Monday, December 23, 2013

An American Christmas Present

Robert Sells reminds us of a Christmas story from long ago.

An American Christmas Present by Robert Sells

Christmas presents come in all shapes and sizes, but the one General George Washington received in seventeen seventy was unique.

The summer before was an embarrassment for the newly appointed commander-in-chief. Within a few short months he lost three major battles, was pushed out of New York City, and retreated across New Jersey. His army was reduced from thirteen thousand men to less than three thousand men. Two major generals and some in the Continental Congress were secretly trying to oust him. 

In cold December, Washington and the tattered remains of his army crossed the wide Delaware River. The British and their Hessian mercenaries declined to follow and for good reasons.  Winter weather was already upon them and the European commanders were concerned about finding suitable quarters for their shivering men in the villages and farms of New Jersey.  Besides, though the Americans had lost all the battles, they fought fiercely and inflicted heavy casualties. Better to let winter reduce their numbers and wait for their surrender in the spring. 

For George Washington, however, surrender would never be an option. He was playing this deadly game to win and only to win.

But Washington could not ignore that the American army was nearly beaten. The British blocked him from returning to New Jersey with fifteen hundred expertly trained Hessian mercenaries in Trenton under the able command of Colonel Rall. To make matters worse, in a few weeks most of his remaining army would complete their enlistment and head home. It was unlikely many colonists would join a losing army in the middle of winter. With only two thousand men, how could he change the momentum of the war? 

Washington decided on a bold action… a counter-attack in the dead of winter.  He wanted to attack, waited to attack, but, in addition to surprise, he needed another ally…  a snow storm to mask his small army. On Christmas day his wish was granted; he got a whopper, the worst blizzard of the decade!

During the heavy snowstorm, Colonel Rall was confident there would be no action from the Jersey guerillas pestering him on one side of the river and certainly none from the Continental Army on the other side of the river. Who, in their right mind, would ever challenge the weather or the swift running Delaware filled with great blocks of boat-crushing ice? So, Rall and his officers let their weary men stay warm in cabin and tent instead of patrolling the roads and paths. 

On the other side of the now raging river, General Washington had already decided to make the treacherous crossing and neither cautious friend nor well-trained enemy would stop him. Christmas night, with the blizzard at its peak, he mustered his troops and a ‘password’ was whispered from man to man: Victory or Death. 

Navigating the ice-choked river was nearly impossible and the American army almost didn’t make it across. They landed three hours late. Washington realized the delay could be costly since it meant the attack would be in glaring light of day and not under the cover of darkness. 

With dawn all too rapidly approaching, the American soldiers tramped through the snow. Those too tired huddled by trees and froze to death. Two hours into a freezing march, another potential disaster confronted the floundering army. One after the other, soldiers checked their weapons. Their powder was damp and their guns would not fire. When the devastating news reached Washington, an unnerved officer asked what they should do. He answered with three words: “Advance and charge.”  Surprise or no surprise, with or without bullets, he would attack. It was to be ‘Victory or Death’. 

Finally the storm relented. During the final approach, the swirling wind calmed down… the rain and snow had stopped. With the village of Trenton a few hundred yards away, the men checked their weapons again. The ammunition had dried and their muskets would now fire. This last gasp of the storm blessed them with still another gift: a heavy fog gave them sufficient cover so they could get close without being seen. Surprise and cover, exactly what the Americans needed to win this critical engagement. 

Washington led his men toward the village, the soldiers running to keep up with the tall man’s long strides. The sleepy town of Trenton woke up to musket fire. The Hessians were surprised, confused, and disordered. Still they fought hard and bravely… and lost. 

With the Trenton victory, the hemorrhaging of the army stopped. Recruits swelled its ranks. A week later, Washington led a much larger army back into New Jersey and won two more battles. In just a few weeks, first and most important leader of our country morphed from rabbit to fox. The British, shocked by the sudden reversal of the campaign, conceded most of New Jersey. From the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to the soldiers huddled around campfires to the lone farmer tending his animals that cold winter, all were sure they had the right man to lead them to victory. 

Six long years later a triumphant general, back from the final battle of Yorktown, rode again through Trenton on a beautiful summer day. It was so different from the terrible Christmas night when wind, snow, and rain tested the resolve of the Americans and then rewarded them just the right ingredients for victory. The blizzard, America’s first Christmas present, secured an essential victory and spotlighted the leader who would eventually defeat the greatest army and navy in the world. 

Merry Christmas to all Americans from Robert Sells, author of Reap the Whirlwind and Return of the White Deer. Check them out on the MSP website.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

New Release from MSP: Spelling It Out for Your Man

MSP author, Julieanne O'Connor brings us Spelling It Out for Your Man, a non-fiction book that will help men and women in relationships.

Once upon a time in the fairy tales, people risked it all for love and couples lived happily ever after. Then something changed. People became complacent, lazy, even oblivious and began misinterpreting the most basic forms of communication. Suddenly humans were lost and the most common happily ever after was post-break-up. Yet there was still HOPE!

