Monday, July 17, 2017

Old School Treasures in Missouri

If you look up the definition of "old school" in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you will find "characteristic or evocative of an earlier or original style."

In many ways that describes me, but it also describes a few treasures I've stumbled upon from Missouri's past.

A few weeks ago I found this gem tucked away on a side street in Old Towne St. Peters. Actually, my sister Kathleen showed me where it was. The plaque between the two windows tells the story.
St. Peters Public School, built in 1869.

St. Peters District 31 Public School was built in
1869 and closed in 1951 after it became
part of Fort Zumwalt consolidation.

The old Hope School can be found in the Village of Hope. It's two miles down the road from our "farm" in Osage County. The building is no longer used as a school, but local residents host social events there.

I snapped this photo of a quaint silver and red telephone booth a few years ago while giving a creative writing workshop at the Missouri State Teachers Association retreat in Bunker Hill. Don't see many of these any more.

The final photo is of Irving School, an architectural gem in North St. Louis, which opened in 1871 and was expanded in 1891 and 1894. I attended Irving for a few years in the 1950s. The building is no longer used as a school, but it still holds its old-world charm, and most likely its brick-oven heat in the summer.

My third-grade teacher at Irving made a lasting impression on me. An essay I wrote about her, "Miss Tobin's Special Gifts," will appear in KC Voices (Vol XIV) from Whispering Prairie Press in October.

How about you? Did you attend a one-room school house or an architecturally impressive school? Have you stumbled across any old school treasures?

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Beautiful Lilies and Proof of a Russian Invasion -- Russian SageThat Is

June is one of my favorite months, and not just because I turn a year older in June, but because everywhere I look I see the beauty of nature.

In my family I'm known as the sibling who didn't inherit my mother's green thumb.

But not so fast brothers and sisters, how do  you explain the gorgeous day lilies and tiger lilies that have bloomed in my garden the past few years?

This June they are especially vibrant.

And what about the Russian sage that is sprouting out all over?

With all the Senate committees searching for proof of Russian interference in the USA, I have proof of Russian invasion -- in my yard.

Here are photos of the Russian Sage that's taking over, although in some spots it's fighting for space with the blackberry bushes and spearmint plants.

How about you?

How does your garden grow?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Interview with Sarah Angleton, the Practical Historian

For the past few years, Sarah Angleton has been a valued member of Coffee and Critique, where she has shared her stories, wit, and wisdom with her fellow writers.

Photo courtesy of
Sarah Angleton
Sarah is a storyteller and history buff who has degrees in both zoology and literature and still isn’t quite sure what she wants to be when she grows up. A Midwestern girl at heart, she spent a brief time living and writing in the beautiful Pacific Northwest before settling near St. Louis where she currently resides with her husband, two sons, and a very loyal dog. Her first work of historical fiction will be available soon from High Hill Press. You can find her online at

Here are my interview questions for Sarah.

1. How did degrees in zoology and literature prepare you to create “The Practical Historian” blog?

I think it was learning how to combine my two fields of study that led me toward an interest in history, something I didn’t particularly enjoy studying in school. As a grad student in literature and creative writing I started doing a lot of research into the voyage writings of naturalists of the 18th an 19th centuries. Because of my background, I was uniquely prepared to approach their works as both literary and scientific, and so I discovered that one field nicely informed the other. They are linked by their shared history. I love discovering links. It’s what I do on the blog as well, though not typically between zoology and literature. Instead I look for the connections I might make between the historical and the modern. It’s just how my mind likes to work.

2. Where do you get your ideas for topics for your blog posts?

Topics come to me from all over the place. Some are sparked by events related to the date I’ll be posting. Others come from my experiences through the week leading up to the post, including places I’ve traveled, events I’ve attended, or even documentaries or podcasts I’ve come across. Occasionally friends and family suggest topics that turn into interesting posts. I’m always on the lookout for potential topics, and I tend to jot down a lot of notes and take a lot of pictures. I am always aware that even if the stories I come across don’t fit well into a post at the moment, they still might come in handy later.

