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Humiliating Your Heroes

March 19, 2015

In a slightly different twist to Throwback Thusday, I’m going to start featuring some posts from the past on Thursdays – probably not every Thursday, but every now and then, say once a month. Here’s one I wrote back in June 2010, right after I finished reading Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. In this book, one of the characters, a writer, muses on his craft:Suite Francoise

“In a novel, there is nothing more valuable than teaching the lesson of humility to the heroes.”

I had to stop reading to think about that. For me, it was a different way of looking at what writers do to characters in order to tell their stories. Is the statement true? I felt that it was, but, needing to test it, I thought about some of the fictional heroes (both male and female) who have seemed particularly alive to me and whose stories have stuck with me through the years.

Jane Eyre, a long-time favorite, certainly fits the profile. Bronte begins the story when Jane is a child, an orphan, forced to live with relatives who never let her forget her dependent status. Bessie, one of the servants, tells her: “You ought to be aware, miss, that you are under obligation to Mrs. Reed; she keeps you; if she were to turn you out, you would have to go to the poorhouse.” How humiliating is that! But what a great way to begin a story–we have an appealing character to sympathize with, an underdog to root for. A little later, Bessie tells Jane, ” …you ought not to think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed . . . they will have a great deal of money and you will have none; it’s your place to be humble, and to try to make yourself agreeable to them.” Does Jane take Bessie’s advice? Of course not. She fights back–and thus begins a life filled with one humiliation after another until, at the book’s end, she has faced every imaginable adversity–and we, the readers, feel an almost personal pride in the woman the child has become.

In Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck tells the story of the Joad family, forced out of their home in STEINBECK, JohnOklahoma by the economic desperation of the dust-bowl years. I can’t think of a character who faces more humiliation than Tom Joad–or a hero I admire more.

Who can forget Tom Sawyer, forced to paint the fence on a Saturday morning while his fancy-free schoolmates stop by to gloat? We all know how Tom turned that humiliation into a boy’s dream of riches.

Think of Toni Morrison. Her novels are filled with characters who face humiliation with heroic dignity. We cry with them. We root for them. We remember them.

The list could go on. I’m sure everyone has a personal favorite they could add. So the statement must be true, but I have to wonder why. Do we enjoy seeing other people humiliated? I refuse to believe that. Maybe it’s because, while we all dream about the guy on the white horse, the hero we hold in our hearts is the one with whom we can identify. That makes more sense to me. And it makes a much better story.

A note: In case anyone wonders, I heartily recommend Suite Francaise. The book is set in France during World War II and is populated with complex, vulnerable characters. They’re not all likable, but they are totally believable–and memorable.

So … that’s what I said almost five years ago. I love looking back and thinking about books I’ve read. For me, it’s another one of the many joys of reading.

Happy reading, everyone.


March 13, 2015

I’ve let this blog lie fallow too long. It’s time to start cultivating it again. It is, after all, almost Ellis Vidlerspring.

My good friend, Ellis Vidler, very kindly agreed to help me get things started by sharing her ideas on a topic writers find endlessly fascinating, but often elusive.

 Inspiration comes from many places, often when you least expect it—a face in a crowd, a news article, an issue, sometimes a vivid scene. Looking through Flickr one evening, I stumbled across a photograph, not related to anything in particular, and the idea for VIDLER-Prime TargetPrime Target was born.

It suggests a refuge, a place of peace to me. I dreamed about it, thought what had to happen, what kind of people would live there. And most important to me, why they would live there.

Not far from my home is a large apple-growing area around Hendersonville, North Carolina, so I set my novel there. It made research convenient, and it’s a beautiful area, so it was fun to visit. I met some gracious apple farmers who shared some of their experiences and took time to answer my questions. We did eat a lot of apples that autumn, and I sampled many varieties I wasn’t familiar with. The apple farms always offer a slice if you want to try something different. Aside from just eating apples, we made apple pie, apple cake, apple butter, fried apples. My favorites are Mutsus and the tangy Pink Ladies, which we’re eating now.

For a novel though, I need more. I wanted a character with a contrasting life style, so Madeleine Schier, a sophisticated New Yorker, was born. A smart, knowledgeable advertising executive, she has a comfortable life with her accountant husband, no worries. Then one afternoon, her husband, in a panic, calls her to come home. She rushes to their West End condo with no idea what’s wrong, only to witness his murder. Now she’s the killer’s target. When the police are unable to protect her, she believes her only choice is to disappear.

