Celebrating Indie Authors – Check out these four

October 14 is Indie Author Day, a day recognizing and encouraging authors who choose to publish independently. As you may know, I indie published my first book Growing Up Country, and am in the process of indie publishing my second novel Simple Truth.

Among the many delights of indie publishing was meeting so many other authors who’d taken the same route to publication. In honor of the day, I tip my hat to four authors I’ve come to know and respect.

David Lawlor – An Irish author, Lawlor is a fantastic story teller. He writes books I enjoy for lots of reasons: historical fiction, fast pace, well-drawn characters. Three of his books – Tan, Golden Grave, and A Time of Traitors – form a trilogy centered on Liam Mannion, an Irishman who fought with the English in World War I and returns to Ireland only to become embroiled in the Irish war for independence from England. Fascinating history. Terrific writing. His blog posts at History With A Twist are as entertaining as they are instructive.

Carol Erwin – Erwin draws inspiration from the West Virginia mountains and the people and industry that took root there. Her Mountain Women series includes six books so far, beginning with The Girl On The Mountain. In each book Ervin creates a vivid landscape of characters and the Appalachian Mountains. The stories don’t rest on famous people or well known events. Instead Erwin relies on characters so well developed, language so precise and fresh, and a plot so engaging you can’t help but be drawn in.

M. K. Tod – Tod is a Canadian author who also writes historical fiction (do you sense a theme here?). Tod has focused much of her writing on the WWI era, telling stories set mostly in France. Her first novel – Unravelled – introduces characters we track in future novels. Her stories include rich historical detail and fully developed characters. She blogs about historical fiction at A Writer of History.

Paulette Mahurin – Mahurin blends famous characters and events with local stories. Her first book – The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap – is a good example of her style. Set in 1895, the story tells how the citizens of a small Nevada town are impacted by the news that Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency under Britain’s law making sex between men a criminal offense.

Indie authors are writing and publishing excellent stories. I encourage you to check out these and other indie authors. On Indie Author Day or any other day.

Have you found an indie-published author you particularly like? Please share.

Have you found yourself amidst a kaleidoscope?

Painted ladies dance

In joyful kaleidoscopes

Through warm autumn days

The color combination of butterfly and sunflowers is autumn perfect.

This morning as I walked, I found myself surrounded by butterflies. There were so many, I stopped in wonder. And in joy. They flickered in front, beside, and over me, carrying me back to my childhood on the farm when masses of butterflies were common.

A butterfly spreads its wings and catches the sun.

What kind were they? I uploaded a picture to Facebook, asking for help.

It’s wings folded, she has an entirely different look.

Then my mind wandered to what a group of butterflies is called. Are they drifts? crowds? flocks? sweeps? I asked my smart phone.

A kaleidoscope of painted ladies congregate on sedum blossoms.

The answers as delightful as the butterflies. Painted ladies, they’re called. A group of butterflies is a kaleidoscope.

As a child, I played endlessly with a kaleidoscope, pointing the tube toward the sun, turning it around and around to create new colors and shapes. How fitting that the butterflies, flitting about as they do, splashing color here and there, are collectively a kaleidoscope.

The painted ladies inspired me to write the haiku above. When have you found yourself in wonder and joy with nature?

Poverty or Privilege – What do clothes mean?

“Dress for success.” “Clothes make the man/woman.” “Dress for the job you want.”

I had cause to re-think these oft-heard phrases in the context of poverty and privilege when I read a memoir about a pen pal relationship between two children in America and Africa and subsequently an article written by a Des Moines businesswoman.

My well-stocked closet. Privilege or poverty or both?

Poverty permeates the United States. In 2015, about 43 million Americans – 13.5 percent of the population – lived below the poverty line. But in this land of plenty, even those living in poverty have clothing.

Poverty can look very different in other countries. In alternating chapters, the memoir I Will Always Write Back – How one letter changed two lives tells the story of American school girl Caitlin Alifirenka and African school boy Martin Ganda in Zimbabwe.

At first, Caitlin takes for granted her life of privilege while Martin carefully avoids sharing the truth of his life of poverty because he doesn’t want his new friend to think less of him. Caitlin talks easily of trips to the mall, music, vacations, and clothes. Then she sends Martin a Reebok t-shirt for his birthday.

