Friday, December 22, 2017

Recipe for Swedish Visiting Cake

It's the Friday before Christmas and I'll be making another one of these. This time with gluten-free flour, almond flour, and very little lemon zest. But always with real butter and sliced almonds. Do sprinkle the top with a little extra granulated sugar before baking for a nice glaze. I use my largest glass pie pan and it turns out as a cross between a cake and a giant cookie.

I had my first one ages ago as a gift from a Bishop Hill neighbor and always remembered how soft and tasty it was. Last year, I used the internet to finally track down the recipe. Enjoy.

Swedish Visiting Cake

1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
Grated zest of 1 lemon (use ½ lemon or none at all)
2 large eggs
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. pure almond extract
1 cup flour (optional: add ¼ c. almond flour, see note below)
1 stick (8 Tbl.) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
About 1/4 cup sliced almonds (blanched or not)

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter a seasoned 9-inch cast-iron skillet or other heavy ovenproof skillet, a 9-inch cake pan, or even a pie pan.  You can use a 9-inch cake or pie pan and put parchment on the bottom.  Butter the parchment paper.

Pour the sugar into a medium bowl. Add the zest and blend the zest and sugar together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and aromatic.

Whisk in the eggs one at a time until well blended. Whisk in the salt and the extracts.

Switch to a rubber spatula and stir in the flour.

Finally, fold in the melted butter.  Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula.  Scatter the sliced almonds over the top and sprinkle with a little sugar if using.  If you're using a cake or pie pan, place the pan on a baking sheet.

Bake the cake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until it is golden and a little crisp on the outside; the inside will remain moist.  Remove the pan from the oven and let the cake cool for 5 minutes, then run a thin knife around the sides and bottom of the cake to loosen it.  You can serve the cake warm or cooled, directly from the skillet or turned out onto a serving plate.

If adding ¼ cup ground almond flour, increase baking time to 30-35 minutes.

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Panel of READERS

One of the best ideas to come my way popped up at a recent MWC, Midwest Writing Center, programming meeting. MWC wants to put together a panel composed only of READERS who will give writers and authors a chance to learn, first hand, what it is that READERS want. Sounds rather Freudian doesn’t it?

But, psychology aside, it is a solid concept and worth pursuing. Because I’ve been on the receiving end of this equation for three years now. I’ve written before about the benefits of joining LIBRARY book clubs.

My first reason for joining book clubs was to let someone else choose new titles for me. I’d done a round of reading first novels by mystery writers and I was ready to move on, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. So … let someone else pick. LIBRARIANS are a natural. Plus, book clubs sponsored by libraries are, like, FREE for card holders. It was a total win, win situation.

Then I discovered something else. Another freebie. If I went in to a book club meeting, made a few remarks about the monthly book or short story, and then sat back to LISTEN to what the others had to say—I LEARNED something—every time.

Such as:
Character was primary to most readers.
Keep the plot moving.
Write well.
Magical realism is a tough sell.
So is too much sex.
Characters must change and grow.
Don’t kill the dog.
Not everyone will like the book or story.

These topics are familiar subjects of workshops and conferences, but it’s good to hear about them firsthand from knowledgeable, and prodigious READERS. These are the folks we are after. The ones who might buy the books we write. Who will certainly talk about them to their friends. Who will follow our development as authors.

Like I said, a panel of READERS and LIBRARIANS handling questions from an audience of writers and authors is a great idea.

And just to be clear—don’t kill off that dog.

Friday, December 8, 2017

My Bishop Hill Collection

I’m a SAVER. (It’s not just part of my name.) I’m a saver of the sorts of things that clutter up shelves, fill boxes, and overflow closets. The kind of saver who occasionally has to sort through piles of stuff to find the top of the desk.

I’m not a hoarder. I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve moved too often and too recently to qualify for that title. Every move, you see, demands reorganization and therefore some jettisoning of acquired material possessions. A brutal process to be sure. But the absolute essentials always make it through. The essentials in this case are items of my collection of Bishop Hill memorabilia.

It’s like I always knew I’d need them for give-away contests.

The most recent additions to my collection are going to be used first. I shopped for these last February at the Colony Store. They are the crochet snowflakes handmade by Bishop Hill’s favorite Swede (in my opinion), Ulla Voss. Not to be confused with Ulla Olson, a character from my novel. I needed a U name for a plot point and couldn’t think of a better name to borrow. I bought six of Ulla’s snowflakes and decided to give the first four away in pairs. The others will be partnered with some cute keychains and a fox.

Why a fox?

I’m glad you asked. Years ago, when I still lived in Bishop Hill, I was up in the middle of a winter’s night with a bad cold. When I wasn’t coughing, I heard the most horrendous sound coming closer to my house. I watched out my window as the noisy culprit revealed itself to be a lonely fox walking down the street calling out for company. That was memorable. So was reading The Fox Hunt by Sven Nordqvist. Both experiences influenced me when it came time to write my own version of a Swedish fairy tale that’s in Winter Worlds: Three Stories. So, it’s all good.

After those items are gone, I have more in reserve. As I said before, I do like to save things.

Such as:
Illinois road maps from 2008. That would be the year of the action in Clouds Over Bishop Hill. Did I plan that? No. I saved those maps because the governor at the time was in trouble. Y’all remember Rod R. Blagojevich?

Some target silhouettes of a squirrel. Those date from the time a black squirrel decided to live in, and chew on, Bishop Hill’s wooden water tower. I wrote about it for the Galva News. I won an award for the photograph of the resulting monster ice cycle. The paper targets are suitable for framing.

