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Monday, November 29, 2010


by Ann Lethbridge

No, I'm not talking about job opportunities.  Or am I? I'll let you be the judge.

Last week I had the privilege of  reading a few five-hundred word story openings provided by aspiring authors. I was not being asked for a critique, so I was unable to offer advice and I didn't know their names, or anything about them.

I was concerned that almost all these openings suffered from what I saw as similar problems. If it had been possible for me to give  feedback on these snippets, this is what I would have said.

  •  A reader expects to be carried into your world in a very few lines or they might not get past the first page. One way to do this is to start with action, or dialogue. If you start where something is happening or even better, where everything changes for the worst for the point of view character, the reader will want to read on. People love conflict and disaster, so if you can hint at it, or even provide it at the beginning your book will open with a bang.
  • Providing the details up front of why and how a character arrived at the point when the book opens can cause a reader to yawn. For example, the character thinks about his miserable childhood, his awful time at school and his recent accession to a title, which will allow him to improve his life. In the meantime, nothing has happened in the story. This is an information dump. I see it over and over again in contests. It is also telling. 
  • The best way for a reader to get to know your character is to see them in action. This character, for example, could be entering a ballroom, greeting people who in the past had snubbed him and piercing them with his superior wit. The reader would be intrigued. Why would this man act this way? Or he could dive in to rescue a citizen from a band of thugs in a bad part of town. Why is he there? Why is he willing to be involved? Show us whatever it is you want to show us about who this person is, or thinks he or she is right now, by having him or her react to their world. Intrigue us to read more by not telling us why.
  • Avoid large casts of characters in opening scenes. Readers can be confused and/or impatient with too many people to keep track of, especially when they don't know who is important to the story.
  • Don't have your character physically describe themselves, either by looking in a mirror, or by thinking about their appearance. She turned her bewitching blue eyes on her visitor, is, if you turn it into the characters' own thoughts: I turned my bewitching blue eyes on my visitor. How often do you think about the nature and color of your eyes when you look at someone entering your front door? If you can put yourself inside your point of view character's head, see only what they see, feel only what they feel, your reader will be right there with you. And they will want to read on.
  • Know where your story starts. I have this terrible habit of wanting to write prologues full of action. My editor is very smart. She makes me take them out. Writing the prologue puts my head in the right place for the story. Deleting it, doesn't spoil or change the story at all, indeed it leaves a question to be answered later when the reader needs to know the answer. Don't start your story too early. Start where things begin to go wrong, often in a romance at the point the hero and heroine meet.
  • If your book starts with a bang, in the middle of action with conflict, with questions, try to keep the tension going.  Don't have your character go off and change their gown, for example, so you can get in some description, while the furious hero waits in the drawing room. Have her confront him right away. Keep the reader wanting to know what is going to happen next and keep things happening.
  • A great first line is wonderful. An art form if done well.  If it is followed up by telling and passages of description, its impact is lost.
  • Look at the openings of your favorite authors. What did they do right? Were you bored but only continued reading because you knew in the end they would deliver? Did you skip ahead? Were you breathlessly intrigued? An editor who is breathlessly intrigued by your opening page or two might well buy your book.

Do I do perfect openings? No, but I do strive for them and try to keep all these points in my head. I think I spend more time on the opening paragraphs than I do on any other scene in the book. I hope these little pointers will be of as much help to you as they are to me.

What are some of your favorite opening paragraphs?

Ann Lethbridge
The Gamkeeper's Lady, Dec 1 2010
Harlequin Historicals
Find me at e-harlequin.com

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Maize an Amazing History

The first Thanksgiving in 1621 corn was there. It was one of the new found foods in the Americas.

Europeans didn't know corn existed until Columbus discovered America and brought it back. It's believed corn was developed 7000 years ago in Central Mexico and Central America. Corn is a crop that has to be cultivated, it doesn't grow in the wild. The first Native Americans learned how to propagate corn from a wild grass called teosinte. They cultivated the grass and soon had the small 3 inch cobs with sparse kernels slowly becoming the corn we know today.

The crop was transferred by seed from Central America to North America and down into Peru by the wandering tribes.

The corn was used fresh and dried. What we call hominy today was first cooked thousands of years ago. The dried corn was ground into a meal and used for bread, puddings, and syrup. the corn husks were sued for weaving mats, hats, baskets, shoes, and ceremonial masks. The corn cobs were used for fuel, darts in games, and tied to sticks for rattles in ceremonies.

