Friday, December 23, 2016

Susan Van Kirk—Monmouth Author

Susan Van Kirk is a local author I can look up to for many reasons.

Her first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, was a delight to read. Her fictional small town of Endurance is based on Monmouth, Illinois. I’ve driven through Monmouth many times over the years as it’s on Highway 34 and it was a nice place to stop for ice cream on the way home from Iowa.

Her fictional Endurance may be quite a bit bigger than my fictional Bishop Hill, but it shares many similar characteristics: a colorful cast of characters, everyone knows each other’s business (past & present), the feeling of a shared heritage, and a connection to the land.

Van Kirk’s protagonist is a fifty-something Grace Kimball, a newly-retired English teacher weighing her options for fulfillment in the next phase of her life. Will it be writing a novel or picking something from the multiple suggestions of her friends. Fate intervenes when the new editor of the local paper asks her to do a column of book reviews. That she can and does say yes to. And then a notorious newspaper reporter dies in a fire leaving a last unfinished story for Grace to tackle. Completing the research for the story will solve a longstanding crime. Trying to sort out the most likely suspect for present-day crimes will not be easy—there are so many unworthy candidates.

Three May Keep a Secret is a classic cozy mystery with an interesting beginning, a well-handled plot that keeps developing and building to the satisfying denouement.

Bonus: there’s room for more action in later books.

I can see why the Monmouth Public Library has a shelf dedicated to local authors.

Friday, December 9, 2016

NaNoWriMo Stats

I do like well-designed charts that display statistical information in an easy-to-absorb format. The NaNoWriMo folks came up with a couple of nice ones showing how the 2016 winners, at 50,000 words, stacked up to total participants—those who signed up for the 30 days of writing-writing-writing.
They made up one chart with generic people figures in different colors for the categories of: Participants, Winners, and Young Writers Program Participants.

According to this chart 11% reached the winners circle.

I would have predicted less than 20% based on my experience from my first NaNoWriMo in 2010.

What really blew me away were the Young Writers Program participants. The youngsters clocked in an impressive 23%.

According to the NaNoWriMo folks 3,000 virtual classrooms were set up through the Young Writers Program site. And 2,500 classroom kits were sent out to educators around the world at no cost.

Would that explain why the most popular genre in the multi-colored pie chart was Fantasy? Followed by Young Adult in second place and Science Fiction in third place. Those three genres made up nearly half of all novels written in November.

The next cluster of much smaller but similarly-sized pie slices contained: Romance, Horror/Supernatural, and Personal.

Followed by: Thriller/Suspense, Adventure, and Fanfiction.

Then there’s: Literary, Mystery, and Mainstream.

Ending with rest of the varied pieces of the genre pie: Women’s Fiction, LGBT+, Historical, Children’s Fiction, Satire/Humor, Religious/Spiritual, and Erotic.

I entered with the Mystery genre in the regional forum of USA::Iowa::Quad Cities. I was one of 71 novelists who wrote 1,132,879 words with an average wordcount of 15,956.

A big “Thank you” goes to SandyInSilvis for being our Municipal Liaison.

Okay, I’m still wondering about the Mystery genre’s placement well in the rear of the pack of the pie chart. Good or Bad?

I guess it’s a moot point if I don’t go ahead and finish what I started.

Here are the raw numbers—
Participants: 312,074
Winners: 34,555
Young Writers Program Participants: 71,229

Friday, December 2, 2016

Character Studies

Careful, or
you’ll end up in
my novel.

I have a t-shirt that displays the above saying.

So, is it a warning?

I thought so at one time. But now I’m not so sure.

I’ve talked about how I’ve made up my characters out bits and pieces of people I’ve known. Friends, relatives, even a complete stranger or two have given me inspiration for mannerisms, inclinations, accents, and a whole host of possible behaviors that have gone into any number of the people of my novel.

Whenever I read I find myself on the lookout for the odd tidbits I might tailor to my own uses in character development.

I’ve had good results with this system and I’m rather fond of my cast of characters. The good and the bad all have enough variety to hold one’s attention. Well, mine anyway.

Therefore, I’m not so sure the t-shirt should serve as a warning any more.

I’m wondering if my t-shirt should be an invitation—yet another way to save a snapshot of someone who’s worth remembering. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Preparing for Interviews

For my book launch and debut weekends I had prepared scripts I out-and-out read aloud. Not exciting at all. But I was sure to get my message across. This was quite important for the Bishop Hill audience of friends and neighbors. I had to let them know the details of how I came up with my characters.
After those two party weekends, I let things slide a bit.

For the first author’s panel I was invited to participate in I had a page or two of notes to work from—not a prepared formal address. I would not want to hear a recording of that session. I heard myself go “um” a lot. I just couldn’t help myself.

I handled my questions well enough. I watched my fellow panelists quote and otherwise use their books to make their points about writing. It was a good lesson to pick up on.

