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, swashbuckling 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.
That’s what it was all about. And lovers of story came out Saturday for my reading and signing at Izzy’s bookstore in Winchester Bay, Oregon.
You couldn’t find a more delightful setting than a room circled with soft chairs and couches, walls lined with books, except for one wall of windows overlooking the spectacular beauty of the bay where water rippled in the sunlight and boats rocked on the gentle tide. Behind conversation the soft cries of gulls echoed on the wind, and an occasional bird swept past our view.
Our congenial, partially rotating group munched on cookies and sipped coffee while we talked about books and ideas. I read short passages from three of mine, the two that are already out, A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds, and one I’ve just completed, which isn’t out yet, its working title, Beyond the Waning Moon. All three fit into my theme of following strong women through history, the first two in the mid-19th century pioneer period in the American West, the new one moving way back to ancient Minoan Crete, opening in 1470 BC. Both eras found women facing significant challenges that demanded their remarkable strength.
My thanks to Izzy for inviting me for her first author reading. It was an absolute pleasure. I wish her well in this new venture of hers. Once known as Conrad Books, the store under Izzy’s new ownership will now be known as Windy Bay Books and More. Her enthusiasm resonates throughout the place.
If you missed the event, you can still visit the store, a great stop in this lovely seaside town. And you can find my books on the shelves there–if she hasn’t sold them already. If she has, we’ll get more.
The beauties of Oregon’s remarkable coast become the focus next weekend when I venture to Conrad Books in Winchester Bay on Saturday, August 24, from 3 to 5, for a signing party and reading of my books.
It’s time for the town’s celebration of Kool Coastal Nights, and Izzy Pescadero, new proprietor of Conrad Books, asked me come share the fun. Conrad Books is a great little bookstore with a big heart and fantastic view overlooking the bay, just west of Griff’s seafood restaurant.
It’s at 156 Bay Front Loop about five miles south of downtown Reedsport, off Highway 101.
Under Izzy’s new management it’s a friendly place with new and used books, even vintage, soft couches, music, art, poetry. And the coffee’s always on.
I’ll be reading short segments from my Oregon Trail stories, A Place of Her Own and Nancy Pearl Book Award Finalist The Shifting Winds, and possibly a little preview of my upcoming book of adventure and romance in the exotic pre-Greek world of ancient Crete. And of course I’ll have books there to sign and sell.
If you’re nearby or looking for a destination of fun and spectacular beauty, please come join us. Listen to a snippet of story while watching the sun drift low over the bay and share laughs in the good company of book lovers.
My fiction turned real a few days ago when I was working on a bull-leaping scene for my book of ancient Crete, trying to give the work more dazzle with yet one more edit. The Cretans did leap bulls with long, sharp horns back in 1470 BC, and they painted frescoes to illustrate it, like the one shown here.
I wanted to portray the scene so a reader could live it with me. I was digging through the big dictionary checking on a word for that very scene. Imagine my surprise when a similar bull with very long horns charged onto my property.
Now, there’s a little inspiration for dazzle. My agent, Rita Rosenkranz, had been pushing me to give more polish to this first book in my series about the Minoans of ancient Crete, and she finally convinced me to hire a professional editor. I contracted with editor Judith Lindbergh to review the first 126 pages. And review she did. She was thorough and incisive. It was a little overwhelming. No, strike “a little.” Edit that out. It was overwhelming.
But I was plowing through, sort of like that visiting bull plowed through fences. New inspiration struck. I became excited, obsessive.
All progress stopped when I looked out my window and saw this fellow coming down my road, wagging his impressive horns.
Trevor Cooley, who helps his dad, Ed, run cattle on my place, had a problem on his hands. The bull had already burst into the fields below to challenge Ed’s bulls and steers. Here, right outside my door, the critter tossed his head at Trevor with an aggressive display. That electric wire gate looked mighty thin as Trevor phoned for help. I grabbed the camera, keeping the front door open and assuring Trevor he could run inside if need be.
The bull kept coming.
Trevor flung a little gravel at him and the critter turned away to trot down the grassy slope, tangling himself in electric fencing as he went. But he soon broke through and made his way down into the brushy gully.
By evening someone had located his owner. The man walked right up to him–almost. I was impressed. The owner couldn’t quite catch him and couldn’t drive him into the corral. After many tries he gave it up. The next morning the bull was gone. Last I heard it was on the far side of the mountain at the neighbor’s property.
But the bull did leave me with a touch of reality for the story.
My protagonist leaps a horned bull like that, one that even has a similar dapple-brown coat like the bull shown in the fresco. She has help. Grapplers hold the bull by the horns while two young men kneel in front of him, hands together. She jumps on their hands for the lift she needs to soar up and grab the ridge on the animal’s head between the deadly horns. Then she performs a front flip, her feet going over her head and down on his back–the critical crossing. One more flip and she lands on her feet on the ground behind him, into the arms of her catcher.
Of course, it being a story, the thing can’t go that smoothly. It needs tension. It needs dazzle.
Watching that bull, I was glad my protagonist did the leap, not me.