Starting from Scratch (paper)

I had a marvelous post on New Year’s resolutions that went pfffft into the either. I think it was a gift, really, because in frustration I went looking for a way to work on the negative feelings. Found the following video which shows a lovely way to recycle your old newspapers into pots to use as starters for spring planting. A few hours with my Baker Seed catalogue — Et Voila — a need for pots emerges!

Just remember to plant your tomato seed with only about an inch to an inch and a half in the bottom of your paper pot, then, as the plant grows, cover the bottom on the stem with soil, leaving a pair of leaves in the air for growth. Makes for a stupendous root.

Happy New Year!


Writing That Makes Sense – Part Six — the Mystery Sense

What Lies InsideThe last post on this topic is the one that has taken the most time for me to write. (Obviously, since there is such a long break in the postings!)

The Mystery Sense is, for me, the one that involves the heart. It’s one that makes us sigh when we read a beautiful piece of prose, or laugh out loud when the character’s voice rings so true that we are right there with them as they sail through their adventures.

I am currently reading DEAD END IN NORVELT, by Jack Gantos. This writer has the mystery sense dead to rights. Fell in love with the voice right from the start. The moment when I lost my heart to this novel was when Jack was standing on a picnic table about three miles away from the drive in movie theater, watching a WW II movie with his father’s old war binoculars. His mother catches him playing with the war souvenirs and scolds him…and then literary magic happens…

“Jack!” my mom called, and reached forward to poke my kneecap. “Jack! Are you listening? Come into the house soon. You’ll have to get to bed early now that you have morning plans.”

“Okay,” I said, and felt my fun evening leap off a cliff and she walked back toward the kitchen door. I knew she was still soaking the dishes in the sink so I had a little more time. Once she was out of sight I turned back to what I had been planning all along. I lifted the binoculars and focused in on the movie screen. The Japanese hadn’t quite finished off al the marines and I figured I’d be a marine too and help defend them. I knew we wouldn’t be fighting the Japanese anymore because they were now our friends, but it was good to use movie enemies for target practice because Dad said I had to get ready to fight off the Russian Commies who had already sneaking into the country and were planning to launch a surprise attack. I put down the binoculars and removed the ammo clip on the sniper rifle then aimed it toward the screen where I could just make out the small images. There was no scope on the rifle so I had to use the regular sight — the kind where you lined up a little metal ball not the far end of the barrel with the V-notch above the trigger where you pressed your cheek and eye to the cool wooden stock. The rifle weighted a ton. I hoisted it up and tried to aim at the movie screen, but the barrel shook back and forth so wildly I couldn’t get the ball to line up inside the V. I lowered the rifle and took a deep breath. I knew I didn’t have all night to play because of Mom, so I gave it another try and the Japanese made their final “Banzai!” assault.

I lifted the rifle again andwhen I saw a tiny Japanese soldier leap out of a bush I quickly pulled the trigger and let him have it.” — DEAD END IN NOVELT, Jack Gantos, 2011 Farrar Straus Giroux

And, you guessed it, there was a round still in the firing chamber. And then an ambulance pulls up to the next door neighbor’s house and Jack is sure he’s killed her. Did he? Go read the book — you’ll love it.

Why I fell in love with Jack has something to do with the fact that he reminded me of a favorite great-uncle who, as a child about Jack’s age, once blew out the windows on the undertaker’s barn with a homemade cannon. More importantly, however, it also had to do with how the writer has drawn Jack’s thought processes. He has not only shown us how Jack misbehaves and justifies his actions, but he provides the means for us to LIVE it as we read.

So how on earth does a writer draw what is in the character’s heart? The answer, sadly enough, is not found in Diane Ackerman’s wonderful book, A Natural History of the Senses, the book I used as a text for my class Writing That Makes Sense. She covers, Hearing, Smell, Sight, Touch, and Taste with abandon, but this last sense deserves to get the same coverage.

How to make your Point Of View character’s heart shine through?

1) Know your character. Backwards, forwards — and everything in between. Do a character sketch. Interview them. Have a conversation with them. Take them on trips (Grocery store: do they have a routine there? Are they OCD — or hopelessly forgetful when it comes to getting home with everything on their list? Going to bed routine: Do they brush their teeth while looking in the mirror or while sorting their mail?)