I did better for my second author’s panel. Again I was with two other authors who were both well experienced and considerate. We didn’t have 15 minutes of introduction time to fill for this event—we went right to questions. One author made point after point for strong characters. This dovetailed into what I picked up later at the Children’s Literature Festival listening to Metivier and Prineas make their presentations.

A few weeks later I went to hear Teresa LaBella at the Bettendorf Public Library for the October Read Local. She had a polished Power Point presentation that emphasized the specific things that gave her inspiration for her stories. I had to remember my own moments of inspiration for future reference.

I had this much experience under my belt as I tried to prepare for my WVIK radio interview with Don Wooten and Roald Tweet.

Did I mention that it would be a LIVE recording? No editing.

I pretty much spent the weekend before my Monday interview calming myself as I looked for quotes to read from the book and just thinking about potential questions & answers. I wasn’t sure this mental preparation would work. But it did help to refresh my memory of some of the main points and themes of my novel. I knew I had to skip the dull parts of my previous readings.

Come Monday afternoon I sat at the WVIK employee break room table rehearsing the brief passage I would be reading if asked. Then the time came to walk into the studio and sit close to the microphone as Mr. Wooten adjusted the volume to boost my quiet voice. He twisted a few dials, found a new CD to record on, and said it was time to go.

Wooten and Tweet were off and running. They played the Scribble opening typewriter music that’s so familiar for me. They made all the necessary introductions of a standard show. And then I WAS UP.

From there on out I don’t remember the specifics of what I said. I talked. I talked a lot. I talked about everything that was on my mind and hoped for the best. I hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I recall making them chuckle a couple of times. I’ve always considered a little humor a good thing. Most of all, I tried to be a good guest and answer as fully and completely as I was able to.

Then I left the building having to wait like everyone else to hear my spot when it aired on the scheduled Saturday at noon. However, due to a previous commitment, I missed hearing it that day. Fortunately, WVIK made it available for me and other people to hear in online.

Here is a link to hear it and judge for yourself how well I did:

Friday, November 18, 2016

More on NaNoWriMo

Quote from a fellow Bettendorf Public Library Write-in writer/participant: You have to let yourself write badly.

That goes along with turning off your internal editor.

Well, I’ve had many good days of writing badly and last Wednesday I got my tally is up to 25,000 words. Still short by one day, but so much closer to the needed average than I was before I came to the Write-in.

Big Plus: I’m half way to 50,000 words and I get another nifty little badge for my NaNoWriMo home page.

All those little incentives do help out.

·       I like watching my word count go up.
·       I like the daily count turn green when I reach the target number of 1667 words.
·       I like the upward slope of the bar graph.
·       I’m ecstatic if my completion date is in Nov. instead of Dec.

Wish I had those graphics available all year round. It all helps keep me going.

I’ve read a couple of pep talks all ready. I’ll get the others soon.

I’m busy writing EVERY DAY SO FAR.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Ethan Canin

I’m sorry to say that Ethan Canin was unknown to me even though we might have crossed paths in Iowa City.

My introduction came through his appearance at the Bettendorf Public Library as part of National Novel Writing Month.

He took a series of questions and answered them in often roundabout ways that I believe involved some of his best personal stories.

It took me a bit to realize I should be taking notes. Here is my list:

·       Want a plot? Have your characters misbehave.

·       Endings should be a surprise and inevitable. (The original quote came from Aristotle long before Flannery O’Connor.)

·       Favorite authors: Alice Munro, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.

·       Best advice: Be the character. Be the POV. Character drives a story and becomes the experience.

·       Put your energy into discovery. (He doesn't outline.)

·       Always be curious.

·       A long drive makes an excellent Trigger. (A trigger is anything that transports you back into a scene or story.)

·       Writing is thinking something through.

·       There are lots of ways to build plot, characters, etc. There’s only one way for a story to go wrong: fail to pose one and only one emotional question for the reader.

Friday, November 4, 2016

2016 NaNoWriMo

My first NaNoWriMo was 2010. That makes this my sixth year for National Novel Writing Month. I haven’t won the 50,000 word count every one of those years. I’ve missed a few.

I don’t remember much from 2011. My mother died in early October. I kind of think I used most of my time doing rewrites. I was not strictly following the rules, but that November was shot all to pieces anyway. But this had to be where I changed my protagonist. I had begun writing in third person past tense but from the POV of the older woman named Christine at the time. I changed to the POV of the younger woman, the college grad who was closer to the ages of my kids and their friends. Good source material.

The November 2012 NaNoWriMo didn’t come together for me, a total non-starter.

November 2013 was filled up with rewrites. I’m fond of saying how important it is to use the deadline, the daily word count goals, and all the other perks of this organized writing challenge to suit personal needs. That year was no exception.

Then there was 2014, I made my 50,000 words but didn’t get them verified within the time allotted. I didn’t get the winner’s badge on my NaNoWriMo homepage. Still, I had the moral victory. I had done a total rewrite with a shift to a first person POV. It really helped to make my main character come alive. I kept the past tense. I couldn’t get too crazy.

