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.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Pulitzer Prize Winner T. J. Stiles Discusses Jessee James and the Civil War in Missouri

St. Louis Civil War Roundtable
On the last day of November, I accompanied my writing friend and critique group member, Pat Wahler, across the Missouri River from St. Charles to the Civil War Roundtable of St. Louis event in South St. Louis.

Until recently, I hadn’t heard about the Civil War Roundtable of St. Louis. The warm and welcoming group's motto is, “bringing history to life,” and I'm glad I found out about this hidden St. Louis literary gem.

Pat and I attended this special event to hear acclaimed biographer and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer and National Book Award winner, T. J. Stiles. His Pulitzer Prize winning works include biographies of Cornelius Vanderbilt and George Armstrong Custer, which also won a Spur Award.  

Stiles' Civil War Roundtable talk highlighted some of the guerilla battles that savaged Missouri during the Civil War. He spoke with clarity and passion about how that vicious fighting impacted the life of Jesse James, the subject of his biography, Jesse James: the Last Rebel of the Civil War.

I’m interested in Missouri history, and Pat has completed a manuscript about the wife of Jesse James, so having an opportunity to listen to Mr. Stiles talk about Jesse James, one of Missouri’s most notorious historical figures, was an exceptional opportunity for both of us.

T. J. Stiles on Jesse James
After dinner, Mr. Stiles began his talk by setting the stage of a deeply divided Missouri, a state with Southern sensibilities and which shared borders with three free states. Violence against Jesse's family and other Southern sympathizers in the western part of Missouri near the Kansas border fostered James’ deeply held anti-Union feelings. According to Stiles, James was not only an outlaw bandit and a killer, he was also a complicated man with strong political convictions. For Jesse, the war was personal. James' path was encouraged by his iron-willed mother Zerelda, who was once described as “the meanest woman in Missouri.”

Mr. Stiles’ fascinating talk was followed by a brief question and answer session.

I’m generally more of a note-taker and listener than a questioner, but I was curious to find out how Mr. Stiles selects his subjects for research and writing.  So, I stepped out of my comfort zone and raised my hand. Because he spoke directly to me when he answered my question, I didn’t jot down his answer, but here’s what I recall.

The subjects he selects are:   

            Something/someone he likes reading about

            Dramatic/complex characters

            Something about which he wants to say something original or to take a different approach

            Something that results in a change in emphasis or perspective about the subject

Donna Volkenannt and T. J. Stiles
Afterwards, Pat and I joined a long line of folks waiting to have books signed or wanting to chat with Mr. Stiles, who graciously stayed until he met with the last person in line.

He even posed for photos. The one on the left is of him and me, taken by Pat.

You can read more about T. J. Stiles and his critically acclaimed books on his website.

The Civil War Roundtable of St. Louis will hold its next dinner in January with guest speaker Molly Kodner, Archivist at the Missouri History Museum. I'm looking forward to that discussion.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Submission Announcement from Well Versed and Winner of Behind Every Door

The Columbia Chapter of the Missouri Writers' Guild is now open for submissions of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and flash fiction for their 2017 issue of Well Versed.

Logo courtesy of CCMWG blog
Here are a few basic submission highlights:

Unpublished entries only
Deadline January 15, 2017
Winners announced April 7, 2017
Release date June 4, 2017

Complete guidelines, including cost for entering and prize amounts for each category, can be found on the Well Versed rules and submission guidelines page. 

Drum roll, please . . .

Next, is the announcement of the winner of Cynthia A. Graham's novel, Behind Every Door from Blank Slate Press, an imprint of Amphorae Publishing Group. Thanks to Cynthia for her interview questions and to everyone who left a comment.

My random number generator, aka my husband, picked the number five. 

Commenter #5 is : K9friend, aka Pat Wahler.

Congratulations, Pat. I will get the copy of Behind Every Door to you soon.


Finally, later this month I will feature a guest post about "setting as character" from Dixon Hearne, author of the short story collection Delta Flats: Stories in the Key of Blues and Hope.

I hope you will return to read what Dixon has to say on that topic.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Interview with Cynthia A. Graham on Writing Behind Every Door and A Book Giveaway

During a conversation at the Ozarks Creative Writing Conference with an editor from Amphorae Publishing Group, "a small press with big books," the editor commented that she enjoys my reading blog and asked if I would be willing to interview a couple of their authors.

