Thursday, December 24, 2015

Paper or Virtual? How I Make the Choice Between Print and Digital Formats

I've read a couple of articles this year discussing the leveling off of e-reader sales, and I've heard plenty of people say they just have to feel a book in their hand, be able to turn the pages. It always seems to me in the articles sounding the slump in sales of digital readers that there's a certain amount of an I-told-you-so attitude to it, as if digital and print formats cannot peacefully co-exist. So, here's my personal take on it as a writer whose books appear in both digital and print formats, and as a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction.

There's room for both. However, I have my personal preferences when it comes to my own reading. When it comes to reading for my own enjoyment, give me my Nook or my phone any day of the week. I can carry around a whole freaking library in my purse. Do you know how amazing that is to me? Not only can I carry around a whole freaking library, but I don't have to listen to reading snobs comment on what I choose to read. So you want to read the latest critically acclaimed piece of literary fiction? That's fantastic. I want to read hot sex scenes and stories that I know are going to have a happy ending.

I spend all day teaching writing and literature. Before I began teaching, I spent all day writing television news stories, most of which were heart-wrenchingly depressing. When I'm done working, I don't want to read more serious writing. I want dessert. I want candy. I want cake. So give me a fun, sexy, fast read that is pure entertainment.

And give it to me on my tablet, please.

When it comes to serious reading, such as literature that I am going to have to discuss, or textbooks, I would prefer to have them in print. Now, if you're a book purist, please skip the next few sentences. The reason I like them in print is because I write, highlight, and add sticky notes all over the pages. I have attempted to do this with digital books, but it's just not the same. For the latter half of my masters degree studies, I participated in a Nook program in which all  my books were downloaded to my tablet. Don't get me wrong. It saved me a TON of money, but I just couldn't get comfortable with electronically highlighting and writing notes. It just didn't feel right. I like my reference books in print as well. I think it's easier to use my Chicago Manual of Style or my APA manual when I can flip through the contents and the index and quickly turn to the page I need.

What got me thinking about this is that my publisher, Kensington, is putting the digital version of Special Delivery on sale for just 99 cents from December 27, 2015 through the end of January. This is a great deal--more than 75% off retail price. What makes it even better is it's the first book in my series, Mountain Meadow Homecomings. Although the book is not specifically tied to the Christmas season, it does take place around this time of year, so now is a great time to get it, if you haven't already.
The sale ends just in time for the release of book two in the series, Lost & Found Love, on February 2, 2016. This story is so much more than a romance. It's also about finding family and the redeeming qualities of love. I am really excited about this second book in the Mountain Meadow Homecomings series. I hope you will be too.

The best thing of all is that whether you enjoy digital or print... this series is available in both formats. Sorry, though, it's only the digital version of Special Delivery that you'll be able to pick up for 99 cents. However you choose to read, I hope you'll enjoy Mountain Meadow and all the folks who live there.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Finding Home for Christmas

I’m going to be spending Christmas away from my husband for the first time in twenty-four years this year. My mother is ill, so my son and I will be visiting and helping her over the holidays. Work and home responsibilities (animals…did I mention animals?) mean my husband will have to stay on our farm. Plus, I know he will want to see the new grandson and his very first Christmas. I’ll miss that, but I’m making a trade-off.
We have never been one of those families that fill a quarter of the room with presents, and as my husband reminded me, we can celebrate Christmas anytime we choose. Still, we become attached to that idea of being home for this particular holiday.
Thinking about that reminded me of the one other Christmas where I really felt I wasn’t home.
Sixteen years old, I was living with a family in Switzerland, thousands of miles from everything that was familiar to me. Their traditions weren’t my traditions. To top it all off, I had just recently had my cast removed after tearing ligaments in my ankle. I had had to undergo surgery within a week of arriving in my new temporary country. Homesickness had also arrived in a big way.
There are things I remember, like how fascinated and somewhat frightened I was by the fact my Swiss family actually burned candles on their tree. Nevertheless, it was beautiful. They also opened presents on Christmas Eve. While it was pretty cool to be able to open gifts early, it was a bit of a letdown Christmas morning. Santa was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there’d been St. Nicholas, but he’d come and gone weeks earlier on December 6th.
All in all, it was a culture shock, and—Swiss or American—we were supposed to be celebrating the same holiday. The real comfort was in going to church. Despite the fact that it was darn cold inside that big sanctuary, the tunes were the same ones I had grown up with.

I remind myself of that now. Christmas will be different this year, but there is always something to be pulled out of it that can help give us a feeling of home, even when we are far away from the ones we love the most.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Do They Still Teach That?

