Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Last post of 2014!

As I actively work on the research and writing involved in the sequel to Risking Exposure, I'm also trying to keep up this blog, my website, marketing, presentations - oh, and a job and family and a house and LIFE!
So please excuse me if I've been off-schedule on posting here.

Today, I took some time to add a slide show to my website. It features photos Katie and I shot during the research trip to Munich. Each slide is captioned with either bits of history or personal thoughts. So check it out!

Hopefully I'll get back to Germany again. I'd like to check out specifics on the locations I'm using in the sequel, in person. Then I can share more pictures with all of you!

Best wishes for 2015. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Louis Zamperini and Laura Hillenbrand - two unbelievable true stories

No doubt you've heard of Unbroken, the true story of an amazing man named Louis Zamperini. Based on the novel by Laura Hillenbrand, it was turned into a screenplay by the Coen brothers. Angelina Jolie directed and produced the film version, due for release this week.

It's safe to say that your average American never heard of Louis Zamperini before Laura Hillenbrand's novel, and now the History Channel has shared a list of eight things you may not know about him.
Nearly as incredible as Louis' never-say-die spirit is Laura's own, as seen in this interview for the Today Show.  Because of her own severe chronic fatigue syndrome and the limitations in activity it brings, she reports living vicariously through the vitality of her characters.

Which do you find more inspiring - Louis' will to stay alive despite enormous odds which accumulated one atop another, or Laura's will to get out of bed each day and use what little strength she had to chip at the huge undertaking of researching, organizing, and writing another bestseller?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Indies and staff picks

A few weeks back, Michael and I visited Lititz, PA. While there, we did what we usually do in a new town - find a great Indie bookstore and browse. Lititz has Aaron's, which boasts an interesting mix of genres for a variety of literary tastes and age groups.
I'm not one for formulaic novels, you know the disease-that-attacks-and-threatens-happiness, the obvious love triangle, that sort of thing. So over many years of indie bookstore trips, I've learned to look for the titles marked "Staff Pick." I've typically found those books and novels to be original and somewhat out-of-the-mainstream, aka, exactly what I like.
That's how I found Ocean for my granddaughter. It's a Photicular book showing fish and other sea creatures which actually move as the pages turn. Didn't see it in my local BAM, that's for sure. And for my own reading, the Staff Picks signs pointed out We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. It's one of those stories which twists on itself, Gone Girl style. I wouldn't have picked it up based on the title or the cover art. But I certainly picked it up and read the jacket blurb based on the Staff Pick recommendation.
Finding that little sign is like a book recommendation from a friend, one who deals in stories and books day in and day out. They know what they're talking about. Over the years, their recommendations have seldom failed me.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The more I read...

...the more I realize just how much I don't know.
This morning, I finished "The Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II" by Denise Kiernan. This fascinating book focuses on the real-life activities of nine women who worked at the Clinton Engineer Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the 1940s. The women were employed because of their particular skills - secretaries, a statistician-mathematician, a janitor, a chemist, a pipe inspector, two machine operators, and a nurse. Later revealed to be one of the main manufacturing sites for the Manhattan Project, none of the employees at the time knew exactly what the plant made - they just knew that it was part of the war effort. None of them saw the whole operation, and each employee signed a pledge of secrecy (and were reminded repeatedly) regarding how vital their silence was regarding the small bits of information they did know. Folks who talked about their job to other employees or to townsfolk were immediately dismissed. Somehow, the secret held. Amazing.

Even more incredible to me was the way these women were recruited.They were approached individually, usually by a boss, an acquaintance, or a military official, and asked if they would like to be part of a special project to help the war effort. Their new job would require that they leave their current work and home setting. They would board a train and travel to an undisclosed location, live in an unnamed town for an uncertain amount of time, perform tasks that must remain secret, and never speak to anyone about what they did all day long, not even their own family or spouse. The work would be steady and the pay terrific. Everything would be arranged for them. All they had to do was say yes.

And they did. Eventually, tens of thousands of women with an adventurous spirit and a desire to work for a quick end to the war leaped into these jobs. Makes me wonder how many of us today would leave the comforts of home for such a big unknown.