Though this gift throws him into a crisis of concern about how he can repay her, Martin thanks her profusely. In his letter he says, “…Your gift increased my clothes. Before I had been left with only an old shirt of my dad …”

Only later does Caitlin come to understand what Martin meant. Before she sent the gift, he had only one shirt. Now he has two. This was as incomprehensible to Caitlin as it would be to most us in the United States.

We know through Martin’s chapters how difficult life for the family is when Martin’s father loses his job as the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates. The family struggles to keep from starving yet they keep the children in school for which they must pay tuition and provide uniforms because education is their only hope.

Over months, years, and a multitude of letters, the two children become friends. As they share more, Caitlin and her parents begin to realize the tenuous life Martin’s family lives. Eventually, they send clothes and money to support the whole family. Martin’s response when a pair of tennis they send fit his mother struck my heart. He said:

“She no longer walks barefooted and … my mom is now counted as human in the society.

The family had clothes when they did not have them before. And those clothes gave them status in their neighborhood, at school, and at work. Dress for success? Really? The clothes made them human. I get tears in my eyes just writing that sentence.

Coincidentally, this past week Belle DuChene wrote an article for Lift IOWAClear the clutter in your closet to clear your mind. The genesis of her article came on a day Belle was running late for work because she couldn’t find anything to wear. Even though she had two closets full of clothes.

How often have I felt the same way as I look at shelves of t-shirts and sweaters, racks of jackets, blouses, slacks? When I left the full-time office world, I immediately needed 80% fewer clothes but it took me more than 10 years to let go of the suits even though they grew woefully out of date. I’d say I don’t buy many clothes, yet every time DAV calls I’m able to put out a garbage bag or two of clothes. 

Belle DuChene’s epiphany led her to re-evaluate her clothing and life. She started a business focusing on ‘isms’ – minimalism, professionalism, volunteerism, etc.. – to help others do the same. I was raised to hold on to anything that still has good use in it, so paring down my closet takes more than a little mental re-adjustment. As I take steps to re-purpose my clothes into other peoples’ closets, I work to get over the idea that I “deserve” something new.

I’m also re-thinking poverty and privilege. Is it really a privilege to live with such excess when it complicates life? Are we clothing ourselves into poverty when we tax the world’s resources with our disposable clothing approach? In our clothes-conscious society where dressing for success does matter, how do we reconcile the conflicting messages?

What do you think my friends? How do poverty and privilege come into play in your lives?

Food and culture – Eating Greek style

A country’s culture is embodied in its food and how the people eat. Nowhere was that more evident than on my recent trip to Greece.

When my friend Mary and I planned our trip, we factored in plenty of time between the major attractions to stop at any random spot if we saw something unexpected. What we didn’t know was that relaxing over a cup of coffee or a meal – sometimes for hours – is quintessentially Greek, and those activities would fill much of our open time.

We were encouraged in this by our driver, a Greek who owned a construction company prior to the economic crisis and who has driven a taxi since. We felt incredibly lucky to have teamed up with this amiable and knowledgeable traveling companion who signed on to drive and translate but also served as our guide into Greek history, the economy, customs, and food.

Greek meals are occasions for wide-ranging discussions. And good food.

As Americans, we tend to bolt food even in a good restaurant as the wait staff work to turn the table and we rush on to the next thing. In the Greek style, we ate fresh food slowly, savoring conversation and companionship as much as the food.

Two food favorites rose to the top during this trip: souvlaki and a classic country salad called a “Mani Plate.”

On our first full day in Athens, after we toured the Parthenon, our guide led us to a small restaurant in the Plaka and introduced us to souvlaki. Souvlaki is similar to a gyro – meat, tomatoes, onions, and tzatziki sauce wrapped up in pita bread. Often it comes with fries.

Already inexpensive at about two Euros, souvlaki is even less expensive if you take it ‘to go.’ We found the price to be about the same whether in Athens or the countryside. Souvlaki is what Greeks eat, and I can see why. A complete delicious, inexpensive meal. Can’t go wrong with that.

Our need to use ‘the facilities’ led us to our next food discovery. No, you can’t simply stop at a gas station for a toilet. In Greece, the gas stations sell gas and that’s it. Isn’t that a concept?

The Mani Plate is a classic ‘country salad’ also called xoriatiki.

Since it was time for an afternoon coffee break anyway, we found a restaurant to serve our needs. While there, our driver suggested we try tsipouro, an alcoholic beverage better imbibed with food in your stomach. He recommended the Mani Plate (named for the Mani Peninsula on which the town was located). We were already disposed to take his recommendations, and this was another good one.

