Character Lessons From an Innkeeper

October 4, 2016

Someone I knew, although not all that well, died recently. In total, I had no more than a dozen conversations with Richard, but his words, his presence, and his energy influenced me. A loss is hard enough when you know someone well, but when you lose someone who plays a small but impactful role in your life, it can be confusing and certainly jarring.

When I heard Richard had died, I was sad; sad for him, his family, and his friends. I was sad for the small hole in my life but also sad for other strangers, who’d known him only marginally, but would miss his presence.

Richard worked at an old mountain inn, which was almost always empty and not at all fancy. I went there to write because the town was quiet, I knew no one, and could get a lot of work done in a short period of time. I had no distractions, except one: Richard.

Sometimes I’d arrive at the hotel last minute, because it wasn’t the kind of place one needed a reservation. Richard would wave his hands in the air, greeting me like a long-lost celebrity. He liked to talk, but I had deadlines and work to get done. Eventually, I learned to plan intentional evening writing breaks to listen to Richard’s stories. I never regretted it.

At first, Richard’s tall tales made me scratch my head. Were they really true? But as I got to know him, I realized they were. Richard lived in the middle of nowhere, but he’d been places. As he poked the logs crackling in the fireplace, he’d tell me about his mother, growing up on a farm, and picking apples. He shared incredible adventures about his time in the military. He told me about quinoa growth in South America and the complicated legalities of water rights. He was a lobbyist with a strong political bent. Richard was not a gossip but knew everyone in town and beyond.

Once, I sat silently as Richard spent an hour arguing with an older man who had opposing political views. They remained civil, agreeing to disagree. Later, I mentioned how it was nice, rare these days, but nice they respected each other’s views. Richard answered in his usual, enthusiastic voice, “Why get angry when someone disagrees with you? If we all thought the same way, life would be big time boring.” He was right, of course. If we all had the same politics, the same religion, and the same interests, life would be ‘big time boring.’

From what I gathered, Richard’s time was anything but boring, but I didn’t realize how significantly his stories made me think about life. Every time I left town, a piece of him found its way into my writing and into my world. Not only did Richard help me realize the importance of taking time to talk and cultivate unforeseen relationships, but he also taught me something about character development; a necessary piece of writing.

As a fiction writer, I use a variety of tools to create believable characters. The enneagram, character sketches, psychology tests, and archetypal profiles all help me build the people in my manuscripts. There are times I want to cheat and make it easier for myself by not doing the needed work to deepen a character. But when I do, the characters fall flat. By living his life fully and deeply, Richard reminded me to make characters complex, rich with detail, and unexpected. A complex character can make or break a story. I think Richard felt that way about life—you make it or break it by the kind of world you build.

I’ll miss Richard, but I don’t regret the time I took to ask a few questions and listen to his stories. He lived a large life. So should we all.


writing contests

August 11, 2016

For all my followers who write, this post is for you.

I’m skeptical of writing contests, at least the ones that require you to pay to enter. Here’s a good one to check out if you write for young adults:

22nd Free “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest: Contemporary and Literary Young Adult

Here’s a brief write up from their website:

“Welcome to the 22nd (free!) “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest on the GLA blog. This is a FREE recurring online contest with agent judges and super-cool prizes. Here’s the deal: With every contest, the details are essentially the same, but the niche itself changes—meaning each contest is focused around a specific category or two. So if you’re writing contemporary or literary young adult (read below for exactly what this means), then this 22nd contest is for you! The contest is live through end of day, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. The contest is judged by agent Andrea Morrison of Writers House.”

It’s worth and if nothing else, it will get you thinking about your writing!

Good luck!



An Ode to my Kids, and Perhaps to Yours

August 10, 2016


Saying goodbye is hard to do. No matter how much you prepare yourself—no one can truly anticipate being so damn sad. Grief flows its own river.

Like many, I’ve had significant loss—in addition to my grandparents; death took my two aunts, my dad, two brothers, and a number of pets. I know how grief works. It grabs you, swallows you, spits you out and repeats until you crash and begin to finally begin again.

This time, my loss is not so permanent; thus not so powerful. That said, good-byes are painful, and change is scary. My oldest child leaves for the University of Colorado this month, altering our family life forever. Ellie will be back, probably with a load of dirty laundry and a need for home cookin’, but she’s gone. Her place at the table will be vacant, her bed empty, and her siblings lonely (okay, maybe not all the time). The happy news? She’s embarking on a grand adventure, starring herself. It won’t be long before my other two leave, too. I’m beyond proud of the people they’ve become, and yet, still sad.

To help me process and understand the tremendous change, I’ve written an ode to my kids; things I hope I’ve taught them. I’m sure I’ve messed up, forgotten things, and have probably failed in some capacity. But that’s parenting. At least I made a list, outlining 25 things I want them to know. Who knows if they’ll heed the advice or grasp the full meaning, I can hope.