Based on the consistently repeated mistakes of many, Spelling It Out for Your Man offers a candid, funny and non-judgmental view of the exploration of what’s really going on in the minds of men and women regarding sex and love, as well as what entices people to attract and stay attracted to one another.

Julieanne O’Connor’s intention is to inspire people to tap into their own sexuality, to release the need for the illusion of ownership, and to evoke the desire in everyone to open their hearts wider still.

Author Bio:
A spokesperson in business for many years, author, actor, friend, wife and mother, Julieanne O’Connor insists on saying what’s on her mind, and asking the questions that people never thought they’d be asked, regarding love and sex. The shocking consistency of answers in both private and public are the inspiration for Spelling It Out for Your Man. After researching couples for over fifteen years, including business professionals, co-workers, friends and strangers using questions designed to evoke candid replies on the secret to a happy relationship, Julieanne has extracted the keys to what appear to be the cause of today’s many unhappy marriages, and failed attempts at love. A not-so-quiet observer of men and women with their consistently repeated mistakes, Julieanne O’Connor is determined to break through the highly prevalent taboo of sharing some of what’s really going on in the minds and hearts of men and women, regarding sex and love.

Find Out More:

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Speaking of Book Festivals . . .

Martin Sisters Publishing made its first appearance as a publisher at the 2013 Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort last weekend.
Book sales themselves were marginal but invaluable contacts in the publishing industry were made – especially with bookstore buyers.

The Kentucky Book Fair is listed as one of the six largest annual book fairs in the nation.
“Although we are small, we are growing,” said MSP publisher Melissa Newman. “We hope to attend many more of these events as we gain momentum in the publishing industry.”

Book lovers attend events like the Kentucky Book Fair to meet the author, Newman said. It’s the one time readers can connect on a personal level with the writers of the books they love.

Nearly 200 authors and illustrators participated in the book fair at the Frankfort Convention Center on Nov. 15-16, with more than 4,000 people attending the annual event.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tucson Festival of Books!

MSP is proud to announce that one of its authors, Kathleen Papajohn, is going to be at the Tucson Festival of Books in March.

The Tucson Festival of Books will be held on Saturday, March 15 and Sunday, March 16, 2014 on the beautiful University of Arizona campus in Tucson, Arizona. The Festival enters its sixth year as the fourth largest literary event in the country attracting over 450 authors and 120,000 participants during the weekend. All proceeds from the Festival are donated to local non-profit organizations that support improved literacy in Southern Arizona...$900,000 has been donated since the Festival began in 2009.

Kathleen Papajohn, Author of Maligned will have a slot in one of the author tents. The Author Pavilion provides a two-hour block of time in a shared space (up to ten authors per tent) where authors may interact with the public, sell books and autograph their publications.

Readers, be sure to check out this awesome event. More info here:

Authors, you can get a spot too if you hurry! More info on that here:

More about Kathleen:

Born in Boston, Kathleen has lived in Phoenix, Arizona for the past twenty years. She was co-Salutatorian of her Rio Salado College graduating class (1995) with her late husband. She has spent her professional life working with computers-from teaching computer programming to her last position as Chief Information Officer for a major weapons manufacturer. Although her novel, MALIGNED, is fiction, much of the technology in the story is inspired by her work, and by the work of her late husband who was a member of the intelligence community prior to founding his own computer consulting firm. Kathleen is also the author of a number of short stories, commercial communications and advertising releases. Visit her website at
Maligned Blurb:

Phoenix is simmering in the heat of a lazy July morning in 2195 when the execution-style murder of a young boy shatters the complacency of a population that hasn’t seen anyone die from natural causes for almost two centuries.

Enter Malcolm Godfrey, a darkly brilliant alpha-male with an axe to grind. Malcolm’s insatiable appetite for power, money and women have made him a highly intelligent monster who is plotting the ultimate corporate take-over, a coup d’état. He believes that he is the chosen one, but there is just one more loose end to tie up before the final stage of his sinister plan can be put into motion. When Malcolm frames the beautiful wife of an ex-black ops specialist for murder, he finds that he has created an inescapable web of corporate deceit, danger and intrigue that culminates finally in a battle for mankind itself.

George Orwell's Rules of Writing

John W. Howell is back to tell us about the rules of writing as established by George Orwell.

Orwell is as Orwell Does by John W. Howell

Eric Arthur Blair who wrote under the pen name George Orwell (1903 – 1950) is best known for two of his six novels of fiction ; Animal Farm and Nineteen eighty- four. These books placed him in a class by himself. He was an outspoken critic of the machinations of government and the effect of policy on the ordinary citizen. He once was very much in favor of Soviet socialism until he witnessed the abuses of the Stalin era. Although he was a profound voice in the political dialog of his day, as a writer, I am more enamored with some rules for writers that George established:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous

George was also influential in the establishment of vernacular that we use today.  When we think of draconian government methods we describe the methods as Orwellian.  Big Brother is the government and the term Cold War was first used by George.  It is too bad that he died at the age 46 since he would have enjoyed writing about the Thought Police and Newspeak (terms he created) well into his older years.  The following is his fictional biography: 1934 – Burmese Days, 1935 – A Clergyman's Daughter, 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying, 1939 – Coming Up for Air, 1945 – Animal Farm, 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
What do you think of these rules of writing?
John writes fictional short stories and novels as well as a blog at He is currently under contract with Martin Sisters Publishing for his fiction thriller My GRL being prepared for release.

