Friday, October 21, 2016

Use What You Know

Author Sharon Dobson spoke about National Novel Writing Month and writing about what you know at the October meeting of the Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Writers’ Association.
Sharon used Hershey kisses to illustrate how writers can take a thought and a brief sentence and build on it to create a story.

She gave us a six word sentence. Then used information about how Milton Hershey built his business and about his world-famous candy kisses (which she distributed to entice us more into the story. Yum) and increased it to 130 words and enhanced her story.
Added information helps draw readers into your story, she said. You want to give them something more than quick details.

Using methods like this can help those writers who participate in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) which is in November. Writers try to write an average of 1,667 words a day to reach 50,000 by the end of the month.

Writers can prepare for Nanowrimo ahead of time by deciding on their story, making an outline and a timeline, but shouldn’t start writing. Actual writing of the novel has to start on November 1 and end by November 30.

Sharon said she would encourage writers to participate in Nanowrimo and recommended using methods such as above to expand sentences. Think of connections, she said. When you are painting a picture with words, you need more.
Use day to day experiences. Tell your reader about the blade of grass that you know and feel it under their feet. Have them eat with you. Smell and taste the food.

Develop a personality for your characters. Search for the human aspect of each story and scene. Write in people you know, but first ask them if you can use them.
Don’t edit while you write during Nanowrimo, she said. Just get the words down. The first draft is always bad. Editing comes later, but writing so quickly during November will give you a good start to your novel.

Do the best that you can and have a critique group of someone else read your story, comment on it and then make any last minute changes you feel are necessary before publishing.
“When you push that button to print, you open yourself up to criticism,” she said. “Don’t sweat it.”

Sharon was raised between Monkton, Maryland and Chincoteague, Virginia. She uses details from those locations in her books. Each book addresses a social problem, she said.
Her first novel was Murder at Swan Cove. The fictional murders in this book revolved around child sexual abuse.

The idea for another book, Witness to War, was based on stories her great grandmother used to tell. “I am sorry we caused the Civil War,” Sharon remembered her great grandmother saying.
Years later she discovered that was at least partially true. It started when an escaped slave fled north to Pennsylvania in 1881.That action led to Pennsylvania’s Fugitive Slave Act.
You will have to read her book or do some research to learn more. The social problem in Witness to War is mental illness.

Her newest book, Middle Plantation, will be coming out soon. The social problem in this book is connectiveness and the difficulty of getting unconnected.
You can find more information about Sharon’s books through Goodreads and Facebook. Also, if you are interested in National Novel Writing Month, check out

Friday, October 7, 2016

Autumn Inspiration

Temperatures have dropped, leaves are turning, pumpkin pie and apple cider are on the menu. It is Fall.
Opportunities abound to get outside and enjoy the fresh air and festivals.

I love Westminster’s Fall Fest, the Eldersburg Apple Festival and the Carroll County Farm Museum’s Fall Harvest Days, as well as others. One of my favorites is the Autumn Glory Festival.

Garrett County, Maryland’s fall foliage has been drawing visitors to the area for more than 50 years. I have been to that event numerous times and am never bored.
For locals the festival starts on Wednesday night with a Chamber of Commerce dinner. Other activities begin on Thursday. Chief among these is the Firemen’s parade and Octoberfest in downtown Oakland.

The entire weekend includes musical entertainment, plays, quilt, craft and antique shows, art exhibits, yard sales and turkey dinners. There is something for everyone in this small town of Oakland and surrounding areas.
Saturday afternoon there is another large parade with area marching bands and creative floats. My children marched in this parade carrying wooden leaves to emphasize the autumn theme.

You can enjoy the beauty of Maryland’s mountains and Deep Creek Lake while in the area.

Nearby are other festivals in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. I particularly like the Kingwood, WV Buckwheat Festival. Lots of fun and lots of buckwheat cakes in those wild, wonderful WV mountains.
Friends and family enjoy fall’s corn mazes, pumpkin chuckin and apple dumplings .

If you want to recommend other fall festivals in the surrounding area, please do. I always like to explore.

Below are a few poems I wrote while I lived in the mountains.

