Monday, February 13, 2017

The Changing Face of Libraries

My, how libraries have changed over the years! What used to be quiet places to check out books and read in silence, are now hubs for socialization and a variety of activities.

My local St. Charles City-County Library (Spencer Road Branch) has something going on just about every day of the week. Knitting lessons, author talks, tax preparation classes, and healthy living seminars are a few events held on a regular basis. With a few clicks of a mouse, card holders can reserve the latest books, e-books, CDs, or DVDs or sign up for classes or events.

At the Spencer Road Branch Library last fall my sister and I attended a breast cancer awareness dinner co-sponsored by the library and a local hospital. The event included medical professionals and inspiring talks from survivors. Vendors, handouts, and a light meal were also available.

The following month we participated in an eight-week class for senior citizens on better balance co-sponsored by OASIS. We learned how to prevent falls, were shown how to safely preform exercises, provided healthy snacks, and were given workbooks to refer to after class completion.

At the end of 2016, my sister, one of my critique group friends, and I attended a “Book Buzz” presentation by a library marketing representative from Penguin Random House. Not only did the library provide snacks, the publisher gave each attendee a cool tote bag that read "Can't I'm Booked." Inside each bag was a free book. My free book was a copy of Always by Sarah Jio, which is on my to-be-read list.

During the slide show presentation, the publisher's representative highlighted books to be released in the fall of 2016 and winter of 2017. Along with displaying copies of dozens of book covers, he gave a description of each book. One element I was interested in hearing about was the print run of the books, which generally is an indication that a book  will be in high demand. After hearing about so many fascinating books, immediately after the presentation my sister and I hurried to the check-out counter to add our names on the reserve list for books that were especially appealing. 

Although libraries have changed from the time I received my first buff-colored library card when I was in grade school,  one thing has remained constant in my life, my love for libraries and books will never go out of style.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Dixon Hearne on "Setting as Character"

I'm pleased today to have acclaimed author Dixon Hearne as my guest blogger to speak about "Setting as Character." His works have been published widely, with his most recent, Delta Flats, published by Amphorae Publishing Group.
Photo courtesy of author
Dixon Hearne (photo on left) is the author of three recent books: Delta Flats: Stories in the Key of Blues and Hope (nominee, 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award) and From Tickfaw to Shongaloo (Second-Place, 2014 William Faulkner Novella competition), both set in Louisiana, and Plainspeak: New and Collected Poems. His website is

Setting as Character

I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it. ~William Faulkner

Beginning writers are often told: “Write about what you know.” Consequently, many of their first writings center on where they live and the people in their orbit. Once they have the basic elements of fiction (plot, character, setting, theme, and style), they typically feel more comfortable trying their hand at various genres. Fiction offers particularly rich ground for cultivating possibilities. Setting alone presents unlimited opportunity for experimentation.

More than Backdrop (physical, social milieu)

Setting must be as well fleshed out as any other character, by the use of specific and telling details. It can't be selected on a whim, with no purpose in mind; but it must feed into the story   ~Elizabeth George

Literature is replete with examples of places imbued with human qualities—beyond mere personification, symbolism, or metaphor. Consider, for example, the characterization of the moors in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights—a dark, brooding entity, ominous and ever-present, more than simply a literary device to set the tone of the story.

Consider also Scarlett’s Tara, more than mere symbol of strength and security. It beckons, nourishes, influences. She views Tara as a living entity—revels and wallows in its splendor, its spell. It is friend, healer, guardian angel. Similarly, Anne Shirley imbues Green Gables with life and joy-giving.

Examples of “setting as character” can be found in any number of novels and in noir films set in New York City, New Orleans, London, and other places alive with their own personas—where setting speaks to the reader/viewer, sets the tone/mood of the story, and exerts influence and control over characters and plot. Place is carefully developed into an unforgettable part of the story. Nowhere are examples more clear and abundant than gothic tales and horror movies set in haunted places, settings portrayed as living entities that act and react with other characters.

