A Writing Retreat

Earlier this fall, I had the chance to attend a mini writing retreat with some members of one of my local writing groups. It was the first writing retreat I’ve done, and I loved it. An entire weekend of no chores, worrying about what’s for supper, or other distractions. Just days of writing-related activities.

I say writing-related, instead of simply writing, because we had varied goals. Some of us posted our goals for accountability. Whether it was a word count, a number of blog posts (I could take a lesson from that gal), or, as in my case, a timeline and outline, every person who attended met their goal.

Accountability to stay on task.

They laughed at my timeline. Well, it is pretty outrageous, as you can see below.

You can’t really tell from the photo, but this was a pretty long hallway. But the timeline had to cover a couple of decades, so…

But in this case, it’s necessary. This novel has three point-of-view characters. In addition, part of it is set in the 1930s and ‘40s, among historical events. This timeline will ensure I keep the characters not only ageing at the same rate as each other, but also appropriate to what’s happening in the historical setting. If Ruth is 5 during the Night of the Long Knives, she can’t be 10 when the Nuremburg Race Laws were set (the next year), now, can she?

Some of this is purposely blurred. You don’t want spoilers, do you?

I have a pretty good concept of what happened throughout the ’30s and ‘40s, but dates tend to get jumbled in my head, so a good timeline will keep me straight.

This novel is taking me a while to write. Partly because of the other jobs I have (editing & etc.), but more because it is so research intensive. I love that, though. Research might be my favorite part of writing.

Anyway, we stayed in this old farmhouse that has been turned into a B&B. It was large enough that each of us could find our own little private nooks in which to work away, but then as we needed breaks we could gather in the kitchen or elsewhere and visit.

This was my private corner.

Now that I’ve experienced one, I can’t wait for more writing retreats in my future.

Ma’s Lemon Pie

“Now for the lemon pie,” Ma said… “Laura you wash the lemons carefully and cut off any dark spots, while I make the crust.”

Ma added a pinch of salt to some flour. With her fingers she crumbled lard through it, until the particles would pact [sic] together when pinched. Then she added a little cold water as she mixed it in lightly to make a dough.

Now she rolled the dough out thin and lined a pie-tin with it. She cut the lemons into very thin slices and laid them on the crust until the pie-tin was nearly filled. Then she covered them with sugar – Oh lots and lots of sugar. Over this she placed the top crust, with its small pine-tree cut in the center, and she baked the pie until the flakey crust was a delicate light brown.

From the manuscript of Little Town on the Prairie (this scene didn’t make it into the published book)

The lemon pies I always knew had a smooth filling topped with meringue, so when I first discovered the above passage, I was fascinated. Could one really make a pie that way? Turns out, it’s a popular way to make them!

The recipe was originally created by the Shakers, who considered lemons important to their diet. They believed it was a sin to be wasteful; thus they used the entire lemon.

An authentic Shaker lemon pie (also called Ohio lemon pie, as the Shakers who developed the pie were from that state) would use only true lemons, white sugar, and eggs in a double crust. Today, Meyer lemons are most often used. This lemon-orange hybrid is not only sweeter than a true lemon, but it also has a thinner skin.

Other changes have crept into modern recipes, too. Some people add vanilla or spices; others thicken and smooth the filling with a little butter and flour. Some even cream the ingredients (including lemons) together in a blender.

What everyone agrees on is that the lemons must be sliced as thinly as possible, and left to macerate in the sugar as long as possible – at least a couple of hours and up to overnight.

Here’s the original recipe:

2 large lemons

4 eggs, beaten well

2 cups sugar

2 pie crusts

Wash lemons and slice them thin as paper, rind and all. Combine with sugar; mix well. Let stand at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Stir in beaten eggs and mix well. Turn into 9” pie pan lined with one crust, spreading lemon slices evenly. Cover with top crust; pinch closed around edge; slit to vent. Bake at 450 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 and bake another 20 minutes, or until knife comes out clean. Cool before slicing.

For a more modern taste, you might try adding 1 teaspoon vanilla, 4 tablespoons melted butter, and 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour with the eggs. You could also bake without a top crust, or with a lattice top.

Have you ever had a Shaker lemon pie? Did you enjoy it? And what would a lime pie – or an orange pie – made this way (but with adjusted sugar amounts) taste like?

Book Review: Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town

A unique coming-of-age story with real characters, real history, and lots of heart, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town is a captivating read. 

