Posts Tagged ‘writer’

Cottonwood Jail

The whole of Cottonwood (they number 12) are watching as I turn off the highway onto the gravel. Along the dusty path, buildings are scarce: a handful of houses, empty school, vacant grain elevator. A church slumps at the edge of town, peeled and pained by the prairie winds. Crows and turkey buzzards perch on its pinnacle, the steeple aslant.

I turn at Main Street and though it would be quicker to cut the corner and cross the barren lots, respect keeps me on the abandoned road, strewn with tumbleweeds and washouts. My four-wheel-drive skirts the ruts and comes to rest at the Cottonwood Jail.

The barbed wire fence holds me at bay but I walk the ditch as close as I can get, skirting the boundaries of trespass. The sun blazes overhead, puff clouds dotting the blue straight up for miles. The wind ruffles the yellow prairie grass and raises a howl from the darkened shack. The spectre of a former occupant, the last unfortunate led from his cell, across the dust to the square, up the steps, over the boards, under the dangling rope? Retribution awaits, its shadow hovering over the pine planks.

My camera quick draws from wrist strap to hand and I shoot into the sun, striking shadows with floating faces. I shiver in the heat, and retreat to my car, glancing both ways across the wide open field, feeling the weight of the watching. I make for the highway without looking back.

On the steps of the church, in the shade of the steeple, a pair of wizened cowboys watch me depart. Spitting the last of his chew into the dirt, the younger says to the other, “Puttin’ the jail sign on that old chicken coop was the best idea you ever had.”

“Ayuh,” says the elder, squinting across the prairie beneath the shade of his gnarled hand. “Those tourists eat that shit up.”

The truth of man’s existence revealed…on a Soo Line railroad car:

Who knew philosophers carried spray paint and hung around railyards?

I did. Because I looked. What’s the best rolling poetry you’ve ever seen?


I began writing a new short story this week and it’s going fairly well. The storyboard looks solid, the premise is plausible, the twists (there are two) are just tricky enough to catch readers off-guard. The stage has been set, and all of the supporting characters know their jobs. There’s just one snag: my main character doesn’t have a name.

It’s not as if I’ve been avoiding her or calling her “Hey you”. She appears in the manuscript as “MC” (Main Character) and every time I see those initials, “Can’t Touch This” pops into my head. No, not really a big MC Hammer fan. Hated the pants. We are now far enough along in the project that she needs a name. She pointed that out to me during a writing session earlier this morning.

“I deserve a name,” she said. “A good one. What have you come up with?”

Knowing this time would come, I had drawn up a short list of possibilities but couldn’t make up my mind which one to use. “Just tell me what they are and I’ll pick one,” she offered.

I grabbed the Astro Pink index card and began firing them off. “Dara.”








I glared at her from across the desk. “That was my grandma’s name.”

“Sorry. What else you got?”


“Now that one I….yeah, no.”



“Just seeing if you were paying attention. How about Erika?”

The sudden silence was surprising and I looked up to see if she was still there. Lips pursed, head cocked, she considered. Then she smiled. “No likey.”

“Gah! That’s the last one. I got nothing.” The index card sailed onto the desk.

“I have one picked out. Want to hear it?” She said.

I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Sure.”


My eyes popped open. Natalie. Huh. I opened the manuscript and replaced every “MC” on the first page with “Natalie”, then read it back quickly. The flow was there. Problem solved.

“Natalie it is.” I sighed with relief, tinged with frustration. “If you had a name already, why didn’t you just tell me?”

“’Stubborn and difficult’. Page one, paragraph four. Remember?”


Need help matching monikers with your characters? Author Elizabeth Sims offered some helpful tips in her article “Namedropping” in the January 2012 issue of Writers Digest. While I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already, here’s the short and sweet when it comes to naming:

  • Check the root meaning.
  • Get your era right.
  • Say them out loud.
  • If you have a big cast of characters, vary the initials and number of syllables for their names.
  • Use alliterative initials.

