Sydney’s Thanksgiving Magic

Sydney woke to the tantalizing aroma of a fresh baked apple pie. Thanksgiving at last! She didn’t think the past week would ever end. Now the celebration was here, and she had so much to be thankful for. After years of no contact with her grandparents they were now a part of her life. Her friend Rachael had moved but they kept in touch through the Internet. Her dad was better, and Mom wasn’t working as much.

Nana and PopPop arrived yesterday afternoon and Sydney could hear her mother’s laugh and Grandma’s deep chuckle in the kitchen.  Bright sunlight streamed in the window.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” Mom said when Sydney walked into the kitchen. A huge turkey rested in a large, oval roasting pan. She pushed a handful of stuffing into the turkey. Grandma sat at the table drinking coffee. Her pencil made a scratchy sound as she filled in little boxes of a crossword puzzle. “What’s a five letter word for unexpected?” she asked.

Mom shoved another handful of stuffing that smelled like onions and chestnut into the bird. Syd’s mouth watered.

“Surprise?” her mom said.

“No, too many letters,” Nana said. “Starts with the letter M.”

Sydney pulled a bowl and a box of cereal from the cupboard then sat down across from her grandmother.

“Magic, maybe?” Nana said.

Sydney tensed. “Magic?” Her voice rose at the end of the word, making it sound like she’d never heard of such a thing. Did her mom or Nana know about magic? That she, Sydney Porter, had that ability?

“Well, it’s certainly unexpected, assuming it exists,” her mom said.

“Of course, it exists,” Nana said and wrote the letters into the five squares. “It fits.”

“You mean like Christmas magic? Or a “magical moment”?” Mom flipped the bird over and tied the legs together.

Nana tucked the pencil behind her ear. “Don’t you remember Naomi? When you were little, you could make flowers bloom and talk with the cat?”

Sydney felt a tingle run up her spine. She could understand all animals and carry on long conversations with them in their own language. “You could do those things, Mom?”

Mom brushed a few strands of hair out of her face. “No. I don’t remember being able to do that” Her voice hesitated, like she was trying to convince herself it hadn’t happened.

“Nonsense. My mother could do things too, magic runs in the family,” Nana said. Sydney’s heart pounded so hard the blood rushing past her ears made it hard to hear. Should she tell them she had magic too? Was now the best time to reveal her secret? Then a thought hit her. Nana said her mom had powers when she was young, but Mom didn’t remember. Did that mean her abilities would disappear too?

“Mother,” her mom said. “You’re exaggerating. Don’t give Sydney ideas.”

Nana lifted her gaze from the puzzle and squinted at Sydney, then smiled. “I haven’t told her anything she doesn’t already know.”

“Did you have magic, Nana?” Sydney asked.

“I can read minds.” The corners of Nana’s lips curled up before she went back to her crossword.

Sydney’s eyes widened despite her effort to show no emotion. If her Nana knew her thoughts, then she’d already know what Syd could do. The metal roasting pan screeched as her mom slid the turkey into the oven. Sydney couldn’t tear her gaze away from her Grandmother. She leaned across the table toward her.

“You know?” Sydney whispered.

Nana nodded, so slight only she and Sydney saw.

“Your secret is safe,” Nana whispered back, never looking up. Sydney sat back and breathed out a long, slow breath.

“El Paso de …., six letters,” Nana read out.

Sydney stood and walked her dishes to the sink. Someday she’d tell her mother. But not today. Today she was thankful for her family and her magic.

Dear readers,

I want to wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. As difficult as this year has been, there are always things I’m grateful for. My family, friends, readers, dogs, the beautiful Central Coast, wine, cheese, camping, fresh tomatoes off the vine and my health. Take some time this holiday season to make a list of the things you are grateful for.

