Hot Tip for Writers: Easy Way to Add Character Traits


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I was halfway through writing my new novel, Key Largo Blues, when I realized that Jessie, the 24-year-old granddaughter of Frieda, didn’t have any flaws. I had to find some quick, and that’s how I discovered a fantastic tool for writers. [Read more…]

Why North Dakota? And Other Reader Questions

DSCN2213-150x150I’ve been lining up book signings and speaking gigs lately, and some of the same questions come up. As promised, here’s a roundup of the answers:

How long did it take to write Dakota Blues?

Ten years (gasp!) In the early years, my part-time job would intrude, or some kind of life challenge like surgery, and I’d stop writing for months at a time. Also, I was learning to write as I wrote, so a lot of it went in the trash. Picture a potter’s wheel, and a grey lump of clay getting fat, then skinny, then fat again as the wheel spins. That was Dakota Blues in the early days.

Another trial-and-error aspect that ate up a lot of time: I did not have a good idea of how a novel should be structured, or how (and whether) to outline it. I went through several different systems and ended up using the one by Larry Brooks ( called “Story Structure.” I recommend that if you’re inclined to outlining.

Do you write every day? What’s your schedule?

I write as many days in sequence as I can, because if I skip a day or two, I forget details. But I had to find that out the hard way.


DAKOTA BLUES is a love letter to North Dakota before the oil boom

Your descriptions seem so real. Are they fictional?

Mostly real. When I visited Dickinson, North Dakota with Mom in 2008, I knew in my heart it had to be based there. As we drove from Denver to Dickinson and back again, and all during the visit, I recorded my observations into an audio recorder. I also took pictures. It was the trip of a lifetime. Mom and I still talk about it, and I had a photo album printed for her as a memoir.

This was the farm's chicken house, where Mom as a 5-year-old collected eggs.

This was the farm’s chicken house, where Mom as a 5-year-old collected eggs.

Much of my story is really Mom’s story. The anecdotes about the ancestors coming to America, and the hardships they faced to give their children a better life, are all true. So is this quote from my people, Germans from the Banat region of Europe:

To the first generation is death, to the second generation is suffering, to the third, success.

North Dakota yard art

North Dakota yard art

Dakota Blues describes Dickinson before the oil boom hit. That lovely small town has changed, with the building of new hotels and houses, and big rigs rumbling through town 24/7. Also, the house where my main character, “Karen,” grew up was actually that of my grandmother’s. Mom took us four kids back to Dickinson every summer on the Union Pacific out of Los Angeles. We stayed at Grandma’s house at 119 First Ave. SW. Which is now gone. Only the trees remain on a vacant lot, but some of the planks, partly buried now, remain from her vegetable garden out back.

This is all that remains of my Grandmother's property in Dickinson. The house burned down in the early 2000s.

This is all that remains of my Grandmother’s property in Dickinson. The house burned down in the early 2000s.

Are you going to write a sequel?

I don’t think so. I’m not sure I could do justice to Karen’s dream life, where she **SPOILER ALERT** goes off to live life on her own terms. I have so many other stories in my head! But Dakota Blues will always be more to me than just a novel and first book. It’s a record of my family’s history and my love for North Dakota.

I see that, having included pictures, I don’t have room for more Q & A, but this was a fun reminiscence. Thanks for asking, and we’ll come back to it another time. Enjoy your summer.

Great News for Dakota Blues!

I’m thrilled to tell you that Dakota Blues just won the Next Generation Indie Book Finalist award! And it’s a triumph for all of us, because it’s affirmation that a midlife coming-of-age story is compelling in the modern marketplace. It’s also proof that we’re never too old to chase after our dreams.

As I think of all the writing classes I took, all the writing conferences I attended, and all the advice I got, the thing that stands out in my mind is one literary agent telling me that nobody wanted to read about “old people.” Ha, ha! Apparently they do, because sales are brisk!

Further, my new Midlife Fiction page on Facebook (you don’t have to be a member of FB to access the page) already has almost fifty book titles. The only two criteria: that the main character be at least forty, and that the story illuminate the experience of living in the second half of life.

Good thing there’s no age restriction on the writers, because thirty-year-old Christopher Hooks just contacted me about his debut novel, Henry, the a collection of day-in-the-life vignettes concerning an eighty-year-old man. I downloaded it on Kindle and the opening paragraphs look promising. I can’t wait to read it and I wish Christopher massive book sales.

On the other end of the author age scale is Monica Agnew-Kinnaman, who at age 95 just published So This is Heaven, a memoir of saving dogs throughout her life. That’s yet another cool thing about a writing career: you can still do it in your very later years if you’ve got all your marbles. For more about Monica, check out my friend Sheila’s blog post here.