Memorable names can pop up anywhere. I found a great one this week in a local obituary. The man’s name? Just Andersen. Consider the possibilities. What tricks or tips do you use to name your peeps?

Just over a year ago, I was fortunate to hear an amazing woman named Eva Mozes Kor recount her experience as a Holocaust survivor. Recently, a young relative of one of my best friends had the opportunity to hear her speak as well and from all accounts, the power of her message has not diminished in the last 12 months. In recognition of today being Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’d like to reintroduce you to this incredible person.

WARNING: Some of the links in this week’s post contain graphic images.

The room was packed, the crowd much larger than expected. People filled the seats, stood along the walls, knelt in the aisles, and crammed into the small balcony and entry way. At the speaker’s request, chairs were brought onstage so everyone who needed a seat (and there were several older attendees who did) could have one.

The speaker walked out wearing a smart blue suit and a brightly colored scarf, carrying a handbag the size of a suitcase. She stopped center stage and stowed it between a leather armchair and a small table holding a vase of yellow tulips. Then she said in heavily accented English, “I would like the lights turned up, please. I want to see everyone who came to see me.” The moderator, surprised, complied. The old woman smiled, sat down and began to talk. She is Eva Mozes Kor, a 78-year-old Romanian-born Jew and a Holocaust survivor. She was 11 when Auschwitz was liberated and she didn’t speak about what happened to her there until 1985. Eva has told her story hundreds of times since then and this week, I was wedged into a space along the crowded back wall of Meier Recital Hall on the campus of Black Hills State University to hear it.

When my husband asked why I was driving 3-1/2 hours to hear Eva Kor speak, I said simply, “Research.” For the last several months, I’ve been working over an idea for a WWII novel about a half-Jewish American broadcaster who ends up in a concentration camp and is forced to do propaganda for the Nazis. This was an opportunity to meet someone who had survived the horror of Auschwitz. But I also had another more selfish reason for going: I’ve been in a writing slump as of late, and I needed to hear a story that would slap me across the face and say, “LISTEN.” I got one.

You won’t find Eva’s whole story here; it’s hers to tell and it’s compelling when she tells it, as you’ll see when you check out the links. She’s sharp and funny, a spitfire at 78, grown from the firecracker she was as a child. Not even Auschwitz could extinguish that spark.

Eva was 10 when she and her parents Alexander and Jaffa, and her three sisters Edit, Aliz and her twin Miriam stepped off the cattle car at Auschwitz. They quickly became separated: Alexander, Edit and Aliz herded one direction, Jaffa, Miriam and Eva another. A Nazi came down the selection platform looking for twins and noticed Eva and Miriam were dressed identically. He asked Jaffa if they were twins. “Is that good?” she asked. He nodded. “They are twins,” she said. The girls were grabbed from Jaffa and led away. The last sight they had of any of their family was their mother screaming and reaching out for them. And Eva and Miriam Mozes became Mengele Twins.

Liberation of Auschwitz

Eva and Miriam Mozes are the two children on the right in this photo taken when Auschwitz was liberated. (from

During the course of World War II, Dr. Josef Mengele conducted atrocious experiments on approximately 1,500 sets of twins between the ages of 2 and 16. The experiments were a daily occurrence; Eva recounted spending 6-8 hours a day naked, being measured, probed and injected. For others, the experiences were even worse. The experiments finally came to an end shortly before Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets in 1945.

What happened to Eva, Miriam and the other Mengele twins is unthinkable. But what Eva did in 1985 in response to it is even more astounding. She publicly forgave Dr. Mengele and the Nazis for what they did to her and her family. Her controversial act (which drew criticism from Holocaust groups and other survivors) is chronicled in the documentary “Forgiving Dr. Mengele”.