You can read Sydney’s entire adventure with magic in Sydney Porter: Dog Girl. Available this holiday season at a 20% discount. CLICK HERE to buy NOW!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Bully Boss

One day this week I was driving on a usually open stretch of highway between Paso Robles and Cambria. The drive is gorgeous, with expansive vistas of ranches, mountains, and the ocean. Occasionally I’ll share the ride with trucks or tourists, but once past the main wine tasting road I’m usually alone. Not this week. An awareness bike rally was holding a ride. This happens every year. I hadn’t heard it was happening on my day to drive to Cambria. And of course, I was running late.

high angle view of people on bicycle
Photo by Pixabay on

Thousands of bicyclists wound alongside the auto traffic lane, two and sometimes three abreast. For every rider, there seemed to be one or two support vehicles, so the west bound lane was like a locomotive. Lots of cars. For reasons that are perfectly logical to me, these support cars were slowing traffic down, intentionally.

Remember, I’m running late for my meeting. So, I’m freaking out. Normally placid and easygoing, I was clenching my steering wheel, informing drivers that they should learn the craft before getting inside a vehicle and eventually yelling and gesturing. I arrived at my meeting frazzled. What had happened?

On the way home, blissfully alone on the road again, I wondered why my behavior had veered so deeply into the negative. It was like a flashback to my days of commuting in Los Angeles traffic. I had a 60-mile commute and depending on traffic that was either an hour or two to three hours. I left early in the morning to hit the one-hour duration, worked late to get a faster drive on the way home, ate a quick dinner, went to bed, and started all over in the morning. I know – it’s crazy. When I took the assignment to work in the facility further away from home, it was because the job sounded interesting and had something I wanted to learn.

Unfortunately — you knew this was coming — the interesting, fun part of the job didn’t last. A new boss was brought in, and the situation went bad quickly. He was a narcissistic bully with no experience managing people, put in charge of a department of eighty people. He had his cross hairs on me from the beginning. I never did figure out why. At the time I thought I was going crazy.

As I am driving home from Cambria thinking that my road rage was a flashback, I wondered if I might have some form of PTSD. Is it possible for work to traumatize you to the point that you have PTSD symptoms?

Turns out the answer is yes. According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, “workplace bullying is repeated, health-harming mistreatment that takes one or more of the following forms: verbal abuse; offensive conduct/behaviors (including nonverbal) which are threatening, humiliating, or intimidating; and work interference (sabotage) which prevents work from getting done.” I find it sad that there is such a thing as a Workplace Bullying Institute.

ptsd brain

They go on to say that “some psychologists believe that a different term, Complex PTSD (C-PTSD), should be used to identify trauma that is repeated or long-term. Bullying targets may show symptoms that are similar to PTSD and/or C-PTSD. For this reason, researchers of workplace bullying believe that bullying should be considered an example of captivity.”

Symptoms include:

  • Persistent sadness, explosive anger; inhibited anger; suicidal thoughts;
  • Forgetting traumatic events or reliving them. Feeling detached from one’s mind or body;
  • Feelings of helplessness, shame, guilt and stigma. One may feel that they are different than other people;
  • Attributing total power to the abuser. Preoccupation with the perpetrator, possibly becoming obsessed with revenge;
  • Social isolation, distrust in others or repeatedly searching for a rescuer; and
  • A loss of faith or a sense of hopelessness and despair

Carrie Anton wrote a piece on The Establishment website, When Your Workplace Gives You PTSD. Her description of a workplace situation closely mirrored mine. A few differences though. She was young and felt immature and inexperienced. I was at the height of my career and was still brought to the point of tears and the feeling that I was a failure and a fraud. Secondly, she was able to turn to Human Resources for aid. My HR office aided and abetted the narcissistic bully and offered nothing other than to say, yep – it’s bad. Not helpful. I’ve known many very good HR representatives, but I don’t trust them anymore. They are paid by management, and in at least my case, decided that they needed to side with management vs. the employee. Likewise, the ethics complaint I filed went nowhere and the general counsel of the division said basically, “boys will be boys.”

bully free zone

I left. I worked for a big company and still had friends, people who believed in me who helped me find another position close to home. It seemed better for my mental health than staying to prove a point. It took three years in a new job, with an amazing boss, to feel like a bomb wasn’t going to go off next to me. In the end, HR did me a good turn by not including the bully boss’s vindictive inputs into my employment record. The whole episode encouraged me to retire early – an option I was fortunate to be able to take. The sad thing is that I was really good at what I did, and the experience of one toxic boss deprived my company of my services, for which they had paid to train me over twenty years, and in the end that isn’t good for business.

