Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Canadian Smocking...and Writing

Canadian Smocking

Does the mention of smocking bring to mind the complicated stitches and pleats that look so beautiful when finished? How about the other equipment: ‘plates’, pleating tool, and various other things needed in English Smocking?
Not for me. Much as I admired the skill this is one needle and thread activity I didn’t attempt. Then I stumbled on a video on YouTube on Canadian Smocking. WOW! This wasn’t new! According to sources, this was a popular art along the time I was in college so I would have been focused on studies…and um…the male population. Not another needle craft.
Texture...aka Character
The video I found was by a British TV presenter, Debbie Shore. With fabric, a ruler, marking pen, needle and thread, you can create a beautiful pillow or other project. I was fascinated. Think…distraction activity…as mentioned in another post. But how does Canadian Smocking relate to writing except to take you away from your work?
Design...aka Plot
With a few tools you can draw a grid [or use gingham fabric] and create a pillow. Same as in writing when you start with an idea or premise and create a story. Also your project is simple as in KISS…keep it simple, says the experts. Keep your goal in focus.
Wrong side...aka...inner journey
And here’s another fact that caught my attention. Many of the designs are as beautiful on the inside as on the outside. Are you thinking story goal and inner journey? Look at this perfectly plain piece of gingham. Add a few stitches and you have these flowers on the backside. With a few pearls sewn in the center, or using Satin fabric, the flower is beautiful. And on the front side…simple red and white checks become dramatic. Makes me think of Christmas and peppermint candy, and gives us another reminder that characters should always change.
Right side...aka...story goal
One of my favorite designs was on a video by a Brazilian TV presenter. The guest on multiple shows was the same talented artist.  I don’t speak the language but after watching the British TV host multiple times I was able to mute the sound and pick up the design by watching. This too relates to our writing. Our stories should have a Universal Theme…a message that reaches across language barriers.
Canadian Smocking can add texture and design to an ordinary piece of fabric. Let your story turn ordinary characters into people we want to spend time with and get to know.
Do you remember seeing pillows made by Canadian Smocking or North American Smocking as some sources label it?

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Walk In the Past

By Fran McNabb 

Delving into the past is a great way to make sense of the present, to learn about the past, or to simply enjoy piecing together what people before us did. My husband and I did this recently when we traveled to his hometown to bury a former classmate. In our spare time, we visited some of the local cemeteries to find graves of my husband’s family. Because his hometown is a small city with many rural communities surrounding it, we were not even sure if we could locate the different cemeteries.

We first visited his hometown cemetery where his parents and one brother were buried. We put flowers there, then with only the name of small rural cemetery and directions from one of his friends, we headed out.

It was a gorgeous, crisp autumn day making our drive quite enjoyable. We drove down winding tree-lined lanes and into what seemed to me to be a long forgotten area of the world. Occasionally we came upon neat little homes with large, well-kept yards. It surprised me how people today could live away from towns, but as my husband says, “It would be a boring world if everyone liked the same thing.”

Finally, we came upon a little white church with a high steeple sitting next to a fence-in graveyard. 
We got out and started walking down the small rows of graves and were amazed to find a half row of tombstones with his family name on them. Some of these markers had been there for well over a hundred years. We found his grandfather’s headstone. As the story goes, his grandfather was killed by a family member while his grandfather was robbing the other man’s trot lines. He had been buried at the young age of 28 in 1922. The man, who supposedly killed him, lived to be 67 and was buried just a feet away. If the story is true, I guess in the early 1900’s, it was okay to shoot someone stealing from your trot lines.

We found graves of Civil War soldiers and of many, many babies. One man had four infant graves next to his with only the identifying words of Infant and the last name. The lack of medical advancement during those years was a harsh reality.  Even my mother-in-law had lost a baby at birth, and on the second day of our search, we visited a third cemetery and found a tiny little marker with his brother’s name on it.

Visiting cemeteries isn’t something my husband and I normally do, but the time we spent on that day was quite meaningful. As we drove away from all the cemeteries, my mind and my heart went out to the families of those people buried there. Sometimes we forgot our ancestors and the people we read about in history books were actual people who lived and breathed, suffered and rejoiced, loved and mourned just as we do today.

 If you have a little time sometimes, take a moment and walk through a cemetery near you. It’s amazing what you might learn.

Fran McNabb writes light romances and is waiting for her eighth book, KEEPING HOPE ALIVE, to be published by The Wild Rose Press. Visit her at or at


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Displacement Activity is Good for Writers

On my writer’s blog (EverWriting) I have a category that I have designated as the default: Displacement Activity, a state in which many of us find ourselves when the words refuse to flow or when we are reluctant to let them flow as they will.

