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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