Thursday, February 26, 2015

Winter Wind

I mentioned this poem in my last post and now that we’ve received the biggest snowstorm of the season here in eastern Virginia, a few short days before the end of February, it seems apt for the occasion.  Thanks to Sandra Ure Griffin for such a perfect illustration.  You can find this in the February, 2009 issue of Cricket magazine.

Illust. by Sandra Ure Griffin
Cricket magazine, Feb. 2009

Monday, February 16, 2015


"The winter wind's a scrappy hound

with gleaming eye and frosty breath."

Those are the first lines of a poem I wrote several years ago (Cricket, 02/09) and they've been running through my head over the last 12 hours as I listen to the predictions of what's to come weather-wise over the next several days.  Not five minutes ago, a large limb struck the roof.  And the snow won't even be here for another 12 hours.  

This is hunker-down season.  It provides quiet time for thoughtful work, for a while. . . 
I keep thinking of friends in Massachusetts.  I can hear them telling me it's different if you've been stuck inside for days on end.  And I know they're right.  I can't imagine how challenging this winter has been for them already.  There may be a bright side to the darkness, but sometimes it must be difficult to see. I hope the weather gives them a break very soon!  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


            When I wrote the first drafts of All That’s Missing, I knew the emotional journey my protagonist needed to take.  I knew he would start with the threatened loss of family and home and, after a metaphorical, as well as physical journey,  end up in a new place with the beginnings of a new family.  What I did not know were the day-to-day ins and outs of the story, the step by step process that would take Arlo from page 1 to The End. 

            I needed to discover what would happen once he reached his destination and met his grandmother.  How would their relationship develop?  How would she feel about him?  Why didn’t he know her? These were all questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.  Maybe needing to know those answers is what drove me to write the book.
            When I had written (and revised and revised and revised), I shared the manuscript with trusted first readers.  Here is what one of them said:

            “As usual, the text reads like a dream.  You’ve got just the right touch with your prose.  It’s really, really good.  Here’s what I think, however …once Arlo meets up with [Ida Jones], everything is too easy.  It’s fine to have a respite in there, when life seems wonderful to Arlo, but on the edge of that respite, there should be some tension.”

            Deep in my gut, I knew this.  The trouble was, I had worked so hard in getting Arlo to Edgewater to find his grandmother, I didn’t have the heart to throw additional complications in his path.  He and I had suffered enough, hadn’t we?  I wanted the rest of his journey to be easy.  But, who did I want it to be easy for?  Arlo?  Or myself?  Those trusted first readers gave me the answer.  I needed to steel myself and write the hard parts.  Arlo hadn’t earned his place in a new home yet and it was my job to make that happen.
            I needed to go deeper into my imagined small town in Tidewater, VA, so I made a trip to the town which had inspired the idea, the town where my grandparents lived when I was a child.  My fictional town of Edgewater is NOT Tappahannock.  But, there are similarities. I took photographs.  I parked my car and walked to the beach.  I inhaled the air.  I took note of small neighborhoods.  I thought about the light and the trees and the osprey nests.  I imagined my own version of the main street of town and began filling in the businesses I thought would be there.  I drew maps.

            When I came home, I let my imagination roam.  I thought about what an 11, almost 12 year old boy would do if he were suddenly living in a strange town with a prickly grandmother.  Where would she take him?  What would they do?  The town where I lived at the time, Charleston, WV is in many ways, a small town.  At least, it has that feel.   There are two gathering spots on the main street, Ellen’s Ice Cream and Taylor Books, the indie bookstore/art gallery/coffee shop which is the default meeting place for just about everything.  I decided my fictional town needed a place like that, so I created a bookstore.  And, as is true of the real Taylor Books, I made the owners of the business live in an apartment over the shop.

            And then the magic started to happen.  Edgewater came alive in my head.  I “discovered” that Arlo was going to make a new friend in Edgewater.  She would be the daughter of the couple who ran the bookstore.  Her name was Maywood.  This discovery led to others.  I was off and running.  I had characters I felt belonged in the place.  Now I needed tension.  Since the novel is about finding your place in the world, what if, just at the moment, Arlo finally meets his grandmother, she is about to lose her home?  What if, just when he thinks he has found a new place, that place is threatened? Then it would be up to Arlo to help her save her home. 

            The story was evolving in an organic way.  That’s the trick with revision.  If you impose a plot on characters without allowing it to evolve, it will feel unnatural and manipulative.  In short, it won’t work.

            But, now I had characters and setting and tension and plot.   The work became fun.  I had to let my characters walk through more darkness.  I didn’t want to do that, but the story demanded it.