Oldest by far are a few copies of the Bishop Hill Children’s Activity Book created by Sherry Cosentine and Deborah Rickman in 1980. These came from someone else’s cleaning binge. I’ll gladly share.

So, let the contests begin.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Holiday Cheer

I’ve sat at a small table in the Colony Blacksmith Shop on two recent occasions: Ag Days, and the first Weekend of Christmas Market. Those Bishop Hill events are also known as Jordsbruksdagarna and Julmarknad. No matter what you called them, or how you spell them, they were a treat to experience this year. Not for old time’s sake, but for the new.

My “new time” involves having that small table loaded with copies of my book and talking to people about it and Bishop Hill. It’s easier to talk about Bishop Hill first. Turns out, I have a lot of experience to share about living there and about working in the Blacksmith Shop. I loved pointing to the massive timbers overhead and describing how difficult it was to pound a nail into them. Modern nails are no match for age-hardened walnut. Fortunately, the Blacksmith Shop has been retrofitted with modern amenities on the inside leaving the outside still as it was in the mid-1800s. Adaptive reuse at its best.

The highlights of last weekend were:

First, talking to the people who were totally new to Bishop Hill. It was their first trip and I got to plug the Olof Krans paintings. That’s a natural, since they are a vital part of the plot for my mystery. I directed the newbies down the street to the world’s largest collection. Hope they got there.

Second, listening to the young woman from Kewanee who made it a point to buy books written by local authors. Love her.

Third, the big guy who walked by and said over his shoulder, “You wrote a good book.” Simple, direct, and now etched into my memory.

I’ll be at the Blacksmith Shop for this Saturday’s round two of Christmas Market. It will be my last time this year.

I’ve always liked St. Lucia Nights, but the drive back to Iowa in the dark is just too daunting for me these days. Deer and headlight glare are obstacles I’d rather not take on. Which is too bad, because the village takes on a lovely glow in the dark. With a touch of snow and no wind it becomes the perfect event. But do dress warm.



Friday, November 24, 2017

DPL’s Indie Author Day

This link leads to two recordings made on the INDIE AUTHOR DAY sponsored by the Davenport Public Library and held last Oct. 14 at the main library downtown Davenport.

The first is BUILDING YOUR BRAND presented by poet and novelist Jodie Toohey of Wordsy Woman Author Services. Toohey gives a practical look and concrete goals for the necessary steps all writers and authors must face as they promote their work and gain visibility in a crowded market place.

The panel on THE EDITING PROCESS gave all the panelists a chance to talk about their experiences with the many kinds of editing available, and to offer pertinent insights and suggestions on how to make the process work for the writer at any stage of their career. 30 minutes.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


I was stuck. And being stuck in the middle of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, slows down the race for the 50,000 word count—not a good thing.

I was stuck because I couldn’t nail down what exactly happened at my crime scene. That was important info to have. Writing a mystery involves essentially coming up with TWO stories: the one that happened and the one that appears to have happened. Or so I was told early on.

For my first novel, Clouds Over Bishop Hill, I was the classical PANTSER. I constructed my plot, found my story, and developed my characters as I wrote. I wanted to do it differently for the second time around. It became very important for me to figure out who was who, who was where, how they got there, and where did they park those cars.

To that end, I spent an afternoon digging through my stash of Bishop Hill maps. I’d started a collection many years ago just for a day of need like this.

I found what I wanted and taped four sheets of paper together to give me a nicely laid out Bishop Hill of a size that would be useful. I raided a Bananagrams game for letter tiles, and voila, I had a way to move characters around to test out likely meet ups and such. 

So, I say, when imagination and mental agility fails--do go back to the basic visuals.

Note: the map in the upper left shows how Bishop Hill was originally laid out. There are sections of village streets that are now grass covered and still passable.  A lot of streets never made it past the mapping stage. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

I Must Share This List

What’s not to like about a list? Lists are so popular. They’re everywhere and about everything. I came across this one on Facebook. Loved it. Well, liked it enough to save, respond, and share.

Ten novels agents have seen so many times before it makes them nauseous.

Fun to peruse—UNTIL—I found a couple that actually affect me and the NaNoWriMo novel I’m working on RIGHT NOW!


1.    The Axe to Grind Novel:  Okay, I like my villains. They came first. Such strong personalities. But I didn’t mean to grind axes. You gotta believe me.

2.    I Didn’t Ask for This! Okay, my protagonist is a little reluctant. But come on, she’s only twenty-two. She’s not a fully-formed adult yet. Cut me some slack.

3.    Strange But True:  I did this with a photo and a short story. Will it be okay if I promise to be extra careful in the future?

4.    You Can Trust Me:  No you can’t. I only know three things, for sure, at any one time. Those three things can change. I know it, and now you do too.

5.    Anything Zombies:  I don’t do Zombies. I reserve the right to write about aliens and fairy folktales.

6.    Greatest Hits:  Not likely.

7.    Picture Books for Adults:  Not even remotely possible.

8.    Eat, Pray, Whatever:  So not going to happen. I’m keeping this stuff to myself. You’re on your own.

9.    “Historical” YA:  Also not likely. There are severe language issues here. Kids today talk in code. However, I reserve the right to mine my own history.

10. Professor Wonderful, i.e. Wonder Boys???  I have no clue what this is all about. The world is safe on this one.

Here’s where to find the real list:

Friday, November 3, 2017

History: Part One

It’s NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, and I’m off and typing away.

Is it a completely new novel? No, not quite in the strictest sense. I’m bending the rules by working with last year’s NaNoWriMo’s product: a completely awful first draft that made a huge detour into Galva territory. My advantage, I hope, with this year’s effort is a five-page synopsis that’s the closest thing to an outline that I could come up with. It keeps me in Bishop Hill, and therefore writing a “Bishop Hill Mystery”.

