As authors, we are indelibly connected to the multi-dimensional aspects of our writing. We feel a kinship to the characters we have carefully created and nurtured, and sometimes must painfully let go. We immerse ourselves in a story’s time and place, meticulously researching and seeking those details that promise authenticity above all else. And where do we carry all of this? Certainly in our minds and hearts. And most likely also in scribbled notes to ourselves.
It may sound strange, but my mobile weather app is a place that connects me to my two novels, both of which have sequels in the works. Along with the cities where my loved ones live, and my favorite vacation spot, I have Scottdale, Pennsylvania and St. Louis Obispo California listed in my app. These cities, which I have visited on research trips, inspired my fictional communities of Finch’s Crossing and Sierra Beach.
As I write this, it’s a balmy 50 degrees in St. Louis Obispo, with sun on the way this week. It’s also 50 degrees in Scottdale, but raining heavily, and I suspect the wind is singing an icy winter song. When I check my local weather, it’s comforting to see the settings of my books in my mind’s eye. I like to think of my characters making their way through my words, and wonder where they will go next.
My historical novel, set in the Great Depression, is very much on my mind these days as I am looking for an agent. The story follows three homeless teens who chase the fruit harvest across the country, just as they chase the trains that take them everywhere, and nowhere. I wish there was a weather app for a period in time, not just a physical place. If the Great Depression were to appear on my weather app, it would show the drought, heat, and wind that plunged the nation into despair for a decade.
I’m also planning my next literary novel, which will be set in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. It’s 45 degrees there, with a lot of rain on the way. This book is in the very early “thinking” stage, and it feels as if there is a layer of fog hanging above the plot that I must penetrate before the planning can begin. I have to feel my way through what is currently a blur, before I know where the story is going.
Does having these cities listed on my weather app help me write, or make me a better writer? Well, no. But isn’t it nice that my books and their worlds have one more place to perch and inspire me? I think so.
So what does your mobile weather app say about you? Leave a comment below!
I always give books as Christmas presents, as I'm sure most writers do. The books I gift have to be exceptional, because the people receiving them are smart, sophisticated, and worldly. And, of course, they are readers in every sense of the word. This year, I gave only one book (if you don't count the children's story, Because of Winn Dixie, which I bought for my nine-year-old niece), and it was Matka, the debut novel from writer Sarah Hanley. Based on the story of her grandparents, Matka examines the fate of Polish prisoners liberated from the labor camps following WW II.
Hanley shines a light on this time period with gritty precision, telling the story of Zosia, a Polish mother who takes her son’s place as a Gestapo prisoner in hopes of saving him. From the first heart wrenching pages, Matka takes its readers on an emotional roller coaster ride through the horrors of life as a slave laborer and then into a post-war displaced persons facility. In addition to the beautiful writing, haunting characters and absorbing story line, the author puts a fine point on her novel with meticulous historical research. This is raw story, made even more poignant by the fact that it is based in fact.
There is a reason that Matka has all five star reviews on Amazon. The novel takes it rightful place alongside such standout WW II novels as Sarah’s Key, Suite Francaise, and 22 Britannia Road. I look forward to more from this author.
Learn more about Sarah Hanley
It’s a long story, but in a nutshell, getting a puppy in August changed a week in Mexico over Thanksgiving to a nine-day “writecation.” (That’s a staycation where you stay home and write.) And it starts tomorrow! The timing is perfect, as this year I am participating in National Novel Writing Month in order to finish my novel, Spring. Given that there are so many temptations around the house—books that have to be read, closets that need reorganizing—you get the idea, I decided to develop some writecation rules for myself. Here they are:
I have a confession to make. Beginning when I was a little girl, I had a desperate desire to be a private investigator. I loved the idea of hiding behind bushes, magnifying glass in hand, or following people wearing a snazzy trench coat. Charlie’s Angels was a hit television show when I was growing up, and I idolized Sabrina, the character played by Kate Jackson. The Angels were so glamorous, and they always got the bad guy in the end. What wasn’t to like?
However, the older I got, and the more life took its own course, the less I thought about my dream. But age has a way of pushing the proverbial bucket list to the forefront of your mind. So when I was thirty-five, I studied to become a licensed private investigator. I took and passed the state licensure exam. Then I worked part-time for a year with an established agency (I kept my day job, thank goodness!). I even went so far as to trade in my totally cool PT Cruiser for a van to use for surveillance. But, as it turned out, although I had a ton of fun, it wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be, and I retired my binoculars and surveillance van with relief.
