Welcome to my virtual sip and stroll

At this time each year, I host a sip and stroll through my iris gardens. My friends follow me through my garden paths, sipping wine or tea, and I teach them about these graceful beauties.

Since I’m sheltering in place (SIP) in New Jersey, and my magnificent irises deserve an audience, I’m hosting a virtual tour of my gardens. Please sit back, press play, and enjoy my photos and the soothing and inspiring music, composed and performed by my son, Ragen.

The little-known anniversary I’m celebrating this month

Have you heard of William Stebbins Barnard? He was a writer and teacher from Illinois who received a patent in February 1877 for “improvements in book-supports,” or as I call them, bookends.

Long before 1877, people used all sorts of materials to prop up books, but Barnard perfected the design. Here’s an excerpt from his patent: “The invention consists in a book support or holder composed of two unconnected angular end pieces to be placed at the two extremities of the row of books to be kept upright, each being adapted to receive and to be held in position by the books set upon its horizontal extension or base….”

In honor of William Stebbins Barnard and the anniversary of his “book-supports,” I’ll share some photos of my bookends, starting with my favorite.

I found these bronze praying hands in an antique shop in Pennsylvania years ago. My grandparents had a set just like them.

My Dad gave me a set from his collection: hand-carved elephants connected by a wooden base that slides to make room for more books.

Here’s another find from an antique shop – super heavy but elegant!

I stumbled on these majestic eagle bookends by accident. They were hidden under some old magazines at a used bookstore. I talked the guy into selling them to me for $5.

Found this set while on a retreat in Arizona:

Some are just for fun:

Others remind me of home (born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma): 

And I have many more. As long as I have books, I will have bookends. These treasures hold together stories and poetry and truths that enlighten, encourage, entertain, and inspire.

They also look pretty darn cool.

Best Gifts for the Writer in Your Life

Writers hemorrhage over words, sentences and scenes all day. Writing is tedious! How can you show your appreciation and respect for the writer in your life this Christmas?

I can help. I make my living as a writer, which translates into hundreds of hours each month in front of a computer and inside my head. Below, I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite things. Maybe they will inspire a gift or two for the writer in your life.

If you want to give a writer a creative boost

Writing every day takes energy, discipline and gumption. When I feel a bit sluggish or burned out, I put on one of my writing shirts – the comfy, colorful shirts I purchased exclusively for writing time. I never wear them for anything else. When I put one on, a switch flips in my brain, and I know it’s time to get serious and get to writing. Maybe your loved one would appreciate a writing shirt. Here’s the one I wear when working on my current novel:

What a writer wears can fuel the imagination and so can the things we hear. Spanish guitar always notches up my creative noggin. My favorites are Azúcar: The Magic of Spanish Guitar with Guido Luciani and Guitarisma 2: The Charisma, Mystique and Pure Expression of the Guitar.

Sometimes, just one song can send me speeding forward on the writing track. Songs like “Focus on Sight” and “Indra” from Thievery Corporation’s Mirror Conspiracy shift my brain into high gear every time.

If you prefer to give practical gifts

Although a lot of wordsmithing occurs in a place nebulously called “the cloud,” there are many times I prefer to print book chapters for editing or print students’ writing papers for grading. This year, I spent $350 on printer toner, paper, legal pads and other desktop necessities. That’s $350 that could have been used for a writing retreat at my favorite cabin or attending a workshop.

If you like to give practical presents, consider a gift card to an online or local office supply store. I would LOVE to get a few of those and free up some cash to spend on my craft.

Of course, a beautiful pen is always a practical and appreciated gift. One suggestion: If the writer in your life takes lots of notes or writes often in a journal, choose a slender pen to make the words flow faster. A chunky pen is best for signing important documents, like book contracts.

Below are my pens. The one on the far right is my fav. It’s lightweight, and I love the sleek design and deep green and black colors.

If you like to give books

Although the internet is a great resource, many writers prefer to have a hard copy of key reference books within arm’s reach. Here are my two favorites:

  • Roget’s International Thesaurus – I have the 7th edition, but there’s also an 8th edition. This thesaurus is a monster of a book, but I use it EVERY DAY. It is the only thesaurus based on the original Peter Roget’s reference book from 1852, and it keeps getting better with each new edition.
  • The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression – This reference comes in handy when trying to show rather than describe an emotion. It’s great for prompts/ideas to bring fiction and nonfiction characters to life. 