2) Discover their speech pattern. Do they have a trademark phrase that can tell the reader when they’re truly upset, startled, sad, angry? Winnie the Pooh uses “Oh, bother!” Jack’s is “Cheeze-us-crust!” Instructive difference between Pooh and Jack.

3) Look at your sentence structure. Long sentences usually mean slower action. Short sentences make the reader’s eye go faster. (I know. With Jack’s story, it’s the tumbling longevity of the sentence with so many thoughts pressed in between punctuation that makes for the hectic pace. He’s broken the rule. Once writers know the rules and can follow them, then and only then can they effectively break them and make it work.)

4) How do other character’s react to your Point of View character? Are they fully realized? Did you do steps 1 – 3 with them? You should with your main characters. (Just make sure that you don’t give too much air time to those characters who are so minor they don’t even have last names.)

5) Are you using speech tags to demonstrate emotions rather than having your action or dialogue convey that to the reader? Not a good idea. (An exercise you can use it to completely remove the tags from your dialogue and see if A. Can you tell who spoke and B. Does the dialogue convey the sense of emotion and the message you wanted to get across.)

6) How do you feel while writing the passage? A difficult scene may also be difficult to write. I’ve cried while writing scenes where the character feels despair and laughed out loud when the character has a good moment. This does not guarantee that the writing will convey what you want it to convey to a reader, but it’s a clue that you are headed in the right direction.

7) Do your word choices match the tone you want to convey? Do you use slithery, slimy, and slumpy words in a scene that is supposed to be about heartbreak? You might want to rethink. The disconnect between the words you use and the emotion you wish to evoke may sabotage your work. Contrast is one thing. (Think Irony or Sarcasm.) But having words come out of left field is another thing altogether.

8) Journal. I know. This is out of left field. Or is it? When you are in the grips of a particular emotion and journal about it, you are far more likely to capture the language of that emotion — and then you have a reference to use for your own writing.

9) Make lists. One of the exercises we did in my class was to come up with lists of verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with the different emotions. Corny, but effective. Once we had the lists it isn’t so much about going back and pulling Word 3 or Word 14 from the list like interchangeable cogs. It is more like recognizing and internalizing the vocabulary of the heart.

10) Practice. Yeah. I know. This one goes for all writing.

11) Read. There are some outstanding books out there — study them. Take your favorite stories apart and see how the author got you to buy in so completely that you were swept away.

Happy Writing.

Holy Snow

red oak from scifun/chem/wisc/edu
red oak from

I was recently back in Kentucky for a Pony Club Board meeting, and enjoyed something we don’t often see in Houston — frost.

Color is one of the beautiful effects that fall brings to the landscape. Kentucky trees have turned brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow, something we don’t get to enjoy along the Gulf Coast. All this is thanks to a substance called Carotenoids and Anthocyanins.

All tree have them, even those on the Gulf Coast. We just don’t get to enjoy them the way New Englanders and Kentuckians (and everyone in between) do. In Houston all I get to see is the fading of leaves from green to brown — and then all the leaves fall off. My childhood memories had me associating the brilliance of the fall color with the lowering temperatures. (Gulf Coast weather is still warm long into November.)

Turns out that the frost I was thinking necessary for fall color isn’t wholly responsible — it’s also the light.


According to

“The range and intensity of autumn colors is greatly influenced by the weather. Low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, and if they stay above freezing, promote the formation of anthocyanins. Bright sunshine also destroys chlorophyll and enhances anthocyanin production. Dry weather, by increasing sugar concentration in sap, also increases the amount of anthocyanin. So the brightest autumn colors are produced when dry, sunny days are followed by cool, dry nights.”

Who knew?

Does this mean if I take dry ice out and plunk it down in my woods I’ll get better fall color?

Yeah. I didn’t think so.

Happy gardening!

Who Are Your People?

This was almost an off-topic post. It’s been that kind of week.

Characters are supposed to feel real to the reader. As real as though you’d met them. Someone you might ask, “Now who are your people?” because you just know you know someone connected to them.