There are two fun elements that I’ve wanted to work into the plot: money, and a wedding.

I’ll follow the money first.

Bishop Hill colonists acquired their own money, actual printed currency. (Not uncommon in a time without a strong, centralized banking system. Anyone with a little capital could print their own money.) The pages of bank notes bought from Western Exchange Fire & Marine Insurance Co., Omaha City, were dated Nov. 2, 1857. It’s lovely stuff. The intricately engraved images of Native Americans watching trains cross the prairie and hunting buffalo might not be accurate, but it’s true to the times in which it was created.

I knew that buying this currency for the colony had turned out to be a bad investment. There was a panic and they’d lost their shirts, so to speak. My research found the reason for the panic, or economic downturn, was an offshoot of the Crimean War. Ukrainians increased their exports of wheat. This wheat flooded the US market. The problem for midwestern farmers was their timing. They’d wanted to up their own production of wheat and had increased their investment exposure with bank loans. Prices for spring wheat fell and the loans couldn’t be paid back. Land prices dropped too.

The end result for the Bishop Hill colony was to take one step closer to eventual dissolution. However, they had a nice supply of useless, but lovely, money-like printed paper. The term for modern-day collectors is obsolete currency, and, 160 years later, that old “money” is finally worth something.

The wedding will have to wait for next week.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Halloween Treat

When I interviewed a neighbor, a retired firefighter, to gain some insight on arson fires for a novel, we spent a lot of time on Davenport’s St. Elizabeth’s fire. It wasn’t arson, just a bad one. Local newspapers had reported on it a couple of times since I moved to the area. When I needed a ghost story for a local contest I mixed that story with my SEE YA Book Club experiences—this is the result.

The Last Watch

By Mary Davidsaver

It was the best Halloween party ever. Totally awesome. So what if I got home after curfew? Way after midnight. It was worth it. Even with my dad going all parenty about it. Going on and on about responsibility and the honor system. I would do it again if I had the chance—and he knew it.

I braced myself for the grounding. The extra chores. The “no computer time.” He threw a curve instead. He told me to pull on some sweats and get my warmest coat on. We are going out.

“What? It’s, like, 2 a.m. I have school tomorrow. What about that responsibility thing you were just talking about?”

“This is important. I’ll write you a note.” He crossed his arms over his chest and stared me down. Sleeping in on a school morning that was sure to be a sugar-charged disaster had its appeal. I wouldn’t have any trouble catching up on homework tonight. I got ready to go out and met him in the car.

We drove through Davenport’s streets, past homes that were still lighted by Halloween decorations. I watched them go by without paying attention to where we were going, until we turned onto Marquette St. I guessed our destination would be the park and went back to staring at the passing scenery and sharing my dad’s stiff silence.

Instead of going into the park, we turned into the parking lot of Genesis Medical Center and parked in a remote corner.

I got out and followed along a couple of steps behind him hoping this would go fast. We’d meet up with whatever old loony pal he had up his sleeve, get my lecture, and then slide on back home. My warm bed was calling.

He stopped across the way from a small white building and checked his watch. “Not long now. He’ll show up at 2:40. Five minutes.”

“Ok, I’ll bite. Who are we waiting for?”

“Your great-grand father.”

I flashed on the old photo of me as a baby being held on his lap. I’m sure I was placed there for the photo op and then removed before I could do any damage to his suit. He looked ancient then.

I had to say the obvious, “He’s, ah, like, dead, isn’t he?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“And he’s going to show up here. Next to the hospital parking lot.”

“He does it all the time.” As Dad looked at me the creases in his face seemed to soften. “We’ve all been here. It’s a tradition. And now it’s your turn.”

“But why …?” My question trailed off as the ghostly form materialized a short distance away.

“Because your great-grandfather was a firefighter and this here was his worst fire. It haunted him throughout his life.”

I looked around at the neatly mown grass. “There’s nothing here,” I said.

He swept his hand out in a wide arc. “It’s all here. Graves over there. Sixteen of them. St. Elizabeth’s was back over there. It burned to the ground on the morning of Jan. 7, 1950. Forty-one dead. Forty female mental patients and one nun, a nurse, Anna Neal.”

The apparition drew closer and became more solid looking. My father politely addressed it. “Granddad. This is my youngest.”

I could make out the old-fashioned firemen’s uniform. The cap set at the proper angle on his head. He was all spit and polish as he studied me. Then a crooked smile of approval crept over his face.

My nerves were getting to me at this point. “Is he going to say something, you know, profound?”

“No, none of them speak.”

“Them?” I stammered. “There are more … like him?”

“Yes, firemen, second responders, nuns. They all come.”

When a nun showed up next to my great-grandfather, I was still at a loss to believe what I was seeing.

“Is that the nun who died in the fire?”

“No. She helped to identify the …” Dad couldn’t finish the sentence. I knew his meaning.

“She didn’t die in the fire. And great-granddad didn’t either.”

“None of them did.” More men and women appeared around us and shook their heads.

“Then why are they here? Where are the ghosts of the women who died in the fire?”

“They are safe now.” Dad said.

“I don’t understand.”

“These spirits watch over those women who died in the fire so they can rest easier. So they don’t have to come back into this world and re-experience the tragedy. Granddad was always a firefighter first, and he chose to stay with them, the victims—to serve and protect—forever.” Dad paused. “Now you know why there are so many firefighters in the family.” Dad rested a hand on my shoulder. “Not everyone is up to the job. It’s your turn to decide.”