I’d write more, but I need to practice being interviewed because a North Dakota TV station wants to feature me next week! And after that I’m going to break out a bottle of bubbly. Have a great weekend. I know I will. And Happy Mother’s Day to all my mother-friends.

Should You Quit Blogging?

If you came of age when I did, in the time of carbon paper and WhiteOut, you’re probably as enthralled as I am about all the possibilities available to us now through technology. One is the ability to start a blog, and a lot of my friends have done that. But lately, some of them are discouraged.

It’s time to rethink blogging – what it is, and isn’t. What it can give you, and what it can take away.

Let me start with a story.

I happened to notice that a popular blogger stopped posting. After a month I emailed her. I mean, sure, it’s cyberspace, but how would we, her subscribers, know if she were lying dead in a ditch or something? Turns out, she was fine, but since I was the only person who checked on her, my inquiry started a discussion about why we blog, and whether it’s really worth it. She said:

When my business was way down last year and I had time on my hands, I began to expand my blogging network.  I spent hours each day reading other people’s blogs, commenting, etc.  After awhile, I felt like I was a member of a fun club…I got so caught up in it all, I lost sight of the fact that, for me, most of the posts weren’t even worth the time it took to read them…When all was said and done, there were maybe five bloggers who I felt had something to say (you are one), beyond just being clever.

I kept asking myself what the point of it was, and I couldn’t come up with a good answer.  Tossing off blog posts is fun, and getting comments is fun as well.  But, honestly, I’ve never felt as though what I was doing was important in the big picture. It all seemed like simply a more respectable and creative version of Facebook.

I love to speak to women and to conduct workshops. That is what juices me and allows me to believe that I’m having an impact on women’s lives. And in some perfect world, I would love to write regularly for a publication, which would do the same thing for me. But I know that won’t happen.”

In response, I said:

Blogging is a mixed bag. I love it and I don’t love it. It’s an awesome way to create a community, and some of the comments really lift me up. But it’s probably not contributing to sales, and even if it is, the ROI isn’t enough to justify it.

She and I agreed we were on to something, and after our conversation, I wanted to think about it. Here’s what I decided: there are only three reasons to have a blog:

  1.  It’s an enjoyable hobby. You blog when you feel like it, and if nobody responds, big deal. Seeing your work in print is its own reward. Maybe you’ll do more with it someday, but until then, you count it as experience.
  2. You’re trying to sell something, whether it’s paid speaking engagements, book sales, advertising on your site, or a widget of some kind. You work your ass off blogging because you desire success. (Note to authors: if this is your plan, stop now. Convert your blog to a static website and apply all your resulting free time to networking on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, etc.)
  3. You’re passionate about an idea or theme, and you need to talk about it constantly. You get a charge from the sense of community arising from your visitors and their comments and emotions. You don’t care if you go hungry.

I’m number 3. I need to figure out the second half of life. I love the community that blooms when we all ponder this together. That’s why I blog, and write books, and interact on social networks. Everything I produce is about one thing: the second half of life, and living it mindfully and powerfully.

I love my Any Shiny Thing website, because it’s like being a media mogul. With a website/blog, you’re the head of a TV station, deciding what videos to post or link to. You’re the radio station owner, deciding which podcasts to produce. And you’re the newspaper owner, publishing your own little paper every week. You’re the boss, but like most self-employed people, you work for a hard-driving bitch. It takes time, energy and creativity, and you don’t get time off.

Except for the bitch part, I’d tell my friend that she actually does work for a publication that can impact women’s lives, but unfortunately, the work is unpaid (in terms of dollars. In terms of oxytocin, the chemical women experience as a result of bonding, there’s a pretty big payout! But you can’t write a check with it.)

So here’s my bottom line: as a boomer, I’m thrilled with technology, and I hope to use it to build on my topic for everybody’s benefit. But frankly, blogging can take a lot of your time and not increase your sales by one book. So it’s really important to be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, and how much you’re willing to put into it. Because life is short, and you don’t want to burn time or energy on the wrong thing. Isn’t that one of the tenets of our discussions? One of the most important rules we all agree on, now that we’re old enough to know better?

What about you? Why are you blogging? What do you get from it?

