My New Email Newsletter

Earlier this month I sent the first of what I hope will be regular newsletters to my email subscribers. I know many readers of this blog received it. But in case you didn’t and would like to see what I said, please click here.

I do not plan to post about or link to my newsletters on this blog every time I send out a new email. I want to have different content in my blog posts and in my newsletter. The newsletter will feature shorter pieces—a factoid about history and brief updates on my writing—while my blog will continue to feature longer posts, mostly about family and philosophy, along with a monthly post about the history of the Oregon Trail and Gold Rush years.

But of course I will tell you about major developments, such as new book launches, everywhere I can find to publicize them!

If you like my newsletter, please subscribe.  MailChimp makes it a double opt-in process, so keep with it.

And if you have any comments on how I can improve either my blog or my newsletter, I am very open to feedback.

Thank you for your interest in my writing! Your support means a lot to me.

Writing Milestones: Journaling and Blogging

I don’t want March to get away from me before I write about two milestones that occurred this month—the fifteenth anniversary of when I began keeping a journal, and the fifth anniversary of this blog.

My original journal. The picture at the top is my new journal cover, which I had to buy when the original leather cover became tattered.

I’ve written before about starting my journal. One of my early posts on this blog was titled “Take the Plunge—Start a Journal.” That’s what I did—I had bought myself a Christmas present of a pretty leather journal cover and three blank narrow-ruled notebooks to put in it. It sat in my drawer for a few months, until one day in March 2002, I took the plunge and started writing.

That month was a turning point in my life for many reasons, though I didn’t know it at the time. I suppose most fifteen-year periods in my life have been equally eventful, and some have been more stressful, but the last fifteen years—close to 25% of my life—have been challenging.

On the personal front, I’ve seen my children grow from teenagers to responsible adults. One child graduated from college, and has since had six jobs, more than six different addresses, and the same girlfriend for the past three years. The other child has graduated from high school, college, and law school, has lived in D.C. and two states, and has also had more addresses than jobs. In these fifteen years, I’ve also grieved the loss of a grandmother, both parents (one slowly, one fast), and a father-in-law.

On the career front, the last boss I chose to work for quit during March 2002—the month I started journaling. A new boss was appointed several weeks later. I was already wrestling with whether I should retire four years later in 2006 when I turned fifty. In those four years, I had two and a half different jobs (I worked on a special assignment for several months, hence, the half) and had three and a half different managers (same reason for the half manager). I dealt with corporate politics in ways I never had before.

I did retire at the end of 2006, and for the past decade I’ve been devoting my primary effort to becoming a novelist. So on the writing front, I mark March 2002 as the beginning of my career as a writer, because my journal started me on the path to writing, even if I didn’t take myself seriously at the time.

My journal has helped me stay grounded through all these changes. It has helped direct my life. I’ve debated a variety of courses of action in its pages, often repeatedly. When an issue keeps raising itself for discussion, it’s a sign I should change something. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t, and sometimes I continue to debate what to do.

I didn’t write daily in the first few years. But since I retired, I have written almost every day of every year. I’d bet there are only 10-20 days in the entire decade that I have missed. In fifteen years, I have filled fifty of those narrow-ruled notebooks—160+ pages each, about 300 words per page, or roughly 240,000 words. The equivalent of two to three novels.

And, oh, by the way, I’ve published three novels, am well into a fourth, and I’ve written many essays, short stories, and poems, some of which have won contests and been published.

And I’ve written this blog. I really began Story & History in January 2012, but I didn’t start posting weekly until March, so I consider that to be the anniversary of the blog. (I increased my posts to twice a week later that year—a schedule I’m amazed I’ve been able to continue for so long.) So in my mind, this is the month I have completed five years of blogging.

While my journal is my private musing, this blog is where I muse more publicly. As readers know, I muse about all sorts of things. Enough to have written well over posts. I write another blog under my pseudonym, which I’ve also kept up for about five and a half years. Between the two blogs, I estimate I’ve written about 375,000 words in the past five years. That’s another three or four novels’ worth.