The Mani Plate consisted of fresh tomatoes and cucumber slices, cheese, meat, and olives. With a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and oregano, it was magnificent.

In the same family as ouzo, tsipouro is a drink associated with hospitality and good company. A drink to linger over. So we did. For a couple of hours. Talking, nibbling at the salad, glowing as the tsipouro kicked in, absorbing Greek culture.

One hotel offered honey-flavored tsipouro as a welcome gift. Reason enough to relax with a bit of cheese and lots of conversation.

For us, this mid-afternoon repast was enough for the day. Greeks would eat again late in the evening, but late nights were a part of Greek culture that passed us by.

I haven’t made souvlaki since returning to the States, though I have the recipe on a refrigerator magnet. The Mani Plate, on the other hand, is a regular lunch treat, especially now that tomatoes and cucumbers are fresh from our garden. Sadly, the tsipouro I brought back from Greece is long gone.

The Greek culture was at its finest with souvlaki or the Mani Plate, a glass of tsipouro, and the long, relaxed conversations that accompanied every Greek meal and every cup of coffee.

What’s your favorite way to immerse in a country’s culture when you travel? Drop a note and share your favorite discoveries.

Haitus over …. Did you miss me?

I realize asking, “Did you miss me?” after such a long absence opens me to the possibility of all sorts of disappointing, maybe even disparaging, responses. All of which I’d deserve. I dropped out of sight without telling you I would. Truthfully, I didn’t know I was going to do it myself. It just happened.

Pastels provided a new kind of creative outlet.

But now I’m back and feeling good after a three-month hiatus. I didn’t realize how much I needed a break from writing. I’d worked hard to finish the manuscript of a new novel only to have it turned down by my publisher. Optimistically, I went in search of an agent only to hear, “No, thanks,” again and again. Maybe this novel was not meant to be published. Simultaneously, I cut back on blogging, and the longer I didn’t post, the easier it became.

As I let writing recede, I opened my  mental, physical, and emotional space to other adventures.

I dove deeper into the pastel pool, taking another class and gaining confidence.

Greece offered unbeatable light, color, and history.

A friend and I spent a sublime few weeks in Greece.

My new prairie patch (where I mostly pull weeds) offered solitude and a much-needed reminder to be patient because things come in their own time.

All of these events and more provided time to breathe, to reflect, to let my heart tell me what to do. Without conscious intent, time away from writing brought me back to writing.

Purple vervain helps me look past prolific weeds.

So, here I am once again. I’ll be writing and posting about the above topics and more in the weeks ahead. The time away also brought me to a decision about my manuscript. I’m moving forward on the route to indie publishing. One step at a time without certainty on the end game. You’ll hear more about that, too.

So, my friends. I’m grateful for each of you who waited patiently and are willing to read my ramblings once again.

I’d like to hear from you. Please drop a note about how you’ve spent the last several months. Or let me know how time away has helped you make a decision. Let’s reconnect.

 

Finding inspiration – The Open Road, a novel

I’m pleased to welcome M.M. Holaday to my blog today. You may remember Holaday (aka Nan Johnson) from the story she wrote about Perkins Corner, a post that struck a chord with many readers. Holaday has published her first novel – The Open Road – and it launches this month.

Set in the American West after the Civil War, as settlement hastens the close of the frontier, The Open Road tells the story of two adventurous young men, a horsewoman, and an Arapaho who discover the depths of their character as they tie their fates together in a heart-felt story of friendship. Click here to read my review.

In this post she answers a frequent reader question: ‘Where did you get your inspiration?’

Drawing from the inspiration well

By M.M. Holaday

Writers gather ideas from all sorts of places. For me, a lyric from a song on the radio or a tactile experience like weeding the garden will spark an idea. That random thought is filed for a time when I need to add texture to a story. But then there are other experiences that etch themselves deep into our hearts and minds. As I wrote The Open Road, a poem, a novel, and my grandmother inspired me.

The yearning for connection

I confess I do not understand nor appreciate every line of Song of the open road by Walt Whitman. He goes on and on for forty-plus stanzas; perhaps he is intentionally long-winded to show how journeys themselves are long, winding, sometimes arduous, sometimes delightful, and filled with an array of experiences, moods, and people.

