First daffodils of the season opened outside my house today. Their bright yellow color always shines a light of hope for me. Winter is passing. Better days ahead.
The flower reflects a spot of sunlight shining through the dark rain clouds on a late February morning. This year it occurs to me that this same golden yellow shines on the Ukrainian flag. Much of the world looks upon that country today with hope for their success in their battle for freedom. These brave people remind all of us how precious freedom is and how important that we sustain it not only in our own lives but for the rest of the world.
As my followers know, I’ve been writing a series—epic historical novels set primarily in ancient Minoan Crete. The series started as one standalone, now called Beyond the Waning Moon. But I couldn’t leave my people so I just kept going. It became a generational family saga. While each story has its own protagonist and story arc, the overall series also has an arc. A quest. A purpose. The haunting fear of a final destruction. The desperate fight to hold on. The glimmer of hope.
The photos here show the reconstructed hub of Crete, the temple (or palace) of Knossos which was dug out of the earth a hundred years ago after being buried for some 3,000 years. After seeing it and learning of the strong women depicted there, I wanted to immerse myself in that world. And so it began.
I named the overall saga the Distant Glimmer Series to reflect the distant light shining into our own times. The stories take place long ago, but they speak to our own lives today.
I’m putting finishing touches on Book Seven.
Up until now I had the impression that in marketing the work, all emphasis should go on the first book. Maybe mention that there are more to come, but don’t stress it. So I haven’t stressed the series aspect.
This September I attended a virtual writers conference, the annual conference of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association headquartered in Seattle. During workshops I kept hearing about the power of a series.
I attended a pitch fest because I planned to pitch the opening book of my saga. Gerri Russell, award-winning, bestselling author of stacks of books, led the session, and when we broke out into smaller groups I felt fortunate to have her as coach for my group. We all gave our pitches for the agents, publishers, or producers we hoped to convince to take a look at our work. I hoped to lead the listener into the world pictured on this post and to bring the Cretan characters alive who walk through my thoughts and dreams in these fabulous places.
Gerri immediately got what I was doing with the book from the pitch I gave. But from that she began to question me to ferret out ways to better present it. Who are my characters? What are their goals, their conflicts? Could I be more personal about their dilemmas? I don’t remember all her specific questions but I quickly saw I needed to dig much deeper if I was to reveal the book’s strengths to the listener.
The group members had a chance to try once more, and I bumbled through mine as I tried to rethink it in the moment. Gerri kept going back and forth with me, quizzing me, plucking out salient points. Those salient points gave the pitch new life. Then I hesitantly asked if I should say I have seven in the series written. She burst out with surprise. Yes! Of course! Yes!
So there it was. Emphasize the series. Each book has to stand alone, true. But its place in a series gives it much greater impact. Perhaps the market has changed. Maybe readers are wanting a series more than they did before. Something they can really get their teeth into. In any case that’s what I have. That’s what I’ll promote to those who hold the keys to entry into publication.
The story waits, ready to be written from a skeletal document inside the computer, a hard copy of that framework in the blue notebook shown below. The outline.
In my mind I see not the words but the people and places, like the wondrous temple of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. And the green fields of Ireland that resemble my own green knolls on this soft May afternoon in Oregon.
The characters are almost as real to me as my neighbors—because I move inside them as I show their story. I laughed with delight when I heard travel guide Rick Steves comment about the ancient Romans. They “were just people, like you and me, without electricity.”
True, they had different customs, but they felt joy and sadness and love and fury just as we do. For me it has always been exciting to imagine what life was like in ancient times—or will be in the future. I love Star Trek too. But these ancient times in these two unique islands caught my heart.
To outline or not to outline?
Authors often hold strong views on that question. Non-outline writers may insist they’d be hemmed in by an outline. Outliners like me can’t imagine drawing all those threads together without one. I would never let the outline stop me from taking new directions. But I’m not just keeping threads together for one book.