I guess I have to say I’m a writer now. And take myself seriously. I often wonder if I should be spending my time journaling and blogging, or if I should focus on moving more novels from my head to the page. But as long as my journal directs me, and as long as blogging connects me to others, I will probably continue.

Does writing help direct your life? Have you tried it?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Social Media in Times of Stress

Before my father passed away on January 5, I had scheduled some posts on my Facebook author page about Clean Off Your Desk Day on January 12, and today’s Organize Your Home Day. I forgot about these posts in the middle of much bigger worries.

My desk

So in addition to my emotional posts from this blog this week and last about my father’s death, my Facebook Page readers can see two posts on these amusing non-events. (Well, they’re typically non-events in my life. I have already confessed that I am a pack rat who files on the floor. But I’ve worked in groups that take Clean Off Your Desk Day quite seriously.)

My attempt to schedule my humor now seems quite inappropriate.

Ironically, however, this year these “national days” are not non-events for me. I am spending time this week tearing my father’s office apart, trying to organize his records into what I need now, what I’ll need soon, and what I will probably never need. Clean off the desk? Not for awhile.

And I lie awake nights dreading the soon-to-come dismantling of my parents’ house, which I’ll need to do with the help of my brother and sister and the rest of the family. We will have to decide what to keep and what to toss from a fifty-nine year marriage. Organize the home? This year we are emptying it.

I write all this to show that one aspect of the Bad and the Ugly of social media is that items posted in advance may later seem inappropriate. Automation of posts and tweets is helpful in moderation, but the writer must always remain aware of what is about to be posted, as I have discovered this week. It may turn out the scheduled posts do not describe life as it develops. Life doesn’t always roll along as we plan.

But I have also experienced the Good of social media this week—the connections that can develop across distances and in short times. My heart has been warmed by readers both on this blog and on Facebook who have expressed their compassion for my family and me. Most of the people who have commented are people I know personally, but some are people I’ve met only through social media. Good people. Friends, even. And it is a comfort to know that so many people care.

On balance, are our lives better or worse because of social media?

Scrivener: Software for Writers

I recently started using Scrivener, a software program designed for writers. I’ve used WriteWay Pro off and on for several years, but Scrivener is touted as the latest and greatest program for writers, and I wanted to give it a try.

A screen shot of my Scrivener file for this blog

A screen shot of my Scrivener file for this blog

Scrivener, WriteWay Pro, and similar writing programs are designed to take writers from the research and outlining stage through drafts to a final manuscript . . . and even to ebook publishing. Learning these program can be daunting, but the results are impressive. The programs help writers move back and forth between the big picture of an entire book to the details of each scene and sentence.

I do not pretend to be an expert after two weeks. But here are some of the things I’ve done since I started using Scrivener:

  • Set up a Scrivener project file for each of the two blogs I write. Each file contains pages for each of the next few posts I need to write, a place to park future ideas, a generic monthly plan for that blog (topics I want to write on each month), research on potential topics, and an archive of past posts (this will grow over time—I haven’t imported all my past posts, though I could).
  • Imported the novel I am currently working on from Word into a Scrivener project, divided the text into separate chapters in Scrivener, and labeled each chapter with the point of view character. I’m working on dividing it further into scenes, and I want to figure out how to identify each scene by subplot and characters. I think “keywords” is the appropriate tool, but I’m not sure. My goal is to be able to track how each subplot progresses through the book, so I can see where there are holes in the current draft for my next revision.
  • Set up another Scrivener project for short pieces I want to write—essays and short stories, etc.
  • And set up yet another Scrivener project to outline a novel idea I have. I have sworn that the next novel I write will be planned in advance—not written ad hoc and then edited into a story structure. Maybe I will finally learn to write a novel without countless revisions!

As I’m working through the learning curve, I’ve come across a few good resources for writers trying to master Scrivener. One is Joseph Michael’s Scrivener Coach training program. I have not purchased the program, but I have participated in a couple of webinars Mr. Michael has done, and he is a pretty good trainer.

Another resource is Gwen Hernandez. She also sells a training program on Scrivener, and has written a book called Scrivener for Dummies. I have not seen her training program or book, but her blog has wonderful Scrivener tips that I have found useful.

