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Friday, January 29, 2016

Book Review--The Lake House by Kate Morton

Australian novelist, Kate Morton, most recent book drew me in because it takes place in Cornwall, situated in the southwestern corner of England. We spent a happy week there in one of the small coastal villages a couple of years ago. My memories of the quaint villages, the spectacular scenery and more made this a must-read for me. I have read other novels by Ms. Morton and enjoyed some more than others. My favorite is The Forgotten Garden.

Readers who are drawn to family sagas with a hint of mystery set in exotic places would probably consider Ms. Morton's books a good read. As a writer, she amazes me with the complicated plotting that she has done. Twists and turns keep the reader engaged. 

In this latest novel, a seventy-year-old mystery is explored, told and retold, which can become a bit tedious for the reader. However, we see the mysterious disappearance of 11-month-old Theo Edavane from the viewpoint of multiple characters. The Edavane family resides in a luxurious home in Cornwall where the three daughters and young son are lovingly cared for by parents and staff. Anthony, the father, served in WWI and suffers from what we now know as PTSD. His wife, Eleanor, does all she can to help him as well as hide the affliction from others. 

The story jumps constantly from the early 1930's to the early 2000's. Alice, the youngest Edavane daughter has become a best-selling mystery novelist but the one mystery she cannot solve is her baby brother's kidnapping decades earlier. Enter Sadie Sparrow, a young police detective, who is on leave from her job after a huge gaffe she made while investigating a case. Sadie leaves London to visit a grandfather in Cornwall. While there, she becomes interested in the Edavane unsolved mystery. No body was ever found. No trace of a child who was thought to be kidnapped. 

Various family members and investigators think they know what happened. Through the constant flashbacks, we see what really occurred and we watch as Sadie helps unlock the truth. 

There will be readers who find this book too difficult to read because of the myltiple flashbacks being interspersed with the present-day story. The book is nearly 500 pages, so there are a great many places where we travel back to the 1930's. In fact, the majority of the book is set in that time period. There are also quite a few characters to keep straight. Again, Ms Morton has created fully-developed characters that we come to know as we read.

The mystery is solved in the end, of course, but I found the circumstances a bit too theatrical and somewhat unbelievable. The odds of this story ending the way it does in the novel in real life are astronomical. Despite this, I did enjoy the story and, of course, the setting in Cornwall. It's not a book for everyone but if you like mysteries, English tales of aristocrats, and a story that keeps you guessing, give it a try. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do You Have a Passion For Writing?

I learned something about myself during the 11 days I had no internet service and was so busy getting settle into our new home that there was no time to write. Story ideas kept coming to me in multiples. Just when I didn't have time or the ability to act upon them!

Oh, how I wanted to drop everything and also wave a magic wand over my computer to create the connection that it stubbornly refused to activate. My urge to write became almost overwhelming at times.

i realized that I have a true passion to write. Those little hearts above signify that passion. It's one of the reasons that I started this blog nine years ago. I wanted to share the deep feelings for writing that I have with other writers or wanna-be writers. I hoped to encourage other writers, to let them know that they aren't alone in the frustrations this craft sends our way at times. I care about my writing and I hoped to inspire others to do the same.

If you have a real passion to write, it is more than likely to show in your finished works. You'll also derive more joy from writing that story, essay, poem or book.

How does the passionate writer differ from one who only writes from other needs? What I have listed below is merely my opinion. Not fact backed up with clinical studies.

The passionate writer often:

  • has a deep urge to write most of the time
  • puts writing above other activities 
  • wants to act on a story idea immediately
  • derives great joy from writing
  • has a desire to share what they write with others
  • resents the daily activities that keep them from writing 
  • cannot stop writing
Those who don't consider themselves passionate writers often:
  • have long periods where they do not write at all
  • write only because they need/hope to sell a story
  • give priority to other activities
  • do not act on a story idea and lose it after too long a time
  • have less emotion showing in the writing itself
  • do not care as much 
So, how about you? Do you have a passion for writing? As for me, I cannot function anymore without writing in some manner. I'm not turning out stories like hotcakes off a griddle. But I do write my blog five days a week. I do write lots of letters. (Yes, that is a form of writing for writers,too.) I do some form of writing on a daily basis. I love putting words together in phrases and sentences that others might want to read. 

In case you hadn't figured it out, I love writing!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Troubles For My Blog and Other Worldly Connections

Software Sourcery - Magical Escrow Documentation, Trust Accounting and ...

The photo above is not me, but it's a reasonable fascimile. As most of you know, we made a move across town on the 16th of January. Everything went just fine except for our phone service and then, the internet connection. I won't detail the issue but suffice it to say that it has tried my patience.

Hah! Haven't patience and perseverance always been the keywords in my writing world? I've mastered being patient in that world but when it comes to being connected to the world via internet--that's a different story. 

Part of the problem involved one phone company cutting the lines of another. Shouldn't that be illegal?  I would think so but apparently not. Another factor was the woman at the internet server neglectging to put in the order to change my service from one address to another. That was not found out until about 10 days had gone by. 

Today, the modem has all the right lights doing what they are suppose to but access it the internet is still blocked. So, I am on a guest server which is not secure. We're getting closer to solving the problem but not there yet. Perseverance! That's the other keyword that I need to keep in mind right now.

I am hoping to get this solved soon and back to my regular schedule of posting Monday through Friday. Meanwhile, I hope you writers are continuing to write and the readers are reading on a regular basis. 

For the readers--I am almost finished with Kate Morton's newest novel titled The Lake House. If you've enjoyed her earlier novels, I'd recommend seeeking this one for a good winter read. I hope to offer a review of it once things here get back to normal. 

I've missed connecting with the Followers and readers of this blog. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Today's Story: Everyday Tea

NOTE: We are moving Saturday. I hope my internet service is connected and working by Monday. If there is no new post that day, that's the reason why.

