My Top 10 Benefits of Attending James River Writers Conference

With James River Writers Conference just around the corner—October 18-19 in Richmond, Virginia—it’s high time for me to share my invaluable experience garnered from attending the past six years. So without further ado, here are my top 10 benefits every writer or writer-to-be can gain:

  • 10. Discover free swag in the bag—plenty of writerly goods often including issues of writer’s magazines, pens, sticky notes, bookmarks and info about a multitude of writers’ resources.
  • 9. Encounter hundreds of cohorts and learn that you are not alone in this lonely quest.
  • 8. Find solutions to your creative conundrums and publishing predicaments.
  • 7. Meet one-on-one with a top agent or publishing consultant.
  • 6. Network and build your own community of like-minded writers. Or take advantage of a ready-made, top-notch group by joining JRW. Or go all-out: do both!
  • 5. Learn super strategies, nuts-and-bolts, how-to’s and how-not-to’s from outstanding authors and agents.
  • 4. View (and maybe compete in!) Pitchapalooza—the electrifying “American Idol” of book pitching. The winner is awarded an introduction to an agent or publisher specifically selected for his or her book.
  • 3. Bask in the awesome aura that emanates from such a huge concentration of us creative-types.
  • 2. Learn more super strategies, nuts-and-bolts, how-to’s and how-not-to’s from award-winning authors and highly regarded agents.
  • 1. Recharge your muse’s batteries with enough high-energy juice to last until next year’s conference!

To immediately secure your place in this not-to-be-missed conference, click here:

If you’re not quite convinced, this video should do the trick:

At the conference, look for me behind the registration table or milling about with all the other smiling writers. I know this will be like a “Where’s Waldo” challenge, but I’d love to meet you.


Climbing 10 Steps to a Writer’s Platform


The Eiffel Tower's second platform is near the center of this photo.

The Eiffel Tower’s second platform is near the center of this photo.

To unpublished writers of nonfiction: Unless you’re a major celebrity or you’ve survived a cataclysmic disaster that was headline news, the first thing you’ll hear from a prospective agent or publisher is that you must have a platform. More than a soapbox—think the second platform of the Eiffel Tower (the highest one reachable by stairs). You are expected to have a ready-made audience for your book: a large number of folks who will line up outside all the Barnes & Noble stores the morning it is to be released and demand that the doors be opened early. How does someone who’s led a quiet, mundane life attain said platform? I don’t have a magic formula, but step by step, this is how I’m doing it:

  1. Denial. Platform? I’ll work so hard to make the book great—I won’t need no steenkin’ platform!
  2. Anger. Why does everyone keep pestering me to get into social media? How would I find time to write the freakin’ book if I waste so much of it on Facebook and Twitter?
  3. Ignoring the problem. I’m too busy writing – I’ll deal with my platform tomorrow. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day
  4. Grudging acceptance. The book’s nearly done. Might as well bite the bullet and start a blog. Damn, this is time consuming! To the last syllable of recorded time;
  5. Ignored. Nobody’s reading my blog. How can I use a blog to build a platform without a platform to draw attention to the blog? And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
  6. Dejected. What’s the use? I’ll just stop posting, since no one’s listening. Back to the writing and revising. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.
  7. Depressed. I’m an idiot. I pour my energy into writing, but it’s all for naught if no one reads it. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
  8. Acceptances! Revising those poems again and again finally worked! A few words are actually in print – and   The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…
  9. Hope. At least someone thought my writing was worth sharing. Not much of a platform to attract an agent for my book, but it’s a step up. Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged
  10. Persistence. Sign up for Twitter, blog more, send out more queries, send out more poems, start a new book… If I create enough sparks, I may eventually light a bonfire. Missing me one place search another

Actually I did climb to the second platform of the Eiffel Tower, all 700 steps.  My writer’s platform?  10 steps down, only 690 to go…


Sometime, somewhere, when you least expect it…

In all my dreams of seeing my name in a byline for the first time, I never envisioned today’s scenario. As I was reading the Sunday newspaper, my son phoned to congratulate me on becoming, not only a published writer, but also a published photographer. After sensing my puzzlement, he directed me to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s column called, “Your Best Shot.” There I discovered the photo and short write-up I’d submitted to the paper almost six months ago—a submission which had received no acknowledgment, no response. I had chalked it off as having entered that black hole of hopes whence none return. I couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d been caught on Candid Camera.

