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Chelan Writing Retreat: The Barrel Feast

It was a gorgeous weekend. The sun was out, the sky was clear and the snow capped mountains were a gleaming backdrop. The best part was that we were viewing all this splendor from the car as we drove out of Seattle and made our way to Chelan for a quick writing retreat.

The kids were set to spend quality time with the dads and the women were off to let the their writing minds take them where they may…well, with a loose itinerary. We were to visit a few wine tasting rooms, meet a press contact for dinner, stay the night at a lovely resort overlooking Lake Chelan and then meet for a “Wine Immersion” experience the next morning. Boy were we in for a treat!

Chelan Horizon

By the time we had settled in at The Lake House and tasted some of the wine provided in the room, it was time to meet our contact for dinner. We were privileged to meet about a dozen or so people for the intimate Barrel Feast at Tunnel Hill Winery. What a fantastic experience! We arrived and were led into their barrel room in which was set a long table with a silk copper runner, candles and place settings lined by four wine glasses each. After a brief meet and greet, we took our seats and were presented with a four course meal, complete with wine pairings. Our host, Guy Evans, introduced the cook who is the head chef at Cafe Mason.

Beet Salad

We poured over the mouth-watering courses with the wine pairings and got to know the people sitting around us. As I looked up and down the long table, the writer in me started to churn…or more accurately, the fiction side of my writing mind. Sure, I could write a compelling piece about how lovely our trip has been and how tasty the local fare is, the travel magazines would surely eat that up. But the fiction-writing side of my brain was looking for something a little more thrilling, mysterious even. It kept wondering ‘what if’. Like, what if someone left for the restroom and didn’t come back? What if the next person to visit the restroom found the previous person’s body slumped against the wall, dead? Of the people I’ve met so far, who would make the best victim? Who would make the best murderer? Perhaps the congress woman sitting next to me, political motives are often seedy. Or what about the innocent-looking newly wed couple to my right? They do seem a little too innocent. What could they be hiding? Or this contractor across the table, how far would he go to win a bid? My brain went on like this, humming in the background as I made pleasant conversation and secretly gleaned information for character development.

While I am fortunate to have a steady job as a freelance writer, sometimes the pressure to produce non-fiction material takes over and my fiction muscles feel neglected and atrophe. This trip was a nice opportunity to stretch those muscles and get back in action. I’d like to encourage you, if you have a passion for writing fiction, to allow yourself to let go every once in a while and run with the wiles of your imagination. Of course, do your due diligence, if you have a non-fiction deadline, but then exchange that notepad for your story-telling notepad. Soak up the characters around you and let your mind wander down the path of ‘what if’s’.

Writer’s Tip: Having a restricted setting with a set cast can force you to get creative with your limited options.  Next time you go to a restaurant, find the table with the most people and use them as your cast of characters. Write a short story that takes place in that restaurant with just that table of people.

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Valentine’s Day Special

Today is Valentine’s Day, so it only seems appropriate that we talk about romance. I don’t mean the romance in your own life, I mean the romance in your fiction life.

Romance and Roses

I know what you’re thinking…”Harlequin novels? Bodice rippers? Ew, no thank you. I’ll pass.” Let me assure you right now, that’s not where I’m going with this. I’d just like to share a few tips to add romantic tension, perhaps even create a little chemistry between two unassuming characters. So here are the basics:

-Start with two strong, appealing, sympathetic characters. Be sure they are three-dimensional so you can mess with their heart strings.

-Add conflict. There are two kinds of conflict: Internal and External.

Internal conflict should be the writer’s main focus: defined by either character—the opposing forces within a personality, motivations and aspirations—or by an emotional situation within a relationship—for example, an unexpected pregnancy or an arranged marriage.

External conflict should only be brought in as additional support to the developing romance and plot. External conflict is defined by misunderstandings, circumstances or a secondary character’s influence.

Ideally, give the characters something they have to overcome together…this is where they bond, not necessarily where they connect. Throw several conflicts their way that they work through to create emotional highs and lows. Have them grow closer with each resolution.

-Just as they are starting to realize their chemistry and connect…throw a wrench in it! Heartbreak!

-Many writers will be tempted to bring in a secondary character at this point. It’s an option, but be warned…use secondary characters with caution. You don’t want to muddy the focus on your main couple.

-Then add the final conflict…this one usually requires a lot of sensational dialogue.  Dialogue is the key tool to give life, energy and pace to your writing. This is the epiphany moment! Remember to keep it relevant and consistent to your characters. Let them realize and come to terms with their differences and come together as a couple at last. Hooray!

So that’s writing romance in a nutshell. Strong characters, lots of conflict with emotional highs and lows, all driven by great dialogue to a happy and satisfying ending.

Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Your Divided Attention

Overlooking the snowy mountains.
Overlooking the snowy mountains.

You read that right. I’ll need your divided attention. These days, undivided attention is hard to come by, and sometimes not always the most necessary attribute to have. As a new mom, I long for the days when I could sit down and write undisturbed. I could pour my full attention into whatever tickled my whimsy. But those days are gone. Case in point, even as I’m writing this sentence, I’m holding my child back from the power cords with my foot. This is what I might consider the epitome of divided attention…or as some call it, multi-tasking.

I love those rare sweet undisturbed moments and since my little one has gotten more mobile, those are few and far between. They come with nap time, bedtime, and when dad takes him for a hike on the weekends. Those are the moments you have to cherish and the minutes you really have to utilize. It can get overwhelming. Where do you start? There’s so much you want to do and only a matter of hours to do it. It’s like routing a river through a pinhole.

I could give you the tactics I use to get the most out of my few free moments…lists, tricks using a timer, etc. But in all honesty, there are times when you just need to sit back and let the pressure roll off your shoulders and just write when you feel like it. You have to remind yourself that it’s not all about the race, sometimes it’s just about the writing. The sheer pleasure you get out of writing what matters to you, when it matters to you.

If you find yourself in a pinhole situation of time, don’t stress. Relax and let the words come as they may. It’s your free time, so shrug off the pressure and let yourself focus your attention on being free.

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Thanksgiving writing

Thank you!

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks and what better way to do that as a writer than in a well composed thank you note?

We thought it would be nice, on this day of all days, to revisit the age old tradition of writing a personal thank you note. There are many occasions that call for a note of gratitude, such as, when you receive a gift or are treated to some kind of hospitality or kindness.  In every case, the following are some basic elements to include for a well rounded, thoughtful thank you note.

1. Depending on how close you are to the recipient, open with “Dear [name]”, then continue the letter by thanking them for the gift, hospitality or kindness offered.

2. The second sentence or part of the letter should give some elaboration of your enjoyment or use of the gift.

3. If you’ve been out of touch for a while, it could be nice at this point in the letter to share a little news. This is not a necessary part of the basic thank you note, but close family or friends who live far away and don’t hear from you all the time might appreciate a short update.

4. A strong closing sentence or paragraph should include a sentiment of looking forward to seeing or speaking to the recipient, especially if a reunion or holiday is approaching. Mentioning “thank you” again is also nice to emphasis the point of the letter and bring it full circle.

5. End with a personal phrase like “love”, “best wishes” or even “thanks again”. Try to avoid closing with “sincerely yours” as it sometimes comes across as too formal.

With that, here is our thank you note to you. We really wouldn’t be where we are today without you. So thanks again and have a Happy Thanksgiving!


Dear Reader,

Thank you so much for stopping by and reading our blog. Your comments and feedback are so encouraging and much appreciated! We are very touched that we can share our passion for writing with you and that we can grow together in our craft. We look forward to sharing more with you as we continue to learn and explore the writing life!

Thanks again and we’ll talk to you soon!

Sarah & Daytona


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The Tortured Soul

Many have argued that the best artists are the ones wielding a tortured soul. With serious issues like drug induced inspiration, gambling addictions, drowning sorrows and looking for answers in the bottom of one kind of bottle or another. They had some kind of weakness or childhood trauma that they overcame or channeled and turned into great works of art. I’ve always teased my parents that they ruined my chances at being a great writer by giving me a great childhood.

So I don’t have a drinking problem, or do drugs. I’ve never gambled with anything more than skittles in a poker game or by not taking my umbrella on an ominous looking cloudy day. I’ve never been divorced or suffered a premature loss of a loved one. All the typical dirt that a tormented artist uses to fuel their inspiration is beyond me. So what are my vices? Do I really need to start working on a drinking problem? (Seems expensive if you ask me). What could I use to tap the depths of my “un-tortured” soul?

Well, thankfully I have come to terms with, what some may call, a hum-drum life. And while I don’t think you have to have a tortured past or a narcotics problem to write, I do believe that writers can create beautiful work, sharing truths discovered by living lives both fully and sometimes, terribly. I believe it simply comes down to writing honestly.

Every writer pulls words together for a reason, and that reason doesn’t necessarily have to be dark. You can write for joy too! Happiness can be just as fueling as misery and in fact I think more fulfilling to write about. While it is necessary to learn from our mistakes, we can discover truth in the good times as well. A marriage, the birth of a child, a victory, a successful meeting, even a perfectly executed somersault or figuring out how to set the clock on the stereo; all of these things are gems and make great fodder for writing.