Before agreeing, I asked for some information about the authors and their books to make sure they would be a good fit for my blog visitors. And I believe they are. 

I am not being compensated for interviewing the authors, although I was given a copy of their books to help me formulate my questions.

Cynthia A. Graham
My first interview is with multi-genre author Cynthia A.Graham. The photo on the left is courtesy of Amphorae Publishing Group.

According to the Amphorae website, Cynthia was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but spent a lot of time in the cotton belt of Missouri, "where she grew to love the mystery and beauty of the stark, Delta Plain." Cynthia's short stories have won several awards, and her work has been published in various anthologies. 

I am giving away my copy of Cynthia A. Graham's Behind Every Door, published by Blank Slate Press (an imprint of Amphorae Publishing Group), to one of my blog visitors who leaves a comment on this post.

Here are my interview questions (in black) and Cynthia's answers (in red).

The primary setting for Behind Every Door is Cherokee Crossing, Arkansas. Is Cherokee Crossing an actual location or a fictional town?

Cherokee Crossing is a fictional town located in the northeast corner of Arkansas. It would most likely be in the real county of Lawrence. I wanted to create a town so that I could do with it whatever I wanted, geographically, racially, and politically.

Behind Every Door is your second novel, following Beneath Still Waters. What was the inspiration for Behind Every Door, and how does it connect with Beneath Still Waters?

Behind Every Door takes place two years after Beneath Still Waters and continues the life of Andrew “Hick” Blackburn as he becomes a husband and father. At the time I was (and still am) frustrated with how quickly we jump to conclusions – how easily we judge based on preconceived ideas and how these prejudices can make justice, for some, very hard to find.

Your novel takes place in the Deep South shortly after World War II, a time of great change and upheaval in the United States, not just because of the war, but also because of social norms and racial tensions. Why did you pick this time period for your mystery?

Hick Blackburn was largely born from various family stories of uncles who had gone to fight the war. These young men were not well-traveled; they perhaps had never been further from home than the mid-south fair in Memphis and were thrust into battle in a strange, faraway place. The inevitable disorientation this caused helped define Hick, it made him the perfect vehicle for questioning injustice as he had witnessed atrocity. He is no longer capable of blind acceptance or complacency because his world has been irrevocably changed.

Sheriff Andrew Jackson “Hick” Blackburn, the main character, is a well drawn and realistic character. He is a man of integrity and purpose, yet he has flaws and a wartime-past he would like to forget. How did you come up with him as a character?

I really wanted Hick to be a perfect storm of vulnerability – someone who would really think and process his experiences. I created for him a past of relative ease, but I gave him the sort of character that really questions things – from the abuse of a cat as a child to the horrific experience he had in the war. I did not want him to be just another John Wayne “hero” type character, but rather I wanted him to be a vehicle for questioning our own motives and actions, our assignations of who is worthy of life and who is not.

How difficult was it to write from the point of view of a man, especially one who has come home from a terrible wartime experience?

The greatest compliment I ever received was from a mentor who told me I “think like a man.” I honestly think there are fewer differences between the sexes than we perceive. Virginia Woolf and Samuel Coleridge both refer to the importance of an androgynous mind. The challenge was not so much in Hick’s masculinity as in his impotence to express himself – in his “mind forged manacles.” The wartime experience (which I have not had) exasperated this problem and was a challenge, but anyone can understand the frustration in wanting to express yourself on some deep level and being unable to.

I love the cover of your book and am curious about the title, both of which tie in to my question about your writing and publishing process. What can you tell us about how long it took and other aspects of the writing, editing, and publishing process for Behind Every Door?

I thought the title Behind Every Door tied in nicely with Beneath Still Waters and my publisher designed both covers and I think they perfectly complement one another. I was inspired when I wrote it and since Beneath Still Waters had been favorably received, I wanted to get it completed quickly. The whole process took about a year and a half which is amazingly rapid.

Other than being an entertaining mystery, what do you hope your readers will take away after reading Behind Every Door?

I hope that it will caution them to not jump to conclusions. Not only about crime, but about the people you meet on a daily basis. We have no way of knowing what kind of personal agony is dealt with behind every door. Perhaps I just hope it will inspire people to be careful with one another – to treat each other with kindness and respect.

In your bio, you mention that you belong to several writing groups, among them is the Historical Novel Society. What can you tell us about that group?

The Historical Novel Society is a group that has a quarterly issue of book reviews. They also sponsor a large conference every year. Last year it was in Oxford, England, and this year it will be in Portland, Oregon.