Sitting behind all that traffic this week triggered memories of morning commutes to get to work and face whatever was going to happen or drives home from work and screaming at what did happen. The irony is that I love to drive. And I loved my job. I think the experience of a narcissistic, bully, boss deprived me of both, and that is what makes me fly off into rage.

I’m hopeful that recognizing my reaction to all those bicyclists will help me be calm the next time. Knowing that, I can take a deep breath and remind myself that life is about more than getting to a meeting on time.

If you are the victim of workplace bullying don’t despair. There is help, and more acceptance of bullying as a form of harassment. Human Resources can be helpful but be cautious. This is when all those networking connections you’ve cultivated come in handy. Use them. The references below might help.

Further references:





Literary vs. Genre – What’s the Difference?

My local library system gives me the ability to checkout audio or ebooks onto my phone. Their search criteria include the choice of 118 “collections” or I’ll use the word genres. Some are overlaps, still, that is quite a few ways to hunt for what you want to read next. Many readers find a writer they like and search on that person for what’s the next book. Maybe you’ve heard your favorite author described as a genre writer. Or a literary writer. What those two words mean can be confusing. Especially to those who haven’t obtained their Master of Fine Arts, the only area where I think the difference matters to anyone.

Let’s start with dictionary definitions. From my The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New Collect Edition circa 1975, we have:

Genre – 1.a. Type: class: variety. 1.b. A distinctive class or category of literary composition. [French, kind, from Old French gen(d)re, From the Latin genus (seem gener) – race, kind.] 2.a. A category of art distinguished by a definite style, form, or content.

(note that the root of genre – genus, is the same root as genes and gender)

Literary – Of relating to or dealing with literature. 2.a. Found in, or appropriate to literature: a literary style. 2.b. Employed chiefly in writing rather than speaking

Literature – 1.a A body of writings in prose or verse. 2. Imaginative or creative writing: belles-lettres. 3.The body of written work produced by scholars or researches in a given field: 5. Printed material of any kind, as for a political or advertising campaign. [From Latin litterarura, writing, learning, from literatus, learned.]

From the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)

Genre — a particular subject or style of literature, art, or music.

Steven Petite wrote an interesting piece for Huffingtonpost, where he discusses the difference between literary and genre writing. “An argument can be made that there are two types of fiction when it comes to novels: Genre Fiction and Literary Fiction. The former includes many subcategories such as Mystery/Thriller, Horror, Romance, Western, Fantasy, Science Fiction, etc. The latter is more difficult to classify or break apart into subcategories. To put it simply, Literary Fiction is anything that does not fit into a genre.”

This version of the word genre puts the act of writing in first place, the type of writing or rather, the subject matter in second. Combined with the dictionary definitions, genre writing is creative prose or verse with a definite style and/or content. Literary writing would also be creative prose or verse and the individual writer lends a definite style or subject. They sound almost the same, don’t they? Yet there are turf battles over these two words: literary and genre. Agents and publishers distinguish between them in their wish lists. Some publishers specialize in one or the other, and often, within a specific subject or style. Some literary readers look down on genre readers and writers.

Mr. Petite summarizes his discussion with: “In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.”

In my words, he’s arguing that the essential difference between genre and literary fiction is on which side of reality the story is told. I see it through a different lens.

Literary fiction approaches the same ingredients from the perspective of gritty reality. Yet crime novels and intrigue novels are in the real world. Much of children’s literature (a genre – just to confuse things) take place in the real world. So that can’t be used as the primary delineator.  Perhaps it can be said that genre fiction comes at whatever deep thoughts there are from a metaphorical perspective. Good science fiction or fantasy contains made-up worlds that contain the same battles and problems as the real world, and the stories are told in a way that slips the message and learning in sideways, with entertainment to boot. Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m not a deep thinker, (though my friends would argue against that) but I want my reading to delight me. That can take many forms: imaginary worlds, real worlds seen in a different light, or pure escapism. A book like Cutting for Stone by  Abraham Verghese is considered literary fiction, it takes place in a very real place. But as an American, the worlds of India and Africa described are as different to me as a dreamed-up planet in outer space. Petite’s “escape from reality” is really an “escape to another reality” (genre writing) and combines with an “emotional journey” (literary writing) to create an engaging story.