2015 was another non-starter. I got myself registered but filled my writing time with rewrites. If I was doomed to only writing, and finishing, one book, it would be a good one.

Not so this year.

This year I have a clear goal and extra help.

The Bettendorf Public Library has stepped up to the plate. They had the most amazing launch party last weekend and they are supplying a cozy writing spot all during November. All this is like heaven to a writer who needs a little encouragement—and good snacks.

Friday, October 28, 2016


Partway into my Scribble interview for WVIK I mentioned how much I liked my villains. In fact, I liked them so much I hated to part with any of them. Don Wooten and Roald Tweet took the opportunity to digress into a discussion of famous literary bad guys and mentioned how one noted author, I can’t recall who, only had one instance where he wrote about a completely nice person. Wooten asked, “Why is that?” I chimed in with my answer, “Conflict.”

Conflict is essential for a good story to develop, a point that was echoed by a slide in Gary Metivier’s presentation at the recent Children’s Literature Festival. I took a photo and saw that the slide originally came from The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein.

According to Klein’s Five C’s of Plotting, you start with creating a likable CHARACTER that makes the reader care about what happens to him/her.

Next comes the CONFLICT. Klein mentions conflict with stakes.

I think that having stakes must mean an element of risk is introduced because the next step involves the character making CHOICES.

Having choices naturally leads to the CONSEQUENCES of making those choices, those decisions.

Consequences have to build to the CLIMAX of the action and the denouement. Ultimately followed by the satisfying ending.

I must remember these five points the next time I have to make a presentation.

That and how Sarah Prineas patiently went through her main characters basic descriptions and motivations.

So, I had a very educational week between Wooten & Tweet on Monday, the Children’s Literature Festival on Tuesday, and another visit to Misty Urban’s Writer’s on the Avenue lecture series on Thursday. 

It was almost like living my own “Thriller.”

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ten Steps to Review on Amazon

1. Log onto as you normally would. (Note: Amazon doesn’t allow anonymous reviews.)
2. Do a search for the book title. In my case it would be “Clouds Over Bishop Hill.”
You will get my one book. Click on the title or the cover image.
(For other authors there may be a list of books, or books with similar titles. In that case find and click on the book you want.)

3. That click gets you to the full description of the book, the prices, and all pertinent information.

4. Under the author’s name, notice the yellow stars and “customer reviews.”
Click on “customer reviews,” it will get you to a list of the latest reviews faster.

5. Scroll down through the reviews until you get to a rectangular button labeled: Write a customer review. Click this button. (If you’ve gotten this far without logging onto Amazon, you will have to create an Amazon account to go further. Amazon does not allow anonymous reviews.)

6. You will now have four buttons to choose from: Poor, Okay, Good, Great. Click one.

7. More buttons will ask: Is there violence?, Is there sexual content?, and How is the story narrated? Choose and click.

8. Below those questions you will find a bar of non-shaded stars.
Choose the number of stars you want to highlight.

9. FINALLY, you are down to the TEXT BOX for entering your reviewer comments. Type in whatever you want. (You should be able to copy and paste from a Word document as well.) Below the review box look for a box for a title. It will be much smaller. If you don't use it, Amazon will use the first sentence of your review.

10. The last button to click is … SUBMIT.  

I have to say I never thought the process was this complicated until someone asked me how it was done. I hope these steps are useful. I can add screen photos if needed. I imagine the Goodreads process is similar; I will tackle that at another time because I want this posted.

If for whatever reason you can’t or don’t want to post to Amazon or Goodreads, go to my Facebook Author page and leave your review or message. I want to hear from my readers.

Facebook link:

Monday, October 17, 2016

Named characters for Clouds Over Bishop Hill

Listed in order of importance.

Olof Krans (1838-1916): folk artist well known for his portraits of original Colonists

Pearl Essie Anderson: 103-year-old retired teacher

Shelley Anderson: Knox grad with a degree in museum studies

Michael J. Anderson: Galva grad recently returned from Iraq

Christina Colberg: Shelley’s adoptive mother & aunt by marriage

Roy Landers IV: Shelley’s uncle & adoptive father, outsider artist

David Ekollon: director of Nikkerbo Museum & Conference Center

Curt Hemcourt V: owner of Nikkerbo Museum & Conference Center

Gordon Anderson: artist, craftsman, and Herb’s cousin

Thomas T. Gubben: lawyer & CFO, chief financial officer, for Hemcourt

Herb Anderson: successful woodworker found dead at Varnishtree

Talli Walters: owner of The Lutfisk Café

Marcella Rice: former friend of Christina, works at The Lutfisk Café

Lars Trollenberg: Swedish summer worker at Nikkerbo

Amy Anderson: Michael’s mother, Pearl’s caretaker

Dana Johnson: Henry County deputy

Alan & James: brothers and computer experts

Ulla Olson: teenage neighbor to Shelley

Gunnar Olson: Ulla’s father

Nate: Ulla’s Wethersfield boyfriend

Winston Maskin: former mayor & armed defender of Bishop Hill

Les Patrick: Galva lawyer

Sheriff Henry

Karl Hemson: charismatic leader of the Bishop Hill colony

John Anderson: Shelley’s twin brother

Nora Landers Anderson: Shelley & John’s missing mother

Sadie & Flicka: dogs

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

On Going to Market

Having the product:
It is good to wait until you know when the books will arrive before scheduling events. It makes for a tighter working window, but it’s a better fit for us folks who let deadlines slip by all too often.

