janet fisher~writer

Following strong women through history

Introducing Author Debbie Burke

In honor of her triumphant breakthrough into publication I want to introduce my good friend Debbie Burke, who agreed to write this post for my blog. I met Debbie in the late 90s when I moved to Kalispell, Montana, and joined the local writers group. Debbie was a member of my first critique group and a wonderful mentor to me in my endeavor to hone my writing skills so I could become a published author myself. Her input into the first book of my upcoming Golden Threads series was invaluable, and she was a fantastic beta reader for Book Three of the series. I was thrilled to learn of her success in having her new thriller, Instrument of the Devil, chosen for publication after she won the Kindle Scout contest.

The above photo shows a sweeping view of the Mission Mountain Range of the Rockies. In Debbie’s new book, set in these beauties surrounding Kalispell, a terrorist frames a Montana widow in his plot to bring down the electrical grid by cyberattack on the Hungry Horse Dam. When I read it I was struck by the juxtaposition of the glory and the horror.

For the post Debbie writes about mentors. As a recipient of her mentoring, although I wasn’t a young mentee, I appreciate the sentiments. Thank you, Debbie.

Paying It Forward

by

Debbie Burke

Stirling Silliphant was a renowned writer in Hollywood for decades. His screenplay of the 1967 movie In the Heat of the Night won an Oscar. His credits included countless TV scripts and feature films. In addition to prolific writing, he served as a generous mentor to a young Army officer named Dennis Foley.

Dennis started in Hollywood as a military advisor and slid sideways into screenwriting when a director needed an emergency rewrite by the next morning. Dennis delivered and was tasked to redo scripts even though he knew next to nothing about the craft. Stirling took Dennis under his wing and, during many late night phone conversations, talked him through problems and taught him fundamentals.

One day Dennis asked, “Stirling, you’ve helped me so much, how can I ever repay you?”

Stirling replied, “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an a**hole.”

For more than twenty years, Dennis has passed it on in a big way by mentoring me and hundreds of other students. If not for his wise counsel and broad experience, many of us would not have been published. [Debbie’s book cover at left.]

Sharing knowledge without expectation of payback is what mentorship is about.

My earliest mentor was my third grade teacher, Miss Parker. She recognized my hunger to write and encouraged it, while giving concrete suggestions how to improve. Years later, I invited her to my wedding…and she came!

Sadly, I lost track of her…until recently, when I looked her up on the internet, found a phone number, and called. “Are you by any chance the Miss Parker who taught at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in the 1950s?”

“Yes, I am she,” she answered, ever precise with her grammar.

She’s 87 and still sounded sharp, retired after 50 years of teaching school at all levels. We laughed about how the “bad boys” were always assigned to her classes. Although she wasn’t much taller than her third graders, she was ferociously athletic. The troublemakers knew she could drop kick them across the playground and they respected her for it.

After retirement, she taught five more years in the jail system. She affectionately called those students “my jailbirds.” I have no doubt they respected her as much as the “bad boys” had in third grade.

During our conversation, when I referred to children as “kids,” she gently corrected me, admonishing “kids are baby goats.” Still editing me all these decades later, but still with kindness. She congratulated me on the publication of my novel and I’m sending her a copy.

Many other mentors have offered their hands to lift me up. I feel a moral obligation to offer the same to those coming after me. But it’s no hardship.

When I help young writers, I always receive more than I give. [Debbie and piano at right.]

They keep me hopping barely one step ahead of them. How to explain active verbs? Pacing? Point of view? If you really want to learn something, teach it to another person.  The more I have to explain an amorphous concept to a new writer, the more deeply I come to understand it myself. When I analyze what is wrong in someone else’s work, I recognize and can fix problems in my own.

My group, the Authors of the Flathead, sponsors an annual writing contest for high school students. One year, a particular story exploded from the pile of anonymous submissions we were reviewing. All the judges were blown away by compelling narrative, vivid characters, and sophisticated themes. We invited the winner, sixteen-year-old Sarah, to read her story at our regular meeting.

That evening, she asked me if I would mentor her in writing. Of course! Who wouldn’t want to work with a bright, energetic, dynamic young woman? Through high school and college, Sarah often sent me essays, articles, and fellowship applications to critique and edit.