Then came the second picture, but it wasn’t an accident. During a search for victims of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), I found a photograph of an actor made up to have shrapnel damage. He was portraying one of the crew in the movie Master and Commander. My character is badly damaged, both physically and mentally, but the tied-back black hair and general look suggested Charlie Dance, the other main character, someone quite different from Madeleine but still compatible. Even though they’d be unlikely to ever meet during normal times, the events directing their current lives put them on a collision course, which is what makes the story.

The deer with apples picture is by a photographer who uses the pseudonym Jan Tik; so many people VIDLER-Deer-72-4x6wanted to use it, he graciously put it in the public domain. is a site where people upload all kinds of photos, amateur and professional. It’s an excellent source of information and inspiration. But be warned—most are copyrighted and you can’t just snag them to use publicly. I’ve written to several photographers for permission to use a particular picture. Some people say yes, others don’t.

Thank you, Ellis. I appreciate your taking time to share your ideas about writing. As always, I’m encouraged – even inspired – to hear from a fellow writer.

Readers, if you’d like to know more about Ellis and her books, here’s a link to her website: 

Here’s a link to Prime

Quick Reads for Busy Times

December 15, 2014

Most of the time I reach for big, thick books, the ones with lots of pages, complicated plots, lots of twists and turns, where I can lose myself and forget the rest of the world for hours. But there are times (like the present holiday season) when that just doesn’t work. I can’t afford to forget the rest of the world for hours. I’m lucky to squeeze in a few minutes of reading time. That’s when I appreciate writers who have mastered the art (and, believe me, it is an art) of the short and sweet. Short stories and novellas are perfect for busy times. If, like me, you need a short fix to get you through the season, here are a few suggestions:

DEATH KNELL V Death Knell V is a collection of short stories by members of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Sisters in Crime. There’s quite a variety here:  psychological suspense, historical mystery, paranormal, humor, horror. Longtime favorite novelists, like Charles Todd and Robin Hathaway, as well as those just beginning to make their mark–J.D. Shaw, Augustus Cileone, and Kathleen Heady, among others–but also, many fresh new voices, in print for the first time. The settings take you to three continents. Something to please every reader.

Leigh Verrill-Rhys has written a collection of short stories titled Nights Before. Each story stands alone, but all feature the same characters and, read together, they form a novel. The first one in the series is Twas the Night Before New Year - New Year’s Eve is a time for reflection and change. Jocelyn has more changes coming at her from all directions on this Portland, Maine winter day than she’s faced since her mother’s death. None of it bodes well for the junior editor’s fledgling career when her fiancé abandons her to spend this holiday alone.


Here’s a novella for mystery lovers by Jayne Ormerod: Behind the Blue Door - Can you have a future if you can’t remember the past?  When Skye Crenshaw Whitmore is shown a picture of a house with a blue door, she recalls living there as a young girl. At first the memories are of the warm and fuzzy variety; little moments spent gardening or reading with her mother. Upon learning that the house on Periwinkle Lane is where her mother died, darker memories bubble to the surface but fail to assemble into a complete picture. With more questions than answers, she sets off to find out what exactly happened in that house thirty years ago.

Another novella, this one’s a Christmas romance (especially for those of you who are not dreaming of a white Christmas): Hot Hawaiian Christmas by Victoria M. Johnson  – It’s Christmas in Hawaii, but Lindsay Clark’s Hawaiian-Christmasvacation turns out to be anything but relaxing. With her uncle absent, she finds herself managing the hotel—a task at which she’s normally very successful. However, Lindsay’s life is turned upside down by the unfamiliar environment, Christmas festivities, and a very tempting guest—Chandler Lewis. He’s the honorary Santa for the Kona Christmas parade and has a great life back home in California. Romance is the last thing on his mind. But when he meets Lindsay, he begins to wonder if life could be sweeter in Hawaii.

One more suggestion, if you’ll forgive a bit of BSP – EFairy Light-with fairyvery now and then, I take a  break from murder and mayhem and write a  short story or two.  Beyond the Fairy Light is a trio of short shorts, one of which, All is Calm, is a holiday story. You’ll notice that I said holiday – without mentioning a specific holiday – for this is a story about a family with mixed, sometimes conflicting, traditions.