Southern writers seem particularly adept at featuring setting as character in fiction—from Dorothy Allison (Carolina) to Tennessee Williams (New Orleans) to James Lee Burke (swamps) to Faulkner (Yoknapatawpha County). Contemporary “raw South” fiction typifies the impulse of many southern writers to interweave place with other characters in their stories. Authors like David Armand (southeast Louisiana, The Gorge), Daren Dean (rural Missouri, Far Beyond the Pale), and Skip Horack (Gulf South, The Southern Cross) create settings well beyond the dimensions of mere time and place. They bring place to life.  

Examples from my own writing:

Many of my stories spring from a single image, a place in my head. I almost immediately step back and consider how place might affect my characters. They are often powerful images, like a cabin porch in fallow fields, as in my short story “This Side of Canaan.” A sweat-drenched couple and their ragged children peeking through the doorway complete the picture, tell the story.

Setting is central to my comic novella From Tickfaw to Shongaloo. Stokely, a Southern town, reflects universal themes and motives and actions. The dialect immediately identifies the geographical setting. We get to know the town as more than a place—its identity is inextricably tied up with its interactions with townspeople. Place is paramount in the story.

Photo courtesy of author
Delta Flats: Stories in the Key of Blues and Hope is about place as well as characters. In some cases, place is featured as a character itself, as in “Crescent City Blues,” which conjures images of decadence and a general atmosphere of laissez les bon temps rouler.

“Waves wash upon its muddy banks like the incessant beating of the Crescent City’s heart. Like eternal applause for the drama, with all its shadowy plots and subplots, unfolding in the decadent world of the French Quarter. No one escapes its influence, New Orleans. One might curse or spurn or dismiss it with the contempt of a religious zealot, but deny it—no. It floats like an island unto itself, a world shaped by half a millennium of vibrant tenancy.”

Native Voices, Native Lands brings landscapes of the Southwest and the central plains to life in story and poem. Indeed, many native Americans believe that the earth and its constituent natural parts (land, rivers, mountains, etc.) have souls. They write eloquently of waters and tribal lands as living entities.

Crafting Place as Character

In crafting a story that will feature setting/place as a character, one might consider the following:

How does a writer bring life to a setting—complete with mood, motive, and emotions?

How can the senses be used to add dimension and shape the character of the setting?

How does a writer introduce deliberate conflict and interaction between other characters and setting to create a believable entity. Like any other character, setting can cause problems or trouble for the protagonist(s).

Consider what motives a place might have as a character in the story. What is to be gained or lost? Use that to help develop a persona.

Create a list of words that capture conflict, mood, atmosphere, and setting. Carefully selected words add dimension and layers to place as character. 

Imagine yourself as the place in the story. What do you see, feel, hear, smell? What might your own actions/reactions be? 

Pay careful attention to language and detail.

Most importantly, read other stories—many stories—that feature setting/place as character.

Thank you, Dixon for your wisdom and advice, and congratulations on your many accomplishments.

Friday, January 13, 2017

May Your Soul Rest in Peace, William Peter Blatty

I was sad to hear the news that author and filmmaker William Peter Blatty died yesterday at the age of 89. His novel, The Exorcist, was one of the most frightening books I've ever read, and the movie of the same name gave me chills. 

Note: While the setting for the novel The Exorcist was Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., according to many, the story was based on an actual exorcism performed in 1949 in St. Louis, Missouri

Several years ago, when I wrote book reviews for, I was assigned to review Blatty's novel Dimiter.

 In my Bookreporter review I described Dimiter as "enigmatic, compelling, and beguiling. Part mystery and part spiritual thriller  . . . rich in detail and written with wisdom and grace."