John lives on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of south Texas with his wife and spoiled rescue pets. He can be reached at his e-mail, Facebook or Twitter at @HowellWave

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

3 Steps to Hosting a Better Reading

Merrill Davies, author of The Truth About Katie, talks to us about marketing books through readings and signings.

READINGS: An Important Component of Marketing Your Book

I had anticipated the reading/signing of my new book, The Truth About Katie, for several weeks. I looked forward to it, not only because it was a chance to promote my own book, but because I would have a chance to hear other authors read from their books also. I had practiced at an earlier reading in my neighborhood as well as for my husband and a good friend. My timing was running a few minutes over, but my host said not to worry about it. We arrived in plenty of time, and I met the other authors before the program began.

My reading was first and I thought it went well. The second author was a man and his presentation was passionate and energizing. When the third author was called up, she chose to sit in a chair which had been provided in case we wanted to sit, but she did not use the mike which was also provided if we chose to use it. As she began to speak, I realized that I was not able to hear much of what she said, and as she read her selection (a poem), I understood very little of it. Afterward, I learned that several others in the audience had the same problem. It was a shame because what little I heard sounded good. I realized then that writers are often not schooled in oral presentations or readings. I am fortunate in that I not only taught English for many years, but also have been a member of Toastmasters for over ten years. During my teaching and working through the Toastmasters program, I have had the opportunity to study the skills that are important in public speaking as well as interpretative reading. In the next few paragraphs, I would like to make some suggestions that might be helpful for new authors who are asked (or who would like) to make presentations or do readings from their books.

1. Choose your reading(s) carefully. 
You should be able to state clearly why you chose a particular passage to read. These are some important questions to ask yourself: Does the passage grab the listener and make him/her want to hear more? Does it fit your audience? Does it allow you to use vocal variety? Can you read the part in the time allotted? Will it be better to read from just one section or should you read from two or three parts of the book?

2. Create an introduction for the audience before you read a passage. 
Most of the time I try to give a brief introduction about the book before I begin. In my first book, The Welsh Harp, I typically just read one scenario which has a beginning, middle, and end. I usually don’t read but one passage, so I don’t have any transitions. However, in The Truth About Katie, I couldn’t find one I thought worked well, so I read three different passages—one from the first of the book, one from the middle, and one toward the end—all designed to create questions in the readers mind about what happens later. Because I read three different passages, I created brief transitions (two or three sentences) between the selections, which help to explain what I will read.

3. Plan/practice presenting your reading before you go. 
All your work is wasted if you cannot be heard and understood during your readings. When you get to the location where your reading is held, notice the seating arrangement and think of how you can project your voice to the person who is sitting the farthest from you. If you feel intimidated by giving presentations, I suggest you get in touch with your local Toastmasters club and begin to practice speaking skills in a supportive, positive environment. It may take a while, but it will be well worth it. Meanwhile, practice with a
friend or relative with whom you feel comfortable. Try to make sure you are familiar enough with your reading that you do not have to look down at your book all the time.
Look up at your audience as much as possible. Probably it is best to stand unless you are using a mike.

I have attended many readings where I had not planned to buy a book, but just couldn’t resist after hearing the author read from it. I believe that readings and presentations are good ways to convince people to buy your book. Because of this, I believe that practicing your presentation skills is essential. Just keep trying! You can do this.

Merrill Davies is the author of The Truth About Katie. To find out more about this book, visit the book page on the MSP site.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Today, Kayla Curry talks about NaNoWriMo and how to use it to motivate yourself.

NaNoWriMo can stand for National Novel Writing Motivation.

Some of you may be aware of the craziness going on this month known as NaNoWriMo. If you don't, you should definitely check into it. NaNoWriMo actually stands for National Novel Writing Month, but I feel that motivation is what the event is really all about.

So during this month, participants are supposed to write like there is no tomorrow and get at least 50,000 words down in 30 days. Sounds pretty difficult to some and easy for others, but to me, that isn't the point.

You see, I use NaNoWriMo as a motivational tool. I tend to get more writing done when I do it along side of someone. So, I like to join word sprints and wars with groups of writers. NaNoWriMo provides an environment where I can actually meet up with people and write "with" them.

The forums on the NaNoWriMo site are also very helpful. If you are stuck in your story or need advice or just an opinion, you can head to the forums and have an answer within the hour.

