The Last Letter: A Book

I recently finished a wonderful book: The Last Letter by Susan Pogorzelski. It's a semi-autobiographical account of Susan's experiences living with Chronic Lyme Disease told from the point of view of 15-year-old Amelia. For anyone who has dealt with or had a loved one deal with a misdiagnosed disease that sucks the life out of you, this book takes a creative approach to letting you know you're not alone. The story will draw you in. 

Susan is a consultant, editor, and creative coach at Brown Beagle Books, and an all around great cheerleader for authors and a courageous speaker for Lyme Disease sufferers. 

In June, Janet Reid, Literary Agent at New Leaf Literary Agency, sponsored one of her 100-word flash fiction contests with this book as the reward (no, I did not win). We had to include five words in our story:  last, letter, pogo, ease, lime. 

This was the week we had two winners! Go here to read Janet's analyses and the qualities she looks for in determining the winning entries.  

This was my entry:  

Sidewalk Café

“Gah! Why can’t I remember its name?”

Complaisant, I listen to ma femme courageux.

“Ugh,” she taps a fist to her forehead, “Italian. Begins with the letters p-o.”

I savor the shish ta’ook with tabouli, melding and mingling the aroma. Délicieux.


Ha! She is returned! Ma femme méthodique.


Gone, at long last, la fatigue.


La cuisine Lebanese? Her favori.


I relish her energie.


Ah! Anticipation is merveilleux.

“That’s it!” Delight dances on her lips, “The Pomodoro!”  

This Lyme Disease? Long has ma femme laborieux.

“See! I will be a writerly dame!”


Wordsmith describes a person who works with words and is a skilled writer. 

I'm not laying claim yet to being a skilled writer but I have been working on words rather than plots or characters or settings.

I've been working with revisions of my first full draft since January.  Until July, the revisions focused on plot holes and whether or not my characters were realistic. And I needed to write a few new scenes.

But a couple weeks ago, I finished with that piece of revision and editing. Now I've moved on to wordsmithery. Why don't I just send it off to my beta readers? Because my story was over 100,000 words. So in the interest of finding all of my extra thats and justs to cut I came across Janice Hardy's column on August 4, 7 Words that often Tell, Not Show. And intrigued, I decided to apply it straight away to my story. 

By the way, I've saved the version of my story before all this wordsmithery stuff I'm doing just in case I edit the life out of it.

What's the difference between tell and show? (Check out Grammar Girl definition here.)

  • to tell is to summarize a scene or an action
  • to show is to let the reader experience the scene or the action through specific details and a specific point-of-view of one of your characters

Which is preferable? Readers like to escape into the specific details of a story but there are times when summarizing or telling works better. It all depends upon the scene or action. Transitions, that have nothing important happening within them can be told. 

With Janice Hardy's Fiction Writer column I've searched my documents for the seven words she listed and determined whether I needed to change my sentences or if they were fine as written. My weakness (besides adverbs and gerunds) are the to (verb). And no, I did not take out all my to (verb)s! Check out Janice's column here as she explains it very well and creates examples. 

One of the interesting side effects of doing a search to determine if I need to change a sentence, is that I am not so caught up in my story (yes, I'm still in love with it). I notice each sentence as a stand alone. And the highlight feature allows me to notice how often I use certain words or phrases within a paragraph or a page. Repetition that may irritate certain readers! 

Happy writing! 


Research time. Again.

I finished writing a fully fleshed second draft of my year 2013 story strand. Yay. The last ten chapters are much stronger and I'm so excited that his part is ready for beta reading.

Now I need to work on my 1930s and 40s strand, (not as many chapters as 2013).  So with that in mind, I've a few books to read.

  • Farewell to East Prussia: A German Boy's Experiences before and during World War II  by Erhard Schulz, 2003, the 2015 English edition Ortrun Schulz
  • Forgotten Land: Journeys among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont, 2011
  • Vanished Kingdom: Travels through the History of Prussia by James Charles Roy, 1999 

I'm particularly intrigued to read Farewell to East Prussia as it was originally written by a man who grew up in Elk Valley County,  East Prussia until he was 11 years old, when they fled.  