Our Dreams Persist

Last Saturday morning, I hit the freeway and headed west for my very first book fair as an author. While nervously rethinking all my gear (DVD player for book trailer, books, small bills for change, pens, etc.) I suddenly realized I was living my dream, returning as a published author to the town where I’d spent most of my corporate career. No matter how much my day job beat me up, I had never stopped dreaming of becoming a writer, and now, I was one! I stopped fretting about my equipment and indulged in some memories:

  • I was 26, newly divorced and living in a bad part of town in a tiny (780 sq. ft.) house with my eighteen-month-old son. Working full-time (with side jobs selling Jafra and bartending), and mostly exhausted. Writing was a very distant dream. Like never.
  • I was 36, living in the high desert and commuting down the Cajon Pass every day for my HR job at Jurupa Unified School District. On my weekend morning walks, I carried a little tablet and a pencil in my pocket, and worked out solutions to scenes in my head. Those scenes went in a box, awaiting the day I could shape them into stories.
  • I was 38, sitting in my car at the Cedar Springs Dam, overlooking Lake Silverwood. The car was rocking, buffeted by an incoming squall, while I wrote in a tablet. My second marriage was on its last legs, and I was dying a little bit inside as I watched storm clouds engulf the distant shore. I felt incompetent as a grown-up, let alone the fact that I would never be a writer.
  • I was 48, and my son was independent. Now that I was finally able to work part-time and write, they told me I missed my shot. The publishing industry had changed. Agents and publishers now asked that you first develop a platform (i.e. thousands of ready customers). So while I learned how to put together a novel, I also built a website; I created and discarded three blogs before finding one that felt like home (this one); and learned about Facebook, Twitter, and many other social networking sites.
  • I am now 58. Dakota Blues is published! My novel has become a reality, and like the Little Red Hen, I did it all myself. That is, if you discount the three editors, cover designer, book trailer developer, and publishing and marketing services. Not to mention several mentors, my beloved friends, and a supportive family.

Please buy my book. Please?

So, on Saturday I arrived at the book fair, got set up, met everybody, ate a couple cookies provided by our thoughtful hosts, and waited for the doors to open. It was September 15, what would have been my dad’s 88th birthday, so I looked heavenward and asked him for luck.

When it was over, I’d invested six hours (if you count the drive) on this mission to tell people about Dakota Blues. If you measure the day in human terms, it was a ten. I enjoyed the company of my fellow authors, the library staffers and volunteers, and the people who dropped in to see what was for sale.

In pure commercial ROI, however, it wasn’t so great. I sold five copies, which was more than most of my fellow authors. I donated to the library, swapped copies with another author, and when you throw in a few more bucks for gas, I broke even.

When I got home, I sat with my husband and a glass of wine and evaluated. There are other activities that would bring in better results. Like sleeping late and not going anywhere. You know I’m babysitting all week and my weekends are precious. How I would have enjoyed the time off.

Why am I telling you this? It’s kind of embarrassing.

Because I want to show by my example that it’s rarely easy to chase after your dreams, no matter what your age. Many younger people slave away in the wee hours to build the foundation for their dream. It’s not easy for them either. In my case, I sometimes feel foolish to be so obsessed. Us older peeps are encouraged to relax, slow down, smell the flowers, and all that, but I can’t. This is my dream, and I’m going to see it through. I have two more full-length novels in my head and two collections of short stories. I’ll be attending the Southern California Writers’ Conference this weekend to find inspiration and information. I love the company of creative people, and I enjoy thinking of myself as a businessperson, with a storefront on and in the trunk of my car. This is my American Dream. I hope you have one, too.

Dakota Blues, a story of midlife reinvention, our immigrant roots, the sweetness of the American Heartland, the bonds of friendship, and the wisdom of our elders, is available at If you’ve already read it and enjoyed the experience, please rate it on Amazon, Goodreads or your favorite book site.

Just for Fun: The Goddess in You

I need a break. How about you? No more heavy thinking. Let’s let our minds drift. Let’s get above the clouds.

Let’s talk about goddesses.

I never gave them much thought, but a friend who is a retired psychologist suggested I take a look at Goddesses in Older Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen to understand female archetypes as an aid to my writing. At first I wasn’t sure. Goddesses aren’t my thing. I tend to lump them in with divas.

Then I read the book and found out that, for a gal who’s always seeking balance in her life, the goddesses could be a big help and a lot of fun.

Different goddesses might be seen to represent different aspects of your personality.

  • Metis: wisdom combined with expertise
  • Sophia: intuitive wisdom
  • Hestia: hearth and home
  • Hecate: the wisdom of old age and courage when facing a crossroads
  • Baubo: humor and laughter
  • Athena: the masculine, business-minded side of you

I like Athena. She’s the strategist, the brainy warrior.