Great-granddad led all the ghostly others: the firemen, the second responders, and the nuns back towards the graves. They held their heads high as they slowly faded into the night, to go on with their vigil.

Dad and I left. Dawn would come soon and there was school tomorrow. I think Dad was saying something about my getting some sleep. I knew I wouldn’t. I had too much to think about. I buried my hands in my pockets to warm them up. This was awesome. So totally worth it.

©copyright 2017 by Mary Davidsaver. All Rights Reserved. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Becoming the Beta Reader

I've volunteered to act as a Beta reader and wanted to dig up the critique rules I was given in an old writing workshop. I found a blog post from May, 2014 instead. The thoughts on feedback and editing are still good. Here it is:

Constructive Criticism and Magic

I don’t think of constructive criticism as an oxymoron. Constructive comments as a term might sound less harsh. Better yet, feedback. Whatever you call it, it is invaluable for a writer seeking to improve skills and a story.

Writers need not fear revisions and rewrites. That’s where the magic happens.

I’ve recently gathered the confidence to let my novel out to a few trusted readers with the instruction, request actually, to give me comments and feedback.

Now, I have to wait and fret. I’ve spent the better part of four years building up to this point. If the consensus is totally negative, what can I do? Start completely over after investing so much? That will hurt. I’ve heard of writers doing just that. They put a bad manuscript in a drawer and go on to the next something else. Sadder, but wiser.

I suppose I could move on the next project. Check out writing websites for ideas. But I’d rather not. I still have high hopes for my Bishop Hill novel. I’d rather have constructive comments and ideas on how to make it better, to continue working within the framework of what I have already built.

When I took part in a novel writing workshop through the Midwest Writing Center in 2012, I had to come up with 30 pages of manuscript to share with the dozen other writers. I felt lucky to have those pages ready to go. Some of the other writers didn’t.

Amy Parker, a writer from Iowa City, led the group through the workshop process and set up these guidelines for us:

·        Read twice: first for pleasure, as with a “magazine read” and look for first impressions; second as a writer who marks up the manuscript to indicate the passages that delight, that confuse, that pose questions. In short, fill in the margins with comments.

·        Write a one page letter to the author. She wanted us to describe the story, what happens, and where we thought it was going. Readers can pick up on things the author may not have intended. We need to know what worked for the reader, what moved them, what they admired.

The goal was to get at what confused the reader. Where the story needed development, gaps filled, inconsistencies fixed, language clarified. What scenes that could be compressed or summaries that could be amped up.

I don’t expect my readers to go through a whole novel twice, but I am hoping for good suggestions for the next rewrite. After all, magic is a good thing.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Reviewing That Tough Book

Writing a book review can be challenging for a book that on first reading isn’t quite “your thing.” It’s so easy to find fault with a book, to pick it apart for grammar, spelling mistakes, and overall continuity. Taking some time, and a step back, to purposefully look for the POSITIVE elements can bring out a much better, and still honest, review.

That’s what I did for Reggie! Ringling’s First Black Clown.

I let myself get all up in arms when someone didn’t get Jerry Lewis’s name correct in a photo caption. I very nearly forgot to look at the book as a whole, complete work that had a lot more to offer than the editorial mistakes of the self-published volume.

Add to that the fact that my review would be the first one on Amazon and Goodreads put me into a much different position. I would be able to set a positive tone for a deserving book that needed a boost.

I went back and reread the preface. I found the information and therefore the balance I needed to write a much better and more accurate review. I’m glad I took the time. Here is my review:

Reggie! Ringling’s First Black Clown

This slim book covers a brief period in the life of Reginald Montgomery when, through chance and choice, he was in the crosshairs of history as a pioneer performer.

As the title says: He was the first African-American clown in a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was under new ownership at the time and willing to expand its frontiers. Those efforts were needed to adapt the circus, and probably save it, for the second half of the twentieth century.

Authors Hepner and Roseman piece together a narrative out of an autobiographical play, coauthored by Reggie and Hepner; biographical interviews of people who knew Reggie; and family history, complete with photos.

The action is kept mainly in the time frame of 1968-1969 when Reggie toured as a graduate of the first clown college. Background information about circus history, circus life, and current events are added as needed. 

What emerges is a poignant look at the struggles and triumphs of a talented young man who saw himself as a serious theatre actor first and foremost. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

OMG: or the Adventure of Self-publishing

My foray into self-publishing really began with some little booklets I’d collected years ago and saved. My inspirations were small, cute, and inexpensive. (One used newsprint. Another contained only one short story. A free handout held a novel’s first chapter.) I thought I wanted to emulate them. Easier said than done, as I found out.

I had three wintery-themed stories saved up and self-edited to my satisfaction. (Christmas is always a safe season to start with.) I then found an editor to go over them for a final proofreading; I didn’t want to be embarrassed. (Yes, I paid her for her time. You don’t realize how much work this is until you do it yourself.)

I gave myself two weeks to learn how to format a book for CreateSpace … it took three weeks, maybe more. I got myself into such of a haze of confusion and discouragement that I lost track of the days I sat at my computer going down seemingly dead ends. The hazy mind came from trying to learn too many new things all at once with a deadline staring me in the face. (The deadline was of my own construction. I wanted a book by early November—a gift for Olof Krans’s birthday. Anyway, deadlines can become useful tools to shake out the procrastination cobwebs.)

The “too many new things” to learn pretty much all at once included the likes of: formatting rules, jargon, shortcuts, how to use my 2016 version of Word without bothering with tutorials, and not thinking about the end-product needing a decent, albeit simple, cover.