Ever since Brooke Decker’s mother died a year ago, she’s been spiraling out of control—and doesn’t even realize it. Her father does, and comes up with an unusual solution to get her away from alcohol, sex, and bad influences and back to herself and the family: they’ll participate in a reality show set in 1861. No booze, no pot, no piercings. No phones, electricity, or toilets, either.

Though her ten-year-old sister, Rebecca Lynn, is thrilled at the idea, Brooke wants nothing to do with it. In one of the more touching scenes in the book, a rare  moment of connection with her dad shows her how important this is to him, so she reluctantly agrees. Over the course of the four-month show, Brooke learns a lot more than how to wear a corset and milk a cow.

The author captures the voice of a teen, and especially a teen trying to find her way, perfectly. Anyone who knows a teen will recognize her immediately; and those who feel they don’t understand today’s young folks will gain insight by the end of this novel. Brooke’s father and sister are also well drawn, although Rebecca Lynn is a little too “good” for a typical ten-year-old sister.

The amount of research the author obviously did to recreate life in the mid-nineteenth century backcountry is impressive. She portrays enough fascinating detail to keep you grounded in the setting without overdoing it. The one thing that misses the mark is that the person they’re supposed to be living like—Laura Ingalls—wasn’t even born for another six years after 1861. The lifestyle was basically the same, so it doesn’t take anything away from the story.

A revelation by Brooke’s father in the middle and a twist at the end add surprise elements to Brooke’s struggles.

Poignant and funny by turns, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town touches the heart through both the tears and the laughter.

Story Circle Conference

What a great weekend this was. It was my first time attending this conference, but it won’t be my last. Story Circle focuses on women’s stories: why we need to tell them (even if we might think our lives are too ordinary or too dark), how to do so effectively, and what to do with them after the telling. 

There were too many workshops to attend all of them—that’s always a problem at writing conferences—but the presentations I did get to were terrific. Some of the topics: using Myers–Briggs personality types to develop characters and also to introduce conflict; tips on how to keep a travel journal that’s more than a list of “today we went to…”; building your platform; overcoming the guilt of spilling family secrets when writing memoir; how to shape your voice; and getting unstuck. That’s only a quarter of the workshops that were available!

I gave a workshop on book creation—how to turn your passion, whatever that may be, into a book. It was a small but enthusiastic group and I think the presentation was well received. I very much enjoyed it; hope they did, too.

In addition to the workshops, there were readings by award-winning authors, open-mike night, inspiring keynote speakers, a book signing, and more. There was so much to see and do, and so many interesting women to meet and visit with, that I completely forgot to take a single picture! Hopefully some of my new friends will post some.

There were many more wonderful books available, several of which I already have (which definitely helped my wallet, because I wouldn’t have been able to resist them otherwise). And many others are on my list for future acquisition.

Even though the conference is over, the fun doesn’t end. Story Circle Network has a multitude of opportunities year ‘round: online classes, reading and writing groups (both virtual and in-person), contests, and more. If you’re a woman writer and want to get in on the fun and learning, go here: www.storycircle.org.

What’s in a Name

When I was little, I had a stuffed bear I named Suzy Bear. (I have her still, but she’s in storage.) I don’t remember when I got Suzy Bear, or how she came by that name, but I loved her. Although I had other dolls and animals, and a sister and lots of friends, Suzy Bear was the one I confided in. She listened to my secrets, my gripes, my dreams and everyday ramblings. She comforted me when I got a spanking and (silently) cheered for me when I achieved something. Because I loved her so much, I thought Suzy was the prettiest name ever.

Suzy Bear. Actually, not. I don’t have a photo of her, so I did an internet search and found this photo on eBay (goo.gl/2kUEFC). It’s just like my Suzy Bear.

My family lived 3 blocks from the school. Down the street from us, across the street from the school playground, lived a family whose daughter had an intellectual disability. Julie was a nice girl, and I often stopped to say hello on my way home from school.

Looking back now, I realize Julie must have been very lonely. I never saw any visitors at her house, and the family never went anywhere. I suppose that’s why she often stood outside, as close to the street as possible without actually leaving her yard, when school was in recess or letting out. Even so, I never saw anyone talking to her.

Until one day when I was in second grade. Three older girls stood at the edge of the playground. Julie was out and the girls were talking to her. Though that side of the playground was for the fifth graders, I was curious enough to brave a venture over.