(These and others can be found in my chapbook Mountain Musings, available on

by Jo Donaldson

The streets are empty now,
waiting for the rhythm of the marching bands.
The sidewalks soon will have little room
where anyone can stand.

The merchants busily arrange
their seasonal wares,
While the trees flame briefly.
before winter strips them bare.

Jo Donaldson

The mountains are on fire, autumn's fire.
The trees flame with color.
They burn into my soul,
Scorching me with their beauty.


when winter's barren landscape follows,
with snow to soften, or ice to reflect,
that flame will still burn.
Autumn's fire, branded on my memory.

Autumn’s Glory!

By Jo Donaldson

A brilliant flash of color
 before the barren landscape of year’s end.
  Reds, golds, yellow, oranges,
    among the brown and still green garments of mountain life.
     an extravagant coat to catch and please the eye.

The mountain dresses in her finest
  to dance in the cold autumn breezes,
    before winter snow and ice blankets her,
       bidding her  sleep until Spring.


Friday, September 30, 2016

Toby Devens research

“A writer is a witness to the world,” said Toby Devens, Penquin Random House author, at a recent meeting of the Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Writers Association. “We see connections.”
Speaking about reseach, she mentioned details, such as Old Bay seasoning and seagrass, early in the story to set the mood for her newest book, Barefoot Beach, which was just released this spring.

The book is about women finding themselves, the immigrant experience, and friendship.

Editors and agents like to see books that are well researched and offer one or two interesting new insights, but facts must be authentic to the genre. Readers are willing to suspend belief (especially with science fiction and fantasy), but incorrect facts in any genre, can stop a reader cold.
When writing, you can weave what you learned from your research into your story.  For one of her books, she talked to a gynecologist about details and then attended a surgery, so details in the book were authentic. Readers must be able to trust what is in the story, but it may take a lot of research.
To Toby, research is fun, an adventure.

I agree, to a point. I love to learn new things and meet new people. That is what I liked about being a reporter. I made sure my facts where correct and tried to give my readers description and emotion. I don’t think I like research as much as Toby, but do find it fun if the subject is interesting and necessary to the story.

Back to Toby’s recommendations, details make a story more interesting, but not too many. You don’t want to stop the eye of the reader. If adding facts, that add texture to the story, make sure they are correct. even the smallest error can cost you credibility.
For a book that included Korean/Americans, she read blogs and spoke to people to get the accent, words and traditions are correct.

One fan wrote and told how much she enjoyed the book and so did her mother.  But her mother said that it included too much insider information for the author not to be Korean. They both loved all the specifics about Baltimore.
You need to make an emotional connection with the reader, she said. A book may be fiction, but first, it must be authentic and accurate.

However, be careful your book isn’t too realistic. When using details, remember a little goes a long way. Too many can distract your reader from the story or make you look like a show off.
“You are casting a spell,” Toby said, “making a compact with the reader. You want to get it right.”
Her book, Happy Any Day Now, was selected as a New American Library Accent Novel.

Toby was busy this summer promoting her Barefoot Beach, but is already working on her next book.

She also recommended being part of a critique group. Such a group can be helpful, but make sure your group members are supportive of each other. She has been in her critique group for the past 35 years. There are still 11 or 12 active members.

Don’t be unkind,” she said of critiquing the work of others, “but tell what you think is true about the piece.”

“People inspire me,” Toby said. “Usually they are happy to talk to you and help you.” She also likes to help other writers. If you get an opportunity to hear her, take advantage of it. She shared a lot more information than I presented here.

You can find out more about her at her website: .

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Pastor writes what he knows

Two pieces of advice writers always receive are:
1) write what you know

2) write about what excites you, what you are passionate about.
The Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Writers’ Association recently hosted John Clark Mayden Jr., a new writer who is following both pieces of advice. He is the author of three spiritual books, including his most recent Breaking the Barriers: Keys to Unlocking Inner Peace.

 Rev. Mayden discussed what you can do after your book is published. First you must determine your goals, the aim of your book and your plans for the book, His goal was to offer strategies that can help people overcome despair and depression.
Breaking the Barriers: Keys to Unlocking Inner Peace is a topical and devotional resource," he writes in his blog. "It is the first of a three-volume series aiming to provide the reader with spiritual keys to help them overcome common barriers that prevent them from experiencing inner peace."