The standing ovation at the end of Eva’s presentation was well-deserved. Her message of forgiveness, whether you agree with it or not, was profound. This should be the part of the post where I say that her speech was an epiphany for me, one that shattered my writer’s block and led me to produce page after page of the best prose I’ve ever written. Didn’t happen. I didn’t go there expecting an epiphany; I expected information which is what I got – specific details about how the gas chambers worked, what the prisoners were fed, what it was like on that winter morning when the Soviets in their white camouflage uniforms stepped out of the snow and gave the starving children chocolate. But I left there with something else I hadn’t expected – a sense of perspective about the power we have over our own survival and that to move past the obstacles in our lives, even those as small as the occasional bout of writer’s block, takes forgiveness, and sometimes that means forgiving ourselves.

To find out more about Eva Mozes Kor, visit: CANDLES Holocaust Museum,  “Surviving the Angel of Death: The True Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz”

Who is an enlightening speaker you’ve heard and what did you take away from the experience?

Margaret Norton has her flaws, and she knows it. But instead of letting them consume her, she confronted them in a years-long battle to find peace within herself. Margaret’s struggle and her salvation are chronicled in her memoir “When Ties Break: Thriving After Loss”.

The Specifics

Title: When Ties Break: A Memoir About Thriving After Loss

Author: Margaret Norton

Paperbook: 260 pages, available now in e-book

Publisher: Tate Publishing (August 3, 2010)



Following her father’s death, Margaret Norton suddenly finds herself cast out of her family, chastised by an older brother for her selfish ways and questionable decisions. Set adrift with only her faith to cling to, she weathers multiple divorces, drug abuse, financial ruin, the deaths of family and close friends, a nomadic lifestyle, and conflicting personal relationships. Instead of succumbing to these trials and tragedies, Margaret eventually learns to rise above them by following the simplest of principles: trust in God then trust yourself.

Here‘s what I think…

Despite being raised in a strong Catholic family and attending eight years of parochial school, I am not a religious person. While I enjoy reading memoirs, a book with such an obvious spiritual bent would not have been the first thing I grabbed off the shelf. But Margaret’s story is well worth reading, regardless of your degree of faith, because it holds some valuable lessons for anyone who struggles. The challenges Margaret faced confront ordinary people everywhere, every day, and readers will identify with her frustration and pain, and rejoice in her triumph over them. Margaret makes many admissions in her memoir but few apologies and that’s the lesson people should relate to most about her story – that you don’t need to apologize to others for what they think of you but you do need to accept who you are and be comfortable with yourself.

Chatting with Margaret

Margaret was gracious enough to take some time to visit with me about her life and her book. Here’s the lowdown:

You began writing your story at the suggestion of your therapist. If they hadn’t suggested it, would you have arrived at that decision on your own to write your memoir?  That’s a hard one. Probably not. When I was younger I used to journal and write but somewhere along the way, I stopped doing that. I’ve had a lot of therapy through the years and a lot of times they’d suggest things like “write a letter to someone but don’t mail it”. Writing a book about your life is more than mailing it; it’s like putting it on page one of the newspaper. Something I probably would have never done, since I tend to be a little shy, without someone encouraging me.

Your story is so emotional that it would have been easy to become self-pitying in your writing yet you didn’t. How did you avoid that? I’ve had my struggles with self pity and sometimes I still feel sorry for myself. But belief in God and positive thinking got me where I am today. No matter how bad my life was I always seemed to meet people who had it worse. As I’d listen to their stories, I’d think I’m sure glad I don’t have their problems. I came to really believe that everything happened in my life as it should – that God had a plan for me – and I learned to be thankful and content even when life wasn’t going my way. It wasn’t easy. It took many years, lots of stops and starts, and much support from my friends. Self-pity is surrounded by regret and anger – two emotions that I tried to rid my life of.