This event is good to join, even if you don't think you can reach 50,000 words in 30 days. I'm behind on my word count, and I'm alright with that. I've written more this month than I would normally and that is all that matters. Sometimes motivation is all you need. Sure, sometimes "Winning" is great too, but as long as you are getting some words down, you're doing awesome!

Is anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year?

Kayla Curry is the author of the MSP title, Obsidian. Her second book, Moonstone, is soon to be released. The Mystic Stones Series is a paranormal fantasy story with romance, magic and action. Check out Obsidian on the MSP site.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

6 Steps to More Writing Time

Today, T.C. Slonaker is here to help you with managing time while writing.

When to Write When You Don't Have Time to Write

I will never have a PhD. Not because I don't want to study for my doctorate - I love to study! - but because it should be a DPh, in alphabetical order like it should be.

So now you know about my sickness. Yes, I have been diagnosed with a mild form of OCD (which, I know, should be called CDO). It's called the "pure O," characterized only by obsessive behavior. I'm crazy, but don't necessarily need to do anything about it complain. Loudly. It drives me insane when the volume of the TV is set to a level of an odd number. But it doesn't majorly disrupt my life. Sure, when I run, I will have to run an extra mile to finish on an even number, and I must do it in an even time, but that is just minutes from my day. I don't require medication for this one.

And my dark secret? I don't really want to change. I'm okay with my obsessive behavior because sometimes it's helpful.

As my kids get older, I have accumulated more and more in my life for which I need to be on time. Therefore, I need to find the time to do it all. Along life's path, I have acquired two jobs, a few volunteer positions at church and school, a house to keep, kids to grow and manage, a few pets and a husband too.

As the kind of person who clings to the adage "A place for everything and everything in its place," I have found that less clutter in my life can make a life less cluttered. It sounds simple, doesn't it? Not when there are several other people in the house without those same convictions. Still, I press on, since it's the only way I can have control over the work I do and not let it overwhelm me.

Having less clutter in my house is one thing. Having less clutter in my schedule is another, since I can't always see it. So that's the first step in finding time in my day to write - looking at my time. 

1. Know What You're Dealing With. 
First you have to see what time you actually do have in a day. Calendars and planners are a saving grace. Without them, you spend too much time wondering what it is you aren't doing. Don't kid yourself into thinking you can keep it all straight in your mind. You can't. Something WILL get missed.
I have several types of calendars, myself.

a) Monthly calendars. These hold appointments, immovables like holidays, and just a general where the heck are we in the month? My husband usually works late during the first week of the month, so I need that reminder that dinner will be made a little later on those days. 

b) Weekly calendars. Usually just extrapolated from my monthly calendar, I can take a look at the week as a whole to see if it is jam packed or if there is a little wiggle room in which to add the "fluffy" things, like cleaning out closets or taking shopping trips. People always ask me how I can be completely done with Christmas tasks before November even hits. Effective planning, my friends.

c) Daily calendars. I have two sets of these. One is a set of "sticky notes" on my computer that hold my daily chores (such as laundry, dinner, baths, homework, soccer, etc.) - one for each day of the week. I do it on the computer so I can change as needed. When soccer season turns to basketball, changes to softball… changing is quick and easy. Then there is another set that incorporates the special events from the weekly calendar and the monthly calendar. These are all kept on my computer because that's where I will mostly easy find it.

2. Now You Can Make Your Schedule.
Once you have all those things down that you need to do, you can assign them time slots for the day. Know who you are and how you best work. Are you a morning person? Pack your morning and leave some gaps in the afternoon. Do you stay up late at night? Make your schedule go a little later. Do you routinely have appointments in the afternoon? Don't expect to use the 15 minutes between them to get anything meaningful done.

Believe it or not, my daily list is not organized by exact time, but rather by time of the day. Mornings are for getting done the "moving tasks." Exercise, errands, household chores, and grooming are the items that fit in here. Sometimes I want to get moving right away, other days I want to get the vacuuming done first. As long as it all gets done by lunch time, I'm fine. After lunch, I do the "sitting tasks." Here's where my writing fits in, as well, as work for my other job, marketing, and blogging. Once the kids start coming home from school, it's "focus on the family time" (homework, dinner, showers, sports). When the kids have gone to bed, I can do catch up work or relax.

Others might be better with an hour-specific schedule, but that's too stressful for me. Any way you choose, however, keep clocks available wherever you are working so you don't get too involved in a task.

3. Stick With the Schedule. 
Ironically, as I write this, I am off my schedule. I'm pretty sure God laughs at me when things like this happen. But since the thoughts are in my head, I must get them out. That's all I will do, however - get the thoughts out. Now is not the time to complete the entire post, or else I will not get to the next activity. And when I miss an activity, I get panicked and need to spend more time reorganizing, re-evaluating the tasks that remain, and catching up.

The point, however, is that if you get too far off schedule, you either have to re-do it or throw it out. Just like the classic Seinfeld episode at the car rental agency - "Anyone can take a reservation, but the point of the reservation is to hold the reservation." Why have a schedule if you aren't going to stick with it?