  1. I wish you a life of love and know that you are always loved by me
  2. Find good company
  3. Laugh often
  4. Eat lots of fresh vegetables and don’t drink too much alcohol
  5. Call me when you are hurting or happy- I’ll be there
  6. Remember to breathe deeply and that it is enough
  7. Brush your teeth
  8. Be honest- with yourself and with others
  9. Know that life isn’t fair, but it is what you make it
  10. Eat breakfast (more than a Starbucks’ latte, please)
  11. Work hard
  12. Pay your debts (better yet, don’t have any)
  13. Don’t post inappropriate pictures online
  14. Take good risks (don’t jump out a window, but do try a new activity/class)
  15. Read for fun
  16. Know that it is okay to let go
  17. Don’t hold onto anger, guilt, or resentment
  18. See a doctor, an acupuncturist, or a good healer when you are sick
  19. Take your vitamins
  20. Don’t leave a friend alone at a party
  21. Don’t stay alone at a party
  22. Trust your intuition
  23. Be kind
  24. Meet many diverse people
  25. Know this: I am forever grateful for the time we’ve lived together, arguments and all





June 29, 2016



Barn with Art Installation at Djerassi

If you have that unconquerable urge to write, nothing will stop you from writing. –Theodore Dreiser

You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. – Ursula K. Le Guin

Writing is physical work. It’s sweaty work. You just can’t will yourself to become a good writer. You really have to work at it. –Will Haygood

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail. –Confucius


Summer 1977: Can a Kid Survive?

June 14, 2016

The first few days of summer are the best. So good, in fact, that some parents take a day or two off so they might revel in the well-remembered feeling. No more school. No more tests. No more teachers. No more social pressures. No more responsibility. Kids sleep in, hang out in pajamas, and make pancakes. It’s great. Until about the third day.

Summer can become a parent’s nightmare. What if the kids never get out of their pajamas? What if they become zombies? What if they hook themselves to screens with an I-V, and their brains shrivel into peanut-sized capsules?

For today’s parents, the pressure to create a summer experience is on. A child’s summer must be filled with brain-building, developmentally appropriate, and organically filled activities. Life becomes complicated with carpools and play dates and field trips, and before June is over, parents cry for a schedule that does not involve cleaning a kitchen that’s cluttered with bags of chips and boxes of Cheerios. No wonder day camps and summer classes have exploded in popularity.

Call me crazy but how about throwing a TBT day? Throw Back Thursdays to 1977, or for those brave enough, participating in a full week of TBT time travel?

Here’s what it might look like.

Breakfast? Forget about whole-wheat, flax-seed filled pancakes with pure maple syrup and fresh berries. Kids get Applejacks and a sliced orange. In 1977, kids didn’t hang out in pajamas all day so they must get dressed and make their beds. What’s next? That’s their problem, not yours, but here’s an idea: open the door and send them outside. If they’re young, a parent can give them a pail and point to a pile of dirt. There’s no need to sit in the sandbox and create castles by using sophisticated engineering techniques listed in Parenting Magazine. This is 1977. Kids figure it out.

Fancy field trips? Nope. Indoor skydiving and zip-lining adventures have not yet been invented, but there is the library. It might be air-conditioned. Swimming is a crowd pleaser but remember—parents don’t go. Not only is there a lifeguard to watch them flip into cannonballs, but parents didn’t drive their kids places in 1977. During a TBT day, kids ride their bikes to the pool or walk with a group of friends—it gives them time to dry off on the way home.

No pool? Use the hose. Sprinklers are fair game, but there aren’t any fancy slick and slides or super-soakers. Other alternatives? Kids can build forts, which might take all day. Jars of paint and some rocks offer the opportunity for kids to become Picassos. Manic monopoly will likely become a parent’s new best friend—the game can take hours, even days. And when all else fails, a simple deck of cards will do. Even alone, a kid can play solitaire, figure out magic tricks, and build card houses (psssst: engineering skills). In 1977, games rule, especially while drinking red pop and eating marathon bars (the chocolate and caramel kind, not the protein and chia seed kind).

Lunch? Whole Foods did not exist in the disco decade so forget about quick trips for sushi or steamed Korean buns. Stop at McDonalds or ask the kids to make their own sandwiches; peanut butter and jelly or marshmallow fluff, but they could invent something new—like fried bologna and egg with ketchup. Long afternoons? Naps are good. Books are better. Uber-active kids get sent back outside where they invent their own projects. Maybe they’ll build a boat made from milk cartons. Who knows? They’ll figure it out.

Remember, technology is banned during 1977 week. It wasn’t invented. TV screen-time is limited unless there’s a new episode of the Brady Brunch. Game of Thrones and How I met Your Mother did not exist. There were no clickers back then, either. If kids do watch TV, they must get up, walk across the room, and physically flip through channels—all four of them. CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS were the only stations that existed. Also, television went static in the middle of night.

After dinner (hot dogs, Kool-Aid, Jell-O salad, baked beans, and grape popsicles), kids may find a few neighborhood kids and play flashlight tag, but if they’ve played long and hard enough, they might just collapse and fall asleep.