Hope all of you have a wonderful holiday, whatever holiday you celebrate – and if you don’t have a special day to celebrate – hope you’re healthy and happy.

After Thanksgiving

November 30, 2014

tree & mantelWell, here in the US, Thanksgiving is a memory and we’re rushing toward Christmas. It’s that time of year when we try too hard to cram too much into too little time. While I love the parties and sharing good wishes with friends and family, I can’t help but wish we could all slow down and savor each experience instead of dashing off to the next one. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to whittle down our “to do” list.

One item on my list is addressing Christmas cards. This should be pure joy. It is, after all, wishing peace and happiness to the people about whom I care the most. For some of them, it is the only contact I have from year to year. They are former neighbors, distant relatives, old friends – people who at one time I probably saw on an almost daily basis, but our lives have taken different paths and the relationships have faded. That doesn’t lessen their importance. I firmly believe we’re all a composite of the people and ideas we’ve been exposed to over the course of our lives. A note in a card at holiday time is a small way of keeping the connection alive – definitely not an item to take off the list.Isolated giftboxes

Then there’s shopping. I’m not a “shop ’til you drop” person, but there’s no way to eliminate at least a trip or two to the shops this time of year. I know, checks are an option and are appreciated, but I still like to have a little something extra for my favorite people to unwrap. (I admit this is probably more for my pleasure than theirs.)

chocolate chip cookiesCooking – I’m not a great cook, but I do love to bake and cookies are one thing I’m not about to give up.

Decorating – Who can resist decking the halls! Besides, green is my favorite color.

Housecleaning – (the less said about this the better.) Still, even I want my house to sparkle to show off those decked halls.

Parties – Another item I’m not prepared to scratch off the list.

So, as much as I say I want the world to slow down and savor the season, I have to face the fact that there’s no mysterious “they” to blame; I’m the one who makes my life so busy. The solution? Take a deep breath. Relax. Enjoy the bustle. Try to remember why I’m doing each of these things, how blessed I am to have people in my life to do them for and how lucky that my resources allow it.

How about you? What are your holidays like? How do you manage to keep the stress down?

Where Did the Idea Come From?

November 3, 2014

If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve been asked that question. If you’re not a writer, but have friends who are, you’ve probably asked it and have been given a different answer each time. Here’s what my friend, Karen McCullough, has to say:

Karen_McCullough_2013It’s the question authors get asked most often by non-writers: Where do you get your ideas? Most authors have some sort of flip answer: an idea store in Schenectady or the idea tree behind my house. Why don’t we just say something like, I read this story in the newspaper and it inspired me to write this book? Mostly because that’s not what happens.

The basic problem is that it’s the wrong question. Ideas are easy. They’re all over the place. I have more ideas in my head now than I’ll ever be able to write. But it takes multiple ideas to create a novel and they have to fit together in ways that are both comfortable and uncomfortable. Ideas don’t make a novel. Conflict does. Plot does. Characters do. It takes work to meld a group of ideas about conflict and character and events into a cohesive plot.

The Detective’s Dilemma started for me with the first scene of the book, when intruders in her home brutally force Sarah Martin to Detectives_Dilemma_200shoot her much older lover. I can’t remember exactly when that scene popped into my head, but it came to me as a vivid vision. From there I had to build a story, and I knew that I wanted it to be about more than just the police investigating the murder and figuring out who was really behind it. Of course, that is the spine of the story. But there’s a lot more going on.

I thought a lot about Sarah Anne Martin. Why was she living with a much older lover? Who is she? What kind of life does this young woman have and what does she want? I had to make her a person with a personality, with desires and aspirations, and with problems that would get far worse before they got better. She proved to be someone trying to rebuild a life that had been shattered more than once and struggling to create a place for herself in the world.

When the police detectives showed up, Jay Christianson walked on the scene. He has issues as well. He started with a prejudice against Sarah because he’d already been burned once when he got involved with a woman in distress. He doesn’t want to believe in Sarah’s innocence initially and he most definitely doesn’t want to fall for a young woman who is the prime witness and possibly the prime suspect in a murder case.