            And, as I understood the characters on a deeper level, as I came to love them in all their brokenness, I could allow them to be imperfect.  I went from having a bland grandmother who asked no questions when her long-lost grandson showed up out of the blue, to having to a prickly lady who is suspicious of his motives and questions everything he tells her. In short, I had my story.

            And now I have embarked on another story.  I’ve written the first draft.  I’m working on the second.  The characters are evolving.  I am coming to know and love them.  I am finding my way.

[Excerpt from talk given at SCBWI MD/DE/WV Fall Conference 2014]

Saturday, December 27, 2014


There is much to be grateful for at this time of year;  friends, family, good food, music, and chocolate.  Always chocolate.  But, today I am feeling especially grateful for readers.  One of the best gifts a writer can receive is a comment from a reader.  And one of the most gratifying comments to read is that the voice of your main character sounds authentic.  It more than makes up for those hours and days of wandering in the wilderness with wild hopes of turning an idea into a story.  You can imagine my gratitude at reading this from a Goodreads reader. “Sullivan must have been a sixth grade boy in a former life, because Arlo is completely believable in his actions and reactions, and her story of how Arlo finds his grandmother and navigates the mysteries of his life - why didn't Poppo and Ida get along? what was his father like? - brings to light both the complexities of family relationships and the simplicity of love and friendship.”

It doesn’t get any better than this.  THANK YOU, dear reader, from the bottom of my heart.

Friday, December 26, 2014


Anticipating the time of resolutions, I hit the coffee shop this morning to continue efforts on my WIP.  In the first draft stage, I much prefer writing in my notebook to tapping keys on a laptop.  It’s easier to engage the imagination by moving a pen across the page.  I took yesterday off and a mere one day away strengthened the wall of resistance.  You know what I mean, that little interior voice that says you're going to fail.  It took longer than usual to push through this morning, but the transitional moment finally did arrive.  

Rituals help.  A journal with unlined pages, embellished with keepsakes, in this case, a card which someone sent me years ago.  I love the quote, attributed to Mexican poetry.  Here's what it says:

"In the evening, when every sound lies sleeping, when all the doors are shut and the soul is open, memories, like quiet visitors, arrive."

It was sent by a dear friend on the first anniversary of my son's death from leukemia.  That was 18 years ago and the fact that she thought to do this still resonates in my heart.  It's a reminder that there are people out there pulling for me, even when I feel most alone.  It lifts me up.  It helps me face the uncertainty of creating a new story.  And I am grateful for the gifts of friendship and support, two things that help push away the dark in this season of the year.

Okay.  Ignition.  Pick up the pen once again.  Here we go.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Last Saturday, I spent a few delightful hours at Bess Long's lovely bookstore in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.  MY SISTER'S BOOKS is a cozy and friendly spot.  Bess stocks new books for 59 book clubs in the area, in addition to a wonderful mix of new and used books.  It's the kind of place where you want to settle in and browse, which is exactly what I did.  
It was a delight to meet local author Trilby Plants and read her Meena Mouse stories. 

After my signing, I hurried over to Columbia to have dinner with a cousin whom I hadn’t had time to visit for too many years.  The next evening brought dinner with another cousin and, now I feel the warmth of the holidays surrounding me after re-connecting with family. Our common memories sustain us and help us understand how we came to be the people we are today.  Beyond that, there is no greater comfort than to be in the company of someone who understands you in ways that only a person who knows where you came from can comprehend.  I am grateful for family and for the opportunity to connect during this special season of the year.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Saturday, December 6th is Take Your Child To A Bookstore day.  MY SISTER’S BOOKS in Pawley’s Island, SC is planning a Children’s Day event and they’ve invited me to be there.   I’m so happy for the invitation.  I look forward to celebrating books and reading with kids and families on that day. 

Some of my favorite childhood memories involve bookstores.  The one that comes to mind happened during the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 1964.  We were living in Colorado at the time.  I was with my parents in Santa Fe and we happened upon a s`mall independent bookstore that sold new and used books.  I found a copy of The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois. The cover looked mysterious and inviting. I sat down on the wooden floor and started reading.  I didn't want to stop.  

I left the bookstore that day with The Twenty-One Balloons and another book called Mulbridge Manor.  During the long drive home to Denver, I was transported to another world in the backseat of our station wagon with my nose firmly planted in a book.  When I looked up, there were the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and miles of open highway. 

It’s a lovely memory and it all started with two parents taking a child to a bookstore on a clear winter Saturday.


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