Thursday, September 29, 2016


By Francine Mathews

During a panel at a writer's conference a few years back, the lovely and talented moderator, Catriona MacPherson, posed her final, devastating question to each of us:
"Plotter or Pantser?"
This needed no explication for veterans of the conference scene. Plotters are the anal-retentive, overly-anxious types who have control issues about everything from the weight of the paper stock in their printers to the cover images forced on them by publishers. Their hapless characters move through a predetermined landscape to inevitably awful ends.

Pantsers are the creatives, who burn incense and scarf chocolate while awaiting the descent of the Muse. They follow the whims of their astrally-inspired synapses and are as astounded as their readers by their novels' conclusions. Endings, like life, should just...happen...somehow.

This is also known as writing organically. The theory being that things grow as they should, if you just throw enough shite at them.

I admire these writers. 

I am not one of them.

 Ask me to "pants" and I'd take to my bed with a hot toddy and acute vertigo. Without my cherished outlines, I'd never write a word. Easier by far to summit Everest in stilettos.

I wrote my first novel on a dare from my husband. He gave me a powerful incentive: If I could craft a beginning, middle and actual end of a book--not just, say, the first seventy pages that most of us find so exciting--we'd sit down and talk about me quitting my real job. I was tired of wearing stockings at eight a.m. I wanted to set my own schedule and work from home. I was motivated. I figured that if I were going to spend the next year mentally inhabiting a fictional world, it had better be one I enjoyed--so I wrote a classic detective novel set on Nantucket. It was purely an exercise, and like most first novels, it was far from perfect. But an agent accepted it and scored a two-book deal with a major publisher. I never went into an office again.

What worked for me?

Having a road map.

Imagine you're setting out on a journey. Leaving Las Vegas, for the sake of argument. In a month or so, you have to be in New York for the next phase of your life. You could sleep anywhere in between--Columbus or Yuma, Oshkosh or Greenville--but you're traveling with the unswervable goal of reaching Manhattan. The road  gives you freedom to explore, of course--you can take any exit that tantalizes and go down that street for a while--but if it proves a deadend, you may double back, take a shortcut, reroute and get on the right track. And a month later, there's the sign for New York--as you expected.

That's what a plot outline does for your writing.

I always begin a novel with a great idea--a simple notion that intrigues and compels me. Fact: Jack Kennedy took off half his junior year at Harvard and traveled alone, from London to Moscow, as Hitler prepared to invade Poland. Fiction: What if Jack were also spying for Roosevelt?

Then I do a ton of research. I educate myself on the time period and the circumstances so that I'm confident I can tell a good story. I figure out the arc--the personal growth my main character has to endure by struggling with the conflict I hand them. Most importantly, I start my plot outline with the story's end.

This is critical. This is New York. The point of every road trip: our destination. 

In the case of JACK 1939, the book had to conclude with Hitler invading Poland--and Jack Kennedy returning to Harvard to write his senior thesis. But that's merely the obvious structure of a novel set in a specific life and time period, the constraint of historical fiction. I knew this was really a coming-of-age story about a chronically ill young man, the black sheep of his family, who felt he had failed at everything he'd tried to accomplish in life. He'd lived in the shadow of his far more successful older brother and was convinced he'd be dead by thirty. So the psychological conclusion of the book would be far more important than the historical end: 

Jack proves FDR was right to trust him. And he was right to have
faith in himself. He has lost the woman he loves and some respect for his father, but he's learned to trust his own courage and intelligence. Despite the limitations of poor health and reckless impulses, he has confronted profound evil and survived atrocity. He has fought the Good Fight. What he's learned on his Hero's Journey is critical to the man--and President--he becomes.

It's fundamental to know how your story begins. But knowing how it ends allows you, as a writer, to step out confidently on the writing road. It may even allow you to dabble in "pantsing," as you follow your characters down uncertain streets, then haul them back onto the straight and narrow. You're less likely to end up with your wheels in a ditch, waiting for a tow.

So here's a question: Can you tell whether a writer is a plotter or pantser by reading their books? Does it matter?


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Habit Makes The Character

Kojak: "Who Loves 'Ya Baby?"

by Jamie Freveletti

One of the toughest things to do in writing is to imbue your protagonist with some real traits that make them as unique as you hope them to be, and to do it in a way that isn’t obvious. As Karna mentioned in her post, showing, not telling, is a first step. We show the person sweating, rather than tell you that he’s scared. Well, with personality traits this works as well.

I’m going to rely here on a few from television and the movies, because actors bring a lot of personality quirks alive when they’re creating a character. I’ve often wished I could have a professional actor read my manuscript and then give me pointers on what they would do if they had to create the character on screen.

For example, in the television show Kojak, Telly Savalas imbues the character, a hard boiled police lieutenant, with a few quirks. The most loved one was his habit of sucking on lollipops. Kojak is tough, smart and mature, but he’s also trying to kick smoking and he reaches for a lollipop rather than a cigarette. This habit became ingrained in the character and made Kojak real.