Will I get my finished book by the deadline? Probably not. Do I have a Plan B? Yes, it used to be Plan A before I decided to utilize CreateSpace.

Why CreateSpace? Because I wanted the full experience of self-publishing a book. (Even if it was a chapbook-sized book.) INDIE AUTHOR DAY is coming up at Davenport’s main library and I’ll be there. Becoming a real indie author seemed like a good idea. I also wanted an ISBN without paying $99. And, as it turns out, I happened into a way to design a cover that suited my purpose without a massive amount of hair-tugging exasperation. (Many thanks to my better half, the guy who can research the net faster than me.)

Here’s what have I learned so far: don’t take shortcuts, follow instructions (computers aren’t all that forgiving), video tutorials are only a beginning (at least for me), Word 2016 provides some good online help (if you look for it), and it isn’t necessary to learn it all for the first book (CreateSpace is pretty friendly for beginners). 

I will get my little book in time for this year's Christmas season. Then I might start thinking about what to do with the other seasonal stories I've got saved up ... maybe.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Banned Books & Censorship

For Banned Books week, I went to a reading held at the Rock Island Library. I got there in time to hear excerpts from Harry Potter, Judy Blume, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (in Middle English), and for the end with an essay by Harlan Ellison. It was another great evening honoring the right to read without limitations.

It wasn’t until the next morning that it occurred to me how important the role of censorship played in getting my sons to start reading in earnest on their own.

It started with Gary Paulsen’s Winterdance. I’d heard about it from my mother-in-law. I read it, loved it, and wanted my kids, my teenaged boys, to experience what I thought were the funniest parts. It was an adult book, so I figured I’d just read to them those parts and get out before they got too bored. I called them into the youngest’s bedroom, sat on the floor, and read out loud the part where Paulsen describes the first time he had his sled dogs out for a training run. He ends up being drug behind the makeshift rig so fast that the matches in his back pocket ignite. (I had a hard time not laughing.) On a night-time training run, the sled team ran into a skunk. Let’s say you don’t try to pull a skunk out of a dog’s mouth by the tail. (Still funny.) I read those pages out loud to them and left it at that. I was surprised when they each had to read the whole book.

Since that went well, I tried reading an entire book out loud—Jurassic Park. I was worried about some scenes being too graphicly scary, and wanted to avoid the cannibals all together, so I left them out of my reading. They read those edited parts for themselves. Censoring seemed like waving a red cape at a bull.

My husband did a similar thing with Catch-22. After he was done, the boys took turns reading the whole book.

In my opinion, for my family at least, censorship became a great tool to get reluctant readers interested enough to find out what they were missing by, you know, reading. 

My grown sons still read, each to his own tastes, and they've done well by it. They're interesting people to talk to.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Editing, Editing

I’ve been in full contest mode for the past few weeks. First was the Ghost Tales Contest sponsored as a fundraiser for the Colonel Davenport House. For that, I wrote up a story, from a young adult point of view, about a family ghost. I spent 3 days going over and over it: refining; switching words, and sentences, around; basically, trying to make the most of my 1,000-word allotment. I got it done with 913 words, and submitted early. I had other things to do.

One those “other” things turned out to be the River City Reader Short Fiction Contest. This one was more difficult. Made so because a prompt had to be incorporated into the story. This year’s selections were all quotes from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. There was a nice variety of sage and witty words from the master. None of which spoke to me. Until, that is, my fourth reading of the list. Something clicked and one of the quotes seemed perfect for a piece I’d already written for a book club meeting. The story was both real and a satire for an author whose work I really enjoyed. The trouble was my story clocked in at 978 words and I would only be allowed 300 words for my entry.


It seemed like an impossible task. There was only to do: try and see what I could come up with.

Reading the story again, I copied and pasted key paragraphs and dialog into a new document. 700 words.

I began cutting into the paragraphs and eliminating whole sentences wherever I could. The ones not directly involving the true essence of the story arc. Cute stuff. 600 words.

More cutting of cute stuff. Miscellaneous funny business. Nonsense dialog. (You’d have to know something of Jenny Lawson’s books & blog.) 500 words.

Now, came the serious rearranging of the remaining elements into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. 400 words.

So close to the goal of 300 words. It was time to get RUTHLESS.

A last-ditch, late-night push. 290 words. That was WITH the quote. (The quote wouldn’t be counted, but we were encouraged to be conservative.)

However, my story left a bit to be desired when I read it again the next morning. Time for the extra dose of fine tuning: choosing the exact words to use, pruning the wrong words here and there, and shifting things around so they made the most sense for the plot. Even coming up with a better ending. Everything was done as a balancing act. If I added something here, something there had to be shortened. 290 words.

After another day of effort, and I still had 290 words with a coherent story that was true to the original theme and mood.

With the approval from my favorite Beta reader, I submitted the story early. (Contest deadline: 5 pm CDT Oct 10)

Subtracting the 17 words of the quote, that wouldn’t be counted, that gave me a final total count of 273 words out of the starting 978. I had achieved a 72-percent word reduction with my editing binge. I considered having cocktails for lunch.

For more information about the River City Short Fiction Contest:

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Million-Dollar Photo

A recent article in the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus by Lisa Hammer reported that the Village of Bishop Hill will receive close to 2 million dollars with a grant and a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the water system.

This help has been sorely needed for a long time. I know because I, along with many others, have been taking photographs of the tower over those years. I’ve taken pictures of the tenacious black squirrel that tried living up there. I’ve witnessed the leaks it caused and the many others. Photographing the resulting icicles in each consecutive winter became a thing to do. It all led up to the winter of 2006. By December the ice build-up around the base of the old wooden tower was massive. A couple of metal struts were bending. There was real concern about one of the legs giving out. The only company the village could get to work on the tower couldn’t come until January. The Bishop Hill volunteer firemen were asked to help get the ice off the tower.