If the writer in your life appreciates homemade gifts

If you enjoy making presents, consider creating a pen holder. It’s practical but also serves as a mnemonic device, reminding you of a special someone and a special story associated with that someone. Here’s one a friend made for me years ago. It serves as a little ray of sunshine every time I look at it:

If the writer in your life loves helping others

A number of nonprofit organizations could use your support this year. Consider purchasing a gift for your loved one from Girls Write Now, an organization that mentors young girls to find their voice through writing, or shop at the Women’s Fiction Writers Association store, where all proceeds go to programs and events that help people develop writing skills.

One more thing

No organization or brand paid or influenced me to endorse or mention any of the products on my “best” list. The suggestions are based on my personal experience as a writer. I hope my favorite things give you great ideas to help you show how much you appreciate the writer in your life this Christmas and all year long.

“Start writing, no matter what. The water doesn’t flow until the faucet is turned on.” – Louis L’Amour

“The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let dead things go.” – Anonymous

Mountain Lake, Warren County, New Jersey

Fall is almost here. BRING. IT. ON.

Even a writer knows that, sometimes, SHOW is better than TELL. So, for this month’s blog, I’ll let my photos serve as your passport to the magic that’s coming soon.

Monkshood
Liriope
Sedum
Elvis on bear patrol
Trees, Jenny Jump
Pumpkin flowers
Goldenrod
Dogwood tree
Autumn’s palette
Ornamental grass
Mums
Halloween (son and daughter-in-law, AKA Frank Zappa and Amy Winehouse)

I hope you have a ball this fall!

Welcome to my book club.

Several years ago, I decided to form a book club. I thought I’d be flooded with eager participants. Instead, I got some disappointing responses:

 “I don’t like to read.”

“Why would I waste my time reading something someone else recommends?”

“I don’t have time to read.”

“I haven’t read a book since college.”

And my favorite: “I get too sleepy when I read.”

I was surprised by the lack of interest, but I didn’t give up on my book club idea. After a few weeks and lots of phone calls, I cobbled together a group of six book lovers for our first meeting. We started out calling ourselves the Bookish Babes, but then a man joined our group. Now, we’re the Bookish Babes Plus One. We meet every six weeks, give or take, and have read 33 books so far (the complete list appears below). We’re always on the lookout for new members and the next great book.

There are two rules in book club: Everybody gets to choose a book, and when it’s your turn, anything goes. As a result, we’ve read murder mysteries, love stories, classics, best sellers, unknown authors, self-help books, and even literary erotica – who knew there was such a thing?

Here a book, there a book

Not everyone finishes every book, except me. I’ll read just about anything. If you look around my house, you’ll see stacks of books here and there, each with a fancy bookmark to help me find my place (don’t even get me started on my obsession with bookmarks).

Considering all the gizmos and gadgets available these days, curling up in a comfy chair with a book may seem like old-fashioned entertainment. But for me, books take me to mysterious and marvelous places. I don’t always like the destination, but I learn something new with every story.

Author Alice Hoffman sums it up best: “Books may very well be the only true magic.”

The Bookish Babes Plus One reading list

Below are the 33 books my book club has read so far. I’ve placed an asterisk by my personal favs. Happy reading!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Book Store*

Gone Girl

Whipping Boy*

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Go Set a Watchman

A Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd*

My Little Life

The Perfume Collector*

Bad Monkey

My Absolute Darling*

Little Fires Everywhere

Home Fire: A Novel

All the Light We Cannot See*

The Cemetery Keeper’s Wife

The Point Is

The Language of Flowers*

The Husband’s Secret*

Island of the Sequined Love Nun

Eat Me

Girl on a Train

Dark Places

See Me

The Tortilla Curtain

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos*

A Man Called Ove*

The Vanishing Year*

Lincoln in the Bardo*

The Red Notebook*

The Sun Also Rises

Less

Unsheltered

There There

The Hideaway

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” ― C.S. Lewis

A squadron of dragonflies

Seaside Dragonlet Dragonfly

Dozens of dragonflies have surrounded my house. And I think I know why.

In the 10 years I’ve lived here, only a handful of dragonflies have graced my gardens. But since early June, dozens of the prehistoric-looking beauties have been hovering like helicopters around my house. Why are there so many this year? Do they bite? What do they eat? And most important: What does this mean?