“When Ties Break” has such a strong message about trusting in your faith to carry you through life’s trials. Why should readers who don’t have that close of a relationship with God read your book? That’s an interesting question that I’ve given much thought to. I think my book and my life was not only a struggle to understand God but a journey to find myself. I suspect everyone goes through similar experiences. It’s full of real, very challenging situations – things that everyone experiences – whether they believe in God or not. I think I would have survived without God, though that might sound un-Christian. There are principles, like forgiveness, that I talk about in my book that everyone could benefit from, regardless of their religious beliefs.

What advice would you offer writers who may want to share their own difficult stories but are afraid to do so? One blog that I recently wrote was titled “Writing Memoir is not for Sissies”. Writing about painful life experiences can be very healing but it’s not easy. There are all kinds of things to take into consideration. Why are you doing it? To help others or get back at someone? Should you change the names? Should you wait until certain people die? How will you handle it when people get angry with you and don’t support your writing? So many people still believe, even with reality TV that we have today, that you should not talk about your problems openly. I believe that only by talking about them openly can you begin to solve them. There are a lot of good books on writing your story. I strongly recommend following the advice of experts.

Any new projects we should look forward to from the pen of Margaret Norton? My book was the first thing that I wrote – not the way that most people start out writing. Now I’m going back to the beginning and doing short stories and articles. I’m hoping to retire in a few years and would like to do more writing then. Maybe a book of female survival stories, ones that readers have shared with me. Or maybe I’ll turn my story into fiction. That way I could control the ending. I do feel that I have much to share; I’m just not sure how writing fits in with my life at the moment. For the past seven months, I’ve been writing on my blog –  HealthyNFit Granny – and for now this seems to be a good fit for me.

Big thanks to Margaret for her comments and allowing me to read and review her book, and thanks as well to Margo Dill for bringing Margaret’s blog tour to “Hot Off The Wire”. And now, here’s the part where…

You could be a winner!

Margaret is celebrating her 60th birthday by giving away three grand prizes: a 30-minute FREE life coaching session (by phone, for U.S. residents only), her memoir in paperback (for U.S. residents only), and her memoir in e-book format (for anyone!). To enter Margaret’s Celebrate 60 blog tour contest, just leave a comment on this post.

Each blogger participating in the tour will randomly select one winner from all the comments and enter that name into the grand prize drawing. Margaret will contact the three grand prize winners for their choice of prize the week of February 27, 2012 and announce the winners on her blog on March 2, 2012.

And if you’re on Twitter, you have even MORE chances to enter. Please tweet about the contest or why you love being the age you are; be sure to use the hash tag #Celebrate60. Anyone tweeting with that hash tag will get an extra entry into the contest. For more information, contact Margaret’s publicist, Margo, at

Here’s the part where you comment…thanks for stopping by the Wire!

The first dead body I saw not in a hospital or a casket was lying in an alley. There were two of them. They were a couple, and that’s why they were dead because the woman’s ex-husband wasn’t happy about it.

My first homicide as a reporter was the first murder in 10 years in the town where I live. It happened on a weeknight, two blocks from City Hall where I was covering a meeting. The radio station sent someone to get me. These were the days before cell phones and text messages when news tips came from police scanners and the lips of people you trusted. I grabbed my notebook and tape recorder and ran the few blocks to the crime scene, heart pounding not from the exertion but from the adrenalin of a big story and the fear of screwing it up in the telling.

I’d covered crime before in a city bigger than this one. One of my first news stories there was about a carload of people who’d been shot in the parking lot of a strip club. No one died in that incident and I didn’t see the carnage firsthand although the news director I worked for did. I just covered the police briefings and trial. But the hometown murder in the alley that night was mine to report.

The crime scene was easy enough to find. I just followed the flashing lights and the uniforms. Onlookers were kept at bay which was no easy task since a lot of them were drunk. The murder had taken place behind a popular bar and everyone there had witnessed the confrontation that led to the final act. I skirted the crowd and went down the alley. I didn’t ask anybody where I could go; I was with the press so I just went. I came around a police cruiser and saw the dead man’s legs first. I kept moving until I could see the rest of him. And her. They’d been shot.

