Saturday, June 02, 2018

Where will I be in June? Fall River, Massachusetts!

At left, librarian Kate Kulpa invited me to come talk about The Murderer's Maid

I'll be doing a free Powerpoint and book talk at the Fall River Public Library 7 p.m. on June 7. Learn more about Lizzie Borden's Irish maid Bridget Sullivan and the events of a horrible day in 1892.

Lizzie Borden took an ax,
Gave her mother 40 whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father 41.

I'll be talking about that, how much Bridget Sullivan might've known or seen--and how interesting it was both to invent a personality for this little-known historical personage, and to create a modern-day storyline that connects back to the past.

I hope you can join me there. Village Partners Bookshop will be on hand to sell copies I'll be happy to sign.

Deborah Allard Dion and Linda Murphy each wrote great articles previewing the event:

Thank you both so much! And thank you to Kate Kulpa for inviting me to the Fall River Library!
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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

IPPY Awards win!

Note that cool yellow thing in the upper right. It's new!

I found out last week that The Murderer's Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel won a gold medal in historical fiction from the IPPY Awards. This award series is for independent publishing: small presses like Bonhomie/Yellow Pear Press (who published my novel), university presses and self-publishing. It's truly an honor and it was really exciting to actually win something!

And I note that there is a really nice space near the title where the gold medallion fits in so nicely.

Thanks to the IPPY folks, and to Yellow Pear Press for entering my book.

We went out to dinner to celebrate and I forgot to order a margarita! Ah Arnold Palmer was very satisfactory. ;)

I have a good handful of upcoming events to share. Some free, some not. Some for readers, some for writers. Most in California, but ONE IN MASSACHUSETTS... in fact, in Fall River, where Lizzie Borden lived. If you're an east coaster, clear your calendar for June 7.

Upcoming events:

Saturday, April 28, 2018: Two presentations at Butte College’s WordSpring Creative Writing Conference: “From Murder to Manuscript” and a session on writing young adult fiction. All day event in Oroville with many workshops includes light breakfast and buffet lunch, $75 ($45 for Butte College students). Space still available; visit

Saturday, April 28, 2018: Walnut Creek Library Association’s Wonderland Author’s Gala: Cocktail party and dinner with many authors. Tickets go on sale in March; visit

May 4-6, 2018: Gold Rush Writers Conference, Mokelumne Hill, CA. I’ll be presenting on theme in the novel and moderating a panel on publishing. This weekend-long event is stocked with workshops, wonderful food, friendly writers. If you can’t spend the entire weekend ($195), you can come up for the dinner and keynote speech by Booker Award finalist Karen Joy Fowler, $35. You can also dip into individual presentations for $35 each. For details, visit

9-11 a.m., June 1, 2018: Presentation to the California Writers Club on how to balance social media time with writing time, Coco’s Restaurant, 7887 Madison Blvd (at Sunrise Boulevard)., Citrus Heights, CA. Free event and open to public; attendees buy their own breakfast.

7 p.m., June 7, 2018: Presentation at the Fall River Public Library, 104 N. Main St., Fall River, Massachusetts. Free. I’ll present on Lizzie Borden, Bridget Sullivan and my novel. Pretty excited to do an event in the city where the murders took place; this knowledgeable crowd will keep me on my toes.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Frankenstein's Maker

Two hundred years ago, the novel Frankenstein was published.

Its author was Mary Shelley, at the time living under the shadow of her famous poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. She was also the child of the forerunner of the women's liberation movement, Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792 (it is said Jane Austen read this and it influenced her portrayal of strong female characters).

Mary Shelley's life was almost impossibly dramatic and tragic, the kind that makes you say the truth is stranger than fiction. She married Shelley after his first wife committed suicide, he turned his extramarital attentions to her half-sister, she suffered incredible losses with her children and then Shelley.

As immortalized in the 1986 movie Gothic, Mary was part of a literary ghost-telling evening with her husband and Byron. Her nightmare that night led to the first pages of Frankenstein.