Still, I made lists, lots of lists, and had a general plan of action.

Display aids:
I put together a really great one for myself, a photo of the book cover in a nice acrylic angled holder. I didn’t think about the retailers who would have my books. They would want something. Ooops. I had to scrabble. But I found some smaller holders, on sale even, and used my printer to save the day.

The genesis speech:
Readers will want to know what your inspiration was, how you did it, something about the steps you took along the way to a finished novel.

Work on the genesis speech … before you need it. You can fine tune it later.

Record keeping supplies:
Receipt and invoice pads are a good way to start, add the tally sheets later. Use something you’re comfortable with because you’ll need an accurate accounting to track your progress and for those end-of-the-year tax forms.

Do be sure to record where sales are made, city and state. Your accountant will thank you later.

Invest in your signature:
Find a good pen with quick drying ink. I went with Pentel EnerGel on the recommendation of Mary Howard, the 2016 Great River Writer’s Retreat winner.

I did something a little different with my first batch of 250 bookmarks. I used an example from C. Hope Clark. She created a postcard that featured her four book covers and a polite plea for reviews. I’ve seen similar messages on Facebook, also polite and encouraging, but still dropping hints about how important reviews are for authors. Time will tell if my bookmarks will have any impact.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Theme: Forgiveness

“I think it’s time to forgive your sister. It’s a fact of life that sometimes unforeseen circumstances prevent people with the best of intentions from keeping promises they make.”   Dear Abby, Sunday, September 07, 2014.

“How can you just get over these things, darling?” she had asked him. “You’ve had so much strife but you’re always happy. How do you do it?”

“I choose to,” he said. “I can leave myself to rot in the past, spend my time hating people for what happened, like my dad did, or I can forgive and forget.”

“But it’s not that easy.”

He smiled that Frank smile. “Oh, but my treasure, it is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.” He laughed, pretending to wipe sweat from his brow. “I would have to make a list, a very, very long list and make sure I hated the people on it the right amount. That I did a very proper job of hating, too: very Teutonic! No”—his voice became sober—“we always have a choice. All of us.”   The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

I picked these quotes about forgiveness because they reflect my own feelings. I especially like the idea of forgiving once. So simple and practical. So useful on a personal scale—for everyday living.

I’ve always felt it costs nothing to offer everyone a polite “Good morning” when passing on the sidewalk or bike path. I’ve chosen that course because it was easiest for me, no need to constantly dredge up past wrongs. It’s more of a matter of here and now.

I wanted to use something of this philosophy in my novel, to make a spirit of forgiveness relevant for my fictional families present and past.

I hope I’ve succeeded to some extent. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

First Book Sale

Jody, my neighbor, fellow See YA book club member, milkweed supplier, and all-around great person made my day yesterday afternoon. 

She knocked on my back door and asked to buy a copy of my book.

All I did was mention that I'd picked up some boxes from the Midwest Writing Center. 

I had to scramble to make change. To find a pen. To inscribe something on the first page that was totally inadequate at expressing my feelings. 

Here is my memento. 

Thank you Jody!

(Yes, I always have piles of paper everywhere.) 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Misty Urban, Editor

I have been fortunate to have many fine editors help me with my first book, Clouds Over Bishop Hill. Misty Urban provided line editing on the final leg of my journey to being published with MWC Press, an imprint of the Midwest Writing Center.

Misty took great care and ample time going over my words and sentences, while still being prompt on returning corrected copy.

Misty has a great eye for details, catching the small mistakes that many others, including myself, had missed for a long time. She also found a few “biggies” too. Uncovering those lapses, the kind that would really be embarrassing to explain to a reviewer or a reader, are the ones I’m most grateful for.

She introduced me to the Chicago style and we were able to work together to smoothly shape my manuscript into a coherent whole. I can recommend her editing work to anyone. It would be money and time wisely spent.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Big Day!

The proof came last Friday. It made for an exciting day of celebration and I was only able to post a photo to my blog.

This Friday Clouds Over Bishop Hill went LIVE on Amazon.

It's a big day nearly six years in the making. I'm wearing my 2010 NaNoWriMo winner T-shirt in the photo. I've saved it all these years for exactly this day.