Finally, the Google Play Store has an Android app that is a Scrivener tutorial, with several videos on how to use Scrivener. I downloaded the app, and the tutorials are easy to follow.

Although I am finding Scrivener very helpful in organizing my writing, I also want to put in a plug for WriteWay Pro. Its author has kept it up to date over the years, and there isn’t much I’ve found in Scrivener that WriteWay Pro won’t also do. The templates for character sketches, scenes, conflict, etc., in WriteWay Pro are better than those that come with Scrivener.

Both Scrivener and WriteWay Pro offer thirty-day trial periods, and the purchase prices are comparable.

Of course, none of these programs does the writing for you. You still have to put butt in chair and words on paper (or screen).

Writers, do you use a writing program? If so, which one, and why? What’s your favorite feature?

I am Thankful for You, My Readers

MP900309568This year one of the many things I am grateful for is the readers of this blog. While the number of regular followers is small compared to many blogs, I appreciate the steady growth I have seen month over month. Earlier this month, the blog reached 20,000 views. Over 300 people have subscribed in one form or another, and it touches many more people occasionally through Facebook and Twitter.

Old friends and new friends, relatives and strangers, I’ve come to know many readers better through their comments. You are among the blessings in my life.

One regular commenter died a few months ago and I feel his loss, but other readers will bring new insights as time moves on. I look forward to hearing from more of you in the future.

As I reflect on my life each week, as I write about my memories of personal stories and reactions to historical events, I hope you reflect on your life as well. Then maybe you will write about your experiences—at least for yourself and for your family, if not for general publication.

A friend asked me a few months ago what themes I had found in my life through writing this blog. I can’t answer that question yet, but I am confident that someday I will. Perhaps some of you will help me. In the meantime, I do believe in the value of a well-examined life.

Here are a few of the most popular posts from this year:

Enjoy these again, and Happy Thanksgiving!

A Novel Blog Hop: Lead Me Home

J.G. Burdette, who blogs at Map of Time: A Trip into the Past, tagged me to participate in a Blog Hop for authors.  What’s a blog hop? This one is an interview with ten questions posed to a writer about the novel he or she is writing. The author answers the ten questions and then selects five more writers they would like to interview.

This gives all our readers an opportunity to learn what we – and our writing friends – are working on. I appreciate the opportunity J.G. has given me to write about my book. I hope you enjoy reading about my work in progress, and please go read about the writers I’m tagging at the end of this post.

1.      What is the working title of your book? 

MC900149882Lead Me Home

2.      Where did the idea come from for the book? 

I’ve had the idea of a novel about a couple traveling the Oregon Trail in my head for more than 20 years. Given the nature of the story, it had a definite beginning (Missouri) and end (Oregon), though I had to research the route they traveled mile by mile.

As I wrote, the characters shaped their path more than I anticipated.

3.      What genre does your book fall under?  

Historical fiction. It is aimed at adults, but many young adults will appreciate it also. It is history with fictional characters, it is story with historical grounding, so read it as either.

4.      Which actor would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

Wow. This is a hard question to answer. Mac and Jenny are both young characters, so by the time we are ready to film we will have to look to an unknown crop of actors for casting. Therefore, I’m not naming current young actors for the roles.

For the hero, Caleb “Mac” MacDougall, think Michael Landon as he appeared in Bonanza, but with straight hair. Mac is in his mid-20s and a proper Easterner when Lead Me Home opens, but he soon adapts to life on the trail.

My young heroine, Jenny Calhoun, is only 14 when the story begins. She looks like the young Jennifer Garner on the cover of the Rose Hill DVD, but with lighter hair. My Jenny has faced great tragedy in her short life. She comes across as docile, but has a spine of steel, and holds her own on the way West.

5.      What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

Caleb “Mac” MacDougall, a young Boston attorney, and Jenny Calhoun, a teenage girl with no friend except Mac, confront disaster, duplicity, death, and their own ignorance and fears, as they travel by wagon to Oregon in 1847.

6.      Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Uncertain. I’m leaning toward self-publishing. I self-published Family Recipe to learn how that process works.