This story appeared in a special Chicken Soup for the Soul book with the theme Tea Lovers. It's about a very special memory that my grandmother provided for me. It was she who taught me to savor a cup of tea. Even now, these many decades later, it's my afternoon pick-me-up on many days. I still believe what Grandma taught me about the kind of teapot that brews the best tea.

Everyday Tea
By Nancy Julien Kopp

I learned to drink tea at a very early age. My Scots-Irish grandmother owned a small neighborhood bakery, and for the first five years of my life, my mother and I spent our week-day mornings in the working area of that establishment. I learned early on that I was to stay out of the way of those who worked at the high tables, and that the sales area of the bakery remained forbidden territory.

Many was the time that I crept to the doorway and peeked into the room where glass cases held the delectable treats my grandmother created. Cakes and pies, bread and rolls, coffeecakes and cookies lined the shelves, I watched with interest as a young Czech girl served customers. More than once, a firm hand circled my arm, pulled me none too gently away from the doorway and scolded me on the way to the long picnic table that ran across one end of the workroom. The pale green oilcloth cover served as background to thick white cups and saucers that sat ready to be filled with the strong, hot tea brewed in a plain brown teapot. “You can only make good tea in a plain brown pot,” Grandma remarked on many occasions.

Grandma served the tea, but when she came to mine she poured only half a cup. Then she added a spoonful of sugar and filled my cup to the top with milk. “English tea for you,” she’d say. Never would our tea be savored all by itself. Grandma always had a plate of something fresh from the oven. Cinnamon rolls, or sliced coffeecakes or a muffin. To this day, I like a little bit of something sweet to go with my tea. The scent of yeast and spices surrounded us as we sipped the tea. In wintertime, we enjoyed the waves of warmth from the ovens, and in summer, we put up with the combined heat of the outside temperature and those never-empty ovens while we had our everyday tea.

I lifted my cup with both hands and sipped at my “English tea” and listened to Mother and my uncle chat. I nibbled on one of the goodies Grandma passed to me, and I knew only contentment. I liked sitting at the long table during the tea break swinging my legs, waiting for the time when they would all return to work and I could plan my next peek out front.

One Saturday afternoon after the baking had been done, Grandma came to our apartment. She was dressed in a tailored suit and wore a hat that had big pink roses on it. She carried white gloves and a handbag. She wasn’t the grandma I knew, the one who wore a Mother Hubbard apron over her plain cotton dress every day. “We’re going to Marshall Fields today to have our tea.” she told me. I looked at my mother to see what she thought about this new situation. She smiled and repeated the oft-used phrase of all mothers in the early 1940’s, “Be a good girl.”

Grandma and I rode the elevated train to downtown Chicago. The conductor called out the stops, and finally, Grandma tugged at my hand. We stepped out onto a wooden platform where we were greeted by a symphony of traffic sounds. Pigeons strutted nearby, pecking at peanuts tossed on the platform. I was fascinated by the soft, grey birds and would have stayed to watch them, but Grandma whisked me through a set of double doors that led into the famed Marshall Field’s store. We walked straight into the china department. Glorious china, crystal, silver and linens were displayed on dining room tables. But there was no tea here.

My little-girl legs worked hard to keep up with Grandma as she led the way to the elevators. “Seven please,” Grandma said to the operator, and up we went. The doors opened, and we stepped into the magnificent Walnut Room. Dark paneled walls, soft carpet and potted palms surrounded us. A hostess led us to a small table draped with a snowy linen cloth. Other ladies with suits, hats and gloves sat at similar tables. I felt a tickle in my tummy for I knew now that this would not be an everyday tea. Something special waited for us in this elegant dining room.

Grandma spoke softly to a uniformed waitress, then settled into her chair and graced me with a warm smile. Her face looked softer than it did at the bakery where she spent so many hours. Even at my young age I knew my grandma worked hard.

Soon, the waitress returned to our table. She placed a small plate, fork and spoon, a china teacup and saucer in front of each of us. A linen napkin finished the setting. Ladies nearby sipped tea and nibbled at tiny sandwiches and small iced cakes. Oh if only we were to have the same. The tickle in my tummy started up again, and I wiggled on my chair in anticipation.

Sure enough, the waitress brought a lovely flowered teapot and two plates. One held  dainty open-faced sandwiches, and pastel iced cakes filled the second one. I waited for Grandma to tell the waitress that good tea could only be made in a plain brown teapot, but she never said a word. Instead, she poured my half cup of tea, added sugar and milk. Then she placed a sandwich and a cake on my plate. I watched her lay the napkin on her lap, and I followed her example. Just as I was to take my first bite, piano music interrupted the sound of spoons on saucers and ladies conversing. Soon, several tall, slender women strolled through the vast Tea Room stopping momentarily at an occasional table. “It’s a Fashion Show,” Grandma whispered to me. The models wore the kind of dresses and hats we saw only in the movies. They glided and pirouetted, faces looking like they were set in stone, but a strange thing happened as they approached us. Each one that stopped at our table looked right at me and smiled. One even winked. Now the tickle in my tummy felt like butterflies chasing each other.

All too soon the Fashion Show ended, and we’d had our fill of the tea, sandwiches and cakes. We rode the train home where I related the events of the day to my mother and father.

I had tea with Grandma at the picnic table in the bakery many, many times, but she never took me to the Walnut Room again. Long after my grandma was gone, I returned to Marshall Fields for tea on my own, and sometimes I’d look across the table and see my grandma in her rose-covered hat smiling at me. She taught me the difference between everyday tea and special tea--that a little something sweet came with both kinds of tea, but sweetest of all were the memories my grandma created. I feel her near each time I pour my everyday tea from my plain brown pot.