I have three novels in the “works in progress” stage. In one case, the manuscript is in typescript. The others are locked in notebooks. All are fully plotted but moving on from plot to complete is proving to be beyond my motivation level at the moment, so I’m engaging in Displacement Activity.

Where I have lacked motivation to write, I have been doing one of the next best things.

This activity is particularly good as an analogy for writing. Here is a ‘plot’ for a planned quilt project. The color scheme is like characterization: we have to have some level of contrast, but at the same time, the colors and fabric patterns must be compatible. Too much contrast leads to clash and discordance. No amount of shifting of sections will make those colors work together.

On the other hand, too little contrast will result in bland, uninteresting projects, not only for the quilter but the ultimate recipient as well. 

There are exceptions when the intricacy or the uniqueness of the finished product is the focal point. As in writing, while the whole is critical, the details matter.

Yet, the details often become the narrow focus when moving from plan/plot to process and completion. Planning a project is often the fountain of creativity, the exciting bit for the quilter, and for the writer. Working through the initial impulses to put the project on paper, create the design, the characters, visualizing the story as it unfolds and as the project takes shape. 

Sometimes, that stage is the end. The story refuses to move forward; the characters refuse to conform to the needs of the story. What can we do to with all those words and all that effort? When the characters have no conflicting needs, or create no tension because they are utterly sympathetic to one another?

What can we do with the designs that simply won't work, that are too small for the purpose, the amount of fabric you have is inadequate, the print is no longer available in the shop? 

Nothing is better for a creative person than the challenge of solving a problem and achieving a beautiful result, however it comes about and whatever level of commitment it requires. As unwelcome as failure is, the amount of experience we gain makes the effort worth more. As Walt Disney enjoined, "Time to stop talking and start doing."

Saturday, September 19, 2015

One Continent Left

Is it crazy that I want to visit Antartica? Certainly some folks think so. As one of them said to me recently, "What is there to see besides ice and snow and maybe a few penguins?" I could argue the point about the intrigue of ice and snow or the many other animals, most of them sea creatures, one can only see at the world's southernmost land mass. It's all true. . .and it all misses the point. I want to see Antartica for the same reason Sir Edmund Hillary gave for climbing Everest: Because it's there.

As a little girl growing up in the Arizona desert, I dreamed of travel. In those days that meant seeing something outside the far southwestern corner of America. My parents were school teachers who talked about interesting places in the news or told stories of foreign cultures in exotic locales, but for our family, travel usually meant going to visit relatives who lived within a few hours' drive.

That didn't keep me from childhood adventures. My father worked occasional summers for the U.S. Forest Service. As a child, I often drifted off to sleep to the sound of a summer rain shower or awakened to the trumpet of a bull elk. With the children of other forest service workers, I explored the spruce and fir forests of the White Mountains, watched a porcupine build her nest and rear her young, and ate for breakfast the rainbow trout I caught at the lake that morning. These experiences only whetted my appetite for even greater adventures.

In the decades since, I've had many more travel opportunities than my modest upbringing might have suggested, some of them much more adventurous than I'd planned. For instance, there was the educational trip my daughter took for college credit when I tagged along. We knew we would have new experiences in Bolivia. We did not expect to witness revolution, the overthrow of a government, or the upending of a centuries-old social order. But that's another story for a different time.

It was in 2010 after a long-anticipated anniversary cruise in the Mediterranean that my husband and I realized we had set foot on every one of the world's continents save one. We can't say we've seen Africa, not after an overnight stay in Cairo. Nor can our half-day in the eastern side of Turkey qualify us as having seen Asia, but we have visited both, as well as Australia, Europe, North and South America. And that leaves .,, yep, you guessed it.

Antartica isn't  next on my list of travel priorities; in fact, it's way down that list. Since it isn't really on my husband's list at all, there's some doubt as to whether I'll ever set foot there. Then again, I didn't really expect to visit Africa, either. As long as Antartica is still there, I'll want to see it--if not for the bragging rights, at least for the penguins.

Susan Aylworth is the author of 13 novels with a 14th due this fall. Mom to seven, she is "Gramma" to 24. She lives in northern California with her husband of 45 years and a pair of spoiled housecats. Contact her @SusanAylworth, or, also on Pinterest and Instagram. She loves to hear from readers.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Trip of a Lifetime

By Karen McCullough

A couple of weeks ago I got back from a trip I’ve waited for my entire life. Along with my husband, son, daughter-in-law and baby grand-daughter, I went to Italy. It was a return trip for me, since forty-some years ago I spent a summer in northern Italy, basically as an English tutor. I retained vivid memories of the cities of Milan and Como, and of Lake Como, which I’d been able to visit then. I’ve long regretted the other cities of Italy I didn’t get to, particularly Rome. This trip would rectify that omission.