In my story, the 1930s is told from the point-of-view of a woman from Konigsberg, East Prussia, just on the eve of World War Two.

I have already read some non-fiction books about East Prussia, trying to get a sense of place and time. These are the other books, although the first book, I only read the chapter pertaining to East Prussia:  

  • Vanished Kingdoms: The rise and fall of states and nations by Norman Davies, 2012
  • The Fall of Hitler’s Fortress City: The Battle for Konigsberg, 1945 by Isabel Denny, 2007
  • Before the Storm: Memories of my Youth in Old Prussia by Marion Donhoff, 1990

And I've also been scouting for novels that take place in East Prussia. 

the Driftless Area

I live in a geographically beautiful area. 

view from Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa looking toward the bridge between Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and Marquette, Iowa

view from Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa looking toward the bridge between Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and Marquette, Iowa

Summertime in the Mississippi River valley is beautiful.

Oh, who am I kidding? Anytime in this river valley is beautiful. 

January sunset looking from Alma, Wisconsin towards the Minnesota bluffs

January sunset looking from Alma, Wisconsin towards the Minnesota bluffs

I love the four seasons (except the hot muggy in the dog days of summer). The river draws bald eagles, fishing boats, barges, and tourists. Its backwaters attract white egrets and great blue herons in the summer and in winter, little towns of ice fishing houses. 

This area of the Mississippi River valley--southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota , northeast Iowa, and northwest Illinois--is called the Driftless area.  It's an area that escaped the "drift" of the last glaciers retreat.

But, the deep river valleys were carved by the force of megafloods from the melting of ice dams that held in the gigantic glacial Lake Agassiz and the smaller glacial lakes Duluth and Grantsberg.

Imagine the torrential power of that ice cold water, filling these valleys to the brim, cutting out the faces of the bluffs? It gives me goosebumps when I stand on top of a hill and overlook the valley. I am so minuscule and frail next to the noise and rush of those melting glacier waters.  In comparison, the largest watershed in the U.S. of our grand Mississippi River and its tributaries pales and becomes insignificant.

As a child, I took swimming lessons in the river and enjoyed the waves that the barges caused. Now I enjoy the beauty of the valley and watching the bird life. 

Story-shaped lives

If you've checked out my About Me page, you will know that I am a pastor in addition to being a wanna-be author of fiction.

About a month ago, one of the blogs I read recommended this book, Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

Wonderful book. Thought-provoking. Written by a woman who describes herself as a None, a person who does not belong to any particular faith community although she was raised in the Christian tradition.

A person can be spiritual without belonging to a religious community. But (remember, I'm a pastor and therefore biased) how does spirituality develop, mature, and become action if not through the relationships nurtured within a faith community--whether it be church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. How can the stories or tenets of our faith be fully understood if our interpretation is not challenged or confirmed.

Faith can be shallow if we only have yes people around us. Faith can be destructive if a narrow parameter of what is God is fenced around us. 

I have not finished reading this book yet but my attention was particularly engaged through her chapter titled, Moral Authority.  

My muddied thoughts or take-away from that chapter:  

If we believe stories from ancient texts no longer have meaning for us today, what will pull at or draw a commitment from individuals or groups to be concerned for the other, to give of their time or money, to seek justice and love kindness. If we do not care to become steeped within a common story or narrative, are at danger of becoming narcissistic people? 

We are a story people, whether the stories are autobiographical or historical or fictional. Stories shape us and form us, whether written as poetry or prose. What stories do you reread? Those stories, and their underlying themes and subtexts, shape you. 

As a teen, I listened to John Denver songs over and over, and over and over and I'm sure my parents wished they had never introduced me to him!  But through his songs (and our family camping and canoeing trips), I developed a deep abiding affection for earth. I try to live a life that is sustainable, green, simple, minimalist, a lifestyle which focuses my money and my time on relationships with people rather than necessitating overtime hours in order to pay or care for things that I've purchased. 