The first time one appeared, it buzzed around my head and froze a foot in front of my face, studying me with those big eyes. The needle-bodied black creature was at least four inches long. Soon, another one came along…and another…and another. Before long, the creatures were circling 10 feet above my head, creating a rattling sound with their vibrating wings. I like to think they were talking about me, having a discussion about what kind of odd creature this was sitting in the sun eating a tuna sandwich. From that day on, every time I sat on my deck, my squadron of dragonflies appeared. The black ones were soon joined by blue, white and black, and green ones.

WHAT’S GOING ON?

When writers come upon something they don’t understand, they dig in, do their research. I’m no exception. I spent half a day engrossed in entomology learning about my band of bugs. I discovered there are plenty of practical explanations—like the fact that when I sit on my deck in the heat, I sweat a little. My sweat attracts freckle-sized midges, and dragonflies eat flying insects. In fact, they can eat 30 to 100 mosquitoes a day. No wonder they are hanging around my house. The spring was incredibly wet this year, and that means mosquitoes had plenty of breeding grounds. And research shows that dragonflies swarm in places where food is plentiful.

Beyond the logical explanations, I like to think there’s something more behind my dragonfly brigade. Many people have written stories about them—why they show up and the messages they are trying to communicate. One such belief is that the presence of dragonflies means that something big is about to change in your life. Something transformative.

I LIKE THIS VERSION OF THE DRAGONFLY MYTH. AND HERE’S WHY:

This month, life will change significantly for me. My 81-year-old mom will be moving from Oklahoma to live with me in New Jersey. I left Oklahoma in 1984 and have made frequent trips home, but I’ve missed my mom terribly all these years.

The move will mean big change for mom, and I give her lots of credit for being so brave. When she gets to Jersey, we’ll have lots of gossip to catch up on, romantic movies to watch, books to read, new recipes to share. My prayer is that we will have many adventures together in the years ahead.  

THERE’S JUST ONE PROBLEM.

Mom hates insects and doesn’t hesitate to swat them if they get too close. Maybe when mom appears on my deck for the first time, my swarm of dragonflies will move on, knowing that the change has taken place. Their work here is done. And what if they decide to spend the summer with us? I’ll just have to hide the flyswatter.

“I love to see the sunshine on the wings of the dragonflies…there is magic in it.” – Ama H. Vanniarachchy, author, illustrator, archaeology scholar

You’ve been gnomed!

I don’t know how it started. At some point, I began gnoming family members who came for a visit. I’d hide a cheerful gal or chubby fella in my guest’s suitcase, cooler, or purse, and include a note: You’ve been gnomed!

Of course, what goes around comes around, and before long, they were gnoming me back—like this trio my brother and sister-in-law recently hid in my gardens:

Or the one my son painted for me as a Mother’s Day surprise:

Or how about this “Ohm Gnome” from my sister:

My dad gnomed me with a guard for my back door:

Even my grandkids got into the action with this one:

And because every garden needs something blue, I gnomed myself with a Smurf-like fella:

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why I gnome my family members, and why they gnome me back. Is it just good, clean fun—a ping-pong of pranks at play? Or is there something deeper going on here? I suspect it’s a bit of both.

As a writer, I’ve learned that great ideas for plots and characters often spring from an encounter with reality. Family traditions are a great example. They offer rich material that can intensify the emotional tug in a story. A writer simply needs to look past the what, and focus on the why the tradition is happening.

For example, why does a grandmother spend three days making sage and cornbread stuffing for her family every Thanksgiving?  Is it because everybody loves it? Not necessarily. There are always plenty of leftovers. The what—the cornbread stuffing—is not the richest ingredient in this scenario (although, my brothers would argue with me on this point). Instead, it’s the why behind this tedious effort that touches the heart. When the grandmother cooks her special meals, she’s expressing her love for her family through her fingertips. It’s one of the ways her mother showed love and the mother before her.

And this: Why does a son take his mom fishing every Mother’s Day? Is it to catch fish (the what)? They rarely catch a thing. Why he takes his mom fishing is the important element here. This is their moment, a special day that no one else can interrupt or steal from him. Oh, sure, a writer can evoke tenderness when she describes how the son hooks the minnow for his mom and shows her how to cast the line. But the real warmth of this river scene comes when he leans forward and says, “Remember the time…” The conversation that follows could be hilarious, poignant, or a multitude of other adjectives the writer can use to bring to life the precious relationship between a son and his mother.