At the end of my review I mentioned a minor detail in the novel that puzzled me. I wasn't sure if I should even comment on it. After all Mr. Blatty was an award-winning writer who won an Academy Award. Who was I to point out a mistake? Yet, I felt an obligation to readers to be completely honest in my review.

A few months later, I received an e-mail from someone whose address I didn't recognize. I scanned the e-mail quickly then started to delete it. But I paused and read it a few more times before realizing it was for real.

The e-mail was from Mr. Blatty himself, who thanked me not only for my review, but also for pointing out his mistake, which, he wrote, had been missed by him and several editors but would be corrected on the next print run.

Receiving his e-mail made me realize what a gracious and talented writer Mr. Blatty was.

May your soul rest in peace, William Peter Blatty. You were not only a gifted writer, but also a humble and generous man whose work inspired many.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Special Feast Day: Epiphany and The Three Kings

Today, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany, also known in many countries as Three Kings Day.

Growing up, my family celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany as the official last day of the Christmas season. January sixth was the day we took down our scrawny Christmas tree, removed the silver tinsel, swept up the pine needles, rolled up the daisy-chain garland, wrapped the dime-store ornaments and
bubble lights in toilet paper, and stored everything in a few shoe boxes.

Oh, my, how times have changed!

This year I began removing ornaments a few days ago. It's been a slow process. We have so many ornaments and decorations. The most cherished are those hand painted by my children and grandchildren. Other special ornaments were given to me by my family and friends over the years -- several from the White House collection, some with an Irish theme, others with sayings about sisters and friends, many from our family's annual Thanksgiving Day ornament exchange and from my Bunco friends at our Christmas party ornament exchange. 

Each ornament tells a story and brings back a memory.

There's one ornament that tells a story I wrote about in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Gift of Christmas. The story was called "Unexpected Joy."

The ornament featured in the story was given to my family on the Feast of the Epiphany a few years ago.

But the story didn't start there.

It started on the first Sunday of Advent when our doorbell rang one night and I found a wrapped package on the front porch. Inside was a gingerbread house, which my grandkids and I decorated.

The next Sunday another gift arrived, then another for each Sunday in Advent. I called family and neighbors to find out who left the gifts. No one knew and no one confessed. I expected someone to reveal themselves on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but it wasn't until the Feast of the Epiphany that a family from our parish knocked on our door and handed us another gift.

It was a burgundy colored velvet box.

Inside was a hand-painted "Li Bien" ornament. A small circle inside the box explained the meaning of "Li Bien" which comes from the Chinese meaning "inside."

The Li Bien ornament showcases the age old skill of inside painting, which originated in the Qing Dynasty. The ornament was hand-painted through a tiny opening in the mouth-blown glass. Each image is painted in reverse.

The ornament inside was of the Nativity scene, complete with the Holy Family and the Three Kings.

So, on this Feast of the Epiphany, or the Feast of the Three Kings, I fondly remember the year a family treated us to these special gifts, and the act of kindness and generosity they shared with us.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Commit to Submit: Paid Submission Opportunity from Whispering Prairie Press

Photo courtesy of Whispering Prairie Press website
One of my writing goals for 2017 is to submit to a variety of publications.  

I'm not sure if someone in the writing universe picked up on that vibe, but in the past few days I've received e-mails announcing some submission opportunities.

The latest one is from Whispering Prairie Press, which is seeking submissions for their magazine, "Kansas City Voices."

If you're like me, you have questions: 

Do I have to live in Kansas, Kansas City, or Missouri to submit? No, you don't.

What are the editors looking for? Prose, poetry, and art of all media.

Does it cost to submit? Nope. Submissions are free, but there is a limit on how many works you can submit.

Does this publication pay? Yes. According to their submission guidelines: "If your work is accepted for publication you will receive a small payment and one copy of the magazine.  All payments are made in U.S. Dollars."

When is the deadline? Submissions are accepted until March 15.

What's the word limit? Details, including word count and formatting, can be found on this submissions link.