3. How did you come up with the title for your blog?

When I started the blog, I had recently finished writing the rough draft of my first historical novel, a project that required a great deal of careful, thorough research. I once heard the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction is that with history, you have to write around the gaps, and in fiction, you can feel free to fill them. I love history, but I love story more, and I’m a big fan of filling in the gaps. So when I started the blog, I was very aware of the fact that I could not claim to be an expert historian, that I couldn’t sustain the level of research required to write with real authority week after week, and that I couldn’t refrain from gap-filling. It was important to me to be honest with my audience about that. I decided I wouldn’t focus the overly important, highly analyzed historical moments. Instead, I’d stick to the tales that painted a picture of the sillier side of the human condition, add a few splashes of my own personal story, and just make it a fun space to share practically true history that might not seem all that important in the big picture, but that might add a little interest to my readers’ days.

4. What process do you use to conduct your blog research?

That can vary a lot by topic. I’ve stated on the blog that I rarely use a primary source, which isn’t exactly true. I do generally start with the best hearsay the Internet has to offer, but some of these stories are just lifted from one site to another with no verification whatsoever. If there’s a reference to be chased down, like to a historical work, I chase it down and read it from the source. Sometimes that means the post falls apart because (and I know this will come as a shock) not everything repeated again and again on the Internet is true. Now, there are many times when it’s not possible for me to consult with a primary source, so I look for the most reliable source I can find. Though I joke about Wikipedia, and I do use it, I always seek verification from expert sources. And I hedge what I don’t know. As I stated before, I never want to speak with an authority I can’t rightfully claim and I always try to be honest with my reader about that. But I am a storyteller, and the blog is as much humor as it is fact, so when all else fails, I make stuff up.

5. What process did you use to select the posts included in Launching Sheep and Other Stories?

First, I looked for posts that were not overly dependent on a single event that though probably was very much in the minds of my readers at the time, is now most likely forgotten. I also needed posts that don’t rely too heavily on photos. I use a lot of photos on the blog, but didn’t want to go through the process of attaining rights for their use in the book. And then of those, I looked for the ones I enjoyed the most, the ones I still liked to read, even though I wrote them and probably already read them at least a few dozen times.

6. In one post you mention your zeal for the board game Monopoly. Do you have a favorite token? And, how do you feel about the planned replacement of the thimble, the boot, and the wheelbarrow with a Tyrannosaurus rex, a penguin, and a rubber ducky?

I’m definitely not as angry about the change as some journalists seem to be, or as willing to assign broad cultural meanings to the change. The boot has always been a favorite of mine and I suppose I’m a little sad to see it go. But what really determines the quality of a Monopoly token is its height. My favorite tokens have always been the ones that are easiest to grasp with a quick pinch. It looks like the T. rex and the penguin might fit the bill. I’m not as sure about the ducky, but I’d be willing to take it for a spin past Go! Hasbro left the fates of the game tokens in the hands of the public, and who am I to question the results? I still have a classic copy of the game and can pull out the boot any time I want.

7. How has watching the movie The Princess Bride affected your writing?

The Princess Bride taught me all of the elements of a truly great story: “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles,” and maybe just a little bit of kissing. But on a more serious note, I fell in love with the movie as a young girl because the characters are memorable and the dialogue is witty. I think if a writer can pull that off, then she’s probably gone a long way toward producing something worth reading.

8. What can you tell us about your lessons learned from the start-to-finish process of publishing a book, from research, writing, editing, revising, cover design, marketing, etc?

I suppose the biggest lesson I learned is that it’s not easy. There’s still a stigma associated with self-published books and though it’s lessening as the industry changes, I think it will always be with us. As an author who has worked with both processes, I can say with certainty that neither is especially easy.

The options for self-publishing can be overwhelming. There are many publishing companies that offer services from start to finish, from editing to cover design to marketing. It’s really easy to spend a lot of money to produce a final product and going that route definitely means you also give up some creative control. On the other end of the spectrum, there are services out there that simply provide the tools for authors to do everything themselves. Most writers are probably not equipped to handle every aspect of publishing on their own, so I think the important thing is to strike the balance that feels most comfortable to the individual author.