To add another complication, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Sarah has something the killers want. Unfortunately, she has no idea what it is or where it is, but they get increasingly desperate to get it from her or make sure she’ll never get a chance to find it.

It took a great deal of mental work to bring all those threads of character, events, conflicts and plot into a 65,000-word novel.

 The Detective’s Dilemma is a short romantic suspense novel published in paperback and ebook by Kensington’s Lyrical Press imprint. If you would like to learn more about Karen McCullough and The Detective’s Dilemma, there’s a short bio of Karen and a brief excerpt from the book on the Guest Excerpt page of my website: 


Golden Hours

September 8, 2014

220px-James_Matthew_Barrie00“You must have been warned against letting the golden hours slip by. Yes, but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.”
 -James M. Barrie 

Being by nature a daydreamer, I savor quotes like that. They give me permission to do what I’m prone to do anyway: let time just slip by. That usually makes me feel guilty so I was glad when I came across the quote by Barrie. The man who created Peter Pan and granted him the pleasure of perpetual childhood surely knew the value of time. I’m sure there were some who thought dreaming up fantasy adventures was a silly way for a grown man to spend his time – until he succeeded. Success has a way of validating silliness.

People who are good at math are fond of telling us how many seconds/minutes/hours we are given every day. It’s a formidable number. Granted a large portion of that time is spoken for. We all have things we have to do: a paying job, children or elders to care for, meals to prepare, a house to maintain, commitments to worthy organizations … the list goes on … and let’s not forget sleep. Still, if we’re honest, most of us can do all these things and have at least some time to call our own.

If we choose to spend every second engaged in a productive endeavor, imagine what we can accomplish. On the other hand, what if we put the “to do” list aside, slowed down, sipped lemonade, read a frivolous book, or lay on a quilt in the back yard Hourglass front viewand watched fireflies while the time slipped by? What would happen? I’m pretty sure the world wouldn’t end. In fact, maybe the idea for an ingenious invention would germinate and grow from those idle moments. Maybe we’d be inspired to create a soulful poem or a great painting. Maybe we’d write a blockbuster novel and make literary history. Or maybe not. Maybe we wouldn’t accomplish anything tangible. Maybe we’d just be … nicer (not an insignificant accomplishment).

So, do yourself a favor. Slow down. Daydream. Let the time slip by and don’t feel guilty about it. Remember … you have the opportunity to create a golden hour.

Summer Afternoons

August 30, 2014


“Summer afternoon – summer afternoon: to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” Henry James

I came across this quote recently and am ready to change my opinion about Henry James. Not that I don’t already admire him for the characters he created, but I never thought of him as a summer afternoon kind of guy. Fairly or not, I think of him as a character in one of his novels – living a life bound by rules and tradition (though his writing certainly shows that he understood and sympathized with rule-breakers).

Look at him. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to imagine anyone setting out to enjoy a summer afternoon looking like that. Though I guess that’s due mostly due to the changes that have occurred in dress codes since Mr. James’s day.  I suppose if he were alive today, he’d don flipflops, shorts and a tee shirt. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Why these thoughts now? It’s Labor Day Weekend, the official end of summer, a summer that seems to have flown by. We’ve had more than our share of perfect days – warm, but not hot; low humidity – the kind of days you wish would last forever. At least that’s the case here in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania. I know many parts of the country have had devastating weather events during the past few months. I hope the end of summer brings an end to the chaos for them – that it gives them perfect conditions to start rebuilding.

I view this weekend with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m sad to see the season of lazy days end; on the other, I’m excited by the prospect of change that a new season brings. To me, September has always seemed like the beginning of a new year, much more so than January. I think that’s because it marks the beginning of a new school year and, as such, a chance to start anew. Back in my school days, I began each new year with resolutions for a perfect year – perfect attendance, perfect grades, a perfect me. I was eager to see who my teacher would be, to meet any new kids who’d moved to the area since the old school year. That’s changed, of course, but not too much. In September, I resume activities that I’ve taken a hiatus from for the summer, and I look forward to that in much the same way I once looked forward to the new school year. In other words, I’m eager to discover what the new season will bring.

So, to all of the readers of Birth of a Novel, I wish a happy Labor Day Weekend, one filled with … whatever you want it to be. And, once this weekend is over, I wish to you, a new season filled with many discoveries – happy ones, of course.



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