I never heard of Oak Ridge Tennessee or the contribution of these women until I read this book. Thank you to Denise Kiernan for shedding light on these women's personal experiences and on those of the dozens of other women mentioned, but not closely followed, in the book.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What was it like?

I've always been fascinated by tales from another era. When a person speaks about a particular time and place in their personal experience, I'm even more intrigued. I try to picture the setting, the sights and smells and try to envision myself there with the morals and norms of the time and culture, but without the insight given by history at this distance. It's hard to strip away who I am and consider who I might have been during that time.

Among the most amazing resources I found during my research of 1938 Germany are the oral histories documented and shared with the world by those who lived through the time in that place. The United States Memorial Holocaust Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Center in Michigan are two of many who have created these priceless archives, available for free. When we ask ourselves, "What was it like to live there then?" we can turn to these preserved accounts.

I've heard it said that historical fiction is like time travel, but without the hazards. The implication is that as the traveler, you later re-emerge in your own time intact and unchanged.

But our experiences shape us. If we allow ourselves to go back in time with a story and view the experiences of others, real ones in oral histories or fictitious ones in books, we can be shaped by them as well. Their experiences will serve an ultimate good.

And that makes me smile.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Primary sources = connections

Earlier this month, I participated in a 'local author' event at Elk Lake Elementary. It was organized by the PTO and gave 7 or 8 of us authors a chance to connect with potential readers and others who love stories. Folks who attended the event wandered from table to table, browsing and chatting with the authors. For a couple authors, it was their first public event ever! Exciting, right?

Some of the author tables had only their books on display with the smiling author waiting nearby, ready and eager to discuss their work with anyone. Others had trinkets or manipulatives on display in addition to their books - reasons to engage longer at the table. Now I have no stats to back me up, but I suspect that folks who spend more time interacting with an author's materials are more likely to ask questions about their work, read the jacket back, and possibly buy the book.

Those who stopped at my table typically asked permission to pick up my 1930s camera and then engaged in a Q&A with me about it. The generation who grew up with digital photography is amazed at the mechanics of a camera from that era, the bellows, the hinged back, the spool, advance knob, and counter for the film (film??), and the general bulkiness compared to the cameras they're familiar with. Nothing like holding history in your hands to let you know how totally cool it is.

At other author events, I've also brought a 1938 Sears-Roebuck catalog, copies of photos I got during my research at the March of Dimes, the Library of Congress, and the Stadtarchiv in Munich, photos I took of various Munich settings in the book, and reprints of Nazi propaganda about Hitler Youth and the Tag der deutschen Kunst, the procession at the end of the novel.

Primary sources. Those materials draw people in and invite them to linger and chat. That's the best way I know to open a connection with a reader.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

This date in history, 1938 and 1989

A strange pair of historic anniversaries fall on this date, November 9th. Both relate to Germany and to the freedoms we hold dear.

In 1938, the stillness of night on November 9/10 was interrupted across Germany. Working under official Nazi Party orders, SA and Hitler Youth took part in Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, a wave of terror inflicted as a pogrom against Jews in the newly expanded German Reich. During the overnight rampage against Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and individuals, 7500 shops were targeted, their windows broken and goods looted.
Upwards of 267 synagogues were damaged or destroyed, and 91 people were killed. Countless numbers of Jewish citizens were dragged out of their beds and beaten in the street in front of their home. Some historic accounts of these events indicate that Kristallnacht was a reality-check for the Jewish people still living within Germany. They now knew that the Nazis would stop at nothing, not even large-scale murder, to push them out of the country. Lines at emigration offices bulged. Thousands of letters were sent to overseas relatives begging for help. In foreign newspapers, German Jews took out ads describing their skills, hoping against hope that someone in a safer country would hire them so they could obtain a work visa and get out before it was too late.

On a very different note, November 9th also marks the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year, tens of thousand of people flocked the area around Brandenberg Gate, taking part in a fabulous celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Wall was built literally overnight in 1961. It's estimated that 100 people died trying to escape over its 96 mile length during the 28 years it stood as a divide between East and West.