Those are the bare bones of the call out. Be sure to check out the website to find out the specific requirements, and good luck if you send something.

Now, I have some questions: 

Have any of my visitors ever been published in "Kansas City Voices?"

If so, how was your experience?

Also, do you know of any markets open to submissions?

Friday, December 30, 2016

2017 New Year Writing Goals: Get Organized and Seek Publishing Opportunities

If your New Year's writing goals include getting organized and seeking out publishing opportunities, here are two items that might be helpful:

The first comes from the Literautas blog, which offers a free download of a printable 2017 writer's calendar and/or writers' planner. The calendar and planner are easy to download, print, and use, especially if you like to hold a physical hard-copy planner to chart your writing progress.

The second is a reminder of the Rock Springs Review anthology contest, which includes an opportunity to win prize money and be included in the anthology. The contest seeks works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Due to the New Year's holiday, RSR editor Judy Stock has extended the deadline by one day. For complete submission guidelines, e-mail Judy Stock at

Wishing you and yours a joyous and prosperous New Year!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Advent by Candlelight and the Great St. Nicholas Day Debate

Celtic Advent wreath
Last evening our church (All Saints in St. Peters) hosted its eleventh annual Advent by Candlelight celebration for the women in our parish--and beyond our parish borders.

Advent is a time of anticipation and wonder. The Advent by Candlelight celebration is an evening of quiet reflection, prayers, music, and inspiration--along with the sharing of food and friendship.

In years past, our table has been filled with people I know; it's been a delightful and comfortable evening. This year was a bit different. A few women from our Bunco group (that's been going strong for 43 years) weren't able to attend, so we had empty spots at our table. What made the evening special was I met Diana and Mindy, two women who belong to our parish I'd never met before who sat with our group.

We all shared food and drink and stories and recipes. I brought chicken salad sandwiches on croissants and some port wine cheese. Cheryl brought raspberry moscato wine and a beef ball and crackers. My sister Kathleen provided all the table wear, and her rumchata pudding shots were a big hit. Everyone asked for her recipe! Geri brought dessert and some sweets to take home. Diana provided fruit salad with whipped cream topping. Mindy served cheese and salami and crackers. The menu was unplanned, but it all worked!

In between eating. listening to songs and music, and prayerful reflection, I spoke with Diana, a retired nurse who sat next to me. She had some wonderful stories to share, including one about how she and her husband met and how they love putting puzzles together and how the puzzles became so special to them and their marriage. She also told me about her miracle baby son, who is now in his early 30s. She also shared a few sad stories. Her eyes glistened with tears, so I listened and patted her hand. 

Everyone at our table also discussed St. Nicholas Day. Mindy asked what she should tell her daughter about when to put out her granddaughter's shoes. We talked about the origin of St. Nicholas Day and why we put out the shoes, but the great St. Nicholas debate continues.

Do you put out your shoes on December fifth so St. Nicholas can fill them up for the sixth, which is St. Nicholas Day? Or, do you put them out the night of December sixth because that's the actual day?

"Santa Wore Cowboy Boots"
Toward the end of the night a woman walked up and introduced herself. She asked if I was Donna Volkenannt, the writer, which surprised me. She told me she had heard me speak at a writing event several years ago and had read one of my stories and it inspired her.

It was a Christmas story called "Santa Wore Cowboy Boots" that I wrote about 15 years ago for a Cup of Comfort book. That story dealt with my depression about being homesick at Christmas time while living in Arizona so far away from my family and how my mood affected my children, especially my son, who that year taught me the true meaning of Christmas.

The woman had an unusual last name so I asked her if she was related to a man I used to work with before I was married, who happens to be her husband's uncle. Turns out it's a small and wonderful world, and we never know what to expect.

So, while the question lingers on when to put your children's or grandchildren's shoes out for St. Nicholas Day, the Advent season remains a special time -- of reflection and expectation and delight at our wonderful world.