. Grease a large cookie sheet and dust with cornmeal. Generously flour your hands and the bread board. Dump the dough onto the board. It's a soft and sticky dough so roll it around for a bit and then use a large knife to cut it into two pieces. Put  them on the cookie sheet and let rise for an hour. Slit the tops with a sharp knife. Put a pan of water on the bottom rack of your 350 oven and bake the loaves for 45 -55 minutes - until they look like the picture up there.

You know, Somebody watches over me, and very often my careless leaps turn into blessings. I love this bread and so does my family. I hope you do, too.


This essay appeared in Prairie Times last summer. Let me know what you think. Leave a comment and I'll love you forever. Thanks!

The Real Purpose of Furniture
By Susan Sundwall

If you took a random sampling of, say, fifty people and asked them what the real purpose of furniture is, you’d get some pretty interesting answers. For instance, mother’s of toddlers might tell you that a sofa has two purposes. One, to be a sort of indoor trampoline and the other as sanctuary for runaway Cheerios with an occasional bit of dog biscuit or princess puzzle piece for company. That sanctuary being under the cushions, of course. It doesn’t seem to matter if the sofa was originally purchased by a dewy eyed bride trying to channel Martha Stewart as she dithered over a dozen choices in the furniture store. Perhaps the one she chose did go well with the lamps Aunt Lois gave her as wedding gifts, but its real true purpose was hidden until baby came along. If only she had spoken with a few toddler moms first. Perhaps there’s a third purpose if the sofa has a loose pillow back, but fort building also requires blankets so we won’t go there.

Then there’s the kitchen table. I think the original intent for these long flat pieces was to give us a place to eat a family meal. But how silly of those “original intenters” to limit a big flat surface like that. When my son walks in the back door with his tiny daughter fast asleep in her car carrier, the whole kit and caboodle goes right onto the kitchen table. She’s at eye level for us grown ups and out of the way of the dog, floor crud, and her big sister, who’s two. The table is also where my hubby stands when we need to change a bulb in the track lights overhead. It’s where I set my cookie racks for cooling holiday treats, plop jars of hot jam to cool, and where I throw junk mail, you know, until I can sort the bad stuff from the sorta good stuff like 20% off all my purchases at CVS (until Tuesday – better act fast).  But for eating at? Oh, come on. It’s not your Grandma’s kitchen table anymore. It’s an all purpose – uh – flat surface, that’s there when you need it for whatever. Oh, and the kitchen chairs, especially the sturdy wooden ones? Definitely for holding up coats, book bags, plastic grocery bags full of craft items for your third grader’s class project, and the perfect comfy place for the cat to catch some shut eye.

Let’s wander into the bedroom to peek at the lovely four poster bed. Most of our random samplers might reasonably assume a bed, with all the fluffy pillows, the handmade comforter, and eyelit bed skirt is for sleeping. Mostly they’d be right except for the hide and seek factor. Why do kids always think no one will look under there? And when they’re caught, the chance of scurrying out and getting to “home” ahead of the seeker is ridiculous, but no matter. I guess it just seems so perfect while they’re under there trying not to giggle as they peek at the seeker’s slow moving sneakers. I’ve often thought a great hiding place for money would be in a zippered compartment at the top of the mattress, right under the sleeper’s heads. I mean, who would even think to look there?  And you could count your money every time you changed the sheets.  

Out on the patio we have yet more furniture and have you seen what’s available these days? My stars, some of it is almost too gorgeous for the outdoors. Of course the best stuff , and what you really want, is anything that will make a good train. Oh, you’ve never made a train from patio furniture. Okay, here’s what you do. Find a nice long piece of yard and set down the engine, that’s chair one. Line up several more behind this one, in a long row, leaving some leg room. Then at the end of these chairs set two, side by side, facing the opposite direction, to serve as the caboose. If you’d like to place a pillow in one or two of the chairs, this can be your luxury seating area. Make sure you have a few snacks to pass out and a cool conductor’s hat if you can find one. Four-year-old train loving kids will flock to your yard like pigeons to a parkway underpass. And they’ll love you for it. You might even have an adult or two to contend with.