Add something counter-intuitive to a character in your novel. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but whatever it is, make it consistent. You’ll be surprised how this will help you, and your readers, connect to the character.

In my first Covert One novel, The Janus Reprisal, I thought about habits and decided to give Jon Smith, the Covert Operative protagonist, a habit of never accepting a hotel room above the third floor. Smith spends his life with risk and his genius is in the skills he uses to minimize it. He wants fire ladders to be able to reach the floor and he wants to be able to exit on his own if need be. He never wants to be trapped in a burning building or cornered by an attacker. In one scene he falls unconscious and wakes up in a room on the sixth floor of a high rise and his first thought is to flee to a lower elevation. The average person doesn’t have to worry about such things as a part of their daily lives, but a covert operator does. It’s a small part of Smith, but it helps to fill out the character. I'm glad I added it.

Once you’re onto this quirk- as- personality thing, it becomes almost a game to spot them. Monk’s obsessive compulsive behavior is obvious and endearing and Bond’s “shaken not stirred” drink preference is famous. And then there's Colombo’s last minute turn back to say, “Just one more thing…”

Give it a shot and let me know if it helps your work in progress!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Breaking the Rules

by Karna Small Bodman

Whenever someone begins a new job, starts a business or even joins a club, she is usually told, "Here are the rules." She may even be given a handbook along with FAQ's and in some cases (for example taking certain government jobs) she is asked to sign a statement indicating she has actually "read the rules" and agrees to abide by them.

And then there's writing a novel! Yes, we authors go to many terrific conferences where we learn the writer's rules.  One such meeting is the annual conference of the International Thriller Writers organization called "Thrillerfest" held at the Grand Hyatt in New York.

The Greeting at the Grand Hyatt
Close to 1,000 come to New York to attend workshops, interviews and talks by some of the best published authors in the business who give us their version of the rules.  One that is often drummed into us is the use of POV -- Point of View.  We are told over and over again that we must have just one POV in a scene or chapter....the thoughts and reflections of the hero, the heroine, the villain or even a secondary character must be separated, because otherwise the reader can become confused about who's thinking what at a particular time. Editors call that "head-hopping."

For example, you shouldn't write: "Steve had been devastated to hear that Emma was in an accident, but looking around, he was stunned to see her waltz into the ballroom wearing a slinky black dress and a big smile.  As Emma gazed at the crowd in front of the bandstand, she wondered if Steve would be there." (See? You are hopping from his head into hers in the same scene).  Big no-no.

Authors signing at Romance Writers Conference
Nora Roberts

However, at another popular conference in San Diego sponsored by Romance Writers of America, several bestselling authors were signing their books -- stories where they often break the POV rule....though they do it very skillfully.  One author who's an expert is Nora Roberts. With over 500 million books in print (yes, you read that right - 500,000,000)...she can make her own rules!

Then there's the question of how you structure a novel.  Many experts advise you to write an extensive chapter by chapter outline, or a complete synopsis, which for some authors can run anywhere from 5 to 90 pages (!)  before sitting down and typing the words "Chapter One."  Now here's another rule that can be broken. 

I recall one bestselling author saying that there are two kinds of writers:  First is The Tour Bus Driver. This one knows exactly where she's going. She knows where the tour starts and where it ends. She has the plot firmly in her mind.   On her tour, she may pick up a few extraneous characters on the way, but she definitely knows her destination. Now she just has to sit down, follow the outline and create great scenes to get from point A to point B.

The second type of writer is the Hitchhiker. This one has a general idea of where he'd like to go but has no clue how he's actually going to get there.  He gathers his courage and hopes to meet characters who will take him to his destination.  He's not sure what they will look like or how old they will be. But he's excited because it will be an adventure to meet them along the way.  This author "lets" his characters tell their stories as the trip moves along.

The "most important rule" that is usually drummed into any writer  from the get-go is "Show, Don't tell."  In other words, don't tell the reader: "Jack was scared and wondered what he would find at the end of the hallway." Instead show the reader:" Jack wiped beads of perspiration off his forehead. With his heart racing, he crept to the end of the darkened hallway."

However, this is another rule that can be broken and in factIS  broken in the final chapter of a famous novel. (I was reminded of this when I happened to read an essay on the subject by Robert Repino.)  The novel is George Orwell's 1984.  The concluding paragraph (with the exception of one sentence regarding tears) gives us a perfect example of how TELLING (not SHOWING) can be incredibly effective.

"He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark mustache.  O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving beast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother."

And so, if you are writing the Great American Novel -- sit down, be creative, and if you really want to -- go ahead and BREAK THE RULES.

                                                                                 Karna Small Bodman

Saturday, September 24, 2016


by KJ Howe

The craft of writing is fascinating, at times unfathomable, but when writers hone their skills, the story shines through with no distractions.  Readers lose themselves in the fascinating web the writer spins, soaking in page after page in an alternate world.  Think of quality craft as freshly cleaned glass that showcases the scenery and action on the other side of a window.  And consider poor craft as smudges, cracks, and fingerprints all over that glass, distracting from what readers want to enjoy--your characters and story.