I’ve never written about this, and most of my friends don’t even know about this part of my life. So I thought it would be fun to share some snippets from my past as a private eye. It’s a walk down a memory lane I haven’t taken for a while. Glad you’re here to take this stroll with me!
How to Conduct Surveillance When There’s Not a Good Place to Park Your Vehicle
A client hired us to keep an eye on her ex-husband. It was a custody case, and the ex was not supposed to have women staying overnight when the kids were with him. This was one of the few times I conducted overnight surveillance. I felt comfortable parking my van in the eight-spot parking area on the cul-de-sac, but only once. I remember it was so cold that night that I was bundled up in so many layers that I felt like the Michelin Man. (You can’t turn your car on during surveillance to run the heater.) But, like I said, I couldn’t park there more than once because I would have been conspicuous. So the next day I enlisted my husband to help me. I purchased orange safety vests, grabbed a few garbage bags and work gloves, and headed for the subject’s home. There was a long and high incline outside of his home, with a great vantage point for me to watch the comings and goings. For the next few hours, my husband and I pretended to pick up trash along the side of the road and up the grassy incline, and all the while I was able to keep an eye on the house. And no one noticed that for every piece of trash we picked up, we dumped out two more.
How to Stay Awake on Overnight Surveillance
First things first. DON'T eat sugar. You may think that you can ride the wave of the sugar high, and that it will keep you going. But you'd be wrong. You'll ride high, then crash and burn. Caffeine of course is a must, as is taking a nap during the day. Bring along something quiet that you can do to keep yourself occupied. That is tricky in a dark van. I listened to music and audiobooks with earbuds on my iPod. Once I imagined winning hundreds of millions of dollars in the lottery, planned how I would spend it, who I would give money to, and how I would decorate my mansion. That killed about an hour, and it was fun.
How to Hide Yourself in a Surveillance Vehicle
Of course you have to have tinted windows, at least in the back, and you can situate yourself there. Another trick is to raise the head rests on the back of the seats to their highest level, then drape towels and a swim suit over the back of the head rests, creating a good foot more of cover. It just looks like you’re an intense swimmer drying out your gear. Also, wear black. And make sure all your interior lights are disabled.
How to Follow Someone When You Don’t Know Where They Are
I was with my mentor who needed to serve some papers. We sat on the subject's house for a long time and he never came home. We had a general idea of places he went . . .haunts, store preferences, etc. So we just drove around to some of these places until we spotted his car. We waited for him to come out of a store and followed him home. When he got out of the car my mentor happily served him papers. Yes, we got lucky. But if you take the time to know your subject's patterns, preferences and schedule, you'll be able to pull it off with something other than luck.
I never had to wear disguises. I did borrow a friend’s dog one afternoon and walked (and walked and walked and walked) around a neighborhood, watching the comings and goings of a certain house.
When Nature Calls
If you're a woman stuck in a van doing surveillance, and nature calls, what do you do? Easy, just bring along a compact camping toilet. It will be gross when you have to empty it (like a Victorian maid emptying a chamber pot.) But, what are the alternatives? Wearing an adult diaper? Yeah, no way. One private investigator I knew said she peed in a zip lock bag. Ummmm. No thank you.
If you are conducting surveillance near someone's property and are say, hiding in the woods (public property) behind their house, bring along snacks that don’t make noise. There is nothing worse than ripping into a bag of potato chips and munching away when the subject is sitting on their patio. A good tip: take your snacks out of the original packaging and put them in zip lock bags. BTW, it also doesn’t hurt if your husband is a hunter and you can borrow his ghillie suit. Not sure what that is? Google it. You’ll love it!
I only did this once and it scared me silly. But I got the job done because I came up with a good story. And that's the key. You need a good line to get people to acknowledge their identity. After hours in a surveillance van, I saw the subject arrive at the location I was watching. I turned on my ignition and peeled out of my parking spot and screeched up to the curb just as he was getting out of his car. I jumped out and said something along the lines of:
'I'm having trouble with my car and need help."
To which he replied in the affirmative that he would help me.
Then I said, "You look familiar, are you such and such name?"
And he said, no that he was actually this and that name.
Bingo! And I got to say those three little words that no one wants to hear:
"You've been served."
And then I hurried back to my van and drove away as fast as I could. I was shaking all over and breathing hard. It was then that I began to realize that I didn’t have the mettle to do this job.