I opted to hire a freelance editor whose work was already familiar to me and a brilliant cover designer I already knew I could work with well. I did the book formatting myself after a lot of research into the various services available, and I admit, also a great deal of frustration. Really, the research is the most important part. The great thing about writers is that we tend to love to share our experiences and so I listened and read and learned and probably avoided a lot of pitfalls because I took the time to do that.

For me the hardest part has simply been figuring out the business end of marketing and selling books. I kept discovering little details (and hidden expenses) I never considered before, like the need to purchase isbns, start up a personal imprint, and prepare to handle sales tax. It’s been a long road, but by going through this process of self-publishing, and viewing the industry from another angle, I know that I have come out of it better prepared for a successful career in traditional publishing.

9. On the topic of marketing, what can you tell us about upcoming events, including your book launch, author talks, and book signings?

My first event will be a signing at 6 North Café in Wentzville (next to B&B Theatre) on Saturday, May 13 from 10 am to 12 pm. Friday, June 2, I’ll be at Our Town Books on the Square in Jacksonville, Illinois, from 5 to 7 pm. You can also catch up with me at Gateway Con in St. Louis the weekend of June 16-18, where I’ll be selling books and meeting readers.

10. What advice do you have for bloggers and writers?

Keep at it. I’ve found that blogging is, more than anything else, a great way to find a worldwide community, one that is committed to sharing and interacting with one another’s art. That’s a pretty special thing. It encourages me to always be writing. Some weeks are hard, but I know that if I don’t produce something new, there are people all over the country and as far away as New Zealand who will notice and wonder why. Keeping to a blog schedule also encourages me to work really hard to schedule writing time. I have goals for my fiction, and because I have to work around researching and writing a blog post, I’m much better at protecting my time on all my projects. Building a writing career takes time and effort. The first step is to just keep on writing.

11. What project are you working on now?

My first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, the one that I began all those years ago, is tentatively scheduled for traditional publication this fall, so I am working through the final steps of that process. I’m also polishing a novel that is a companion to that one. In addition, I’m working through a revision of the first novel in a young adult series that I’m hoping to start pitching to agents and editors soon. And of course, I’m blogging every week.

12. What’s the best way for readers to contact you with questions or if they would like to purchase a copy of Launching Sheep and Other Stories?

Both print and e-formats of the book can be ordered through Amazon or anywhere books are sold. Readers can contact me through my website,, where they’ll have the opportunity to sign up for e-mail updates and will find links to my profiles on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads, as well as the latest post from the Practical Historian.

13. In homage to your post on page 113, “The Completely Rational Fear of Triskaidekaphobia,” here’s your final question—number 13: Do you have any final thoughts or anything you’d like to add?

How lucky that post wound up on page 113! I think the only thing I might add is that as much hard work as goes into writing and producing books I could not do any of this without the support of so many amazing people. Writing can seem like a lonely profession, but I know for certain I could never be successful if I treated it that way. I have been blessed to be a part of several professional writers’ organizations, critique groups, and workshops. I’ve been involved in online writers’ forums, attended conferences, and had opportunities to interact with writers from all over the world. Without the amazing energy of the larger writing community, I’d honestly be too frozen in fear to ever let another human being read my work. I am so very grateful to be able to do this.

Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions, Donna!

And thank you, Sarah, for your thoughtful answers!

Sarah will have her first book signing event at 6 North Café in Wentzville (next to B & B Theatre) on Saturday, May 13 from 10 am to 12  pm.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing to Heal

One way I’m coping with breast cancer—and the side effect of chemo brain, which causes forgetfulness and muddy thinking—is to write.  

I’ve been encouraged to journal and have received several journals as gifts (like the one on the left) from friends, but I haven’t used them yet. I’m not ready to record all the day-to-day events about my illness. It feels too raw. Plus the journals are so pretty, I’m saving them for happier times.

What I am doing is writing when I have energy and the mood strikes. Mostly I write on my laptop, but I also scribble notes in raggedy notebooks.  