Given that the Rogue Women Writers write international thrillers, one of the key elements of craft is pacing.  The story must churn at an exciting pace that grabs readers.  When you drill down, what exactly does pacing mean?

*The rhythm or underlying beat of your story.
*The rate at which your novel unfolds--talented writers can manipulate time in readers' minds.
*The way writers structure their novels to engage reader's feelings, eliciting different emotions at different times.

Pacing is a nebulous concept that requires intuition and a keen sense of perception.  There is no surefire formula to determine the perfect pace.  A combination of a natural ear and plenty of practice at conveying what that nature ear "hears" is necessary in developing your writing voice.  And faster isn't always better.  Vary the pace and give readers time to develop their emotional response.  Pacing is not measured in how many events you can cram into a novel.  Rather, it is measured in the reader's emotional involvement in your characters.

If you'd like to analyze your pacing, try doing the following:

*Check the left margin of your text.  Do yo have a variety of paragraph lengths?  Is there enough white space or is the page smattered in ink?  If your narrative is too dense, break up paragraphs or add in dialogue.
*Be sure you don't have repetitive sentence structures.  A quick way to breathe life into your story is to vary your sentences lengths.
*Read your novel out loud.  Does it sound slow, heavy, and overly description to your ear, or is the description so light that you aren't sure where the characters are?  Adjust as necessary.

Once you decide whether you need to slow down or speed up your pace, you're ready to tackle rewrites.

Slowing Down

Too many fast-paced scenes will leave your reader breathless, exhausted.  You need to build in breaks to create a different mood.  Transition readers to a calmer place so they can regroup for the next tense scene.

Another reason to slow down is to intensify the emotional impact of a scene.  Fight scenes are a great example.  Time dilates as the antagonist launches his first punch.  The actual moment before the punch isn't longer or shorter than any other moment, but it seems to go on forever because your character is so focused on waiting for the impact.  This is the time to use your senses, including details about what your character is smelling, feeling, and tasting during these dramatic moments.  Milk every ounce of tension.  Need to slow things down?  Try these tips:

*Use longer sentences and paragraphs.
*Include a dash of passive tense.  Warning:  do not overdo.
*Focus on flow and rhythm, rather than speed.
*Add descriptions steeped in sensory input, rich in texture and sound.  Create a powerful setting where readers can lose themselves.
*Choose soft-sounding, mellow verbs like saunter, undulate, meander to create tranquility for the reader.
*Switch to a new viewpoint.  This slows the pacing because readers are faced with a new set of possibilities and a fresh situation through new eyes.

Creating Whiplash

Thrillers are known for their page-turning prose.  If you feel your novel needs a kick-start, here are a few techniques to try:

*Increase the amount of dialogue, as this creates white space on the page.
*Write lean, sparse prose.  Avoid adjectives, adverbs, and long sentences.  Short words convey tension.
*Add in harsh words to create a staccato rhythm.
*Use sentence fragments to create a sense of urgency. Focus on the mood you want to create.
*Give your character tunnel vision, shutting out everything but the imminent threat.

You can also increase the pacing of your novel through plot devices:  using red herrings to create false leads, supporting the main threat with a number of smaller threats that can be resolved, including a time constraint (two minutes to diffuse a bomb), increasing your protagonist's obstacles, raising the stakes, killing off secondary characters.

Pacing issues are systemic, meaning they affect the entire book, so take your time and focus on fixing them.  Readers won't continue turning pages if the pacing is off, whether too fast or too slow.  Too fast, and you lose emotional connectivity with the reader.  Too slow, and you might bore them, make them restless.  One of the best ways to develop an ear for pacing is to read voraciously with a keen eye as to your reaction to other books' pacing.  Then internalize what you have learned and apply it to your book.

Talented author Lee Child shares the following advice on pacing:  make the fast parts slow and the slow parts fast.  Advice from a pro that we should all live by.  Thanks for joining us today.  Would love to hear how a book's pacing affecting your impression of the read.

Friday, September 23, 2016


S. Lee Manning: I’m starting a blog on writing tips by telling you to pour yourself a cup of coffee. You may think it’s because I’m a coffee addict. (I am.) Or that I’m suggesting  I need coffee to get my brain working in the morning. (I do.) But there’s also a more important reason.

I pour the coffee first because this is the first step in my morning routine, because it’s what for want of a better word, I would call a habit. And habits and routines are important – in life, and in writing.

As Gayle Lynds noted in her blog on writing tips, writing a novel is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.  I’ve read other writers who emphasize the importance of just getting your butt in the chair and writing. Sounds so simple. Why is it so hard?

