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Origins of a Story

It was only after readers of Flower Girl kept urging me to know more about what made the story's antagonist Jonathan Herbert Spencer III tick that I began writing the novel's sequel, Flawless Witness.

I approached the story with curiosity and trepidation—mostly the latter, unsure whether I wanted to travel down the dark hole of Jonathan's mind. Digging into the motivations and specific behaviors associated with egocentrism, emotional abuse, betrayal, and exploitation often associated with narcissism would not be uplifting, to say the least!


But my inner voice said the story was worthwhile, and I persevered, though, after each day of writing, even a hot shower couldn't entirely remove the remnants of Jonathan's thoughts, language, or behavior. With the encouragement and input from my critique group of fellow women's fiction authors (Nicole, Frani, and Jessica), I completed the first draft and, with still some apprehension, handed it to my beta readers.


The critique of the first manuscript draft by the beta readers and the developmental edit critique by Diane Donovan—. . . that the exploration of the predator's mindset and his prey's actions and reactions deserves to be not just on bookshelves but an intrinsic part of any discussion groups centered on healing, recovery, and insights about predatory behaviors—convinced me that the benefits of Flawless Witness to readers outweighed any personal downsides I had in writing the story.


To present Jonathan's dimensions not visible in Flower Girl, I chose to include his point of view in Flawless Witness as equal to and juxtaposed to Suzanna's. I wanted to show the characters' interiority through their words rather than a narrator's. Flashbacks and journal entries were techniques used to serve this purpose and to resurrect the time when the characters' story began and ended.


Warning: Jonathan's diary contains what my mother would call salty language and indecent behavior, but likely not as offensive for today's audience. The front matter of the novella has a trigger statement: This story contains elements of sensitive material often associated with narcissistic behaviors such as egocentrism, emotional abuse, betrayal, and exploitation.


I hope, in the end, the work provides a realistic portrayal of an emotional predator's mindset and does justice for those like Suzanna who have borne witness.

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Start A New Tradition

Most of my newsletter readers know I'm a fan of old letters, diaries, and journals. These source materials are invaluable to me as I create relatable characters who face challenges, live through sorrow and betrayal, struggle with doubt, and act on their aspirations to achieve flourishing lives.


My godmother's diaries are an inspiration—seventy years of journal writing every day! Her diaries (and others) give me insight into long-forgotten challenges—like the entry: Wed. Feb. 20, 1924: Smallpox broke out at the Gordon Deneau farm . . .  Who would have thought the Roaring Twenties included smallpox outbreaks? Or the entry about a cousin whose five-month-old baby died the day before; six weeks later, another entry documents that the cousin's husband had passed away too!


But more than these sorrowful entries, I marvel at the celebration of life, positive emotions, and strong relationships—family spending time together at picnics, festivals, dinners, and more.


I admire my godmother, who wrote in her diary every day for seventy years. I envy her for being able to look back through her entries at Christmas (or any other date), relive happy memories, and celebrate relationships.


This year, when I looked at many of her entries at Christmas, a light bulb went off! 


Everyone may not be as disciplined as my godmother, writing every day, but think about the gift of memories people could give themselves if they picked one holiday, birthday, or other significant date and journaled once a year on that date. What a gift of memories and a keepsake to hand down for generations that follow!


How about it? Are you up for the challenge of creating that new tradition? I hope so.


Cheers, and happy journaling!

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What’s in Progress: Flawless Witness Cover Reveal and First Reviews


Cover Design by Ruth Miller is completed and is in keeping with the Flower Girl "brand." You are the first to see the REVEAL and imagine how Suzanna meets the challenge of being a Flawless Witness.


Prepublication Reviews of Flawless Witness are coming in!


Here's what Midwest Book Review Senior Reviewer Diane Donovans says:


Readers interested in the long-term prospect of surviving spousal abuse, dangerous personalities, and those who present one picture to the community while keeping their darkness well hidden will find much that resonates in A Flawless Witness . . . this intimate glimpse into the mindset of a predator is compelling, absorbing, and frightening. Long after its reading, it lingers in the mind.