I don’t think genre writers and readers should be made to feel inferior to literary writers and readers. After all, literary fiction is another type of prose creative writing with a unique style and content. In other words, another genre. Now to decide which of the 5,075 books available at my library for download I should I pick next.

What types of books do you like and does it  matter if they are considered genre or literary?


9/11 Personal Essay

I’m privileged to belong to a kick-ass writing critique group. Several of our writers have been working on memoirs and personal essays. They inspired me to write this piece.

Cardinal rule of photography – have something red in the picture to focus the eye. A little boy in a red sweater was running around in San Marcos Piazza on the island of Venice chasing pigeons, on a sunny day in September of 2001. Thousands of pigeons. I sat on some steps, camera to my eye, waiting for the magical moment when he would enter their nexus and they would all fly up, giving me a shot with action, red as the focus, and glee on his face. Unfortunately, these were wise pigeons, and aside from an undulating lifting off the ground and settling again, they paid the boy no attention.

“I’m not going to get the shot,” I said to my husband. He agreed. A man with a dark complexion approached us.

“It is too bad what happened at the shopping store in America,” he said. Ken and I looked at each other. Without words we said, ‘uh?’ and one of us mumbled, ‘yeah, sure.” I pictured an explosion at the Mall of America or something like that.  The man walked off and we decided to head back to our hotel and check out the international news.

On this trip we traveled with my parents. To give each couple some time alone, we split up that day. Ken and I wandered the island, explored alleys, and saw the Bridge of Sighs. As we walked back to the hotel we passed my folks sitting at an outdoor café. Dad saluted us with his beer and we joined them at their table.

“Someone said the strangest thing,” I said and proceeded to tell them about the man.

“It’s worse than that,” Dad said. And that was when we learned what had happened in New York, on that day in September. September 11, 2001.

We made it to our hotel room and turned on the TV in time to see the plane hit the second tower.

“We’re at war,” I said. I  didn’t appreciate the psychic gravity those words held. My next thought was, “we’re at war and we are in a foreign country. How do we get home?” The US had cleared the skies of planes. Nothing took off and everything in the air landed as close to where they were as possible. We were stranded.

Over dinner that night we discussed our options. Our return trip wasn’t due to start for four days. Perhaps US airspace would open by then. If not, my folks had friends who had a new daughter-in-law whose parents lived in Germany. Ken had black level status with Marriott and we could cash in some of those points for lodging. But what if it went on for months? We couldn’t be house guests with people we didn’t know for that long.

Florence was next on our itinerary. So, we went. Might as well try to maintain some normalcy. The first night in Florence my company called my sister, back home in Michigan, to see if I had made contact. Furthest thing from my mind. She called my parents, who passed along that we were fine. It made me feel good that they did that, and that perhaps they would have stepped in with some financial help if we faced a long-term stay.

We toured Florence, saw the statue of David, took a bus ride to Pisa and took pictures of us holding the tipping structure up. All along the way, Italian vendors posted signs in their windows, “We Stand with our American Friends.” The outpouring of mutual grief and confusion was shared by all we spoke with. The defacto expat community of travelers pulled together in hotel bars. Our eyes were glued to the TV, watching the plane hit the towers over and over. Seeing bodies fall, or jump, out of windows multiple tens of stories high. Knowing that they wouldn’t make it to the ground alive. We talked. We shared where we were from, and where we were when we heard the news.

Our plane was scheduled for September 14. Florence to Frankfurt to Denver to Los Angeles. Airspace in Europe was unaffected, so our flight to Florence was on schedule. As we stood in line to check in a man approached the woman in front of us and explained that he was moving and had too much luggage for the airlines limit, would she be so kind as to carry some of his luggage aboard? I freaked out.

“You CANNOT take anyone else’s luggage. Especially after what happened.” Security was called, and the woman did not take the extra bags. I have no idea if he was legit or not, I wasn’t taking chances.