I don’t know why. But it is hard. There’s days when that butt just doesn’t want to go in that chair. There’s days when I want to go out shopping and then check out the cheese grits for lunch at the new little restaurant in Montpelier. Or take a long bike ride. Or read a new book. Or watch the latest in the political spectacle that’s happening this year. Or, I don’t know, try baking French baguettes that resemble the bread I bought in Nice and Avignon at 10 p.m. each night. (Yeah, I know, don’t even bother on this one.)

That’s where the coffee comes in for me.

Every morning, I get up around 7 a.m, feed the cats, pour myself a cup of coffee, and watch the news for twenty minutes until the morning caffeine deprivation headache goes away (I already admitted that I’m an addict). Then I pour myself another cup of coffee and head for my desk and my computer.

I do a quick skim of my e-mails and Facebook, maybe write a post or two, and then I get into the writing. I start with reviewing what I wrote the previous day. I delete a little, add a little, and then I move on to a new scene.

I’m allowed to peek at Facebook now and then, but I’ve had to break the habit of spending too much time there – presenting arguments that will change no one’s mind and just waste my time. This was a tough one to break – I’m a lawyer by training – and I like to argue.  But, I’ve stopped this habit. For the most part. Sort of.

Except for a few excursions to the kitchen for more coffee and occasionally food to keep my stomach from rotting (all the coffee), I stay at my desk until close to noon. Then I break for lunch with my husband and consider the possibility of an afternoon excursion. I may or may not write through the afternoon – but it’s an extra, not part of the routine. Sometimes, I do get so engrossed by the writing that I don’t want to stop. But it’s not something I can count on every day. For every day, I have the routine.

Sounds like work, huh? Because it is.

When I was an editor on Law Enforcement Communications, a magazine for police officers, doing what I had always wanted to do – there were days I didn’t want to write an article – no matter how interesting. I had to force myself. I complained about my occasional lack of enthusiasm to my father, who was a wise man. He told me that anything you have to do everyday, even if you think you love what you do, will sometimes just feel like work. That’s why it’s called work.

To get through work, I created routines and habits. It’s the same with writing – which is now my work.

Research suggests that creating a new habit can take anywhere from twenty-one days to eight months. It requires persistence and consistency. Create the routine and stick to it. Every day – or every work day, if you want to take weekends off. You can have the occasional sick day or vacation day, as with any other job, otherwise follow the program. Pour the coffee and sit down at the desk. Start. And while there will be times when the writing comes easily and inspirationally, there will be other days – days when it feels forced or painful. There are days when I hate what I’ve written. Still I know that the next day, I will pour a cup of coffee, sit down, and rework it – until I have a scene and then a chapter and then fifty chapters that I love. It will take days and weeks and months of following the routine to get there, but when I do, it’s worth all the work.

Coffee anyone?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Me in my book-filled Santa Barbara office.
By Gayle Lynds.  Years ago a brain surgeon whom I met at a party told me in all seriousness that when he retired he was going to be a novelist.  My reply?  “When I retire, I’m going to be a brain surgeon.”  Oh, dear.  Did I really say that?

As it turns out, I have a long-time friend who’s a brain surgeon and who also writes engrossing medical thrillers.  When he finished his latest, he said to me, “I’d rather operate on brains.  Writing books is too damn hard.”  But still he does it.  Why?  He laughs:  “I think I should have my head examined.”

With this blog, I begin the next series of Rogue Women posts – “Writing Tips.”  You won’t want to miss these insightful stories.  To get your personal subscription to our blog, just click here.  

We’re a peculiar breed, we writers.  We work alone.  We dream day and night.  We come to it in our youth — or perhaps not until our old age.  Unlike NFL players, we can have careers that stop only when we die — and maybe not even then if we end up being a Robert Ludlum or a Tom Clancy.

There’s a joke in our trade: “If writing novels were easy, everyone would do it.”  That’s how we remind ourselves that the work is not only a great deal of fun and challenging, it’s also relentless.  If we’re to be good at it, we never stop teaching ourselves.  But then, that’s part of the joy.  My friend who is both a surgeon and a novelist has spent his life studying and working at both, switching back and forth between periods when he writes, and those in which he’s in the hospital operating.

I like to comfort beginning novelists with a couple of statistics: On the average, from the time a person commits himself or herself to becoming good enough to be traditionally published — figure ten years.  On the average, a writer writes four full-length novels before one is finally good enough to be traditionally published.  More brain surgeons in this country make a living than do novelists.

Are you depressed?  Don’t be.  As a beginner, I was relieved to know the hill was long and challenging.  The reason was that as I was growing up, I’d believed the books and movies that told us that all you had to do was write a book and it’d automatically be published and you’d be rich, famous, and have a long career ahead of you.  But then, we’re a highly literate society (thank goodness), and that sometimes makes us believe that if we can read books, we ought to be able to write them.  The truth is, that’s mostly true — but it also takes a lot of talent and work.

If you’re thinking about writing, or perhaps you’ve already started to write stories, keep going.  You don’t have to publish.  You’re also entitled to the joy and satisfaction of writing simply for yourself or for your family and friends.  If you write, you’re a writer.

