Is there serendipity in my geraniums?

GeraniumsMy gardens tend toward shade plants with one exception, a pot that sits on the one consistently sunny point of our deck. That pot is planted with geraniums.

Always geraniums. They like sun. They’re easy. They’re pretty. When the geraniums are planted, I feel as though the summer can really begin.

Over the years, I’ve tried various techniques for overwintering the plants without success.

Last fall, the pink flowers were so pretty, I decided to try again. I moved the geraniums into the basement and charged my husband with watering them every once in a while as he walks by on his way to his office.

Apparently giving the task to him was the way to keep the plants alive. Not only alive, but actively growing all winter. The leaves became so large he thought some strange volunteer plant had invaded. He was only convinced otherwise when the plant began to shoot out flower stalks and set blooms.

The fact that these plants prospered over the winter feels like a good omen to me.

1635 x 2453 image. Download and use as needed.

The cover of my new novel Go Away Home features geraniums on a window sill. When I shared the cover on Facebook, many commented that they liked the cover because of the geraniums: their grandmothers always had geraniums and they think about times past when they see that flower.

Now that it’s warming up, I’m about to move the geraniums back out to the deck. In July, my book will make its public appearance.

It seems like serendipity, doesn’t it, that my geranium plant made it through the winter and that geraniums are on my book cover?

Women’s Fiction – What message does it send?

Consequences of segmenting the author/book market

As a college student in the 1960s, I took a class called “Black Literature.” “Black” being the culturally accepted term of the day for African American. We read works including Native Son by Richard Wright and poetry by Langston Hughes. Though the class was taught by a female professor, we did not read anything by black women authors.file2621283662773

During that same time, courses in women’s literature were offered in the gender studies program.

My thinking at the time was that both “black literature” and “women’s literature” were special and worthy of study. I did not consider that by shining a light on a particular group of authors, the courses may simultaneously elevate and demote those authors.

An article titled “What does ‘Women’s Fiction’ mean?” by Randy Susan Meyers has me thinking more critically of the unintended consequences of segmenting the market.

Meyers observes that: “… to publish on Amazon, you must pick a category from a list of wide ranging possibilities that include ten sub-genres of Women’s Fiction and, zero that are labeled Men’s Fiction. The message is clear. Men are the norm. Women are a sub-category.”

From a marketing standpoint, which given a thirty-year career in marketing is how I think about many things, segmenting the market is a good thing. The closer I can get to finding readers who are interested in my specific product (fiction, World War One-era, United States, family, women), the more efficient my marketing and the more likely I am to achieve a sale.

Amazon marketing is sophisticated, and I’ve benefited greatly from their ability to know that “if you liked this author/book, you’ll like that author/book.” I wouldn’t want them to stop.

At the same time, I know that if Go Away Home is considered “Women’s Fiction,” by default the implication is that men may not find it as interesting. But we can go down the list, if it’s World War One-era fiction, people who do not care about that era may not find it appealing. If it’s United States based, people who want to read about Asia may not choose to give it their time. If it’s fiction, people who only read non-fiction are likely to pass it by.

There is a wealth of good literature out there. How do any of us decide? I admit I’m torn on this topic. I’m not fond of the idea of labeling anyone if it somehow makes them “less.” I am fond of knowing who the reader is because if you market to everybody, you market to nobody.

What do you think readers? Is “Women’s Fiction” denigrating to women authors and even women readers? Or is it a reasonable function of market segmentation?


Go Away Home – Book Cover & Release Date

World War One-era historical fiction on track for July launch.

It’s been a long journey writing my first novel – somewhere in the four to five-year range – but I’m excited to tell you the writing part of the journey is at an end. The manuscript for my first novel – Go Away Home – is complete. And now so is the cover.Go Away Home Revised Ebook Final Cover Large

The design is the work of Jenny Toney Quinlan of Historical Editorial who also worked with me as copy editor and proofreader. Every cover tells a story, and that is one of the many things I like about about this cover. To me, the curtains, geraniums, and view convey the rural setting of the novel, while the window draws us to look out, hinting at more. The overall golden tone suggests the past without being heavy handed.

I like the cover, but readers will be the real judge. So what do you think? Would this cover encourage you to pick it up?

