The Richness of Place


Richness of Place: Advice for Writers

Names have long fascinated me. You may recall that I wrote an earlier blog on naming characters. But as a writer, you will be naming much more, for example, towns, streets, roads, rivers, mountains, events, buildings. When I last lived in Ohio, I lived in Portage County. The county was named for the portage between the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers. Cuyahoga is an English transliteration of its Mohawk name. The Tuscarawas River has had several names—Little Muskingum River, Mashongam River, Tuscarawa River, and Tuskarawas Creek, all derived from Native American terms. Ohio’s Native American roots are clearly visible, reflected in the names of counties (including Ashtabula, Coshocton, Geauga, Hocking, Huron, Logan, Ottawa, Sandusky, Scioto, Seneca, Wyandot) as well as rivers and cities of the same names. The state of Ohio takes its name from the Ohio River—which is from the Iroquois word meaning great river or large creek.

I now live near Three Chopt Road. In colonial times, it was called Three Notch’d Road, a major east-west route across central Virginia. Historical consensus is that it was originally an Indian trail, marked by three notches cut into trees.

Road sign, "Three Chopt Rd"

The trail extended hundreds of miles, from the fall line of the James River (now Richmond, VA) to the Shenandoah Valley, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains at Jarmans Gap. Today a large part of U.S.Route 250 in Virginia as well as much of Interstate 64 follow that historic trail. You can look up Jack Jouett’s Ride or the activities of Marquis de Lafayette for the role of Three Notch’d Road in the Revolutionary War.

Portrait of Marcia Pascal, daughter of Col. Pascal.
Portrait of Marcia Pascal
Vivian Lawry as a baby with her father, grandmother, and great-grandmother
Baby me with Dad, Granny, and Greatgranny

Perhaps the reason I tend to notice Native American connections is that I have Cherokee blood on my father’s side. But the richness of place can be shaped by any ethnic heritage. Think Amish, Pennsylvania Dutch, African or Chinese American, for example.

Advice for writers

Think of “place” in both the broadest and narrowest terms—as Garrison Keillor does for Lake Woebegon, i.e. whether your place is your character’s apartment or a country, go beyond geographic labels as found on maps to show that you really know the place.

More advice for writers

In your daily to-and-fro, pay attention to places and the elements that make them distinctive from and/or similar to other places. If you are writing about a real place, get into it a bit—the history, feel and tone of it, whatever helps identify it. You should know a lot about your place that never makes it into your work. If you’re making it up, you must know it just as well to make it feel richly real.

Sometimes a detail can tell a lot about your place. When I was writing Nettie’s Books, I collected vivid names for places, roads, and churches. Not all of them ended up in the book, but I still like the flavor of Old Footpath Road, Horsehead Lane, Folly Road, Whispering Forest, Church of God-the Prophecy, Tockwough, Buzzard’s Bottom, Integrity Drive, Broken Bit Lane, Wild Sally Road, Hell Neck Road, Church of the Risen Lord, Walkabout Mountain Lane, Slaughter Pen Hollow, Sunnyside Church of the Brethren, Fresh Fire Church of God, Message of Freedom Church, Turning Point Church, Willing Hill, Puddin Ridge Road, Paradise Found—to give a few examples.

I often walk in Deep Run Park, which was looking pretty good the last time I was there. Lo and behold, trails are still marked on trees and roots, although now with paint rather than notches.

If I ever write a body into Deep Run Park, I’ll have the details to make it real!

Takeaway for writers

Don’t put your poetry or prose on a diet; go for richness in every morsel.

True, and Partly Factual

As you probably know by now, I collect books the way a magnet collects iron filings. Whatever you want to do with your writing life—or with your life in general—there’s a book for that! And probably a class as well. Do an online search for writing classes in your area and see what comes up! Some have a modest fee—or an immodest one! Check local libraries and retirement communities, which in the Richmond area often offer such instruction free.

Just now, writing memoir is popular, especially among older people. One of the points stressed in the recent James River Writers Conference panel on Compelling Characters was that even villains are heroes in their own stories. People want their hero stories known. So there are lots of classes on memoir writing, and books as well. These include Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away; Sue William Silverman’s Fearless Confessions; Lisa Dale Norton’s Shimmering Images; Frank P. Thomas’s How to Write the Story of Your Life; and Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir.

Favorite memoir guides

Every writer’s heard the advice, “Write what you know.” And what do you know better than your own life, right? But memoir is supposed to be as thorough, true, and factual as the writer can make it. So memoir isn’t for everyone. And so far at least, it’s not for me. Of the dozens of short stories I’ve had published, none is memoir.