Elizabeth Doonan Studham--my maternal grandmother

Thursday, January 14, 2016

My Story For Today: Message In The Night

... of the trail <b>at night</b>, helmets should be worm by all <b>riders</b>

Today's story is fiction, not my greatest forte but a genre I like to try now and then. This story, meant for pre-teens and early teens, turned out to be one adults enjoyed, too. It has been published twice and is a favorite of mine. Maybe you'll enjoy reading it, too. Again, ask yourself why two editors agreed to publish this one.

Bit of trivia--this story came to me one evening at a symphony performance. I have no idea what piece the orchestra was playing, but the story below unfolded in my mind, bit by bit. I wrote the story the next day.

Message in the Night
by Nancy Julien Kopp

“I can do it, Mama. Please let me,” I pleaded.

Mama’s pale face and the pillowslip seemed one and the same. Her hand closed over mine, and a weak sigh escaped from her lips. “Rand, you can’t go. It’s much too dangerous.”

“But Mama, Papa’s regiment is so close. I can get through the Yankee lines and find him. I know I can. Cousin Nell knows where they are. Please let me try.”

Mama never took her eyes off me as I paced before the big four-poster bed. “This would give Papa something good to think about, wouldn’t it?” My heart pounded in my chest while I made my case.

“What if you’re caught, Rand?” Mama struggled to sit up in the bed. “This is Yankee territory.” 

The single tear that slid down her cheek only made me more determined. “You go to sleep now, Mama.” I patted her shoulder and slipped out the door before she could protest again.

Cousin Nell stood in the hallway, plump arms crossed, her mouth clamped tight. “And where do you think you’re going?” She hissed the words, and her eyes flashed with anger.

“Why—to my room, Cousin Nell.” I spoke more pleasantly than I felt, even though we were guests in her house. The War Between the North and South kept us here far from home.

I turned the brass knob on my bedroom door slowly and called back to Cousin Nell. “Where did you say the Yankee camp was?”

I held my breath as she rattled on scolding and telling me what I needed to hear at the same time. My hand rubbed the smooth knob while I waited for her to divulge every bit of information I wanted to know.

A frown crossed Mama’s cousin’s broad face. “Your South Carolina regiment isn’t far away either. There’ll be a battle soon. You go into your room and pray for them all, Yank or Reb, no matter!” She put a quick smile on her face and glided into Mama’s room.

I dressed in warm clothes, ones Mama and Cousin Nell might not approve. They belonged to Cousin Nell’s son, Frank, who was away at school. The coat and pants were a little big, but they would serve me well on this cold Pennsylvania night.

I crept down the stairs, my hand barely touching the wide, curved banister. A gust of cold, November wind hit my face as I opened the side door and stepped outside. I shivered and hunched down farther into Frank’s coat, pulling his wool cap down at the same time. The soft glow from Mama’s window gave me the courage I needed.

The moonless night, dark and cold, was so unlike the Carolina winters I knew. An eerie howl rent the air and made the hair stand up on my neck. I froze in the middle of the road. All I wanted was to turn back. I tired not to dwell on the dark woods on either side of the road or \what might lurk within it. The way would be shorter through the thicket, but I chose to walk straight ahead on the road.

Before long, the distant sound of a horse’s hooves left me no choice. Groaning softly, I plunged into the woodland where darkness swallowed me immediately. Only my groping hands led the way between the tall trees. Low branches snapped back to scratch my face. When I finally reached the meadow beyond, I stopped to catch my breath and to listen for the sound of men and horses. I was rewarded with blessed silence.

Afraid to go on and fearful of turning back, I closed my eyes and forced my father’s face into my mind’s eye. My lower lip stopped trembling, and I moved steadily away from the thicket. Thankful for the moonless night, I crouched down and moved slowly across the open area of the meadow.

The sounds made by restless horses and the smell of smoke told me I was nearing the Yankee camp. Farther on, I knew, I would hear voices that sounded like home, and one of those soft toned voices would help me find my father among the many men camped there waiting to engage the northern enemy.

I heard a voice, all right, but it had the harsh tone of a Yankee, not the Carolina accent I longed for. I flattened myself on the cold, hard ground. The aroma of the damp, pungent soil seeped into my nose. 

In only seconds, a large, rough hand clamped me on the shoulder. I cringed inside Frank’s coat.

The clipped northern voice was inches from my ear. “And what do you think you’re doing, boy?”

The hand never loosened its grip as it hauled me to my feet.

The soldier repeated his earlier inquiry with a growl. “What are you doing here?”

The man had only one eye visible, as the other one was covered with a dirty bandage that continued around his head. The eye I could see glinted with anger.

I squeezed my own eyes shut and brought Papa’s face back again. Then I swallowed hard and said, “I’m looking for my father. I have important news for him.”

One-Eye glared at me. “Who is this high and mighty father that his son walks out in the night to meet him?”

“He’s Colonel Robert Whitburn of the 49th Regiment of South Carolina,” I answered as I looked straight into his eye.

He let go of my shoulder and squawked, “What? What did you say?” The soldier switched his rifle from one hand to the other. He leaned so close to me that I could see spaces where his teeth were missing and smell his stale breath.

He said, “You got some nerve, boy. Too bad you hit the wrong camp first, ain’t it?” He straightened up and rubbed his stubbly chin. “Come on,” he said, grabbing me again, “we’ll see what the captain says.”

He walked fast, half dragging me to a tent nearby, shouting as we entered. “This here boy’s got hisself in the wrong spot, Captain. Says he’s lookin’ fer his daddy over on the other side.” 

His eye didn’t seem so fierce anymore. In fact, he seemed right friendly compared to the cold look the other man directed toward me.

After a long silence, the officer spoke. “Son, this is no place for you. There’s danger to be met by any who venture this way. His mouth and eyes matched the hardness in his voice. “Your name?”