My intent in writing this blog post is to talk about a historical novel that tells Mary's story, from her girlhood to the end. From making love on her mother's grave to her husband's drowning death to her own burial with the exhumed bodies of her parents, this novel covers it all in beautiful prose and with an empathetic heart for Mary's brilliance throughout her woes. The book is New York Times bestselling author Antoinette May's The Determined Heart.

I absolutely loved this book and highly recommend it. Now's the perfect time to read it and contemplate the life of this extraordinary author of 200 years ago, Mary Shelley.

Fun fact: It is only through Antoinette that I know Bysshe is pronounced "bish." Looks more posh than it sounds.

Antoinette is the founder of a writing conference now going into its 13th year, the Gold Rush Writers Conference. There are still spots available; one of the keynote speakers this year is Karen Joy Fowler, author of the Booker finalist We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves and the popular Jane Austen Book Club (see? I got to mention Jane twice in this post! Happy me). The other keynote speaker is Ace Antonio Hall.

The conference takes place May 4, 5 and 6 in Mokelumne Hill, California, truly Gold Rush country. I'll be presenting on "Balancing Plot and Theme: How to Make a Novel Resonate." This conference is focused only on the craft of writing in all forms (poetry, screenwriting, nonfiction, fiction) without the sometimes stressful addition of agents and editors. If you want to truly write, meet other friendly folks and relax (as much as one can relax in a haunted hotel), this is the conference for you. Visit this site for more information.

And don't forget to check out The Determined Heart!

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Monday, March 19, 2018

8th annual National Chin Up for Writers Day

Seven years ago, I designated March 19 as National Chin Up for Writers Day. Each year on this holiday I've written an update post. This year I'm trying something new ... er, old. I've recently been introduced to the term "evergreen" in terms of posts that are always relevant. I'm going to recycle this evergreen post, and in 2019 I'll write a fresh one. So here we go!

I originally wrote this post as an email to a Facebook acquaintance, who was clearly getting depressed about his inability to find a traditional publisher for his novel, but as it lengthened I thought it'd be worth posting here. I remember those dark days myself very clearly, and my heart goes out to anyone in this situation--because getting a novel published isn’t just something that would be cool for us; it’s something that validates how we see ourselves. I remember that before traditional publication, if I met someone new and identified myself as a writer, they’d invariably ask, “So have you published anything?” and I'd have to embark on the Road to Apologia, why this is, and how hard I've tried, and I came close with that one agent, and I attended that conference and had a nice talk with that publisher, and how I keep trying and I…

Yes, it sucks.

So I’m appointing today National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers. I have a few thoughts to share that hopefully will serve as a bit of a pep talk.

1. Nearly every published writer I know (myself included) had about six novels under the bed when they finally got that offer. Count up your own manuscripts: two? Three? You may need to keep churning them out, because with each novel your craft improves. Writing is mysterious, and I do believe in innate talent, but as with everything single thing in this life, we get better with practice. So keep practicing. It occurs to me that this bit of cheer may backfire, that a writer may say, “I can’t keep doing this to myself! I just finished my third book, and that’s IT. You’re telling me I have to write three more?!” Someone who really cares about their career will nod philosophically and take the long view that it’s worth it to keep working, keep improving, and finally get a publication contract for a book that’s your best effort.

And after all, you can’t force a book to sell. You can revise based on editorial feedback, you can try again; you can try multiple times! But at some point, you have to cut your losses and start the next project. Soon, the joy of creating a new world within your novel will ease your feelings of feeling frantic about the previous book. And with what you learned from the new novel, you may wish to launch another revision on the old. But at least you’ll have another fresher, better book to try to publish.

2. Joining a writers group really helps with the emotions of being unpublished. Kvetching together, sharing the anticipations as queries go out, consoling each other when rejections happen, cheering each other on to try again: that’s something that non-writers can’t really offer. They don’t “get” what’s so important about being published. The other thing about joining a writers group is that suddenly the idea of being a writer becomes more real. It’s one thing to type away in your home, but when you’re sharing your work with other writers, equally serious about their craft as you, your idea of yourself as an author gains more weight, validity. It will seem more possible that you can do this successfully. I heartily recommend finding a real-person writers group, but online works too.