To me, both events serve as reminders of how precious our freedoms are, and how desperate people become when their freedoms are threatened or removed.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Media frenzy, again

Ah, the media loves a sensation - a once rosy political career shot down by lewd behavior, a superstar athlete with steroids in his blood, the diva who is in and out of rehab, the car chase/overturned train/mudslide/worst-winter-in-decades Armageddon story-to-end-all-stories. Viewers tune in. Ratings go up. The execs are happy.
The media spoon feeds the American people sensationalism, and we gobble it up. Office workers spread it at the cafeteria. Soccer moms talk it up while the kids practice. The constant input of bad news and impending disaster weighs us down and pulls our focus away from reality. Away from facts. That's called propaganda.

Here are some facts. There are over 319 million people in the US today. About 1.5 million will have a heart attack or stroke this year and 600,000 will die from heart disease. An average of 20,000 will die from complications of various flus. Over 10,000 will die as a result of drunk driving and another 3000 will die from accidents caused by distracted driving such as texting while driving. Obviously, prevention of these public health threats deserves whatever light the media can shine on them. And the media does a basic job covering those.

Then there are those odd occurrences which seem to capture the media's and the public's imagination.
Like the six or seven people in the US who have been infected with ebola. One has died.

Does ebola need the kind of US media-blitz coverage it is getting? Of course not.
Reminds me of the hype surrounding HIV in the 1980s. Know how many people were infected with HIV just by being near someone with AIDS? None. Thank God for informed adults like the late Princess Diana, shown here shaking hands with an AIDS patient.

Get a grip, America. Stop the frenzy. Turn off the TV/radio/computer/iphone and go for a walk. Live an informed life. Don't let the media propaganda turn you into a quivering mass, unable to see the truth for yourself.

Use your common sense. You'll be fine.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Brainstorm to treasure

In a couple weeks, I'll be one of the speakers at Keystone College's Young Authors Day. My audience will be 50+ students grades 3-12 and their teachers from various schools around northeastern PA. The presentation topic for my 40 minutes of fame? Whatever I choose.
Now don't get me wrong. I like having choices. I'm not a fan of being told what to do, especially in the creative realm. But choosing one topic to engage creative kids with such a wide range of ages is daunting, to say the least.

I asked my daughter Katie, an exceptionally creative and insightful first-grade teacher, to brainstorm with me. What we came up with was the concept that both non-fiction and fiction writers have to do research as part of their creative process. I could focus my presentation on showing the research I'd done for Risking Exposure (and am still doing for the sequel.)

So I sat down this week to work on my Power Point. In it, I likened the process of research to a dig for buried treasure. We use different tools for the various surfaces we encounter, pick axes for rock (secondary research sources), shovels for loose dirt (primary sources.) When we uncover a gem, we hold it in our palm, turn it this way and that, examine it with a magnifying glass to clarify its tiniest details. Only then do we determine its worth, whether we should toss it aside or place it in a silk-lined box for all time.

Hopefully, the kids will be inspired to set off on their own digs and research topics of interest to them.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Choosing a community

Once we both retire, Michael and I want to live closer to our daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids. (They currently live 3 hours south of us.) We'd like to be close enough to help when needed, but not so close that we're a pain in the neck. So with that in mind, we spent a couple days this week exploring some communities in Lancaster County, PA.

We stayed at a little B&B in America's Coolest Small Town, charming Lititz, PA. As we explored it and other nearby towns, we used several features as our 'starting points' to determine whether or not we might want to make the town our future home - the local library, churches, and public parks among them. This approach is based on our own short list. We utilize those services in our lives now and most likely will in the future. We think a community which support a variety of faiths, has a strong interest in public lands, and is home to a well-utilized quality library system is a community in which we want to live and grow.

Which brings to mind an interesting parallel. No community, whether a place to live or a place to develop a love of stories, is right for everyone. But the Writers Group at the Dietrich , where I have been a member for 8 years or so, continues to attract writers of all stripes.
Some folks attend one or two meetings and decide it's not for them, and that's fine. Others come for a short time, contribute and grow, then move away. Some, like me, make the group their writing community. We use it as a place to connect with like-minded people who share the same values. We plant, nurture, encourage, and contribute to our mutual growth.