But if you want to be published, here are two tips:

  Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.
  Writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.

So go out there and sweat!  And when you pause, please drop by my website and say hello!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Life Lessons by Virtue of Travel

by Chris Goff

When I was nineteen

I had spent one year in college, had no idea what I wanted to do or be, and a BFF from grade school who suggested we take a "Gap Year" and backpack Europe. The year was 1974, it seemed like a great idea to me, so we made our plans.

First, we needed some money. After looking at the cost of airfare, Eurail Passes (the kind you could buy back then where you could jump on and off any train in Europe for three months from the date of your first train ride), hostel costs and food costs multiplied by 180 days, and a little extra for the splurges and souvenirs. Total budget: $2,300 apiece.

Second, we both got jobs. We decided that summer we would leave in early-January 1975, so that gave us about six months to come up with the cash. We both moved home so we didn't have to pay room and board in a college town (Boulder, CO), squirreled our pennies away, told family and friends we wanted nothing for birthdays and Christmas except money toward the trip. By late-September we had enough cash to buy the Eurail Pass ($300), our round-trip airfare (another $300), and then we were broke again but committed. By January, we had amassed our fortunes and left them in trust with our parents, who were going to wire monies to Western Unions in various cities as needed.

Third, we needed to pack and get to the plane. Needless to say, we both took way, way too much. We had our backpacks stuffed so full we staggered under the weight. It took two weeks to send a big box home! Our worried parents had thrown in a hotel room in Reykjavik, Iceland, where we had a layover, and then in Luxembourg, where the plane landed. Bless them!

Fourth, we had to grow up. The third day dawned and we were out on the street, a few Traveler's checks in our pockets and no real plan. We had decided to go to Munich first, then Austria to ski, and we knew we wanted to save our Eurail Passes for later in the trip. We had to learn how to exchange money, then learn the hard lesson of losing money when you went to exchange it to a different currency at the various borders (there was no Euro back then). We learned to make a plan to be somewhere with a Western Union station before we ran out of money. It takes a few dollars to send a telegram. "Send money. Stop. Alive. Stop." We discovered how difficult it was to rely on the advice of each other without a wise parent to consult when one of us had to go to the hospital in Vienna and no one spoke English and our German was atrocious. We learned it cost way, way too much to call home and we had to settle for writing letters (three weeks there, three weeks back). We had to learn to be independent.
Marseille, France

There was a freedom to that trip that I've never experienced again. We were what now would be deemed "unplugged." No one knew where we were, who we were with. We could go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. We learned to use our wits, common sense and moxie to stay safe while exploring an--at times--dangerous world. We made some good decisions and some really bad decisions. Like drinking wine and watching the sunset on a beach in Marseille with pictures of all the women who'd gone missing from the port plastered on the sea wall. Or heading out to experience Feria in Seville with two locals we'd met in the bar. Or... We survived, and with only a few scary, uncomfortable moments and no real trauma We travelled to 13 countries, made lifelong friends, and remained BFFs for more than 55 years.

But mostly what I came home with was a sense of the world. A better understanding of what it was like to live in Europe during the war; what it was like to live under a dictatorship, in a socialist country or under communist rule; and how lucky I was to live in a place where I could take freedom for granted. Where I still can.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016


by Sonja Stone

Pick Your Poison: Five-Star Resort or Skin-Your-Own Dinner

Miraval Resort and Spa, Tucson, AZ
Miraval Resort, Tucson

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m an all-or-nothing thinker

My extreme nature also applies to vacations. I’m either digging my own latrine and building my own shelter, or I want to be at an all-inclusive five-star spa where my every desire is fulfilled before I’m consciously aware that I have one.

Go Big or Stay Home

For those of you who follow our blog, you may recall my favorite adventures are the Survival Courses I’ve taken with Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS). 

In case you missed it, you can read about it here: THREE SECRETS FROM A LIFELONG LEARNER (WHO HATES SCHOOL)

Breakfast of Champions: a freshly skinned mouse
I loathe redundancy, so I won’t rehash except to say my most recently completed course was your typical family vacation: mother and child out in the wilderness fighting for survival. We learned to build a shelter that kept us warm through freezing temperatures, made fire, and flint-napped obsidian into a tiny scalpel to flay the mouse we caught in our deadfall.

Home away from home.

At the other end of my vacation-preference spectrum is the week I spent at Miraval, one of Tucson’s all-inclusive destination resorts and spas nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I filled my days with classes: meditation, yoga, health and wellness, equine experiences. In the evening, after a sublime four-course dinner, I’d retire to the spa for facials, mud wraps, and Thai massage.

You see what’s going on here? On the one hand, I’m sucking a shard of meat off a tiny chipmunk leg; on the other, I’m ordering a second flourless chocolate torte garnished with candied violets and edible gold leaf.