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Do they still teach that? A fellow teacher posed that question to me the other day when she discovered that I would be guiding my students through Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It took me aback. At first, I had to ask myself if the question was tied to the “quality” of my students—I teach in an alternative high school setting with students that are predominantly lower income and African-American—or if it simply had to do with these writers being old-fashioned and out of date.
I dismissed the first. After all, I don’t think it matters one whit what color my students’ skins are, nor what their socio-economic level might be. Pandering to that is what holds people back and allows them to become victims of society. Quite frankly, I don’t think it matters that some might perceive the text as being too difficult or too advanced for students reading three to four years below grade level. After all, I am here to teach these students to extend themselves not continue to feed them pablum that allows them to fall even more below grade level while I sit and draw my paycheck.
If my students cannot read a text independently because of the difficulty of that passage, then I can assist them by walking them through that material, discussing it, and helping them to form their own observations and opinions. They will stretch their ability to look more deeply into difficult text, to use strategies like pausing to evaluate what they have just read, but most importantly they will be exposed to ideas. Of course, my hope is that they will pause to actually think about those ideas because I find that to be the biggest challenge to today’s students, no matter their education level or background: they too complacently accept what they read, see, or hear without questioning its accuracy or validity.
So, that takes us to the second thought—that Emerson and Thoreau are old-fashioned and out of date. I would argue that also is a fallacy. Rather than viewing them as old-fashioned and out of date, I see them as the foundation for many of our modern philosophers and activists. Emerson pushes forth the idea that, above all else, we must be true to what we know is right within our own being. Thoreau takes that concept of self-reliance to another level when he urges people to “break the law” when they know a law is unjust.
These two men are the inspiration for so many modern day activists: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. being two examples. However, let me put forth some others, whether you agree with their ideas or not. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which sought social and economic change—more than just a bunch of whiny generation X,Y and Z’ers—they at least followed this idea of protesting what they perceived as unjust. The Rowan County Kentucky clerk of court, Kim Davis, held to her religious beliefs and refused to obey the law with regard to issuing marriage licenses. On one hand, staying true to her own belief system falls right in line with what Emerson and Thoreau preach. Of course, she doesn’t exactly align with Thoreau because he also says that the highest duty of a government official who disagrees with what the government is doing is for that official to resign office. That hasn’t happened so far.
Thomas Paine
The point is that if part of my responsibility is to teach students American Literature, then I must do so based on a foundation of understanding, a historical precedence, if you will. If they are truly to understand the writings of people like Dr. King and Malcolm X, then they must understand Emerson and Thoreau. If they are to understand Emerson and Thoreau, then they must also understand the writings of men like Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, who helped open the door to the idea of standing up for what is right even if it means opposing government. Writers do not pull ideas out of nothingness, so writing does not occur in a vacuum. It is the result of what has happened in the past, what is of current concern, and what might be of concern in the future. For students to predict future concerns, they must have some knowledge of the past. In order to have some idea where they are headed then, we must give students some idea of how our society arrived at its current state. We do that by showing students where we have been.

Men like Voltaire, Jefferson, Paine, Emerson, and Thoreau lay down the continuation of thought and action that brought us through Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement to present day interpretations of activism. It is only with that grounding that students can make valid judgments and find their own core belief system when they must decide whether actions such as Kim Davis’s or the actions of protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore are right or just. To do any less is to do my students a disservice, so while I cannot answer whether they still teach Emerson and Thoreau, I can answer why I do.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Another Mother's Day...Oh My!