Dead people look normal in caskets. Not “alive” (no mortician is that good) but they don’t look out of place. Bodies in alleys do. It doesn’t matter if they’re laid out sleeping or flung across the asphalt bleeding, they don’t belong there. I saw the crime scene for about 30 seconds before an officer barked, “Get back! What are you doing?”

“Press,” my 22-year-old voice squeaked. I was hustled back behind the line.

A press briefing was hastily thrown together back at City Hall. It was crowded and crazy. Muffled sobbing. Squawk of police radios. Chatter of the press corps. The police chief’s statement was short and to the point: two victims shot and killed, one suspect in custody, no names released until the families could be notified. Questions were shouted but few were answered. It was too early to know much of anything.

I rushed back to the station, typed up a quick story with a sound bite from the chief, and broke in to regular programming with a “This just in…” news announcement. The story broke fast – confessions, charges, funerals, trial, sentencing. I followed it the whole way and for the first time since becoming a radio news director, I felt like a real reporter with an important story to tell. A few months later, when the next murder came along (this one a stabbing at a local motel), I was ready.

I eventually left the radio station for a state bureau chief job with United Press International and I would have happily worked there until the reporter’s notebook was plucked from my cold dead fingers but a corporate bankruptcy followed by massive lay-offs put an end to that. Other reporting opportunities in other places slipped from my grasp because my home situation didn’t allow for a move. One of the toughest professional decisions I ever made was to stay where I am for the good of my family. Some days I still regret it.

The people we want to be don’t always end up being the people we become. The roads we travel, either professionally or personally, have exit ramps and intersections and sometimes even a good GPS can’t save you from getting lost. My road led me to start writing fiction and not surprisingly, a good chunk of it is more dark alley than sunny meadow. The reporter’s instincts may be rusty but they’re still getting used and I’m grateful for that.

What unexpected place did YOUR road take YOU and how has it shaped the person you are now?

And if you’re interested in hearing the story of one woman’s journey from the dark into the light, HOT OFF THE WIRE is pleased to be hosting author Margaret Norton Mon., Feb. 20, 2012 for her blog tour to promote the re-release of her book “When Ties Break” as an e-book. Swing by for my review and some Q&A with Margaret herself. I might even break out the dessert plates and serve some refreshments. Feel free to bring a friend.

11:58 p.m., December 20, 2012

I was willing to chalk it up to too many fermented berries and home-grown hallucinogens but it turns out those crazy Mayans knew what they were talking about. The world is coming to an end in two minutes and I’m ready.

Like the majority of mankind, I’ve been following the coverage of civilization’s impending demise through the major news channels, periodicals, Internet, and social networks. And while man does not appear to be going quietly elsewhere, there’s peace in my little corner of the spinning sphere. That’s because I made some changes in 2012. Nothing earth-shattering (I left that to the Mayans); just some small adjustments that made a huge difference.

In 2012:

I left the job that was making me crazy and stayed with the one that kept me sane.

I ejected the toxic people in my life and embraced the amazing ones.

I wrote what I really wanted to say and not what I thought others wanted to hear.

I used Grandma’s good silver and the fancy crystal for every day because any day you wake up above ground is a special occasion.

I explored places I’d never been and rediscovered places I’d been before.

I rode my motorcycle any time the weather said I should, even if some people didn’t think that was proper.

I learned to paint – pictures not walls – because the trapped artist in my head finally escaped.

I spent more time reading good books than dusting the living room.

I quit being a copy and became an original.

Sometimes we need a kick in the ass to do the things we should be doing already. In 2012, I got one. Thanks…you crazy Mayans.

And thanks to everyone who joined me on the Wire in 2011. I appreciate your comments, your “likes” and your support. Let’s hang out some more in 2012, shall we? Happy New Year!


Birds on a Wire

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