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What did you just call me?

The older man with gray hair and a rugged jeans jacket stood behind me in line at the grocery store. He had an envious selection of goods for 10 am on a Monday morning. Two quarts of ice cream, a bottle of wine and a large bag of mixed candy. When I commented that his choices were more fun than mine, he commended my bananas and low salt soy sauce.

After our transactions were complete and I was heading out I told him to “have a good one.” A cliché, I know. He responded with “you too, ma’am.” MA’AM! I just turned 60 and now I’m “ma’am” to an old guy.

The realization that maybe I was old crept in as I drove home and fumed. After all, I am silver-haired and remember time before the internet, before cell phones, and conversations without emoticons or acronyms for whole sentences, where vocal cords were involved.

Then I wondered if the word “ma’am” was as bad as I made it out to be. Words are powerful. As Dumbledore said, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”


As a lover of words, I went to the bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, for guidance.

In the North American usage, the word “ma’am” originates in the mid-17th century as a contraction of madam, “a term of respectful or polite address used for a woman.”

Okay, that’s not insulting. It doesn’t imply age or status. Just gender.

Next the OED covers the British definitions — and here is a good example of how what we speak in American is English in name only.  These definitions make me crave being called “ma’am” more often.

  1. A term of address for female royalty. The Queen is called “ma’am”, and no one else.
  2. A term of address for a female officer in the police or armed forces who is senior to the speaker.

Then I checked “madam,” since that is where “ma’am” originated.  “Madam” is a modification of the Old French “ma dame, or my lady.” Here is where the term turns shady. Madam in the OED has three definitions.  Again, we have the “used to address or refer to a woman in a polite or respectful way.”  But now we add some formal and informal usage. Formally it is “used to address a woman at the start of a formal or business letter,” and “used before a title to address or refer to a female holder of that position. For example, ‘Madam President’.”  

Informally, a “madam” is, “a conceited or bossy girl or young woman,” or “a woman who runs a brothel.” Ah-ha. There it is! Google famous madams and you get 68,500 results, and a scan of the first few pages doesn’t indicate any famous women presidents.

The upshot of my research is that the use of “sir” and “ma’am” is culturally charged. In the Southern United States, it was taught almost like a religion, and anyone not so taught was (and still is if the comments on the internet are to be believed) seen as course, uncouth, rude, and leading to the downfall of everything that is good and holy. I was taught to be polite, say “yes”, “no” and “thank you.” However, somewhere along the way, I also incorporated the understanding that ma’am is shortened for “madam” and I don’t want that association. Turns out it isn’t an age thing at all – but the implication that I might be a conceited or bossy young woman!

Do you have a word or phrase that intrigues you? Ever wonder where it comes from, or how it became part of common use? Send the word or phrase to me in the comment section and I’ll write a future blog about it.

Happy World Poetry Day 2018

I’m sharing this from a site I follow called Purple Pants. Happy Poetry Day – a day late!

Shikha Tatwadarshi - Parashar

Writing is a vulnerable process. Pulling your guard down and decorating all your thoughts on a store window rack  in just 26 alphabets.

So on this poetry day I sincerely wish for all of us to be strong enough to break down that wall, dress up its evaporating contents on a glossy paper and rebuild the structure again. Then repeat.

And in the end be strong enough today and everyday to do it all over again.

Happy Poetry Day everyone!

Best wishes

and much love,



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5 Book Club Questions from an Author’s Perspective

book clubI wanted to write a blog post on questions book clubs can use when talking about a book. Before setting my questions down I searched on book club questions. 0.54 seconds later I had 298,000,000 results. There is no shortage of hints and suggestions for how to talk about a book with a group of readers.

So rather than duplicate their good work, and there are two links below if you are just getting started, I’m going to give you my list from the perspective of the writer.

Writers spend time, lots of time, thinking about the story, characters and how they are presented in the pages of a book or short story. The questions in the links shared are good, and center around what your impression was of the characters, favorite lines or scenes, thoughts on the setting, ending, casting of the part if this were to be made into a movie.