St. Peter's Square in Rome
We spent the first five days in Rome, traveled to Florence, spent a couple of days there, then went on to Varenna on Lake Como for a few days before flying back to the States. Despite extreme heat and crowds of tourists, the trip met every expectation I could possibly have had.

I have a series of posts about the trip over on my own blog at  You can head over that way if you want to read about the whole thing, day by day.  In this post I just want to talk about a few miscellaneous things noted on the trip.

Travel – Airplane travel sucks. Don’t believe it?  Read my story about the flight to Rome here, but (warning) it may make you reluctant to ever fly again. On the other hand train travel in Italy is amazing. Where it was available, we paid a little extra for first class seats and it was so worth the small additional cost. Travel by train is much nicer and more comfortable than travel by airplane anyway, but paying a few Euros per person more for first class makes it even better. Seats were roomy, well padded, had power outlets, USB ports, tables and footrests. Even on the trains that didn’t offer first class service, the seats were comfortable and the amenities adequate. Plus the high-speed trains get you to your destination in surprisingly little time. I realize that the US is a lot bigger than Italy or even most of Europe, but still, more high speed trains would put some of the pleasure back into traveling around the country.

Gelato – Oh, yes!  But first, you should know that some gelato places are better than others.  Some so-called gelato isn’t much better than the ice cream you can get here in the US. But good gelato—oh my!  It’s richer, creamier, and fresher-tasting than anything I can remember tasting at home. After hiking around the city on a hot day in Rome, nothing tastes better.

Coffee – Years ago when I was there, I developed a love for real Italian coffee, a thick brew served in tiny cups. Most of the Italians I knew then added large quantities of sugar to it. Espresso in the US is the closest thing you can get to it here, but it’s not exactly the same. And in all the hotels and most of the restaurants we frequented, they had machines that would produce Americano and Cappuccino as well as Espresso. Ask for just coffee, and it was a toss-up whether you’d get a half cup of a slightly stiffer brew than Americano or the coffee I remember from my last visit, which compressed all the coffee goodness (and caffeine) of a standard cup od Americano into about  a quarter cup of liquid served in teeny tiny cups.

Wine – We sampled many of the local wines at meals, including a number of Chiantis. (Another leftover from my previous trip: I love Chianti!) After a few days, my husband said, “They clearly aren’t shipping the good stuff to the U.S.” So true. For a reasonable five Euros (a bit under six dollars US), you could get a glass of outstanding wine.

Absolutely the best Tiramisu ever!
talian Cooking in General
– Oh, man.  I’m not a gourmet or a gourmand. On the “live to eat, eat to live” dichotomy I definitely fall on the eat to live end of the spectrum.  But even I can recognize great cooking when I taste it. I’m still partial to northern Italian cooking, which eschews tomato and pepper-based sauces in favor of more subtle flavors of butter and cream toppings for creative pasta based dishes. Seafood is common. My favorite meals were spaghetti with clams and ravioli stuffed with lakefish.

And the desserts were sheer decadence. We’re all partial to Tiramisu, and just about every place we ate in Italy had it. But there were a lot of varieties, and a lot of different ways to serve it.  We had Tiramisu on plates, in parfait glasses, and, memorably, in a large brandy snifter.

I have no idea when I’ll ever get back, but should I ever the chance, I’m totally up for it. (Except for the unfortunate necessity of having to fly over and back.)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Never Write Your Bio While You're Intoxicated

by Victoria M. Johnson

Have you ever attended a party, enjoyed the food, beverages, and company of others, only to get home late and remember you have a bio due that night?  This happened to me after attending a festive bachelorette party.  My bio had to be updated and it had to be sent that night.  I had no choice.  I ran the obvious risks of typos and writing nonsensical gibberish.  And you know what they say about loose lips and Freudian slips.  So I was extra careful.  And I was glad I had turned down one more glass of "extra fruity" punch.  Yet, as I read and rewrote some lines it occurred to me what a bio could become and what trouble a writer could get into with it.

author bio by Victoria M. Johnson

Take a look at seven perils of writing your bio while inebriated:

You might curse:
Not exactly a flattering item to have in your bio, unless of course your books feature characters that curse and your readers clamor for more.

You might reveal a secret:
This is the final book in the series because I'm moving to a new publisher.  Or, this imprint is being phased out and I'm one of the lucky authors who'll write for the new line.  (Not when the editors discover you spilled the beans).

Self doubts might slip out:
I don't have any ideas left.  I'll never be able to sell another book.  Those troll reviewers are right. Why would anyone want to buy my books?

In looking at your bio you might decide you aren't where you thought you'd be in your career:
I would have won that award if Suzy R. hadn't won with her lame book about Vikings that only ten people read.

If you have a day job you don't like, and stare at it in your bio, you might quit right then and there--in your bio.

You might embellish, you are a creative writer after all:  
I'm like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and J.K. Rowling all rolled into one!