Drum roll, please:

My first byline - from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 19, 2014

My first byline – from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Jan. 19, 2014

And for the paper’s online version:

This may be a baby step toward becoming a published author, but it’s a step, nonetheless. And steps eventually add up…

“But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”


Visiting the Azores: What we leave behind – Part 3 of 3

After returning from our bus tour of São Miguel in the Azores, we wandered along Ponta Delgada’s clean, narrow streets which were unencumbered by SUV’s or traffic lights. In front of a tiny market a woman spent five minutes leisurely loading ten grocery bags into her trunk while eight cars stacked up behind her on the one-lane street. This maneuver netted her only two short honks. A similar move in any American town might be considered just cause for vehicular homicide.

The last sight awaiting us near the ship was one of the most memorable—attributed not to the Azoreans, but to those merely passing through. A patchwork of graffiti by ships’ crews covered about a half mile of dockside wall, turning thousands of square feet of barren concrete into an impromptu international art museum.

The Azores: dockside wall art

The Azores: dockside wall art

I easily sensed the sailors’ pride in their ships, whether displaying flags, crests, emblems, ships, or names. A polyglot of English, Russian, Arabic, Polish, Danish, German, Greek, and more was layered thickly across every available inch. Any spot beginning to fade was fair game for a new graphic. The artistry mixed cartoons of a bulldog with Prometheus. Renditions of three-masted schooners battled for space with modern naval ships. Just a sampling of the ships: HMS Carlskrona of the Royal Swedish Navy, NOAA’s Ronald H. Brown, Holland America’s Noordam IV, the Dutch clipper Stad Amsterdam, the guided missile frigate USS McInerney, the destroyer USS Carney, the US Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star, the Dutch Navy’s Hr. Ms. Tromp, the Polish tall ship Fryderyk Chopin (found in three separate graphics), the German Navy’s Air Defense Frigate FGS Sachsen,  the Danish Navy’s HSMS Vaederren, the British Navy’s HMS Coventry, our own Navigator of the Seas (paint still wet).

The Azores: more dockside wall art

The Azores: more dockside wall art

Every crew found a way to leave their distinct imprint. Where the seas showed no mark of their passage, that wall surely did. I couldn’t help but think of my 1831 diarist recording his European travels with pen and ink, leaving behind a memento that would survive the centuries, charting a trail for me to follow.


Visiting the Azores, vivid and volcanic – Part 2 of 3

The sights in the Azores startled my senses after a week of bland horizons at sea. The island of

The Azores: bubbling mud

The Azores: bubbling mud

São Miguel was a brilliant montage of rugged volcanic terrain: impossibly green landscapes, showy flowers, spectacular views from the heights, cloud-capped calderas, boiling springs, steaming fissures, bubbling mud, and stinky sulfur.

The Azores: view into a lush valley

The Azores: view into a lush valley

Uninhabited until the early 15th century when Portuguese navigators discovered these islands, the Azores retained a sense of isolation from the frenetic pressures of the outside world. Throughout towns and villages, we saw people quietly gazing from wrought iron balconies or open second-story windows, sitting in doorways or gathering in groups of three or four to chat. Many shop signs were hand-lettered. A McDonald’s billboard, the only signpost of franchised commercialization, was so incongruous that it drew laughs from our fellow travelers.

The Azoreans have made the most of their volcanic environment—the hot earth near Furnas Lake serves as a cordless crockpot, slow-cooking their dinners. Their signature dish is “cozido das Furnas,” a stew of various meats and sausages, plus vegetables such as cabbage, peppers, carrots, potatoes, and yams. They place all the ingredients in a tightly wrapped pot and lower it into a hole dug about four feet into the ground. A wooden cover is placed over the hole and dirt is shoveled over it to seal in all the steam. After about seven hours, a perfectly simmered meal is raised and the feasting begins.

As my son Birch and I explored the area, we sampled some of the mineral waters along the way.