My uncle Ed died Monday night. Not the one I’ve known since birth, that 96 year old Uncle Ed is alive and well and celebrating his 74th wedding anniversary today with Aunt Eleanor. The Uncle Ed who left us behind was my husband’s uncle, who I’ve only known for 28 of his 96 years. Born November 3, 1914 in Mission Texas to Goldeye and Ed Oppenheimer, Ed was an only child whose parents loved him deeply. HIs mother, in fact, declaired to one and all that he was perfect. Despite having to live up to that kind of adoration at home, he managed to roll being intelligent, kind, generous, an dapper into one deeply warm and humorous man.

If I were to do a character sketch of Ed, it would be to start with his

Appearance: Neat and always nearly-formal attire. Ed felt messy when he wore jeans and a button down shirt. The word dapper was made for him. Small in stature and slim of frame, he managed to give the feeling that he was just the right size for whoever he was talking with. Neatly combed hair with just a touch of Vitalis to keep it in place. Wingtips when out, Bass loafers when at home.

Spirituality: He was deeply religious, attending Sabbath services each and every Friday night at the synagogue he helped found.

Transportation: He always, always drove a four door sedan made by GM, because he owned GM stock and if he believed enough in the company to own the stock, then he believed in the company enough to buy the car.

Family: He and his wife were never able to have children. They had lots of kids though, from the four nephews they adored, to the sons and daughters of both Ed and Helen’s cousins.

Birthplace: Mission Texas, where his father owned the local mercantile store.

Education: Ed attended public schools in Mission through High School. He felt very fortunate to attend Rice University. He remained devoted to both his alma mater and education of all kinds throughout his lifetime.

Profession: Businessman. Worked first for the Weingarten Grocery stores in Houston, then he did a stint in the Army as a quartermaster during WWII. Finally, he came home from the Army to work in his wife’s family’s business as a glass salesman. Post retirement, Ed tutored children at a local grade school, worked for the Untied Way as a fund-raiser, and volunteered at SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) advising a variety of entrepreneurs on how to best set up their small business.

Circle of Friends: There were many of these. Ed worked out at the downtown Y for years and years, rising at an early hour to meet the guys at the Y, work out enough to stay fit, have a good breakfast, then go to the office. He attended Rotary meetings all over the globe while on travels with his wife Helen, as membership in the organization required weekly attendance at a meeting somewhere. The Y group became a Lunch Bunch group after all the men retired and no longer felt they had to beat the dawn to work out. They met every Wednesday for lunch, many of them, like Ed, shoving walkers ahead of them during the last few years. He belonged to a Holy Club that met monthly to discuss a wide variety of topics. Ed had ladies swarming after him once his beloved Helen died. He never remarried, instead adopting a group of women. Headed by Gloria, his sister-in-law, these ladies were frequently seen on his arm at public events. His long-term housekeeper, Bobbie, kept his life on an even keel. In later years, Bobbie and four other women gave Ed the security to stay safely in his own home. Bobbie talked about how their relationship progressed from “just a job” to “became friends, you know? I would lay out my troubles and he helped me.” Finally their relationship became a father/daughter relationship. Bobbie was not alone in that. Many of us privileged to have Ed’s friendship found ourselves experiencing a much deeper connection with him.

Passions: Travel, Art, Music. He was a good painter, but never signed his name to any of his paintings unless he felt they were good quality. He had a lot of numbered pieces, although many of those are quite good indeed. He and Helen traveled somewhere each year, taking great pleasure in reading about the places they’d see and putting together wonderful scrapbooks of those trips once they returned. Another group he volunteered for was the Houston Symphony, being a season ticket holder right up until the year he died.

Favorite Foods: Fried Oyster Po-Boy from Tony Mandola’s. Tony was a Y friend, and Ed dined at Tony’s restaurant every Saturday night, always having the same thing, his po-boy and a beer.

Favorite Author: Patrick O’Brien

Favorite TV Show: 60 Minutes

Newspapers: Read the Houston Chronicle and the Wall Street Journal each and every day.

Pets: Almost always had a dog. As soon as he got out of the Army, he got a dog and named him General just so he could boss him around.

Favorite Color: I don’t know. If I were to guess it would be blue, but that one stumps me.