What are you working on now?

I have completed the third draft of Between the Lies, another Hick Blackburn mystery. As time marches on, Hick will find himself embroiled in more social issues, such as desegregation.

What is the best way for readers to contact you?

They can reach me by e-mail at graham@cynthiaagraham.com

Visitors (from USA only) who leave a comment will be entered in a drawing to win my copy of Behind Every Door. The name of the winner will be announced on Monday, November 21.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles Book Launch

I'm excited to announce tomorrow's release date for Chicken Soup for the Soul, Angels and Miracles. The anthology, which is edited by bestselling writer Amy Newmark, contains 101 inspirational stories about hope, answered prayers, and divine intervention.

My true story, "On Butterfly Wings," can be found in the book's last section, "Love that Doesn't Die," and is the very last story in the book.

"On Butterfly Wings" is a story about a special visitor my grandson Michael encountered on a field trip to the Sophia M. Sacs Butterfly House in St. Louis County.

In conjunction with the book's release, the Chicken Soup for the Soul publisher is kicking off a Twitter Party at noon CST, Tuesday, November 1st -- which happens to fall on the feast of All Saints.

The hashtag for the Nov 1 event is #CSSAngelsandMiracles.

On a related note, on November 17, I will be among the many local authors participating in the Local Author Open House at the Spencer Road Branch Library in St. Peters from 6-8 p.m.

During the library event on Nov 17, I will be available to talk about the story. I will also have copies of the book available, as well as the other Chicken Soup for the Soul books with my true stories.

Here's a link where you can find more information about the Nov 17 event.

P.S. I plan to post a reminder about the library event in Mid-November.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Multigenre Writing Contest/Submission Opportunity: Rock Springs Review

Boonville author Judy Stock, editor and publisher of the Rock Springs Review, has recently announced she is accepting manuscripts for an anthology to be published in 2017.

Judy, who has edited and consulted on several anthologies for writers' groups, is using her editing and publishing knowledge and expertise to create opportunities for writers and poets to showcase their talent in this new anthology.

Here are limited details:

* Open to Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry submissions
* $10 entry fee (consult guidelines for details)
* December 31, 2016 Deadline
* $50/$30/$20 prizes plus Honorable Mention Certificates awarded
* Winners selected by independent judges
* Rock Springs Review (200-250 pages) will be published in 2017
* Each contributor whose work is accepted for publication will receive a contributor copy and a token payment.

For complete guidelines and questions about the Rock Springs Review, e-mail Judy at: bcwjudy@gmail.com

Rock on!

And good luck if you enter!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Reflections on the Ozark Creative Writers Contests and Judges' Comments

As I reflect on my role as contest chair for the 2016 OCW contests, I've learned a few lessons. 

It was rewarding, and at times challenging, experience. I got to read some amazing entries and meet some wonderful people -- sponsors, judges, and entrants. I also made a few suggestions to improve the process next year.

Not everyone who entered won, but everyone who entered showed their courage and determination. During a closing session on Saturday I shared some lessons learned and comments from a few judges.

Here is a sampling of those comments:

* It's more than getting words on the page.
* Put the reader right there with you.
* Be honest; it's not necessarily about making writers heroes in their own work.
* Let us see real people.
* Emotions should be relatable.
* Doesn't have to be surprising or shocking.
* Readers should be able to see something of themselves in the story.
* Judging is subjective (this was repeated by several judges as well as during the conference)
* More than one judge wrote they enjoyed every one!
* Do spell check, grammar check, proofread carefully.
* Don't rely on spell check.
* Read your work out loud.
* Thoroughly vet your work.
* The better entries were pretty immediately obvious.
* Stay on theme if there is one.
* Watch formatting.
* Most were formatted correctly.
* Stick to word count.
* Include a header on your work with title and page number (but not your name)
* Be sure your work fits the category.
* Title your work.
* Follow the guidelines!

Congratulations to everyone who entered the contests. Submitting to a contest is a wonderful way to focus on meeting deadlines, following guidelines, and gaining self-confidence as a writer.

Special thanks to the judges and sponsors who provided their time and monetary support for the contests. During the conference I even managed to solicit a couple new contest sponsors for next year!

Yesterday I forwarded a Word document with a complete list of the winners to Chrissy Willis, incoming OCW president, who promptly posted the document on the OCW website.

Here's a link with all contest titles and names of the winners.