Not long ago, my son and daughter-in-law commented on how comfortable our living room sofa is. It’s a huge old plaid thing and weighs a ton. The grand kids love to run to it from my recliner across the room, crashing with delight onto the still springy cushions. There are no loose pillows so there’s excellent back support and it’s long enough to sleep on, all stretched out, should the need arise. If we ever get rid of it, I hope it holds a place of honor at the county dump having served it’s purpose most beautifully for however many years we own it. When you come right down to it, the real purpose of furniture is to be useful in accordance with the rules, regulations, passions and delights of those who own it. And if the random sampler wants to put that down for my answer, it’s all right with me.    

Image: nuchylee                                       Free Digital Photos

Monday, April 9, 2012

Ratty Sweater Day

The other day when I had no errand running to do, no children to protect, and nothing to dress nice for – I reached into my bottom dresser drawer and grabbed it. The thing is at least twenty years old, fashioned from dark blue boucle with a pocket on each side and big blue buttons down the front. Moreover, it’s long enough to cover my heiney. A day in my ratty blue sweater is dear indeed and I snuggled into it like I snuggle into hubby’s arms. In both places I find warmth, interesting smells, love and acceptance.

Okay, maybe I’m going overboard with those last few honors, but don’t you have an article or two of clothing that you just can’t part with?

I tried to remember when I’d bought that sweater. Probably right after I threw out the one it replaced. My mother-in-law had given me that one – a short sleeved beige number that also covered my upper thigh area and had pockets. I hung onto that thing for years. But the blue one is just as special. In any case I’m sure it was the height of fashion when I pulled it off the store rack and it was a ‘good sweater’ for a while. But over the years it has become so beloved that it’s now bedraggled – kind of like a kids favorite stuffed animal. A boucle bunny, maybe.

Know what? I don’t care. It’s earned its place alongside the pair of LL Bean weekend pants that got so thin on the inseam I couldn’t wear them outside in the winter. Brrr. They had the perfect drape. I always felt well covered in them and I’ve never found another pair like them. Included on that list is a pair of sandals I wore until the sole departed from the foot bed  and even though I glued it back I still had to throw them out when the glued failed. I never found another pair like them either – they went with everything. I was in mourning for months.

I don’t like to be caught out in my ratty sweater, but if someone pops in I just hug it around me and mumble something about wearing my comfy clothes today. Like minded friends and family just smile and nod. So, take a look at my ratty sweater up there (note the paint spatter on the pocket) and then go into your own closet or drawer. You have something just like it in there, don’t ya? Maybe we could start a club or something.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

For Children's Writers

Real Mice Poop on Your Counters

I live in a very old house. The poor dear is over 150 years old. Oh, it has charm and grace, interesting corners and doors that go nowhere, but it also has mice in the walls. I hear them at night … skritch… skritch ...just behind the wainscoting next to the chair where I’m reading. I pound on the wall and the noise stops but when I shamble downstairs the next morning for my first cup of coffee the evidence of nocturnal meandering mice is right there on the counter. Yuck! Who could possibly think mice are cute?

 Children’s writers that’s who.

We do it all the time. We take the real thing and work it like a new brick of modeling clay. We toss it around in our imagination and re-make it in our own image. We put striped trousers and red suspenders on rabbits and give the cows in the barn a typewriter. We put a terry cloth cape on a fourth grader and let him roar through our outrageous PB with his underwear stitches showing.  Making a good story out of the real thing however is a bit trickier than your audience might imagine.