With the cover and manuscript completed, I’ve chosen July 7, 2014 as the release date. That may seem like a long way off, but I know the days will pass quickly. I’m already knee deep in ramping up marketing for the launch, and I’ll share that journey as we go.
Now that I have teased you with the cover, I hope you’ll want more. You can read the first chapter of GO AWAY HOME here.

I’ve added Go Away Home pages here on my website and on Goodreads. If you participate in Goodreads, you can mark Go Away Home in the “want to read” category.

I’d love to hear from you. What story does this cover tell you?

Five writing tips from Julia Child

The famous cook’s experiences span the kitchen and publishing

Julia ChildJulia Child describes her book My Life in France as autobiographical stories of “the things she loved most in life,” – her husband, France, and the pleasures of cooking and eating.  She does not mention writing.

Yet when I read this memoir Child wrote late in her life, in collaboration with Alex Prud’homme, I was struck by how much of Child’s life was spent writing, publishing, and promoting her now-famous cookbooks. I was also taken by how applicable her approach, even when she was talking about cooking, was to me as a writer.

Learn the craft.  “Learn how to cook –try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” – Julia never stopped learning about food, testing recipes, and enjoying every step along the way. She signed up for classes at the famous Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and continued to learn from chefs wherever she traveled and dined.

Writing workshops have sharpened my writing skills, introduced me to countless talented teachers and writers, provided constant inspiration. At some point, though, it’s time to stop going to class and start writing. Julia was tuned into that, too. She says of cooking: “The great lesson embedded in the book is that no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.”  So it is with writing.

Don’t give up – Because my own novel has taken five years to write, I was encouraged by Julia’s odyssey to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She began working on the 600-page manuscript her co-authors had compiled in 1952. In 1959 they submitted the manuscript (in its second, and “final,” iteration) to Houghton-Mifflin. Only to have The Book rejected.

Julia’s response? “We have only begun to fight.” With another publisher, a new editor who believed in the project, and yet another almost complete rewrite, The Book finally reached bookshelves in October 1961, and Julie and her co-authors came to view the rejection as a blessing.

Be open to input –  Julia’s vision for The Book was far more grand than her publisher and editor believed could be successful. Julia’s first response was to reject the publisher’s opinion. She wrote a letter to that effect. The following day, she threw that letter away and wrote a letter agreeing to a more market-friendly version of The Book.

I’ve allowed myself a few nights of righteous indignation when comments have come in calling for significant rewrites. When I opened up to accept that the readers were right, I dove in to the rewrite. The result has always been better.

Build relationships – “The French are very sensitive to personal dynamics, and they believe that you must earn your rewards.” Julia espoused “the value of les human relations.” From fishwives to waiters to chefs to her writing partners, Julia took time to get to know people. Her interest was genuine, and those relationships paid off throughout her life.

As writers in 2014, we have far more opportunities through social media to be in contact with people.  Social media takes a lot of time. But then what worthwhile relationship doesn’t?

julia-child-my-life-in-franceBe bold. Promote.“Knopf had agreed to take out a few advertisements, but most of the promotion job fell to us. I had no idea how to arrange for publicity, so I wrote friends in business and asked for advice.” Even a major publishing house did not  provide much promotional support. So as all authors who hope to be successful must, Julia took hold of publicity herself. 

Many authors find marketing to be the hardest part of writing. It is comforting, is it not, to find that even someone like Julia Child had to manager her own promotion?

Though I don’t have the passion for cooking, as I read My Life in France, I felt a genuine camaraderie with Julia as a writer. Her voice was so clear and so human. Her book both entertaining and encouraging.

Today I leave you with two thoughts from Julia that struck particularly close to my heart as I bring my novel Go Away Home to publication:

“Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care.”

“Alas, this book may not be as perfect as you might wish, ma cherie, but it will be finished.”

Ah, yes. Bon appetit!

Want to be sure they know what you think?

Write a letter they’ll read after you’re gone.

In these days of electronic communication, fewer people put pen to paper. Gone are the days when everything from the mundane to the momentous made its way on to paper and into the mail. As a writer who’s mined hundred-year-old letters for insights into everyday life in the early 1900s, I lament the loss.  pen writing

But letters are not completely gone, and some people are finding that letters can serve a deeper purpose. 

A new Twitter friend, Debbie Gruber, brought my attention to the intriguing genre of posthumous letters — letters that carry very special messages intended to be read after the writer has passed away. I’ve invited her to tell us more.

