Monday, June 18, 2018

Guidelines for a Productive Critique

Here are some guidelines for reading and doing the workshop letters. Best, Amy
Fall Novel Writing Workshop with Amy Parker, 2012.

Writers: When you submit your work, please make sure it’s in 12-point font and double spaced.  Number the pages so we can refer to them in discussion.  Please include a synopsis for context if the pages you submit are from the middle of the manuscript.

Readers: read the material twice. First go through with a “magazine read”, reading as you would if you just picked the story up and were reading for pleasure.  What’s your first impression? Read like a reader. On the second read, read like a writer. Go through the story and mark up the manuscript—mark passages that delight you, things that confuse you, areas where you have questions. Write comments in the margins. 

The letter: write a letter to the author, about a page. The letter should do the following:

First, describe the story. On the most basic level, what happens? (We do this so the author gets a sense of what the reader understands. It may seem obvious, but sometimes readers pick up on things the author didn’t intend, and the author should investigate why). Where do you think the story is going? 

Next, note what the story does well. What do you admire? What moved you? What worked and why?  Be specific. Quote as necessary. (Few things are more pleasurable than having one’s work quoted.)

Finally, what confused you? Where does the story need developing or clarifying? Are there gaps, inconsistencies? Is the language unclear? Are there scenes that could be compressed, or summaries that need to be amplified? What questions do you have about the material? 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sue Grafton’s X

When anyone asks me who’s my favorite author I’m at a loss to pick one person out of lifetime of reading. I’ve gone through a lot of phases, like reading the science fiction greats, focusing on animals of various kinds, and the searching out the books behind the movies I’ve seen. This amounts to odd assortments of things for pleasure, school, and work. I liked things and found value in my reading, but I can’t say I found an all-time standout favorite among all those authors.

Now, when I decided to write a novel and chose it to be a mystery I launched into a campaign of reading other mystery writer’s first books, which is where discovered Sue Grafton’s work.

I read the first three letters of the alphabet series before skipping on to later letters. I admired her skill at descriptions, her attention to details, and her grasp of human nature, and I still have S on my bookshelf because of her author’s note about maps. After that, I took another break.

Then I heard she won’t be finishing the alphabet; there would never be a Z. So, when I found a copy of Sue Grafton’s X marked down and too much of a bargain to walk away from, I had my chance to get caught up with Kinsey Millhone.

I totally enjoyed the experience of reading a mature author in high form. Grafton sets an excellent example of how to weave multiple characters, plots, and subplots together into a satisfying whole. She never compromised her standards.

Here’s a list of quotes I had presence of mind to flag:

·       “… he had a wen beside his nose …" [It’s like a boil.]

·       “Memory is subject to a filtering process that we don’t always recognize and can’t always control. We remember what we can bear and we block what we cannot.”

·       “Silence allowed me time for reflection and helped to quiet the chatter in my head.”

·       “I pressed the button that lowered the driver’s-side window and then put both hands on the steering wheel where he could see them. I could write a primer on how to behave in the presence of law enforcement, which basically boils down to good manners and abject obedience.”

·       “They’re disconnected and cold and lack any semblance of humanity. Symptoms typically manifest in adolescence, which is when you start seeing aggression and antisocial acting-out.”

·       “You can’t make someone else do anything, even if you know you’re right.”

·       “Just because I couldn’t solve my own problems doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have a go at yours.”

Since Sue Grafton is the one author I’ve come back to more than once, or twice, I have to say the verdict is in: she’s my favorite.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Nordstrom Medicine Show

I had a blast from the past from the Sunday, Apr. 8, Dispatch/Argus newspaper. Their “Today in History” featured Rev. W. S. Nordstrom as the 50-year-old story.

I discovered Rev. Nordstrom’s unique Medicine Show at the Henry County Historical Museum back in 2010 and wrote about it for the Galva News.

This is what I submitted:

The Medicine Show
By Mary Davidsaver

At the Henry County Historical Museum in Bishop Hill, tucked away in the back of room B, visitors will find a glass case with an odd assortment of memorabilia.

The case contains a variety of patent medicine bottles, a yellow vest and a small 4-hole Hohner harmonica, among other things.

Nearby an old button accordion rests on top of a wooden box with “Bumstead’s Worm Syrup” stenciled on the front.

It all comes together as soon as Roger Anderson slips a CD into a TV set and turns it on.