 Next, you need to brainstorm how to promote your book. Starting can be as easy as making a list family members and friends who could let others know about your book and using social media to get the word out.

Rev. Mayden presented
You've Written Your Book,
What's Next?
 Remember to create a budget. How much are you willing to advance for advertising, marketing and purchasing books to sell?

You need to create an awareness of your book, promote interaction and connect with people. Create your own brand. You can use the same text, photos or graphics on posters, flyers, business cards, and your website
Besides knowing your target audience, it is important to know your target area. That is where you want to give talks at schools, send articles to area newspapers and radio shows, produce a book trailer (which he has on his website) and consider other methods of getting information out about your book.

Rev. Mayden talks with members of the
County Chapter of Maryland Writers Assoc.
When speaking in public, have sign in sheets so you can let those interested know about upcoming book signings and when you publish another book. You will want to create a buzz. Also, encourage readers to post reviews at
Rev. Mayden is pastor at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Carroll County, Md.  He also has written Prayers for the People: A Book of Prayers for All People. His books can be purchased at area events or through

For more information check out or email him at

Sunday, July 31, 2016

A book about a book

Occasionally, I am asked where writers get their ideas. There are many answers and I will discuss some of these in future blogs.

However, I learned recently that a friend published a book. It is a non-fiction book about the author (Betty MacDonald) of books she read as a child. Betty, The Story of Betty MacDonald, Author of the Egg and I  is one specific example of where books come from.

Anne had enjoyed the books of Betty MacDonald, who wrote about life in the northwest, particularly in the Seattle/Puget Sound area. Years later, Anne would reread The Egg and I and an idea was born. She decided to look more closely at the writer’s life and a new book was born from that memory.

About Betty MacDonald

In 1932, MacDonald had a story published in the Seattle Town Crier magazine. It would be more than 10 years before her book The Egg and I was published (1945). That book was a lightly fictionalized account of life as the wife of a chicken farmer in the 1920s.

Surprisingly, the book became a success and the story was made into a movie starring Claudette Colbert & Fred Mc Murray. Her Ma and Pa Kettle characters also were used in other movies.

Suddenly the poor, former wife of a chicken farmer and divorced mother of two girls became famous and rich. Her writing continued to provide for a secure life for her and her family. She ran into one problem during this period, because apparently, her portrayal of one set of neighbors hadn't been sufficiently altered and she was sued. However she did win the cases.

With her self-mocking humor, MacDonald wrote about her battle with tuberculosis and life in a sanitarium in The Plague and I, published in 1948. She wrote about job hunting during the depression, (when in Washington state 1 in 4 Americans were out of work). In Anybody Can Do Anything. Her book, Onions In The Stew was about life on Vashon Island during the war years.

Her books give readers a peak into average life during the depression and World War II and vivid descriptions of the northwest.

MacDonald also wrote the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series of children’s books and Nancy and Plum. The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books were illustrated by Hilary Knight and Maurice Sendak.

About Anne Wellman

Anne’s book seemed to start slowly with many details about MacDonald’s early life and that of her unusual family, which I had already read about in The Egg and I. However, the more I read, the more I began to care about these people and the more I became interested in life during those years.

Anne said it took her five years to write “Betty, The Story of Betty MacDonald, Author of the Egg and I.” Her detailed bibliography and references reveal the extensive study she put into this book. She is already working on a book about another author.

Anne has lived in Scotland, Australia, England and the United States of America. She worked for the government for 35 years.This is her first published book, but hopefully not her last. It is available through Amazon.

If you have questions, you can contact Anne at

Books we read as children generally leave an impression and many can remember their favorite books years later. Was it Wind in the Willows, Black Beauty, Harry Potter, Heidi, Treasure Island? Author Lois Szymanski loved Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and has written a lot of books about ponies, as well as on other subjects. What books made a difference in your life?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Fighting and Writing

Events such as Corbitt’s Charge in Westminster, Maryland help us understand the past. I’ve gone to these events for years, but this year I did more than walk around the Union and Confederate Encampments and watch the skirmishes.

On June 29, 1863, about 100 Union soldiers fought 6,000 of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. Although the Union troops lost, the Battle of Westminster delayed Stuart’s arrival at Gettysburg.