His opening lines are exciting and the most quoted: Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road. Recent Volvo commercials have familiarized more great lines from the poem: The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine. All seems beautiful to me.

The very last lines of the poem, however, grip me and break my heart every time I read them. For all the bravado the traveler expresses about getting out of libraries and into living life, he ends the poem with: Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

In the end, the traveler in the poem wants connection; he wants companionship. The final lines speak volumes to me and inspired much of the plot and interplay between Win, Jeb, and Meg, the main characters in my story.

Importance of place

I read Willa Cather‘s My Antonia for the first time as an adult over 25 years ago. Cather beautifully captures the bittersweet attraction, platonic love, loyalty, caring, independence and interdependence, and ultimately shared memories, between Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda. The connectedness they shared was similar to what I wanted for Win, Jeb and Meg.

In contrast to Whitman’s poem, Cather gives the reader a profound sense of place. Antonia represents home, as the narrator states in the Introduction before Jim takes over telling the story, More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

Jim’s recollections of his Nebraska prairie farm and Antonia are tightly interwoven; it is impossible to think of one without the other. I wanted to examine the “connection to place” from the different perspectives of Meg, Jeb, Win, and Gray Wolf.

A lively grandmother

A third important influence that helped shape The Open Road was my grandmother. I only knew her as an old woman, but when she was young she taught school and spent her summers working in Yellowstone Park. Before she married, she and her girlfriend sailed for Europe, expanded her world view, and perhaps caught the travel bug that she and my grandfather later shared. In her senior years, she still had infectious energy; her conversations were always lively, but they had substance. She was grounded and steady; I could count on her.

While no character in the book is patterned after anyone I know in real life, Meg comes the closest to being modeled after my grandmother. She embodied the push-pull dynamic of home and adventure that tugged at Meg.

What ideas or inspirations can you trace to specific books, experiences, or people? What made a deep impression?

Author M.M. Holaday

A graduate of St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota Graduate School of Library Science, Nan Johnson (who writes under the pen name M.M. Holaday) is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tall grass prairie.

To learn more about Holaday, visit her website.

The Open Road is available on Amazon in hardcover and ebook formats.

Food will win the war – Campaign on the WWI home front

April 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into the Great War later known as World War I. To mark the anniversary, I’m sharing some information I uncovered as I researched my novel Go Away Home.

When the U.S. entered the war, the country marshaled forces for both the battlefield and home front. One home front initiative was the U.S. Food Administration led by Iowa’s own Herbert Hoover.

Years of fighting in Europe devastated people and farms. The U.S. Food Administration set out to provide food for U.S. troops and our Allies, as well as to feed the people of both continents. Rather than use strict rationing as Europe had done, Hoover choose a food policy based on volunteerism spurred by patriotism. He said:

Our Conception of the problem in the United States is that we should assemble the voluntary effort of the people … We propose to mobilize the spirit of self-denial and self-sacrifice in this country.”

Indeed, self-denial and self-sacrifice became rules of the day as Hoover orchestrated a comprehensive campaign under the slogan “Food Will Win the War.” Posters, articles, workshops and educational materials blanketed the country, promoting such approaches as Meatless Mondays and Wheatless Wednesdays.

The campaign appealed primarily to women since they were responsible for raising food and buying and preparing meals. The campaign offered recipes instructing women on substitutions, e.g. corn syrup or honey for sugar, fish or cheese instead of meat. Instructions encouraged stretching critical resources, e.g. augmenting wheat flour with corn or oat flour.

Waste became a public enemy. Women were counseled to stop waste in connection with such food preparation efforts as peeling potatoes, cutting off bread crusts, throwing out sour milk, meat and chicken bones.

The campaign exhorted men and children to do their part, too, particularly when it came to cleaning their plates.

The effort was a success. Over the course of the campaign, domestic food consumption reduced 15% without rationing. Over a 12-month period from 1918-1919, the United States furnished 18,500,000 tons of food to the Allies.

The campaign continued after the 1918 armistice, sending 20 million tons of food to European allies.

I can’t help but wonder if such a campaign based on personal sacrifice would engage Americans today. What do you think?

 

What can we learn from annoying, repetitive TV ads?

Have you ever been watching your favorite show and wanted to throw a brick through the TV when the fifth Burger King commercial plays in the course of one hour? My husband changes the channel. I head for the kitchen.

As annoying as those repetitious ads are, I know the advertisers understand what I always told my clients when we discussed media strategy.