This is a series that follows two great families through the generations—the high priestesses and kings of Crete, the clan mothers and high chiefs of Éire. This new story begins about 100 years after the opening scenes of Book One in the series. I have to keep track of them all.
Besides consistency, each story requires new research. Scholars keep digging and adding more information. Sometimes I find details—either new or new to me—that affect other stories in the series. For instance when I first started writing about voyages from Crete to Ireland I assumed it would take many months to make the journey. But I found a website where you could enter names of modern ports, designate the speed of travel, and voila. They give you the overall trip time. I had to cut the time dramatically. Of course I had to determine from other sources how fast the ancient ships might go with their single square sails and ranks of oarsmen. I found estimates for similar Viking ships, other estimates for simple rowing, prevailing winds that would increase or decrease the speed.
In other instances when you’re writing a tight storyline where you want a lot to happen in a day you have to figure out what you can fit into that day and roughly what hour events can happen—even though I can’t express time in hours for people who lived by the sun, moon, and stars, not the clock. Another website tells exactly when dawn and dusk happen on any given day in any given setting. It’s not just how fast a ship can go, but a horse, a man, a woman. All these details take time to calculate. I don’t want to stop in the middle of a fast-moving scene to figure it out. So that goes into the outline. From that the rough draft can move swiftly.
Now this new one is ready for me to plunge in and live it as the words flow.
Solstice has been observed throughout the world since distant times past as people became aware of this turning of seasons that brought longer days of light. With that realization came many celebrations of hope for light against the darkness.
In my ancient stories of Crete, feasting and dancing commemorate the day, while in Ireland the yule fire and decking of garlands add to festivities at this time marked by their great stone circles.
Today many of our own symbols of celebration echo these ancient tributes to the light.
In this year when a deadly plague has thrown a cloak of darkness over our world, our need for light feels especially keen. Yet even now, signs of hope arise. A vaccine. A triumph of science and dedication. The daring of brave healers and workers. The many kindnesses toward friends and family, even strangers. The calm efforts of caring for those around us, if only by staying home.
Remember the turning toward light this day and the hope it brings. Happy Solstice.
One of my Montana writer friends, Debbie Burke, just drew me into a role I’ve seldom played–the role of beta reader for her upcoming novella, Crowded Hearts (brand new cover by Brian Hoffman shown below).
Beta readers, those generous people who are willing to slog through an author’s rough drafts and offer critiquing, are vital members of the writing craft.
I’ve been depending on these readers from the beginning of my long years as a writer, usually three or so per book. But while I have occasionally read for fellow critique group members and other friends, I have never fancied myself a beta reader.
It’s not an easy task. You may be looking at the work of someone with a different voice than your own, a different style. And I’m sensitive to an author’s feelings.
When I lived in Montana some twenty years ago and first joined a critique group there they called me the comma queen because that’s all I felt competent to mark on the scenes members presented each week. Of course when a professional editor got hold of my first to-be-published book I decided I knew nothing about commas. Even so, as a writer I have a fairly solid sense of grammar and can do line editing. Or scour for typos. But reading for content and substance? That’s another thing.
Fast forward to now. I have been in editing mode, trying to get my own ancient historical series polished, but decided it was time to rest for a while and go on a reading binge.
I soon got wrapped up in Debbie’s series of thrillers, having met her during my Montana years. She was in one of those critique groups I joined there. Most of her series is set in the remarkable beauties of that mountainous state. She calls them “thrillers with heart.”
Not only do they take you on exciting and perilous adventures, but there’s some intriguing romantic tension as well. Her protagonist, Tawny Lindholm, is a saucy redhead who gets mixed up with a sinister fellow while she’s grieving over the loss of her husband. And she finds help from Tillman Rosenbaum, an arrogant high-powered attorney with plenty of issues of his own. The sexual tension between her and the attorney becomes a sizzling feature of the series.