Friday, August 12, 2016


Clouds Over Bishop Hill now has become a real entity with its own ID number: 978-0-9906190-3-1.

It was real before. Now, it is a little more so.

We are going through the process of uploading files to CreateSpace. I wish I could say all went well and there were no glitches, but there were a few.

There had to be few “somethings.” For us it was: having pages and pages of forms to fill out, proving citizenship, having a nice Midwestern thunderstorm roll through, and losing the modem connection in the middle of uploading.

But so far there have been no total disasters. The forms were filled out and accepted. I can now personally vouch that having a cell phone that can do tethered Wi-Fi is a wonderful sanity-saving thing.

The greatest delay came from the cover spine. It had to be made larger because of a different paper choice. Cream paper is fatter than white paper? Who knew.

Which is the point. We are all learning new things here.

But annoying or not, every step gets me closer to having a real book in hand.

And closer to the time to think more seriously about marketing plans. 

There will be a book!

Friday, August 5, 2016

The New Website

My latest website took a little over four days to make. Two days to play around with the modular components and understand how they work. A half day to make a plan for the overall design of the elements I deemed important for my site. The rest to actually write some copy, capture my cover photo, and fit everything together into two columns.

I used Weebly Website Builder, a site my husband had directed me to. He hadn’t used it himself, but had heard it would be easy to use. His goal was for me to do it myself.

I was able to get it done. Pretty much on my own.

I got my columns set up. I would have preferred one column larger than the other, but couldn’t make it happen. That was probably for the best because two equal columns look really good on small screens like cell phones.

I was able to activate the links to my blog and my Facebook author page. (I had husband standing by to make sure I entered the right info.)

I needed the most assistance to get the cover photo. (I watched him do it and I sort of understood.)

Of all the websites I’ve designed, this one went the easiest and the fastest. I’m confident that my first updates will go just as smoothly.

I will find out fairly soon because I finished the last editorial review of the manuscript last night. It’s really going to happen. Clouds Over Bishop Hill will be out in the world soon and I will be out there trying to introduce it and myself to prospective readers. The new website will be an invaluable tool.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Swedish Meatballs

On many occasions, I have promised to bring meatballs to my book openings. I’ve had my Swedish mother-in-law’s recipe for some time now but hadn’t gotten around to actually making it.

My sister-in-law told me how those meatballs were a favorite treat and something she always requested for special occasions when she was growing up. They fell out of favor later in her life. Maybe when she realized what the secret ingredient was. The comment from her husband was along the line of “it’s not natural.”

I should have cooked up a batch before now, but I didn’t have all the spices and I couldn’t decide what meats to use for the actual meatball. I wanted something other than 100% beef. All this indecision and procrastination meant no meatballs … until now.

Last week I had to have something for a neighborhood party. So, now was the time for meatballs.

I do have to make a confession—I purchased frozen, ready-made Swedish meatballs. Yes, there are such things, but not as easily found as you might think. Fareway came through for me.

It was all good because I wanted to concentrate on the sauce anyway.

I gathered all the spices I would need and lined them up on my counter. It was so impressive that I had to take a photo.

All went well enough and most of my meatballs disappeared. I have made a start and have ideas of what to do next.

There will be meatballs!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Setting the Stage

I love it when a serendipitous moment comes along and I can say, “I got that right.”
One of those moments came along this past week when I was sorting through emails. I gave a quick glance to an article entitled Preface your book! Bookbaby sends me stuff all the time, usually short articles pertaining to writing, publishing, and marketing. I can glean a useful tidbit every now and then.

This one really hit the spot.

According to this article:
“A preface could be an introduction. Or it could be a prologue. It is whatever you need to set the stage so that the reader can hit the ground running from Chapter 1.”

This idea of setting the stage caught my attention, because I’ve started my book out with an augmented disclaimer. You know the standard blurb found in all works of fiction that state what follows comes from the author’s imagination. The confusing part that I wanted to explain in more detail comes from using some real names: Bishop Hill, a real place I lived in for over twenty years, and Olof Krans, an historical figure and painter. Both of these are key characters that I’ve taken liberties with for the sake of my novel and mustn’t be held to the same standards as non-fiction.

As a preface I’d consider what I’ve written as an introduction and an invitation.

        This is a work of fiction. Bishop Hill, Illinois is a state historic site and a national historic landmark with innumerable real-life stories to tell. I chose the avenue of fiction to tell mine. I used my author’s imagination to create names, characters, businesses, organizations, and institutions wherever I could or otherwise used them fictitiously. Historical figures and events, past and present, along with geography were likewise subjected to my imagination and altered for this work of fiction. Any resemblance to real-life is wholly coincidental.
        A young Olof Krans did join the Bishop Hill Colony and later used his self-taught painting skills to document the Colony’s early prairie years. Those who want to learn more are encouraged to continue their journey by reading further or visiting the real Bishop Hill in Henry County, Illinois. There’s a wealth of information out there and many knowledgeable people to help you on your way.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Bio

I’m not by nature a fast writer. I’m slow at picking out the right words and spend too much time rearranging them. Not a good thing for a first draft of anything. It makes editing time consuming as well. But this slowness allows me to measure when I’m improving. The one sure sign that I’ve gotten better at trying to write in some new area or style is when I notice I’m writing faster than my usual pace.

