NOVELS: often begin with a dream, a fantasy exploration and the “what if”

 1. Begin with character- who is she, what marks her as different, what are her attributes and what is her story? Rancher,      businesswoman, artist,healer, psychic? What is her challenge: survival, search for meaning, helping others?
 2.Who threatens, challenges or supports her? Protagonist? Can I see him, it?
 3.Setting/s? Where and how does it impact the character/s? Do I know the setting, draw on own experience..yes.

      POETRY:  often springs from an experience with great emotional impact (nature, family member’s illness, death) but also comes from stories told to me (The Apple Factory), out of my experience(White Girl, Black Heart,) or tidbits of historical research (Pancho’s Sister.)

 1. From idea, get words on paper, rough or smooth, with energy/emotion behind them.   “Mother said the Arizona Territory was good for only two things: tame Indians and wild children. Me and William Ebert were her wild children and Geronimo was our Indian.”
 2. Research for Content: could journalist John Reed have been in El Paso and meet Jo in the spring of 1914? Yes, he’d just come back from Mexico and following Villa and Carranza.
 3. Setting: Have I been there, what’s in my journal, what other place do I have personal knowledge of that will fit the story?  Without first- hand knowledge, go to museums, internet and library research for displays, books, news articles, photos.  Be open to serendipity: as when Jo’s stopping the Ford story showed up in Bisbee Museum and what did the Tiffany Studio look like in 1898 since it no longer exists?
 4. Because it is historical, what is the timeline?  I plot out  the story arc with sensitivity to what was happening in the world, area to incorporate later.
 5. Write, rewrite, research, read aloud, write some more, stay open to critique, rewrite/rebuff and write again.
 6. Get frustrated, let it rest, go at it again.
 7. Get Writer’s Block, kick the imaginary cat, turn to another format (Short Story,Poem, Essay) , write in longhand, journal over it, write again.
 8. Along the way, rest on my laurels…perfect dialogue, gorgeously conveyed setting, strong plot twist, praise from others.(ahem…)

Throughout all this, I attend writers organizational meetings, gather with writer friends, take on writerly tasks (ie, coordinating contests, participating on panels,)  keep up on Face Book, Blog, follow others’ blogs, find my personal Max Perkins and attend conferences. I do all for the purpose of honing my skills and making connections to aid the writing process and move me toward publication.





Women’s History Month has its roots here in Sonoma County, CA. In 1978,  the local Commission on the Status of Women called for a week in March to be set aside to acknowledge the struggles and accomplishments of women. By 1980, the Women’s History Project was underway and Congress declared March our month.

Many women have influenced my life but in this day of attacks on the labor movement and hard-won labor rights I want to honor one woman who led the way, often with controversy. I hope you enjoy this tale. 

Excerpt from HUACHUCA WOMAN     Benson, Arizona   July 1917

Wiping her face of rivulets of sweat, she walked away from him and took a shady bench seat under the eaves of the station house, right alongside me. She was a smallish woman, getting on to thirty or thereabouts, fine featured with a full head of soot black hair, her crowning glory. She had the look of too many miles, too few good nights’ sleep and too much bad food. Her color was off and dark circles pooled under her gray blue eyes. She gave a faint smile.

             “Don’t think I’ll ever grow accustomed to the Arizona sun,” she said, fanning at the heat waves with her bit of the El Paso Herald.

            “I’m Arizona born and bred,” I said. “I’m still not used to it. Name’s Josephine Nichols.”

            “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I am Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.”

            “The one they call ‘the rebel girl?’”

            “My main claim to fame,” she answered.

            “Believe I’ve read about you. You went out and made speeches for those lady silk workers in New Jersey about three, four year ago. Newspaper picture didn’t do you justice and I ‘spect they didn’t do so well by your speech either.”

            “You have that right. The newsies tend to intentionally garble what I say most of the time. Fortunately, the workers heard my message for themselves. It was a time.”

            “Is that what you do?  I mean, travel around the country and talk folks up?”

            “That and some writing,” Elizabeth answered. “What are you doing in this god forsaken place?”

            I laughed. “That’s my machine and trunks they’re trying to get loose. I’m heading back to my folks’ ranch with my boys.” I watched my sons horse around, in their usual fashion, and smiled when I caught Willy’s attention. He waved back. “Their daddy has gone off to the war.”      

“A soldier?  You’d think men would learn from their women to gather over the back fence or a cup of coffee and settle their differences before rushing off to kill one another.”

            “You sound like my Peter. He’s spent the last year or so saying that to anyone that’d listen. When the United States joined in the fray, he studied on it some more until he found a way to help. He’s gone off to drive ambulance for the Red Cross.”

            “Good for him. I hope he returns safely to you. And soon.”