Everything you always wanted to know about posthumous letters (but were afraid to ask) – by Debbie Gruber

It’s not creepy . . . really.

Just to give you some perspective, posthumous letters, also known as legacy letters or ethical wills, date back to biblical times.  The Old Testament described them over 3000 years ago (Genesis Ch. 49) and references to this tradition are also found in the New Testament (John Ch. 15 – 19). In the Medieval 18th century, fathers wrote legacy letters to their sons, as did leaders to their followers.  A critic at the time said these types of letters were often “intellectually poor, but of a high moral level.”

Today, examples of posthumous communications abound.  One of my favorites is from Sherwood Schwartz, creator of “The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island”, who wrote a farewell letter to his family and fans. 

Even politicians have written posthumous letters.  In 2009, Senator Ted Kennedy composed a letter to President Barack Obama with orders that it be delivered to the President on the occasion of the Senator’s death. 

Because of technology, the possibilities for posthumous communication extend beyond pen and paper.  We can leave behind an audio or video recording.  This brings to mind Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.”  Randy Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer.  In 2007, he delivered literally his last lecture, entitled “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”  The lecture, which he meant as a legacy for his kids, was devoured by the public, receiving over 16 million online views and spawning a New York Times best-seller.

For some of us, the word “posthumous” carries connotations that may make us uncomfortable.  We envision morbid images – ghosts, graves, headstones, and the like.  That’s how I used to feel.  But one day, while contemplating a trip to Spain, that all changed. 

As late-in-life parents of two teenaged boys, my husband and I were chomping at the bit to have a “parents only” vacation.  I had always wanted to visit Spain.  Traveling while our sons were at sleep-away camp seemed like the perfect opportunity for our getaway.  We had left our kids before, but never for more than a few days, and never to travel overseas.  As the trip approached, my anxiety grew. 

Although excited about the prospect of a wonderful vacation, I felt increasingly uncomfortable about flying without my kids.  I kept thinking . . . what if the plane crashes and I never see my children again?  I realized my emotions were getting the best of me, but I couldn’t alleviate the anxiety that was gnawing at me. 

That’s when it hit me . . . why not write them notes?  This way, they’d have permanent keepsakes of my heart speaking to theirs.  I found comfort in realizing that I could write notes. The process of writing the notes “sealed the deal.” If the unimaginable happened, my boys would have a permanent reminder of how much I love them and how they make my heart sing. 

About a year later, I formed Heart Writing.  My intent was to build a website where folks could create keepsake notes for their loved ones.  As the business continues to take shape, I see that by writing notes, folks receive several benefits: peace of mind, a way to be remembered, and the assurance that loved ones always know how they feel.  And, I hope that many years down the road, the “receivers” of these notes, the loved ones, will experience comfort and joy each and every time they read their notes. 

Learn more about Debbie and Heart Writing at:
Website: HeartWriting
Twitter: @HeartWriting1
Debbie Gruber Bio

Debbie Gruber

Debbie Gruber

A late-in-life, baby boomer mom.  Debbie lives on the north shore of Long Island (no, unfortunately not the Hamptons) with her husband, two teenage boys, and her “furry child” Lucky (a good natured Havanese).  Lucky is the only one of her children who doesn’t talk back and complain about stuff.

What to do with 30,000 “excess” kids?

Dealing with homeless children 100 years ago

In the 1800s, boatloads of immigrants arrived in U.S. port cities. They came seeking the American dream; the reality they faced was often more a nightmare.  Large families, poverty, and untimely deaths from childbirth or disease, left thousands of children on the streets. These children survived as pickpockets, beggars, or prostitutes. By the mid-1850s, it’s estimated that 30,000 children lived on New York streets.

What became of those children is a lesser-known part of American history that became known as the Orphan Train Movement.

The Children’s Aid Society (CAS) was a New York agency formed to help care for these “excess” children. Not all of the children were orphaned. Some were abandoned. Some were given over to the CAS because the parents simply couldn’t take care of them.

Orphan Train Riders

Orphan Train Riders

Workers at the CAS and another charity institution, The New York Foundling Hospital, sought better lives for the children, looking for homes with families in rural areas of the country.  The Orphan Train Movement transported children–ranging in age from infants to 16–by rail to new homes. Between 1854 and the early 1930s, the two organizations placed between 200,000 and 250,000 children in homes across 47 states and several Canadian provinces. Some 10,000 of those children came to Iowa.

