Every Memorial Day, I think of my dad, a veteran. I don’t have a photo of him in his army uniform. I wish I did. This is my only picture of the two of us. Yep, I’m holding a book. Years ago, I wrote this poem after he visited my dreams. Hope you like it.
Chasing the Sandman
In Memory of James B. Elliott (1936-1979)
Even here, caught on the hem of my dream, I know you. A bald head cleanly shaven, a long face lined from laughter, and a pack of Raleighs claim your shirt pocket. You have my eyes. I borrowed your lopsided smile.
For a while, you raced me barefooted from the corner of the garage to the clothesline pole, greased the runners of my hand-me-down sled, and scavenged for night crawlers by the glimmer of the flashlight’s beam.
Your skill for casting a line and corralling lightening bugs in Welch’s jelly jars became my own. We skipped flat-sided rocks across Beaver Creek and shot pop cans off the bridge with your four-ten shotgun.
With my hand on my heart, I watched you march down Main Street at the Memorial Day parade. With my heart in my hand, rifles split the stillness of the brisk March air at the Pleasant Hill Cemetery north of town.
Visit me more often in the dark part of the night. It’s when I see you most clearly. Remember to tell me good-bye. I’m ready to listen.
This poem, printed on a crisp and faded square of paper, has lived inside the pages of my grandpa’s war journal for a hundred years. Was the keepsake a gift from Hattie, his sweetheart, or something he clipped from a book himself? Either way, he must have connected with the beautiful words and why not? For 16 months during WW I, his only means of communication with his loved ones was through letters, his lifeline.
Dreams do come true, even those you bury deep in your heart for years. I’m happy and humbled to announce I accepted a contract with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas through their Smitten imprint for Three Little Things. The inspiration for my novel is a stack of treasured WW I love letters exchanged by my grandparents. I’ll keep you posted on my journey to publication and hope all your dreams come true too. Thanks, everyone, for your friendship and support. In case anyone is wondering about the photo, particularly Blake, there wasn’t a holdup in the kitchen. I’m waving my hands in excitement to sign the contract.
Sometimes, on a good day, an extraordinary surprise drops into your lap or, in my case, sits in the chair beside you at the airport. My holy-smokes moment arrived this morning, courtesy of Debbie Macomber, the keynote speaker at the American Christian Fiction Writers Conference. For a good five or six minutes, I respected the author’s space. All the while, potential conversation starters circled my brain like a merry-go-round.
Eventually, I told myself it was now or never and freed my inner fangirl. Was Ms. Macomber kind? Absolutely. Was she funny? I laughed out loud. Our conversation hopped from knitting (her hobby, my nightmare) to professional football (she’s team Seahawks and I chant Go Pack Go). When she asked about my manuscript, I gulped, squeezed out my pitch, and explained how my grandparents’ love letters had inspired my story. With a knitting needle still clenched in her hand, she placed her fist against her chest and said, “That touched my heart.” Her words melted mine.
In Debbie’s keynote address, she emphasized the importance of setting goals, including writing a list of 30 people you hope to meet during your lifetime. Whoa! I’m down to 29.
After an energizing conference, brimming with teachable moments and talented friends, this thirty-minute one-on-one was the sparkly sprinkles topping my gluten-free lemon cupcake. Thank you, God, for sweet surprises, especially at the Nashville airport when the Starbuck’s line is longer than the runway.
Sure, there’s long, solitary hours at the keyboard and shoulder-slumping disappointment when an agent fails to reply to a query. Then there are days when an interviewee cancels at the last minute or fails to reply to my half-dozen emails. And, although hard to admit, little envy arrows ping now and again when a fellow writer receives a three-book contract. But that emotion never lasts long.
On occasion, I spend full days fine-tuning my completed manuscript, one of my best-friends, instead of finishing the first draft of a new novel, a mere acquaintance. Don’t get me wrong, I love Book Two, but we’re still in the getting-to-know-each-other phase, so it’s awkward hanging out some days.
Despite these issues, I believe the writing life is a good life, the best possible life for me. Here’s why:
It pays the bills. Okay, freelancing pays a few bills.
I set my own schedule, at least for the most part.
Writing is a rush. It’s the only activity where seconds morph into minutes, and, before I know it, I’m squinting at the computer screen because dusk interrupted.
It’s a dream come true and a challenge rolled together like a homemade cinnamon roll. It’s a laborious process, but the end result, if I follow all the proper steps, is sweet and delicious.
God gave me this opportunity, and I refuse to squander it.
According to my favorite Christmas Movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey doesn’t readily recognize he’s living the dream – a great spouse, wonderful children, a community that loves and respects him. It takes Clarence’s nudging before the realization dawns on the banker.
Without question, life didn’t unfold as George expected, but whose does? Not mine or probably yours. Still, it’s a wonderful life.