On the other hand, most of them are memoir-based fiction. Such fiction still tells a true story, but is based only partly on “what really happened.” There are fewer helpful books in this area—on my shelves, at least—but two recent favorites are by Meg Files and Robin Hemley.

memoir favorites
Write From Life by Meg Files and Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley

I’m working on a collection now titled Almost Family. As you might gather from that title, I include other people’s lives in my writing, too. One of my earliest publications was “The Pig Sticker.” The factual part of that story is my father and uncle butchering hogs. The true but fictional parts are everything else. In actuality, I was the toddler throwing my rag doll into the horse watering trough. In story as written, I was older, helping my mother and aunt with butchering-day chores and overhearing conversation that never happened. You can read that story here on my website. In Different Drummer, several of the stories are memoir-based, including “After The Fair,” which draws on three different women’s lives for the factual parts.

Different Drummer is memoir-based fiction
Different Drummer

Takeaway for writers

It’s perfectly legitimate to use bits of your real life or the lives of those you know in your writing. This is true whether you are writing memoir, essay, fiction, or poetry. As Susann Cokal told the audience at a past JRWC, “People will always look for you in your writing. If you write a mad, passionate sex scene that takes place on top of a desk, people visiting your office or study will look askance at your desk—and may even ask whether that’s the one.” To spare me—and my family—I like being able to say, “But it’s fiction!”

In the Aftermath of the James River Writers Conference

Saturday and Sunday were two great, packed, informative days! By the end of the Library of Virginia’s Annual Literary Luncheon, I was too caught up in events to write much, but that dam is about to break.

I’ve attended JRW Conferences since the earliest days, back when they were held at the Library of Virginia. I really liked that venue, the ambience, the close, personal feel of it. But the annual meeting outgrew the Library’s space. This year we met at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. It feels much more sterile, but there is plenty of room for meetings, plenary sessions, book signings and sales, plus convenient parking. Plenty of room for growth!

Greater Richmond Convention Center, site of the James River Writers Conference

Let me say up front that the absolutely worst thing about JRWC is that I couldn’t attend every session. For example, on Saturday the concurrent sessions offered from 3:30-4:30 were How to Locate, Lure, and Land the Right Agent; To MFA or Not to MFA (virtues and vices of the academic route); Writing Diversity into Your Fiction (representing the larger world in your fiction, how and why); and 50 Shades of Red (on various aspects of writing erotica). What writer wouldn’t want to know all of that? (Well, maybe the kids/YA writers could skip the erotica.)

On the other hand, last week I mentioned that JRW classifies sessions by track. This year’s tracks were Diversity in Writing, Writing for Kids/YA, Poetry, The Pillars of Story, and Writing as Career 2.0. I tended toward The Pillars of Story, but not exclusively. Freedom to jump the tracks is one of the delights of the conference.

Hoping to find an agent for Nettie’s Books soon, I attended the session on getting the right agent (David Henry Sterry, Arielle Eckstut, Heather Flaherty, and Helen Heller, Bill Blume moderating). Although there was a lot of diversity on many things, (e.g., appropriate level of formality/informality) two areas of unanimity stand out: (1) research agents you intend to query; and (2) follow their online submission guidelines to the letter! The diversity of personalities on the panel was evidence that you (the writer) really should try to get a handle on your prospective agent as a person. Places to look are Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and any books the agent might have written. It also helps to hear them speak at a conference such as JRW, or meet them in a one-on-one session.

I’m currently working on a new novel, and the first 30 pages or so are pretty ho-hum. The presentation on conflict and tension was excellent (Raising the Stakes with Leah Ferguson, Valley Haggard, and Amy Sue Nathan, moderated by Jon Sealy). They reminded me of multiple aspects of tension and conflict: stakes can be personal or universal; conflict can be internal or external; a blocked goal = conflict; focus on physical or emotional danger; in every case, imagine the worst possible thing that could realistically happen in this situation and write it—you can always dial it back later for nuance. One thing I found especially helpful was Valley Haggard’s comment that readers connect with shame, pain, vulnerability, failure, and flaws. I wish I had a picture!

A Fine Romance (Leah Ferguson, Mary Chris Escobar, Amy Sue Nathan, moderated by M.M.Finck) brought genre into focus—women’s fiction vs. romance, into particular—and endings (happily ever after, happily for now, together but bittersweet because one or both had to sacrifice for it). Beyond that, what struck me is that their advice for writing a good romance or book of women’s fiction sounded just like the advice for good writing in general! Which reminds me: at the Festival of the Written Word, I’m on a panel with a title something like When Romance Meets Mystery. We shall see. Again, I wish I had a photo, but I was too far back in the hall.