As a writer, I’m interested to know if you felt like cheering on the main character. And if so why. Did you relate to them because they shared experiences you’ve had, or because they were so different you were drawn to them to see how others thought.

Whether the main character, or protagonist, is a superhero or an everyday person riddled with flaws that make them somewhat unlikable, the author hopes to create a situation where you are cheering for them to succeed. Whether they are fighting the bad buy or seeking redemption, we want you to root for them. That’s what keeps you turning the pages.

I’d also like to know if you sensed the main character’s quest in the beginning of the book. Not all quests are Hobbiton in scale, but all characters are dealing with something. Novels, even genre stories, start with a glimpse of the world as it is. Readers need to know where the characters start to understand the change at the end. Then something happens to tip the apple cart. The rest of the story is how the characters adapt. Of course, this never goes easily.

Next, I’d like to know whether the readers felt that the supporting characters were just that – supporting. Or did they take over and solve the main characters problem for them? A good supporting cast gives the main character a way to interact with the world in a way we can learn what’s going on, without it feeling like data dumps. They also give the main character a sounding board so as readers we can ride along as they change to adapt to the situation. Even the villain can qualify as a supporting character.

Given the most book clubs have more than a few people, and everyone should be allowed time to express their thoughts, I’ll add one more question.

Authors are obsessed with pace. We want you turning the page, but not racing through missing all the wonderful plot points we’ve carefully intertwined into the story. I’d want to ask whether the pace worked for the reader. Did you feel rushed? Were there areas where you wished the author had slowed down and explained more? Or, did they linger too long on something that you said, “forget it,” and skipped? This is the Goldilocks question. Was the pacing too slow, too fast, or, just right?

So here are my five questions to add to whatever others you’ve gathered:

  1. Did you feel empathy for the main character? Why? Or Why not?
  2. Did you know what the quest was as the story rolled along or were you confused as to what this book was about? What could the author have done to clarify for you?
  3. Who were the supporting characters and were they on the main character’s side or
  4. were they the antagonists? What information did the supporting characters provide the assisted the main character in solving the problem?
  5. Was the pacing too slow, too fast, or, just right? What parts do you wish had been different and why?

These 5 questions will start you looking at a book as an author does. This list doesn’t summarize all that goes into writing a book, but then you aren’t writing a book. Coupled with the questions available at the resources available on-line, you should be up for a great discussion at your next book club!



NOTE: Updated 3/30/18 to add missing links. Sorry about that!

Searching for a Shero

Given today’s police shootings, nasty political discourse, and social movements: #metoo and Black Lives Matter, for example, I find myself wondering what happened to our heroes?

Merriam-Webster defines a hero as:


  1. Mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability
  2. An illustrious warrior
  3. A person admired for achievements and noble qualities
  4. One who shows great courage

Real life heroes often depend on a political or religious context. The heroes I’m wondering about are those that transcend all that and inspire and motivate us all. I believe for a hero to rise above all others, they must cause mere mortals to ask themselves – “how would [fill in your hero here] handle this situation?”

I’ll be the first to admit that asking myself this question caused a small existential crisis. Mainly because I couldn’t name one. So, I compiled a list of fictional characters I though might be my heroes.

  • Indiana Jones – because he is brave, works for the noble cause of getting items into museums and not into private collections, and because he’s loyal – for the most part and shows great courage. He is a flawed character, but we learn from his flaws and we are all flawed to some extent.
  • Harry Potter – because the evil he faces is one we all face, whether to succumb to an overbearing evil force, or to assert your individuality in a bid for freedom of everyone. He shows great courage, especially for an 11-year old in the first book, has descended from great wizards and fights for a noble cause.
  • Hermione Granger – because she thinks things through and researches up to the point where something must be done, then she boldly goes forward with courage and leadership. Education and information support her but don’t limit her. If she must, she is willing to go beyond the known. She values friends and great institutions.
  • Elizabeth Swan – pirates of the Caribbean – because she knows one true love, and is willing to fight pirates, her father, the Royal Navy, and the natural elements to get it. She has inner strength and courage she doesn’t see until called to use it. I think that is true of everyone.
  • Han Solo – not just because Harrison Ford was so devilishly handsome in the first movie (and let’s face it, he still is), but because the character was reluctant to take on the hero role. Yet he shows courage and noble intent in the end.

hogswart express platform 9.75And the winner is — Harry Potter. Which raises a concern for me. I couldn’t come up with a female hero that resonated as much as Harry does. I’m hoping to change that with a character in my latest manuscript. She has become a hero to me.