“You have to hear a message three times to remember you heard it at all. You have to hear it seven times to be willing to act on it.”

Repetition is key in advertising, memory, and art. This tulip is my second project at the shadow color stage.

This basic premise of communication – the importance of repetition – has come home to me in a real way during my pastel art class. I’m hearing everything in that class for the first time. Words I’ve never heard before, like “madder.” Theories for mixing color and building color. Even the names of colors mean nothing to me. Which is Burnt Umber? How does it compare to Raw Umber? Or Burnt Sienna?

Even though I listen attentively and take notes and try my level best to focus, it’s all new to me. Each time I step up to the easel, everything the instructor said disappears in the muddle of unfamiliar words and concepts and ideas. Hence the frustration I talked about last week.

At nine weeks into the class, however, a light switch flicked in my brain. I realized that one rule of pastels was firmly embedded. That rule is this: “The shadow colors are the complements of the local color.”

Those of you with an art background understand this. To those of you without an art background, the idea may be as Greek to you as it was to me. Don’t worry, it’s the point that matters.

Here’s the point. From the very first class, the instructor commented over and over about shadow colors. After he said it three times, I admit I remember hearing him say it. But it was only after he’d repeated the message several more times, after I’d tried it on my own (and erred), and done it again, only then could I say I owned that concept and could act on it in the future with reasonable confidence.

Last week I stepped away from my easel and joined the instructor where he sat keeping all of our easels in view. “I get it about the shadow colors,” I said. “You must have said it seven times.” He smiled.

As annoying as the Burger King ads are, I get it. I’ve heard them so often I’m ready to act. You notice that when they came on, I headed to the kitchen.

 

What’s your experience with repeating messages until they sink in? With your kids? Your spouse? Your writing? Yourself?

Who knew color would be such a challenge?

A box full of color with so much potential.

Anxiety. Hopelessness. Despair. These are the feelings I experienced a couple of months ago, not because of some major life crisis, as you might expect; instead because of the pastels art class I’m taking. This class is the first time in adult memory I’ve found myself in a situation where I have not the first clue what I’m doing.

In the first weeks, with my box of pastels so fresh and ready, I waited like a small child for the instructor to tell me every single step to take. Except I was completely unlike a child. A  child would have jumped into all those beautiful colors and done something.

I admit, as a writer with a lifetime of experience behind me, I’m used to being confident taking on a new project, even when it’s in a new genre. The underlying principles are there; I simply need to use them in a new way. With color, I recognized no underlying principles to rely upon.

The reasons I took the pastel class – to learn something new, to have some fun, to follow through on my life-long desire to ‘do art’ – were lost to me. No matter how often I sought to remind myself to relax, to be open to the experience, to let the learning process unfold as the instructor meant it to, I reached the end of class tired and unhappy.

Then I remembered the 10,000-Hour Rule. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a field. How could I think I’d know anything, let alone be able to create a passable work of art, when I’d only just begun?

We were a couple of weeks into the course when I lamented to the instructor, “In the context of 10,000 hours, I feel like I’m on hour one. Still,” I added, “I can see I’ve learned a couple of things.”

In a deadpan serious way, he responded. “Just wait till you get to hour two.”

Indeed. I’ve grown up knowing the rules and following them. This art class could be no different. But the 10,000-hour perspective, along with my instructor’s humorous response, helped me relax. I could go easier on myself. I could take some time. I could be in the moment.

Since then, I’ve opened up to the experience as I hadn’t before. Two months into the class, I’ve internalized some of the rules. I make a conscious point after each class to take a step back, breathe, and consider what I’ve learned. I’ve made mistakes and learned more. I’m also having some fun.

Have you tackled an unexpectedly difficult new task? How do you gain perspective in the face of a challenge?

Haiku to the arrival of spring

Spring inspires poetic thoughts and emotions. Here’s a Haiku tribute to the migrating birds I saw during a recent walk.

 

Cedar waxwings come.
Aristocratic bandits,
Harbingers of spring

 

A flock of Cedar waxwings let me get reasonably close for this picture. Several more flitted in nearby crab apple trees.

This photo is courtesy of Morguefile.com

The Cedar Waxwing is a social bird almost always seen in flocks. They particularly enjoy berries, according to the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. Though I have seen them almost exclusively in the spring, apparently they are around most of the year.

What says spring to you?