Paty Jager

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Elizabeth Van Lew - Spy in Petticoats

What comes to your mind when you hear the word spies? James Bond, gadgets, an eccentric Civil War-era spinster known as Crazy Bet. Yes, that’s right…a spinster known as Crazy Bet - Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond spinster known as Crazy Bet, used her eccentric behavior as a cover for her ingenious schemes, disarming the people she’s deceiving without ever using a weapon.  The daughter of a prominent Richmond businessman, the devoted abolitionist spent her inheritance buying and freeing slaves before the war. During the war, she spied for the Union, supplying information to Union generals; during her frequent visits to the Confederate prison in Richmond, Crazy Bet brought food and books for the imprisoned Federal soldiers and much desired treats for the guards while she gleaned information she could funnel to Union officers. Using her reputation as an eccentric to her best advantage, she adopted the touched persona of “Crazy Bet” to further avoid suspicion of her activities.

Crazy Bet hid in plain sight – the vocal abolitionist made no effort to hide her Union sympathies. Widely disliked for her views, she even became the subject of newspaper editorials condemning her humanitarian efforts, for they were aimed at Union prisoners rather than Confederate soldiers.  She and her mother, who joined with Elizabeth in her efforts, were held in disdain by their Richmond neighbors. Ironically, this served as a shield for her espionage. She was so open about her views that she was viewed as silly and hysterical, rather than the secretive, deceptive persona which one would expect a spy to adopt.

As time passed, she played up the eccentricities. She’d leave her hair in disarray, dress in her shabbiest clothes and bonnets, and mutter to herself while she walked through Richmond. Crazy Bet used her image as a harmless, touched spinster as the perfect disguise for her activities.

Elizabeth Van Lew’s methods were ingenious and varied.  A middle-aged spinster, she pried men with food rather than feminine wiles. She even charmed her way past the Confederate prison commander, Lieutenant David Todd, by learning of his fondness for buttermilk and gingerbread and bringing these to him in the prison. Lieutenant Todd, who was Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-brother, allowed Elizabeth to bring food, clothes and medicine to the prisoners. Often, this small gifts contained messages hidden in false bottoms and through clever codes. Her methods for funneling information to Union generals were equally clever. She even hollowed out eggs and used them to hide intelligence, which were then ferried to union officers by her household servants. General Grant considered her one of his most valuable sources of information. After the fall of Richmond, one of General Grant’s first visits was to the Van Lew home.

Elizabeth Van Lew’s story inspired the character of canny spymaster, “Crazy Betsy” Kincaid, in  Angel in My Arms, the story of Amanda Emerson, a beautiful Union spy and Captain Steve Dunham, the Union officer she recruits for a suicide mission. Steve Dunham’s facing a noose when sable-haired beauty Amanda Emerson and her crazy matron “aunt” engineer his escape from jail. There's a catch - Amanda needs him to break into Libby Prison to rescue a notorious double agent who may or may not be on the side of the Union.  He’s trading one noose for another, but Steve can’t resist her.  He’ll possess her love – if he lives long enough.

The rugged soldier she recruits for her plan looks more like a Viking warrior than a disciplined officer, but Amanda’s drawn to Steve’s courage and tenderness.  As  the danger  surrounding them thickens, every moment he’s with her jeopardizes their lives, but they discover a passionate love that’s worth the risk. 

Steve Dunham, the hero of Angel in My Arms, was introduced in an earlier novel, Destiny. When I wrote Destiny, I knew I’d have to give Steve his own love story. Throw in a gang of gun-runners who specialize in stolen military weapons, a nest of beautiful spies, a heroic Confederate officer whose ties with Steve go back to their Army service in the western territories, and a villain with a thirst for revenge, and you've got a plot that isn't your mother's Civil War romance. 

To learn more about Angel in My Arms and read an excerpt, please visit my website, www.victoriagrayromance.com and my blog, www.victoriagrayromance.blogspot.com . Angel in My Arms is now available in print and as an eBook from The Wild Rose Press, www.thewildrosepress.com .

Friday, November 19, 2010

Noah Webster – American Lexicographer

According to “On This Day” at reference.com, Noah Webster's (1758-1843) first edition of AMERICAN DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE was released on April 14, 1828. I remembering hearing years ago that Webster wrote his dictionary because whenever he would say something to his wife over the breakfast table, she would reply “Now, what's that supposed to mean?” I don't know if this is true, an urban legend or just a joke.

Prior to the release of Webster's Dictionary, he was already well known. From 1783-85, he released GRAMMATICAL INSTITUTE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, a three-part speller, grammar and reader. It made him the chief American authority on the English Language, which he felt had been corrupted by the British Aristocracy. According to www.reference.com, “The appropriate standard for the American language, argued Webster, was, 'the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions', which meant that the people-at-large must control the language; popular sovereignty in government must be accompanied by popular usage in language.”

Webster's frustration at having to copyright his books in each of the 13 colonies, each of which had their own copyright laws, led to his support of a National Copyright law, which passed in 1790.