Grace Flameson a freshman in high school, doesn’t see herself as a hero, in fact she thinks she’s a failure, and yet when the occasion (and pirates and Nazis) confront her she takes on the challenge and (spoiler alert) wins. I’m shopping for an agent and or publisher for this tale, which combines two exciting elements – time travel and sea battles. Keep your fingers crossed for me – or as Harry would say – “No one should have that much power,” no wait, that’s not what he’d say. He’d say, “Working hard is important. But there is something that matters even more, believing in yourself.”



Favorite Story Type

Write what you know. Standard advice to writers. Learn from the books and movies you love. Its good advice because the narrative form you love is almost part of your DNA. You can’t help but write stories in the same vein. Today my DIYMFA Book Club writing prompt is a question. What is my favorite story type?


Whether it is the unassuming hero-to-be (“I’m not a wizard, I’m just Harry” – Harry Potter) or the flawed egotist (“I am Iron Man”) I love a story where the hero, whether reluctant or eager, evolves into a stronger, more noble person. Layer over that a fantasy or sci/fi element and I’m hooked.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy has it all in one epic story. The overall plot is insane, and yet offers a philosophical and psychological analysis of the human race as.

  • Trillian, who leaves earth to find adventure
  • Ford Prefect, who wanders the universe writing guidebook descriptions, and is a hero to Arthur when he saves him from death
  • Arthur Dent, who just wants to be left alone and his house not destroyed by Vagons, but who ultimately comes to understand how the universe works and why earth was created and accepts that it will be destroyed. He does a fair share of hero actions along the waysuperhero

My favorite story type is the epic quest with a flawed hero that grows as we root for them.

Don’t Do That!

Today’s DIYMFA Book Club prompt is about being pointed toward a juicy writing project that I embraced or avoided because of fear.fear potatoesI certainly steered clear of writing itself as a career because of fear. So, in a way, I avoided ALL writing. Eventually my compulsive need to write things out – usually in long hand – overcame my resistance. After all, no one would see it – right?  Call writing a journal, and suddenly you are writing for an audience of one – a safe, known, reader who still judges, but not as harshly as I envisioned everyone else would.

I was discouraged from writing by an uncle who had visions of being an author himself. In fact, he had published several books on Michigan history that were used in classrooms, something I’d love to have. His fictional pursuits were quashed though, and so his bitter advice to me, the year I got a typewriter for Christmas, “Don’t be a writer unless you want to wallpaper your bathroom with rejections.” That settled fear deep in me. He’s already published, and he couldn’t break into fiction.

A teacher in high school eased some of the fear, but in my working life, the need to fend of actual predators (individuals who saw me as a threat to eliminate – thus harming my livelihood) amped up my fear of dong something so risky as writing fiction. It took the fear of losing my job to eventually push me to finish my first novel, to prove to myself I had it in me; and to self-publish and enter it in contests to prove that I could handle criticism. Now I’m searching for an agent to move onward and the inevitable rejections aren’t slowing me down. I think my uncle would be proud, even though I ultimately ignored him.

The Role of Supporting Characters

Today’s DIY MFA Book Club writing prompt centers around supporting characters. The question to ponder is, “What’s your favorite supporting character archetype, and why?” I thought about the novel I’m editing right now. It is rich in characters, and I really had to think about pile of rocks supporting characterswhat role they played. While I’d planned them in using the DIY MFA character archetypes, that was in 2014, and here I am in 2018, editing again. Many revisions later, I was curious if the characters were still true to form. I’m usually good about keeping my notes; but couldn’t find them to compare. That’s okay, if the characters have a role that makes sense, I will have accomplished my goal.