I knew all three of the older girls (we lived in a very small town; everybody knew everybody). They were not particularly nice girls, and their leader, Susie, was the not-nicest of all. Still, I was naïvely shocked to discover that they were taunting Julie. Calling her names, and even throwing little pebbles at her. Saying she was “so stupid, you just stand there and let people throw rocks at you.”

Now, I’ve always been a peacekeeper, and I’ve never liked confrontation. You might even say I was a bit of a coward, preferring to run away and hide over standing up. But this—this was too much.

“Stop it!” I demanded.

All three turned to me.

“What did you say?” Susie asked.

“I said, ‘stop it.’ Leave her alone.”

“Why do you care? Oh, you must be a retard too!” Now all three began taunting me, as well as Julie.

I didn’t back down (which surprises me to this day; although I know I wouldn’t back down now, at that time it would have been my most likely course of action). I told the girls they should be ashamed, what would their mothers say, anything I could think of. Eventually they got tired of the whole thing and left.

I asked Julie if she was okay. She just nodded.

I told her she had a pretty skirt on.

Then long, bony fingers grasped my shoulder firmly and a teacher pulled me away, dragging me back to the first- and second-grade side of the playground, telling me to “stop being mean to the poor retarded girl.” My pleas that I was being her friend fell on deaf ears. (And here’s how naïve I truly am: It only just occurred to me this very minute that the three girls probably told the teacher I was making fun of the girl across the street, because the teachers never went on the playground unless somebody was bleeding or somebody complained.)

I was galled, to use my dad’s word, at what the three girls were doing to Julie, as well as at the injustice of being blamed for causing her pain when I was the only one trying to be her friend. All day I burned with indignation.

Julie wasn’t outside when school let out that day. I thought it was just as well, because I wanted to hurry home and tell Suzy Bear all about it.

“Suzy Bear, do you know what Susie—” I stopped in revulsion. How could my beloved bear have the same name as that horrid girl? Suddenly I hated the name. It was ugly and mean and disgusting. It wasn’t to be borne. The only thing to do was change Suzy Bear’s name.

I tried several names for Suzy Bear. I called her Sabrina, after my favorite Angel on the new TV show. I called her Lisa, after my best friend. I called her Meg and Claudia and Anne after girls I read about. None of them seemed to fit.

And my feelings for Suzy Bear didn’t fit anymore, either. I tried to like her just as much, to tell her my secrets and dreams and gripes, but it just wasn’t the same. In some unnamable way, it just wasn’t “right.” Suzy Bear became just another toy.

That’s the power of a name.

I tell this story because I think that’s the emotional reaction of many people to the news about the ALA-ALSC changing the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to Children’s Literature Legacy Award.


Most of the hoopla has died down, but I still get daily comments from people who are either outraged or delighted, and want to know what I think about it, so I’ve decided to respond.

I’m not delighted. I love Wilder’s Little House books and understand the contribution they’ve made to children’s literature. At a deep, primitive level, my heart feels like it did when I tried to rename Suzy Bear. It’s just feels like it’s not “right,” though I couldn’t say why.

Plenty of other people have tried to say why. But the ideas that seem to be causing outrage in so many other people don’t, for me, stand up past the emotion. To wit:

*It’s rewriting history to be politically correct

Um, what history is being rewritten? Is anyone saying that there wasn’t conflict between Native Americans and settlers? Or that there wasn’t good and bad on both sides? Or that the Ingalls didn’t respect Dr. Tan, or that Pa didn’t perform blackface? No. Is anyone saying that the parts of the books anyone finds offensive should be removed? No. So where is the rewriting of history?

I generally ignore any claims of politically correct/incorrect, because people seem to mean so many different things by the term(s) that it’s almost pointless. (The actual definition of the term is “not causing offense to disadvantaged persons or groups.” Hopefully none of my readers wish to go around causing offense.)

*It’s censorship

In a way, this is true. Although changing the name of an award is not the same as calling for the books to be pulled from shelves and banned, it is giving notice that some people may find offense at the books and therefore may wish to avoid them. I’m against censorship, so this does give me pause. However, there are two points that counteract this.

First is the fact that once this media hoopla dies down, no one will know the difference. Honestly, before the name change was announced, did you even know there was such an award? (“Yes!” shout librarians across the country. I’m betting this decision isn’t affecting your thoughts about the books.) For the rest of us: Can you name one person other than Laura Ingalls Wilder who has received this award? Have you ever tried to find a book based on its author winning this award, or turned down a book because its author didn’t? Neither will anyone else.