            Wanting to shift the discussion away from Pete, my constant worry, I asked, “Who’s that man y’all were talking to? Your husband?”

            “No, no. He’s Big Bill Haywood, chief organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Some call us ‘Wobblies’ or the IWW. Some call him a ‘rabble rouser.’ There’s no one quite like him for getting the attention of working folks and management alike.”

            “Where y’all headed?”

            “There’s been some ugly business in Bisbee.”

            “Land’s sakes, those mines are so dangerous that it’s big time news when a month goes by without an accident,” I told her.  “Makes the headlines hereabout.”

             “They‘ve been saying the IWW down there is full of traitors and immigrants, people who don’t belong here.”

            “I’ve heard it said,” I responded. “Along the border here, most Mexican laborers come over for a time but go home when they want, and take their money with them.”

            “You might be surprised. The mining companies, at first, recruited Cornish, Welsh and German Austrian miners for their skills.” She took off her jacket and undid a few buttons of her blouse.  I followed suit and found some relief from the heat. “Now, these folks are a long ways from home and, for most, there’s no going back. They’ve settled here, become citizens, own land, have bank accounts, kids in local schools.”

            “German friends of ours just got chased out of El Paso a couple of months ago.”  I could see their sad faces as we saw the Kohls off at the station. “You’re right, there’s no going back to Germany for them. Just back to New York to be with more German Americans, to spare the children not fitting in.”

            “It’s a sad time for some, no doubt about it. Most of us have only a generation or two to look back to for immigration stories. My own family is lace curtain Irish.” She looked blankly into the distance as if seeing her ancestors.       

            “True enough,” I said. “Though to hear some talk, you’d think their people built and rowed the Mayflower across all by theirselves.”

            We both shifted in our seats as the sun moved further west and the shade slid off the bench. We fanned ourselves with more vigor. Late afternoon was coming on quickly toward dusk, still the heat held on. Shimmering light danced off a rock wall across the tracks. Flies hovered over horse patties on the parallel trail while a lizard, long and lean, scurried from under the station platform to begin its trek along the rails.

            Willy and Jim-boy, tired of supervising the repairs, collected coins from the crowd and went in search of cool drinks at the drug store down the road.  I felt drowsiness come on me. Elizabeth’s head lolled to her shoulder, causing her to shake awake. She shifted again in her seat and offered an embarrassed grin.

            “Your sons are quite a nice twosome.”

            “They’re good boys. Do you have children?”

            “I have a son, Fred. We call him Buster,” her face lit up. “He’s seven and spending the summer at the shore with the family. Mama and my sister Kathie look after him since I am away so much.”

            “It must be hard to be so far from him. I mean, if he were to get sick or something.”  I felt I had blundered badly here.

            “You’re right for he’s a thin one and has been sickly. He gets the bronchitis in his lungs and he had appendicitis last fall. Fortunately, I was home at that time. We kept him out of school for the rest of the year, fearing he’d get the infantile paralysis. It’s really bad back in New York.”

            “So I’ve heard. I had a brother die of lung disease,” I said. “Most of the lung problems out this way comes from the mining, but William Ebert didn’t have a chance to burrow under even if he’d a wanted. My first husband was a rock hound, but mostly on the surface.”  She asked after him and I repeated that sad story.

            We talked more of our families and their beginnings. Elizabeth much admired her well-read mother who inspired her daughters to go out into the world and make their mark. She spoke of her son in a wistful way, like a fancy doll she could take off the shelf and hold on special occasions, but didn’t dare get dirty. She worried that Buster would grow to resent her work for keeping her from him. I had no answer to that for I’d never had that particular fear, despite my own work.

            Talking of this and that, in the way women will do, I was interested in how she had traveled all about the country. In my limited experience, few women traveled alone. She had been in the Minnesota mines, the Mesabi Range, that summer, to Seattle and Boston and points in between. I thought she was very brave and told her so.

            “I don’t know that it is bravery, but I thank you. It’s just the way I am. I guess I’ll be fighting for better wages and working conditions until the end of my days. How about you, what do you see for yourself?”

            “I don’t rightly know,” I answered slowly for in contrast, I felt my life to be of  little social worth. “For now, I want to work the ranch. Get up before the chickens, ride the fence line, go on roundup with my daddy and sons, gossip with Mama and be pampered some by her. All the time praying that Peter comes home safe and sound.”

            “I’d say you have your work cut out for you.” She smiled warmly at me, as if knowing my doubts. “What’s Bisbee like?”  Elizabeth asked.

“It’s not hardly like any place else you’ve been, I ‘spect. There’s scarcely a level plain in the whole town. It’s all hillsides and topsy-turvey buildings, a bowl of a town with the houses barely stuck to the sides. And dominating it all are the mines with their sulphur fumes, dust, noise and saloons.”