That's home.

Monday, October 13, 2014

What I thought I knew

An old PBS radio show featuring Paul Harvey was called "The Rest of the Story". In it, he added little known facts and unexpected connections to tales we thought we knew and understood. That show came to mind this week while reading "America's Hidden History" by Kenneth C. Davis, a "Rest of the Story" type book chock full of honest truths about America's roots. Some of those truths are relevant for today, the day in which we Americans celebrate Columbus' landing in this new world.

Remember Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, the ones who bankrolled Columbus' voyage? In my elementary school textbooks, they were portrayed as people who saw the potential in his exploration, no doubt with the possibilities of expanding their own kingdom's reach and power. For a king and queen, good guys.

Or so I thought.

Turns out that they were staunch Roman Catholics and the force behind the horrific Spanish Inquisition. During their reign, Muslims and Jews of Spain were removed from Spain, either by force or by death. Genocide was the fate for all who did not follow Catholicism. Interestingly, Isabella and Ferdinand's daughter, Catherine of Aragon, later became the wife of England's Henry the Eighth. Yikes.

On one of Columbus' later journeys back to America, Queen Isabella suggested he bring pigs on board. The pigs were meant to provide food for the long voyage as well as the beginnings of a conventional European-style farm in the new world. Ends up the pigs brought more than food to these shores. The diseases the pigs harbored, to which the sailors were apparently immune, devastated the nearby Native American population. For the Native Americans, it was clear that these new residents brought nothing but trouble. Not a good tone to set for future relations.

The more I learn, the less I know.
I love that.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Cooking up a good story

I love to cook. Give me a couple hours free on a Saturday, and I'm quite content in my kitchen. I put on some tunes and dance and sing while (I hope) no one is listening. I might try a new recipe or a familiar favorite for dinner, make a pot of soup for my weekday lunches or a loaf of banana bread to share with a friend. In any case, I lose track of time as I chop and saute and mix until my house smells glorious and my appetite is whet.
There's a great deal of pleasure to be had in both the process and the product when I cook - the process is a creative experience for me, multi-sensory and totally enjoyable. And most times, the end product, a scented home and delicious foods made from scratch, is quite satisfying. Even if I do have to do it all over again the next day.

I love to write.Give me a couple hours free on a Sunday, or any day for that matter, and I'm quite content in front of my computer. I sit in the silence of my basement with the company of my own thoughts. After assembling my ingredients, the ideas I've entered in my voice recorder over the last few day, heaps of research materials, my plot notes, and character sketches, I get started. I chop the scene I'm writing apart, verify some historical details, and mix them with the 'what-if' scenarios my recorder and my imagination hand me. I lose track of time and often re-emerge from the depths well after dark, having forgotten to switch out the wash or eat dinner.
The process of writing is a creative experience, one that completely overtakes me. I find myself lost in my fictional world wondering how my protagonist will ever get out of the mess I've made for her. The end product for the day, a few more finished pages, satisfies me. And it leaves me itching to get up the next day and immerse myself again.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Propaganda disguised as curriculum

The Jeffco Public Schools in Golden, Colorado made national headlines this week when students and teachers staged a protest over proposed curriculum changes in AP American History. It seems that a school board member asked for more instructional material presenting "positive aspects" of U.S. heritage, emphasizing perspectives that "promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights." This board member felt that covered material should not "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law." Full text of the proposed changes can be found here Board Committee for Curriculum Review .

The school district's Mission Statement is: To provide a quality education that prepares all children for a successful future. So the question before the school boils down to this - is it a quality education if we emphasize the positives and by default downplay the role of civil disobedience?

Bravo to these students and teachers. We Americans ought to cheer them, and their ultimate right to be able to stage the protest in the first place.I'm a believer in the power of some righteous disobedience. America was founded by rebels and upstarts who wanted to break away from the motherland, and I smile as I write that.
If we take the school board member's proposal for 'positive aspects' to its logical conclusion, the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence, and the American Revolution would have to be cut from the curriculum. So too the Constitution and the Bill of Rights because of their unprecedented and inflammatory statements - all men are created equal and other such novel concepts. Likewise, if all history had to be fed through a 'positive aspects' filter it would be impossible to discuss the Wild West, issues of slavery, voting rights, Civil Rights, or American involvement in any war. 