7.      How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About a year. I’d done a lot of research before I began writing, but had to stop frequently to do more research as I wrote. What were the banking procedures in 1847 anyway? How far up the Missouri River did steamships travel? When was Fort Kearny built? Every day brought a new question.

8.      What other books would compare to this work within your genre?

Westerns such as Lonesome Dove or True Grit.  Francis Parkman’s classic account, The Oregon Trailcovers much of the same territory in the same time frame, but his book is a travelogue without the character-based plot my novel has.

9.      Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Whitman Mission

Whitman Mission

As I’ve written before, I’ve always been intrigued by the courage of the emigrants who traveled the Oregon Trail. I grew up near the Whitman Mission, and my family took several day trips to visit the museum there when I was growing up. I now live near Independence, Missouri, one of the jumping off places for Oregon Trail. Both Independence and the Whitman Mission are important settings in my novel.

Also, my own family history included settlers in Oregon in the 1840s.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There is a sequel involving Mac and Jenny, tentatively titled Now I’m Found, that deals with the California Gold Rush of 1849.

I’ve completed drafts of both books. Lead Me Home needs another edit to take out about 10,000 words. Now I’m Found has only been through one draft, so it still needs substantial work.

But because I have another project in the works ahead of these two novels, it will be into 2014 before Lead Me Home is ready to publish. I’ll keep you posted!

* * *

Here are the writers I have tagged.  All of them have blogs and/or websites, and they all have recent publications.

  • Pamela Boles Eglinski – Author of a new historical novel, Return of the French Blue, you can find out more about Pam at her website, http://pamelaboleseglinski.com/.
  • Sally Jadlow – Author of several books, including the historical novel The Late Sooner and the recent inspirational series beginning with God’s Little Miracle Book, Sally’s current blog is God’s Little Miracle Book, and her website is http://www.sallyjadlow.com/.
  • Linda Joyce – Author of a new romance novel, Bayou Born, published by the Wild Rose Press, Linda blogs at Linda Joyce Contemplates.
  • Norm Ledgin – Norm has written several books, fiction and nonfiction. His latest is Sally of Monticello, a historical novel about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. Follow Norm at Norm Ledgin, Author/Speaker

Thank you, J.G. Burdette, for tagging me to write about Lead Me Home.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, please share it! And check out the authors I’ve listed. If you have any questions about my work in progress, please comment below.

P.S. to my five “tagees”:

  • Use a format similar to this post if you want to share information about your work on your blog or website
  • Answer the ten questions about your current work
  • Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them. 

Top Ten Lessons Learned about Blogging

Blog of the Year Award 1 star jpegI’ve been posting regularly (at least weekly) on this blog for a year now, and since May 2012 I’ve posted twice a week (on Mondays and Wednesdays). I’ve had some successes, but I also know I can improve.

Here are the top ten lessons I’ve learned in the past year about blogging, as well as some questions I have for my readers about how I should shape this blog in the future. Please leave a comment if you would like to see any changes made.

1.      Know the purpose of your blog.

Much of the reading I’ve done about blogging says that it’s important to know what you’re trying to do with the blog. Do you simply want to make your writing public? Do you want to sell your books or other products? Are you trying to build a service business by showing your expertise? All of these can be good reasons to write a blog.

In my case, I decided I wanted this blog to focus on the two directions my writing is taking – historical novels about the Oregon Trail and California Gold Rush, and personal essays about  family and life generally. I want to write about these topics, to promote my work (sometimes), and also to write some posts might serve as drafts for submissions to other publications (like “My Son Made Me Tweet,” for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Parenting) or for another anthology like my Family Recipe anthology.

cropped-nasa-topographic-map-oregontrail.jpgFrom these purposes, I developed the title and tag line, “Story & History: One writer’s journey through life and time,” and decided to use the Oregon Trail banner. 

My title and tag line set the scope of what you should find on this blog. They give me direction, but are broad enough that I can find a lot to write about. After all, a journey through life can encompass almost anything!

Readers: Am I holding true to my purpose? Do you get what you expect when you read this blog, or do I sometimes go off topic?