But I did get a picture of the panel for Writing Memorable Characters: Stacy Hawkins Adams, Bruce Holsinger, Amy Sue Nathan, Kristina Wright, moderated by Josh Cane.

James River Writers Conference panel with Josh Cane, Amy Sue Nathan, Stacy Hawkins Adams, Kristina Wright, Bruce Holsinger
L-R: Josh Cane, Amy Sue Nathan, Stacy Hawkins Adams, Kristina Wright, Bruce Holsinger

The variety of writing represented—inspirational women’s fiction and non-fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction and romance, erotica—underscored the over-all rule that every type of writing (including memoir) needs memorable characters, and characters the reader cares about. The heroes and heroines need flaws. The bad characters need a good side. And one effective way of establishing both is to give readers the backstory.

The last plenary session was the Pitchapalooza (David Henry Sterry, Arielle Eckstut, and Rebecca Podos) during which the names of volunteers were drawn from a plastic pumpkin and each had 1 minute—precisely one minute!—to pitch his/her book. Great fun, and very informative as the panel commented on the stronger and weaker aspects of each pitch.

James River Writers Conference Pitchapalooza panel
L-R: Rebecca Podos, Arielle Eckstut, David Henry Sterry

The closing was brief, but celebrated the winners of the Best Unpublished Novel Contest, the Emyl Jenkins Award, and Pitchapalooza. Although not a winner, I was recognized as a finalist in the Best Unpublished Novel Contest. Very gratifying. But egocentric being that I am, I wish the awards (except Pitchapalooza, of course) had been announced a the beginning of the conference. Maybe people I didn’t know before would have congratulated me!

Alas, the conference wasn’t all about me. It was mostly about the books—and there were many to be had, and signed. Fountain Bookstore sold the books of all the presenters.

Fountain Bookstore selling speakers' books at James River Writers Conference
Fountain Bookstore selling speakers’ books at James River Writers Conference

I usually come away from the JRWC feeling that I got more than I paid for. Unfortunately, this year, that included a raging cold, including coughing and congestion, that laid me low as of Monday morning. I assume it was all the back-slapping, handshaking, and hugging.

The "Lucy Booth" at the James River Writers Conference
The “Lucy Booth” at the James River Writers Conference where writers could meet with a professional psychologist

On the other hand, a nasty cold was a great reason to put my feet up, review my notes, and enjoy the contents of my conference bag. I checked the writing classes offered by VMFA Studio School and the Visual Arts Center; considered invitations to submit to the next Poetry Virginia Annual contest and join the Virginia Writers Club; and I could browse the free issues of Richmond Magazine and Broad Street. Already looking forward to next year! Though I did suggest to Katharine Herndon (JRW Executive Director) that next year they try to get a bright colored conference bag!

James River Writers Conference tote bag
James River Writers Conference tote bag with Different Drummer postcard


Festival of the Written Word, November 7th

Writers Conference poster: Festival of the Written Word, November 07, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Midlothian Library
Festival of the Written Word, November 7, 2015

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ll be at The Festival of the Written Word on November 7th, where I’ll speak on a panel with a title something like “When Romance Meets Mystery.”

The Festival of the Written Word is a celebration of the power and beauty of writing. Embrace your creativity and immerse yourself in literacy, ideas and imagination. The festival will include live readings, writing tips, panel discussions with local authors and food vendors. It’s an activity that the whole family can enjoy.

Authors scheduled to speak at this year’s event:

  • Dean King
  • Cathy Maxwell
  • Howard Owen
  • Heather Weidner
  • Vivian Lawry
  • Fiona Quinn
  • Lana Krumwiede
  • Brian Rock
  • Nancy Wright Beasley
  • Greg Smith
  • Kitty Snow
  • Susan Hankla
  • Guy Terrell
  • Raymond Lescault
  • Jean Anderson
  • Brant Huddleston
  • Bill Blume
  • Sally Kirk
  • Wynn Mercere
  • Sadeqa Johnson
  • Stacy Hawkins Adams

I hope to see you there!

Don’t forget Chesterfield County Public Library’s Murder at the Library on October 30th.