Obsessive Thinking Doesn't Take a Vacation

Currently, my all-or-nothing nature has me deeply entrenched in finishing the first draft of my manuscript, the sequel to DESERT DARK. As a result, I can’t remember much about vacations. I haven’t eaten a home-cooked meal in months, I’ve only a vague memory of the warmth of the sun, and I’m forced to set daily alarms to remind me to take care of life’s little details: appointments, showering, picking my kid up at school.

Ground Zero, NYC
World Trade Center
The last time I left my office was early July, when I flew to Manhattan to attend ThrillerFest, where I met my blog sisters in person for the first time! Thankfully, I traveled with a friend who had the foresight to add a few days to the end of our stay. We walked the entire island; sightseeing, people watching, enjoying the quintessential New York experience. It’s an amazing city, and so different from Phoenix, which is low and sprawling. Manhattan felt like a cocoon; a vibrant, crowded, electric cocoon.

As the manuscript deadline hurtles toward me, I must stay focused on the task at hand. I’d like to say that the second it’s done I’ll get in my car and drive somewhere—the mountains, the beach. But the accumulating list of ignored chores will take precedence, and the guilt of ignoring my family for the last six months will likely trump my obsessive desire to get out of Phoenix for a few days.

Ah, vacations.

What's the most extreme vacation you've ever taken? Do you prefer adventure, or is lounging on the beach with daiquiri and a great book your idea of the perfect week away?

Friday, September 16, 2016


By Francine Mathews

I woke up this morning in New Orleans.

The first time I saw this city, I was twenty years younger. My husband and I had been driving for weeks, heading steadily south through the summer heat from Washington, D.C.,where we had packed  up our lives that June. Mark had quit his job in environmental enforcement at Justice. I'd quit mine in analysis at the CIA. An outsider named Ross Perot had recently lost his bid for the Presidency on an anti-bureaucrat ticket. We occasionally tried to explain to people we met that WE were the bureaucrats he was attacking--a nice, young married couple who'd done their best at their respective government agencies--but mostly people shook their heads and congratulated us on fleeing The System. We drove through Appalachia and the Great Smokies, through dry counties in Tennessee tenanted mostly by triple Baptist crosses. In Asheville, North Carolina, an older gentleman asked me worriedly if I was injured, as I sat stretching in a park before my morning run. He'd never seen a woman grimacing on the ground without a good reason. He was smoking a cigarette as he asked. I thanked him politely, explained that I was exercising, and he moved on--flummoxed.

We were free as birds, all responsibility behind us and the rest of our lives ahead. We had no children. Good friends had taken our dog, Clementine, to be shipped to Colorado--our ultimate destination--whenever she could get off the tarmac during the weather holds in August. We would never be quite this free again, although at the time we did not know that.

We had two primers to guide us: ROAD FOOD, by Jane and Michael Stern--a bound precursor to the sort of restaurant world later explored in "Diners, Dives, and Drive-ins"--and a list of Civil War battlefields we needed to see. We're Civil War bugs. Mark had never been so deep in Confederate territory.

The Battle of Shiloh

If you've lived in Washington, as we had, you'd seen Bull Run and Spotsylvania and The Wilderness and The Bloody Lane. You'd made the pilgrimages to Antietam and Appomattox and Gettysurg multiple times. You had carried James McPherson's BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM around that small town in Pennsylvania and carefully reconstructed three days of chaos, in the Peach Orchard and Devil's Den and among the last men of the 20th Maine standing on Little Roundtop. You had walked in the footsteps of Pickett's Charge, an endless mile-long march under raking rifle fire.

But on this trip, Mark and I were haunted by the ghosts of the twilight dead at Shiloh in Mississippi, the most spiritual empty field I have ever known. We examined the foxholes of Vicksburg, where Grant slowly starved a city to submission. We touched the silent cannon on the heights of Chickamauga.

And then we ate: Insanely grilled steaks at Doe's Eats in Greenville, Mississippi, where neighbors stood talking in slow clouds of midges at the kitchen's back door, and children ran with sticks and balls through the dusty alleyways. We had ham and biscuits at The Loveless Cafe in Nashville, expecting Elvis to walk through the door. We listened to ancient Elvis songs as we drove, appreciating his oeuvre as we never had before, in the setting that gave birth to it.
We ate endless servings of coconut cream pie and slept in highway motels with rattling air conditioners at night. In Natchez we checked into a plantation house filled with priceless antiques and learned what a tester--pronounced "teester"--bed was. We walked the Natchez Trace and stood where Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, shot himself to death a few years after his return from the wilderness.

And as I stood there, wondering how I had never known about this Federal-era suicide, I thought: There's a book in this.

I had recently found a literary agent to represent my first novel. I had quit my job on the strength and hope of it, my fingers crossed that I'd be allowed to write for a living. Mark was starting a new life, too, as a private sector lawyer in Denver. This was well before the time of cellphones or voicemail or even email, as it happens--so I traveled those weeks on the road in happy ignorance of my agent's efforts on my behalf. I could not be reached, and preferred it that way.

