Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Lessons From a Writing Retreat

by Susan

I'm not sure what possessed me to drive four hours on two-lane roads in the dead of winter to South Dakota, but I desperately needed a writing retreat. I'd had too much on my plate for too long, felt too dried up on the word front. I found myself headed through western Nebraska, discovering that in that part of the world, "semen-tested" is actually used in radio advertisements. I was on my way to a weekend at Linda M. Hasselstrom's Windbreak House in Hermosa.

Writing retreats can take many forms. Linda's are highly personalized with a limited number of writers. I was alone on this one, needing guidance on some of my writing and needing some time to focus. I had become the pitcher of water someone is always trying to pour from without refilling. I came back refilled and with better versions of some of my work.

I learned things both about my work and my life. These were my lessons:

As I prepared for this retreat, I gathered my journaling from the past three years and discovered I had filled five, count 'em, five thick, college-lined notebooks. In fact, I had to run to Sam's Club for a new pack. Writing is writing, and I had put more words on paper than I thought I had.

I came thinking I was finally ready to delve into memoir and write about the hard issues in my life. As we talked, I am not so sure now. We spent some time discussing one piece of mine on mental illness and the difference between essays and memoir. I had included many personal things in the story without explaining them -- essays are more self-contained than that. I couldn't make an offhand reference to the ex-husband, leaving the reader wondering what the story was behind that relationship. If I was going to raise questions, I was going to have to answer them. In a longer memoir, I could address those pieces. Do I want to expand the work into a memoir or snip the loose ends from it and turn it into essay? I'm not entirely sure, but I now have a better idea of what needs to be done for each.

I have a problem with the word "it." I use this pronoun far too much, often without a clear antecedent. Even when I get the antecedent right, the word is vague and wimpy. I loved the book, "The 10% Solution" by Ken Rand. He advised that when you think you are finished with a piece, start running the "find" function in your word processor for clutter. These might be the "-ly" words, "-ing" words, passive voice verbs or, in my case, pronouns. Many of us have our personal "weasel words" that don't carry their weight, yet sneak into our writing. I am going to add "it" to my search list.

I have struggled to organize my submissions and publications. I have to keep track of what pieces I have submitted where and, more importantly, what pieces are published and what rights I granted. I don't want to sell first rights twice. I don't believe I've done that, but as I try to get more work placed, this becomes more critical. I came away with some handouts and ideas for organizing this information. I'll try it and let you know how it went in a future post.

Windbreak House has no television or Internet access. I was relieved of all household chores other than basic grooming and feeding myself. It was incredible how many hours there were in the day. I came away knowing I had to create those same pockets of time in everyday life. I need to guard my writing time and minimize distractions. I need to recreate that retreat atmosphere at home sometimes.


This last one brought me to (drumroll, please):


Like many women, I have a hard time saying "no" to things. But there is a limit to me. I cannot guard writing time if I have none because I have taken on too many commitments. I had a cold heading into this retreat, and my thought that week was, "I don't have time to be sick!" It dawned on me that there is something wrong with a life that does not allow for a moment of illness. When I came back, I evaluated what I could and could not set aside and made some hard choices. 

What will YOU take away from a writing retreat?
That depends on you and where you are in your writing life. It is an enriching experience, and I would encourage writers to go on one for the writing-focused time and guidance from a more experienced author. If that's not feasible, think about how you could create that writing-focused space for yourself. Hire a housecleaner for one weekend, lock yourself in your writing space, and tell your spouse to order a pizza for dinner. Turn off all the screens, except for your laptop, and turn off the Internet. Give yourself time and space for your writing. It's worth it.

Learn more about Windbreak House retreats at www.windbreakhouse.com. All photos courtesy of Linda M. Hasselstom.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


post by Lynn

I’m a big fan of University of Wyoming basketball. I began going to games about 22 years ago, when I first started dating my husband, Mike. He’s had season tickets to watch the Pokes since, well, about forever.