My answer came in a half whisper and half aloud. “Rand Whitburn, sir.” I continued in a voice made stronger at the thought of my mission. “Please sir, I must get to my father. I have news for him, a message he needs to hear before….before something happens to him.” My bottom lip quivered as I finished.

“What is this important news?” the captain said, impatience evident in his voice. “Come here and tell me.”

I shook my head in denial so hard the cap flew off, and my long hair fell down my back.

One-Eye howled. “He’s a girl, sir!”

The captain’s eyes widened as he ordered, “Suppose you come over here now, Rand. What kind of a name is that for a girl anyway?” One corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly.

“It’s short for Miranda…sir.” I picked up Frank’s cap and edged closer.

The captain clasped his hands behind his back. “I’m going to help you, but I’m not sure why. I should lock you up as a prisoner of war.”

At those words, I stepped back until I felt One-Eye’s hand on my shoulder, more gently this time.

“Sergeant,” the captain said, “get four men, horses, and a white flag. Then escort Miss Miranda Whitburn to the enemy camp. She can ride with you. See that she delivers her message and returns here.”

One-Eye grinned broadly as he saluted and snapped, “Yessir.”

I turned to follow him, but the captain stopped me with one word. “Wait.” He stomped across the dirt floor of the tent and stared down at me. “What assurance do I have that you’re not passing vital information? I must know your message before you go.”

I had little choice. I stood on tiptoe, and he leaned closer as I whispered in his ear. He straightened quickly, and a wide smile crossed his face.

“A man would like to hear such news, Miranda. It would give him something to live for.” Looking serious again, he said, “You’d better put your hair back under that cap. Continue on with the disguise.”

I soon found myself in the night air again, riding behind One-Eye, my arms around his ample middle. My heart beat rapidly with both fear and excitement. Could I trust the white flag? Or One-Eye himself? Once again, I had little choice, so I closed my eyes and lay my cheek against One-Eye’s scratchy coat as his horse carried us through the darkness.

“Halt!” a voice ordered when we neared the camp of the South Carolina regiment. Men with rifles surrounded us.

”I have business with Colonel Robert Whitburn,” One-Eye said. “Send him out. Then we’ll be on our way.” 

The Confederate soldier stared at him, open-mouthed. He didn’t look much older than I.

One-Eye leaned down and barked, “Now!”

I started to slide as he bent over, but he neatly pushed me back up with one hand behind him. We waited for what seemed like a long time, the armed men still surrounding us. The only sound came from the horses that pawed the ground, snorted, and shook their heads. I was numb with both the cold and fright.

At last, I saw Papa coming straight toward us, his long legs covering the ground quickly. I swung my leg over, slid to the ground, and ran to my father.

“Halt! Halt!” several voices ordered, but I didn’t stop until I nearly knocked Papa over. My cap sailed off, and my hair streamed down the back of Frank’s coat again.

Rand? What…? Miranda Whitburn, what in the world are you doing here?” Papa held me at arm’s length, then pulled me close. I wanted to stay in his arms forever. 

With a sigh, I stepped back and crooked my finger at him. He leaned close, a frown on his face. “Papa, I came here to tell you that you have two fine sons, born this morning. Twins, Papa. What do you think of that?”

The moon broke through the clouds, and the joy on Papa’s face erased all the cold and fear of this night. He blinked hard, but I could see the tears that threatened to spill over.

Finally, he answered me. “I think I have twin boys with the bravest sister in all of South Carolina.” Papa hugged me again before he escorted me to One-Eye for the return ride to the Yankee camp.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Promise--Today's Story

The story for today was published in an anthology compiled by HCI called Ultimate Teacher.  See if you can tell why it appealed to the editors for their theme. What happened with me and the professor has been a forever memory--the fear, the dread and the joy at the end are still with me.

The Promise
By Nancy Julien Kopp

I woke that fateful day immersed in anxiety and misery. How would I survive what lay ahead? It was 1959, my junior year in college, and I was studying to become a teacher.

I loved it, thrived in the preparations I was making to become a professional educator. Classes in English, Psychology, Reading Methods and more gave me no problems. What loomed ahead this awful day, however, made me shiver with fear.

No way out. I had to face the music I told myself as I dragged my reluctant body from the warm cocoon of blankets. Face the music? That was exactly what I had to do this morning. My churning stomach meant breakfast would be skipped today. Each tick of the clock brought me closer to disaster.

I donned coat and gloves, wrapped a scarf around my neck and set out on legs that felt heavier with each step. For once, I didn’t relish the walk across campus. Face the music? I shuddered as that simple phrase skipped through my mind once again. I journeyed slowly to the final exam in my Music For The Elementary School class…an exam with no paper and pencil. I might have done all right with a test like that. Instead, the professor would select any three songs of nine we were to learn to play on the piano. The pieces were not concertos or etudes. These were little children’s songs, like “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.

The professor explained the first week of class that we had to learn three groups of songs in three different keys. To be sure, we had all semester to do this, plenty of time to master them, he assured us. Music Department pianos were available for practice.

“Piece of cake,” the girl next to me said
“Easy enough,” another chirped as I glared at her.

“Cinch class,” yet another said rolling her eyes to Heaven.

I kept my silence, but the worry started, right then and there. I had many talents, but music was not one of them. I liked to listen to it. I was able to appreciate it, but I could not learn to tap a triangle at the right time in third grade. I could not sing on key. I could not read the musical notes on a staff. No musical aptitude whatsoever. No musical education either.

I signed up for practice times several days each week all semester. Anyone nearby must have winced at my efforts. Lovely songs tripped off the fingers of other practicing pianists, and the music floated through the hallway.

I asked my roommate for help. After several sessions, she told me it was a hopeless cause and suggested I cry on the professor’s shoulder, plead for mercy or something more drastic. What the more drastic might be I feared to ask.