Here’s a little exercise I use now and then to sharpen my awareness of my surroundings. When I’m out and about doing errands I say aloud the name of various objects along the route. Mailbox, birch tree, trash can, red truck and so on. Once while I was thus occupied a little bird darted out of a tall hedge, made a dramatic right turn and bopped along beside the car for about six seconds. For that infinitesimal moment in time we were traveling buddies. I was utterly enchanted. If I had not been concentrating on naming objects, i.e. hedge, I doubt I would have even noticed the bird. Train your senses outward. This may be tough advice to follow in a world crammed with external stimuli, but let me give you another example of what I mean.

My husband, oldest son and I own and operate a computer store. Lucky me, I’m the one who gets to do the bookkeeping. One summer night I tossed and turned and turned again unable to sleep for all the attendant worries of owning a business. I saw just about every wee hour on the clock and as dawn approached I lay in bed sort of limp and ragged dreading having to rise in an hour or so. But then something marvelous happened. Through our open window I heard the delicate cheep of the first bird that awoke that morning. It arrested all my senses. It calmed me down, made me thankful and gave me a whole sentence that enriched a story, Mary's Sparrow, I had been struggling with. It would now read; ‘When dawn broke there was no friendly bird chatter to comfort her’. For the rest of the day I was possessed with the thought that a writer should never, ever underestimate the power of the twenty-second blast of inspiration.   

You have to write about whatever it is that inspires you. There has never been a you before. Your view is unique. Hang on to that and use it. You may be supremely inspired by something that bores the bejeepers out of someone else. But your take on it is going to make it a terrific story that somebody somewhere is going to love – and buy. Really. Birds, for instance, seem to have a lot of things to say to me. For you it may be a crabby third grader or a giggly teenage girl with pink hair.

Grab every incident that gives you pause this week and shake the living daylights out of it. There’s a story in there and your honed senses are going to find it. Why you may even discover that mice are bewhiskered charmers ready to romp with high hilarity through your best seller. Your view would be different from mine and you won’t have any competition from me on that score either because I know that real mice . . .poop on your counters.

Image: Free Digital Photos

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Happy Easter

May the Son rise in your heart.

Image: bigjom                                       Free Digital Photos

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Good Friday

Good Friday is also known as God Friday – the day that God acted. Here are two things that help me remember that long ago day and what it means for Christians.

This one is hard to watch so you may just want to listen. Here are the lyrics in English (original German) from The Passion of St. John by J.S. Bach

Rest well, rest well, beloved sleeping that I may cease from further weeping and let me, too, and let me, too, rest well.

The grave that is, that is prepared for Thee and holds no further pain for me, doth open Heaven, open Heaven to me and close the gates of Hell.

This one I’ve  listened to every Good Friday since I first heard it several years ago. I wish I could have known and heard first hand this incredible Southern preacher, S.M. Lockridge.

If you celebrate Easter, I sincerely hope you are blessed beyond measure as you do.

God Bless You

Image: bela_kiefer                                      Free Digital Photos

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


A Little Bird Told Me

Four or five years ago my husband and I took a trip out west to visit our second son, Blaine, and his family. They live in Washington State.  Before the trip I did what I always do – try to make myself look younger, better dressed and weighing a bit – okay, a lot – less. It was around the time when Sandra Bullock was starring in Miss Congeniality. A chick flick for sure, but I liked it. There was one line where she revealed that beauty pageant contestants used hemorrhoid ointment under their eyes to reduce puffiness. Wow! I seized on that immediately. A few new duds, a few pounds lighter and a new spin on eye care. I was all over it.

So, off to CVS I go for the stuff and was there confronted by a wide array of products. Creams, gels, suppositories, travel packs – egad! As I pondered the virtues of each offering, I imagined the gel would glide on the best so that’s what I bought. I just knew I’d probably look – oh, say – thirty five again.

The first day of our visit we’d planned a hike. Washington State is beautiful and has many parks, rivers, streams and paths to enjoy. Prior to leaving I included in my morning routine the application of my gel. I used a light touch and felt as though youth and vigor were mine to command.

