My Love Affair with Sad Stories

I have always loved tragedies. In school, when my fellow students bellyached about A Separate Peace and Of Mice and Men, I was in my happy place sucking in the human drama and pathos. I come from a culture where joie de vivre is both a catch phrase and a lifestyle, but Anna Karenina, Ethan Frome, and Madame Bovary are my people, too.

Cemetery St. FrancisIn my writing, I am drawn to sadness. Not horror or misery or lack of hope—quite the opposite. No matter the theme or plot, there’s always a thread of hope in what I write, but there’s also a thread of darkness.

Some people write about sunshine. Some people write about Icarus. I’m the latter. What happens when you get too close to the sun? You burn up. I find that fascinating and endlessly explorable.

My most recently published story came from a real visit to a cemetery. In my family, Cemetery angelwhen you say you are going to visit a relative, that person might be in a house or they might be in a grave. The only real difference is whether or not you’ll get served coffee.

Last December, my husband and I visited my grandparents. The church cemetery is old, and while we were there to put fresh flowers in the urn and a Christmas angel on the tomb, we wandered around the old part that is not aging so well. My husband took these photos, and I let my imagination skip and jump around the tombs—and the acorns.

PS_Summer_2019_Cover-200x268Philadelphia Stories is a non-profit organization that highlights the works of artists from the Delaware Valley and works to foster a lively literary community in the Greater Philadelphia Area. I am pleased that my short story “Acorns” appears in the Summer 2019 issue, both in print and online. I hope you will read it. If you suspect it might be sad…you’ve been warned.


What the Audience Knows

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIt is always a delight when a story finds a forever home, to borrow a phrase from the pet adoption world. “Voices” appears in the Summer 2017 issue of Philadelphia Stories, and I could not be more pleased to have my work in that fine publication. Continue reading “What the Audience Knows”

Swimming with the Guppies

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIn every career, there is a project or a contact or a conference that is a game changer. For me, a professional boost came in 2010, with the offer to edit the first Guppy anthology. Continue reading “Swimming with the Guppies”

August Heatwave Reading List

RamonaGravitarEvery summer, when the doldrums of heat hit and I feel as wilted as the impatiens in my front porch planter, I think of a short story I studied in high school: August Heat by William Fryer Harvey. I re-read it every summer, as a reminder of why I fell in love with short stories.

Reading this story, you can feel the oppressive, brutal, maddening heat. You can understand the confusion of the two men—each an artist in his field—who discover one another by happenstance. Or, is it happenstance? Or, fate? Or, the heat? Continue reading “August Heatwave Reading List”

What Do Judges & Jurors Want? Part 3 of Writing for Contests and Anthologies

RamonaGravitarThe judges and jurors quoted below won’t be evaluating your criminal activities. They’ll be evaluating your mastery of the writing craft, your interpretation of theme, your narrative voice, your ability to hook a reader with a well-crafted opening, your skill at creating an emotional connection with a character.

To round out this short series, I contacted people who read submissions and select stories for inclusion in a couple of regional anthologies. Most of the folks below are also writers, so they understand the joy of acceptance and the disappointment in rejection. Continue reading “What Do Judges & Jurors Want? Part 3 of Writing for Contests and Anthologies”

Top 10 Tips for Writing for a Short Story Contest

Here comes summer, and that means beach reads!

 Cat & Mourse pressCat & Mouse Press is happily accepting work for its second Rehoboth Beach Reads short story collection, and I am happy to be one of the judges for this year’s contest.

This year’s theme is “the Boardwalk.” A connection to a boardwalk is required by contest rules, but writers do not need to be from Rehoboth Beach or Delaware. You can send a story from wherever you write!

Continue reading “Top 10 Tips for Writing for a Short Story Contest”

A Reading List of the Unexpected


un·ex·pect·ed (adjective) — not expected; unforeseen; surprising: an unexpected pleasure; an unexpected development. Origin: 1580–90

Last Saturday night I gave a talk about seeking the unexpected in writing. I love twists and turns, pivoting plots, unreliable narrators and surprise endings, but also the more esoteric elements of the unexpected in stories: a unique narrative voice; a brave choice by an author; a quietly bold ending.

How are these general ideas—unique voice, brave choice, bold ending—put into practice? In my talk, I mentioned novels that included some element of the unexpected. In response to requests that night and a few subsequent emails, below is a list of stories I used as examples of the unforeseen and surprising. Each employed an unexpected element that added to my reading enjoyment:


 ~ The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: The narrator is Death, but it is also a sympathetic book about an ordinary German neighborhood during the rise of Nazism.

~ The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton – The antagonist is selectively mute, but more so, he is a criminal who is not particularly charming, amusing, or otherwise disarming, but someone who uses his single talent to get by.

~ Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons– There is a play on words in the title, but Ellen is a child narrator with a wise voice.

~ The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller – A love story for the middle aged. There are not very many of those when it was written, and this book opened the door for similar stories to follow.

~ Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Bear cozy mystery series – In this series, the sleuth is a caterer. She also had been an abused wife. Cozies didn’t do issues or real life problems. DMD blew that out of the water, for good.

~ The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne– Eight-year-old Bruno, the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer, thinks their new home Out-With is a farm and the people wearing “striped pajamas” are farm workers. Bruno’s innocent interpretation of his surroundings represents the willful blindness of adults during the Holocaust.

~ Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– It is revealed early on that Cathy is a clone but why she and her friends were created, and how they became fully developed individuals capable of love and hurt, is an unexpected byproduct of the project.

Short stories:

~ “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin – A surprise ending that is so well foreshadowed, the reader never sees it coming.