2.      Have a blog plan.

Related to the need to have a blog purpose is the need for a blog plan – a schedule when you will post, a topic or well-defined set of topics you will write about, a plan for rotating among your topics to keep it balanced.

My plan involves posting every Monday and Wednesday. I want to write at least one post each month about Oregon Trail history (though occasionally I’ll write on another historical topic from the 19th century) and at least one post each month about writing. Most of my other posts are about family stories, involving either current or past generations.

Readers: Would you like me to write more or less about any of these topics in the future?

3.      Keep a list of topics for your posts.

Most blogging authorities recommend that you keep notes on topics you could post about.

As I research my novels and read about writing techniques, I try to jot down ideas for posts. And about once a month I look at those notes and try to plan out the posts for the next few weeks. But I frequently find myself with holes in my posting schedule. Then it’s a mad search for something to write about.

4.      Anything can be a blog topic.

Related to keeping a list of topics is the discovery that almost anything could be a blog topic. It takes discipline to decide what to write about, consistent with your blog’s purpose and plan.

For example, I was driving down the street the other day when someone cut me off. I thought about writing a list of my top ten peeves about other drivers. So far, that topic hasn’t become a post, because it’s pretty far off the theme of “one writer’s journey through life and time.” But on a day when I become desperate for a topic to write about, you might find it surfacing. After all, I could make a case that driving is a journey and is part of life.

5.      Feeding the beast is difficult.

Frustrated Woman at Computer With Stack of PaperMaking the commitment to blogging is a difficult thing. I write two posts a week. They range in length from about 300-1200 words, with most being between 500-1000 words. That’s a lot, particularly when I’m trying to work on novels, personal essays, and short stories as well. Each post takes at least an hour to write, and often half a day when I have to research the post or when I need to find pictures beyond simple clipart.

Readers: Would you prefer more shorter posts, or should I keep them about the same frequency and length?

6.      Try to write ahead.

Related to the commitment is the need to write ahead when you know you’ll have difficulty writing. You can also use guest posts to help you out also.

When I’ve had plans to be on vacation, I’ve tried to write ahead a couple of weeks, and I’ve had the good fortune to have posts by Beth Barnett and Pam Eglinski, and a post based on Norm Ledgin’s press release about his novel Sally of Monticello.

Readers: Would you like to see more guest posts? If you’d like to write a guest post for me, please let me know.

7.      Food sells. 

Two of my most viewed posts are restaurant reviews of Catalpa in Arrow Rock, Missouri, and Whiskey Warehouse in Alma, Missouri.

But you won’t see many restaurant reviews on this blog. First, my waistline won’t permit it.

Second, both these restaurants have some historical connection. Arrow Rock, Missouri, was a stop for steamboats up the Missouri River during the days of the Oregon Trail, and the Whiskey Warehouse is in a mid-19th century building of historical significance in Alma.

8.      Writers read about writing.

My journal

My journal

The blogging world is naturally full of people who like to write, and many of my readers are professional writers. Others are great readers.

Some of my top-viewed posts have been about writing. See my posts about  keeping a journal, about writing memoir and family myths, about plotting a novel, and about critique groups.

Readers: If you’re a writer, what writing issues or techniques would you like me to write about? If you’re not a writer, would you like to see fewer of these posts?

9.      Be grateful for friends and family, old and new.

I always appreciate a comment or thank you from my readers. You are the reason I keep writing. It means a lot when my father tells me I am teaching him something about our family history, or when friends tell me I’ve made them think about their family in a new way.

And I’ve “met” some wonderful bloggers whose blogs I now follow. I learn from what they write and from the comments they leave me.

Readers: No question here – just a simple “thank you” from me!

10.  Don’t devote your life to your blog.

Balance the time spent on blogging with time spent on other writing, or other work, or family, or whatever else is important to you.

Despite what I said about making the commitment to blogging, and about anything being a blog topic, your life is not your blog. Like anything, the blog must fit into the rest of your life. Balance is important to a life well-lived.

Thanks again to all who read this blog! I look forward to our journey together in the year(s) to come.

Remember, please leave a comment if you have any changes or improvements you would like to see me make in this blog.