Chesterfield County Public Library Murder at the Library fundraiser October 30
Murder at the Library hosted by Chesterfield County Public Library and Sisters in Crime

Writers Need Toxic Relationships

Janet Burroway once said, “In literature, only trouble is interesting.” Trouble is the source of tension, conflict, struggle, etc. And what better source of trouble than characters caught in toxic relationships.

toxic-relationships-mother-and-daughterThe Psychology Today website published a blog by Peg Streep titled, “8 Types of Toxic Patterns in Mother-Daughter Relationships.” (Yes, I know that scholars consider Psych Today to be pretty light-weight. I’m a card-carrying psychologist myself. But I like Psych Today. It isn’t intended to be a scholarly journal. It is a magazine for the public, and often prints what’s trending. And if a writer creates great fiction on a faulty premise, who cares?) But back to the main point. Streep labeled eight types of unattuned and unloving mothers:

  • Dismissive
  • Controlling
  • Unavailable
  • Enmeshed
  • Combative
  • Unreliable
  • Self-involved
  • Role-reversal

The labels are pretty indicative of the toxicity described. Read the actual blog. The good news for writers is that these toxic relationships needn’t be limited to toxic mothers and vulnerable daughters. (You may recognize here an echo of what I said about Deborah Tannen’s analysis of mother-daughter communication patterns: what one says isn’t necessarily what the other hears could apply to virtually any long-germ relationship.) In this instance, consider toxic relationships between husbands and wives. Consider boss and subordinate. Consider role reversal in that it’s the daughter who is toxic.

Three cheers for toxic (literary) relationships!

Related Posts

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 on Characters

Quirking Your Characters

Writers on Writing

What’s in a Character Name?

Books for Writers: Deborah Tannen

Writers Conferences

I’m currently at the James River Writers Conference. Here’s more about the conference.

Is This Writers Conference for Me?

The Road to the James River Writers Prize

Writers Need Toxic Relationships

Is This Writers Conference for Me?

The answer depends on what you are looking for, of course. In my experience, there are essentially two types of writers conferences: those that focus on fans and writers meeting-and-greeting, and those that focus on the craft of writing.

Virginia Festival of the Book is an annual conference for fans that lasts a week, cuts across genres, and most events are free! Bouchercon and Malice Domestic are two examples of fan conferences for mystery writers and fans. (Romance, fantasy, Sci-Fi, horror—all genre writers—have similarly dedicated conferences.) Bouchercon rotates worldwide (New Orleans in 2016), but Malice Domestic is always in the greater DC area. They spotlight big-name writers who address plenary sessions, receive honors, are interviewed, and sign books. Selfie opportunities vary. Lesser-known writers present panels and sign books. Everyone on the program has a book-signing slot. Lots of books get signed. There’s an area for exhibitors, everything from Sherlock Holmes deer-stalker hats to clothes and jewelry. At a conference such as this, I rode in the elevator with Sue Grafton, met Nevada Barr, and honored Dick Francis. They can be quite fun.

The annual James River Writers Conference (always in Richmond, Virginia) is of the improve-your-craft sort. Although awards are given and books are signed, the focus is on helping and supporting writers at all levels. All genres are welcome. JRW develops tracks so that attendees can easily identify related presentations over the two-day conference (e.g., Diversity in Writing, Poetry, Writing as a Career). Presentations are informative. Besides connecting with (relatively) local writers, there are options for meeting with agents, and learning to make more powerful first impressions.

For example, in the Richmond area, RavenCon (mostly fantasy an sci-fi) meets in the spring, and the Suffolk Mystery Writers Festival is in August. Still to come is Midlothian Festival of the Written Word, which crosses genres, is free for attendees, and will last for several hours on Nov. 7. (I’ll be there, by the way, on a panel with a title something like “When Romance Meets Mystery.”) These events are pretty casual. Attendance is much smaller, so it’s easier to get up-close-and-personal with the writers in attendance. Surely there are similar opportunities in other regions. Check local libraries. And as always, search online.

Whether you are a writer, a reader, or both, there’s a conference out there for you!

Writers Conference poster: Festival of the Written Word, November 07, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Midlothian Library

Updated October 20, 2015.

Two Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing


"Stop procrastinating. Start writing." Writers and procrastination.We all know about procrastination: doing less urgent/important things instead of more important/urgent ones—or doing more enjoyable tasks when less appealing tasks are more needful; deliberately looking for distraction from the task at hand. Virtually everyone procrastinates sometimes, and 20% of people are chronic procrastinators. Some people boast that they “work to deadlines,” often hustling or cramming at the last minute. Another catch-phrase is, “I work better under pressure.” Really?

Some types of procrastination are common for writers: organizing the workspace and writing implements so thoroughly that the writing time’s compressed or obliterated; editing for the umpteenth time, so long that the piece is never really finished; immersing themselves in one more bit of research, perhaps going off on a tangent into something interesting, possibly useful for some other work in the future; even reading broadly for pleasure and muttering excuses that all reading is good for a writer. Let me be clear: organization, preparation, editing, research, and reading are not evil in and of themselves, only when they block actual forward movement in the manuscript.