I did talk to the professor, poured out my tale of woe. I explained that I was “Musically Handicapped.”

“Have you put some effort into this?” he asked me. “Really put some work into learning to play these little songs on the piano?”

With tears threatening, I assured him I had. His answer was that I would do fine when the time came, and he strode out of the classroom after patting me on the shoulder.

Now, the day of my demise had arrived. I could not have feared execution any more than I did this music exam.

The professor greeted me with a smile, rubbed his hands together and said, “Well now, are we ready?”

I sank onto the bench and attempted to play the three songs he selected. He kindly picked what were probably the three easiest pieces, and I managed to butcher each one.

At the end of my futile performance, the professor beckoned me to his desk. He looked at me, started to speak, then stopped and wiped his hand across his forehead. “Nancy, this is what we are going to do. You’ve put forth a great deal of effort, so I will give you a C in this class on one condition.

“Anything,” I answered.

“You must promise me that you will only teach in a school that also employs a music teacher!” He grinned at me after making the statement.

With vast relief, I made the promise.

I taught in more than one school district, but I always made sure it was one that had a music teacher. I watched with great admiration as music class was conducted, as songs were played on the piano the teacher rolled from classroom to classroom twice each week. What a genius she is, I thought, as her fingers flew across the keys.

To this day, the only musical thing I play is a CD player or radio. After all, a promise is meant to be honored.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Today's Story: Squeals and Squeezes

Today's story is one of the earliest I had published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books. This one appeared in a book that had Dads as the theme. It evolved from an incident that I witnessed--one that took hardly any time at all. Yet, as a bystander, what I saw touched my heart. Perhaps it will yours, too. 

When you are stuck for story ideas, don't bypass the little incidents in life that you see. Many make really fine stories. 

Squeals and Squeezes
 By Nancy Julien Kopp

I watched a toddler run on sturdy, chubby legs squealing as he traversed the length of the country club lounge. A tall, good-looking man strode purposefully behind him, closing in on his prey. He reached for the runaway boy with a large hand and grasped nothing but air. The child had spied a banquet table draped in a white linen skirt, and with lightning speed, he’d lifted the cloth and scooted underneath, then turned eerily silent. He knew this Hide-and-Seek game well, despite his young age.

The dad circled the table with one ear cocked, waiting for his son to reveal his whereabouts. After two full circles, he leaned down, picked up the cloth and peered underneath. The little boy giggled and squealed as his daddy grabbed hold of him, scooped him into his arms and held him close. The little boy pulled back and gazed straight into his daddy’s eyes. Not a word was said but the child wound both arms around his daddy’s neck and squeezed, then lay his blond head on the man’s broad shoulder.

The dad held the child close to his heart, kissed his cheek, then stroked his hair as he carried him back to the gathering of families nearby.  

I felt privileged to watch these two, for I’d witnessed not only a simple moment of a father and son at play. Instead, it proved to be a scene that etched itself onto my heart, a forever memory. The daddy was a member of an army attack battalion stationed at an army post near our town. He’d served a tour in Iraq and in a matter of weeks, he’d board a transport plane with his battalion and return to the battlefield once again. But now, he and his family were attending a recognition dinner at our country club. On this night, he wasn’t a soldier wearing full body armor, clutching his rifle—on the alert for any strange movements or sounds. Tonight he could be a daddy playing with a child he loved. He’d already missed a full year of the boy’s growing up, and all too soon, he’d be gone again. How much more would he miss? Who would play “Catch Me” with the boy while he was gone?

Once he’s back in Iraq, the young soldier may lie in his bunk at night, too weary to sleep. His thoughts will no doubt turn to home, his wife, and his energetic, playful son. The boy will be talking in sentences by the time this tour ends. And pretty soon he’ll be old enough to play catch in the backyard. A boy needs a dad to get him ready for his first baseball team.

 I have a feeling this father will replay the evening’s chase in his mind myriad times. More than a game; it was yet another link in the bonding between father and son. The squeals and squeezes of both translate easily into love a father has for a son in its purest form. I pray that love survives the separation and renews itself with more squeals and squeezes when the soldier daddy comes home again.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A True Fairy Tale

My blog posts are going to be something different the next five days. This is the week we are moving so time is short. I am going to post one of my published stories each day this week. When you read each one, ask yourself what makes this story publishable? 

Today's story is one that has been published more than once. It's about a friend of ours, who is now deceased. His story always seemed like a Fairy Tale that was real, thus the title. I gathered the information over many conversations around the dinner table with Joe and his wife. 

The picture above is Joe's castle. In his country, a castle is more like a grand manor estate rather than the castles we think of in the UK, for instance.  You can read another story about our visit to the castle here, or listen to me read it at this site, as well. 

A True Fairy Tale
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 Children have been enchanted by fairy tales penned by the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen for centuries. Aristocrats and castles, trolls and witches fill the pages eagerly turned by little hands. Good versus evil is often the theme, and suspense captures the reader’s attention. But can such stories really happen? Yes they can, for I am acquainted with a man who starred in a real-life fairy tale.