A short story I began in January started as a romantic mystery to read at critique group for a Valentine’s love story challenge was titled “Time Will Tell.” Around the same time, I was invited to submit to Mysteries of the Ozarks (Vol V), a project of the Ozarks Writers Inc. I reworked and lengthened the story to highlight the mystery aspect, and the story was accepted just before my diagnosis. A few weeks later, I was asked to help with editing and proofreading the anthology. I agreed because when I first started chemo treatments I was having trouble sleeping and welcomed doing something productive. In addition to that, I was asked to become a member of the OWI board. It has been a positive experience in every way.

In February, I rewrote and expanded my essay, “Remembering Miss Tobin,” which was among the top ten finalist in 2014 Erma Bombeck human interest competition, but never published. I revised and renamed the new essay, “Miss Tobin’s Special Gifts,” and submitted it to Whispering Prairie Press for their KC Voices magazine. Earlier this month I received an e-mail that the editor “loved” my essay asked for permission to use it. Of course, I accepted.

Earlier this month, I pulled out an old essay about the day my husband became a US citizen. The expanded version corrected mistakes in the original and included the night we met at a USO dance. I wasn’t able to attend my critique group to read the story, so my good friend Alice printed it off and read it for me then called and relayed everyone’s comments. Using many of their suggestions, I cut the original version from around 1,000 words to 750, changed the title, and the end result resulted in a tighter and I think better story. It’s a long shot, but I submitted it to Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind Of America. I won’t know until June if "A Good Day for A New Citizen" is accepted. If I don’t hear by then I’ll know it isn’t a good fit, but I’ll remain hopeful.

Last week, my mind wandered to my childhood neighborhood in North St. Louis and a memory of an unusual boy who lived down the alley. He was a few years older than the rest of the boys on our block, who never invited him to play, so he usually stood and watched the rest of us have fun. I felt sorry for him, but he also made me feel uneasy, the way he stared and watched the rest of us. That memory resulted in a short story about a lonely writer/blogger/teacher who spies on his coworkers and students and uses what he learns about them to get ahead. It’s an odd piece and I’m not sure what will become of it, but it might eventually find a home.

More than a month ago, I started on an essay about losing my hair, but I’m not quite ready to finish that one yet.

I’ve put my novel aside for the time being, but who knows maybe if I get a burst of inspiration I’ll pick it up again. Now that I finished the “red devil” chemo sessions, have started on “chemo light” treatments, and will start physical rehab next week to get my strength back, I might get inspired.

How about you? Have you ever written to heal—from an illness, grief, personal tragedy, or for any other reason? If so, has writing helped?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

With A Lot of Help From my Friends

A week ago last Tuesday, my friends showered me with love, words of encouragement,  prayers, and surprise gifts. Their generosity and thoughtfulness brought tears to my eyes and reminded me of the Beatle's melody, "I'll get by with a little help my friends," but for me it has been a lot of help from my friends!

When my sister Kathleen and I pulled into the parking lot of the Rendezvous Café I commented that Jack's truck wasn't there and said I hoped he wasn't sick. Jack is always at critique group, so I guess I should've known something was amiss.

Inside the restaurant, I got welcoming hugs from our always-smiling server, Kim, and fantastic cook, Sharon, who came out of the kitchen to greet me. Stephanie, the owner of Rendezvous, also gave me a welcoming hug. I was brought to tears at their moving gestures. But it couldn't compare with what awaited me when I entered our meeting room.
Kathleen, Linda, Pat, Lynn, Alice,
Donna, Tricia, Sarah, Jane, and Marcia
The back room of the Rendezvous Café was decorated with pink balloons and gifts, and many were dressed in pink. (I wore blue). The cake with the light pink breast cancer logo was lovely -- and delicious.

A little birdie later on told me Alice was the ringleader, with help from my sister Kathleen, who drove me to Rendezvous Café. And several others helped Alice plan the party.