Some background from the DIY MFA program. I know some of my readers are in book clubs, and this information will be useful when discussing books with your groups. Main characters come in several flavors – aka Archetypes: Ordinary Boy/Girl, Larger-than-life, and Misunderstood (the anti-hero).

The novel is a young-adult, underdog, fantasy about an ordinary girl, who finds herself transported through time (I call it riding the chronowave) to a pirate ship in 1720. Prior to time-traveling (or chronowaving), she is a normal high-school student, worried about a history test and annoyed by a boy who is interested in her and doesn’t get the message to leave her alone. Once she’s in 1720, she finds herself thrown into a survival situation where the odds are against her.

characters game pieces

But this blog is about the supporting characters around her. They are: her mom, a tavern owner in 1720, three women she learns are relatives in 1720, a seaman on a submarine in 1720 and 1941, and the boy who likes her in her present time.

Supporting Characters also come in different flavors: Villain, Love Interest, BFF, Mentor, and Fool. The first four are self-explanatory. The Fool character tells it like it is. This character will be the one to keep the main character grounded in truth.  Let’s look then at my supporting cast.

Mom, the tavern owner, and the seaman on the submarine are mentors. They impart wisdom and information to my main character and to the reader. It is through them we learn how the chronowave works, and how it is that my main character finds herself on a German U-Boat in the Caribbean in 1720. Each of these characters imparts a piece of the puzzle which helps the main character navigate her adventure.

The three women are sidekicks. They embody qualities the main character wishes she had. Poise, determination, and an ability to see life clearly. They help her fight the villain and bad-guy (more on them later) and help her develop into the leader she is by the end of the story.

The boy who won’t leave her alone has two roles. First, he is the boy-next-door love interest. He’s there the whole time, but it isn’t until the adventure is complete that the main character realizes what a gem he is. Second, he is a co-conspirator. It is through the struggle to survive and his help to her throughout, that the love interest is fulfilled.

That leaves me with the bad guys. Not content with one bad guy, this story has a scheming villain who wants ultimate power and will destroy our main character hero to get his way.  It also has a more garden variety, day-to-day bad guy, who helps the villain. If you want to get all philosophical about it, the scheming villain represents forces of evil in our world today that work against the better good with an intent that they alone benefit. The day-to-day bad guy represents the apathy, greed, and lack of consideration that pervades much of the world’s society. It isn’t intentional, but in its disinterest, it results in a similar evil.

Do I have a favorite supporting character type? I don’t think so. They each fulfill a role to support the main character. If the story has intrigued you, keep an eye on this blog for news of its publication. But first I must finish editing! Reapplying nose to grindstone………

Your Best Practice is my Worst Nightmare

best practice

As a working engineer, nothing set my teeth on edge more than a huge meeting where best practices were shared. The unstated understanding was that whatever one person shared was a holy grail that would transform the way others managed their project or tasks, and equally implicit was that the rest of the room were dullards for not having thought up the best practice to start with.

Just as every snowflake is different, and every grain of sand unique, each person’s best practice is applicable to them alone. Yes, there is benefit in learning how others approach a similar problem but in the end, each situation calls for a tailored solution.

I rebelled against the best-practice religion in my engineering career, but followed it blindly when I dedicated my time to writing. I listened to those that said — ‘Just write it, you can fix whatever is wrong in the re-write.’ Having come from an industry that values doing it right the first time – the whole notion of a built-in rewrite cycle seemed flawed. But I wrote. I penned a messy, confusing story that four rewrites later is still going through major revision.

While still pecking away at that novel, I wrote a shorter, middle-grade novel, trying a more structured – dare I say engineering-based – approach. True to form, I altered the recommended spreadsheet, but the story came together faster, with less work to do in the rewrite.

I realized that I have an engineers analytical brain, and when I try to deny that, my writing suffered. Once I honored this fact, I felt my writing elevate and storytelling became easier. Best Practice should be re-framed to “here – this worked for me — see if it works for you” — and that I embrace wholeheartedly.