It shouldn’t surprise me, this love of the sport. I was a basketball cheerleader in high school. My mother is a huge sports fan and her father, Floyd Foreman, was a coach at Laramie High School.

At the “Border War” basketball game (Colorado State vs UW) on January 30th, I shared a moment of silence with all the fans in attendance to honor UW basketball great, Kenny Sailors, who had passed away that very morning at the age of 95.

For the rest of this season, the Cowboy men’s basketball team is wearing a commemorative patch, with Sailor’s number 4 in the center, on their jerseys.

The New York Times published a big story about Kenny. You can read it here

Why all the fuss over this one guy?


Kenny Sailors is credited with creating the one-handed jump shot, a move that helped him lead his team on to win a NCAA Basketball Championship in 1943. This is the shot that got basketball players off the ground and led to every bit of “hang time” we witness today.

He claims he developed the shot by necessity, while playing backyard hoops with his much-taller brother, Bud. In a 2008 National Public Radio interview Kenny said, “The good Lord must have put in my mind that if I’m going to get up over this big bum so I can shoot, I’m going to have to jump.”

But the funny thing is, a lot of people tried to discourage Kenny from using the shot. 

My grandfather, who was Kenny’s coach in high school, was one of them. Sailors recalled Coach Foreman saying, “Where’d you get that queer shot?”

Only UW coach Everett Shelton encouraged Kenny to develop his shot, with obviously good result.

After college, Kenny played in the precursor to the NBA. Again--this time at the pro level--the coaches tried to discourage his odd shot. One of them even said, “You’ll never go in this league with that shot.”

It reminds me of something that Howard Aiken, American physicist and pioneer in computing, once said: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

You see, the two-handed set shot was the norm. Players kept their feet on the ground. It’s just the way things were done.

So we remember Kenny because he reacted to a challenge by creating something new. But even more impressive in my mind, is how he persisted even when he was told his shot was wrong, queer, a no-go.

I ask myself, what does it take for a young guy to not back off and stick with the known. To not think to himself, Hey, they’re the coaches, the experts, I guess they know best.

Courage, I suppose. Tenacity, to be sure. Probably a measure of belief in yourself.

And where is the line between tenacity and stubbornness?

And what does all this have to do with writing?

Good question.


We have lots of similar stories in the literary world.

Spy/Author/First Woman Pro

Take Aphra Behn, female author of Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave. This tome was an antislavery novel written in 1688 and based on her experiences as a spy in Surinam for King Charles II. Behn also wrote 18 plays and is considered to be the first professional female author in England.

How many naysayers (Women can’t write!) did Behn encounter in her life? Yet she stuck with it for all those years.

Crane’s Courage

American author Stephen Crane had had enough of Romantic fiction and its escapist tendencies when he wrote what is called the first Naturalistic novel in America--The Red Badge of Courage--in 1895. Whereas previous writers had painted wartime stories with a grandiose brush, usually from the point of view of military strategists and generals, Crane told the story from the point of view of a young Civil War recruit and spared no gory details.

Critics and genteel readers of the time did not take well to this shift. U.S. General Alexander McClurg even suggested it was unpatriotic.  

Can’t you just imagine Crane’s friends saying something like, “Stephen, you’re only twenty years old. You’ve never been to war. What makes you think you can write about it? Besides, it’s so ugly!”

Yet Crane made the leap, believed in himself and his story, and changed the literature of war for all time.

Wall’s Wall

We have our present day innovations as well. 

After Jeanette Walls wrote her bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle, she decided she wanted to write about her mother’s childhood. But as she talked with her mother, and delved into her family’s history, the story that begged to be written was about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. 

The problem—the wall that Walls had to find a way to leap up and over—was that Lily had died when Walls was only eight years old. She had very little first-hand knowledge of her grandmother.  

So Walls shot over that obstacle and wrote a “true-life novel,” in which she “… saw the book more in the vein of an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and undertaken with the storyteller’s traditional liberties.”

She wrote Half Broke Horses in first person, pulled from her imagination to fill in details and changed some names to guard privacy. She let the story take the lead, even if it was a genre-bending thing to do. 