There’s only one thing that I’ll never be fast at … writing about myself.

I must have an author’s bio for the novel. So I will start out by turning to the source of info I already have: my writing resume.

I had to put one together for my application for The Great River Writer’s Retreat in 2013. It has been a valuable tool ever since.

By digging up and listing when and where I wrote feature articles and news items—I proved I had a history of writing and publishing. By listing all the organizations I’d written press releases for—I proved I could do an important step in marketing. By listing my awards—I proved that I had been recognized.

So even though I’ve moved to a new city and have been very single-minded in the pursuit of my novel, I do have a background as a writer that I can fall back on.

Having said that, I went in a different direction for this bio.

I wanted this one to be personal and a reflection on my life choices. More about family and how I got here than a list of what I did here and there along the way. 

This is what I came up with to introduce myself to the new readers of my novel:

Mary Davidsaver was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and graduated from the University of Iowa, Iowa City. She had no choice but to attend school in Iowa City because generations of family craftsmen helped build the county courthouse, the dormitories, and the student union.
That tradition of craftsmanship had her living in Bishop Hill, an Illinois state historic site and a national historic landmark, first as a silversmith and then as a writer, for twenty-four years. She and her husband have returned to Iowa.

I could have added a little something about crossing the Mississippi River to find better sweetcorn … but I didn’t.

Friday, July 8, 2016


Students graduating from Knox College, Galesburg, in 2008 were addressed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Across the country, Harvard’s graduating seniors were addressed by J. K. Rowling.

Both speakers talked about the victims of torture. Albright’s brief comments seemed to come from a report. Rowling, who worked for Amnesty International in her early twenties, conveyed the pain, suffering, and horror—the stuff of nightmares. There’s no doubt about who was the better writer.  

I knew about Albright’s speech from the first-hand experience of living in the area when Knox was well into a string of notable commencement speakers: Senator Barak Obama, 2005; Stephen Colbert, 2006; and former President Bill Clinton, 2007.

I didn’t know anything about Rowling’s speech until very recently when someone posted an excerpt on Facebook. It got my attention. Aside from explaining how our uniquely human imagination makes it possible to understand the pain of others, she spoke about failure.

I know something of failure.

I made two attempts at a craft-based business in Bishop Hill. One did better than the other. Neither lasted more than five years.

I never hit as close to rock bottom as Rowling did as a single parent, but I can identify with trying to finish the only work that mattered to me.

I have been determined to write my novel to the best of my ability. To grow and stretch in every way possible. My discipline may seem a little shaky, but I’ve kept at it because I had no other distraction and no other option.

Now that I’m on the homestretch to being published, I have to admit that it’s a bit scary. The old ghost of failure still lingers close by. But I know more and I have more control. Plus, I have the bonus of having already failed. There’s no place to go but up.

Friday, July 1, 2016


I’ve added Misty Urban to my list of talented writers who have given me much needed editorial feedback for my book, Clouds Over Bishop Hill.

We sat across the room from each other last fall at a workshop for marketing. Her book of short stories was much further along than my novel.

I caught up with her this spring at the Bettendorf library for a Read Local event and bought her finished book, A Lesson in Manners.

By the time I attended Misty’s Muscatine book launch party I’d only just begun to read her collection of short stories. I didn’t feel prepared for any truly insightful comments. I had to say something and I went with my brief first impression of the title story: commas. She had created a lot of complex sentences loaded with commas. I have been sensitive about my use and misuse of commas for quite a while, so that’s what I noticed first. I was impressed and had to say so. Misty deferred to her own editor.

I changed my opinion after looking over that story again, I should have marveled at her writing it with a second person POV. A far more impressive feat than using a lot of commas.

After finishing the book, I noticed her darker take on life. Misty tackled the major themes of illness, grief, and the search for personal freedom with powerful, insightful prose. The ambitious core of serious literature. It’s no wonder that she can post an impressive list of awards.

My novel is not literature. I have a cozy mystery set in the place I’m most familiar with, Bishop Hill. I’ve said before that what I wanted most was to give people a good read.

I think Misty’s turn as a line editor will have done me a lot of good.

My last editor reviewed for content and had me clear up some character and plot points that truly needed fixing. But I left a few things I knew she would have thought too murky and indistinct. I couldn’t bring myself to have a traditional villain who would be cleanly and clearly punished in the end. Life isn’t always like that. I know this isn’t life, this is a story. Still, I wanted to pursue my theme of preservation.