Living, loving and suffering. We pull emotions from all these things that reveal truths that are often too great to keep to ourselves. That’s what makes us writers, recording our experiences and, if we want to, sharing what we’ve learned.

I do think that a widow writing about loss is more powerful than an equally skilled writer without the same experience. And there are some artists who have created great work while under the influence of one thing or another. But these circumstances are not a guarantee of great work, they are simply part of life and the human condition.

Fydor Dostoevsky, Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath, Hemmingway, Beethoven, Tennessee Williams, Vincent van Gogh; these are the models upon which the tortured artist is based. They were all amazing artists. And yes, they committed suicide or died in physical, financial or mental ruin.

But the issues that plague great artists, low self esteem, terrible health, heartbreak, depression, domineering parents, alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder, are all human issues. People who don’t write, draw, sing, play, dance or paint go through these same issues and God help them all. These are not ailments of a tortured artist, these are symptoms of our fragile humanity.

I do not encourage you to stay sad for the sake or creativity, or to drink and do drugs for the sake of creativity. What I do encourage is that you live your life fully and truly and by all means, write with your heart and your gut. But above all else, write with honesty.


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Back to basics with Children’s books

I love stories. As a new mom and a writer, I couldn’t wait to introduce my little boy to books. Now my heart swells with joy as I see how he has graduated from chewing on the covers to giggling as he turns the pages and points to the pictures. As I read to him I’m taken back to my childhood with the sweetness of some favorite stories. A mouse hiding a strawberry, a little bear waiting for a goodnight kiss, a curious monkey, a little bunny saying goodnight to the moon, or a boy who becomes king of the wild things.

These stories are simple, sweet and have more in common than just pulling our nostalgic heart strings. I couldn’t help but make some comparisons to see how I might add something to my own writing.

However you feel about children’s books, as a writer they stand as a great reminder that it can be a good thing to scale back to the basics of your story. Here are some tips on plot and structure based on children’s books.

What makes a children’s book a children’s book is the simple concepts, limited characters and usually one main message…oh, and of course lots of pictures!

Several characters, multiple settings, emotional story arcs, messages and themes, layers upon layers of plot and sub plots. Adult reading can sometimes get cumbersome. Here’s a few steps to take it back to the basics:

1. Pick one purpose and stick to it. Kiddos at this age (0 – 3) don’t have the capacity or attention span to follow multiple story lines.

2. Limit your characters. There’s a reason there are only 3 bears. Too many main characters = too hard to follow!

3. Bright, simple colors and lots of pictures! Don’t weigh your story down with text.

4. Everything is black and white. The real world may have grey areas, but not for kids.

5. Bad guys never win.

So here’s what it boils down to, simple plot, simple characters, simple writing. While this may not apply to your current novel (which I assume will have many complex characters and twisty, turny, curvy plots and sub plots), it’s a great way to start the bones of your next story. Before developing your next plot, try outlining it in children’s book form, meaning, giving it a beginning, middle and end and have no more than three characters and one message to start. Once you have the skeleton laid out, you can put meat on his bones with more gown up text. But remember, we all start as babies, maybe it could help to let our stories start the same way!

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Research for Realism

I have done some crazy things in my life – jumped off cliffs, resuscitated a fish, eaten expired yogurt, gotten married (crazy, yes, but wonderful). But some of my craziest moments have been in the name of writing. Because when it comes down to it, there are times when all the research in the world can’t hold a candle to actual experience.

To get the most realism out of your work, sometimes you just have to live it out. Some things you can fake, but other things you need to experience in order to write about them properly. My last writing experiment I’m pretty sure landed me the official title of neighborhood crazy lady.

I had no idea how it felt to be kidnapped and locked in the trunk of a car – a critical event in the novel I’m writing.  So what did I do? Well, I couldn’t kidnap myself (so I had to do research for that), but I could lock myself in the trunk of a small car (with help, of course, to make sure I could get out!).

The Trunk Experiment

I learned a lot from this experience. I figured out how my character felt when locked in a small space, I heard what she probably heard…the muffled hum of the engine, the warmth that gathers in the floor beneath and the claustrophobic feeling of not being able to straighten out your legs. I pulled my hands behind my back and kept my ankles together to test out the positions she would have been able to lay in. (My husband declined to tie me up for fear of what the neighbors might think. Smart man.)

Most importantly, I discovered the key to my main character’s escape: the glow-in-the-dark handle. How was my character able to open the trunk and signal for rescue? There was a handle on the inside of the trunk for emergency (and boy did she need it!).

Of course, not every story will require such drastic measures. The point is, do your research! If you want your work to carry weight, don’t cut corners. Know the world your characters are living in and don’t always just make assumptions. Another scene I’m writing required extensive tech knowledge which, in all honesty, was way over my head. So I consulted the professionals….ok, they weren’t ‘professionals,’ but they knew a lot more than I did about the subject matter. Doing this research gains credibility in the eyes of your readers in the long run. So don’t short change your work by not knowing exactly what you’re talking about.