Kathleen, Pat, Kim, Alice,
Donna, Jane, Tricia, and Marcia
I shed tears of joy when I saw the women gathered there. Besides our usual critique group ladies (Alice, Pat, Jane, Sarah, and Marcia), Linda, Tricia, and Lynn were there! I was told the guys were banished for the day. ;)

Others who couldn't come but sent gifts and/or cards were Berta, Sioux, Barbara, and Mary. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning opening the many thoughtful cards and presents.

Words can't express the gratitude in my heart for the kind gestures, generous gifts, and works of encouragement and support my friends have shown me throughout my breast cancer journey.

Without a doubt, I know that I'll get by with (more than) a little help from my friends! 

Monday, March 20, 2017

RIP - Rock In Peace, Chuck Berry

I was saddened, but not totally surprised, to hear the news that St. Louis legendary music icon Chuck Berry passed away on Saturday. Chuck Berry was 90 when he died in St. Charles County, Missouri, the same county where I live—about fifteen miles from my home.

It’s strange how the death of one person can trigger memories that have been packed away for decades. Although I never met Chuck Berry in person, his music and presence touched my soul and influenced my childhood.

Just about everyone in my North St. Louis neighborhood of the 1950s and 1960s knew about Chuck Berry and his music, including my mom.

Mom loved music, and she loved to dance. Her tastes ranged from the Country music of Johnny Cash, the soulful melodies of Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams, and the rock and roll of Elvis, Chubby Checker—and, of course, St. Louis songwriter and musical icon Chuck Berry.

My dad was a germaphobe, so it wasn’t surprising that Mom was an immaculate housekeeper. Music was Mom’s constant companion every day when she cleaned our house—make that rented flat—because my folks never owned a house back then.  

Once a week, to the sounds of whatever was playing the radio, Mom would wash and wax the floors. After the wax dried, she got out Dad’s old Army blanket and my siblings and I took turns riding the blanket like a sled as Mom pulled us around in her butts-on-the-blanket buffer.

In our cozy 1950s kitchen, Mom kicked up her heels and taught my sisters and me how to dance her version of the Charleston and Jitterbug to Chuck Berry’s songs such as: “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and of course, “Rock and Roll Music.”

So, rock in peace, Chuck Berry.

Thank you for bringing your gift of music to the world and a little bit of soul to my family.

Lastly, thank you for sparking this memory of dancing in the kitchen with my mom.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Dave Barry on Writing, Editing, Publishing, and Judging the Erma Bombeck Contest

This past weekend I caught an in-depth interview with C-SPAN's Book TV, featuring Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Dave Barry, one of our nation's premiere humor writers.

As usual, Dave was funny and entertaining, but he also offered some helpful advice about writing, editing, publishing, and judging.

Listed below are some notes I jotted down to share.

On Writing:

* Little decisions make writing better, not the big stuff.

* Don’t quit, even if you’re not gifted.

* It’s a process that takes work and practice.

* He likes writing books more than columns.

* He writes every day, although maybe a couple days he won’t.

On Research:

* Wikipedia is a valuable, but highly inaccurate. Cheap and easy and fast and general.

* To nail down a fact, confirm with some other site.

On Editing:

* Dave knows what’s funny

* Depends on his respect for editor’s advice, generally doesn't do major rewrites.

* As long as you’re laughing, He's OK. Does it work? Does it make people laugh?

On Publishing:

There are two ways to get published and reviewed.

Self-publish  - he doesn't think is the way to go. Easy to do, pay money to do it, but almost impossible to get distributed and reviewed. Basically no quality control over content. Some may be successful, but not from his experience. 

Traditionally Way - Get an agent, might want rewrites, they get it to the publisher. If publisher decides they have a sales staff and promotional people and get a review.

On Judging:

Someone called into the show and mentioned he was going to judge the Erma Bombeck Contest, which got my attention because I know what a thrill it was for my essay to win that contest in 2012.

Dave knew Erma. She was one of those funny writers and funny persons.

Dave said he hates judging because he wants to be nice even if he doesn’t like it.

In the end, it comes down to what he finds amusing.


You can watch Dave's complete interview by clicking here.

Old School Treasures in Missouri

If you look up the definition of "old school" in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you will find "characteristic or evocative o...