Ed was one of “my people”. I’d so glad to have known him.


Thanks for letting me do a sorta-post for today. Next week will return to normal!


Happy Writing.


Aging Gracefully

While cleaning up my library the other day, I ran across a book published in the 1970s. I purchased The Stranger at Wildings by Madeleine Brent, on the recommendation of a dear friend, Dean James. “Her” books are those I will keep in my permanent collection. (Like Dean, who writes as “Miranda”, “Madeleine” was actually male.) The prose didn’t scan at all like a novel published today. But, once I adjusted to the pace and language of the story, I could not get it out of my mind.

Like so many of my octogenarian relatives, these books have aged gracefully. I think the relatives owe their vigor and indeed their current happy frame of mind to the fact that they have the ability to connect with the younger family members as easily as they did friends and family their own age. In other words, they kept themselves contemporary.

Evidently books can do this too. When I was young, my dad would go through a dozen or so pulp novels a week. Once finished, he would pitch them in the trash can in his study. There, enterprising young reader that I was would fish them out, shove them under my bed, and read them after the lights went out. (Ripping through Mickey Spillane at age ten probably wasn’t the formative experience my parents had in mind when they encouraged me to read before going to sleep.) Those seedy pulp novels now seem quaint in comparison to today’s fast-paced language-laden dystopian novels that are currently marketed for young adults. Has Spillane’s work aged gracefully? My opinion; not so much. Will these world-changing YA novels last? Harry Potter – yes. Twilight – no.

That brings me to a pretty scary question for a writer: will my work stand the test of time? The short answer, that I don’t know, isn’t helpful. I’d like to think that themes of friendship and what the bond requires of the people entwined within it is one that will stand the test of time.  That’s what I had in mind with the Three Dirty Women series. One of these days I may reread it and see how it stood up to the decade between publication and now. (And if I ever revise them, I’m putting the gardening stuff I had to pull out back in!)

The current Work in Progress’s underlying theme is the bond’s strength between a girl and her horse — and the ability of that bond to sustain this girl through a horrible period in her life. While I’d like to think that theme is eternal, the execution is key. I’m only on the third draft so it’s not timeless just yet.

So good luck to all you writers out there who are wishing for longevity in your work’s appeal, and good luck to me as I round the bend toward The End of the current WiP. Fingers crossed that it works.

Happy Writing!

The Great Divide

I am in the middle of several big life changes. Some of these are welcome — and expected. Some are neither. I am going from Mother of Dependent Children to Mother of Adult Children. (Our youngest just graduated from college.) My husband has actually uttered the word ‘retirement’, so I might be transitioning from Self-Employed Writer At Home Alone to Writer Looking for a Quiet Place to Work. Our parents are getting older (and wiser) as we creep across middle age and I have to recognize one day (May it be far, far away!) I will be one rung closer to being The Matriarch.


Some days it’s easier to think about my own personal life transitions than to craft a good transition from one scene to another, or even to wake up my character in the morning.


However, to make it all the way through a manuscript, one must segue from beginning hook through the muddled middle to satisfying end. Writing transitions can take several forms. If you are looking for transitional words or phrases, here’s a great site with helpful hints on that topic. I’m talking about transitioning between scenes.


The Shuffle:

“Doran needed some caffeine in the worst possible way. There was no way she would be able to face the meeting that morning without some stiff fortification. She tossed back the covers, threw her feet over the edge of the bed and managed to stand on both feet. She glared in the general direction of the kitchen, wishing for the first time that she had someone living with her who would start the pot brewing rather than having to do it herself. Stumbling into the shower, she braced one hand on the wall and turned on the hot water. The alarm went off again before the hot water even began spouting, so Doran steeled herself and stepped under the needle sharp spray of the cold water.

Doran continued stumbling to her closet, then her car, then into the office…yadayadayada…”

OK, you get the idea. I needed to wake Doran up and get her out the door to that important early meeting. My prose met her (Or was it my?) lack of mental acuity and hit shuffle mode pretty quick, getting nowhere fast. Some days it’s the hardest thing to get your character across the room without becoming a complete bore.

Since the purpose of this scene was to wake Doran up and get her ready for that all important meeting, The Shuffle slowed us down–– not putting us in the middle of the action.