Colorado is not alone. Texas has voted to limit AP US History to its state-approved curriculum, and not use the national curriculum and exam administered by the New Jersey-based College Board.

The College Board, the overseer of Advanced Placement courses which students can take for college credit, has said revisions are planned to its national AP US History curriculum. In the meantime, they have come out in support of the student protests.

A biased approach to historical facts results in a spoon-feeding of a particular viewpoint. That is propaganda. And propaganda is not acceptable in the America that we ought to be.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What would I do?

Our rural, ordinarily quiet region of Pennsylvania suffered the loss of a state trooper and the injury of a second trooper in an ambush at their barracks. As I write this, the gunman with a grudge against law enforcement is still on the loose, reportedly on foot through the woods and back roads of the Pocono Mountains. With troopers closing in on all sides, I pray this will end soon and with no further harm to anyone.

On Thursday, the day of the trooper's funeral, hundreds of troopers from around the country attended.
To say security was tight is an understatement. So when I heard a low-flying helicopter overhead while I was at work, it barely registered. I assumed it was in connection with the funeral. Then I heard another helicopter. And another. The sound of blades became almost constant for about 20 minutes, and yet we were a full 12 miles away from the site of the mass and the burial. My thoughts switched. I began to wonder if the helicopters were searching the woods near my workplace for this madman.

Now I'm a fairly clear-headed person, not prone to panic or worst-case scenarios so I checked out news sources. The helicopters were indeed part of the funeral and the air search remained focused on an area about 30 miles away from me. But it made me wonder - if I had to live with a threat like that, how would I react? What would I do?

Which brings me to the point. In my safe, ordinary life, my behavior may be rational and predictable. If I were confronted with danger, I'd like to think I'd be moral. But I wonder. Would I freeze or act? Would I stay and fight or run? What if that danger surrounded me for days, for weeks or years? Would I hunker down in survival mode, or would I act to fight the danger which was disrupting my life and that of others?

That's where stories come in. Tales of people who behave honorably in horrific times and places continue to amaze me. Just this week I watched The Scarlet and the Black with Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer. It's the true story of an Irish priest who worked at the Vatican during the Nazi occupation of Rome. He behaved honorably and according to his own morals in the face of Nazi aggression and against the orders of his Pope.

His tale gives me hope that, in the face of such evil, I would behave honorably too. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Suddenly Winter, a September 11th essay

As I set up for my day’s work, shafts of early autumn sun poured through the windows. A perfect fall day in Pennsylvania – clear blue sky, a few puffy clouds, the kind of day that sings in delight at its own excellence. 
I looked at my watch - my first appointment was late. Quite unusual. When the mother wheeled her son in well after 9:00, she was breathless and spewing apologies. “Have you heard?” she asked.
“Heard what?”
“Something horrible has happened. Two planes, two separate planes…” she said, collapsing onto my therapy mat in tears.
In minutes, others poked their heads into the room, adding pieces that created a portrait in horror. I shook my head in disbelief.
Shivering and quaking to the core, I glanced out the window. The clear brilliant blueness of the sky was still there. The sun continued to kiss the earth. A small bird lighted on a sunflower, hungrily pecking at its seedy center. All seemed to be at it had been, as it ought to be. But nothing was the same. The inner peace that comes with security had vaporized.
Even though we were hundreds of miles from the terror, I checked on my family. All were blissfully safe – my husband home on sabbatical, my daughter on Misericordia’s campus, my son at Lackawanna Trail High School. I was unable to get in touch with my sister and her family, 50 miles from the heart of the terror. All I could do was pray they were safe at school and not on field trips to popular sites in New York City. I worried about my parents, who had left New York Harbor just 3 days before on a cruise to Nova Scotia. Would their ship on the open water make an easy target for the next hijacked plane?
A short time later when Washington DC was hit, I said a prayer of thanks that my brother-in-law had been transferred out of his Pentagon job. What of my sister-in-law who worked as a nurse at George Washington University Hospital – would she be called upon to care for some of the injured? Prayers for her, too.
I prayed for my wounded hometown, New York City, for the way its proud, outspoken nature and its intolerance for bullshit had woven itself into my persona. I prayed for childhood friends, the Quinns, who were 3rd generation NY cops. I thought of my old Yorkville neighborhood, of my many visits to the now devastated downtown. And oh, the magnificent view from atop those towers. Just a few years before, my children and I had shared that before with a group of Italian exchange students. 
The irony was inescapable – a city and a nation which embraced generations of people from every corner of the world was left vulnerable by that same openness.
Yes, the day looked the same, but I was wounded and betrayed. The clear autumn beauty had forfeited its promise, sold it for a straight shot into the bitter cold of human nature’s winter.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