Pumping People for Information
I worked one divorce case where an ex-wife was not supposed to work if she wanted to keep her alimony. It was my job to wheedle the pertinent information out of her and pass it on to the client, who was her ex-husband.
So how do you get information out of a stranger?
Well first, you have to pretend to be someone you're not. Second, at least for me, it's good to do it over the phone because you can mask your nervousness and falsehoods better if you aren't face to face. And third, well, you have to lie and lie and lie until your eyeballs melt. Which is exactly what I did. I pretended that we had a mutual acquaintance (who by the way, didn’t exist), who had suggested I talk with her about certain organizations she belonged to, since I was “new in town.” People love to talk about themselves. Well, at least this woman did. And when she mentioned her part-time job . . . well, my work was done.
Finding Lost Souls
A few extended family members asked me to find long-lost friends or relatives. This is actually easier than you might think. Obituaries are the key. Google the name of the person you are looking for and quite often their name will show up in an obituary as a “survived by,” along with their hometown. It’s all downhill after that. A little bit of clicking around whitepages.com and similar sites and you’ll track down the person no problem.
I only had to testify once, and I was a nervous wreck. It didn’t help that while I was waiting outside the courtroom the subject’s (i.e. the cheating husband’s) mother berated me with insults and asked me things along the lines of “how do you live with yourself?” and “how do you sleep at night?” When it was my turn to testify, I sat in the witness box and was sworn in by a deputy. The prosecutor and defense attorney took turns asking me questions. I was so nervous I had to consult my notes and stammered my answers. At one point the judge told me that I needed to “move it along.” My face flushed, and I stammered even more.
As you can imagine, that was my last job as a PI. I did recertify after that first year, but never worked again. That particular Bucket List item was complete. And I was on to the next big thing!
What items have you checked off your Bucket List? Leave a comment below!
Marris Sheffield and her friends are orphans living in a cold and spartan facility for unwanted children, and become caught up in a sinister plot that ultimately results in their deaths. What follows is a young adult novel that is part thriller, part ghost story, and part tragedy. While it is too late for Marris, Cullen and the other orphans who have died as a result of horrendous medical experimentation, Marris and her friends resolve to uncover the truth about their deaths and perhaps spare the remaining children who are still alive.
When I first picked up Shattered, I wondered how the author could sustain a story that asked the reader to bond with a main character before her death, and then continue to be invested in her after her death. Happily, this was done quite well and in fact, I think I liked Marris even more following her death.
To that end, while this story has a very strong and intricate plot with plenty of twists and turns, I think Shattered is a character-driven book. Marris is a strong heroine, and the author is not afraid to push the limits. Although some of Marris’ actions are questionable, I was one hundred percent on her side. How could I not be? They were necessary for good to triumph over evil. I particularly liked the parts where Marris had to “learn” to be a ghost. The book presented many such obstacles for her to overcome if she was to achieve her goals, and kept the story clipping along at a good pace.
Ultimately, Shattered is a sad story. But that doesn’t make it any less powerful. And while the distinction of good and bad are, of course, obvious, there are some grey areas in the story that help Marris to grow as a person (or should I say “ghost”?) and to understand the spectrum of the human condition.
All in all, a very good read that kept my attention until the very end. Look for more books by the author on her Amazon author page.
Learn more about Jody Calkins:
I’ve always thought it would be fun to see what other Amy Allens are writing about. I’ve finally gotten around to it. (Read: I should be writing but this is more fun.) I’ve listed a few Amy Allens below, with details about their books. Of course, there isn't room for all of us in this blog post.
As I clicked through the many Amy Allens on Amazon, I felt a certain kinship with my Allen sisters. Spinning in our own orbits, unknown to one another, we are all doing the same thing: telling stories, sending expressions of ourselves out into the world.
Okay, that’s a little too philosophical. On to the fun!
Of course, I’m Amy Allen #1, and I write sweet romance, young adult fiction, and non-fiction for middle-grade readers. Currently I'm working on a literary novel.
Amy Allen #2 writes about creepy crawlies. Ugh. But, more power to her. Someone has to! She also writes about animals in general. And she is incredibly prolific. I could take a page from her playbook. Sigh. She probably writes 30,000 words a day. She must. She's got 11 books on her Amazon author page.