I know him as my friend, Joe. He retired after a long career as a professor in the college of Business at Kansas State University where all knew him as Joseph Barton-Dobenin, American citizen. But once upon a time, he was the Baron Joseph Barton-Dobenin of Zbraslav, Czechoslovakia.
Joe was the eldest of three sons. The three boys grew up in a castle surrounded by lush, park-like grounds. Their family owned a brewery that stood within sight of their home, as well as a great deal of property in and around Prague. Rumbles of possible war in Europe cast a shadow over Joe’s high school years. When his father died, Joe inherited the title of Baron, and responsibility weighed heavily on his shoulders. With his mother’s guiding hand, he carried on in his father’s place.
Before he could enter university, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, and German officers moved into the castle. The family worked in the fields each day along with the people of their village. Life was hard, but they managed to survive until the end of the war. Then, at
war’s end, Czechoslovakia ended up in the hands of Russia. With no choice, the people now lived under Communist rule. A baron could be no part of the communist life, so Joe landed in prison.
One of his brothers was sent to work in a uranium mine, and Joe’s mother and youngest brother moved to a tiny apartment in Prague when the castle was seized and turned into a national museum. The real estate and businesses the family owned were confiscated, too. They’d endured and survived the grim war years, but this proved even more forbidding. Hope disappeared like smoke from a chimney.
The Russians finally released Joe. He’d had plenty of time in prison to consider his options in this new world. He decided to leave his homeland and find a way to bring the family together again in a free country. His mother sewed the jewels she’d managed to save into his coat, and an escape plan emerged from long nights of talking. To this day, many of the details remain a secret. Joe hid in the men’s’ restroom at the big train station, away from the Russian soldiers who marched the halls. Despite a few frightening moments, the escape plan worked, and Joe made his way to France and then to Tunisia, where he toiled in the fields. He’d had plenty of agricultural experience during the war in his own fields.
A year later, his days were monotonous, and the future looked bleak. One night he thought about an American banker who had visited the castle in pre-war days. When the visitor left, he clapped Joe on the shoulder and said to look him up if he ever came to America. More and more Joe thought about the banker’s words, until he knew he must
set sail for the United States. He’d saved enough money for his passage to New York. Though he spoke several languages, he knew no English, but that did not deter him. His mother and brothers still lived in a communist controlled land, and his aim was to get them out, too.
He arrived in New York, a stranger in a land where he could not understand a word spoken to him. Was it luck or an angel who put him in the path of a woman who spoke German, a language he spoke fluently? She helped Joe make a phone call to the American banker he’d met years earlier. No doubt surprised to hear from Joe, the man instructed him to have the woman help him buy a train ticket to Nebraska.
The man operated properties taken over by his bank, and he put Joe to work managing these repossessed farms. It wasn’t long before Joe knew he would not earn enough to bring his family to America. A college education would help. He qualified as a displaced person so was able to enter the University of Nebraska at no cost. He earned both his undergraduate and master’s degrees in business, and he married a girl from Nebraska.
He started teaching in the Business Education department at Kansas State University, returned to Nebraska for his doctor’s degree and spent the remainder of his career at Kansas State.
During the many education years, he received word that his mother had passed away. He dared not return to his homeland for fear of being imprisoned again. How his heart ached at not being able to say good-bye to his strong and beautiful mother. He thought often of her portrait which adorned a wall in one of the dining rooms in the castle.
Joe told his wife, Elizabeth, that he would never return to Czechoslovakia until it was free again. By the time the Communist rule came to an end, Joe’s brothers and their families had immigrated to the United States, too, and Joe had retired. He and Elizabeth made plans to visit his home country. He’d related stories for so long about the castle and all the precious things in it, his family, and friends in his home village of Zbraslav. Now he would show it to her.
When they arrived in Prague, Joe’s heart nearly broke upon seeing the deterioration of the beautiful city he’d once known. Neglect was evident in the once-magnificent buildings, and the people walked with heads down, no smiles upon their faces. Pride had somehow been destroyed. What would he find when they visited the castle? He and Elizabeth secured transportation to the small village where he’d once lived so happily. The castle remained a museum for the forty-some years of Joe’s absence. When he climbed the steps and entered his old home, his heart beat faster, and he was both fearful and eager to see what it looked like inside. Nothing had changed. Every piece of furniture, every rug, every piece of porcelain remained. When he walked into the dining room, his feet could carry him no further. He faced his mother’s portrait, painted in the days when she ruled as Baroness. The tears he had not been able to shed at her funeral came in earnest as he gazed at the beautiful young woman wearing a froth of a dress.
Joe introduced his American wife to several old family friends. He learned that many of the valuable paintings the family had left with friends remained hidden by the villagers. Not all of them, however. Some were sold to keep families alive but others
remained stashed in attics. Joe discovered that the new government returned confiscated properties if ownership could be proven. Never dreaming he would have any of the family property again, he began the legal process to see if he might get some of the holdings back. As if by magic, he became the owner of a castle and real estate in downtown Prague. But he had no intention of moving back to the Czech Republic. He had given up being the Baron long before. He was an American now. He knew he must return to his homeland to oversee the many business details, and so their retirement years slipped into a new routine. Four times a year Joe and Elizabeth journeyed to the Czech Republic for three weeks at a time, and the rest of the year they spent in America.
But now Joe had a problem. What was he to do with the profits from these newfound businesses? He devised a plan which would help the youth in the Czech Republic and to also benefit the American university where he’d taught so many years. He started a scholarship program for Czech students to come to Kansas State University for one or two semesters. And come they did. After the first group completed their time, word spread around Prague like wildfire. Students at Czech Tech and Charles University learned that not only could you spend a wonderful year at an American university, but the man and his wife who made it possible also invited you to their home for dinner, became your American family. More students came each year, and now some of the Kansas State students have gone to Prague in a reverse exchange. The American students on the exchange program now see a revitalized Prague, a city that shines once again and people who have once again found pride in living there.

Each year, Joe told the young Czech students that they are the future of their country. “Study hard,” he said to each new group. “Go home and help the Czech Republic.” And they listened to this man who lost so much and then regained it almost fifty years later.
Fairy tales often end “…and they lived happily ever after.” I think Joe would agree that is the way his story ended, too.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Opening Paragraphs

Yesterday's post on titles led me to thinking that from the title the reader moves on to the Opening Paragraph. That group of words allows the reader to open the door and have a look at what is yet to come. 

Myriad writing how-to books emphasize the importance of hooking the reader with the opening paragraph. Writers nod their heads in agreement and then write a story or a chapter disregarding the advice. 