            “Sounds lively,” said Elizabeth.

            “It’s had fire and floods and horrible epidemics, but it just keeps on thrivin’ and survivin’. One thing about Bisbee, you never know what’s gonna happen next. But something will. That’s Bisbee.”

            “Did you know the miners at the Copper Queen went out on strike?”

            “I been so busy packing up my household, I didn’t get many details,” I said, apologetically. “Is it settled yet?”

            “Far from it. Two thousand good citizens of Bisbee, including company men and spies from the Justice Department, took it upon themselves to run some twelve hundred men out of town, county and state.” Elizabeth stood up and paced on the platform in front of me. “Dragged them out of their beds, and crammed them into boxcars. By sizzling hot noon, they were out in the middle of the desert, at some place called Hermanas in New Mexico. Kept locked up overnight, with little water or bread and no sanitary facilities.” She turned and stared at me.

“Good heavens,” I said. “I’ve heard of pogroms in Europe where they gathered up the Jews and run them off like that. Who’d have thought that could happen right here to home. What’s happened since?”

She took a big breath, came and sat with me again. Her shoulders slumped, perhaps in sorrow, perhaps in fatigue.

            “A few were able to make it back to Bisbee, including our IWW lawyer who was caught up in the transport. Most, though, are sitting it out at the Army base near Columbus with no funds or way to get back here, and under a death threat if they do come.”

            “Now, that ain’t right. I imagine there’s family men amongst them?”

            “Absolutely. Most are citizens. Maybe half registered for the draft, have families and property. There’s even local businessmen caught up among the deportees.”

            “I’m shamed. War or no war, that ain’t right. But you still haven’t said what you’re doing out here, so far from New York.”

            A red capped porter was waving folks to board the branch line, the flatcar affixed in place. Willy and Jim-boy had long since settled down on the platform to wait and were now jumping on board and calling to me. We gathered up our satchels and climbed onto the train.

            “I was headed back east when I got a telegram from Big Bill, asking if I’d come down and speak to the strikers, try to give them heart,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll do that and then be on my way.”

            “All I can say is, you got grit, girly, and out here, that’s saying a mite.”

            She gave me a wide open smile and a pat on my arm. We said our goodbyes as I headed to the forward car and my boys, and she moved to the rear with her escort and the men he’d gathered to him. The boys and I wouldn’t be going as far as Bisbee, but unload at Hereford and head to the ranch. Pity was, I liked that young woman. I think we’d have been fast friends, given the chance.


Devastation scares, intimidates and forces us to take stock. I watched the hour long march of the tsunami late Thursday evening in shock and dismay, hardly believing my eyes. Then, came all the later stories of the loss of lives, homes and livelihoods until the World Figure Skating Championships folks asked the question about canceling this week’s competition in Tokyo.  Excuse me, I think the Japanese will be otherwise occupied for a considerable time to come!


Earth shakes

Fear presides

Breathe, breathe

don’t forget how

Panic rules

Flames incite

Shocks continue

Into the night

Mud rushes in

Capturing the land

Roof becomes basement

Debris swims by

Where are the people

Turned upside down

In seconds, in minutes

Life flows apart

All that water

None to drink

Brother, mother, child

Dead or lost

Shattered earth

Shattered home

Shattered life

Shattered future

Nuclear rods

Hot to let go

Float in the abyss

Of afterglow

Fear runs amuck

Chaos has its day

But shall we skate

The world asks anyway

AD  March 2011


In last’s week’s post on novel beginnings, I cited Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages and Les Edgerton’s Hooked. So, what did they do in their final lines? They sent us back to our drawing boards (aka writing tools.) 

     Lukeman:  “Ask yourself what you would do if you knew you would never be published. Would you still write? If you are truly writing for the art of it, the answer will be yes. And then, every word is a victory. 

     Edgerton:      “Play the game forward. I’ll be looking for you on the bookshelves.”

 These are what might be seen as “optimistic” or happy endings. They leave the reader satisfied, pleased and glad that s/he read the work.

 Glen C. Strathy on his blog: How to Write a Book Now offers up an analysis of endings, suggesting they begin at the beginning with the writer’s choice of story goal and outcome:

“Based on these two choices – outcome and judgment, the four possible endings of any novel plot are as follows.

1. Comedy (happy ending): the protagonist achieves the goal or solves the problem, and his success turns out to be a good thing.

2. Tragedy: the protagonist fails to achieve the goal, and his failure is a bad thing.

3. Tragi-comedy (Personal Triumph): the protagonist fails to achieve the goal, but his failure turns out to be a good thing.