3. Keep reading books you love. It’s not escapism, it’s not a reason not to write. It’s research--because every single sentence you imbibe resides in you. The more you read, the more those different ways of constructing a sentence moil around in your head. You give your brain more options. You are tutoring yourself subconsciously. 4. “It only takes one person to say yes.” I’m sure you’ve heard that dozens of times, but it’s so true in the publishing industry. It doesn’t matter that 50 agents sent you form rejections, if one says, “I love it!” Your onus is to find the person most likely to say yes. Like I said in #3, keep reading…and when you find a book that’s similar to yours in tone or aesthetic, look at the Acknowledgments section to see if the author thanked their agent. That’s a good person to send a query to. Another good tactic is to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace (you can do it for $20 for one month, jam through the archives, and cancel, if money is an issue): you can see what’s selling right now to editors, and which agents are doing that selling.

See an agent’s name several times, linked with books that are similar to yours? That’s another good person to target. You can also look through those thick tomes of agent directories (or better yet,, but that doesn’t give you a feel for what the agent likes. Just knowing they represent historical fiction, for instance, doesn’t necessarily mean that they like books set in Colonial America. Look at the agent’s website and rifle through their client list. Can you get a sense of the agent’s personality through the books he/she has chosen to represent?

Keep your chin up. There’s a part of this process you can control, and you should: the rest of it is out of your hands. The best thing you can do is move to the next project, and let the current novel marinate. Mark your calendar for six months from now, and re-read it.

Is that chin in the air yet? Higher! Like Cora in Downton Abbey, let me see that plastic surgery scar! I offer you an e-hug and a rueful e-smile, because I’ve been there. Believe me, I’ve really, really been there… and I hope the Gods of Publishing will soon smile on you and your novel.

If you'd like to read the previous years' posts on Keep Your Chin Up Day:

Second year
Third year

Sixth year: As I look for it to link to, I am just now realizing I forgot to do it last year! Oh dear. Rats!

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Ireland will always be in my heart

You never know how the experiences of youth will sculpt the future. I took my junior year abroad in Cork, Ireland, mainly because I was following a guy, but can it be a coincidence that two of my novels feature Irish protagonists? I love the brogue but more than just the accent, it's the imaginative nature of the language. I will never forget sitting in the tiny living room in the rental flat in Prosperity Square (close to the Murphy's Stout brewery, and those hops are forever living in my nasal memory), watching the peat fire burn, and my Irish roommate said, "I watch the flames and I fall to dreaming."

I fall to dreaming!!!

And no, she was not in my poetry program, and no, she wasn't trying to sound poetic. She was a grownup with a regular job. That is just how people sometimes speak in Ireland, reared on a literary island.

I'd like to tell you a bit about my two Irish characters, each of whom wound up on American shores. One fictional and one based on a real-life historical character, the maid to accused murderess Lizzie Borden.

Dodge City prostitute that I saw as "Nora." Her image appears
on the front cover of Woman of Ill Fame

First, Nora Simms. She's part of a Boston Irish immigrant family and departs for California as soon as she hears the reports of gold. She's an unapologetic prostitute who wants to capitalize on the chance to make money, fast. She arrives in San Francisco when it's rough, crude and open to any possibilities. Unfortunately, Nora's path entangles with that of a killer targeting the women of ill fame (a euphemism for prostitute in that era), and she has to use her quick wits to ensure she's not the next victim. The novel Woman of Ill Fame launched a decade ago from Heyday Books, a small press in Berkeley that is still going strong after 40 years in business. Their rights in the book elapsed, and now the book is only available as an ebook under my steam. I'm hoping to repackage this with a sequel in the next year and give Nora new life.

The real Bridget Sullivan on the right. At left is actor Kristen Stewart
portraying her in the upcoming movie Lizzie,
which is not based on my book.