Flawless Witness: A tell-all journal hidden for over three decades confirms Suzanna Jordan's beliefs about her former husband's predatory nature. But the pages of his diary divulge darker motivations and more perverse secrets that challenge Suzanna to bear witness to his snare of lies, deceit, and exploitation and to seek justice for herself.



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Yes, Virginia, Fiction Writers Do Have to Do Research!

The front pages of a novel have a disclaimer stating something to effect:  


All events, dialogue, and characters are the product of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Though the mention of some characters, events, or places is based on the historical record, the work as a whole is a work of fiction.


It's the last line about the "historical record" that forces this author to plow through the Internet, historical documents, period newspapers . . . and more to get things right so that my characters and their locale become real for the reader.


How many sources are needed to support the "historical record" in my novels? Well, it depends, but here are some raw statistics:

  • In Adrienne's Choice (the novel I'm currently working on set in 1899-1900), I've amassed 102 published resources (plus 100 or more unpublished letters and dozens of period newspaper articles) to develop a realistic historical backdrop for my readers—everything from train timetables to academic papers describing the period. Yikes, and I'm only one-third of the way through writing this novel.
  • In Blackhorse Road, though the novel's 1966-1986 period is within my memory and experience, the story still required extensive research. To provide a realistic backdrop, data on small details like the temperature and the phase of the moon on specific dates or the cost of a long-distance phone call in 1966 were tracked down. Research articles and dissertations were explored on heavier topics such as  "Crossing Into the Blue: Cadet Culture and Officer Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy"
  • Flower Girl (time frame 1976-1986) required the "mundane" weather and temperature checks for specific dates, geographic and road and highway verifications--(yes, State Route 256  really existed, and on January 14, 1986, it was -2 degrees in the Alfred, NY area). But the story also required research pm some unpleasant issues relating to domestic and emotional abuse, narcissism, the Vietnam war, and PTSD.

How much time do I spend on research versus writing the story? That's a great question. I sometimes spend hours to days reading through period newspapers, magazines, published and unpublished diaries and letters, and searching through Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and other sources.


Putting a number on it, I estimate that 30-40% of my time is spent researching and getting the historical record as correct as possible for my readers.


I guess there's a good reason why this fiction writer is curious and nosey!


Cheers and happy reading.

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Prologues: Hate Them or Love Them

I liked teasing as a kid and flirting as a teen. And when my friends reciprocated, I liked that too. Back and forth, we'd playfully entice each other to do the unexpected. Thanks to them, I have many memorable moments to keep me company as I rock away through my senior years.


Perhaps this explains why I like to write and read prologues. What's better than a short, high-tension beginning to a novel? Or being teased by an awesome foreshadowing? Or being enticed by the drama to come?


The prologue has a long line of naysayers: readers won't read it; readers don't read it; readers don't like it; readers won't get it. Really? Where is the empirical evidence?


T.R. Robinson publishing takes the doubters to task, showing that 92.7% of readers responding to their survey DO read prologues. How scientific was their questionnaire? Nothing about sample size or response rate, but at least they've asked some readers about their preferences, and some responded.


Then enter the cynics who chastise authors who write prologues, calling them lazy, boring, and unimaginative, and proclaim prologues provide zippo to a story.


When I hear something is impossible, my optimism spirals into high gear. I guess that might be why my works, Blackhorse Road, Flower Girl, and A Flawless Witness have prologues—I like the challenge of putting the naysayers to rest.


Here are a few novels that have teased, awed, and enticed me with their prologues. 

·        True Colors – Kristin Hannah

·        The Next Ship Home – Heather Webb

·        Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate

·        The Home for Unwanted Girls – Joanna Goodman

·        Dragon Fish – Vu Tran

·        The Mystery of Mrs. Christie – Marie Benedict

·        The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead


So much for the naysayers!