~ “August Heat” by F. W. Harvey – An open ending that is also well foreshadowed, but what exactly will happen is unknown.

~ “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury – A single change can change the world—and does.

Have you read a story with an element of the unexpected? If so, please share.

Pubbed this Week

While I spend my days writing in my private studio in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia–thank you,  VCCA!–the publishing world carries on.

Three events of note (to me) happened this week.

My Creative Nonfiction piece “Three Hots and a Cot” is the third, and final, part of a trilogy I wrote about a different and difficult path of motherhood. The first two parts, “Sunday Visit” and “Cooperation” were published this past year.

4197“Three Hots and a Cot” appeared on Monday, December 2, in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Lunch Ticket, the literary magazine from the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Lunch Ticket’s focus is writing, art, and social justice.

LuckyCharms_eBook_082113-200x300Second item of note is the launch of the anthology Lucky Charms, 12 Crime Tales by the Mary Roberts  Rhinehart Pittsburgh Chapter of Sisters in Crime. I had the pleasure of editing the short stories in this collection, and working with a dozen talented, patient, and generous writers from western Pennsylvania.

12997_679511945395212_1183411705_nFinally, an out of the box story in a collection about the evil people who inhabit the world alongside the innocent–and not so innocent. I had a good time stretching my writing wings to create “The Chances” which appeared last week in the anthology, Someone Wicked. The 21 contributors are members and friends of the Written Remains Writers Guild. It was edited by Weldon Burge and JM Reinbold, and published in November 2013 by Smart Rhino Publications.




My short story TRAITEURS was published in the online literary journal 10kt0bi (Ten Thousand Tons of Black Ink) as the featured story in  February, 2013.

“Traiteurs” is the Cajun French word for healers. In this very short piece (<1,000 words), I wanted to create a small, quiet world with just a touch of woo-woo.

How To Write a Themed Story

RamonaGravitarWhat is a Themed Story?

A themed story is one written specifically to reflect a particular idea or concept.


You, the author, see a Call for Submissions for a magazine, contest, or short story anthology. The parameters of the Submissions Call lists word count, author eligibility, deadline—and a theme.

~ “This collection will include stories about Grand Canyon National Park.”

~ Or, “The June, 2019 of Write It Right will focus on fathers and sons.”

~ Or, “Send us your true tales of humorous holiday disasters.”

Editors of a publication, organizers of a conference, or judges in a writing contest limit entries or submissions by selecting a central idea for stories. A regional chapter of a national organization may want to publish a themed anthology that highlights their area. A journal may want to shine a spotlight on some particular social issue or historical event. A publisher may want to collect stories about a particular idea to make the finished product easier to market.

There are numerous reasons for calling for themed submissions. Here are some tips on writing for one.

  1. Understand the reason for the theme. When I edited Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology, the theme was “water where there might be fish.” The choice made sense because the sponsoring organization was the “Great Unpublished” chapter of Sisters in Crime, nicknamed the Guppies. The group name itself is a metaphor, so it was only right their first anthology follow their organizational bond. “Water where there might be fish” is a broad theme, so the stories ranged from ones that included characters slipping on goldfish, to ones set by a lake or pond.

Regional publications, such as literary magazines or anthologies from group chapters, will often seek submissions set in their region—a logical choice that not only highlights their home base but hones in on a market. A smart writer might seek a little-known or underserved event, or write in a specific or personal way about a unique spot in the area.

  1. Respect the theme. That means, it may not be a great idea to take any old story you’ve got moldering in a drawer, and revive it for a submission by plugging in the theme. If you’ve written a story set in the Florida Everglades, can you rewrite it in the Grand Canyon National Park? Is your Mother’s Day tribute to your mom going to work if you revise it as your best memories of Dad?  If you’ve written a story about clouds, does that mean it will work for a theme of storm clouds?

The theme was selected for a reason. Incorporating it in a meaningful way, rather than attempting a plug-in, will make a better story.

  1. Consider the parameters. Take a look at “humorous holiday disasters” as a story theme. If you see this and immediately think of the time you dropped the Thanksgiving turkey on the floor and your dog ran off with it, and your entire extended family chased him out of the yard, and you all ended up at your vegan neighbor’s house eating tofurkey barbeque—that’s matching the theme.

But if you write about the time you dropped the Thanksgiving turkey on the floor because Grandma had a heart attack and/or this gave Uncle Joe an excuse to get drunk and throw Aunt Betty’s cranberry jelly mold through the plate glass window—that’s a holiday disaster all right, but is it humorous?

In short, be sure you read all the words in the theme, and match them with your story.

  1. Consider the big idea. A theme like “humorous holiday disasters” is limiting; a theme like “oceans” or “fish” is expansive. Take the theme “stars,” for example. You can take a literal approach and write about a big ball of incandescent light in the sky. Or, you can take a metaphorical approach and write about a person who is in the limelight. Or, you can begin the story with a character listening to the song “Stars” from the musical Les Miserables and is somehow inspired by it.

A theme is a box. You can think inside the box, outside the box, or you can open the box and crawl out of it carrying a thread.

  1. Write a good story. You can stick to the letter of a theme, but if your story isn’t well written, with an engaging idea and entertaining presentation, it’s not going to fly–even if the theme is “wings.”

In addition to editing Fish Tales, I’ve successfully written to theme a few times. My story “Trust” received the Fiction Writing Award for the Writers at the Beach: Seaglass 2008 conference and was published in Delaware Beach Life magazine. The theme was “oceans.”

Have you written or are trying to write to a theme? Any thoughts or advice to share? I’m listening.