Writing Spaces: Ideal vs. Real

No doubt writing spaces are as different as writers. On this issue, I found a soulmate in Annie Proulx. We both share the ideal of sleek, elegant, and uncluttered, as depicted on the cover of her book Bird Cloud.

Book cover of Annie Proulx's Bird Cloud showing my ideal writing space
My ideal writing space as shown by Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud

But then, on page 52, she verbally portrays the reality perfectly:

“It has taken me half a lifetime to understand that my habits and work do not tally with clean minimalism. By default, complexity and clutter are my style, and I move from projects and paper piles on one table to different projects and paper piles on other big tables. Books are open on every surface next to bins of papers to be filed. Boxes of old photographs, manuscript drafts, correspondence and receipts crowd shelves and floor. Incoming and outgoing mail piles up. This is not a svelte, minimalist look. One large room was what I thought I needed for tables, file cabinets, map case, desks, shelves for books, office supplies, book accessioning station and bill-paying desk.”

My actual writing spaces illustrate this reality. I just walked around and took pictures with my cell phone, no staging needed!

My real writing space: a recliner with a laptop real writing space: a cluttered desk full of papers my real writing space: desk

The book shelving is very idiosyncratic—e.g. I have a shelf on how to write and edit, several shelves of dictionaries, a shelf of books about sex and sex practices, a shelf about the Chesapeake Bay, a couple of shelves of favorite classic mystery writers, half a shelf on food in history, etc. Usually I know where to look!

writing space: office with desk, filing cabinet, bookshelf


How does your real writing space compare to your ideal?

If you’re not a writer, share your ideal vs. real office, kitchen, yard, studio, or wherever you spend time.

First Rights: When You Blunder Big Time

Sometimes life gets on top of you. You aren’t dead, just buried. And accidents happen. Such was the case for me recently. When two on-line journals went live nearly simultaneously, I realized that I had granted first rights to both of them. My attempt to set things right follows.

To the OxMag Editorial Staff:

I am embarrassed and extremely regretful to have to tell you that I inadvertently granted publication rights to two literary journals. On May 8, 2015, when I granted OxMag rights to my short story “Trust,” I did not recall that I had previously (on March 27) granted publication to Diverse Arts Project Journal. All I can say in my defense is that over the last several months I’ve been distracted by two surgeries, daily hospital care for a persistent non-healing wound, various other health complications, family issues, and a flurry of short story acceptances. Once I discovered my error, notifying you seemed the only honorable thing to do.


As an on-line publication, I suppose that you can—and may wish to—remove my story from this issue. Alternatively, should you choose to allow the double publication to stand, please add an appropriate footnote acknowledging the Diverse Arts Project Journal.


Again, my apologies for the error. Please let me know how you decide to handle this. And thank you for your time and efforts on my behalf.

A little more than three weeks later, I received the following response.

Thank you so much for coming forward with this issue, we appreciate it.


Because it is our policy generally to only publish previously unpublished work, we will remove your story “Trust” from our Spring 2015 issue. We did enjoy your story, and re-reading it gives us time to again appreciate why we chose to publish it initially. We encourage you to continue submitting work to OxMag, but also remind you to in the future keep us informed of the status of any simultaneous submissions. (Submittable actually has an option to withddraw stories from consideration once they’ve been accepted without you having to notify everyone.)


We wish you good health, and also congratulations on the other short story acceptances—that’s very exciting!

Avoid First Rights Blunders

There are several take-aways for writers. One, with e-publishing, this sort of error can be corrected. Unlike a print journal, where making changes of this sort would be prohibitively expensive, it’s a relatively easy fix. Two, if you screw-up—regardless of the medium—admit it. Besides easing your conscience, doing so reflects well on you. In this case, OxMag thanked me and invited future submissions. And, three, take care of the paperwork (either yourself, or through a third party). It’s much better to avoid this sort of situation than to try to repair it!

Click the image above to read OxMag.

You can read “Trust” at The Diverse Arts Project

My First Time at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival

Banner from Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival,
Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival

I had to leave home at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t get home till nearly 10:00 p.m. But it was definitely worth the time! The commute was a reconnect with Heather Weidner and Maggie King. Lots of conversation about everything from work life to pets.

The Center for Cultural Arts is attractive—white columns, brick walkway, garden sculptures. On the way in and out, I was too encumbered to take pictures. Oh, sigh. Opportunity lost.

Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival table with Virginia is For Mysteries, Heather Weidner, Vivian Lawry, MARIA HUDGINS, TERESA INGE,
Our dark, sinister location at Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival – (left to right) Maria Hudgins, Vivian Lawry, Teresa Inge, Heather Weidner

Our table location—just inside the door, first on the right—was a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that everyone entering passed our table first, all adhering to the U.S custom of keeping to the right. The curse was that we were backed by a bank of windows, and all my photos there are dark and sinister looking. Heather got better pictures.