4. Don't Add What You Don't Have Room For. 
I would love to do NaNoWriMo, but I know that if I am required to fit in a certain number of words a day, I will feel defeated when I don't. And when I feel defeated, I don't get other things done either. I've had my schedule for long enough that I know about how many words I can get written in my allotted amount of time. I would need to restructure the schedule to participate in that event.

Many things may come up that really are worthy of your time, but if you can't give your whole heart to it, face it, the organizer would probably be better off with someone else. And to add something else in means restructuring the schedule. If you are doing that, you have to realize something else has to go. More re-evaluating.

5. Give Yourself a Break.
Now that I have gone all time-Nazi on you with your schedule, I'll cut you some slack. All work and no play will leave you exhausted and bitter. Schedule in some things you enjoy! If they're scheduled, you must do them. It will help you be ready to tackle the important stuff with a fresh mind.

I can't start writing until I have played a few games of Bejeweled Blitz. I reason it like this: after you collect the like gems, they disappear. It's a game of cleaning up and organizing! I don't know why, but after I have played, I feel like my brain is wide open and ready to create.

Another way of looking at giving yourself a break is not getting down on yourself when you are off schedule. I know, I know. I said, don't get off schedule. But don't quit if you slip! Start fresh the next day. Just like a diet, you won't see results if you don't stay with it.

6. When Your Life Doesn't Fit the Schedule…
There are some amazing people out there who can do it all. They have to - usually there's no choice. I'm thinking of single parents, or those trying to get an education while working full time. I was a teacher before I had children. Now, I look back at wonder how the other teachers who had children of their own ever did anything else. 

If writing is your passion, make time for it. It may mean giving up something else. It might mean less time on social media. It might mean giving up TV for a while. But if writing is what relaxes you and makes you heart happy, you won't miss what you've given up.

Once you have a schedule and work within it for a period of time, you'll be moving like well-oiled machine. Watch your word count go up, without letting the dust bunnies settle in. Who knows? You might have your Christmas cards ready to go in November too.

By T.C. Slonaker, author of Amity of the Angelmen, first of the Christian fantasy Angelmen series. Find it on the MSP Website.

Monday, November 11, 2013

One Book is as One Book Does

John W. Howell gives us a look at authors who we wish would have published more books.

One Book is as One Book Does
By John W. Howell

I was doing some research on authors who published only one book and was trying to understand some of the reasons why writers with obvious talent did not continue on to the second. The list of those who only completed one book is fairly extensive. Goodreads has a list of over fifty. I think it must be added that the books that appear on the list is a fairly impressive set of good literature. I have enjoyed a number of these authors, but not because they only wrote one book, but because the book they wrote was so outstanding. Here is a list of ten well-known: This list is courtesy of the On Line Degree Program and was published in 2010 at There are other lists (I mentioned Goodreads but this one seemed pretty complete and brief. No need for a Tome Blog)

Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird
Ralph Ellison Invisible Man
Boris Pasternak Dr. Zhivago
Margaret Mitchell Gone With the Wind
Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights
Anna Sewell Black Beauty
Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray
John Kennedy Toole A Confederacy of Dunces
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
Arundhati Roy The God of Small Things

In looking at each author more closely, the reasons are as varied as the stories; Harper Lee was not interested in writing a new book. Ralph Ellison worked on a new book but at 2000 pages it just never gelled for him and after he died the book was edited, published and titled Juneteenth. Boris Pasternak was a poet and died of lung cancer two years after Dr. Zhivago was published. Margaret Mitchell was killed crossing the street. Emily Brontë died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one. Anna Sewell started the book at age fifty-one and died of Hepatitis five months after Black Beauty was published. Oscar Wilde was a poet and playwright and never wrote another novel. John Kennedy Toole took his own life and never got his book published while he lived. Sylva Plath took her own life after a series of emotional problems. Last but not least; Arundhati Roy has been working on screenplays and began another fictional novel in 2007. She has been very active in non-fiction and has published a number of political observations that have carried much controversy.

It appears that the main reason for not publishing another fiction book; the author passed away. So for the lack of longevity, the temporal world has not benefited from additional good works from this group. Perhaps the spiritual world has been so blessed.

John Howell writes a three times a week blog at http:/ His e-mail address is: John writes fictional short stories and novels. His debut novel My GRL will be published by Martin Sisters Publishing.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Mining Family Letters

Selby McPhee, author of Love Crazy, tells us how it all began.

Mining Personal Letters for Love Crazy

While helping my mother and father move out of their house, in their 80s, to a retirement community, I discovered an old box of letters stashed in a closet. The box was marked in my father’s handwriting with a warning: “Personal letters of Mr. and Mrs. J. J. Fleming, Jr. (my parents) – to be destroyed unopened.” Intensely curious, but not wanting to be entirely disrespectful, I asked my father if I could take the box home and read the letters. My father, distracted by all the disruption that comes with moving, said “yes.”