Harvard ultimately accepted her and she earned her PhD in astrophysics (totally without my assistance!). By that time, I only understood a few words in her writing—the, and, because.

Two years ago, she defended her dissertation and I flew to Boston to attend. As she stood before a packed audience at the Forbes Lecture Theater, my heart swelled with pride and I used up a whole package of tissues.

Recently Dr. Sarah Rugheimer posted a video lecture on Facebook delivered by a young scientist she’s now mentoring. Her pride in her mentee’s accomplishment glowed all over the post. I messaged her: “Now you understand.”

In Stirling Silliphant’s unforgettable words: “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an a**hole.”

The above photo shows the Hungry Horse Dam where shivery scenes take place in Debbie Burke’s Kindle Scout winning thriller, Instrument of the Devil. Available on Amazon, the book also won the Zebulon Award sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference.

Visit Debbie at: www.debbieburkewriter.com

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Writing and Breathing

A good crowd turned out for my talk at the Roseburg writers group meeting this week. Thanks to my friend Heather Villa for snapping a photo.

I appreciated the friendly reception and the interaction during our lively Q & A afterward. This being a group of writers, the discussion delved into the writing process.

Every author develops some kind of process for writing a book, and when asked about my own I tried to describe what isn’t so much a daily regimen but a progression through the various stages of the project. I don’t write every day. I need to take in a lot of information before I’m ready to write a novel.

This could be compared to breathing. Inhale before exhaling.

As a writer of historicals much of that inhaling is research. Read about my subject. Imagine my characters interacting in worlds I discover. Read other novels to see what other authors do. Visit places. Soak in the smells, the sensations. Open myself to the ideas that will come in if I let them. Listen to my muse.

Scribble down what comes. That’s writing of a sort. Exhaling as I go. Some of those notes may find their way into the final pages, word for word.

Eventually I’ll reach the stage where the flood of ideas must be brought to some pattern, an arc of storytelling that will lead me through from beginning to middle to end. Once that’s organized–and yes, I do outline–the story spills out. Then I’m fully breathing out the air I’ve been breathing in. The long exhale.

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First Friday in Historic Oakland

On a gorgeous golden Friday yesterday I had the privilege of being included with my books at First Friday in Oakland, Oregon.

Photo by Victoria Kietzman

In the photo above I’m signing a copy of A Place of Her Own for a customer, Holda Crocker, who came with her little helper. My table is right outside Tolly’s, a restaurant with plenty of old-fashioned atmosphere, in the alcove of the right-hand door. Thanks to Victoria Kietzman for taking our picture. Victoria’s the lady who directs this monthly event highlighting local artists.

“My definition of art encompasses a great deal,” Victoria said. “It can be gardening, canning, ceramic, painting, photography, writing, produce, soaps, candles, lotions, music, acting knitting, plants, jewelry, crocheting, macrame, dream catchers and so on. If the hands and mind were involved then it must be art.”

This is the last First Friday for the year. They’ll start up again in May.

Before the day’s event began I took a short walk from Tolly’s and snapped a few pictures. A walk in Oakland’s downtown feels like a walk through the past.

Up the street on the opposite corner you find Stearns Hardware. As the sign shows, the store dates from 1887, and it still sells hardware. I remember my grandfather talking about shopping there when I was a child.

Beyond Stearns you walk past some cheery seasonal decorations to the Oakland Ice House of 1905 (below), a slightly younger establishment.

Everything looked quiet at 4:30 in the afternoon.

Across the street the lofty Page & Dimmick Building (below) now houses an antique shop, but the building is an antique itself. I love the artistry in the brickwork.

When I went back to set up my table it remained quiet for the first half hour or so. I wondered if anyone would come by, though I enjoyed the pleasant breeze whisking down the street on this warm fall day.

Things picked up suddenly, and customers started coming by. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with folks and it turned out to be a good sales day for me.And when it’s time to leave this historic town you just hop onto a–oh, wait! Wrong event. The stagecoach wasn’t working during First Friday, as it was at Oakland’s Living History Day last fall. They aren’t doing Living History Day this year but hope to next year.

As Victoria said, I’ll have to get out my bonnet then.

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Florence Festival 2017

Same place, another year.

We just wrapped up another Florence Festival of Books, and my writer friend Lynn Ash took a picture for the record (She graciously declined when I offered to take a photo of her).