The Azores: beautiful pond, nasty mineral water

The Azores: beautiful pond, nasty mineral water

The nasty taste at a public pond’s fountain took three TicTacs to dispel, but the water gushing from a spring tap in another spot tasted like soda water, complete with a faint effervescence. I filled my water bottle with it and was amazed to find that two days later it still retained the bubbles.  (to be continued…)


Visiting the Azores – Part 1 of 3

While cruising to England to follow my 1831 diarist’s trail, Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas docked for a day at Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel in the Azores (pronounced “Ah-sor’-esh” in Portuguese). No one knows for sure why, but this island chain was named after a soaring bird which doesn’t inhabit it.

The Azores: a hillside with a cloud of steam

The Azores: a hillside with a cloud of steam

The Azores’ nine major islands straddle the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the geological hotbed that created them and is still nurturing their growth. Measured from the ocean floor, they’re some of the tallest mountains on earth. My son Birch summed up our first look at São Miguel—a combo of Ireland’s grassy green on Hawaii’s mountainous terrain, a compact package about 900 miles west of mainland Portugal.

With my first few steps onto Ponta Delgada’s dock after a rough week at sea, I expected to feel the strange sensation of stepping onto a surface that doesn’t move. I vividly recalled my only other cruise twenty years ago, when my internal balance compensation switch had been stuck in the ON position for hours. This time my land legs returned as if they’d never left. After a while I missed the rocking of the ship, like the letdown you get when the music stops after a rousing dance.

As we embarked on our tour, the swaying of the bus relieved the boredom of being on stationary footing. On the south coast where the port city of Ponta Delgada is located, we passed small farm plots delineated by walls of black volcanic rock. Other rural areas used hedgerows of a tall shrub as fences. Many of the plots contained a scattering of stocky folk cultivating their crops by hand. The island’s primary economy is based on cattle, which slightly outnumber its human population of 140,000. The country has gone through many changes, drawing immigrants from Portugal, the Netherlands, and France, only to lose them to the U.S., Brazil, and Canada.

The Azores: a narrow one-way street

The Azores: a narrow one-way street

Most of the streets were so narrow that I was thankful not to be one of the pedestrians on the three-foot-wide sidewalk when our bus passed by. While threading us through one small town, our driver got well-earned applause after inching that huge bus into a left turn from one single lane street onto another—less than an inch to spare on either side. In spite of the protruding stone façade on the corner building that nearly scraped the bus’s windows, we emerged unscathed. (to be continued…)


Why not self-publish?

I could self-publish my book in short order, yet I’ve set my sights on the hard way—finding an agent who will find a publisher who will take about a year to put it into print. If I were still able to get pregnant, I could probably have two kids in less time. Now that I think about it, birthing a book is akin to having a baby (except in my case, benchmarks are counted in years instead of months.):

  • I’m pregnant! =>> A great book is incubating deep within me!
  • Third month =>> I’ve got this queasy sense I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.
  • Sixth month =>> The pages are growing—my book is undeniably on the way.
  • Eighth month =>> Will I ever get to “The End?”
  • Braxton Hicks contractions =>> Only a little more tightening of the prose to go…
  • Labor contractions =>> I have to cut and edit HOW MUCH?
  • Transition =>> Rejections of my queries to agents hurt like an S.O.B.

Transition is the excruciating phase where my book is now stuck—entering the birth canal. Why not deliver it quickly via self-publishing and end the pain?

The average self-published book sells 100 – 250 copies (depending on which disheartening statistic you choose). Rather than raising a son who spends his entire life in his small hometown, I want my progeny to venture into a wider world. Adding a publisher’s distribution network to my own promotional efforts is the best way to make that happen. My book would also benefit from a publisher’s expertise in formatting, cover design, and more, resulting in a more polished product.

I need to make my book the best it can be,

Brothers Water in Scotland: "a most perfect sheet of water."

Brothers Water in Scotland: “a most perfect sheet of water.”

not only so I’ll be proud of it, but also to do justice to Mr. Baker’s poignant writings which the form its heart. His words deserve to be read by many more than 250 people. The wonders he showed me should be shared with multitudes.

Mr. Baker, you’ve waited 182 years for your words to be published. What’s a couple more?


Baker Bookplate: Have you seen this anywhere?