His ELEMENTRY SPELLING BOOK helped standardize American spelling. School rooms across the country, as well as pioneer families in their own homes taught children to read from it. Towns used it for citizen-wide spelling bees. By 1850 the annual sales of Webster's spelling book was about 1,000,000 copies. That's one copy for every 23 citizens.

“AMERICAN DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE included definitions of 70,000 words, of which 12,000 had not appeared in such a work before. Its definitions were excellent, and the dictionary's sales reached 300,000 annually. This work, Webster's foremost achievement, helped to standardize American pronunciation. Webster completed the revision of 1840, and the dictionary, revised many times, has retained its popularity.,” says reference.com.

In addition to writing dictionaries and grammar books, Webster was a newspaper editor, an advocate for a Federal government (he wrote pamphlets in favor of a centralized government and urged the passing of the Constitution), and he wrote scholarly studies on subjects ranging from epidemic diseases to meteors to the relationship of European and Asian languages.

Raise your hand.....do you own a Webster's Dictionary?

Works Cited:

"Webster, Noah." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. 09 Apr. 2009.

This post first appeared on Chatting with Anna Kathryn on April 10, 2009.

Anna Kathryn Lanier

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Capturing the Past

I love old photographs. My mother has boxes and boxes of them stashed away. I used to spend hours when I was young looking through her photo albums. Below is a picture of my great grandfather in his butcher shop in Amboy, IL. I'm not sure of the year.

A black and white image instantly catches my eye, and my imagination. (Yes, this is an actual photograph.)

Color photographs do to, of course, like the one below from the How to Be a Retronaut website. Can you believe this photo was taken in 1913?!

And I recently found this blog at Mental Floss, Talking Pictures: Times of Trouble. Lost photographs picked up at scrap fairs and junk shops, each with a handwritten caption, some, like the one below, more cryptic than others.

("Rock wall near Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Cal. where Dorothy found a Baby Girl on Jan. 24, 1961.")

Old photographs are just some of the things I use to inspire my stories. What about you?

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Hannah's statue, Haverhill
Ever heard of Hannah Dustin? In her lifetime, folk figure Hannah Emerson Dustin became a role model for pioneer women as her exploits spread across Anglo America. She is the first woman in the U.S. to have a statue erected in her honor. In fact, she has two statues . . . but I’ve gotten ahead of the story.

The time is March 15, 1697 and toward the end of King William’s War. When she learned they were being attacked, Hannah urged her husband, Thomas, to take their other children, aged two to seventeen, and flee to the nearby garrison and safety. Reluctantly, he left her to save their children. Less than a week after the birth of her child named Martha (her ninth), forty-year-old Hannah and her aunt, Mary Neff, were captured by Abnaki at Haverhill, Massachusetts.

The Abnaki smashed baby Martha to death against an apple tree before marching the two women for fifteen days north into New Hampshire. Taken with at least ten other people from Haverhill, those who couldn’t keep up the Abnaki’s pace were killed and left for carrion. Hannah and Mary were parceled out as slaves to another Abnaki group consisting of half a dozen adults and several children, including an adolescent captive boy, Samuel Leonardson, who had been taken from Worcester eighteen months earlier.

Hannah's statue in Boscawen
The band set up camp at the conjunction of the Merrimack and Contoocook Rivers (now known as Dustin Island) near what is currently Boscawen, New Hampshire and near Concord. One of the Abnaki men told Samuel that they would soon be moving to Canada where the captives would be stripped and forced to “run the gauntlet.” One of the Abnaki men had been teaching Samuel to fight and had showed him how to kill with a tomahawk. As the story goes, Hannah led a captive rebellion. She, Mary, and Samuel tomahawked ten Abnaki men, women, and children to death as they slept. They left alive only one elderly woman and a small boy. Hannah had the foresight to take scalps before leaving the enemy camp. There is speculation as to whether this was pay back for killing her baby and friends or necessary for escape. My guess would be both.

Hannah, Mary, and Samuel scuttled the enemy canoes except for one, which they used to travel down river at night. They reached Haverhill in three days. After some weeks of recovery, the now famous trio traveled to Boston where they requested bounty money for the scalps. The Massachusetts Bay Courts had enacted a bounty on scalps in 1694, but it had been repealed. However, the Massachusetts General Court made an exception for Hannah and her two companions. Accounts vary, but the most widely mentioned is that Hannah received twenty-five pounds and Mary and Samuel each received half that amount. In 1697, that was a considerable amount of money.