It all came together on Dec. 12th. The firemen were out in force with the new ladder truck and ready to do battle with the giant icicle that weighed an estimated 11 tons. I stood in the crowd that had gathered across the street. I kept my small camera safe and warm in my pocket waiting for the perfect moment for the best shot of the action. Thirty minutes, and some cold toes, later, I got my photo.

My little camera was what one photographer called a “happy snappy.” It wasn’t big or complex, quite the opposite, but it did the job. I sent the result to Doug Boock, the editor of Galva News. It made the front page of that week’s edition. It was also used for a year-end montage. What I didn’t know at the time was that Boock submitted it for two awards with the Illinois Press Association.

That following Sep. I went to the awards ceremony in Springfield and got to bring home a very nice first-place plaque for feature photograph. The office got the plaque. I got photos of me and my big moment.

Lorali Heintzelman, area specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was quoted as saying, “Not that we needed that [the photo of ice dangling from the tower], we had documentation, but a picture tells 1,000 words.”

I’m hoping that she was referring to my photograph and not one of the many others that were taken that day. Because I’d love to say that I had taken a million-dollar photo. 

I will probably never find out. In the meantime, it was still nice to go back, find those pictures, and relive a bit of my past in Bishop Hill.

Link to Lisa Hammer's article:

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Guest Posting

For this week's blog I wrote about a recent experience that was still nagging at me. It was accepted as a guest blog post for YourMoneyPage, a website filled with financial calculators and useful information. 

Follow this link to read about my $4.90 pen:

Friday, August 25, 2017

My Three Minute Speed Pitch for Killer Nashville

I’m Mary Davidsaver. I built my first cozy mystery, Clouds Over Bishop Hill, around a fictionalized version of Bishop Hill, a former communal society and an Illinois state historic site. I gave Shelley Anderson, my protagonist and New Adult, a mission: Find a long, lost painting. I did my best to make her journey a difficult but maturing experience.

My sequel, Buried Treasure, begins with a body in a cemetery—the one body that’s NOT supposed to be there. Shelley gets involved when the prime suspect is a former boyfriend and the future fiancĂ© of Marsha Ellen: her cousin, best friend, and college roommate. It’s complicated. And becomes more complicated when Shelley receives some SHOCKING news.

To which she says, “Whoa, back up to the part where I can’t be a bridesmaid at your wedding.”

That turns out to be a pivotal point. The rest of the book explores just why Shelley would make the most unsuitable bridesmaid.

Add a cat food commercial and Bishop Hill is ready for the Hallmark Channel.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Jenny Lawson-ish Gift

For the August meeting of the West End book club we read Jenny Lawson’s second book, Furiously Happy. We had Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir on our 2015-2016 schedule, so some of us knew what to expect in terms of wit, humor, and honesty.

It appears that reading a Jenny Lawson book had an effect on me. It made me feel free-er to look at myself, my life, and it can influence my writing, if I let it.

As a gift to my readers, and for my husband, I wanted to share a story, “Alarms in the Nighttime.”

My husband has put up with me for 39-plus years of an interesting life. Not as interesting as Lawson’s, but we’ve had our moments. One of those moments came into play for this story, and I let myself run with it. As Jenny would say, “It’s mostly true.” Enjoy.