After reading Misty’s stories in A Lesson in Manners, I feel better about exploring the complex motives behind my different bad guys, some of whom weren’t so bad. Their motives represented different takes on how to deal with preservation: selfish, unselfish, for profit, not for profit, for pride, or for honor.

An additional theme I wanted to explore was forgiveness. I tried to use forgiveness as a way to improve my protagonist’s personal relationships with families, friends, and, in one case, professionally.

It’s been a pleasure to work with Misty. I’ve paid careful attention to her editing. Hopefully, some of the details of comma and hyphen usage will have sunk in and might actually stay with me for a while. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Review of Seventeenth Summer

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly is widely acknowledged to be the first YA, young adult, novel. It was published in 1942 and Daly very likely did write it at age seventeen.

I found Daly’s book to be a great time capsule of certain aspects of the Midwestern lifestyle that my mother would have experienced. My mother’s family lived closer to the earth than the families depicted in the novel. My grandfather had six kids to feed on a laborer’s salary.

What rang true were Daly’s descriptions of gardens, trees, birds, and even the insects. She made the water in the lake and rain that fell on the roof come alive in such vivid reality that I had to marvel at the skill for such a young author.

Elm trees have been gone for so long that I’d forgotten about their lacy foliage. Likewise, walking across the grass and stirring up clouds of powdery-winged moths. I had to go outdoors in the early morning darkness to see if insects still swarmed around the street lights—they didn’t. It made me feel that my little section of suburbia was something of a desert for life forms other than humans.

However, I can’t say I liked how Daly treated her teens. They were so bound up with artificially formal rules of how to fit into that society there was no room for the different or adventurous young woman. They would be punished by being ostracized and shunned. The guys didn’t fair much better. They were two-dimensional and hardly real as they were slotted into their assigned roles.

This book was published after the attack on Pearl Harbor and I couldn’t help feeling the dread of knowing all this wide-eyed innocence would soon come to an end in the worse possible way.

Yes, Seventeenth Summer was a window on an ideal, too perfect past. But it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of where we might have been … once. It can show us how much we’ve lost.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Writing Book Reviews

I’ve been trying for last couple of years to write a review of each book I’ve finished reading. Usually posting them on Goodreads first, Amazon second.

My first reviews were very brief, but that didn’t bother me because best-selling authors don’t need that much from me. However, local authors are a different story; they should be given extra attention and effort.

Take the time to write a review. The size doesn’t matter; it’s a small bonus with potentially big dividends for local authors.

My point: Give your local authors a boost by reviewing their work.

Here is my review for an author and lecturer at the upcoming David R. Collins Writers’ Conference in Davenport, Iowa.

Edisto Jinx by C. Hope Clark is our return visit to the chaotic world of Callie Jean Morgan, a former Boston police detective who has relocated to the palmetto lined streets of the South Carolina paradise. Callie’s life has been in deep disarray since the death of her husband two years earlier. She and her teenaged son, Jeb, are seeking refuge in the peaceful resort community that holds comforting ties to her past. But serenity is hard to come by when panic attacks plague her attempts to blend into the close-knit community of year-round residents.

Callie is haunted by more ghosts from her past life than her psychic next door neighbor, Sophie. Callie’s cop instincts seem to fail her as she spirals down into crippling self-doubt. The lifeline for Callie finally comes in the form of an auxiliary police badge and the return of her trusty Glock sidearm. They give her the weight and authority to pursue an investigation into a strange string of beach deaths that no one else wants to acknowledge as suspicious, related, and menacing. Everything falls into place as Callie hits her stride and shows the locals how real policing is done. The vacation community learns to trust her as she tames the panic attacks and begins to trust herself again.

Edisto Jinx is a satisfying addition to this mystery series.

Posted on Amazon March 28, 2016.

Posted on Goodreads March 28, 2016.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Who’s your favorite author?

The MWC’s social mixer meets at Bennigan’s, Rock Island, where there is good food, wine, and conversation. So of course THE question comes up: “Who’s your favorite author?” It always leaves me stumped and stuttering.

I feel my best answer should be “Whoever wrote what I’m reading now.”

First off, memory is the unfortunate issue for me; I can never recall facts and details fast enough. But my slowness to respond also means that I’m immersed in whatever book club selection I’m reading at the moment.

Also, off the top of my head … no one author stands out for long within the cloud of books I’ve read over the years. I know that’s not right. I’ve had plenty of favorites to choose from going back to the science fiction I started reading in high school. But favorites come and go depending upon my current interests.

Which raises the new question, perhaps a better question: Who or what got you started reading? Because something had to trigger that urge to keep on reading for enjoyment or learning. What ignited that first spark?

For me it was movies. I would watch something and then develop the need to know more. That need would send me to the library to find the source material. That’s what led me to the early science fiction books: War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, 2001, 1984.

For my sons, the first spark came from books on the Civil War. Later on, I took to reading selected passages from adult books like: Gary Paulson’s Winter Dance; and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Congo. So, yes, you can read out loud to teens. I found there’s nothing like a censored book to peak their interest.