There were a variety of demonstrations throughout the weekend. From author Scott Mingus I learned about the history of the Northern Central Railroad (NCR) during the Civil War, (from the destruction of bridges and railroad cars after the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The railroad carried supplies and troops during the war and later Lincoln’s funeral train.

I enjoyed hearing General George G. Meade (portrayed by Joe Shafer) explain the importance of the Pipe Creek Line and his decisions during and after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Katie Carroll’s presentation about the work of the Daughters of Charity reminded me of the efforts of author Louisa May Alcott caring for the injured, until she became ill and almost died.

While at the Corbitt’s Charge event, I thought about writers involved in the Civil War A few years ago, I read Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury about literary giants whose lives intersected in Concord, Massachusetts during that time period. The main writers in her book were: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott and Herman Melville.

Remember Alcott's Little Women, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Melville’s Moby Dick, and Thoreau’s WaldenFuller was the New York Times' first foreign correspondent in Europe, who also published a magazine, "The Dial," that featured many of these authors.

Although introduced to these famous authors in school, I didn’t realize how their lives were so connected. With Emerson’s encouragement and financial assistance, the lives of these writers and many others crossed.

Known as Transcendentalists, they challenged the norms of American society. They also were abolitionists, harboring and helping runaway slaves escape to Canada. Different in many ways, their love of intelligent conversation, public speaking and writing drew them together. They were idealists, but the Civil War had a profound effect on their lives.

After reading American Bloomsbury, I’ve read other books, both fiction and non-fiction, about famous people living during that time period. These include Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker and Mrs Lincoln’s Rival (Mrs Jefferson Davis) by Jennifer Chiaverini, March by Geraldine Brooks, Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjaners, Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, The Fabulous Showman, P. T. Barnum by Irving Wallace and the Jeff Shaara’s Civil War series. It’s fun to view the same people through different eyes.

Did genius attracts genius and did their interactions bring out the best in their writing? The writing profession can be a lonely one, but spending time with others may enrich your writing and your life. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer.  We usually begin the weekend with a picnic for family and friends at my brother’s house, with plenty of food, swimming and games.  The flag is flying, stories are shared, the departed remembered.

The rest of the weekend includes the Memorial Day parade, various veteran’s events and watching special programs on Maryland Public Television.

I’ve had many family members who served their country. My father Joseph A. Farinholt, and one of his brothers received severe wounds that affected them the rest of their lives. His other brothers were luckier.

 He didn’t talk much about the war when we were young, but he always stressed that we remember and honor those who didn’t return. They are the ones who should be honored and remembered, he said.

Among those who lost their life during World War II was my mother’s brother, Robert Henry Marshall. He was still a teen when he joined the Navy

He survived Pearl Harbor, but the ship he was on was sunk in the Pacific Theater. When I was a child, I remember Mom, Agnes Farinholt, used to say that he was just missing, suffering from amnesia and stranded on an island. Someday he would remember his family and come home.
Robert Henry Marshall

I remember wishing that was true and that I could know this ghost uncle, who rode motorcycles and took up for his little sister. Mom only had her memories of her redheaded brother, two letters he wrote during training and an old photo of him as a teenager before he went into the Navy. I still have that picture.

It was only in her later years that she learned more details about what he did. Navy Department files state that he was a Torpedoman’s Mate 3c and was killed in action. His name is listed on a tablet at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

I cry when I hear bagpipe music or Taps at cemetery ceremonies. I cry for the Uncle Robert I never knew, for lives cut short and for the families of those gave their all.

Memorial Day, which was first called Decoration Day, was established as a national day of remembrance for those who gave their lives during the Civil War. The official proclamation was issued on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan and was first observed on 30 May 1868, by placing flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

After World War I, the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting the Civil War to honoring all Americans who died fighting in any war and those risking their lives even today. I remember Dad and Mom and other veterans putting flags on the graves of veterans in the Westminster Cemetery.
It is important to honor their service, not just by parades and special services, but by respecting those who are serving their country today, by casting our hard-won voting rights wisely, by treating others with respect, and by doing our best to make this a better community, state and nation.

How lucky we are to be Americans and to be able to take the time to remember.