P.S. This was the feature article in my October Newsletter, Between the Scenes.  Missed the newsletter and the other great articles?  Subscribe here.

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Like the Chicken and the Egg . . . Which Comes First: Character or Plot?

A few weeks ago, a journalist asked me which comes first . . . the plot or character. Answering, I said, "Character comes first."

For my stories, a plot doesn't exist without the presence of a character. Character makeup drives my stories and steers the story's path. How might the story in Blackhorse Road or Flower Girl have turned on a dime with changes in the character's makeup?


So what's my special elixir?


Before characters are worthy of being featured in my stories, they must pass an exhaustive interrogation of sixty questions!


Here's a sample of three questions Suzanna had to answer before claiming the first-place spot in Flower Girl.


3. General physical description:  Suzanna is the American ideal of wholesome: Five feet five inches tall, 115 pounds, with a Dorothy Hamil look—light brown thick hair cut in a stylish wedge of the 1980s, silky complexion, sparkling eyes, and charming sexiness. In all, she is a package of the right balance between winsomeness and sweetness


35. What is your character afraid of? What keeps him or her up at night? An unrealistic belief that all people can be saved from themselves. Suzanna has to accept that she cannot be everyone's savior. She learns about Prochaska's model of behavioral change and, in the end, realizes that before people can change, they have to want to change.


36. What does your character think is his or her worst quality? Suzanna's inner critic has a constant theme:  Why did you. . .   That theme is translated as a rumination of should-haves and could-haves. Suzanna doesn't recognize this self-defeating quality until she realizes that living in the present is much more potent than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.


Sixty questions! Yes, character interrogation takes a lot of time. In the end, like a good interrogation, the character's "truth" is revealed.

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Cultivate a Flower Buddy

It's no coincidence Flower Girl is . . . well, filled with beaucoup flower references. For centuries, authors have usurped the "language" of flowers (floriography) and used these for symbolism, secret messages, and emotional communication.

Shakespeare's plays are loaded with references to herbs and flowers.


Flowers are scene stealers in poetry, too: daffodils for William Wordsworth, tulips for Sylvia Plath, roses for Dorothy Parker, and one of my favorites, The Soul of the Sunflower by Sara Jewett. Of course, the Victorians mixed and matched their flowers to create various secret messages.


Beyond these charming tidbits is the fascinating role of flowers in promoting our wellbeing. Cultivating a Flower Buddy can enhance mental and emotional health, cites Psychology Today. Among these are stress reduction, better memory retention, reduced depression symptoms, and seven more. To delve more into the weeds, one study suggests purple and blue flowers improve mood and increase comfort, relaxation, and cheerfulness in the workplace.


The bottom line:  Cultivate a Flower Buddy—a buddy who always listens, is "mum" about your secrets, and helps you flourish. 

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Hidden Mysteries in Diaries, Journals, and Other Primary Sources

How does an author give her readers a rich story setting? Author Sabaa Tahir says readers don't want descriptions of food, clothing, and places. They want "to understand the world to its core, through the eyes of those who live in it."


To help me to set the mood, tone, and time in my stories, I read published and unpublished diaries to inform me about the era. These first accounts provide a powerful tapestry, helping me understand the context and challenges in which the characters in my stories live.


In the current novel I'm writing, set in the early 1900s, outbreaks of viral diseases, often resulting in pandemics, were part of the lives of my ancestors. Incorporating the actual mood and tone of the time would not be possible without access to narrative first accounts from diaries, letters, and newspapers.


Below is the 1924 diary of a twelve-year-old relative who lived in a small town in Ontario, Canada, not far from Detroit. The young teenager's voice of clipped entries reveals the devasting impact of an outbreak of smallpox. With no other entries about everyday life, one can only imagine the effect of so many deaths on this young person. 


Wed. Feb. 20, 1924: Smallpox broke out at the Gordon Deneau farm

Fri. Feb. 22, 1924:  Went to school; got vaccinated.