Amy Allen #3 is a scholar! Yay. I love scholarship and research. After all, my current project is a literary novel set during the Great Depression. One of her books is called: The End of Progress: Decolonizing the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory (New Directions in Critical Theory). I'm not sure what that means, other than Amy Allen #3 is one smart woman!
Amy Allen #4 writes paranormal romance series, such as The Many Lives of Brandi. Also prolific. I’ll have to check her out...there’s a fireman series, too.
I envision Amy Allen #5 as a deep thinker. She has written Summoning the Mountains: Pilgrimage into Forty about her experience reflecting on her life while walking the Appalachian Trail. I’m guessing it’s similar to Cheryl Strayed's Wild.
Amy Allen #6 wrote a book about how to be an Uber driver. I’m sure it’s getting a lot of hits recently with all the Uber uproar. It was released in 2016. Amy Allen #6, I recommend updating it and re-releasing it. I think you could make a pretty penny.
Amy Allen #7 has written a futuristic fantasy novel about goddesses. It's indie published, and she only has one review. Come on people. Share the love. Read and review. And while you're at it, I could use a few more, too.
Amy Allen #8 wrote This Little Piggy Went to Prada: Nursery Rhymes for the Blahnik Brigade. I should get this for my sister, who has more Manolos than any woman I know.
I had to mention Amy Allen #9, because she goes by Amy Leigh Allen, and my husband’s name is Leigh Allen. I’m sure the fine folks at the University of Arkansas enjoyed #9’s history of the campus.
And what do the other Amy Allens not listed above write about? The subjects are as varied as I'm sure we are as people. Amy Allens have written about weight loss, vegetarianism, home schooling, self-esteem, network marketing for stay-at-home-moms, plus what looks like a cute kids’ book series about bumble bees.
This is Amy Allen #1 signing off. Good night and Godspeed to all the other Amy Allens in this world. May you always find the right words and a seven-figure movie deal, and may you never come across your book at the dollar store.
What I love most about cozy mysteries is that the shear creativity authors come up with for the settings and themes that drive the story: a book store, a knitting shop, catering, libraries, a tea shop. The list goes on. One of the things I really enjoyed about Dawn Brooke’s A Cruise to Murder was the cruise ship setting with a medical theme thrown in. This is a new combination for me and I’m glad I picked up the book. The novel was obviously well researched and presented an accurate account of the workings of a cruise ship. And the fact that the author is a nurse lends another air of authenticity to the book.
A Cruise to Murder has all the elements of a fine cozy: a sympathetic main character (we like Rachel Prince because she is both vulnerable and kick-ass); a cheery side-kick; a love interest; and of course the murder mystery, which centers around an elderly woman Rachel meets on the cruise.
The author created a strong cast of characters and kept me in sufficient suspense, wondering which one was the murderer. I liked the fact that we got to know the characters and the setting before the murder. It’s so nice to ease into a cozy rather than encountering the corpse in the first chapter!
In true cozy fashion, I enjoyed much of A Cruise to Murder curled up on the couch, a snoozing puppy on one side and a cup of tea on the other. (I had to have tea: the author is British!) This book definitely lived up to the standards of a fine cozy, including the upcoming release of a second book in the Rachel Prince series, A Deadly Cruise.
Learn more about Dawn Brookes
I have always been someone who likes to see the seasons turn: You could probably could have guessed that since I named the main characters after each season in my Finch's Crossing sweet romance series!
Though I love all seasons, fall is by far my favorite. It's a time for reflection as the world around us prepares for its hibernation, just like we prepare to enter a slower time of life. In fall, one color slips into another until everything is white and grey. The sweet air of summer is replaced with that certain crispness that is a combination of dropping temperatures, disappearing humidity, and chimney smoke. The season is full of so many vibrations that tantalize all the senses: The sound of crinkling leaves; the pungent smell of freshly picked apples; the myriad of colors on gourds and pumpkins, and of course the spicy taste of caramel apples and pumpkin pie (and the anticipation of Halloween candy!).
I have many, many reasons to love fall. And yes, I am a sentimentalist when it comes to pumpkins, cider and fall festivals. Below I share with you my top 10 favorite reasons to love fall, along with resources and ideas to tickle your Autumnal side!
10. Fall 5k and 10k Charity Races. I love to run...once I've started. Let's face it, we all need a little motivation to exercise now and then. So I sign up for a race once or twice a month to keep me in shape. After all, I don't want to be the last one across the finish line, although honestly, I run to finish, not to win. Find a race in your neck of the woods!