You might be too honest:
I hate my agent.

Instead of your usual well-crafted, professional and impressive bio, you send this:

My book was a finalist for Best Romance of the Year, but Suzy R. won.  My stupid publisher refused to take out ads for my book, but they did for Suzy!  And my cowardly agent didn't have the gahunas to speak up.  It's no wonder his wife is having an affair with his colleague.  For five years I am was a receptionist for the stingiest software company in all of Silicon Valley.  I've had it with their low pay and flimsy benefits.  I quit!  I am better at public speaking anyway.  If you haven't taken one of my writing workshops you have s**t for brains.  My classes are always full and students say I am the best instructor.  Visit my website for details!

A public bio like this would surely change your career.  But that's not the worst that could happen. Instead of sending it to the one requester of your bio, you could unintentionally send it to everyone in your email contact list (including your press release contacts).  And that's not even the worst that could happen.  The worst possible thing for a writer to do is to write the most brilliant, unique, modest bio on the planet, and accidentally hit the delete button before saving.

As you can see, writing your bio while intoxicated is hazardous to your well-being.  Don't let this happen to you.  Write it before you need it, before you go to the party.  Give it some thought.  Remember, it will be findable online forever.  

Victoria M. Johnson knew by the time she was ten that she wanted to be a writer.  She loves telling stories and she's happiest when creating new characters and new plots.  Avalon Books and Montlake Romance published Victoria's fiction debut, The Doctor’s Dilemma, (A 2012 Bookseller’s Best double finalist).  Her other fiction book is a collection of romance short stories titled, The Substitute Bride, and a novella, Hot Hawaiian Christmas. She is also the writer and director of four short films and two micro documentaries.   Visit Victoria at for inspiration and tips and find her Amazon author page or connect with her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Is It About Weddings?

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

September is our wedding month this year. No, I don’t mean The Husband and I are getting married (we did that almost fifteen wonderful years ago) or that it’s our anniversary, which is in the spring. No, this month is when two of our friends each decided to marry and, as they are dear friends indeed, we are going to the weddings.

Which sounds a lot easier than it actually is. The first is in Boston, which is a looong way from Texas. The second happens on the very next weekend in Alabama, which is also a looong way from Texas. Now you know I love to travel, but I really do like to be able to draw breath between trips! We’ll be home for one day between Boston and Alabama – barely enough time to do laundry and re-pack, as each ceremony will need a different style of wardrobe. We’re flying to Boston and I’m not looking forward to it; flying just isn’t any fun anymore, as I truly dislike being treated like a piece of not-too-intelligent nor valued cargo. We’re driving to Alabama, having rediscovered the pleasures of automobile trips by driving to Denver in June for my appearance at the Historical Novel Society.

But we’re going to both weddings happily, which made me think about what weddings mean. Mainly, I believe, it is because a wedding is a joyous occasion. Two people are promising each other and vowing to God that they will live the rest of their lives together. Yes, I know about the divorce rate and all the uglinesses that can happen, but humans are creatures of hope, therefore weddings are the essence of new starts. The days of the forced marriage are happily over (save in some of our novels, and even those usually work out happily in the end) and to see two people pledge themselves to each other is in its own way a symbol of renewal even in our own lives.

In most romance novels the culminatory wedding – or the promise of the same – is the climax, where the happily-ever-after begins. I have always thought that was a disservice to the idea of romance, symbolizing that the romance ends at the wedding, that magically everything will be sunlight and roses from that moment on. I believe the wedding is where the romance really starts. Falling in love is a magical thing, the blending of two disparate people into a loving couple, but the real magic happens after the wedding, when this couple must live in the world of reality.

I know, reality is what most readers want to escape from when they choose a book, but the best stories are the ones that have some grounding in real-world situations, albeit frosted with the gloss of fantasy. It’s easy to be romantic when everyone is dressed in beautiful clothes and the world is full of rosebuds and sunshine, where the worst that can happen is their lovely picnic is rained out. Now don’t get huffy with me – I know it’s the style in modern romance novels to throw everything at the hero and heroine from spies to pregnancy to abuse to looming apocalypse, but those are just macrocosms of the courtship meme. In real life you get unsympathetic family members, financial problems, differences in background and all other kinds of obstacles. In romance they are replaced with murderers and other figures/problems/obstacles. They’re symbols. At least, I hope so.

After the wedding reality truly does come home – money and pregnancy and jobs and crying children and moves and possible infidelity – all the nasties which flesh is heir to. Keeping romance alive under those situations is difficult, both in fiction and in real life. Is marriage really worth it?

Of course it is. A good marriage is the Holy Grail of relationships, the Valhalla of commitment. It’s why the majority of romance novels lead toward a wedding as the culmination of the story. They just don’t tell you that’s where the real love story begins.