I learned about the Orphan Train riders in the course of researching an article on the subject for The Iowan magazine. The topic fascinated me so much that I’ve included an Orphan Train thread in my upcoming novel Go Away Home.

By the time I was doing my research, Iowa’s Orphan Train riders had all passed away. My interviews included the children of riders, and the stories they tell are both poignant and powerful. Mary McLain is one of those I interviewed.

Mary McLain’s favorite story when she was growing up was Little Orphan Annie.  As a kindergartner, she dressed up as Annie for Halloween, wearing a dress her mother took out of a box tucked away in the back of a closet.  It would be many years–long after her mother passed away–before McLain learned the story behind that dress, before she learned how closely her mother’s life mirrored that of Little Orphan Annie.

McLain’s mother, Viola Volkert, was born in New York in 1907. When Viola was three, her mother contracted tuberculosis and was placed in a sanitarium.  Viola’s father could not care for his three daughters and one son, so he placed the girls with the CAS.

When Viola and her sisters entered that orphanage, they took the first step on a journey into this unique part of American history. Viola and her sisters rode the Orphan Train to Clear Lake, Iowa. The girls were all sent to separate homes.

In 1958, Viola handed a box to her daughter, Mary McLain, by then an adult. “She said, ‘I want you to have these; I know you’ll take good care of them,'” McLain remembers, “but I didn’t ask ‘Whose are these?'” Only after Viola died in 1977 did McLain begin to uncover her mother’s story.

McLain discovered that the three dresses in the box, plus three pair of underwear and a pair of shoes, were everything her mother owned when she came to Iowa.

Many Orphan Train riders did not talk easily about that part of their lives. Being an orphan was considered shameful. Speaking about it might be seen as disrespectful to the people who took you in. This was a generation that did not talk about private things. For some, their experience was not positive.

Bill Nelson was eight years old when he came to Iowa. His father gave Bill up to the orphanage, but kept Bill’s older brother, Arthur. Bill’s first family wanted him only for the hard work. The CAS matron who checked up on the placement removed him from that home. Ultimately, he was taken in by a woman whose children were all grown. But when the Depression hit, she could no longer afford to keep him. Bill was on his own at age fifteen.

All his life, Bill carried a picture of his brother and himself–the one connection he had to his former family. His daughter did the research to find her father’s brother, still living in New Jersey. When the brothers finally met, they were both in their 80s. Arthur carried the same picture with him.

All his life, Bill had carried the hurt of being rejected by his father. It was only after telling his story at an Orphan Train reunion, a story that he’d kept inside most of his life, that he was finally able to say with some pride, “I’m part of American history.”


The Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital continue in operation today. The National Orphan Train Complex is dedicated to saving the stories of Orphan Train riders.

Two excellent novels center on Orphan Train riders: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty and Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Kline. 

What did rural life look like in 1910?

Early 20th century photos inspire writing.

Whether writing memoir or novel, I’ve found photos a great source of inspiration. Today, almost everyone has the ability to take photos. Digital cameras allow us to take pictures with abandon, of subjects important and mundane. It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so.

Yet 50 years ago – at the time covered by my memoir – Mom used a box camera with rolls of film that only had twelve exposures. She brought the camera out on special occasions. One hundred years ago, during the time in which my WWI-era novel Go Away Home is set, though Kodak was working hard to bring it to the masses, photography was most often the purview of professionals.

Because photography was relatively rare, I consider myself lucky to have an album of photos my grandmother took between 1905 and 1915.  I grew up looking at these photos and they’ve been a constant reference point as I’ve written. Many of the photos have inspired scenes in my novel.

A good day hunting.

A good day hunting.

My grandmother was not constrained by the thought that everyone had to be dressed up to have their picture taken. This picture of two men just back from hunting made me think about clothes and dogs and rabbit stew.

GAH - Model T

One of the first cars in the neighborhood.

This picture of my grandfather and his car made me wonder how you drive a Model T and how anyone learned. I studied YouTube videos. My mother told me she and her sister taught themselves. Once they wound up in a ditch and a group of men simply picked up the car and set it back on the road.

GAH - Picking Corn

Taking a break.