76 years ago today...

...the huge annual meeting of the Nazi Party known as the Nuremberg Rally was underway in the beautiful medieval city of Nuremberg, Germany.The scale of the undertaking was unbelievable, similar to modern cities hosting Olympic games - building huge stadiums, figuring out logistics of feeding, housing, and moving tens of thousands of people in a short period of time. I've been researching that week-long Rally for the scene I'm writing. Here's just a few things I've learned -

-first and foremost- the entire event was propaganda designed to awe participants. Its massive scale, its high energy, its show of unity and strength gave people the sense that they were witnesses to something grand and glorious. Brainwashing at its finest.

- upwards of a million people descended on the city for part or all of the Rally

- local hotels and pensions (guesthouses) filled up quickly with Nazi Party officials and SS. Many local citizens offered Rally participants a place to sleep in their homes

- barracks-style housing and a 'tent city' were created adjacent to the Rally grounds for about 200,000 SA and Hitler Youth participants and spectators

-the Rally began with a five-hour long parade through the city

-the Rally grounds occupied an 11 square km area. An existing soccer stadium, community hall, and war memorial were re-purposed by the Nazis. Construction of several new stadiums and parade grounds began almost immediately after the Nazis came into power in 1933 and continued until halted by the war.

-one completed structure known as the Zeppelin field had a grandstand that held 50,000 people. The spectator stands and parade grounds below held another 150,000 people.

-a favorite event at the Zeppelin field was the nighttime torchlight parade. Over 100 searchlights at the stadium's perimeter pointed skyward, creating an effect that American journalist William Shirer called 'a cathedral of light.'

-the Great Street was built to act as a central axis to the grounds.This 60 meter wide, 2000 meter long walkway created a parade route between key sites. Photo ops abounded.

Not hard for me to see how my character, a 14-year-old girl, would be caught up.

Read more about the Nuremberg Rallies.
The Third Rech in Ruins
Nuremberg Museum and Documentation Centre
US Memorial Holocaust Museum

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Politically incorrect for a reason

A disclaimer: Please read this blog all the way to the end. Please don't pull an excerpt out of context and let it go viral. 

From the time our country was founded, it was destined for greatness. We have given birth to great minds in science and medicine, musical geniuses, champions of business, world-class athletes, inventors and innovators. We are a strong people, hard-working and proud of who we are and what we have accomplished. The world is a better, more productive place because of us. 
In this last generation, we have been demoralized. Our economy has tanked. Jobless rates are up. Cost of living has skyrocketed. Our infrastructure of roads and bridges is failing. Twenty years ago, we were a global power. Now we are struggling. And our current government has not addressed these problems to our satisfaction.

Most of us work hard and care for ourselves and our families. We contribute to our community and nation through taxes and volunteer work, knowing full well that we all must do our part and pay our fair share.

Yet some people sit around and do nothing. They are happy to sap our country's resources and collect from the public coffers without contributing to our nation's economic growth. They want what our nation has to offer: good medical care, decent housing, and schooling for their children. They are lazy. They hoard their possessions and won't pay their fair share of taxes as part of the people. They want something for nothing.

They are not like us, our nation of family-loving, self-sufficient people. So are they really part of us? Or are they subversive outsiders, pushing themselves into our country, trying to blend in while they drain our resources? 