But I did get seeable pictures of Mary Miley, Fiona Quinn, and Maggie King. Mary Miley, former president of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime, is the author of the Roaring Twenties mystery series. Two are published (The Impersonator, winner of the Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel award, and its sequel, Silent Murders.) Two more in the series are forthcoming.

Mary Miley
Mary Miley

Maggie King is author of Murder in the Book Group. Fiona Quinn is the author of the Lynx series: Weakest Lynx, Missing Lynx, Chain Lynx, and co-author with John Dolan of Chaos is Come Again.

Fiona Quinn and Maggie King
Fiona Quinn and Maggie King

Our panel presentation on getting published was scheduled for 5:00—the last hour of the festival—and I was a bit skeptical. But the room was packed! We talked about everything from traditional to DIY, short stories to novels, pen names to web presence. The attendees were engaged, asked lots of questions, no one left, and when the 6:00 end time arrived, the security guard had to clear the room because he was closing the building. What a high!

Advice for book signings: Be Prepared. Never go to a book signing with only one pen!

photo of pens on table at Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival
Never be without a pen

Read More About the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival




Love in the Time of Eastern Box Turtles

A while back I posted a photo of a male Eastern box turtle across from my house. Now I think he’s a local! This photo is from the park behind my house. What shall I name him?

Male Eastern box turtle
Male Eastern box turtle

But even more exciting is what happened in my back yard! A totally rare event: TWO box turtles! And then I saw them mating.

Female Eastern box turtle
Female Eastern box turtle
Eastern box turtles before mating
The pursuit
eastern box turtles mating
The capture: Eastern box turtles mating

He seems to be the constant, but with luck, she will leave eggs here.

When I did box turtle research in grad school, we fed them lettuce, blueberries, and hamburger. That fare is definitely not available in the park OR on the bank behind my house. But I hope he is–they are–happy!

Corpse flower, “Bunga Bangkai” and ideas

Titan-arum, corpse flower blooming,
Corpse flower, By Credits: US Botanic Garden. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One question that non-writers often ask is, “Where do you get your ideas for stories?”

My short answer is, “Everywhere.” The somewhat longer answer is newspapers (especially news of the weird), magazines, tidbits on TV, conversations (overheard and otherwise), photos, books, life events (mine and others’), obituaries—i.e., everywhere. I tend toward the dark and the odd.

The recent blooming of a corpse flower at the Denver Botanic Gardens reminds me of my story “Bunga Bangkai” in Different Drummer. All of the stories in that collection are weird, but this one is extremely exotic and esoteric. It started when I came across a news story about  a corpse flower blooming in the University of Connecticut greenhouses at about the same time that I somewhere heard or read the phrase “garden of heads.” The result was magical realism, with touches of animism and number symbolism—a story of the search for lost love and reconnection.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

I came to The Huntington Botanical Garden to assist at the blooming of the Amorphophallus titanium—the huge shapeless penis. The other botanists here call him Johnson, or sometimes Titan arum, but I prefer to call him Bunga Bangkai, his name in our native Sumatra. Bunga Bangkai is wondrous. In bloom, the spadix—the penis—is fleshy and red, cloaked by a frilly-edged, leafy spathe (or petal) the shape of an upturned fluted bell, pale green on the outside and burgundy velvet on the inside. He resembles his distant cousins the Calla lily, skunk cabbage, and jack-in-the-pulpit, except that the bloom of Bunga Bangkai is three feet across and six feet tall—nearly eight feet if his potato-like corm is included in the measure. This Bunga Bangkai’s corm–his tuber—looks like a water chestnut and is the size of a small curled-up child.

For this blooming, I have tended Bunga Bangkai since his bud tip first pierced the earth, nearly three weeks ago. He has grown six inches a day and his bloom-time is near. Two weeks ago, we carried him from the conservatory to the garden, to share this rare spectacle with the people. More than four thousand come each day. At home in Sumatra, he would bloom every year. But here, it will be at least three years before he blooms again. Since his immigration in 1935, fewer than a dozen bloomings have graced the United States.

Funny, but reading that story now, I realize that there are ever more corpse flowers blooming in the U.S. and abroad—which I find very gratifying!

View amazing photos of the corpse flower on Denver Botanic Gardens Facebook Page. Visit the Denver Botanic Gardens website and view the flower on the stinky cam.

Read more from Different Drummer or purchase for the Nook or Kindle.

Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival on August 22

I’m thrilled to participate in the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival this Saturday, August 22.

Kathleen Kelley stopped by The Hampton Roads Show earlier this week to talk about the festival. Click the play button below to view the interview and learn more.

Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival

Saturday, August 22
Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts
1 – 6 p.m.

The day-long festival includes mystery, suspense, romance and women’s fiction authors. There will be book signings, fan meet & greets, author readings, workshops, and moderated panel discussions. You can come and go as you please.