Next, Bridget Sullivan. She was the real-life maid in a household where a husband and wife were brutally murdered by repeated blows to the head with a hatchet. The younger daughter of the family, Lizzie Borden, was accused of the murders. That day, she and Bridget were the only people in the house besides the victims. After a circus of a trial (every major newspaper sent a reporter to Massachusetts to cover it), Lizzie was acquitted. Bridget provided testimony against her employer, and I can only wonder how nervous Bridget was for her own safety once Lizzie was released from jail. Legend says she returned to Ireland to buy her mother a farm. Her traces fade as there were many, many women named Bridget Sullivan in this late-1800s era. The Murderer's Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel was my first book written involving real historical people, which definitely provided a challenge in terms of getting it "right." The Lizzie Borden story also has a following of many passionate people and I hoped I got it correct for them. A few months ago, I learned that a woman who loved the Lizzie Borden narrative so much that she got married in the murder house gave my book a glowing review: I felt jubilant! This book launched in October 2017, so apparently the trend is that I publish an Irish novel every 10 years. I'd like to carve that down significantly for the next one!

Go wear your bra, Erin!

P.S. It wasn't until I started uploading the book covers below that I realized my two Irish books were both blurbed by the magnificent and generous Diana Gabaldon. Her Scottish kindness has reached across the sea to my Irish women. :)

P.P.S. I hasten to say I hadn't forgotten she blurbed them. Far from it!!!!!! I just haven't ever done a post before that connected the two books' Irishness.

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Monday, February 05, 2018

...In which I attend three literary events in 24 hours

"One of these things just doesn't belong here..."

And I don’t even live in Manhattan!

Friday night I went to an author event for Kelly Corrigan’s book Tell Me More. Although I read fiction until my ears migrate to the front of my head to compensate for the deteriorating eyesight, I’d somehow missed the nonfiction phenomenon that is Kelly Corrigan. This is great, though: now I can binge-read everything she wrote, because I adore her.

This is a lot like my experience with the Harry Potter books; I was clueless until Book Six or so. And then…180 miles an hour.

Back to Kelly. Luckily, my friend Jeannine knew all about her and invited me, knowing I would love her too.

Imagine the scene. A Barnes & Noble filled to the gills, the organizers having to bring out more seats, freeflowing wine and appetizers…we had to be wristbanded to be there. I marveled and thought someday I want people to be wristbanded to hear me.

And pay $45 a ticket.

But the ticket price was fine because it included a gift bag with her hardcover, a wonderful little book light which I’m very excited about, a Random House stadium cup (wristbands, stadium cups: I think they’re working on converting authors to athletes) and a copy of …Glamour magazine. Jeannine laughed and said she didn’t think that had been preapproved by Kelly. I bet she’d want Mother Jones in there.

(In case that sounds mean of us, one of Kelly’s ongoing riffs is about foregoing showers).

Kelly is freaking funny. I found myself laughing very hard, the sharp bark of surprised laughter, and the murmuring laugh of “oh yes.” Women everywhere were exchanging glances as we/they laughed, because much of what Kelly said was universal, bonding.

And then she spoke of loss, and even though I made a vow a few months ago to cry less, I just couldn’t stop some of these tears. Jeannine said she’d been listening to the audio book on her way in to work and bawling her eyes out. I would add some hard-earned advice to readers here: don’t listen to Schindler’s List in your car.

If you have a chance to see Kelly in person, take it. It’s incredibly rewarding and will make you feel good about being a human.

The line to have your book signed snaked around and around, and thanks to our arrival time, we were literally the last people in line. And when I finally got up to Kelly, what did I say to her? “Thank you for all the feels.”

It would be good if Barnes & Noble could provide a trapdoor immediately in front of the author signing table for people who say stupid things like that. I never even use the phrase “all the feels.” How did that come out of my mouth? Worse, it sounded glib after Kelly had just evoked truly genuine emotions out of all of us and shared some devastating things about her own losses, which reminded us of our own losses, and connected us in the communality of grief.