Growing up, I heard many Bible stories and, especially the stories about Jesus, many were repeated. After being social worker for several years, I went to seminary and studied those same Bible stories. For 20 years I have preached from the Bible. Those stories tell us so much about the people of that time--what was important to them, how they perceived God, how their faith shaped their tribe, and how their understanding of God changed through the generations. 

At any rate, I encourage you to check out this book if you're at all interested in spirituality and how religion affects the broader fabric of our nation. 

Focus. Goal. Plan.

I'm new to my house and for the past couple of summers I've taken pictures of my gardens so I can see the changes and feel like I've accomplished something. 

Year 1: The orange tiger lilies after they had bloomed--late summer. A bit weedy. And the harebells were falling into the grass. 

Year 1: The orange tiger lilies after they had bloomed--late summer. A bit weedy. And the harebells were falling into the grass. 

Year 2:  Ahhh! Weed free. And tidy! You can tell it's May. I left the lilies and harebells and added bee balm. 

Year 3:  Red bee balm and purple harebells in July. The harebells are restrained with a wire tomato cage to keep them from getting wild and tipping into the lawn. 

Year 3:  Red bee balm and purple harebells in July. The harebells are restrained with a wire tomato cage to keep them from getting wild and tipping into the lawn. 

I found it so interesting to see the different looking wall behind the flowers. I have not painted it. But it faces the east and I took the bottom picture in the morning.

Did I have a grand plan for this little garden? Outside of tidying it up and figuring out what colors I wanted, I did not have a particular grand plan. But now I see that bumble bees love to crawl inside the harebells and ruby-throated hummingbirds sip at the bee balm.

Having been out of flower gardening for awhile, I had forgotten about these beautiful side effects (and in the case of the bees, the potential hazard!) 

Is this garden done evolving? For the near future, yes. I've other areas of the yard and other gardens to put my primary focus on now and I have added inspiration and impetus! 

An analogy to being storytellers? In writing, our voice, the character point-of-view and the setting color the story. With a specific end in mind, there are small steps, small plans to support the plot movement towards that ending. And being absorbed in the story we wish to tell is just as thrilling as working with a flower garden.

Happy 4th

The yellow flowering bush is a coreopsis. Perhaps a moonbeam coreopsis? This is a planting from mom's garden. It's a drought-tolerant perennial that the butterflies and bees love. And I just read that goldfinches like the seeds in fall. 

And the tall plants with big leaves and clustered purple flowers are milkweeds. Monarch butterflies need milkweeds to lay their eggs and, as caterpillars, they eat the leaves. I am happy to see this plant and will make sure their seeds "drift" to other garden areas! 

Book Review

Last week I finished reading This House is Mine by Dörte Hansen, a debut writer. The book is translated from German by Anne Stokes.  The German title is Altes Land.

The story's primary timeline follows an East Prussian refugee, Vera von Kamcke, whose mother flees with her at the end of World War II. Vera is 5-years-old when her mother leaves behind their manor house in the Mazuria Lake region to find refuge in a little farm village in the Hamburg area of Germany.

The modern timeline centers on Vera's niece, Anne, who is also a refugee of sorts, from a trendy neighborhood in Hamburg. She is newly divorced and seeking refuge with her son.

We also meet Vera's neighbors in the farm village and become acquainted with Anne's deprivations and her struggles against her parents' and her own expectations. Vera and Anne become family for one another by a common experience of displacement.

The past and present timelines alternate but the points of view didn't always stay with Vera or Anne. And within a timeline strand, the story was not always chronological. I sometimes had difficulty with that but I am interested in East Prussian history (because of my novel setting and my family genealogy) and so I stayed with the book until the end.

I enjoyed the story and have gone back to reread parts of it. 

Vera's timeline intrigued me the most--her beliefs about the house she lived in, her mother's reaction to being a refugee, and Vera's manner of behaving in response to her circumstances. I appreciated the author's manner of disclosing the backstory of the specific events that happened to the mother and Vera as they fled before Stalin's army. The backstory was drizzled in just enough that I was hooked and wanted to read on to find out more.