The book stacks had lowered a little and our heads were spinning with stories.

She highlighted her new book, Eugeneana, and also brought The Route from Cultus Lake and Vagabonda. I brought my two, A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds.

This annual festival on the Oregon coast brings authors from around the state and beyond, and we’d been talking and selling and signing for six hours. Lots of good book talk, but Lynn and I were ready to check out a local restaurant.

We headed for the Waterfront Depot right on the river, recommended by my neighbor, Todd Hannah, a local fishing guide. Good choice, Todd. Thanks.

Inside the restaurant’s rustic interior we gazed out the broad bay window and watched the late afternoon sun twinkle on stirring blue water while we feasted on exquisite seafood. Can’t beat that for a finale.

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Going Home Again

Who says you can’t go home again? Well, some of us do return, and my friend A. Lynn Ash writes about that in her new book Eugeneana.

Born in Eugene, Oregon, Lynn grew up there in a home over the grocery store pictured on the book cover. Then she left.

Eugeneana is a story of the hometown she came back to.

I wonder how many people take the words to heart that they can’t go home again. Do they look with longing on a past they fear can never illuminate the future? An opening theme that cannot repeat in the coda?

Lynn dared to test that when she returned to her hometown.

The book will definitely speak to people of Eugene, those who share the city’s history, as well as newcomers who want to know more.

But I think the book will also speak to those who’ve contemplated going back to other hometowns. Maybe they haven’t tried–yet. Maybe they did and it didn’t work out. Or it worked out fine and they want to link arms with Lynn and share her triumph.

I’m guessing Lynn would say you can’t go home and find it as you left it. But life’s repetition isn’t so much a circle as a spiral, each round offering a different perspective.

In a collection of vignettes, she’ll draw you into her story, but more. She’ll draw you into Eugene’s story in this memoir of her hometown, a story more poignant because she dared the return.

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My Trek to Newport

I headed north to beautiful Newport, Oregon, Sunday for my afternoon speaking engagement with the Willamette Writers Coast Branch, taking the coast route where the journey is part of the pleasure.

After a quick stop at the Heceta Head beach for a sack lunch, enjoying this view, I continued northward over what must be one of the most spectacular stretches of Highway 101.

The road winds around precipitous folds of towering mountains, threading through dim mossy woods with brief glimpses of light and water, then opening out onto raw windswept slopes to reveal the endless sweep of rippling gray-blue fringed with the ever-surging white crests.

Birds speckle strands and jutting rocks. Mists stir. Gulls soar, their white feathers catching the light to glisten against a somber sky. Time loses importance. You need to savor the wonder like a taste of rich chocolate feeding the soul.

Spits of rain followed me into Newport but didn’t dim my enthusiasm. The event went quite well. The audience–mostly writers–welcomed me with appreciation for my personal story when I described my long road to publication, which finally culminated in my two Oregon Trail stories, A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds.

One man who’d been sitting against the back wall came over after my talk and told me how much he enjoyed hearing my words. He’d been afraid it was going to be a boring how-to workshop and instead found the presentation truly inspiring. This is the kind of response that keeps a writer going.

Afterward I checked in at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, which the writers group graciously arranged for me, a charming old hotel right above the beach whose theme is writers.

Each room is named for a well-known writer. They have a quiet library upstairs and books scattered throughout.

On the chance I took a notion to do a little writing they provided a typewriter in my room. That’s my laptop in its case to the right of the old Underwood–bookends in keyboarding history.

The weather had turned drizzly and cold, so I dressed down from my skirt and pumps into jeans and walking shoes with a warmer top.

When I stepped back outside to head for dinner, wind had picked up a bit. Raindrops appeared small. But there were so many of them, and they didn’t exactly drop. They swept straight at me. My umbrella quivered and flapped so hard I thought it might lift off à la Mary Poppins, but somehow it stayed in front of me and without turning inside out. The only change in the rain came when I passed openings between buildings where gusts hit harder.

By the time I reached a cafe the incessant spray had soaked the front of my pant legs. Thankfully the cafe was warm and I enjoyed fish and chips with fresh local rockfish and a side of coleslaw.

Back at the hotel I thought to ask for a hair dryer, which dried my jeans nicely.