We arrived in Frankfort to find an airport in chaos. Flights to the US had been cancelled for four days at that point, and tourists with no options were bunked in the ballroom of the Hilton adjacent to the terminal. Others were camped on the floors of the airport. We scanned the boards for our flight and saw that it was cancelled and headed for the Marriott. They gave us a room and we unpacked what little we needed for the night, and our bathing suits. They hotel had a rooftop pool and I hadn’t been in water for two weeks. I’m part fish. We sat by the pool, read our books, and decided we needed to get dinner. Dressed and hungry we passed through the lobby to the restaurant. A television screen had the same flight info as the boards in the terminal and our flight scrolled up. It was no longer cancelled. We raced to our room, tossed everything back in the bags, and checked out.

The line for check-in was epic. Everyone was hoping they could be on standby. Residents of Frankfurt walked up and down the line offering spare bedrooms and couches to the stranded tourists. We had an hour and 45 minutes before the flight. After 45 minutes in line, and two or three people away from the desk, they closed the flight. New rules. All flights close one hour before doors on the plane shut. Ken blasted the lid off the poor counter worker, who probably, no, didn’t have anything to do with that decision, but his rage had to go somewhere. She was the unlucky human in his path. Back to the Marriott, which graciously gave us our room back, still unmade, and again we headed down to dinner. By now it is about 9:00 at night, and we ate simply because we knew tomorrow would be a trial as well, and we needed strength.

The next day we got to the airport with ample time, checked in and headed for the security checkpoint. The first of three. We showed our ticket and passport at each stop. The terminal was quiet except for the shuffling of feet and the mummer of voices to ask directions, quell crying children and answer security questions. At the last stop we were locked into the gate waiting area, with another armed guard blocking the door. The air was tense, like everyone was afraid to take a deep breath. I scanned the other passengers. Just as they scanned us. Was this person likely to take control of this flight and ram us into a building? Maybe that’s why taking a breath was so hard, it might imply guilt.

On board the plane we sat in our seats and stared ahead. We had bought the first Harry Potter book, two of them, so we could each read. The perfunctory safety briefing seemed ridiculous considering four hijacked planes had heard the same words. Lot of good it did them. The in-flight entertainment was silent, the map of where we are in the sky turned off. The food served with plastic sporks. No one is going to overwhelm the captain with a spork, I guess.

We landed at the Denver airport at ten at night. The passengers erupted in cheers when the wheels hit the ground. We were safe on American soil, hadn’t blown up or crashed. The relief expanded my lungs, a felt I could float through the dark terminal. Nothing was open. We were the first flight to land in Denver since September 11. They lit just enough of the cavernous United terminal, to allow us to make our way to baggage, and customs and then a line of taxis called to take us to hotels. Our footsteps echoed off the tile, concrete, and glass of the building.

The next day when we returned, the airport was up and running as if nothing had happened. Except for the security lines, which were long. No one minded.


What’s the Deal with Book Reviews?

Many of my readers are active in book clubs. One of those readers made the following request. “Tell me about book reviews and where they come from.”books-bookstore-book-reading-159711.jpeg

To that question I’m adding: “Does a book review make a difference in the sales of a book?” and “Who is Kirkus?”

Let’s start with “Where do reviews come from?”

In today’s multimedia environment book reviews can be found in newspapers and magazines (New York Times, Kirkus), book-oriented web sites (Goodreads, Bookbub), book purchase sites (Amazon, Barnes and Noble), blogs, chat rooms, social media, and from friends and family.

Reviews found online come from readers, friends and family of the author (who may or may not have read the book) and some come from sites that will post positive reviews for a fee. In 2015 Amazon sued writers that had paid an outside company to write glowing reviews of self-published books among other products.[1]

In a survey published by Smashwords in 2011[2], the various sources of reviews were compared for readers of ebooks. 29% of respondents surveyed indicated that they choose an ebook through recommendations from fellow readers in online message forums, blogs and message boards. Only 3% of respondents cited reviews or recommendations from traditional media as being their preferred ebook discovery method, and 7% state that they browse randomly first before looking at reviews.books-education-school-literature-51342.jpeg