In my quest to find the anonymous author of the 1831 travel diary, the first clue to pop up was almost too indistinct to be of much use. Heraldic bookplates emblazoned with “BAKER” were pasted inside the cover of each volume. Take a look:

Baker bookplate from diary

Baker bookplate from diary

This narrowed my search to a few thousand individuals, assuming “Baker” on the crest indicated his family name, not the name of the bookshop where the diarist purchased the blank diaries. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single Baker in my family’s history. Genealogical research usually starts with a current name and traces it back through time. To identify my diarist, I had to reverse the process. I hunted for a 19th century name using sketchy clues buried in hundreds of pages of handwritten text. Which clues would lead further along the right path and which would dump me at the end of a blind alley?

Good news: after extensive searching, I found the diarist. When I tried to trace his descendants to the present day, however, I encountered sad news: two of his children died in childhood. There’s a reasonable chance he had other children who lived to produce further generations, but with a name as common as Baker, I’ve not found enough evidence to prove it.

If you have anyone named Baker in your genealogy, check old books which have been passed down through your family for a bookplate like the one above. If you find one, you could be holding a missing piece of the puzzle. Please respond—you’ll make my day year.


What did your American ancestors look like?

Have you ever wondered if you inherited your unusual height or your hazel eyes from a certain American ancestor? If that ancestor was an American who traveled abroad, you may find the answer in our National Archives.

Because the diarist in my book had traveled in 1831, when Louis Daguerre was still experimenting with what would become known as “daguerreotypes,” I thought I’d never learn what the writer looked like, but I was wrong. Once I’d discovered his name, the doors to storehouses full of original documents flew open.1831 Passport Application

At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D. C.,, I readily found not one, but two passport applications for my diarist. The first one, dated 1831, was a handwritten letter from a local official to the Secretary of State, “The Hon. Martin Van Buren.” The wealth of information included the traveler’s birthplace, age, reason for travel, plus the physical characteristics of height, eye and hair color, complexion, and the size and shape of his forehead, nose, mouth, chin, and face. (This application gave me a “two-fer”—it also described the diarist’s traveling companion, Charles Dutilh.) Combine these details with a second application from 1835, dress the man in the fine clothing he bought in Paris, and a police sketch artist could give me a good likeness, in color no less.

Though most foreign travel in that age involved immigration from Europe to America, a surprising number of Americans wanted passports to sail to Europe, whether for pleasure, business, or to visit with relatives in “the old country.” Applications archived at NARA date back to 1795, although the indexes that enable easy searching start in 1810 and contain some gaps in the early 19th century years. Even if you’re not sure that your American ancestors traveled abroad, it’s worth a look to see what pops up. Maybe your great-great-great-grandfather had hazel eyes, too.


Travel in Great Britain without Advance Reservations

Travel without reservations? Isn’t that chancy? Perhaps, but you can cut the risk by using Britain’s network of tourist information centres.

On my book research trip following in the 1831 diarist’s footsteps, my son and I spent six weeks traveling throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. No town seemed too small to sport an info centre marked with a big italic “i’ on a simple sign. The knowledgeable staff in each centre helped us select appropriate accommodations (often at a small guest house), phoned for the reservation, and provided directions to it.

London was the only British city for which we secured our rooms prior to the trip. In a tourist mecca like London, the best places are booked up well in advance. We planned to spend too much time there to leave it to chance.

Bonuses of traveling “on the fly”:

  • When not hemmed in by prior reservations for specific days, flex days can be built into the itinerary. These come in handy when time runs short and the list of enticing sights is long. No need to say longingly, “I wish we could spend one more day here.” Now you can! (Even though we’d included five flex days, I regretted not doubling that number.)
  • The locals staffing the info centres know of great lodgings most folks would never find on their own. (A favorite was Fairfield Garden Guesthouse in Bowness on England’s Lake Windermere.)

Fairfield in Bowness (563x640)


  • Most info centres close around 5 p.m. After lingering at must-sees en route, it’s easy to arrive in a town too late in the day. (For our fallback plan, we used guide books or listings picked up at previous centres.)
  • The Brits are fanatics about attending their football matches (soccer to us Yanks). Unaware of the impending Finals, we spent the last of our three nights allotted to Glasgow in the nearest available accommodation—25 miles away in Greenock.

One caveat:

  • This treasure of a resource has recently suffered from budget cuts; some info centres have closed or scaled back services or hours. It would be wise to verify their status before traveling. Though not all centres are shown on any one website, is a good place to start.

As long as you’re tolerant of a few risks, the rewards of traveling without advance reservations can turn a vanilla trip into a flavorful adventure.