Hannah's grave, she died in 1736
Hannah became famous for her escape and exploits. A statue of her stands in Haverhill, Massachusetts showing her with a tomahawk in one hand and scalps in the other. Another statue is located in Boscawen, New Hampshire, site of the escape. Her story is retold in “The History of Haverhill," in “Notable American Women,” in Henry David Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers," by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in Laurel Ulrich’s “Goodwives,” and other tomes too numerous to mention. In some accounts, Dustin is recorded as Dustan, Durstan, or Duston. A remarkable woman, Hannah Dustin, the most famous woman in America in her time.

Thanks for stopping by Seduced by History,
Caroline Clemmons

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Northern Roses and Southern Belles Finalist in the 2011 EPIC

I’m thrilled to share with all our readers that the anthology, Northern Roses and Southern Belles has finaled in the 2011 EPIC eBook Awards Competition.

This anthology of Civil War era stories, written by me and five other authors at the Wild Rose Press, continues to entertain readers. We all wrote novellas which take place in the Civil War era, before, during, or after the war as in my story, Are You Going to the Dance?

My Texas family’s experiences inspired me. Although my story does not actually represent my Dutch great great grandfather or my French great great grandmother, they, along with many folks in the German communities of the Texas Hill Country, believed strongly in preserving the Union. Towards that end my great great grandfather took the mules he raised to the Union army. He would have been shot by the Confederate army if he had been caught.

The community where they lived in Texas voted to form local militia units rather than send fathers and sons to fight with the Confederate army. My ancestors’ son joined the local militia unit and took part in protecting their town and the surrounding farmers. This group of settlers attended church every Sunday and enjoyed weekend gatherings where they danced and socialized.

My great great grandmother was known for her kindness and independent spirit. It is said of her that she would rather have been outside riding her horse and working with the men than working inside the house. One night, she found a Comanche brave who had been wounded during a raid, but not discovered in the field by the farmers who strove to protect their crops. She saved his life without the farmers knowing, and as a result his tribe never again raided their farm.

With TWRP’s support, our anthology, Northern Roses and Southern Belles, came together easily. Encouraged by the response from our readers, I next wrote Moonlight Desperado, also inspired by an incident which happened to my Texas family after the war was over. For fun I added shape shifters to this story and published it with Siren-BookStrand Mainstream.

Along with all our anthology stories, it has been a pleasure to see Are You Going to the Dance? in print because the story that inspired it is dear to my heart.

The Civil War as you’ve never read it! Northern Roses and Southern Belles now available from the The Wild Rose Press and other eBook sellers! For an excerpt, visit my web site http://www.JeanmarieHamilton.com
Jeanmarie Hamilton

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fall at Crathes Castle

On my first driving experience in Scotland, we set the GPS to guide us to Crathes Castle in the east of Scotland. But did it take us there? No, it took us (in our rented Mercedes) along a narrow muddy road filled with cow poop to a barn. Why me?! Do the GPS gods hate me?

We drove around what seemed like circles on those one-lane Aberdeenshire roads until we found a sign for Crathes Castle. Whew! Finally! And it was well worth all the trouble.

I was excited to visit Crathes because it’s a 16th century tower house, much like the ones I often set my stories in. Crathes Castle was started in 1553 and completed in 1596 by the Burnett of Leys family. Another wing was added in the 1700s. The land was given to the Burnett of Leys family by Robert the Bruce in 1323 and was occupied by the same family for over 350 years. It is now owned by the National Trust of Scotland. Crathes is said to be one of the best preserved castles in Scotland. I did get a genuine historic feeling as if I’d stepped back in time several hundred years.

We were not allowed to take photos inside of the rooms but they were beautifully furnished in historic pieces. We saw the Horn of Leys, a jeweled ivory horn, given to Alexander Burnett by Robert the Bruce in 1323. It is on display in the great hall. Some of the original Jacobean (or Scottish Renaissance) painting remains on the ceilings and upper parts of the walls in such rooms as the Chamber of the Muses, the Chamber of Nine Worthies and the Green Lady’s Room. These are fascinating, old paintings of historical figures including their names and written passages of scriptures. This was one of my favorite parts of the castle.

Above is a picture I found of the painted oak ceiling of the Chamber of the Muses. Apparently it was covered up for years and was rediscovered in 1877.

The views from the upper floor windows were stunning especially with the fall colors in the gardens and grounds.

A view out the windows of the roofs below and the gardens beyond.

The autumn colors in the gardens were spectacular.

The estate contains 530 acres and apparently the barn we’d gone to at first was the back part of the estate.

The estate also contains almost 4 acres of beautiful walled garden divided into 8 themed areas. I loved walking along the pathways among the flowers and shrubs. Being a gardener I saw many plants I recognized and would love to grow myself. The yew hedges date from around 1702.

The formal gardens were truly beautiful and amazing.

Hope you enjoyed this visit to Crathes Castle.

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