Taking her camera to the field, Grandma captured this happy moment between father and daughter on a corn wagon. My father told me he could pick 100 bushel of corn a day. In case you wonder, that’s a lot when you’re picking by hand.

This picture of a log house in South Dakota was in my mind as I wrote about one of my characters who went to Wyoming to homestead. They lived a year in such a log home.

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Do you wonder how they kept whites white?

Accurately portraying life in the early 1900s has taken me lots of places to do research. I count myself lucky to find details and whole scenes springing from our family album of old photos.


Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – 2014

January 1 is a time for resolutions and I just made one I know I’ll have no trouble sticking with throughout the year.  This afternoon, I learned about the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and since impulse serves me best in situations like this, I signed up on the spot.2014hf1 

The challenge seems particularly appropriate since I will publish my WWI-era novel Go Away Home later this spring. You’ll hear lots about that from me in other posts. For now, here’s the scoop on the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge sponsored by Historical Tapestry.

During the next 12 months, you can choose to read one of the different reading levels:

20th century reader – 2 books
Victorian reader – 5 books
Renaissance Reader – 10 booksI read across a range of genres, so this sounds like a good level of historical fiction for me.
Medieval – 15 books
Ancient History – 25 books

Prehistoric – 50+ books

The first book on my list is the one I chose for our book club to read this month: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. This is the story of the real person Mary Anning, an English girl who has a particular talent for finding fossils, and her spinster friend Elizabeth Philpot. While I’ve read other books by Chevalier, the next book on my stack is Orphan Train: A Novel by an author new to me – Christina Baker Kline.

What challenges are you taking on this year? Do you have books or authors you’re particularly interested in reading?


How committed are you?

Many indie authors choose not to shell out for an editor. But the right relationship can make writing soar.

Not the tiniest piece of crap eluded her. She invariably landed squarely on what was wrong and left me to face it down, if I could.”Author Philip Roth speaking about his editor Veronica Geng

Authors who sign with a publishing house work with an editor. Beyond the requirement to work with an editor, they know they need an editor. Even authors like Philip Roth who is, according to a recent article in The New Yorker, “ruthlessly self-critical while he is writing.”


Offering the best chance to take off and soar.

A good editor can see flaws the author can’t and has a relationship with the author that allows for honest feedback and discussion. The result? A book worthy of the reader’s time and money.

From the beginning of my journey into writing historical fiction, I anticipated working with a professional editor. But, unlike authors who work with a publishing house, we indie authors go into our own pockets to hire editorial services.

More than once along the way, I wondered if it was worth the investment. After all, I had worked through my manuscript with my writing partner, two groups of beta readers, other historical fiction authors, and finally my own writing skills honed by years in the editor chair myself. Did I really need yet another set of eyes looking at things?

Whenever I wavered, I returned to my goal in writing my upcoming novel “Go Away Home” — to tell the best story I can and write it as well as I can. In my heart, I knew that included an editor.

As I prepared to choose an editor, serendipity lead me to Jenny Q, an editor who specializes in historical fiction. When all other things are equal, it made sense to have an editor attuned to questioning anachronisms and historical facts.

I hired Jenny Q  for copy editing and she delivered that. She smoothed out choppy and disjointed places, suggested more appropriate word choices, questioned and clarified when my meaning grew hazy. She also did more. While I had not hired her for a developmental edit, she pointed out several places where the story would benefit from slowing down and building more emotional depth into my main character. We talked through those places, batting ideas back and forth.

Instead of being discouraged to find I need to write several more scenes, Jenny’s willingness to talk through her thoughts and my reactions, plus her encouraging feedback, has me eager to get back to the keyboard to make my story soar. As I write these new sections, Jenny will continue as my partner, copy editing to ensure each new scene fits smoothly into the whole.

After working with the same editor for ten years, author Amy Tan‘s longtime reader, editor and friend died. For twelve years, she was without an editorial partner. When her new book “The Valley of Amazement” was an idea, she was ready for a new editor. “I don’t care what the money is, I want an editor. I want the best editor for myself,” she says in a Wall Street Journal article.

Now that I’ve worked with a good editor, I understand the value authors like Philip Roth and Amy Tan find in these relationships. Professional copy editing gives me confidence my book will be what I set out to write. Now I can’t imagine publishing a book without it.

How about it indie authors? What has your experience been with editors? Have you used one? Why or why not?