And by the time we hit New Orleans, where French and Southern cultures mingle, the Mississippi River was cresting in one of the epic floods of the last century. We raced ahead of the waters as they rose all along our route, discovering in Witchita that even land-locked Kansas can be subsumed. We made it through Little Rock and Lake of the Ozarks and a town called Hope, and eventually, not far from the Kansas-Colorado border, in a pay phone outside of a Stuckey's restaurant, I finally checked in with my agent.

He had negotiated a two-book, hard-soft deal with William Morrow and Avon, with an editor named Marjorie Bramen, and yes--I would be able to write for a living.

The road between then and now was much longer, of course, than that simple statement suggests. I was orphaned by William Morrow and Marjorie Bramen but found other editors to love. I have written twenty-six books, raised two sons, and buried generations of dogs--Clementine being the first to cross the Rainbow Bridge. Rafe is still my agent.

And as I ate beignets this morning with my cafe au lait, in my preferred New Orleans fashion, I realized that I had not yet written that book about Meriwether Lewis. I still may, however. The story is out there on the Trace, waiting for me. The road moves on, but sometimes it comes full circle.

What roads and stories, what battlefields and dives, call to your hearts, Readers?

Laissez les bons temps roulent --


Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Anguilla- British West Indies

by Jamie Freveletti

I am at the wonderful Bouchercon 2016 writing conference this week, and so this is a reprint of a journal entry from my website in 2011. Back again in two weeks, but for now read about my favorite island!

August is the month of the annual  trip to my favorite island: Anguilla. It's in the British West Indies, a stone's throw from St. Barth's but a whole world of difference. There is nothing to do here. If you want shopping or nightlife you'll need to leave Anguilla and head elsewhere. If you want beautiful, soft sand beaches and peace, here's your place. Getting here is the usual series of connections. Flight to Charlotte, connect to Philipsburg, St. Martin, boat to Anguilla, cab driving on the wrong side and dodging the occasional rooster, to the hotel. I stay in at the Cuisinart Resort on Rendezvous Bay beach. 

The photo I've uploaded doesn't really do it justice, but you get the idea.That beach is 2.miles long and I run it, barefoot  every morning. Usually it's just me and the sea, but sometimes an island dog joins, loping along and swerving off to sniff at something or another before catching up. I don't know who owns the dog, but she has a collar, so I assume she's a resident. She breaks off at the far end, where a hotel, now abandoned, sits. It was Rendezvous Villas at one point and the Brits loved it. It was a spartan, but clean hotel no AC in some units and I don't think television.

In my travels I've bumped into Brits and Germans, predominantly. Big travelers, both. The Brits are a tough breed and don't require a whole lot of luxury to be happy. I remember one woman telling me she'd been coming to Anguilla for over twenty-five years and stayed at a place without indoor plumbing. Outdoor shower and outhouse. She said it with great affection in her voice. Call me a wimp but I don't think it would be for me. I don't watch much television and don't need AC, but I do need screens or mosquito netting. Also sanitation. I've been violently ill in the islands: I think it was St. Lucia. The exact island blurs but the memory of the illness is still sharp in my mind.

The other end of the beach has Bankie Banx's place. He's Anguillan and loves music. Blues, Caribbean beats, you name it. Sunday night is a party at Bankie's. In past years there was a surge of activity on the island, but this trip I've noticed that most of that has slowed, or disappeared completely. The iffy economy has struck everywhere, I guess. But in this case it feels as though the island has reverted a bit to its true roots. Slow, quiet and peaceful. I like it. Anguilla always greeted expansion with suspicion and perhaps they were smart in that regard. I just write, lounge, run and rest. 

My next book, [the fifth in the Emma Caldridge series, launches in 2017], with a tour and signings across the country and for that I'll need to get back up to mainland speed but for now it's just me and the dog, running.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Good...The Bad...and the Saving Grace Karna Small Bodman

All this week my "Rogue" colleagues have been writing great articles about enjoyable vacations that were inspiring and, in some cases, ones that changed their lives.  We have read about seeing a Hindu Ceremony of Light (Guest blogger, Bryon Robinson), having a romantic interlude with her husband in Vermont (S. Lee Manning) and experiencing an enchanting time with her daughter in Greece (Gayle Lynds).

Gayle's descriptions reminded me of a vacation that wasn't completely "enjoyable." In fact, it turned out to be a bit of a challenge.  It all began when my husband, Dick, and I were invited to join friends to raise money for the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.  We all signed up for a special charity cruise to Greece, the surrounding islands and a few other stops on board the luxurious Sea Goddess.

We had never been on a cruise (because Dick does have a problem with motion sickness), but we figured that there wouldn't be much open water, and the weather forecast looked perfect. We all met first in Athens and spent several days seeing many of their fabulous sites.

Along the way we were told stories about how a large Hollywood contingent of producers, directors and stars had recently converged on the area, especially the island of Cephallonia, to shoot a major motion picture about what happened there during WW II when Italy's conquering army marched in and had to deal with the Nazis, the Communists and the locals all with conflicting alliances, to say nothing of conflicting love affairs.