I’m letting my book clubs select my current favorite authors for the time being. I like the sense of discovery: from Margaret Atwood, to Jenny Lawson, and all the others. I like them all for different reasons—until the next month’s meeting and a new adventure begins.

Friday, June 3, 2016


Last week I went to the Midwest Writing Center’s annual meeting. At the conclusion of the business meeting a drawing was held. The prizes began with a nice selection of MWC Press books. The grand prize for many years has been a full enrollment for the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference held in late June. That amounts to three full days of workshops, readings, and a concluding lunch. An over $200 value in writerly bounty.

I’ve watched other people win and thought “Well, maybe next year” or “Maybe at the next Iron Pen contest”.

As it turned out This Was My Year!

And I almost missed it.

The people on either side of me won and I had to check out which books they picked. I also figured the luck for my row was already used up. So I was distracted when the next number was called. I looked at my ticket. It was my number. I had to ask “What did I win?”

It was the Big One!

I was surprised and happy all at once. (I’ll have to look up a better way to describe that in The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi—later.)

So now I have a new set of lucky numbers.

I have to say that in this and in a great many other ways I’ve been luckier with the Midwest Writing Center than with any of the state lotteries.

My thanks for being there and making the odds better for all of us writers.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Great River Writers’ Retreat Experience [2013]

“How is going to a writer’s retreat different from going into your room and closing the door?” my husband said.
“Well, duh. I didn’t have to clean anything.”
Long ago, I developed a ritual where I had to clean and straighten things up before starting a new craft project. For better or worse, I’ve extended that process to my writing.
When I checked into the Benet House Retreat Center in Rock Island, I had a sunny, clean room all to myself. One barrier down to guilt-free writing time.
Another bonus, absolutely no unnecessary clutter, no great masses of important things collected over a lifetime and carried along with every move. I have precious items tucked into every nook and cranny available in my personal space at home. They all have a story and meaning, and can be quite distracting at times. My retreat room came with two twin beds: one to sleep in and one to serve as an EFS (Exposed Flat Surface). That meant I could fill it with all the essential stuff I had brought with me, a manageable amount of clutter, since I had to carry it in by myself. Second barrier down.
Then there’s the treat of not having to cook any meals for six days. Sure, I had to make my own breakfast: brew some coffee, tea, unwrap a cereal bar. Letting someone else cook the rest of the time has always been pretty high up on my wish list for luxury. Sharing the buffet with the sisters two times a day was fine. I had enough good food to choose from and never felt hungry. If I had, the little kitchen area came stocked with microwave popcorn. Another distraction out of the way.
The solitude the retreat offered was calming and soothing, but, for me, it felt good not to be totally alone. A poet from Chicago occupied the room next door. We saw each other briefly in the mornings, shared a table at mealtimes, and occasionally passed each other on the nature trails. The rest of the time we, as writers, went our separate ways. 
The grounds of the monastery contained a small lake and ninety acres of woodland and prairie. Deer could be seen by day and coyotes heard at night. I haven’t had that kind of park-like experience in ages, so much the better not to have to pitch a tent to do it. I took the sidewalk down to the lake for morning and afternoon breaks. From the dock, I stared into the depths to see what creatures lived down there and watched birds skim over the water’s surface. It felt awe-inspiring to have the natural world so close at hand.
From the edge of the lake, a network of enticing paths took off into the woods. They were nicely mown and wide. On my first day, I took a leisurely walk and came back with four pages of observations. My notes provided some much needed detail for a scene in my novel.
So much for the easy part.
A much more difficult task was the main reason I had listed on my application for wanting to be chosen for this retreat. I had hoped for a private, safe place to work on a short story begun over a year before during a workshop at the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference. The class assignment had been to write something personal to a person no longer around. I had written to my recently deceased mother.
I had come up with a reasonable first draft. The instructor had read it aloud to the other workshop participants. I wouldn’t have been able to read it myself; my grief was still too fresh. It had remained untouched since then. But now, I knew I’d have to read it at the end of the retreat week; the prospect was unnerving. I only had a few days to prepare for something that, for me, might be impossible.
I made my revisions and began to practice reading it aloud. The first day went badly, but the next one went well enough to give me hope. I kept practicing. I whispered it softly to myself in my room. I read it louder if I knew for certain that I was alone. And finally, I took it down to the dock and offered it to the fish. My public reading at the Midwest Writing Center was barely adequate, but I got through it and that counted as a success in my book.
A few of the things that I took away from the 2013 Great River Writers’ Retreat: the honor of being the first local writer chosen to participate, the validation that my writing has steadily improved over time, the ability to cope with fear and anxiety, and the commitment to continue writing.

In short, I have a new way of seeing myself thanks to the Midwest Writing Center, its volunteers, and its sponsors.

(More information on the Retreat and the application process is available on or by calling Ryan Collins at 563-324-1410.)