Alarms in the Nighttime
By Mary Davidsaver

My brain is trying to tell me something important like, “Wake up, the world has problems that need attending to. You need to move!”
     I should probably open my eyes.
     I roll over and mumble to my husband, “Is that another storm warning?” The past evening had been filled with our smart phones going crazy every few minutes with thunderstorm warnings and watches. Most were not too close, but when the Iowa City area had a funnel cloud spotted on the ground I’d gotten into gear and packed up my computer along with my most important notes to stow away in our storm room. My standard procedure for the midwestern tornado season.
     By now I’m aware enough to make out that the loud noise is not coming from a cell phone, and my husband is saying, “That’s the SMOKE alarm.”
     It provides a good jolt of adrenaline. I’m fully awake now and fumbling for my glasses. By the time we’re both out of the bedroom and standing by our kitchen table the awful sound stops. We’re both like, “Where’s the fire?”
     I don’t smell anything. He doesn’t smell anything, and his nose is much more sensitive than mine. We do a quick search of our rather smallish home and come up empty. No smoldering menace to be found.
     My brave husband volunteers to stay up to keep a watchful eye out, or in this case a watchful nose, for anything we might have missed. “I’m awake anyway,” he says. He proceeds to start up his computer and finds the instruction manual for our alarms. By now I’m not going anywhere either, so we start our search to see if we can tell which alarm did the deed. Which one woke us up at MIDNIGHT.
     He says, “You have to look for a blinking red light.”
     “Why me?” I ask. “Because I’m color blind,” he says.
     When we first started dating he downplayed his eye condition to merely “color challenged.” I remember this clearly. This color identification business shifted as he’s aged. What was once a “challenge” has become a badge of martyrdom and a ready excuse to get out of all kinds of color-based tasks. So, I take the lead on this hunt through our darkened house. I stand under each of our six visible alarms (there are three more tucked away out of reach) and patiently count to one hundred hoping my bleary eyes will catch a tiny green dot change to a tiny red dot. And wink at me.
     I make the circuit twice before I discover the offender. It’s in MY room. My personal writing-space room of disorder. I’m, like, thinking about how this room should be any different tonight, or rather this morning, than any other time. I can only come up with one answer—the caterpillar.
     I’m trying to help Monarch butterflies. To that end I welcomed four kinds of milkweed into my garden over the past five years—with little tangible success. This year I became determined to assist some caterpillars through to full butterflyhood. Over the past month I was harvesting the tiny white eggs, complete with milkweed leaf, and raising them in recycled Blue Bunny ice cream containers. My goal: to get them of a size that when reintroduced into the main milkweed patch they’d make it the rest of the way on their own. You see, I was SO sure that the precious eggs and hatchlings were being preyed upon by hungry ants, stealthy spiders, and nasty beetles that I put up with the fuss and muss of having wild things indoors. Well, in my garage. Things were going fine and I’d already released a couple of caterpillars. Then it got hot. Then it got hotter. The poor dears would lie in the bottom of their respective containers and NOT EAT. Not good. (Caterpillars are designed to eat—and do the other thing that’s opposite of eating.) When they tried to escape the over-heated confines of their plastic cells, I had to make the ultimate sacrifice, I brought them into the air-conditioned comfort of my home—specifically, MY room.
     On the night, or the morning, of the alarm going off I still had one caterpillar to go. I was waiting for the right time, for another break in the hot spell. How could I make this last creature go from 79 degrees of cool comfort to 95 degrees muggy torture? I couldn’t be that inhumane. My sleep-deprived brain was telling me that this bug had somehow emitted enough methane, or whatever gaseous byproduct that comes from digesting milkweed, to set off the alarm. Perhaps there’d been a build up over the past few weeks and the tipping point had been surpassed. How do I admit to my husband that it’s all my fault?
     But before I could come clean and confess—I was SAVED.
     My always clever husband presents his own theory. He declares with a straight face, it was still dark so I’m guessing it was a straight face, he says “It was those radioactive spiders.”
     I restrain myself and listen to him explain about how old-time smoke detectors used radioactive stuff to do their detecting work. Combine that with the spiders that travel into the country by hitching rides on bananas, which everyone knows are sources of radioactivity, and you get spiders that can set off smoke alarms all willy-nilly.
     What could I do but agree with him? I was so thrilled to be totally off the hook.
     That last caterpillar went free a couple of days later—and I placed a moratorium on raising any more Monarch eggs—for THIS year.

P.S. My husband read this and he totally disagrees about the martyr thing.

P.P.S. He likes to have sliced bananas on his cereal.

© Mary R. Davidsaver 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Wordinators and Panels

Two interesting items from this past week: A guest visit to a writer’s critique group in Madison, and a request to apply for another panel for Killer Nashville.

The critique group I visited does things differently than the Writer’s Studio that meets at the MWC office in the lower level of the Rock Island library twice a month. At the Writer’s Studio gatherings, we read a few pages and discus them. The other group in Madison has writers submit pages before the meeting for written comments, questions, and grammatical input. This is an approach I’ve been wanting to experience again. I liked it for a workshop on novel writing I had several years ago. The workshop leader came from Iowa City and it was as close as I could get to the Writer’s Workshop without enrolling in the U of I. (That old workshop was where I first came face to face with “comma splicing.” Didn’t know it existed until then. Can I handle it now? No comment.)

I think the Madison critique group's approach to grammar, hence the introduction to the term “Wordinator,” was quite helpful. Like a higher-level Beta reader. As one guy put it, “You combine all of us together and you get one good editor.” (Or words to that effect.)

My thoughts after 2 hours of 5 people going over 13 pages of manuscript: be constructive, be supportive, and be brief.

About the same time as I was working on my critique pages, I received an email the founder of Killer Nashville saying, “I want to make sure I portray you in your best light.” So, I could apply for a position on another panel.

I went through the KN schedule and made a list of panels I might be able to offer something constructive to and wrote down my thoughts:

Creating & Weaving Subplots

I read Kathy Reichs first novel, Deja Dead, and felt that she threw in everything but the kitchen sink. I was impressed with the complexities. So, I was not averse to add a lot of subplots to my novel. I have a missing painting, a fake painting, a destroyed painting, a Swede with a fake name, four villains with ulterior motives, detailed description of a village in Illinois, and lots of family secrets. The thing that (hopefully) saved me became clearer with a comment I heard from Ethan Canin: “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.” (11-11-16)

Bad Boys (and Girls): The Villains You Can’t Forget

I love my villains. Once created I couldn’t get rid of them by pinning them with the crime. At a panel for Murder & Mayhem in Chicago the moderator asked for any examples of a mystery that didn’t have a killer. I was too shy to raise my hand, but I did slip her my card afterward with a note about the metaphor I thought was most important to me. (And yes, that was going against the advice of one of my editors, but I had to make a point for my theme of preservation. Just another stubborn writer I guess.)

Lighten Up, You are Where You’re Supposed to Be: Keeping Perspective

There is a YouTube video of J. K. Rowlings giving a commencement address where she talks about the lowest point in her life and how she had to focus completely on getting one thing right, her first novel. I can identify with that. I’m a late bloomer as a writer and I had a lot of ground to make up. I did one thing, my first novel, and not much else for years. Because of that singlemindedness I don’t have an impressive resume for publications, but I feel I did my best at getting my message across in the novel. (If I didn’t, well, there’s the 2nd book.)

I’m Not the Same Anymore: Character Arcs

Early on a friend made me promise to have my protagonist grow and change. I kept that in mind. Workshops taught me that there are positive and negative arcs. Upward and downward. I have used both. And none. It was pointed out that some characters don’t change, i.e. Jack Reacher.