Happy Mother’s Day. Today I have the privilege of being able to look at Mother’s Day from a new perspective. The cynic in me says this is another one of our trumped up days designed to generate business for card companies, florists, jewelers, restaurants, etc. The reality is every day is mother’s day, but there are special ones that stand out.
Uncle Jacob with the new addition
My daughter-in-law celebrates one of those today. Her first. Her son won’t be a week old until tomorrow. Like all of us when we were new mothers, she is, or will be, going through the overwhelmed, self-doubting, exhausted phases of parenting (I’m still waiting for that to stop—just kidding). There is nothing like a baby to blow up your entire existence. Many times what you imagined, dreamed, pictured, envisioned, planned, or scheduled gets tossed out the window. I remember reading an article while I was pregnant about an exhausted new mom who said, “I just want things to get back to normal.”
Normal, as defined by your existence as a single woman, then a married woman is gone forever. The author of the article sagely informed the new mom that she would have to find a “new” normal. Well, that’s not exactly true. There is no more normal. That’s the truism. Every day will be different. Some of those days will be wonderful, and they will stand out in your memory. Some of those days will be terrible. Those, too, have a way of standing out in your memory. Some will just be—days.
The biggest thing to know is despite all the books that can tell new moms how to insert tab A into slot B, there really is no owners’ manual on how YOU should parent YOUR baby or what is best for you and your family. Those decisions are yours to make, and you don’t really need to justify them to anyone, including your own mom.
I am lucky in having a mother who took the time to make sure each one of her four kids got attention, but not so much that we couldn’t function. Part of that might have been juggling four kids to raise, I don’t know. What I do know is that every one of us turned out to be very distinct individuals with very different personalities. We had the freedom to grow into thinking, caring adults who found our own paths in life. To me, that’s what being a parent is all about. It’s not smothering your child with too much attention. It’s not tossing your kid out when things get tough (although, yes, there are times that’s tempting). It’s knowing when to hold them close as well as when to give them that push, like the proverbial mama bird pushing babies out of the nest.
My mother is my greatest cheerleader (still). That is one of the best parts of being a mom. Whether they’re your kids by birth or by choice, you get to be in the corner for your kids cheering them on and praying like hell they don’t make some of the same mistakes you did growing up.
So, Happy Mother’s Day. 
Tuesday, my new book, Special Delivery releases. The heroine is a new mom. Please remember, this is fiction where babies don't spit up, howl, or poop all over the new swing. That's the wonderful aspect of writing fiction. I can ignore some of those realities of being a new parent.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

An Interview with Special Delivery's Hero, Jake Allred

We’re one week away from the release of Special Delivery the opening book of my new series, Mountain Meadow Homecomings. Jake Allred joins me today. He’s the good guy in Special Delivery.
Me: Thanks for agreeing to this at the last minute.
Jake: You’re welcome.
Me: How does it feel being such a stand-up kind of guy?
Jake: Did Evan put you up to this?
Me: No. He might have mentioned that you hated that label so I should make sure to use it, but honestly, Jake, everyone around town talks about how friendly you are. Well, maybe not Betty Gatewood.
Jake: (leans back in his chair and rolls his eyes as he crosses his arms across his broad chest.) She’s not exactly my number one fan.
Me: I got that impression. She’s kind of nosy too. Is the whole town that way?
Jake: Pretty much.
Me: You know, I have to ask…if that’s the case, why on earth did you come back? I mean none of your family’s here anymore…
Jake: It’s my home. I needed that after the military. And before you go off in that direction…that topic is not up for discussion.
Me: But…
Jake: Seriously. I’ve talked to Holly and Evan about it, but that’s it. I appreciate your tact in handling it, although you could have left out the nightmares.
Me: It’s kind of central to who you are, what motivates you.
Jake: Making a home in the place I love motivates me.
Me: (It’s my turn to roll my eyes.) You know, you can be such a guy sometimes.
Jake laughs and arches a brow.
Me: All right. Tell us something about your family.
Jake: I have one older brother, two younger brothers and a sister.
Me: (I wait, but nothing else is forthcoming.) Jake…come on. You can elaborate more than that.
(Holly sticks her head in the doorway.)
Holly:  Jacob Allred! Quit giving that woman a hard time and talk to her.
(Jake gets this gooey expression on his face as he stares at Holly. She smiles at him and he grins as though he’s just grabbed all the gifts from under the Christmas tree. The grin fades as he turns back to me.)
Jake: All right. My older brother, Luke, is a veterinarian in Fairfax. Works for some big, fancy small animal practice. He’s married and has two kids—a boy and a girl. Then there’s me, and I’m followed by my twin brothers, Noah and Caleb. Noah’s a photographer. Travels all over the place. Haven’t seen him in a while.  Caleb’s got a bar on the coast. Then there’s Becca, the baby. She’s a chef at some fancy restaurant. That girl loves to cook.
I can hardly believe Jake has strung so many words together at one time. It must be the power of Holly.
Me: What about your parents? (I look down at my notes.) John and Mary?
Jake: Dad decided he wanted to retire to one of those places where he didn’t have to lift a finger except to pick out his next golf club. So they’re in Florida. Don’t see that lasting. He’ll get bored.
Me: What about your other siblings?
Jake: (Shrugs) Who knows? Wouldn’t mind having them back. Are we done?