Athena was born as a fully-grown woman in golden armor, carrying a spear, and she announced her arrival with a mighty war cry. Mount Olympus shook when her feet hit the ground. Isn’t that a great mental image? If I have to do something that requires all my courage, I channel my inner Athena.

I don’t see the goddesses as deities perched in the heavens. Rather, they put a face on aspects of my personality, encouraging me to utilize all my strengths, and not be narrow.  For example, if I need to turn off the computer and pay some attention to my family, that’s a nudge from Hestia, goddess of the hearth-fire. Hecate gives me wisdom and courage as I face the challenges of my age, and Baubo inspires dark humor as a friend and I grieve over a diagnosis.

We know about the male gods, like Thor and Zeus, but what do we know about the female dieties? A lot of what we hear is bad, like Medusa with the snakes writhing around her head. Most of the goddesses were originally seen as powerful forces for good, but they were demoted when ancient lands were conquered and dominated by patriarchal sects. For example, Hecate was the goddess of midlife, for people at a crossroads, having to make a big decision. But over time, Hecate was portrayed as a hag or a witch who resides in the underworld.

Nice going, fellas.

You’re familiar with this picture, but have you ever wondered…

…who is the babe under God’s arm?

One of the most important goddesses was Sophia, who represented wisdom. Michelangelo thought enough of her to paint her right next to God, held close. Sophia was said to have given moral support while God created the universe. According to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Sophia spoke these words as she watched Him work.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his works, before all else that he made, long ago. Alone, I was fashioned in times long past, at the beginning, long before earth itself. When there was yet no ocean I was born, no springs brimming with water, before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, before he made the earth with its fields…When he set the heavens in their place I was there, when he girdled the ocean with the horizon, when he fixed the canopy of clouds overhead and set the springs of ocean firm in their place, when he prescribed its limits for the sea and knit together earth’s foundations. Then I was at his side each day, like a master workman, I was his darling and delight, rejoicing with him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in mankind.

Isn’t it nice to stop a minute and revel in that which is purely spiritual, artful, inspiration, or beautiful? Thanks again to Dolores for this respite.

Boomer Achieves Lifetime Dream

After wishin’ and hopin’ and plannin’ and workin’ and prayin’…

After earning a self-created, home-cooked degree in How To Write A Novel (with a minor in How To Build a Platform)…

After writing and throwing away hundreds of pages that just weren’t quite good enough…

After years of answering my friends and family: “Almost!” and “Pretty soon!”

Two big things happened.

I discovered a passion for the topic of aging powerfully, and

On July 17, a date that would have been my mom and dad’s 63rd wedding anniversary,

I published my very first novel!

Dakota Blues is about:

  • midlife reinvention,
  • the quest to find meaning and empowerment in the second half of life,
  • the need to feel a connection with our ancestors,
  • dealing with the issues that hit without warning as we age,
  • whether we’re too old at a certain point to start something new,
  • whether it’s selfish and ungrateful to want more, and
  • finding the courage to change later in life.

Or, putting words into pictures, here’s what you’ll find in Dakota Blues (available now in paperback, and on Kindle in the second week of August, +/-):

I can’t tell you how much this means to me, to have reached this goal, and to have done it at fifty-eight. This is a time when many of us are rethinking our lives, and wondering whether to break through the age limitations placed on us by an earlier set of beliefs.

This is what we’re supposed to be doing, folks: chasing our dreams like there’s no tomorrow, excited as kids, refusing to lie down and let the culture of low expectations steamroll us. This is how to live in the second half. This is how to live, period. That’s what my character, Karen Grace, struggles with, and that’s what Dakota Blues is about.

I hope you buy a copy, and if you do, I hope you love it enough to add a rating to the Dakota Blues page on Amazon or Goodreads. Ratings mean everything in this online, digitized society, where there’s far too material to sort through without help.

Thanks for standing by me while I struggled. I hope I can do the same for you someday.

PS Today is the fourth anniversary of my father’s passing. I hope he can see what I’ve done. I miss him more than I can say.


Two Guys Who Inspired Me

But first, I have a confession to make.

I started this blog as a way of marketing my book. There, it’s out. If you feel like dropping me now, I understand.

But something interesting happened to this blog a couple years ago. I found my stride, opened my soul and started pouring out my thoughts about wanting to age powerfully instead of apologetically. The more I called out, the more you answered. We’ve gathered around this electronic campfire in increasing numbers. Some days I get hundreds of visitors, all tuning into the issues that you and I find compelling.

Although most of us are women of middle age and older, we are men, too. We’re wondering how to navigate these last twenty, thirty, forty (God willing) years. How to find the joy and not crumble under the onslaught of change. How to savor the journey, and stop apologizing for our age.