Accordingly, she responded, “What’s your name?” and signed my book.

Jeannine and I went around the corner, had gin and tonics and some weirdly-cold (but delicious!) truffles with raspberry dipping sauce and only went home when her husband texted us that he was falling asleep watching our brood of kids.

I went home, I slept. I recharged for …Literary Round Two! Ding ding!

Saturday morning, I went into Sacramento for our monthly brunch gathering of the Historical Novels Society friends. We have no agenda and just meet to talk shop and encourage each other. I love this group so much. We meet for two hours in a closed-off room at Ettore’s Swiss bakery and there’s always good talk and laughter.

This time, we were all asking about our leader’s situation with a dearly loved one that is facing cancer for a second time. He’s such an incredibly kind person (and a great writer) and it was hard to see the struggle etched in the lines of his face. It’s always so difficult to know what to say, but I hope he knows how much we all are concerned and want to be supportive and listen while his family undergoes this horrible time. Mark, I hope everyone who reads these lines will pause and send a little heartfelt ping of support to you.

There’s another Erika M. at the group, and she just released a lovely early reader book called Big and Yellow. It has wonderful illustrations and so far, a neat story. I read the first chapter to my kids last night and they were enthusiastic, wanted me to keep reading when it was time to turn off the light. 

The Adventures of Big and Yellow by Erika Nyhagen

She’s using a pen surname Nyhagen, but it was still fun to see her signature on the title page as a flourished Erika. The book involves two bears fretting about being released to a new caregiver now that their boy has grown up (one thinks they are being given away because he failed to learn how to fly when the boy tossed him in the air). It is sweet and funny thus far. And the illustrations threaded throughout are absolutely gorgeous, created by a former Disney illustrator. Nice work, Erika!

Next, I carpooled with my friend Gina and her husband to Jackson, California, for the book launch of another HNS friend, Kathy Boyd-Fellure. Aside from Gina’s brilliant book launch on a boat on the Sacramento River, I have never seen this many people at a “real” person’s book launch before. I mean, she nearly approached Kelly Corrigan levels! I was thrilled to see so many friends support her as she launched her book Language of the Lake. She held the event in the upstairs of Hein & Co. Bookstore, where there is a charming area that has been built out to look like Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street. She had a wonderful spread of cheeses and Snook’s chocolates. And five of her eight sisters were there! (or maybe she is the eighth). As one of four sisters, I find that thrilling. Can’t wait to start reading, Kathy, and congratulations!

The Language of the Lake by Kathy Boyd-Fellure

Can you tell I had fun staging these book photos?

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

When God closes a window, he opens a door

Today's view from Bridget's attic window

It's my last post in #BlogADayJan and I'd wanted to end on a really high note. I was going to write about Bridget's attic window. I had something interesting to say about it. But it's 9 p.m. and I've been brought low by events of the day.

I had planned to get three projects off my desk today, and maybe even four if I was especially productive. These ranged in significance from an email to which I wanted to pay special attention to crafting well, to a big layout job I do for a nonprofit a few times a year. I didn't get those three jobs off my desk.

I didn't even get one off my desk.

So tomorrow I face the same to-do list. Luckily, an out of town overnight trip got canceled, so I have the entire day to face these same jobs and maybe move them from "pending" to "completed."

Will I continue to blog daily? No way.

Will I blog more frequently? I think so. But...I'm not totally sure. I track statistics at my blog and while there has been steady traffic this month, it's been small. Loyalty is wonderful, but if there are only so many hours in a day (and I understand some people say they are finite), I guess I'd rather address my attention to writing fiction.

So, those who read World of Mailman, I'll be back in a few days to post about Bridget's window...but not too soon.

Statistics: Of the 31 posts this month, here's how they break down by topic:
Lizzie Borden: 13
Travel: 10
Rambling posts: 4
Writing/other authors: 2
Straight-up history: 1
Martin Luther King, Jr.: 1
I gently ease the blinds closed.

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