When I began to read the letters, I realized that I had hit upon a gold mine in that upstairs closet. The letters, often beautifully written, offered me a personal narrative of a fabled era in American history – the madcap 1920s, the Depression and World War II – through the daily observations of Jack and Peggy Fleming, who were, incidentally, my mother and father. Those letters were the epistolary source material for my memoir, Love Crazy.

Mining family letters involves some mechanics, some moral questions, and many rewards. Since I wanted to read a chronological story of two lives, and I was working with hundreds of letters, my first task was to order the letters by year and by date and, of course, by author. I used the postmarks on the envelopes to order the letters chronologically, and the handwriting on the envelope to make a first identification of the author. I packaged the letters by year. Then, working in order of date, I transcribed the letters to word documents, reading them as I went along, and by transcribing them making them more readable in a type font, and accessible electronically, for later work.

My intention was to create not just a family record, but a work of literary nonfiction that would be of interest to any reader. In literary nonfiction (I know this because I have by now taken a bunch of writing courses), the writer uses the same techniques she would use in fiction, creating scenes, dialogue, description, narrative and reflection. 

To create dialogue, I transcribed each author separately, then read the documents alongside each other, so that I could see an exchange of letters that made a kind of dialogue between the writers, bringing their relationship to life. I had to learn when to narrate the story myself and when to quote the letters, and in narrating, I had to learn when to allow my own emotional response to the story enter in through reflection, and when to temper it. For example, the letters tell the story of the loss of my parents’ first child, a healthy newborn who developed a staph infection in the hospital in Chicago. My father tells of taking the baby’s body to be buried in a family cemetery, while my mother recuperated at home with her family in Philadelphia. When I read that, I was grief stricken and furious at my mother for leaving my father to bury that baby by himself. It seemed important that my own voice, as daughter and author, be a part of the story, but in that case I had to put my feelings at a distance from the narrative. There is, of course, a lot I don’t know about the circumstances at the time.

When the letters mentioned a book or an event, I looked it up. I read a number of books about the wars and the 1920s and the Depression, histories of the schools my parents attended, and I made pilgrimages to the houses in which they grew up, the church in which they had a priest marry them in secret, so that I could see for myself, and describe more accurately the scenes and set their story in the context of the eras in which they lived.

Then comes the moral issue I confronted and which, perhaps, every memoirist or biographer confronts. What right did I have to read the letters saved in an old box marked with the directive that the box be destroyed unopened? 

I dreamed recently that my father came for a visit, old and frail, and I asked everyone who might speak to him NOT to mention the book. I hid a box of copies in a junk room, camouflaged, and before the dream ended I was trying to get to the kitchen to hide another copy of the book before he noticed it. The dream obviously speaks to my guilt about exposing my parents, telling their story from my perspective, not theirs. I would rather be in control of my own story, but I fully understand that if my children were to write a book about us, they would put their own spin on it, and I might not like everything they say. 

The counter question is, why did my parents save all those letters, leaving them for future generations? Why DO people save letters? So they can go back and read them? Because they are a record of a life that is not yet over? Or do they save them for us?

I think my mother would rather have told her own story. I have a little notebook in which she listed major events through the decades, in preparation for what I believe she hoped would be her own memoir. She might have skipped the account of their persistent money problems, their volatile marriage, and her own mental instability, all of which I found important to relate, as it made a madcap romance into a genuine human experience that informed the dynamics of our family today. I think my father, who to the end remained so besotted with my mother and yearning for her approval, would rather have kept their story to themselves. 

As I wrote in the beginning of Love Crazy, I wanted to read my parents letters in part because, growing up, I had a persistent feeling that I had missed the party, that I was an afterthought, born when my parents were in their forties and my brother was almost grown up. By taking control of the material, of the story, I have put myself into it, and that was a gift for me. I also wanted to examine the degree to which we are all shaped by our family histories, and from that what I would learn about myself. But most of all, I have come to know my parents not just with that particular lens of an adult child, with all the stored up memories and family dynamics, good and bad, but as a more dispassionate observer young couple full of dreams, who had bad luck and hard times, and I feel enormous compassion for them, and gratitude, as a daughter, for all they did, and all the courage it took, to get up and keep going.

Find out more about Love Crazy.
Find out more about Selby McPhee.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Power of the Thriller

“I’ll be back.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line from the iconic thriller, The Terminator.  The movie was directed by another icon, James Cameron.  The Terminator had all the essential ingredients: good acting, action packed, clever concept, but… it didn’t make sense.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved the movie.  It remains one of my favorites.  However, when I left the theater after seeing it for the first time, I wondered about one minor inconsistency.  Well, it was a major inconsistency, but most people have overlooked it so I guess it didn’t matter too much.  So, okay, maybe a ‘minor’ inconsistency. 

You have this future civilization dominated by machines and run by a supercomputer.  Impressive war machines were slowly killing humans.  Cyborgs, indistinguishable from humans, but vastly more powerful, infiltrated into the human ranks to kill a few humans in one subterranean hovel or another.  With all this evil capability and seemingly endless funds, why didn’t the computer simply develop a pathogen to kill off the remainder of the humans?  Germ warfare, an obvious solution!  It’s doubtful the machine civilization would worry too much about the Geneva Conventions. 