When I finished reading Debbie’s Book Four, Dead Man’s Bluff, which takes Tawny and Tillman on a side trip to Florida during Hurricane Irma, I wanted to plunge right into Book Five, but that isn’t out yet. I emailed Debbie and told her how much I liked the latest installments and asked when I could read Book Five—no pressure, of course. Just happened she was putting the finishing touches on the novella, which is an interlude in the ongoing story. She asked if I would be a beta reader for it. Hungry for the next word in the series I said sure.
Not only did I experience the delight of knowing what happens next, I found I was able to offer some substantive suggestions. When Debbie gave me the copy to critique she told me to be brutal. I think that released me to the incisive response that could actually help her. And maybe because I’d been in editing mode with my own and had become more open to comprehensive changes there, I was better prepared to offer a few thoughts for Debbie’s work–which I must say was quite fine to start with but I think became even better. In fact I really enjoyed the role of beta reading.
In return, Debbie has agreed to be a beta reader for my upcoming one. I know she’s good at that. Some years ago she read one from my series and she offered plenty of unvarnished wisdom that kicked it up to a higher level. After all, we authors have to face the sometimes brutal truth if we’re to make our work shine.
So here’s to the beta readers we writers all need so much. It’s hard to see our own mistakes or our failures to communicate. We know what we mean, but the words may not convey what we intend. An extra pair of eyes becomes gold.
And here’s to Debbie’s Tawny Lindholm thrillers with heart. I happily recommend them.
Debbie’s new Crowded Hearts will be out soon on Kindle.
In these days when our entire world faces a new and deadly virus, some perspective might be found in a look back to another virus that once struck us. Polio.
My friend, Susan Wyatt, has just published a family memoir about her own father, Forrest Clough, who struggled against the crippling effects of this disease, A “Polio” Finds His Way: My Father’s Remarkable Journey.
It’s a loving tribute to a man who never knew the joy of walking without a crutch, never ran, never jumped, never danced. But he played a mean trumpet and traveled the world, married a gutsy and devoted woman, and fathered two children.
Despite his disability from a dread disease that attacked him at the age of four months, he forged his way through life with a good humor and resilience that seldom failed him.
I especially enjoyed the chapters where Susan describes his adventures with the Southern Methodist University (SMU) marching band which toured the nation with the football team and gained considerable attention. That’s Forrest in his band uniform on the book cover. He didn’t march but he added his fine trumpeting when the band played in the stands. His brilliance with the trumpet led to other gigs as well.
Susan relays some of the history of polio. Historians believe the disease may have been around from as early as 3700 B.C. from evidence of a disfigured Egyptian mummy.
It may have come across populations in waves. It ravaged Forrest in 1909. Presidential historians will remember it struck Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1921 at the age of 39. And Susan herself caught it in 1952 when she was in the third grade, although she did not suffer the paralysis her father did.
As we sit isolated today impatiently waiting and hoping for a vaccine for Covid-19, it’s unsettling to realize how long it took to come up with a vaccine for polio. We think little of it now as we and our children all receive vaccines for polio as a matter of fact.
I don’t remember the fears that swept through the country before they had a vaccine for polio. Maybe Oregon, where I grew up, had fewer cases than in other parts of the country. But I do remember getting that sugar cube–which Susan explains in her book was not available until the 1960s. Fortunately the efforts against past diseases have taught researchers a lot and will hopefully speed up today’s search dramatically.
Susan found a wealth of material for her book, thanks to her father’s diligence in recording so much of his active life in several scrapbooks he kept over the years. Then she brings in her own story and her growing understanding of the tolls polio has taken on her own life. The book is a story of challenges, of many helping friends along the way, early days in radio, and meetings with some influential people.
Susan herself has an impressive resume with her overseas work in the U.S. State Department, work stateside in career counseling, and her years as a Foreign Service Spouse, which she describes in another book, Arabian Nights and Daze: Living in Yemen with the Foreign Service.