About the time I returned to college to study creative writing, my aunt tidied up her attic. One treasure she unearthed – a box of letters my maternal grandparents exchanged during WW I. Jackpot! I needed a class project, and a pile of beautiful letters had fallen into my lap. Why not build a book loosely based on a slice of my grandparents’ lives?
But there was a problem, a giant one. I wasn’t equipped to write about WW I, anti-German American sentiments, the Spanish flu pandemic, and the importance of epistolary writing during war times? Lucky for me, I love research. I dug in, devouring dozens of books on these topics and others. Eudora Welty, Nancy Willard, Tim O’Brien, Grace Paley, John Gardner, and Stephen King’s words and advice influenced and improved my writing.
E.B. White’s words in Letters of E.B. White particularly resonated. He writes,”If you are at the moment struggling with a book, what you should ask yourself is, Do I really care about this particular set of characters, this thing I am doing? If you do, then nothing should deter you. If you are doubtful about it, then I’d turn to something else. I knew, in the case of Charlotte, that I cared deeply about the whole bunch of them.”
That’s how I felt while writing Skipping Stones. It was joyful, an opportunity to reconnect with my grandfather and meet my grandmother who had passed a couple months before my birth. I, too, care deeply for my characters. Over time, Arno and Hattie morphed into more than my grandparents, they became my hero and heroine.
When I finally hit babysitting age, I had big dreams for the wads of cash I’d soon stuff into my faded jean pockets. Topping my list – my very own record albums. I’d had enough of Elton John to last a lifetime (sorry, Elton). Unfortunately, my older sister had not. For months, he sang me to sleep night after night. What kind of name is Levon, anyway?
I was ready to make it big in the babysitting world, but Dad had other plans. He told me his friend needed a babysitter for his bratty (my word, not Dad’s) five-year-old daughter, and he’d suggested me. Okay, I could make that work. KC and the Sunshine Band’s That’s the Way I Like it spun inside my head. But then I heard something else, something even louder. “And you’ll do it for free,” he said. Excuse, me? “It’s the right thing to do,” he added. “They need the help.” About the length of time it takes for Elton to sing Benny and the Jets, I learned that my onetime babysitting for free gig had morphed into a weekly chore. I resented it and my dad.
Dad passed away two months before I graduated from high school. I never thanked him for the valuable lesson on volunteerism and the importance of helping others. Back then, I still hadn’t fully grasped my father’s teachings.
Guess what my daughter did when she reached babysitting age? That’s right. She watched our youth pastor’s children every Sunday night for free. It seemed only fitting.
Since those days, volunteering has played a huge role in my life, shaping me into the person I am today. For 11 years, I worked at a non profit senior center where I oversaw a huge fundraiser every summer. And every summer, my family traveled to Wisconsin to help. They slept on air mattresses scattered across my floor, woke up early, worked hard, and served others. Why did they show up year after year to work for no pay? Because it’s the right thing to do.
My biggest book crush at this very moment? The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Favorite book of all time? Other than the Bible, of course, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I know, everybody picks it, but there’s a reason it’s a classic.
One of my earliest memories? My mom reading to my sister and me from a big fat book called The Story & Verse for Children. There were no pictures, just pages and pages of unforgettable fables, nursery rhymes, and poems. Yes, that book now sits on a favored spot on my bookshelf.
Favorite genre? Historical fiction with a little romance thrown into the mix. Oh, and humor. Never forget the humor.
Favorite place to read? It’s a tossup between “my chair” and a shady beach.
Why did I write Skipping Stones? My mom and aunts showed me a box of letters my maternal ancestors exchanged during WW I. Bingo – a whole pile of inspiration plopped into my lap. Plus, I needed a project for a college class.
Am I a plotter or a pantser? I definitely fly by the seat of my pants when I write, but I’m starting to flirt with Mr. Plot.
Do I write anything besides novels? Yes, thanks for asking. I write a monthly feature article for the Iowa Living magazine and writing and reading passages for educational publishers. Once upon a time, I wrote a middle school novel, dozens of short stories, poetry, grants, essays, and a newspaper column.
When did I start writing? In 11th grade I wrote a short story as a class assignment. My classmates turned in a couple of pages. I wrote 20+ and desperately wanted to continue but didn’t want to look like too big of a nerd. A- work, I think.
When did I really start writing? While living in Pennsylvania, I enrolled in night classes at a satellite campus near my home. When the college cancelled a world civilization class, the only other option was creative writing on Wednesday nights. What did I find on the blackboard on the second night of class? An excerpt from my submission. The night’s lesson – write what you know. I’d written about the airport in Denver, Colorado. Had I ever flown in or out of Denver, Colorado? Duh, no. My instructor, decked out in tweed with elbow patches on his jacketed elbows, ripped my work apart. Did I die? A little. The temptation to walk away from the room and never look back tempted me like a hot, cheesy slice of pizza. But I stayed, which made all the difference in the world when it comes to my writing. That instructor became my biggest cheerleader and mentor. Ever since, I’ve written in one form or fashion for payment or pleasure.