Does a book review make a difference in the sales of a book? The short answer is yes. In a paper published in 2004 Alan T. Sorensen and Scott J. Rasmusse[3] found that “… book reviews have a positive and statistically significant effect on sales, and that this effect is significantly larger for positive reviews than for negative reviews.” They estimated that “a positive review leads to a 62.9 percent increase in sales in the week following the review (relative to what sales would have been in the absence of any review), versus a 34.4 percent increase for a negative review.” Even bad publicity can benefit book sales. Any form of advertising can have both an educational or informative function as well as a persuasive role. This data indicates that negative reviews can still serve to let consumers know that the book is out there and available. This effect can increase sales, just not as much as a positive review.

Who is Kirkus?

Kirkus is an American book review magazine founded in 1933 by Virginia Kirkus (1893–1980). They preview over 7000 titles annually.”[4] In 2005 Kirkus launched a fee-for-review program which allows authors or publishers to purchase a review from Kirkus. Their website features a “buy it,” “borrow it,” or “skip it,” rating system for the week’s bestsellers. They also offer editing services to authors and marketing campaign management using their magazine and website as vehicles, in addition to their (for fee) reviews of independently published books. You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking it is all a bit too cozy.

Aliance of Independent Authors Watchdog Giacomo Giammatteo wrote an article on whether a Kirkus review is worth it from the author’s perspective. Most of the authors he interviewed for the article said no. The ~250-word reviews were a rehash of the plot and only a few spare words were dedicated to commenting on the things readers want to see before selecting a book to read.[5]

Whether you read book reviews before selecting your next book or not, just as with everything you read and hear these days, it is wise to know who the reviewer is and make your own decision as to whether to trust them. Just because a book isn’t reviewed doesn’t mean it isn’t a book you would love. You might be the first person to review the next blockbuster!pexels-photo-247708.jpeg

Do you have a question about books? Leave a note in the comments section and it will be the topic of a future post. If you’d like to have a guest post on this blog let me know.

[1] Amazon Law Suit



[4] Wikipedia – Kirkus



Is it “the 46 East” or just “46 east?”

Most of my journeys from my home to anywhere, include driving on a highway.

freeway signs

Be it the grocery store, the bank, into town for lunch or on my way to one of the beach cities on the Central Coast, I’m usually on 46 East, 46 West or the 101.

There, I did it. A unique and regionally specific reference to a freeway using the definite article “the” in front of a road number. For those of you who don’t remember sentence diagramming, a definitive article is a determiner ( the in English) that introduces a noun phrase and implies that the thing mentioned has already been mentioned, or is common knowledge, or is about to be defined (as in the book on the table ; the art of government ; the famous poet and short story writer )[1].


Not being a native Californian, I hear in my own language a mish-mash of ways that I describe a road when giving directions. Sometimes I put “the” in front of the road name,  sometimes not. 30 years of living in Southern California taught me that freeways always have a “the” in front of the number. “Take the 110 to the 405 and wind up the south bay curve…”

Why does it sound natural to my ear for me to drive on 46 East – without the definitive article – and on the 101  -with the definitive article? Turns out it’s an historical accident.

In an article on the KCET website[2], this unique, regionally specific speech pattern is explained. It has to do with the history of freeways. Southern California had a few freeways long before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956[3] defined the nations freeways and numbering system. The freeways in So. Cal already had descriptive names. A definitive article before the name made grammatical sense. The Santa Monica Freeway, The San Bernardino Freeway. Numbers were assigned to the existing roads, sometimes multiple numbers to the same named road. For years, road signs had both the name and the number. It wasn’t until new freeways were built, “The San Gabriel River Freeway” and “The Redondo Beach Freeway” in the 1990’s that drivers gave up trying to remember names and went with the numbers. But the definitive article, “the” stayed in usage. People had ingrained the habit, so they said, “the 101, the 405, the 5.”

Being from the Midwest, where we didn’t even call them freeways – they are expressways – I picked up the “the” as I learned to navigate. But when I moved from Southern California to Central California and added new freeway names to my memory bank, they didn’t include the definitive article. Thus, I still drive the 101 (which runs the length of California) and 40 East.

Mish-mash. At least I know why





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.

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.

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