And voila. Like that, a day is done, and you’ve survived 1977. Good luck the rest of the summer.



Ants, Honey, and Human Dependency

May 31, 2016

There is a tree in Nicaragua that is not the tallest tree. It is not the most beautiful tree. It is not a sweet smelling tree. And yet, it is a powerful tree; one that offers wisdom, as all plants do, if one is willing to listen.

Like miniature swords, long spiky thorns poke from the branches of the tree, swearing off enemies. They do their job well. The barbs are sharp and painful, and they hurt. They are also full of honey. Because of the honey, the tree is covered with ants, which bury in the thorns to feed on sweet nectar. In return, the ants pee (ecosystems at their most sophisticated are also often at their most basic) on the tree, offering much-needed liquid, fuel to carry itself through a long dry season. The tree gives food; the ant gives drink.


But sadly, perhaps terrifyingly, enchanting global ecosystems are in danger, becoming bewitched. Until I ventured to Central America, I had no idea jungles turn brown. They do. They remind me of Ohio in November, not the most stunning time of the year. The tropical trees drop their leaves, leaving barren branches and matted, crunched-up grasses below. In a perfect world, the rains begin in May, and within a few short weeks, the landscape becomes lush. However, because of global warming, the six-month rainy season has been shortened; hurting crops, farmers, plants, and animals.

But why should we care? We have nothing to worry about: we can buy our bananas at Safeway.

With an increasingly long dry season (I’m sure the same could be said for an extended rainy season), ecosystems all over the world are in danger. John Muir once said, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” ‘Tis true: we are responsible for the future. Will we act the fool? Turn our heads? Or will we come to the realization that although we can buy bananas at Safeway, we share one planet?

Like it or not, we depend on a healthy structured environment, and our world is contingent on a balanced system. Ants and the thorny tree rely on each other to survive. Not only is it a fine balance, but it is also their relationship that makes it work. Many people talk about the need for relationships: with God, families, peers, and partners. And I agree: relationships are essential components to a healthy, vibrant life. I would also add that a strong and equal relationship with our environment is essential.

We can’t take without offering back.IMG_9157

The thorn tree might not be the most beautiful or popular tree in the jungle, but it knows it can’t stand alone. It survives by sharing its nectar with ants. Their relationship is key to their survival. Likewise, our survival as humans is dependent on our relationship with the environment, not just on ‘earth day’ but on all days.


Books in Nica

May 17, 2016

Choosing a book, or many books, to read on vacation can be challenging. Will I be in the mood for a mindless beach read? Will I want to learn something and discover personal growth? Should the book be work related? Completely literary? In the end, I almost always choose a bit of everything. In my line of work, reading is as important as writing.

In April, my family traveled to Nicaragua for two weeks. We had lots of time on planes, in the airport, on the beach, waiting at restaurants, siesta-ing, and even during the middle of the night when temperatures hovered near 90 with no air-conditioning. Thank God for e-readers!

Lots of people ask me for reading suggestions, so I’ve listed what I read in Nicaragua. However, I think it’s important to prepare for a trip and read a related book or two before arrival. I began with The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli, and while on the plane I devoured a collection of short stories set in Panama: Come Together, Fall Apart, by Cristina Henriquez.

This next selection was chosen because I wanted to read adult literary fiction. I picked A 100 Foot Journey by Richard Morais because it’s set in three different countries. Because I was traveling to a foreign land, I could appreciate the nuances that come with cross-cultural living. Next, I read My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, which is new and on many best seller lists. I love Elizabeth Strout, and the book did not disappoint. I also love Chris Bohjalian’s and was surprised to find Trans-Sister Radio, a book of his that I hadn’t yet read. Given the debate about gender-neutral bathrooms, it’s a book that everyone should read RIGHT NOW.

By reading, 250 Things you Should Know about Writing by Chuck Wendig, I did a little work, right? And because reading middle grade and young adult is also part of my job, I read I will Save You: Matt de la Pena, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky: Heidi Durrow, and This is Where it Ends; Marieke Nijkamp, but they were all so good that I can’t call it work.

Personal growth and well-being are always part of my routine, and I read parts and pieces of these four books: Awakening the Energy Body: Kenneth Smith, Defy Gravity: Caroline Myss, Courageous Dreaming: Alberto Villoldo, and Dark Nights of the Soul: Thomas Moore.

Did I have a favorite? Nope. Each served their purpose for different reasons, and I enjoyed them all. Developing a selection of books to read takes a bit of planning, but it’s well worth it.

We also took phones away from our kids, and they balked as only teenagers can. But guess what? They read—a couple of books each! Parents shouldn’t be afraid to pull technology from their children. Of course, kids will complain; that’s their job. No one said parenting was easy. But here’s the upshot: reading improves writing skills ten-fold, triggers receptors in the brain, and offers new worlds, an escape, a welcome respite from an overly stimulated world. Parents can’t mandate books like teachers can, but if kids don’t have an alternative; they’ll read. And odds are? They’ll like it.

Happy reading on your next vacation! Summer anyone?