Here are two other ways that work better.

Full Steam Ahead:

“Van Morrison was all about Crazy Love when Doran’s fingers finally slammed the off button on her clock radio. She squinted at the digital readout, trying to figure out why she’d set the alarm for five a.m.

“Botheration!” she exclaimed, throwing back the covers and vaulting out of bed. She shed clothes on the way to the shower, where she stepped in, scrubbed down, and shut off the water long before the water had warmed to a human temperature.

Ten minutes later, briefcase in hand, Doran pulled the door closed behind her.

Twisting the key in the ignition, she focused in on the clock on the dashboard. She breathed a sigh of relief as she backed out of the garage. She’d have enough time to hit the coffee shop drive-through and still make it to the meeting on time.”

Don’t you agree that this one works so much better than the first?

Dead Halt:

“Putting her head down, Doran closed her eyes.



The next morning Doran arrived at the meeting on time, even if it Fred called it for such an unholy hour of the morning. The good thing about only having enough time for a cold shower before she arrived was that she was awake enough to take on the questions she knew were coming.”

This transition is a complete blank in the middle. I stop with one set of actions and the next set are clearly happening in another place or time. I left off the part about her getting up because then I could move right into the action in the meeting. With this kind of transition, you use a series of hard returns in the middle to show the reader that Time Has Passed. (I used stars in place of the hard return so that you could tell that I meant to do that…)


If anyone has another favorite way to move their characters through the empty space between scenes, share!


Happy Writing.


Katie's Bear
Katie's bear coming down for an apple tree breakfast.

I spent the first part of this week with my cousins in the mountains of northern Virginia. Cousin Katie has a lovely cabin in the thick of the woods bordering the national parklands of Skyline Drive. Deer browsed through the yard, looking for the most succulent of grasses, rabbits hopped across the gravel road, turtles crept across the drive.

The neighbor stopped to say hello and to make sure that we knew to keep dogs and children inside after dark. “Bears,” he said.

Yes, the black bear is alive and well and living in our Appalachian mountains.

I felt elated; could not WAIT to see a bear. So I immediately took a seat in the swing-chair on the screened porch awaiting their arrival. Nothing ambled along that night, but sure enough, early the next morning, I spied a dark form squatting on the lawn. Large and blacker than the night that was lifting. My pulse raced with excitement.

A few moments later, when the form had not moved, I began to be concerned. Was he ill? So tired from being chased by the neighbor’s hunting pack that he had fallen asleep right there in the open? Was he waiting for Suzanne to go out for her morning Camel so that he could have breakfast?

Julie's Bear
Julie's "bear" revealed by daylight.

I waited a moment more and my questions were answered.

The bear was not a bear. It was an oval rock about three by four feet in size. I had wanted to see a bear, had expected to see a bear, so I saw a bear where only a boulder rested.




This is what a good writer taps into when they use misdirection. The reader understands what they expect to see from the narrative. My first drafts are exercises in misdirection for me personally. I know this makes little sense since I am the writer and so must surely be in charge of the story, right? After all, I always know the beginning and the ending when I start writing a book. In other words, I know whodunnit. Unfortunately — or fortunately — I have been wrong each and every time. This allows me to write solidly toward my assumed conclusion. Fortunately, my subconscious inserts clues along the way that build toward a very different ending.

Short stories are golden examples of misdirection. A successful twist with which to end them is every writer dream.

Happy Reading!

Thursday’s Harvest

Since I’m leaving town for a Capital Region Pony Club Rally in Maryland, followed by a visit to Ithaca, NY to see my brother and sis-in-law, followed by my family reunion, followed by the Seven Daughters of Seven Sisters retreat before heading home again. I did a harvest for Paul to remember me by while I’m gone. He’s holding down the home fort, plucking the fruits (and veg) of our labors, and petting/cleaning up after/feeding all the critters. If you’re in Houston and want some tomatoes, this is the week to call!

My secret to prevent stink bug damage to tomatoes? Grow melons next to the tomatoes. They love melon more than they love tomatoes, then spray the melons with garlic/molasses/fish emulsion mix and voila — they all Go Away!
Happy gardening!