Sound familiar? If we are honest with ourselves, most of us either have had thoughts like those, however fleeting, or have overheard someone voicing something similar about illegal immigrants, unaccompanied minors crossing the border in Mexico, folks on public assistance, etc. As rational adults, we know the problems are complex; there are no easy answers.

Because of the research I've done (and continue to do) into Nazi Germany, I can tell you - this is just the type of coercion Adolf Hitler used get into power in the early 1930s. Half-truths, exaggerations, and generalizations were used to get a people to fall in line, like citizens of Hamelin behind the Pied Piper.
Tolerance of this type of outburst created a dictatorship. That dictatorship created laws, which led to pursuit of world dominance and a war which cost tens of millions of lives.

What have we learned? Our lesson ought to be to not blindly follow the masses.

Through sticky situations like unaccompanied minors and long-term use of public assistance, we must proceed with eyes and minds wide open. We need to think for ourselves and propose creative solutions, independent of what the media, our friends, and popular opinion say.
If we've truly learned the lessons of history, we have an obligation to speak against outbursts like the one above. Otherwise we're at the top of a slippery slope, a position we should know to avoid. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Memoir week

Your average adult probably doesn't see their own life interesting enough to capture in a memoir. But on occasion, I've overheard folks say, "If only I wrote down the (crazy, terrible, unexpected, hilarious) things that happened to me, I'd have a best-seller." At that moment at least, their experiences were unusual enough to merit recording and sharing.

Well, the Writers Group at the Dietrich Theater had a special guest this week, Ronald Wendling, a retired academic turned writer from the Philadelphia area. He graciously shared the first 10 pages of his March '15 release Unsuitable Treasure: An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past.  He spoke about his experiences in taking the book from idea to its final form, a journey several decades long. The title says it all - this book tells his unusual tale of joining the Jesuits and then moving away from them and into secular life. Certainly not your everyday experience, uncommon enough to be appropriately captured in a memoir.

I've just begun reading I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. This memoir also tells a remarkable story, this time one of courage as this young girl acted on her personal beliefs and her right to an education. In the prologue, Malala says she has shared her story and continues to speak out because not to do so would mean triumph for the Taliban. So exceptional is her life that she has her memoir finished before she's out of her teens. God willing, this brave, articulate girl has many years ahead of her filled with extraordinary accomplishments suitable for another memoir or two.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tell me a story and a Robin Williams moment

Last week, our granddaughters spent a few days with us. Addie who is 'almost four!' and whose language development is off-the-charts is at that wondrous stage of emerging imagination. One of her favorite requests is, "Tell me a story." Stories she knows about characters she loves are easy for re-telling - Nemo, Cinderella, the Three Little Pigs.

One afternoon, we were blowing bubbles outside and Addie stopped in her tracks. "Tell me a story about a magic bubble." She supplied the characters and in less than a minute, I had the rough sketch of a story in my head - beginning, middle, and end, problem and resolution, setting - all of it. Whoa. I told her my story and then dictated it into my voice recorder for safekeeping.

The following day, the same thing happened, this time with a story about 'a tree that's lost in the woods.' Trying to picture how a tree could get lost, I asked about the tree, could it walk and talk, like Tolkien's Ents. She said, "No, silly. Trees don't walk or talk. They're just trees." Ah, well. But again inside a minute, I had a story about a magic tree whose whereabouts had been lost to the ages.

Then I turned it around on her. "Your turn to tell a story," I said. "Who is it about?" I'm proud to say  she was the hero of her own story and she brought along a companion on her imaginary adventure, either her sister or her buddy Cole who lives down the street. I'd supply a detail or two, maybe the setting (a beach) or a problem (they lost their sand toys) and with a few 'and then what happened?' prompts, she'd take it from there. She is a great storyteller-in-the-making.

Ironic that this happened the week we lost one of our generation's great creative minds. When asked about how he came up with imaginative ideas in his classic rapid-fire style, the late Robin Williams once said it came to him as he watched his four-year-old playing with action figures. The child made different voices and personalities for each figure, creating villain-filled problems with hero-filled solutions. One of our generations greatest actors and comics said all he did was try to channel his inner four-year-old.