I was at a writing conference a while back, and I was moved by a couple of speakers, one old, one young. The first spoke about accomplishing something in older age; the second, about selling your stuff without selling your soul:

Dr. Frederick Ramsay, Author, Professor, Minister

Frederick Ramsay started writing in his mid-sixties. After two bouts of cancer and one stroke, this human dynamo produced 13 books in 10 years – or maybe it was 10 books in 13 years, but who cares? It’s taken me 10 years to write ONE. Anyway he stood up on stage at this conference and said, in effect, I have to hurry, man. I don’t have a lot of time. He said it plainly, with a strong voice, and it didn’t sound sad or pitiful. It was real, and powerful. This awesome, thoughtful, funny man is using his age to fuel his fire.

On the other end of the age scale is Jeremy Lee James. He gave a voice to my emerging hesitation about marketing my work via social media. Jeremy was teaching a workshop called First Principles: A Writer’s Website and Winning Tactics. He said he worked on the preso for three weeks, but a couple of days before the conference, he trashed it all because, as he said, it made him feel dirty.

Jeremy Lee James, Internet Guru and Philosopher

This dude knows everything about SEO optimization, Google analytics, and all the tricks to get a high return on your internet marketing efforts. And he was prepared to share those tricks with us. Instead, he came to that workshop and told us about a different path he wanted to follow instead. Make your blog – make your online presence – art. Give a gift to humanity. The business, the income, the commercial success will follow if it’s meant to. If it doesn’t happen, you’re not on your true path and you should find something else to do. I couldn’t believe this commercial wizard was telling me something so organic, but it resonated. I appreciated him for it.

Although I only met these men that one time, I consider them mentors. They provided thoughtful guidance, and I feel empowered as a result. Don’t you love when that happens?

Did You Reach Your 2011 Goals?

At our age, we’ve been through a few hundred New Years’ resolutions. You’d think by now it would have resulted in all of us being thin, healthy and accomplished.

Last year, I wrote about setting goals and having something to show at the end of 2o11. I didn’t do everything, but I came close. For example, I didn’t publish my book, but I did revise it with the help of a great, wonderful editor, and now I’m vetting agents. So that feels good.

I’ve hung onto my Weight Watchers accomplishment – barely. With all the holiday eating I lost my way but sure had fun! And since all of America is embarking on a “lose weight, get fit” journey this month, the energy is palpable. I’ll ride that wave for a few months until everybody drops out in March, but by then I’ll be back at my goal weight.

I decided to have one goal for 2012, just one, and I’m pretty excited about it: to embark on my own personal Creativity Training Camp. Let me explain. Back in October I freaked out when I learned that alcohol can increase your risk of breast cancer. (If you want to know more, read this.) So I cut WAY back, to almost nothing.

There was another element to my healthful period: exercise. According to the 20-year long Nurses Health Study, walking three hours a week can reduce your risk of cancer and improve just about everything else in your health profile. So I did that for a month, too. I kept track on my calendar and achieved 180 minutes a week, one way or the other. I either went to the gym, or walked or rode my bike around the neighborhood, or swam.

It was fantastic. I slept well, my creativity and curiosity shot through the roof, and I was less anxious and more peaceful and productive. Then Thanksgiving hit, and the holiday decadence began. Whoopee! I sure did enjoy all those calories. Yum.

But now I’m back to restless sleep, anxiety, and stupid-brain, which is not going to help me at all as I embark on the rough draft of my new book, Golden Years My Ass. Yes, that’s the title, for now anyway. I want to enjoy the process of creating and writing, and to return to that place before the holidays where I felt so calm, happy and productive, so that’s my only goal: Creativity Training Camp. I’ll go back to the regime I started before the holidays. If you’d like to join me by creating your own version, let us know about it.

How do we motivate ourselves?

You probably know that fear is not an effective motivator. Even fear of death can’t make us do anything after the novelty of the thought wears off. What is a motivator is the thought of a positive outcome, and that’s what’s I keep in my mind. I already know how good I’m going to feel if as I stick with my Creativity Training Camp program. I’m already looking forward to the inspirational lightbulbs going off in my brain.

How about you? Are you resolved to make a change or do something new in 2012?

Note from last week’s contest: I hope you don’t think I’ve been ignoring your awesome responses, but I didn’t want to influence anybody who might sense a route to win the $25 gift card and two free books. Thus I’ve refrained from commenting to any great extent. While I appreciated all of your thoughtful comments, I felt that Dr. Lee would be the most excited about Marilyn Patrick’s past life recollections, so I am going to award her the prize. Thanks so much for participating, and happy new year!