Simply infect a few prisoners and send them back home.  In those ‘caves’ the disease would have spread faster than wild fires in a drought-ridden forest.  There wouldn’t be any disease control in the enclaves to either stop the spread or handle the patients.  Such an attack would have been more thorough, cheaper, quicker, safer… machines aren’t susceptible to biological diseases but they could be shot down by humans.

That this super intelligent machine didn’t realize such a simple solution has always bothered me.  Most thrillers are fun, like a roller-coaster ride.  If you allow your mind to simply ignore the impossible and forgive the implausible, they can be enjoyable. 

The best thrillers are closest to reality.  What made another James Cameron movie, Halloween, such a mega-hit was its believability.  Michael Meyers, the unstoppable serial killer, didn’t have to suspend the natural laws to frighten you and that made the movie all the more frightening.  

My own ‘thriller’ novel, Reap the Whirlwind, falls into the latter category.  In this novel, a young writer’s bank account is deep in the red due to a check he never wrote.  Friends who can help him mysteriously die or disappear.   Someone using a computer is destroying his life.  But, why?  As the story progresses, a threat to all mankind emerges, such that the anguish and fears of one man become the collective fears of an entire species.  What makes this story even more frightening than Halloween is that not only could these events happen, but they may already be happening. 

Hmm… Maybe I’ll contact Cameron and find out if he wants to produce another ‘real’ thriller.

Robert Sells, author of Return of the White Deer and Reap the Whirlwind 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Finish your summer with some great stories!

Summer Reads for Everyone
Jennifer J. Chow, author of  The 228 Legacy

It’s summer, the perfect time to relax. The best way to escape (besides going to the beach) is jumping into a book. 

Here are my top picks for the entire family to enjoy:

When Bernadette Fox disappears from her family, her fifteen-year-old daughter Bee compiles email messages, official documents, and secret correspondence to find her mother.
This is a unique story that brings quirky characters to life. It’s also an excellent analysis of the art scene, the tech industry, and Seattle. It’s an entertaining and insightful read about family, community, and individuality.

The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne
Magic Tree House #50: Hurry Up, Houdini! (to be released July 23, 2013)
The award-winning series features Jack and Annie, who travel back in time using a magic tree house.
The books blend history and adventure together for a fun and educational read. In the newest book, the two siblings visit the legendary magician, Harry Houdini.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
Tom Sherbourne, a lighthouse keeper, and his wife Isabel, decide to keep a tiny baby who washes up in a rowboat—with ensuing moral and psychological consequences.
Set around World War I, the language in this story is beautiful, and the ongoing metaphor of the lighthouse gives a strong cohesiveness to the plot. It’s a haunting tale of a couple forced to make impossible choices.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, The Round House, set in the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, is the tale of 13-year-old Joe Coutts as he investigates a tragedy that occurred to his mother.
This is a splendid book not only about cultural heritage, but legal entanglements. The combined elements of friendship, family, and adolescence serve as the entrancing core to this novel.

Science Fiction:
Wool (Omnibus edition) by Hugh Howey 
When Sheriff Holston breaks the rules of a community that exists in a giant underground silo hundreds of stories deep, he sets off a drastic chain of events.
This novel evokes a believable futuristic setting and provides interesting details about its unique enclosed community. It’s an interesting snapshot of a different future and features a strong and unique protagonist in Juliette, a mechanic.

Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult and Samantha van Leer
Delilah is a loner who prefers to spend her time reading a book, but when the prince from her favorite fairy tale asks for her help, she’s in for a real-life adventure.
Mother and daughter writing teams always attract my attention. This is a beautiful story of a charming boy-girl relationship that’s complicated by multiple obstacles. It’s also a wonderful book of artwork, filled with lovely illustrations interspersed throughout the chapters. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hot review of Training Wheels, a novel set in the blistering summer of '74

Michael Stringer
Training Wheels

'Training Wheels' - Michael StringerA nonprofit fundraiser turned novelist, Michael Stringer, has authored a blistering fictional memoir entitled Training Wheels, a coming-of-age story that depicts a family's internal strife and struggle with radically shifting priorities and a sexually charged household atmosphere.

Told during three tumultuous weeks in the summer of 1974, the story features the sinfully candid, first person narrative of Kevin Copeland, a 15-year-old athlete, rock music lover, and youngest of four children. Kevin is a painfully inquisitive, girl-crazy young man who falls madly in love with the wrong girl at the worst time. Shelly is the wrong girl because she's the bold and seductive daughter of his father's mistress, and it's the worst time because Kevin's younger sister has hit rock bottom with drugs and counterculture friends, and his parents' marriage is rapidly coming unglued.