The book also speaks to large themes: the effect of war on our ability to process (or not) our emotions, how we adapt (or not) to being marginalized, and the coping mechanisms we develop in order to survive.  And ultimately it is a book about being family in the midst of loss. 

Writing Pomodoro Style

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo using a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato. 

I first read about authors using this time management method to spur writing on the Writers Write blog and more recently on Elizabeth Spann Craig's blog. 

Do I use it to write? Loosely. I don't use a ticking timer. But since the beginning of this year I do have a schedule for writing that I try to stick with. 

On the days when I'm not at the office, I write. 

When I was still creating my story and spilling it all out on paper, I did not use a timer method to measure how I did. I used word count to track how much I produced. But now that I'm adding layers and revising a story in draft form, I use the Pomodoro bursts. 

I'm a morning person. I like to sip my tea in the quiet and read through writer blogs as I wake up. But come 7 am? I write on my story or on this blog. I'll stay on task for roughly 45-minutes at a time and then take anywhere from a 5 to a 15-minute break.  I don't use a kitchen timer. I don't use an app. The small clock on my laptop helps me track my time. I'll keep at this until 1 pm.  

Having worked on my story for several years, I need to feel a sense of accomplishment. Novels are anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 words. That's a lot of words, a lot of writing, and I want to know that I'm producing a story, that there is a forward movement with my story. So I like to measure myself. And yes, I track my measurements on excel spreadsheets! 

How about you? Do you have some writerly tricks of the trade to help you feel that you have moved forward with your story or your article during your day?


Selling Your Books

I had a blast! The Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ (UCC) had their weekend Annual Meeting. (Yup, that name--meeting--needs to change. It does not begin to encompass all that we do. For we also sang, danced, prayed, honored, celebrated, and listened to inspiring national keynote speakers and a local turnaround church preacher.)

For the purpose of this blog--hello author!--I will only talk about one small specific part. I sold six of my books, Disturbing Complacency: Preparing for Christmas.

One of the events of the weekend are the exhibits on Friday and Saturday. Table displays created by seminaries, SERRVUCC books, banners, and buttons, Turkish scarves, church camp items, etc. allow people to browse, talk with a representative, maybe pick up a brochure or sign up on an email list, and grab a bite of candy. 

Change and Conflict in Your Congregation (Even if You Hate Both) by Rev. Dr. Anita L. Bradshaw, Carnal Knowledge of God: Embodied Love and the Movement for Justice by Rev. Dr. Rebecca M.M. Voelkel, and Disturbing Complacency: Preparing for Christmas by Rev. Lisa Bodenheim.

Change and Conflict in Your Congregation (Even if You Hate Both) by Rev. Dr. Anita L. Bradshaw, Carnal Knowledge of God: Embodied Love and the Movement for Justice by Rev. Dr. Rebecca M.M. Voelkel, and Disturbing Complacency: Preparing for Christmas by Rev. Lisa Bodenheim.

This year for the first time, we had a local authors (and musician) table. What an excellent idea. Four of us of us were present but only two of us available to sit on this table with books from six authors and one musician.

Of course I didn't think of this idea. Pfft! I'm an introvert. Sit at a table with people milling around and try to talk about and ask for money for my book? But Rebecca, whose book just came out this year, is very much an extrovert and comfortable reaching out to other people in diverse milieus. 

It's that piece that made the table such a success for both of us and the other authors/musician. I have been a small church pastor, local and fairly centralized in this area (except for the two years I lived in Scotland). Rebecca is a theologian, pastor, and movement-builder. She has worked within the UCC national settin, leads workshops, and is Director of the Center of Sustainable Justice.  We knew different people. We hang out with different people. We attract different people. Lots of people stopped to visit with us.

And the best part of it was, when there wasn't anybody browsing at our table, we had each other or someone at the next table to talk with. There's a stimulating energy in the air when conversation happens and that draws people.