Some think setting the scene is of great importance so they use the first paragraph to do so. Setting the scene is certainly important but it does not have to be done immediately. 

Some think that an opening paragraph that tells everything there is to know about the character is a good way to hook the reader. It could end up being a report on physical description of a person and nothing else. 

Others use backstory immediately and then move into the real story later. That can be confusing and feel like you;'re reading two different stories once you move on to the present action. 

I've read books where authors open with a lengthy paragraph giving the reader their personal philosophy on some particular subject. To me, that is just plain boring. Get me interested in the story and later on, I'll definitely figure out the author's philosophical bits and pieces. 

All the things mentioned above can be woven throughout the story, or chapter, you're writing. Don't use them as your opening. Instead, use action to hook your reader. Raise questions in the reader's mind. Use only enough to get them interested without answering all the questions you want them to have. 

Add sensory details to the action paragraph to bring a sense of reality. Let the writer relate to the sounds, smells and sights whenever you can. 

There is no completely right or wrong way to open a story. It's the individual writer's choice, of course. Even so, I'm a strong proponent of using action immediately to hook your reader. 

I'm reminded, however, of Dicken's opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.  It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. Action? No. Promotes interest? Yes. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Selecting A Title For Your Story

Over and over, I hear writers say something like This is a working title. I can't think of anything better. In my online critique group, I see multiple comments along the line of I don't like the title. Can you help find a better one? 

It seems that most writers have trouble when it comes to selecting a title for an article, story, essay or book they've spent hours working on. The title should be easy. Right? Not really. Everything you've put into the body of what you've written has to come through in your title in a mere smattering of words. 

It's a no- brainer that a good title hooks the reader. It also suggests a mood or tone.It can startle a browser into looking farther. The title sometimes asks a question that can only be answered by reading farther. Curiosity might be aroused by those few words that top the whole piece of writing. Some titles depend on attention-getting words. Right now, the word terrorist is probably going to make you stop and take a second look.

Some writers like to use alliteration for the name of their story. It works especially well with stories for kids. Maybe something like Bumpy Bear's Beautiful Bridge would make a child giggle and want to look into the book. It works with adult titles, too. How about Bill Brown's Bummer Beach Babe. Every word doesn't have to begin with the same letter, but several should. 

A title can also inform the browser that there is specific information to be gained here. Climate Change: Pros and Cons lets you know exactly what the topic is. 

If all else fails, a writer can lift a significant line of dialogue or a phrase from the text to top the story. Readers enjoy seeing that bit of dialogue or phrase when they reach it within the text. It's an Aha! moment. 

You can also promise the reader something via your title. Jane, The Time Traveler does that. The reader knows that the story is about a girl or woman who travels back in time (or ahead to the future). 

Is there any set rule to when you write the title? Definitely not. Write it when you think of it! It might be the very first words you put on the blank screen, or it could come to you halfway through the story. And even more likely is that the title is the very last thing you write and it could be long after the story itself is finished if you wrestle with finding the best one.

So, why do we struggle with titles? Mostly because we know how very important they are. It's your one chance to hook that browser that you want to draw in as a reader. 

Some writers come up with a title quickly and go with it. Others make lists of titles and eliminate them one by one. Of the two, I prefer the second method. If you hit on one and go with it right away, you might be missing out on a better title. 

As an exercise on selecting titles, go to your local library or bookstore and spend some time browsing through titles of books. Note the ones that speak to you. Consider why those titles caught your eye more than others. What appeals most--longer or shorter titles? 

For something that entails only a few words, titles are of great importance. Pick a good one! 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Get Those Holiday Stories Ready Now!

Looking at the images above, you probably think I've lost it. They're over. Right? Yes, all of the above holidays that occur in December are behind us but perhaps you remember a post last month that urged you to write your holiday stories while the mood was upon you. Review it here.

If you took my advice, you'll be smiling right now because I have a super good market for you. Chicken Soup for the Soul is going to be publishing a new Christmas book in 2016. This one will be called The Joy of Christmas. 

The good news is that the book will highlight all the December holidays:  Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Boxing Day and New Year's. The title of the newest Christmas book should give you an idea of what they are looking for. No Bah Humbug stories. Zero in on the word Joy

The Possible Book Topic page gave the following as suggestions for stories for this book. Read it carefully and read it more than once. Just doing so might trigger a possible story or remind you of one you've already written. And do not forget to read the Guidelines more than once, too. They are lengthy but well worth your time to familiarize yourself with what this anthology group wants and does not want. Read guidelines here. When you're ready to submit, use the Submission Form page.

Quoted from Chicken Soup For The Soul: We are now collecting stories for our next Holiday book that will be published in 2016. We are looking for stories about the entire December holiday season, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, and even New Year’s festivities too. Everyone has special memories and stories to tell about the Christmas season - from inspirational and joyous, to heartwarming and humorous. We want to hear about your special Christmas memories and traditions. From the decorations and the foods, to the music and the parties, and the shopping to the gift wrapping. How do you celebrate the special spirit of the season? How do you deal with the stress of getting it all done? What traditions have you carried on from when you were a child? Please share your special stories about the holiday season with us. Be sure that they are “Santa safe” so that we don’t spoil the magic for precocious readers! The deadline date for story and poems submissions is April 30, 2016.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Polish Your Writing With Proper Mechanics

Yesterday's post contained a list of things writers need to pay attention to to get the most appealing story they can for their readers. Today, let's zero in on just one point in that list. I stated:

    Proper mechanics of writing--people notice when it's poor

I have seen many writers, especially those relatively new to the field, who have great story-telling abilities but they seem to have either forgotten or never learned the basics of writing. Remember those--the boring stuff? Oh yeah, lots of you thought English grammar, punctuation and word usage was the most boring subject in the world. Well, perhaps it is for a good many people but it's also very important. Doing it right makes you a polished writer.