Me: (sighs) Yes. Thanks for helping out.
Special Delivery is available now for pre-order. Click here to get to my buy links.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Place to go in Mountain Meadow

Mountain Meadow’s nerve center is the Mountain Meadow General Store, better known as Tarpley’s to the locals. In Special Delivery, it’s where Jake first sees Holly, after all.
Like Mountain Meadow, Tarpley’s isn’t an actual store. It is a composite that draws upon many stores I’ve visited over the years. I’ll start with the one from my childhood: the Prospect Store in Prospect, Kentucky.
When I was a kid, I made the trek down the highway along with my brothers or some of my older neighbors to what was then the only store in Prospect. That’s certainly not the case anymore as this area grew into a well-to-do suburb or Louisville with shopping centers, McMansions and some real mansions too. However, back in the dark ages, it was a small grocery with wooden floors, narrow aisles, and a really great candy display.
My friends and I would walk along the highway, pump our arms to get truck drivers to blow their air horns, and collect returnable soft drink bottles people had tossed out their windows. At three cents each in a day when penny candy was really a penny, every bottle collected was a huge bonus to whatever allowance we had to spend. Mr. Snowden would take our returns, hand us the change, and we’d promptly spend it again for whatever sweet treats were making our mouths water.
The Prospect Store had a meat counter in the back, and I remember stopping to look at the cow tongues and thinking, “Ew, how could anyone eat that?”
The original store’s no longer there. It’s a Marathon gas station now with a modern convenience store in its place. I guess that’s progress, but it sure is a loss in pure character.
The second store I had in mind when I imagined Tarpley’s is one in Danville, Virginia called Midtown Market. It reminds me somewhat of the Prospect Store with its crowded aisles and wood floors. It’s got a great meat counter and some of the best chicken salad around, bar none.
During my years of working in television and visiting and living in the South, I have also been inside any number of small groceries across the region. I quickly discovered a few things about them. 1) There’s usually a group of older guys who hang around out front during summer or inside during colder weather telling bullshit stories and drinking either soft drinks or coffee. Some stores even give them a place to sit and do that. 2) If you need to know where something or someone is, the store owners are the people to talk to. Just be prepared to share some of your own life story with them. 3) Never go into a small country store thinking that you’re going to grab something quick and get on home. Sharing some of the yarn-telling by either dishing out your own BS or listening to someone else’s is part of the charm.
Tarpley’s and real stores like it are the South’s way of reminding us to slow down and take the time to say hello. I hate to see them disappear only to be replaced by lookalike convenience stores that just don’t have that same character. I guess one of the sad effects of the pervasiveness of technology and big corporations is we are losing our sense of regionalism.
So Tarpley’s is a salute to places like Midtown and the Prospect Store. Thanks, Mr. Snowden, for leaving me with some rich childhood memories.

Hey, and don’t forget—Special Delivery releases in three weeks! Click here for buy links where you can pre-order.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Where the Heck is Mountain Meadow?

I am so excited. Special Delivery, the debut book of my new series, Mountain Meadow Homecomings, is just four weeks away from release. I love reading and writing series. I guess the real payoff for me is in being able to breathe an extended life into characters and locations like Mountain Meadow Virginia
So…Is it real?
The simple answer to this question is no. You won’t find a town by this name in Virginia. However, I will admit to Mountain Meadow being loosely based on several communities. The first is Meadows of Dan. This was the first inspiration for the town because I used to drive through this community along U.S. 58 as I crossed southern Virginia to reach I-77 during trips to visit my family in the Louisville, Kentucky area. It is a very picturesque area, and honestly, since they’ve constructed a highway by-pass around it, I miss winding past its collection of businesses. However, Meadows of Dan, as beautiful as it is, simply wasn’t big enough to accommodate my story vision, so I had to turn to other communities to help flesh out that vision of what I wanted Mountain Meadow to be.
I turned to a couple of towns in North Carolina for help: Yanceyville for its town square and Hillsborough for its atmosphere and thriving business area. Together, all three of these towns melded in my imagination to become Mountain Meadow, Virginia.
I also borrowed from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for the county in which Mountain Meadow is located. For this, I researched the area from which my mother’s family, the McAfees, originally hailed more than 250 years ago, before they moved into Kentucky and beyond. Botetourt (BOT-a-tot) County helped me create Castle County, as much for government structure as its setting in the Blue Ridge. With a county population under 35,000 according to the most recent census, Botetourt was about the size I wanted Castle County to be.
If you have never visited the Appalachians, including the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains, among others, then you have missed a beautiful and historic area of our country. There are still many areas nearly untouched by man. These are not the more rugged mountains of the western United States. Instead, they are aged and mellowed by eons into areas of lush, green growth, through which wind everything from tiny streams to rivers that can alternate between lazy to crazy in the span of just a few miles.

All of these areas are places I love, so I’ve combined them together to create a place I hope you, my readers, will also love—Mountain Meadow, Virginia.
Special Delivery will release on May 12, 2015, but it is already available for pre-order at your favorite e-book retailer.