Second, the actual effect has, in fact, been quite the opposite. The Little House books have enjoyed a surge in purchases since the name change was announced. It’s rather hard to claim outrage over censorship when more people than ever are getting the books.

*It’s judging a different time by today’s standards

When Laura lived, blackface was “acceptable.” So was depicting all Native peoples as savages. I don’t judge Laura for not knowing better, because she was a product of her time, as we all are.

But that should not be confused with recognizing that being hurtful to people is wrong. Period.

What’s happened is that technology has allowed more people to have a voice—people who historically had no voice. As they speak up, those of us who lived in blissful ignorance of the hurt we were inadvertently causing have to make a decision.

Do we decide that since it’s always been that way, and it doesn’t hurt us, it’s okay? Or do we say, “I didn’t know better, but now that I do, I’ll do better.”? Maybe doing better means letting children who would be crushed by some of the comments and depictions in the Little House books know that we care how they feel. If a simple name change of an award hardly anyone knew existed can do that, then I can’t oppose it.

Feel free to let me know how you feel. All respectful comments welcome.

Get to Know Me #2 – Books & Movies

Instead of taking the social media challenge of posting a book or movie poster every day, I decided to combine them in this post.

Note that these are books or movies that have made an impact, not necessarily favorites.

The “rules” stipulate that there shouldn’t be any commentary on why the particular book or movie is chosen, so I’ll leave it to you to puzzle out why each one is listed.

If you really want to know, though, just drop me a comment and I’ll gladly explain.

Feel free to share the stories that have affected your life, too!











We went to DC for a presentation at a conference

Thought I’d share a few photos of our recent trip to DC. I was invited to give a presentation at a conference on fraternalism, so we took the opportunity to see a few things we didn’t get to the last time we were there.

Belmont House: This historic was built c. 1911 by Perry Belmont as a place to bring his wife. She had been previously married to a homebody, who made the mistake of letting her attend social events with their single friend Perry. When she divorced her husband and married Perry only five hours later, the new couple was ostracized in their hometown of New York City. So Perry moved them to DC and built this house. However, news of their history found them, and when they threw their first large ball, only one couple attended. Luckily for them, the couple was President and Mrs. Taft; after that, they were suddenly back “in” society.

Entry way



This is not an umbrella stand but a cane safe. Back in the day, society men’s canes were adorned with lots of gold and other precious metals, so these lockable holders kept them safe at large gatherings.



Family dining room. See the desk in the back corner?…



This is a closer view. Snazzy, isn’t it? Now see the books on top? The second one is mine (Little Lodges)! No one knew I was coming for a tour, and the guide didn’t know me, so it wasn’t “planted.” Hubby asked, and the guide said those are the books always kept on the desk.


The grand ballroom. Notice the mirror over the fireplace on the right. When this mirror was installed, it was the largest single-piece mirror in the world.


The formal dining hall. I love the old candelabras in front of the far wall.


The microwave is modern, obviously, but the cabinetry and warming oven in the kitchen are original. You need a ladder to reach the top cabinets.

The House of the (Scottish Rite) Temple: Built in 1915, this building houses an old research library and museums in addition to meeting rooms.

One of the meeting rooms.


One of the research libraries.


I wrote about this in Little Lodges!


Another library, because you can never have too many books.

George Washington Masonic Memorial: The GW monument is closed for repairs (it was closed for repairs last time we were in DC, too; wonder if I’ll ever get in that one) so we went to the GW Masonic Memorial instead. Constructed between 1923 and 1932, this memorial was created to “inspire humanity through education to emulate and promote the virtues, character, and vision of George Washington, the Man, the Mason, and Father of our Country.”


The man himself.


Replica of the lodge meeting room in which GW met. The altar (in center), bible on it, and Master’s chair (under portrait far wall) are all original from that lodge. Other artifacts from GW’s life are preserved in the wall cubbies, like the clock from Mt. Vernon seen to the left.

The grounds as seen from the top floor observation deck.

And finally, a pretty terrible shot of me beginning my presentation – hubby took it with a zoomed in cell, in a room with dimmed lights (for the slides), which is always a disaster.

“Just as I am, without one plea…”

I caught a cold the day before the conference began and presented this paper with a wicked sore throat. Must have done okay, though, because two academic presses asked to publish it, and a third organization asked about hosting me in a few months. But my next gig is in July, at the Story Circle conference. I’ll be leading a workshop on how to turn your passion into a book. Come join us!