I must admit that I sometimes cringe when I read posts on facebook that are filled with bad grammar, abuse of tenses, miserable punctuation and more. I know what you're thinking--What does it matter? It's just someone making a comment on a post or posting their own news. Well people--I happen to think it does matter. If a child reads a book filled with poor mechanics of writing--and yes they are out there, they sometimes do get published--they will take it for granted that everything is just as it should be. 

How often did your parents or teachers urge you to set an example for others with your behavior? It's the same with the mechanics of writing. Set an example for others. 

Notice that the books pictured here are for grammar school kids. Yep, that's where we all first learned these building blocks of writing but a lot of people seem to forget all that once they grow up. 

So, what do you do if you need to brush up on your mechanics? You can't slip into a sixth grade classroom and soak up what the classroom teacher says. This time, you're on your own. There are books and online sites that can help. Use your favorite search engine to find. Purchase a book that you can refer to when you're not sure about a grammar question. Most of these books and online sites have exercises to re-enforce the lesson. Do them! Do them every time. We learn as children through repetition. Guess what? We learn through repetition as adults, too. 

Don't overlook the helps you have whenever you write a story, article or poem on your computer. They're sitting at the top waiting for you to make use of them. They aren't going to jump out and grab you. It's up to you to learn how to use them and then do it on a regular basis. On every post I write, I use spellcheck. I find typos more often than actual misspelled words but I sure am glad I find and correct before publishing the post. 

I've heard people claim that they never really learned all that 'stuff' in school. If not, that's too bad, but you can still learn now or brush up on what you absorbed all those years ago. 

Review the mechanics of writing. Pay attention to spelling, punctuation, tenses, and word usage. Work on being a polished writer if you want your work to shine when you send it to an editor.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Where Does Your Writing Rank On The Appeal Chart?

I was among the crowd that waited for the first episode of Downton Abbey in this sixth and final season. I left my husband in the living room watching the Packers vs Vikings game and curled up on our bed to watch.

I admit it. I got hooked on this British series when it first debuted. Why? For one thing, I love historical fiction. And Downton is certainly that. It began on the eve of the First World War and in this final year, we have moved all the way to 1925. We've watched the characters grow in age, experience and sometimes wisdom. We've watched the failures and the heartaches of the characters, as well.

People have enjoyed seeing the way the wealthy of that era lived and understanding the life that those in service led. It's been one of the most-watched, most-loved series the PBS station has offered its viewers.

Julian Fellowes wrote the script for Downton Abbey, and who better to do so than a man who lived among the British upper-classes and royals? He definitely knew his subject.

All this brings me to what appeals to a reader--or a film viewer in the case above? What makes the reader come back for more? What things must you include in your story writing to pull your reader in so deeply that they never want to leave your story?

A few things I think you must have to appeal to your reader:

  • Emotion without being overbearing or saccharin about it
  • Enough twists and turns to keep the reader turning the pages
  • Characters the reader can relate to in some way; likeable ones
  • Suspense and tension--not only in mysteries but in all stories
  • Settings that become a part of the story
  • A true sense of place
  • Success and failure for the characters
  • Surmountable problems
  • Descrption that does not take over the story but adds to it
  • Tell the story, don't just report what happened
  • Show more than you tell
  • Proper mechanics of writing--people notice when it's poor
  • Use of beautiful prose without being flowery; less is best here
There  are, of course, other things but the list above is a good checklist for anyone who writes fiction, whether historical, contemporary or sci-fi. 

Do you have other things to add to this list to make sure your writing rates high on the Appeal Chart? All comments are most welcome. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Writer's Gold For New Year's Day

New Year's Day 2016

I love new beginnings! Opening a book to the first page gives me joy. Putting on a piece of clothing for the first time is pure pleasure. Visiting a place I've never been before excites me. The first day of a new year does much the same. 

If you're a person who keeps a journal, you'll open to page 1 today and, with pen poised, consider what you will write. A journal keeper should do a lot of free-writing. Let the words flow from your mind to the page without thinking or organizing. Let them come like drops of rain, one right after the other. You may be surprised at what appears on each page and perhaps inspired.

Today, consider the photo above. To the left are golden Christmas ornaments which reperesents the past year. Christmas was the great crescendo to 2015. Those ornaments stand for all you did in your writing world those past 365 days. You've most likely reflected on your accomplishments and your failures--oh yes, we all have plenty of failures along our wriitng path. You know what worked last year and what didn't. 

In the middle, we see a lovely gold pocketwatch of old which represents Time. Writers battle with time on a daily basis. How much of it do we devote to our writing and how much to the rest of our lives? Much depends on whether you write for a living or are a part-time or hobbyist writer. If we're not vigilant, Time can get away from us. That pretty little pocketwatch can start rolling downhill and gaining speed, leaving us far behind. Grab on and hold tight. Be the master of your time and you'll most likely have a more productive year. 

On the right side of the photo, we see a beautiful gold-wrapped gift box. That box reperesents all that is given to you this next year in your writing world. You're given the gift of friends who also write. They cheer you when you succeed and soothe your feathers when you don't. They understand what non-writers do not. You're given an easier method of finding markets than ever before. No more poring over market guides at a library table or having to purchase your own guide that is outdated as soon as it comes off the presses. Technology gives you up-to-date and easy-to-find markets. You're given a new beginning, given a time to set some goals, given a whole new year in which to ply your craft in the very best way you can. Open the box and savor the contents, then begin using the gifts inside.

Did you notice that each of the three items in the photo are golden? Gold has been man's treasure for centuries. Why shouldn't it represent what we value most in our writing world? It's the best! And so are you, the writer. Wishing you the golden touch in your writing in this next 366 days (yep, it's Leap Year!).