Feeding My Creativity

Today’s DIY MFA book writing prompt is about what feeds creativity. As a “graduate” of the DIYMFA program, and by that, I mean I went through the whole program and keep inspiration boxin the loop through the various Facebook pages and Gabriel’s emails; I have several of the tools she suggested. These include a box with special rocks (rocks talk to me – don’t laugh – I know there are others out there with the same talent), colored paint chips from the hardware store, an envelope full of words randomly cut, and some dice.

My office is also a source of inspiration. I have two quilts my mom made, a stained glass my dad made, photos of friends, photos green soap box licenseI’ve taken, ribbons from my wine making and writing endeavors, my guitar and a music stand, a sip-and-paint picture of flowers that isn’t half-bad, my father’s soap-box, and stacks of books to read.

And with all that, my most creative time is right after I get up. When the sun is just starting to tinge the horizon and the birds are ruffling their feathers after a night of silence. In the stillness of my mind I find heroines, plots, and questions that linger only if I can get them down on paper. Later in the dsunrise san miguelay I’m better at organizing my thoughts, exploring the ideas I’ve scribbled down in my journal. The creative window for new thoughts lasts only about an hour. But the opening they make into my whole creative process is enough to fuel the rest of the day.

#METOO – Finally

For some reason the phrase “abuse of power” struck me as odd today. I wasn’t doing anything special, just driving back from my Pilates class, but it occurred to me that that specific phrase was an oxymoron. All abuse is a misuse of power. Whether we are talking sexual abuse, physical abuse, political abuse, or bullying, the main driver is one person’s expression of their power over the fate of another. I’ve anguished over the #metoo movement because I felt I was the victim of abuse but could never put my finger on one over-the-top example. I wasn’t locked in a room with someone, or forced to perform a sexual act to retain a job or succeed in my career.

I was however, towered over and intimidated by large (read – tall) men who were my bosses and managers at work. I realize that being a tall male isn’t a crime. And the fact that I’m a shorter than average female isn’t a crime either. But I certainly felt that way in my work world. While I learned to make fun of my height, and play up to it so that others didn’t feel uncomfortable with my perpetual examination of their nose hairs, that was a defense mechanism.

Large men, especially bosses or bosses of bosses made me feel inferior. I know, I know, that was my doing. I’m in control of my response – Eleanor Roosevelt taught me that. The thing is, usually the intimidation was in my mind. I viewed myself as somehow less experienced or not as smart because I wasn’t able to look a man in the eyes – as my Dad had taught me to. Okay, so shame on me.

But there was one boss. My quintessential Bad Boss. The one I’ve been stewing about since I left the corporate world and haven’t figured out a way to exorcise. Then along came the #metoo movement and I thought now is my moment! Except he never explicitly sexually harassed me. Instead he ignored me, went around me, made up bad stories about my work group and worked behind the scenes to demote me, with a goal of making things so bad I’d leave. He almost succeeded in breaking me. And by that, I mean literally. Before it was through, I had to seek outside mental health help, took anti-depressants, and saved myself by leaving that division and finding a job in another sector of the company. One where people believed in me and wanted me to succeed.

From parents who abuse children, to bosses who abuse employees, to men who abuse women, the abuser is typically someone who can change how others live their lives. Precious few of these power brokers choose to change others’ lives for the better. I heard on the radio this morning that we, as (fill in the blank), can choose to fight to get rights or choose to claim the rights we already have, and move forward. I choose this path.

fist 3I’m a smart, thoughtful, creative individual who happens to be a woman. I choose the right to be accepted and rewarded for those traits. And my boss from hell can go there.

P.S. as an aside – and another example of the subtle shades of gender bias – when I went to find a clip art of a fist – they were all male fists. So I took a picture of my own hand.

To read more essays click on the three horizontal lines on the right hand side of the page. Or signup for my newsletter – a more or less monthly summary of the last months posts plus a little extra.




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