And what about my gnoming tradition? Why do I continue to secretly send these creatures across the country, hidden in bags of dirty clothes, half-eaten cracker boxes, and tucked inside a shoe? The obvious reason is because practical jokes are embedded in my family’s DNA. But I believe my gnoming habit goes much deeper. Most of my family members live far away, and I miss them terribly. But through this volley of cute and quirky characters, I’ve cast a net of memories around my loved ones. We share something unique—our own family lore. And it all started with a simple surprise: the hale and hearty gnome.

I love the start of a workweek.

I love the start of a workweek. I can’t wait to jump into the writing assignments in my inbox or to tinker with the story plot lines posted all over the wall.

This month marks the 23rd anniversary of doing what I love and what I do best: writing. Don’t ask me to tile a shower, discover an algorithm, or explain pro forma financials. I have many skill-related shortcomings, but when it comes to writing, I’m as focused as a kid picking at a splinter.

There are even days when I have to make myself stop working because I’m having so much fun. I call it job joy.

Is this how you feel about your work?

If the answer is “no,” that’s okay. I’m not here to convince you to quit your job, sell all your belongings, move into a tiny house on wheels, and drive toward a dream. This scenario simply won’t work for everybody, because the demands on our lives are different.

But I am here to encourage you to find a way to resuscitate that thing you keep smothering because it just seems too hard, too much of a stretch, too impractical, too inconvenient.

Maybe the thing you love is playing piano, writing a novel, or cultivating irises. Maybe it’s stocking shelves at a food pantry or taking care of puppies or babies. These things rarely come with a high salary, big title, or lavish perks. Even so, don’t you think it’s time to give that thing that tugs at your heart and mind a little space in your life?

I believe God weaves a thread of a dream inside each of us. And if that’s true, there’s a reason for it. You have two choices: Pick at it, or fashion that dream into something divine.

Two Tips for a Better Interview

Research shows that we interrupt the person we’re listening to within 17 seconds. Can that be true? I tested that statistic, and it’s more like 10 seconds. Blame our brains. We want to contribute to the conversation. It makes us feel relevant and important and smart. Interruption also gets in the way of a great story.

During my 25-plus years as a writer, I’ve interviewed more than 6,500 people for books, articles, speeches, blogs, videos – you name it. Early in my career, while conducting man-on-the-street interviews for a small-town newspaper, I learned one of the keys to a great interview: Let people ramble. Think of rambling as a warm-up to the good stuff. It’s like jumping around in the gym to loosen up those muscles before you start pumping iron. Give your interviewee some space to warm up, relax, and trust that you will listen. The most meaningful moments bubble up through the rambling.

Here’s another tip: When the person stops rambling, allow that uncomfortable pause in the conversation to hover between you. Slowly count to 10 – or 17 if you trust the research. Your interviewee may just interrupt the silence with that one critical piece of information, such as the hook that launches your story or the scene that captures your protagonist’s victory.

My two simple tips for getting a better interview? Let ’em ramble. And then let ’em ramble some more.

A Creative Christmas

When Christmas rolls around, I roll out the red carpet for creativity. I believe that Christmas should never be routine or boring.

Take my Christmas tree, for example. Since I’m a bibliophile, I built one out of my books. Maybe the photo from my den will inspire you to case your own bookcase for possibilities. Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Crank up the Christmas music, and heat up a cup of cider or coffee or some other treat for sipping.

Step 2: Take photos of the books on your shelves. This will make it easier to take down your tree and reorder your bookshelves after the New Year. (I order my books by genre, Pulitzer winners, and book club reads.)

Step 3: Decide what colors you want to stand out in your tree. As you pull books off the shelf, stack the right colors together. For example, I wanted the trunk to be dark, so I stacked together all the books with black or brown dust jackets, like my “Twilight” series. (I planned on having blue, green, and red tree branches but quickly ran out of books with those colors!)

Step 4: Start building! Take your time. Take a break – and a sip – when you need one. It took me several hours to get my tree just right, but the results? SPECTACULAR!

Step 5: Insert pine-scented sticks (e.g., Scentsy sticks) between the books to get a whiff of that fresh tree smell when you walk by. You also can use the sticks to hold garland and glittery balls on your tree. I did not use lights, because I did not want to risk a fire.

If you prefer a traditional tree, that’s okay too. How about spicing up your gift-giving? One year, I created headlines for small, inexpensive gifts,and each person got something from each category. The headline categories included: things you find in a flea market; things that make you go “hmmm”; grin-worthy gifts; wallet warmers; and things that make you look FABULOUS. My family loved it, and the shopping experience on my end was unforgettable.

This Christmas, I hope creativity rains down on you…and lots of love, hope, and anticipation for a blessed New Year.