“I had CDs made from a video tape of Wayne Nordstrom,” he explained. “I thought this would add interest to his bottle collection.”

It seems that the late Rev. Nordstrom, the Methodist pastor put out to pasture, had more interests than just flying his airplane around the countryside visiting the churches in the Central Illinois Conference.

His program, recorded in Mesa, Arizona in 1998 and titled “Laughter is the Music of the Soul,” features jokes, music and humorous stories about the bottles he found under his house.

Nordstrom had ventured under the 8-bedroom farm house that lies between Galva and Bishop Hill when his wife complained that natural “air conditioning” wasn’t a good thing to have in the wintertime.

While down there he discovered a trash heap sealed within the brick foundation. He found nearly 500 bottles of all kinds, dating from 1850 to 1890.

Apothecary and patent medicine bottles of all sizes, shapes and colors, many with their labels intact, comprised the majority of the hoard.

His curiosity got him started doing research. He wanted to figure out why there was a need for Dr. Warner’s Liver Cure or Dr. Foley’s Blood Purifier. There seemed to be a great many medicinal elixirs for the stomach, bladder, liver and kidneys. Some liniments promised immediate relief, but remained vague about what kind of relief one would find.

A personal favorite was Pierces’s Pleasant Purgative Pellets. “It does the work of dynamite without the danger.”

Then there’s Mexican Mustang Liniment. Guaranteed to “heal ‘em up and head ‘em out.”

The list of ingredients for some of the so-called “cures” is impressive: opium, chloroform, ether, turpentine, cod liver oil. These on top of an assortment of roots, leaves, and bark. And alcohol—lots of alcohol.

It’s enough to make one really appreciate the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

Nordstrom wondered how people could be so gullible. But he reminds us that these were down to earth people desperately trying to cope with real problems. Look at us today; we are still taking drugs and herbs to manage our problems. He asked us to imagine what it would look like if we kept our trash under our house.

He also brings up the point that maybe folks back then didn’t want a cure at all. He found 50 bottles of a particular consumption cure. That’s a lot of horehound syrup—along with more than a fair amount of alcohol.

Nordstrom probably wasn’t joking when he called some of this stuff “hooch.” The high alcohol content may have made it a socially acceptable way to do a little imbibing. It certainly could have delivered the cure it promised; after drinking it, no one would want to cough by an open flame.

Toward the end of Nordstrom’s performance, with the help of the button accordion and his wife on the piano, he led the audience through several tunes and sing-a-longs.

The retired Reverend put on quite a successful version of a medicine show. It’s hard not to applaud him right along with the audience.

Stop by the Henry County Historical Museum for more information and take a look at the medicine bottles. Copies of the CD are available for purchase.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Essay on Radioactive Dirt

Let’s be clear, I’m older than dirt. That would be radioactive dirt. Sure, radioactivity is around us all the time because it’s a natural thing in the environment with levels that are normally nontoxic. The dirt I’m referring to is the kind that became enriched with Strontium 90, a product of nuclear fission. Forget the spent fuel from nuclear reactors or their radioactive waste: I’m talking atomic and hydrogen bombs. The testing of those bombs, both above and below ground, was the cornerstone of the Cold War, and went on from WWII until a partial test ban was signed by Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1963.

As a child of a time without computers or the internet, I knew little of the larger world outside of my immediate family. But at some point, I did become aware of images of mushroom-shaped clouds over the desert sands, of horrific winds blowing away houses, and the danger it might present for my small self to get in the way of such things. Blame television. Blame the schools, too. They were the ones to come up with “Duck and Cover” drills. The “make like a turtle” and hide under your school desk all tucked up into a ball. I’m here to tell you that even a socially-unconnected little kid from that era can figure out how valueless those tactics would ever be in the real situation.

One of the presents for my twelfth birthday was the Cuban Missile Crisis. The tense standoff between the US and the USSR. Seriously, the grownups around me were worried. So was I. The treat of nuclear war was real. I remember that I wanted to come to some kind of understanding with this scary scenario, this unthinkable end of everything. I wanted to find a way to go on with daily life without being paralyzed with fear. I wanted to just be a kid.

My solution then was totally childlike and naïve: I chose to trust that the grownups would not let me down. They would fix things. Keep me and everyone safe. And it happened. An agreement was reached, and everyone stepped back from the brink of disaster.