9. No more bathing suits. Enough said!
8. School supplies and stationery. Is it just me, or do notebooks purchased from September through November have magical powers? My absolute favorite supplier is Minneapolis-based Russell+Hazel.
7. Soup! Gone are the days of cold cucumber soup. Say hello to creamy potato leek, hearty bean and vegetable, and my absolute favorite, spicy Mulligatawny. Serve it with a warm Sourdough roll and you'll think you've gone to food heaven.
6. A cozy fire on a brisk fall night. Alas, I have to settle for gas logs. If you're lucky enough to have a wood-burning fireplace, be sure to check out this safety checklist.
5. Pie. Need I say more? Check out Martha Stewart's 25 Perfect Pies.
4. Pinterest! I love collecting new ideas for fashion, decorating, gifts, and the like. Check out my Pinterest board for fall decorating ideas.
3. Fall Festivals! I love being outside with the colors and flavors of the season. And of course the Christmas shopping potential. And the baked goods! See the Travel Channel's list of the Best Fall Festivals in the United States.
2. Nature's autumnal bounty! Can you say pumpkins, gourds, mums, bittersweet, chestnuts, acorns, and dried leaves all in one breath? Here are some tips for prolonging the life of your decorative gourds.
1. Publishers announce their new fall releases. This means new books to read. Lots of new books to read!
Just when you think that everything under the sun has already been "done," something like Alex Bailey's novel The Future Memoir of Ann Jones: A Time Travel Romance with a Splash of Magic hits your radar.
This is a charming, refreshing and fun read, and I was immediately drawn in by the intriguing title. After all, the phrase "future memoir" is counterintuitive.
Although the story is book-ended by letters, I quickly became happily immersed in the plot and forgot where the story was in time and space. It was a bit of jolt at the end when the spell was broken and I was brought out of it, but nevertheless, I appreciated the author's distinctive approach, which she pulled off so well.
The main character, Ann Jones, is extremely likeable and provided many laugh-out-loud moments, and the author has created a quirky but loveable cast of supporting characters. While I enjoyed the story, characters and the subplots, it was wanting to get to the bottom of the knitting club, which Ann joined, that kept me coming back for more. A knitting club where no one knits? Bizarre rules reminiscent of a cult? The club brought to mind the lyric in the Eagles' song "Hotel California: "You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave."
The author does an excellent job of unfolding the mystery of the knitting club, a little at a time. Dare I say it? Like rolling out a ball of yarn and letting the thread trail slowly behind it.
Readers will not be disappointed with this novel. The Future Memoir of Ann Jones is a pleasing mix of eerie suspense and romance, with the splash of magic promised in the title. I recommend it for those who enjoy sweet romances and cozy mysteries.
Want to learn more about the book and the author? Follow Alex Bailey on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Amazon.
I find it so interesting to wonder why someone selects a book to read. Is it the cover? The description? Knowledge of the author? The title? What is the overwhelming reason a person chooses one book over another?
In the case of Kalen Cap's young adult novel, The Ancient Tripod of Peace: A Teen Thief-Catchers Novel, the title is what caught my attention. And I'm glad it did. I have never read anything like this novel.
The plot centers around three teens, Lexi, Trevor and Gil, who are drawn into a world of cyphers, ancient artifacts, secret societies, theft, and moral questions about the treatment of animals. As part of a school project, the trio is on a quest to find a connection between ancient Greece and Shakespeare, something they embrace with varying degrees of enthusiasm. I have to say that while reading this novel I had to look up a many of the author's references to ancient history, art and literature. This isn't necessarily bad—I'm all for acquiring new knowledge—but it distracted me from the flow of the book.
Many subplots round out this book and enrich the story. I was pleased to find that so much of the novel was based in fact, and that the philosophical sects—the mathematikoi and akousmatikoi—were real. The author cleverly resurrected them to form a parallel story line. I think readers of any age will enjoy the philosophical questions this book raises.
The characters, whose relationships to each other is skillfully revealed as the book goes on, did have their own distinct personalities, but I felt they could be more compelling.
The one thing that left me scratching my head was what the ancient tripod looked like. I just couldn't wrap my head around it. I had to look it up, and there were several descriptions of its function in ancient times, so that left me a little confused.
Nevertheless, I did enjoy the novel. It was very Dan Brown-esque and put me in mind of a YA version of The Da Vinci Code.