The opening scene of my series starts here in this ancient pre-Greek setting, where protagonist Helaina looks out from the temple of Knossos to the sacred mountain of Youktas on the horizon. It’s a critical morning when she will have to leap a fierce bull in a perilous ritual for her people. Called Beyond the Waning Moon, this historical novel is the foundational book of the entire epic adventure.
It’s a story of poignant desire and guilt, swordplay and valor on land and sea, passionate trysts that must never be told, and a love that won’t let go.
I have declared it finished I don’t know how many times. Every time it has come back wanting. And every time I have dug deeper to make it work. I’ve written five more in the series–the second trilogy taking us from Crete to Ireland and points in between. Those five stand waiting, virtually complete.
In late October my agent called me and we had a brainstorming session over the phone. Out of that, I opened my mind to dramatic changes. Once you start pulling at the threads of a tapestry, huge sections may unravel, leaving the possibility of weaving in new images you never thought would emerge. I threw out whole chapters and wrote new. I brought in new characters, took new pathways.
Creative juices flowed as they hadn’t since the muse whispered most of Book Three to me.
Now I love it more than I ever have, and I’m declaring it ready one more time. Can Helaina leap that bull and carry this story on?
History resonates in every Fort Umpqua Days celebration as people come from many places to share a glance back to the early days of Elkton, Oregon. The reconstructed British Hudson’s Bay Company fort provides a centerpiece for the gathering. This year a number of reenactors came to give the fort even more authenticity.
In the above photo reenactor Karen Haas, who describes herself as a weaver of words and fibers, spins yarn on a drop spindle while wearing period dress, such as you might have seen in the days of the original Fort Umpqua.
This is the period of my two published books, A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds. But the drop spindle is a device so ancient that I describe a character using one in an upcoming book that goes back roughly 3,500 years. I was glad to watch Karen spin with a drop spindle so I could see how she made it spin. This will help me describe how my ancient character spins with hers. More than one of my characters can be called weavers of story and thread. I think they share an affinity with Karen “Many Voices” Haas.
I had a chance to visit with Karen Sunday afternoon when she stopped at my booth where I was selling my books. After I closed up shop I went down to the fort with my daughter Carisa to see some of the reenactors, and there was Karen outside a Hudson’s Bay Company tent (it must have been an HBC tent because they were waving an HBC flag). And she was spinning. We recognized each other and it took me a moment to realize what exactly she was doing. But there it was. She was working a drop spindle. Every once in a while she would put the spindle against her billowy skirt and stroke her hand across it to keep it turning. Then she would reach up again and make sure the yarn was coming out in an even thread. An amazing process. So ancient. So elegant in its simplicity, yet no doubt requiring considerable skill and practice.
With that we wrapped up another Fort Umpqua Days enjoying a delightful glimpse into our past. Thanks to Karen for showing us one significant thread of that story.
It’s time for Fort Umpqua Days again. It happens every Labor Day weekend in Elkton, Oregon. So step into the past there on Saturday and Sunday, August 31 and September 1, and have some fun. There will be music, food, crafts, books (I’ll be there with mine), and of course the reconstructed fort.
Hold your ears. Mountain men will be there with their black powder rifles. And others from bygone days. Even cannons maybe. Folks at the reconstructed fort will offer some rich history of the area with the realism of places restored to their former charm. If you check out this restoration of the fort’s store (below) you may find someone with a story about the Hudson’s Bay Company that built the original fort during the heyday of the fur trade in Oregon back in the 19th century. They might tell you that this was the company’s southernmost outpost. And they might explain how the trade worked and what some of those items on the shelves are, and the pelts on the wall.
It all happens just west of Elkton at ECEC at 15850 Hwy 38 and down the hill at the fort. I’ll be in one of the vendor booths near the butterfly pavilion with my books that fit right into that past, stories of pioneers and the fur trade in the mid-19th century, A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds. I hope you’ll stop by.