Kevin's certainly not alone in making irrational choices. After the radical '60s, many Americans turned introspective, searching for ways to redefine their beliefs about love and happiness, becoming desperately lost along the road. Kevin gets caught up in the free-love movement, too, risking everything to pursue the voluptuous girl of his dreams. Kevin's journey into first love becomes a perilous adventure that forces both families to face the bitter truths and harsh realities of their misguided decisions, of which there are many. All the mayhem reaches a fever pitch when Kevin and his disgruntled father lock horns in a ruthless showdown.

Stringer has shrewdly framed this story by blending the themes and styles of The Wonder Years, the popular TV show from the '90s, with The Ice Storm, the movie released in 1997 about the self-indulgent '70s.

"Training Wheels is a poignant and gripping family tale set in Los Angeles during an era symbolized by Watergate, happy faces, pet rocks, mood rings, and streaking," said Melissa Newman, author of House of Cleaving and Sister Blackberry. "It's no wonder that some people went a little... adrift."

During the early part of his career, Stringer wrote for newspapers and magazines until he finally decided to take on the challenge of pursuing a long-time goal, writing a novel.

Print and e-versions of Training Wheels, can be found at and as well as other online and bricks and mortar book stores wherever books are sold. Information about the book and the author can also be found at the publisher's website:  

Review originally featured at

Check out Super Seventies Rock Site!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: The Last Fernandez by Sandra Perez Gluschankoff

A review of The Last Fernandez by Sandra Perez Gluschankoff

I loved reading this novel. Not for the faint of heart, this historical fiction piece explicitly reveals the triumphs and tragedy of two different, although comparable, pivotal periods in time. The key word in this story is “struggle.” Two women, separated by four centuries but connected in spirit, share this struggle against religious and political persecution. As two different stories are told, they develop into one.

Author Gluschankoff is not a wimp. She is not afraid to paint a harsh scene and put it before you, but is also capable of describing the tenderest of moments. The plot is packed with not a sentence or phrase wasted. This is not a one afternoon read; it requires close reading. I believe that the author’s multilingual skills resulted in some of the most eloquent prose I have had the pleasure to read.

My favorite character is the young Angelina. Her refusal, come hell or high water, to let go of that suitcase certainly defines “ends-of-the-earth” type stuff for me.

I highly recommend The Last Fernandez.

By David J. Kirk, Author of Particular Stones

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Susan Stepp Honest Advice for Teachers

My husband and I made a summer trek to New York state to visit our daughter’s
family. The drive is twenty hours so although we enjoy each other’s company, by North Carolina our conversation had deteriorated into counting how many Walmart trucks we’d passed and speculating the size of the sombrero that sits atop the “South of the Border” tower. That’s when I knew it was time for an audio book.

The book was 1776 by David McCullough. My lack of recall in relation to early American history is no reflection on my teachers but a result of my adolescent priorities consisting of cheerleading and lip gloss. So as I listened it was like sitting in history class again but actually enjoying myself. It’s a fascinating account of how we won our independence and who the players really were. I was astonished to learn that the men who fought were primarily farmers, vagabonds and just about anyone who could shoot a gun or carry a pitchfork. Half the time many were drunk and others walked away at will. An exceptional leader, George Washington knew what he was working with but managed to strategize and inspire just enough to pull it off. 

There were stories of amazing courage and commitment. I found myself deeply touched by the sacrifices made by this ragtag group of ordinary citizens and a sense of pride in who actually won our freedom. Not trained, military specialists but plain old people like you and me.

No telling how many Walmart trucks we missed while enjoying McCullough’s book. It was just that good!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Having Tea with my Computer

When I got this morning I had tea with my computer.  We've had this relationship for a few years now: sip, read a news article (who needs the television or newspaper?), back to sipping.  Then I had to get serious and do my weekly accounts… write a check for this business, send a check to that person… all done with internet banking.  I've estimated that I save over two hundred dollars in stamps each year doing this.  No wonder the United States Post Office operates in the red.

Gone to a doctor lately?  Their notes are done on a computerized tablet and then sent electronically to your files which are now nearly ‘paperless’.  Still another government program saving us money.
While interacting with my friends on Facebook, a thought occurred to me.  What would happen if a virus incapacitated the web?  Totally wrecking it.  Forever.  Or, at least, for months.  What would happen to our modern society?  Everything is connected via computers to the internet.  If the ‘net’ disappears, what happens to civilization?

The stock market wouldn't crash, it simply wouldn't exist.  What would that do to business?  How about communications?  Gone.  Education… hmm.  How many schools still have blackboards?
What about publishing houses?  Type-setting is done by computer.  Well, there would still be a great deal of books to read.  Just no new ones for a few years.  Oh, my God!  Facebook!  Twitters!  Tweets!  Tumblers! Gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.

Internet Crash?  Banish the thought.  There is no need to worry.  I mean what are the chances that some bitter genius would write such an apocalyptic virus?  Surely not very high.  So, relax.  Sit back and enjoy another sip of tea.
Robert Sells
Author of Return of the White Deer and soon to be released Reap the Whirlwind
Martin Sisters Publishing