I'm thankful to have an imaginative four-year-old in my life too. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The chatty muse

I've had the great gift of some time off work and have spent several hours each day immersing myself in the historical era of my fictional world. It's gotten so that even during routine events, my muse has been chatty. I listen and take notes.

I recently reread a scene I wrote a few weeks back. In it, my main character confesses her wrongdoing to a priest, and I judged the scene to be good but somewhat predictable. Near the end of the reading, my muse tickled my conscious thought with a question - who is that listening outside the confessional? And I thought Yes! There is someone there! And a more powerful scene (and turn of events for the whole novel) was born.

Early on summer mornings, I pull the pool cover aside to create a swim lane. There, between the solar cover and the pool wall, I swim laps, careful to stay on the straight and narrow, avoiding bumps by straying off course. I did this one morning, thinking about my character, when it hit me. She too is in a narrow divide, and if she veers a little to either side, she will be in big trouble. So I wrote a scene, loaded with symbolism, in which she takes an early morning swim in a pond and notes her thin secure path between the tangle of lily pads and towering cattails, between the mucky pond bottom and the open sky, between the fading night and the brightness of day.

Climbing out of the pool yesterday, something dark stuck to my leg. It's a chlorinated pool so it was just one of those 'helicopter' maple seeds, but my initial thought was that it was a leech, fairly common in ponds and lakes. And I thought - ah, more symbolism. A leech can be stuck to her leg when she climbs out of the pond.

So on I go, listening and writing.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A fan, an interview, and a giveaway!

I had the great honor of being approached by an enthusiastic reader from Australia - dare I say it - a fan! Since Risking Exposure is on her personal list of favorite books of all time, she asked for an interview and for my permission to offer a giveaway on her blog. Of course, I said yes to both :)

So here's her blog, the interview, and the opportunity for you to win one of two free e-books. Have fun!

Sunday, July 20, 2014


While on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland last week with my friends Christa and Hildy, we decided to leave the car at our condo one evening and ride the 'Beach Bus.' For $3, we rode the 70 blocks or so from our condo to the boardwalk, then back again after dark. Better than the cheap ride (and the lack of parking fees) was the company we kept. The bus was chock full of people of all ages and races, couples and families, groups of friends and a few individuals traveling alone. Everyone got along, shared seats and jokes and tips about restaurants. We laughed when the bus stopped short, jolting those folks standing in the aisle. We groaned but then laughed and moved on back when taking on even more passengers seemed a physical impossibility. And the bus stopped every two blocks, cramming on more and more people until it began to feel like this. Almost.

But by unspoken agreement, everyone on the bus had reframed the discomfort into fun. We were on vacation and this was all part of the adventure. The temporary trouble wouldn't diminish our enjoyment.
A good side of human nature showing its face. Maybe that's part of why we enjoy vacation spots so much. We get to see people at their best.
The next day, a passenger jet was blown from the sky by a surface to air missile. Some person or persons finding their worst side and letting it dictate their actions, with horrific consequences.
The yin and yang of human nature shown to me inside 24 hours.

What brilliant, stupid creatures we are.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The recurrent theme: gatherings

Last weekend, Michael and I hosted a backyard celebration with a dual purpose - my mother-in-law's 90th birthday and his retirement from Misericordia. Over 70 people joined us for the afternoon of fun and food - a wonderful gathering of friends and family.

Then Anne Armezzani, a fellow writer (and beta-reader for Risking Exposure) invited me to take part in a multiple-author book signing as part of Clarks Summit's Second Friday Art Walk. Authors were housed in the old fire hall, which is currently undergoing a complete transformation. Soon the building will be called The Gathering Place, a community space dedicated to the support of local arts, community projects, and education.

Other authors who gathered for the signing were Gary Ryman, Patricia Thomas, and Suzanne Fisher Staples. Suzanne is instrumental in bringing The Gathering, an annual literary event, to Keystone College.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gathering as: n. 1. an assembly or meeting, especially a social one. 2. a group of leaves taken together, one inside another, in binding a book.
The word is perfect for all of the above.