I’m excited to be on a panel with Heather Baker WeidnerTeresa Hewitt Inge, Maria Hudgins, and Jayne OrmerodI hope you’ll join us.

The festival hosts more than 20 talented authors.

FYI, The ticketed, one-hour VIP Meet & Greet has already sold out. Tickets were $15, which included a Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival Swag Bag, refreshments, and an hour with the authors.

Learn More About the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival



Author List 

Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival banner that reads,
Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival, August 22, 2015

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen

book cover of Talking from 9 to 5 by Deborah Tannen
Talking from 9 to 5 by Deborah Tannen

Deborah Tannen has published numerous books that might be of interest to writers. Three titles that come to mind are You Just Don’t Understand (male/female communication patterns); Talking from Nine to Five (communication in the workplace); You’re Wearing That? (mother/daughter habits of communication). They are classics by now, but still relevant.

Book cover of You're Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen
You’re Wearing That? by Deborah Tannen
Book cover of You Just Don't Understand! by Deborah Tannen
You Just Don’t Understand! by Deborah Tannen










Read more in my Psychology For Writers series

Psychology of Uncertainty 

The Principle of Least Interest

Why Writers Need Empathy

Why Women Have Sex: Character Motivation Matters

Rational and Irrational Behavior in Your Characters: Guest Post on Thrill Writers

More Books by Deborah Tannen

You Were Always Mom’s Favorite: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives 

I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adults 

The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words 

That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships 


Eastern Box Turtles

Eastern box turtle
Eastern box turtle

This has nothing to do with anything except that I really like Eastern Box Turtles and saw this one crossing my street. Fun fact: these turtles are such loners that mating is rare, so to compensate, the female can store viable sperm for at least four years and lay fertilized eggs at will. Such eggs probably aren’t coming to my yard because the bright red eyes (not clear in the photo, so take my word for it) mark this one as male.

Dictionary of American Regional English

Dictionary of American Regional English, Harvard University Press
Dictionary of American Regional English, Harvard University Press

Somewhere in my public life, I mentioned that I collect dictionaries. I have whole shelves of them, everything from slang to carnival jargon to common usage during the Civil War to books of insults and dirty words. I ordered all six volumes of the Dictionary of American Regional English—and then thanked my husband for his birthday present to me. (Let me hasten to add that I did not buy them new directly from Harvard University Press!)

But there you have it: I am among the legions of wives who, if they want something, must buy it for themselves, and who then graciously announce to their husbands that anything bought in the vicinity of the date (e.g., birthday, anniversary, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, etc.) is a gift for said occasion.

Aside from the true confession above, the point of this missive is that dictionaries are beautiful, wondrous companions. Even if you aren’t a collector yourself, do browse the dictionaries in your local library. Who knows what gems you might uncover? Besides telling you the acceptable spelling(s) and pronunciation(s) of a word, you learn what part(s) of speech it can be, and something of its historical roots and evolution. And as with so many other things, often one good word leads to another! I was once asked what one book I would want if I were stranded on a desert island and I said, “The complete Oxford English Dictionary, full-size print edition.”  Technically, this might not qualify as one book, as it runs to many volumes, but if many volumes were allowed, I might have to switch my answer to the complete Dictionary of American Regional English! It sounds that delicious. I can’t wait to find out!

And while I’m on the subject of books, here’s a tidbit for another post of some sort, sometime. Awhile back I talked a bit about a book titled Why Women Have Sex, Or at least, I started off talking about that, until the conversation drifted. Well, in fairness to the breadth of my followers, let me mention MANTHROPOLOGY: The Science of Why the Modern Male is Not the Man He Used to Be, by Peter McAllister, St. Martin’s Press. This book purports to span continents and centuries creating an in-depth look into the history and science of manliness. From speed and strength to beauty and sex appeal, it examines how man today compares to his masculine ancestors. Surely it would be an informative and entertaining read!

Ricki and the Flash starring Meryl Streep

Ricki and the Flash starring Meryl Streep movie poster.
Ricki and the Flash movie poster

I went to see Ricki and the Flash (starring Meryl Streep) and was blown away. She was absolutely believable as an aging rock-star wannabe, estranged from her children. She’s amazing, nailing every role from Julia to Sophie’s Choice to Kramer vs. Kramer, she has bucket-loads of awards, easily found on-line. She and Helen Mirren are idols. I first noticed Mirren when she played hard-boiled detective Jane Tennison on the Prime Suspect TV series. From there to Calendar Girls to The Queen, she—like Streep—never fails to astound me. I have a good imagination. Name a topic and I can spin the outline of a story—gory, romantic, murderous, funny. . . . But there is a huge difference between being able to imagine it, or even write it, and portraying it. These and other great actors have the ability to bring widely divergent characters to life—think Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Tootsie. Artists in all their forms are incredible.