I had a room with a view–and a real plant. It was the Lincoln Steffens Room. Though I must confess I’m not familiar with Mr. Steffens’ work, I loved the room. I spent quite a while in that chair in the corner watching the waves play against the sand as the skies dimmed and outdoor lights came on.

I hoped for better weather in the morning.

Skies looked brighter the next day. The hotel offered a delicious breakfast of pecan pancakes with a variety of fruits and fresh-baked goodies in a dining room with wraparound windows overlooking the water.

After a pleasant visit at my table with Freda and Lorayne of Corvallis and a young man from Germany, I wandered downhill for a lovely walk on the beach.

The hotel looms above the sea on its lofty site atop the cliff. A vigorous climb up those stairs.

Sun broke through at last and the old hotel looked cheerful in the morning light.

After exploring the town I headed south again, stopping along the way for one last glimpse of Heceta Head and its lighthouse. A delightful trek. My thanks to Sue Lick and Lori Tobias of the Willamette Writers Coast Branch for arranging my visit.

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Next Stop Newport

For my next book event I’ll be heading up the north coast again to speak to the Coast Chapter of Willamette Writers in Newport, Oregon. It’s always nice to visit one of the most beautiful areas in the world.

Photo by Robin Loznak

The above photo was taken a little bit south of Newport as the lowering sun sheens the water below one of Oregon’s historic lighthouses.

My speaking engagement with the Coast Chapter was originally scheduled for last February. In fact, I packed up and headed out that Sunday morning, excited about the trip. I hadn’t gotten far when a spit of snow began to spatter my windshield. I wasn’t too concerned. We don’t get much snow in February and the coast is even less likely to have snow.

That day proved to be an exception. It kept snowing harder. I told myself it wasn’t sticking and I’d get into the temperate coastal zone soon. But it got worse the farther west I drove. Snow did begin sticking. It was not getting better toward the west. I wasn’t set up for snow and finally decided I’d better turn around while I still had hopes of returning home safely.

Happily, we rescheduled. I’ll be there for their September meeting this coming Sunday, the 17th, from 2 to 4 pm at the Newport Public Library, 35 NW Nye Street. And we don’t expect snow.

I’m going to talk about my long road to publication of my two Oregon Trail stories, 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award Finalist The Shifting Winds, and the one that started it all, A Place of Her Own, with a few words on what’s waiting in the wings. A slideshow will offer a backdrop of photos related to the two books. After some Q&A I’ll have books available to sell and sign. Because I’ll be talking to fellow writers I hope I can offer some ideas and encouragement that might help others on their writing journeys.

I’m also a member of Willamette Writers, which has branches throughout Oregon. When I lived in Portland I met with the Portland chapter and now meet with the Mid-Valley chapter in Eugene.

Thanks to Robin, I have one more photo to share, another of those glorious sunsets on the Oregon coast. Looking forward to my upcoming visit. If you’re in the area, please think about stopping by the Newport library for some book talk in a beautiful place.

Photo by Robin Loznak

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Sounds and Scents of History

Photo by Robin Loznak

Big booms ricocheted across the smoky air this weekend as Elkton, Oregon, celebrated the annual Fort Umpqua Days event near the reconstructed Hudson’s Bay Company fort along the Umpqua River, and Robin caught one of the cannon blasts with his camera. Historians tell us the Native Americans used to keep the brush down with fires every fall, so maybe that smoky air is historic too.

Folks enjoyed another successful event despite some heat and smoke. Locals and visitors gathered over the Labor Day weekend to explore the area’s historic past and have a good time, while vendors offered food and wine, crafts and books and more for sale. In the evening Cathy Byle directed the pageant of historic vignettes–a little longer on fun than fact.

A Hudson’s Bay Company man by the name of Mark stopped by my booth Sunday where I was selling my books that focus on this period of history. He bought a copy of The Shifting Winds, which has scenes set at Fort Vancouver, the HBC headquarters north of the Columbia River–where Vancouver, Washington, stands today.

Fort Umpqua was the southernmost outpost of the HBC in those days. Both forts have been reconstructed with great attention to accuracy of detail. So you can visit and get a real sense of the history, stepping right back in time.

Folks like Mark enjoy dressing the part, and it’s not unusual to see a few mountain men wandering through.