After the walk, while my daughter-in-law made snacks, I sat on the sofa watching videos with our two granddaughters. Just beyond the sofa is a large picture window, facing west. The late afternoon sun streamed in. I cuddled with our oldest, Elaina, who was about nine at the time, laughing and making comments about the movie.

Suddenly she pulled back and looked at me, her eyes popping wide in alarm.

“Ewwww, Grandma, what’s the matter with your face?”

My hand immediately flew to my cheeks. “I don’t know,” I said. “What - what’s wrong?”

“It looks like a bird pooped in your eye!”

Up off the sofa I jumped and into the bathroom where that rotten mirror sat, giggling, as I examined my eyes. Sure enough, the hemorrhoid gel had turned on me and right below each eye was a white flaky crust. Maybe my hand wasn't quite as light as I'd thought because it did indeed look like a bird pooped in my eye – probably a pigeon. I sincerely hoped it hadn’t looked like that all day! I shook my head and laughed myself silly while I washed the stuff off.

As I sat back down on the sofa a thought occurred to me – do pigeons get hemorrhoids? Because if they do, have I got some gel for them!!

Image: Simon Howden                                              Free Digital Photos

Monday, April 2, 2012

Ode to the British Actor

With their basset hound earlobes and noses like ripe figs these venerable gentlemen come at us from the deep period drama well of the BBC in all their shuddering glory. Delivering their lines in dulcet tones they draw us into times gone by and deliver for our viewing pleasure stories brimming with resplendent costumes and high drama. Don’t ya just love it?  

I think of Alun Armstrong who played Inspector Bucket in the 2005 adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. I love his face! And talk about figgy noses. When he asks the Lady Deadlock’s butler for a pinch of snuff you actually feel sorry for the little bits being drawn into that vast cavern. But you can’t take your eyes away. His copious talents were also evident in Little Dorrit – yeah – Dickens again. Playing Jeremiah Flintwinch, Mr. Armstrong was as nasty as nasty gets and viewers the world over cheered when he finally got his due. A superb actor to the end.

Also starring in Bleak House is Charles Dance playing the despicable Mr. Tulkinghorn. He makes us hate Mr. T. primarily by the skillful use of his eyes. The rest of him barely moves. The squint is what gets you. Oh – and the slight dipping of the chin as he tells you you’re something less than a burnt crumpet if you don’t come around to his way of thinking. You kind of want to march over and give him a smart blow on the cheek, but the evil in those eyes holds you back. Simply delightful.

And Tom Wilkerson! His portrayal of Mr. Pecksniff in – yet another Dickens’s – Martin Chuzzlewit is beyond brilliant. His depiction of that smarmy sycophant brought our understanding of the term to new heights. Now a whole other generation knows what Pecksniffian means.  Tom is more or less a whole body actor, or at least he was in this, and that acting is inspired.

Not to leave the younger fellows out; how about Tom Hardy in the 2009 version of Wuthering Heights? Get outta the way Sir Lawrence Olivier! What promise hath young Tom? More than most of us will ever have or want.

Then we have Matthew Macfadyen, also in Little Dorrit and giving us a passable Mr. Darcy in the 2005 production of Pride and Prejudice. Also consider the dreamy Richard Armitage – he of North and South fame and Robin Hood – playing a truly dastardly Guy of Gisborne. He also possesses a nose of great promise. Fig anyone?

I could go on and on. I've only dipped lightly into the vast and briny ocean of British actors. Suffice it to say the best ones grow into their faces and use them to full advantage. Don’t give me pretty or chiseled or some impossible Greek god. Botox – gasp! Never. None of that for me. Give me a man who’s daily faced the dragon and come away scarred and wiser with a well worn, weather beaten face that fascinates. And bless my soul, you’ve got to hand it to those Brits – they do it better than anyone.  

Image: Jon Whiles                                                     Free Digital Photos