(There’s a YouTube video of Curt Vonnegut diagraming story plots. Love the visual aspect of it. Might be useful for this panel.)

Buy My Book and Pay Me to Speak

I had to have a fifth entry on the form and I picked this for no other reason than I’m thinking about it now. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Two Reviews for Susan Furlong

Peaches and Scream

Peaches and Scream by Susan Furlong is an excellent introduction into the complicated life of Nola Mae Harper. She’s a Georgia belle who went AWOL after high school and has returned to sort out her life. She has issues with family, friends, job, and finding a body leaning against a peach tree on the family farm. Furlong leads the reader through the streets of Cays Mill as she piles up clues about a host of suspects. She then takes us on to a bumpy ride over narrow back roads to the final twist of an ending that I never saw coming.

War and Peach Review

I thought the Harper clan had its share of adversity piled pretty high in Susan Furlong’s third visit to Cays Mill, Georgia. Most of it thanks a long-standing grudge nursed by a peevish sheriff who can let important clues slip by. Though, I have to admit that those clues slipped by me as well. All thanks to the clever writing of the author. Furlong made me wait to the very end to fully reveal all the guilty parties.

Both books were well plotted out, stocked with believable and approachable characters, and true to the cozy mystery genre.

And the recipes were more than just window dressing or sources for peachy humor. I really learned to like peach salsa and how to thaw out frozen fruit. It works. All of this really works. Good reads all the way around.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Book Review and the Caterpillar

My Review for Furiousy Happy by Jenny Lawson:

I found the first third of the book difficult to get through. Lawson's revelations and frank assessments about her mental health were gripping and peppered with insane humor. Insane because I was reduced to bouts of teary-eyed laughter in places. The middle third was tamer. The Appendix: Interview with the Author situated in the middle of the book was a great idea and most helpful. The last third held the payoff--the real reason to make it to the end. For me is was The File of 24, which contains the letters from people who changed their minds about suicide, and Victor's answer to Jenny saying, "I felt like his life would be easier without me." His answer, "It might be easier. But it wouldn't be better."

Jenny Lawson's journey through life will never be easy, but it will be well documented in her personal style with interesting expletives, poignant stories of survival, growing self-awareness, and the laugh-out-loud funny.

It seems that whenever I read a Jenny Lawson book I get infected with her irreverent writing style. It happened with her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and to a lesser extent with the second, Furiously Happy.

I lived in Austin, TX and was taken with Lawson’s first book because of its location in what I remember as the Texas hill country. It struck a chord. Likewise the taxidermy. And the fun she had buying the gigantic metal rooster was amplified went I started seeing them for sale in eastern Iowa. Who knew they would become a thing. Anyway, I’ve been on a mission to document every sighting on my Facebook author’s page ever since. (My last photo entry had like a dozen.)

As I said, I liked her free-wheeling writing style and could channel it way too easily. So much so that I had to force myself to stop. I’m not her.

However, I’ve come back to that style once again and it may save me for this weekend. You see I jumped at a chance to be part of a new event at the QC Botanical Center in Rock Island. Jane had asked if I had anything nature related. I asked if Monarch butterflies counted? She said yes. I said yes. When I had a minute more to think about what I’d done I realized I really didn’t have anything newer than a newspaper article published years ago when I first started my butterfly garden. I was in trouble.

Then we had a night of storm warnings, our smoke alarm went off at midnight, and everything fell into place. I had my own off-beat story to tell, in my own way, and in my own voice. I’ll find out what the reaction to it will be on Saturday. 

Time to practice the delivery.

Friday, July 21, 2017

My Pattern for Building scenes

I came up with my system of building scenes by trial and error. I was working on my first mystery novel without a written-out outline.

I had my setting: the (real) village of Bishop Hill. I had the plot point of a (real) Swedish-born folk artist, who documented the 19th century colony period, have his last portrait lost for decades.

From there, I built my cast of characters by using bits and pieces of real people I knew and photo clippings I’d been saving. I got to know the ins and outs of my characters’ background by using several worksheets I picked up from workshops I’ve attended.

When it came time to construct the SCENES that my characters would inhabit and would use get the action going I fell into a pattern that worked for me.

First came DIALOG. I decided on the principle speakers, usually two characters. I gave them a mission: what they needed to talk about, how much info to reveal, clues to drop, etc. I imagined their voices, but didn’t worry excessively about speech patterns at first. Then I set them in motion. I had them talk. Usually, they were well behaved and advanced the plot as I wanted. However, sometimes the new and unexpected happened. That was a bonus.

SETTING came after I had my framework of dialog. I went back to add in the details. Where were they: In a kitchen? In a cafĂ©? In a barn? On a street?

When the setting was in place, I added ACTION: I made them fidget with a napkin for instance, or hold a cup of coffee for its soothing warmth, the same for baking some muffins, or walk the streets looking and listening.

Next came the most difficult element for me to get in and to get right—EMOTION.

I went so far as to buy The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Ackerman & Puglisi. (Okay, I didn’t buy it. I guilted a son into gifting it as a Christmas present.)

The last step was to add some little BITS OF BUSINESS that made things fun. Giving the characters the drawl, twang, or melodic accent to set them apart. Replaying an inside joke from high school. Using a very common last name to excess.

What I’ve described is a process of adding layer upon layer to build a complex scene that moves the action forward and adds information about my people, where they live, and what their motives might be. Everything and anything can become a clue.

It takes time at first. But it gets faster. And I envy the authors who can do it well enough to make it look easy.

There are, of course, other ways to come up with a solid scene. The following list is from a recent workshop with Kali VanBaale at the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference:

Distinct time & place & POV
Dramatic tension, actions to further story