Writers are people. And people suffer from procrastination. Late payment fees, lower grades, anger or disappointment from friends and family are immediate outcomes of some kinds of procrastination. But who cares if a writer puts off writing? If writing puts food on the table, it threatens livelihood. But whether that’s the case or no, not meeting one’s goals/commitments leads to guilt, depression, and low self-esteem.

According to one accessible source, Psychology Today, “procrastination reflects an on-gong struggle with self-control as well as an inability to know how we’ll feel tomorrow or the next day.” They have articles on everything from the history of procrastination to its relationship to morality, from ways to overcome procrastination to boredom at work. Some claim that procrastination is a defense mechanism against fear of failure: if the last-minute product isn’t perfect, the creator can take comfort in the knowledge that working on it more, it would have been better, could have been great. Then there is the positive side of procrastination: it reveals what one’s real motives and value are.

Takeaway one

Acknowledge whether/when/why you procrastinate in your writing life. Consider what that tells you about the importance of writing—for you.

Takeaway two

If writing is truly important, sweep aside the hurdles. Take baby steps—a page or two a day, no editing till there’s one complete draft. Don’t doubt yourself. Just do it. And if you need help with that, read all the on-line tips on overcoming procrastination. And if that doesn’t work, and you truly care, seek therapy. Help is out there.


The Great Escape on Buried Under Books

I’m delighted to have a guest post on Buried Under Books. Many thanks to Lelia Taylor for welcoming me to her fantastic blog.

The Great Escape

Excerpted from Buried Under Books

When I was a young child, the only books in our house were several Bibles and a two-volume pictorial history of World War II. My father, who had an eighth grade education, subscribed to Field and Stream. My mother (tenth grade education) subscribed to Modern Romance and True Confessions. Besides the Dick-and-Jane readers, the first books I remember clearly are The Littlest Mermaid (not the Disney version) and my fourth grade geography book. The former showed me beauty, magic, and sorrow. The latter showed me wonders of the world beyond my small Ohio town. I can still see the pictures of African tribes—pigmies; women with elongated necks, their heads resting on a column of rings; men with artistic scarring.

Neither my school nor my town was big enough to boast a library. Instead, we had a bookmobile that came every two weeks. I had special dispensation from my teachers to take out more than two books at a time. I walked home with all the books I could carry between my cupped hands and chinCherry Ames Student Nurse book cover. On the shelves of that bookmobile I discovered my first serialized love: the Cherry Ames nurse books, 27 of them written between 1943 and 1968 (by Helen Wells (18) and Julia Campbell Tatham (9)). Every book involved a medical mystery. My second serial love was the Ruth Fielding series, 30 volumes produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, between 1913 and1934. Ruth Fielding volumes and several books of fairy tales filled a small bookshelf at the foot of my Aunt Mary’s bed. Mary was (and is) five years older than I. When I stayed with my grandparents in the summer, I devoured Aunt Mary’s books. Ruth Fielding also solved mysteries. And the fairy tales? Only a step from The Littlest Mermaid.

Continue reading on Buried Under Books

Different Drummer by Vivian Lawry cover

Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume II Preorders Available Now

Virginia is for Mysteries Volume II available for preorders
Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume II Preorders Available Now
I’m excited to share that Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume II is available for preorder. The collection includes my story “War and Murder at Nimrod Hall” and stories by a talented group of authors


This is a sequel to “Death Comes to Hollywood Cemetery,” which appears in Virginia Is For Mysteries. It follows Clara as she escapes war-torn Richmond in 1862 only to encounter wounded soldiers and spies in Bath County.


Preorders are the way that the big stores judge how many to order. It’s an opportunity to support local authors and reserve your copy. Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume II releases on February 1, 2016.


Preorder here

Murder at the Library

Chesterfield County Public Library Murder at the Library fundraiser October 30
Murder at the Library hosted by Chesterfield County Public Library and Sisters in Crime

Murder at the Library

Friday, October 30, 7-10 p.m. 

Clover Hill Library

It is your chance to be the detective in the latest mystery! 

Examine the crime scene, follow the clues and solve the mystery! You’re the detective in this interactive mystery night, with a script written by Sisters in Crime.

Mystery writers from the Sisters in Crime will take you behind-the-scenes with an author talk, book sale and signing.

Check out what is in the silent auction. Tickets and silent auction will benefit the Friends of the Chesterfield County Public Library.

Tickets are $25 ($40 per couple) and include two drinks and heavy hors-d’oeuvres. You can purchase tickets here.