I can’t say if her editor, publisher or fellow-writer husband looked askance at Wall’s decisions, but I’m betting she had plenty of what-the-heck-am-I-doing? moments in the creation of that book.

Note: There’s a great discussion on True-Life Novels (a.k.a. “Faction”) on author Mary Carroll Moore’s blog here.


You and I may never create firsts in our writing careers (who knows?), as these writers did, but we can still emulate their courage, tenacity and belief in themselves and their stories.

So today, I pay tribute to Kenny Sailors. I take inspiration from his life in sports and apply the lessons to my writing life.  

Like Kenny, we have to learn how to jump, to get up over our limitations and challenges.

Like Kenny, we have to find that sweet spot between tenacity and stubbornness and trust ourselves when we hit on something right. 

Like Kenny, we have to have the courage to be different, even when the world raises an eyebrow at us.  And when a critique of our writing says, this should be changed, but our gut says that's the way it has to be, we need to hold to our own truth.

Rest in peace, Kenny Sailors. Thanks for showing us what it takes.

I’m really glad my grandfather didn’t talk you out of your shot.


I used information from the following for this blog post:

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel (Author’s Note) by Jeanette Walls
The Illustrated Timeline of Western Literature by Carol Strickland

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Creating Memorable Character Names

re-post by Susan
On I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio, there's an exit for "Ezzard Charles Drive." My siblings and I always wondered how you could look at a beautiful newborn baby and name it "Ezzard." It sounds like "lizard."

Naming a fictional character may not be as momentous a decision as bestowing (or inflicting) a name on a small human, but it does take some thought. How do you find a name that fits the character, their story and world they live in?

A good character name might:

  • Evoke a time: Names fall in and out of fashion over time. You're more likely to find "Kayla" on her cell phone than on a prairie homestead. 
  • Reinforce the setting: Names are one of the details that make a setting more real, more believable.
  • Shape a character: A unique name might be a source of embarrassment or pride throughout the character's life.
  • Have meaning: In addition to being a Biblical name, "Noah," means "rest, comfort." My own (Susan) means "lily," which does not describe me one whit, one bit. Even if the reader doesn't know the name origin and meaning, you will.
  • Sound good: Say the name a few times. Does it roll off the tongue? A friend of my sister's was going to name her baby "Jack Hess" until she started saying it to herself. 
Where to generate a few name ideas? Here are a few sources:
  • Social Security Administration Baby Names: Good source for historical fiction to set your story in a specific year. This site has the 1,000 most popular baby names by year back to 1880. 
  • Behind the Name: Fantastic source. Many tools on this site, including the ability to generate names appropriate for specific nationalities and lists of most popular names from other countries. Need a name with a "canine" feel? Try their themes page.
  • Random Name Generator: English names only, but you can bulk-generate them up to 100 at a time. 
Looking around, I spotted more good advice on character names on NaNoWriMo and wikiHow.

As for Ezzard Mack Charles, he turned out to be a professional boxer and World Heavyweight Champion. I have no idea if his given name had anything to do with his chosen profession. I'll let you write that story.

Photo attribution: By Czesław Słania (English Wikipedia: [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Ezzard Charles, in a private engraving by stamp engraver Czesław Słania. It is #16 in his series of world champion boxers engraved in stamp format. The stamp has only been produced privately and the text USA, is there to show Ezzard Charles' nationality.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


re-post by Lynn 

Toponymy is the study of place names. A toponymist is someone who studies the science and origins of place-names.

If all that sounds dry as sawdust to you, I beg to differ.

Because of one little book, I find toponymy fascinating and full of things to think and write about.

So says Mae Urbanek in the preface of her book, Wyoming Place Names (copyright 1967). Mae wrote many books (poetry, fiction and what she calls “historical prose”) at her ranch in my home county of Niobrara. She died in 1995.

When I was growing up, I’d hear my father talk about Mae but I always misunderstood the name. I thought he was saying “Mayor Banek” and so I had the notion that this person ran the town of Lusk.