So, here it is decades later and politics has us as bitterly divided, the newspaper headlines tell me the government has been shut down, there are new kinds of bombs out in the world, and homegrown terrorists seem to be shooting at random. I’m much too old and too cynical to wait silently on the sidelines.

It’s time for the current crop of adults to step up, work together, and fix things. Our children need to be safe, and it would be nice if they didn’t have to do all the work themselves.  

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sweet T and Timing

 I had a totally awesome experience last month. I found, by accident, an old Facebook message. Sadly, the enticing offer to do a guest blog post was six weeks old. I began beating myself up for not being on top of the social media game, all the while knowing that it would be futile. I do what I can.

Finding the old message was a verifiable miracle as far as I was concerned. But was it a real offer and not some scam? I’ve been tricked before. I have the infected computer (sitting in the closet) to prove it. I checked out Southern Writers Magazine online. It’s real. I clicked through to Suite T and started reading recent blog posts by William Walsh. I got down to his Jan. 26 post and came upon a familiar quote and a long-forgotten name of a writing instructor. So, two miracles in one morning.

I sat down at my new computer to write out my thoughts—to create one more miracle. I didn’t procrastinate, let those thoughts fade, I got on with some real writing.

I resisted the urge to send it in that first night. Totally GOOD IDEA on my part, because by the next morning’s light I could tell that while the basics were solid enough, I had to do some reorganization for flow and clarity.  

The second draft was better. Then, I took time to read the SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. Bad news. I had to chop out words to get from 640 to under 500.

That took some doing. In fact, I over did it, and got to add words back (saved my ending). Still, it’s good practice to weigh every word and thought.

The title of my blog post is FOX HUNTING, and I will be sure to let everyone know when it will be posted.

THE TRUTH: I’ve finally figured out that if I had found that message in a timelier manner, like, any time sooner than when I did, I would have missed the whole sequence of events that led up to my discovering the teacher’s name. I also would have been hard pressed to have anything relevant to write about. I hate to say this, but procrastination really worked out in my favor this time. Makes me wonder how many other times I benefitted by being lucky instead of being talented.

I am going to look for books by William Price Fox.

Find Sweet T at:


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bucktown Revisited

Jonathan Turner’s A Brief History of Bucktown was the star attraction at the last READ LOCAL event held at the Bettendorf Public Library.

I couldn’t attend. So, to atone I found last year’s Goodreads book review to post.

“This is a small but mighty volume that highlights the history and heritage of an important river town. Davenport was part of the Tri-Cities first and then the Quad Cities most recently as they all shared the banks of the Mississippi River. The river brought life, prosperity, and growing pains to an early frontier Davenport that rivaled the likes of cities many times its size. Turner documents it all with faithful quotes from a great many sources. He begins in the 1880s by showing us the booze-soaked red-light district and progresses forward through the boom and bust years of two world wars and a major farm crisis. He ends with an amazing come-back story of urban revitalization.

The high point for me was going to hear the Quad City Wind Ensemble preform at St. Ambrose University's Allaert Hall. I'd just finished the part of chapter four that highlighted the cultural influence of the German American population's love of all things musical. The title of the performance was "Fiesta" and the music was lively and uplifting. I felt like I had a direct line back to those rowdy beer halls of Bucktown in its heyday without having to stagger home.

There's just so much information here and the before and after photos are very helpful, but it left me wishing for someone to put together a tour to give me more.

Turner has done an impressive job with his brief overview. I think he has opened a door to a lot of stories waiting to be told."

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Cucamonga Valley Wine Book Review

Co-authors George Walker and John Peragine have created a little gem of a book. Cucamonga Valley Wine is packed with facts, figures, and photos that highlight an area of California that needs to be remembered for its contribution to the history of the wine industry and to American society.

What looked like useless, inhospitable soil at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains held a secret treasure that few outsiders would discover until Franciscan monks showed up with their Mission grapes. A century later, that wild wasteland of rocks, sand, and desert plants revealed a deep source of water that would allow for the dry-farming, or non-irrigation, of varieties of grapes familiar to Italian immigrants well trained in the art of winemaking. Those enterprising Italian families worked for generations to establish a strong wine-producing culture that outlasted Prohibition and wasting diseases. They persevered until modern times, when car exhaust and urban sprawl proved to be too much competition.

Wine enthusiasts will appreciate the attention to detail and the ending that isn’t an ending: There will always be a place for fine wine at the American table.