Greek Isles

The movie was based on a great book that had been written about those ordeals, so, of course, we bought it and then boarded the ship to go on a tour of the nearby islands. So far, so good.

Then it was time for the overnight sail to Sicily. At the beginning we saw incredible views from our state room and then began to dress in our finery to have an elegant dinner coupled with a performance by a famous opera star invited on board as the main entertainment.

On board the Sea Goddess
Just at that moment, the ship began a gentle sway, side to side.  We sat down for a few minutes hoping it would subside.  No such luck.  Pretty soon it was obvious that this was going to go on, perhaps through the night. Dick announced that there was no way he could make the dinner. He had tried all the prescribed "cures" for motion sickness. None ever worked.  Big problem.  I went to find the ship's doctor who came to administer a special shot that knocked my husband out for the night and left me to wonder how to handle the rest of the trip.  I searched for the Captain and asked him what the forecast was for the rest of the journey.  He said, "Light chop." I replied, "If light chop is coming, what are we experiencing right now?" He said, "Oh, Madam this is gentle."  I shook my head and replied, "Then we're out of here. Can someone on your staff call ahead and get us a hotel room in Sicily?" He agreed to arrange it and said we would arrive there first thing in the morning. 

And so -- we jumped ship.  Of course, once on dry land Dick was well enough, and we were able to see a bit of Sicily, spend the night and then decide what to do next.  I discovered that there were several flights a day to Rome, and even though it was the height of the tourist season, I managed to snag a couple of tickets. But we also needed a hotel.
Marriott Hotel in Rome

After much frustration, I finally got a reservation for us at the Marriott. We planned to spend a couple of days there before flying to Zurich, the final city on the original tour where we had airline reservations to head back to Washington. However, when we got to Rome, there was another kind of problem. As soon as we checked into our room, Dick leaned over to grab something out of the mini-bar and put his back out.  Poor dear spent the next two days in bed.  At least he had a good book to read.  By the third day, he said he was good to go -- so on to Zurich, the last stop on our "vacation." 

As we all were boarding our flight to Switzerland, the stewardess rushed up and down the aisles to announce that the ground crews had just gone out on strike, and there was no one to haul the plane away from the gate for take-off.  After a half-hour wait, she said to all of us, "This happens all the time here in Rome. But on my last flight we asked all the able-bodied men to get off and haul the plane out.  Maybe we can do that again."  Say again? Ask the passengers to go out and work like a chain gang to pull a jetliner out to the runway?  Murmurs in the cabin ranged from "She's gotta be kidding," to "Anyone want to volunteer?" But a few minutes later, the pilot announced, "Looks like there is one brave driver who's bringing his truck over to take us out." (I always wondered what happened to that guy).

When we landed n Zurich,  I was grateful that Dick felt fine, and we could finally have one last pleasant vacation day when we could see a great city, have a lovely romantic dinner, spend the night, and fly back to the states first thing in the morning. And so it went - that is until we got to the Zurich airport and were told that our flight to DC had been cancelled due to mechanical problems.  I said to the clerk, "Is there ANY flight to ANYWHERE in the states we can get on?" She checked and got us seats on a flight to New York in a couple of hours.

After crossing the Atlantic and landing at Kennedy International, we hopped in a taxi and asked the driver to take us to LaGuardia so we could catch a shuttle to DC.  I grabbed my cell and checked the airlines only to discover that all flights from LaGuardia to Washington had been cancelled due to thunderstorms, and none seemed to know when the next ones would be leaving.  At that point, I made one more call to Amtrak and managed to get the last two seats on the Acela train. (Obviously all the other travelers were trying to do the same thing).  And so we diverted the taxi to Penn Station.
Acela Train NY-DC

Finally arriving home late that night, we were exhausted, but I was thankful we had made it through this "vacation" at all.  And I learned a few lessons on this trip: (1) Only travel with carry-on luggage, which we did. (Thank goodness we never had to check our bags - I'm sure they  would not have kept up with our trek) and (2) In the future, remember the quote from Benjamin Franklin,  "If you fail to plan, you're planning to fail."

When we had occasion to see our friends in DC who had completed the cruise, they said, "So, after you left us, how was the rest of your vacation?" To which my dear husband replied, "I actually had a great time. I finally had the chance to read a really good book.  It's all about when Italy tried to take over that Greek Island, but had to deal with the Nazi occupiers and then the Communist rebels and finally the local folks who didn't like any of them." I had to laugh, but then I added, "Yes, that book was the saving grace, so to speak. He's right about the story.  It's about love too. A father's love for his daughter, a man's love for a woman, and a people's love for their country.  We never would have read it if we hadn't taken that trip." The book was Correlli's Mandolin (the book, as usual,  was much better than the movie). 

Now the question is: Have you ever taken a vacation that turned out to be "a challenge,"  and what books did you read along the way? Do leave a comment below -- we'd love to hear about your experiences.  And thanks for visiting us Rogue Women Writers.....Karna Small Bodman