4. Comi-tragedy (Personal Tragedy): the protagonist achieves his goal, but his success turns out to be a bad thing.”

Other writers, other analyses:

Linda Lindsey via Sheryl Tuttle’s blog: Hope and Faith, May 26, 2009:

  1. Explicit-all is answered
  2. Implicit-rests on interpretation
  3. Twist-new revelation
  4. Tie-back-tied to clues planted in the beginning
  5. Unresolved-main conflicts left unanswered
  6. Longview-tells the future of the characters

In combing the works of my favored, traditional writing teachers (Natalie Goldberg, Oakley Hall, John Gardner, etc) I found little that covered endings. Okay, stronger than “little.” I found nothing. Is that because they expect that endings take care of themselves if the writer has done their job? Quite likely. To follow Strathy’s paradigm, it seems transparent that the ending will take care of itself when the writer follows the goals of the novel as developed through plot, character, story arc, etc.

Looking at the novelists I referred to last time, there are some illuminating endings:

 Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mockingbird comes full circle when the book ends with Jem’s broken arm:

     “He(Atticus) turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the   morning.”

Atticus, the dutiful citizen/lawyer is ever the dutiful father burdened in the belief he brought on Jem’s injury in going after racist/child abuser Ewell, whose end comes at the hands of an uncommon hero.

In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the story that started with references to “rivulet marks” as the drought builds concludes with a major flood of the migrant campground, taking lives and belongings. Seeking refuge in a barn, the Joads find the starving man whose life is saved by Rose of Sharon when she offers her milk-giving breast after the stillbirth of her child. It is an ending that stirred controversy from 1939 to this day.  Even the author had his doubts:

            John Steinbeck, Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath, page 90  had this to say:

            “My mind doesn’t want to work—hates to work in fact, but I’ll make it. I’m on my very last chapter now. The very last….the last scene that has been ready so long. I don’t know. I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes.”

 Then, there’s Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian whose poetic repetitive style was noted in last week’s beginnings. In the final paragraph (pre-Epilogue,) the judge dances the dance of death or is it life? A threesome of repetitive words provides the beat, the cadence of a heart throbbing to hear itself:

            “He never sleeps. He says he will never die.” ..and so he dances on.

 It’s your call to categorize these endings by whatever standard appeals to you. Mine: they end as they began, full of promise.

 Sonoma County writers take notice:Saturday, March 12, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Join Guy Biederman and Ken Rodgers for a one-day writing seminar, “Endings.” Suggested fee is $75.To enroll, contact Guy Biederman at or 707-292-9040 707-292-9040, or Ken Rodgers at


Whole books are written about the first lines or first pages which must capture the agent, editor or reader’s imagination, heart, or attention. Noah Lukeman did it in January 2005 with The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.  Then, in April 2007, Les Edgerton published Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. Both books soared to success among writers, editors and agents and continue to be  widely recommended. In each, the goal is clear: don’t screw up your chances by shooting-yourself-in-the-foot with grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, poor imagery, or unimaginative writing on those first lines or pages. Each author makes recommendations, gives illustrations and attempts to inspire us to better writing from that first sentence.

So, how do Lukeman and Edgerton start their books? What are their first lines?

Lukeman: “Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art.”

Edgerton: “Why a book on just story beginnings? The simple truth is, if your beginning doesn’t do the job it needs to, the rest of the story most likely won’t be read by the agent or editor or publisher you submit it to.”

And so, they caught agents, editors and publishers with their openings.

 This sort of observation is usually followed by examples from Great Literature of profound, exciting or just plain noteworthy beginnings:

        Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his arm.”

Lee goes on to tie the broken arm to the children’s recall of “when things started,” setting the tone and time of the story in our imaginings.

       John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath: “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.”

Steinbeck draws vivid word pictures of the advancing drought and how it will impact the families in its wake, not the least of which is the tragically flawed Joad family.    

       Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian: “See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.”

 McCarthy potently uses repetitive language to engage the emotions: “pale and thin…thin and ragged linen shirt…rags of snow.” We are there with that child…and so is the agent, editor, publisher and reader.

Clearly, Lukeman and Edgerton are on to something…as are these classic writers.  How about your first lines and pages? Do they ring with imagery, set the tone of your work, show us the beginnings of your world?  Do you lasso us with emotion, show us your character, plunk us right into the action? You might check the books on your shelves or the manuscripts in your computer and see what you find in those first sentences.

I cut my first chapter out of BY GRACE a few years ago when an agent complained about the length of the mss. My “Max Perkins” of an editor(real name, Marlene Cullen) recently convinced me to restore those pages for they set the tone, showed the character and her important back story in a way that had gone missing in the modified work. The importance of finding the right first lines and pages was underscored for me.

 And what about the final words of the book? What of their function? Do they “sum it up?” Entice us to look/wish for the sequel? Leave us dissatisfied, annoyed or unresolved?

I’ll take a look at “endings” at another time.