Sat. Feb. 23, 1924:  Daddy got vaccinated. John and Clara Shaw died today.

Sun. Feb. 24, 1924:  Church closed today. Mr. Jack Deneau and Henry Dube died today of smallpox.

Mon. Feb. 25, 1924: Melinda Meloche was buried, died of smallpox.

Tues. Feb. 26, 1924:  Mrs. Ernie Shaw took sick today.

Fri. Feb. 29, 1924:  Daddy and I are both sick from our vaccinations. Bert Deneau and his son died, and also Mrs. Henry Meloche.

Sun. Mar. 2, 1924: Mrs. John Shaw and Mrs. Cox died today. Mrs. Anna McLean died today.

Tues, Mar. 4, 1924: Gus and Joe Deneau died today and also Mrs. Fields.

Thurs. Mar. 6, 1924: Ralph Shaw died today. Mrs. Dougal's baby died today. Went out for first time since vaccination.

Sun. Mar. 9, 1924: Chloe Deneau died. Went to church. Long list of deaths read at church.

Tues. Mar. 11, 1924: Mrs. Ernie Shaw died at 5:00 AM and was buried at 11:15 AM.


Who would have thought that the Roaring Twenties included such smallpox outbreaks?

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Flower Girl A Novel . . . Writing the Uncomfortable Truth about Self-Awareness and Change

Midwest Book Review, Senior Reviewer Diane Donovan says, "Collections strong in women's literature and fiction surrounding domestic violence and recovery processes will find Flower Girl an evocative, compelling read that chooses no easy paths to resolution. Suzanna's changing choices and perceptions are outstanding examinations of the darkness that pervades her world and provide important keys to recovery that women will want to learn about."


Writing a novel of women's fiction is devoted to portraying and examining a woman's journey to a fulfilled self. Life is a highway with ups and downs . . . it isn't all straight, flat, or comprised of gentle grades. Instead, it is complicated by gnarly twists and turns, impeding the protagonist's self-discovery and ability to live and give voice to her values. Life can be beautiful, thrilling, and amazing . . . but it can also be messy, chaotic, confusing, and even dirty and ugly.


The stories I write show how the protagonist progresses in self-discovery and faces life's obstacles. Such self-awareness can be exhilarating and freeing. But it can also be unsettling when it demands accountability and commitment to change.

Writing Flower Girl was fulfilling . . . but to achieve that self-satisfaction and be true to my mission, I had to come to grips with writing about situations that are difficult and uncomfortable—narcissism, denial, emotional abuse, and sexual assault, among them.


To show the protagonist's mettle required to plunge her into self-discovery amidst tricky and sometimes terrifying circumstances and then hold her accountable in overcoming these. Self-awareness, accountability, and commitment to change, though difficult, had to be the foundation for the protagonist to achieve a flourishing life.

In Flower Girl, I show readers a journey of self-discovery and accountability, which I hope might challenge them, like Suzanna Jordan, to live their truth. Though sometimes bumpy and slippery, the road to achieving a life filled with engagement, satisfaction, positive relationships, meaning, and achievement is worth the trip.

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What I'm Reading

If you are intrigued by ghosts, enjoyed The Ghost Whisperer TV series, or just like a light mystery, The Ice Cradle by ghost whisper Mary Ann Winkowski is a perfect choice for a winter night read.


When I read a book, I try to look for what's under the surface; I don't think some reviewers on Goodreads looked deep enough with this book! Underneath the supernatural, this is a story about the human experience--peoples' aspirations, sorrows, regrets, love, and relationships with one another.  Digging below the superficial, Winkowski gives the reader a lot to consider about tolerance, forgiveness, and compassion in this story.


I've had a few edgy paranormal-like experiences and took the opportunity to include some of these as background material in Flower Girl—from Suzanna's Boston terrier's unexplained encounters with apparitions to pacing footsteps marking a beat in the loft of Suzanna's home, The Honey Bear.


I challenge my readers to look under the superficial and see how these experiences might be placeholders for something deeper.

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