Smoke from surrounding fires clouded the skies the first day and actually kept us a little cooler than expected. But Sunday afternoon a much thicker haze moved in, along with a sweltering heat. By the time I got home it was in the upper 90s and I couldn’t even see the higher mountains across the river.

The smoky fall days may be historic, but I’ll be glad when a good rain comes to clear the air.

I snapped the above photo off my back deck when I got home Sunday. The photo at right shows the missing mountains on a clear day–just so you know they’re there.

 

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Busy Fort Umpqua Days

Photo by Robin Loznak

Here I am in my Fort Umpqua Days booth this Labor Day weekend to sell my books, A Place of Her Own and Nancy Pearl Book Award Finalist The Shifting Winds.

Despite warnings of record heat during the annual Elkton, Oregon, celebration this year, the morning started out cool and comfortable. The crowds came after a slow start. Maybe folks noticed the overcast skies and dared venture forth. It soon looked like a normal gathering for this event. Many people stopped by to talk about books and history, and sales were brisk.

This is the weekend we celebrate local history with our own Hudson’s Bay Company fort that’s been reconstructed with attention to historic accuracy. There’s food and pie raffles and reenactments and a bass tournament–and vendors like me, but mostly crafts.

I’m not sure whether the skies today were a bit cloudy or just smoky, but the sun didn’t break through, holding back the heat. Not until well into the afternoon did we experience some mugginess. Smoke got worse–enough to feel it in the eyes and throat. No doubt the air was moving up from the south where several fires rage south of Roseburg.

Forecasts for Sunday appear to be lower than before. As for the smoke, I guess that depends on which way the wind blows.

The celebration continues Sunday, so if you’re in the neighborhood you might want to check it out. It’s at the ECEC (the butterfly place) just west of Elkton.

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Fair Week Continues

Fair week in Douglas County, Oregon, brings out the people and critters and crafts every August. Today we head into the third of four days, expecting a cooler time than the stifling first two.

Here author friend Dianne Kaye Carter and I take up our post to sell and sign our books at the Author Table in the foyer of the air-conditioned Conference Hall/Community Hall, first building on your left as you come in the main gate. We’ll be there again this afternoon and tomorrow afternoon, Friday and Saturday, August 11 and 12 from 3 to 7 pm. Dianne is presenting her suspense noel, Misled, and I’m presenting my Oregon Trail stories, A Place of Her Own and 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award Finalist The Shifting Winds.

Our local AAW writers group will be at the Author Table earlier on these days from morning until 3 o’clock.

Meanwhile, outside, the fair goes on with the usual prize animals that have been a part of county and state fairs for generations.

Oblivious to the history these sleepy pigs snooze on an unusually warm evening for Oregon, dreaming of home or juicy corn or whatever else pigs might dream about.

Then there are the bunnies. These incredibly soft, furry critters must wear their warm coats despite the heat, so they need plenty of water.

This fuzzy one glances up from its drink when he sees me with my camera. It gives me that look. “What is that thing in front of your face and why are you staring at me? I don’t know why I must be here. Do you? Can you imagine wearing a suit like mine on a hot August day? Yet I must stay here and be cute and spectacular just so I can maybe win a ribbon. Is that it?”

Of course we know bunnies don’t talk out loud. I remember as a kid when my mother got tired of our noise and we all had to do bunny talk, which meant wiggling our mouths and noses without making a sound. We got very good at it.

This guy is very good at it too.

And more bunnies a few cages down.

These are more silky than fluffy. Fingers just want to touch them, but resist.

Whatever farm animals you like, you’ll probably find them, from chickens to horses to cows to sheep and goats and more you may not have imagined.

In addition to the animals entered for prizes in the fair, there are the beautiful crafts.

I especially like the quilts. Below are a few fine examples.A closeup at right shows the intricate stitching of this prize winner by Shirley Pyle of Roseburg.

Of course the fair would not be a fair without the rides. Ah, the rides at day’s end when the lights turn bright against the dark night sky. And so we end a busy day with a walk on the runway and the traditional ferris wheel dominating this world of wonder.

Two more days. If you live anywhere close by, come on down. The forecast calls for much pleasanter weather today and tomorrow with temperatures dropping into the 80s with a mix of sun and clouds, then balmy evenings.

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