But I digress…

Wyoming Place Names is a book I sit with often. It has a simple format: place names, in alphabetical order, followed by the county and whatever Mae could dig up on the origin of the name. She threw in stories attached to the place, too, when she found them.

There’s history in those names, to be sure, but much, much more. There’s…


Bad Medicine Butte. Fremont. Named by Shoshone Indians because of the unexplained death of one of their scouts who climbed the butte to scan for enemies. They found him there, dead, with his face on his folded arms. 


Ishawooa Mesa, in Park County. A Shoshone name meaning “lying warm.” (Can’t you just imagine someone stretched out on the mesa in, say, April, letting the wind pass over, sponging up sun and naming this place by how it made them feel after a long Wyoming winter?)


Fourlog Park, Albany. A prospector started a cabin here in the 1870’s, and quit after he had laid up four logs. 


Meadow Creek, Natrona. Homesteaders of 1890s thought this a beautiful meadow in which to live. When a big flood in August 1895 struck the tents in which the people lived, they hurried to grab quilts, and get to higher ground. Mrs. Nuby and her three children drowned. Their bodies were caught in piles of driftwood. 


Bosom Peak, Fremont. Named for its resemblance to the female figure when seen from Dinwoody area. (No doubt some guy had gone for a very long time without female companionship!)


Drizzlepuss, Teton. A pinnacle where it always seems to rain or hail when a climbing party is taken there by Exum Mountaineering School. 


Dead Man Creek, Albany/Carbon. Named about 1868, when the body of Jack Hockins was found buried in the gravel of creek bed. Hockins had assaulted and killed a girl in the east. His body was found after the brother of the dead girl learned where Hockins lived on this ranch. 

 Some place names have stories attached to them that smack of a certain Wyomingness:

Like Big Warm Springs Creek, Fremont County. 

When President Chester A. Arthur, with a military guard… traveled this valley in 1883, they tried to camp on Clark’s place near the mouth of DuNoir creek. Clark ordered them off. 

General Sheridan called him down saying, “This is the President of the United States.” 

Clark answered, “I don’t care what he is president of, he’s camping on my property without permission. I want him off.” Camp was moved. 

Or a Yeah, Whatever attitude:

Dutch Creek, Sheridan. First called Hungarian Creek for a Hungarian who homesteaded there. Word was too long for settlers who shortened it to “Dutch.” 

Wyoming Place Names is full of barely-hinted-at tales and half-forgotten voices… so many stories it makes me itch. I’m always reading them out loud to my husband, “Hey, Mike, listen to this…”

Saying that I am a toponymist who studies these place names is a stretch. It’s more like I use them to catapult my imagination into new (or remembered) territory. Sometimes they serve as writing prompts (see below) that lead me into the thicket of story.

So, thanks, Mae Urbanek. I’m grateful you weren’t the mayor of Lusk and had the time and inclination to gather all this information so I could go tripping through the toponymy of our Wyoming. I bet you never suspected that your book would live on to feed my imagination so generously.

(Note: Words in italics were taken from Wyoming Place Names, by Mae Urbanek.)


Here are two writing prompts inspired by Wyoming Place Names:

PROMPT #1: Cache Mountain, Yellowstone Park.

Takes the name from creek where Indians surprised prospectors, and stole their horses, except two mules; men had to “cache” what mules could not pack. 

Write a scene where three of the prospectors return to dig up the cache. What do they find?

PROMPT #2: Nightcap Bay, Teton.

A small bay in Jackson Lake named by John D. Sargent, pioneer of 1887: brilliant and erratic, he claimed the bay was visited by an apparition—a man in a boat which appeared at midnight on a certain night each year.

It’s 2016. You have discovered some old journals that reportedly were written by Sargent. One enigmatic entry says “Jackson Lake: October 13, 12:01 am. Three years in a row.”

Your friend makes you a $100 bet that no ghost will appear. You take it. You and your friend push the boat away from shore at 11:30 pm on October 12th.

What happens?