Another example is from a fellow writer. She has a scene in her book in which her main character walks into the kitchen of her new home and bounces off a tile in the floor and falls. She knew I used to work in the construction industry and asked me about it. I consulted some flooring colleagues and provided my friend with an alternative: Her character could walk into the kitchen and slip on a squishy floor because the refrigerator had busted a water line, flooding the room. Way more accurate and believable, therefore lending credibility and weight to the story and its teller.

I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you to consider writing about something you don’t know about. Use it as an excuse to try something new. Consider parts of your story that were written strictly from imagination. Could you pursue a course of research on that part? Perhaps you are assuming what the cake in that scene tastes like, even though you’ve never actually tried it. (What a good excuse to eat cake, eh?) Would the screen on a computer go blue in a particular situation? What would a policeman say when he caught your character red-handed? Now, I’m not saying you should go out and commit a crime just to see what would really happen, but I am suggesting that you go through the proper channels to ask about it. There’s never any harm in asking.

Some of the simplest touches can make your work pop. Does your character have a signature habit of peeling oranges in one long strip? How might he do that? Go to the store, pick up a couple oranges and give it a try. Does your protagonist spend a lot of time at the horse tracks? Take a trip with some friends and watch a race. Just use common sense, be safe and have fun. It’s all in the name of accuracy to enhance the weight and accuracy of your writing!

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What Writers Can Learn From TV

I’ll just come out and say it, “Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m a crime show junkie.” Deep breath. There I said it. I LOVE a well written, well cast mystery drama. I devour them like a dog with a fresh steak. I especially love murder mystery shows featuring a crack sleuth author (like Murder, She Wrote or its more recent protégé Castle.) But that’s for another post.

So here’s the kicker, most writers might consider TV a bad habit – something to add to the list of things that keep you from writing. And, for the most part, if you are on the couch for five hours watching a Jersey Shore marathon, that is true. You are wasting your time! And with reality TV – ugh! But I’m here to liberate you from your TV rut.

Yes, get up off your couch, in fact, do a couple laps to get your circulation going again and then get to your writing spot. Now, here’s the bad news – no more reality TV marathons. (There’s really nothing edifying whatsoever about them – although I’m sure if I tried hard enough I could rationalize some merit out of…maybe…one episode.) But fret not my writing friends, there’s good news. Watching TV can actually benefit your writing!

So how can you rationalize watching all your favorite shows instead of writing? How do you tear yourself away from those captivating stories on the screen to create your own? USE them to enhance your own writing!

Here’s the deal, you get to pick one episode of your favorite show (or a scene from your favorite movie) and use it when considering the following list of things we can learn from TV.

  1. Multiple perspectives. That brilliant show you love so much was most likely written by more than one person. What can we learn from this little fact? Don’t be afraid to bounce your ideas or drafts off of a few trusted writing friends or your critique group. Having multiple eyes on a piece can provide depth and perspective that you might not otherwise have.
  2. A short and simple plot. While there are plenty of shows that have multiple sub-plots and character spin offs, ultimately the more successful series have a format where each episode has an overarching, clear and simple plot. Check the show you’ve chosen. What is the main plot in a nutshell? If there’s too much going on in a single episode it can bog down your audience and cause them to lose interest.
  3. Ending on action. Consider your chosen episode again. How does it end? How do the producers keep you coming back for more? They end every episode or commercial break in some sort of action. They leave you with a question or with a vested interest in the main characters that make you care about what happens to them. This is a common method used among many great suspense writers like Grisham and Patterson. It’s what keeps you tuned in through the commercials and what will keep your readers turning the pages.
  4. Dialogue. Dialogue is generally the aspect I come to admire most in my favorite shows. It’s often the feature that makes me classify a show as my favorite. Is the dialogue of your chosen show realistic? Quick-witted? Dry humor? Whatever it is that makes you appreciate the words that come out of your favorite character’s mouth, consider the factors that support what they say. How exactly did they say “I love it.” Was it with sarcasm? Sincerity? With a raised brow in question? What do you think the director told the actor when explaining how they should act out that scene? What was their motivation? Try the following exercise to help you study and catch all the nuances of your favorite scene and see how it helps amplify the dialogue in your own work.

Exercise – watch an episode of one of your favorite shows. Listen carefully to the dialogue and write down your favorite quotes. After the show – use it! Try to re-create the scene surrounding that quote. Capture all the five senses of your characters and portray the mood of the moment. So go ahead, watch re-runs of Friends. But do it with paper and pen in hand.