With a Little Help

From time to time, I go on retreat. I’ve found a special place and I invite a few special friends, and we hide in an old farmhouse owned by a convent. I’ve posted several times about my retreats, but today I am posting about that well-loved tradition of using your writing friends as guinea pigs.

st francis

Inspiration comes in many forms.

Writing prompts come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and themes. This weekend, Delaware poet Jane Miller and I are offering a “Fall into Writing” workshop at an historic home–the Judge Morris Estate in Newark, Delaware. We’ve been gathering or creating prompts that focus on the five senses, on how objects can be used as metaphors, on inspiration from images, on our legacies as writers. It will be a full day and I hope a beneficial one for our attendees.

One trick for a successful workshop is to try out the prompts or exercises in advance. When you’re together for a week in an old farmhouse with no TV, iffy Internet, and spotty cell phone service, what’s a better time to try out prompts on your captive audience?

Here are a few ideas for creating and using writing prompts:

  1. Keep instructions simple
  2. Time the writing portions
  3. Know the general make-up of your audience
  4. Use a general theme or idea for cohesiveness
  5. Offer prompts that are specific but broad enough to explore
  6. Provide minimal guidance or leading
  7. Remember there are no wrong answers
  8. Encourage sharing but make it optional

If the audience is a mix of poets, prose writers, screenwriters, etc.

  1. Use prompts that will work with all writing forms
  2. Team up un-like artists for exchange exercises
  3. Use external inspirations like objects or photos or music

For any type of prompt or exercise:

  1. Try it out on a living audience
  2. Pay attention to what works and doesn’t
  3. Be willing to revise, change, or pitch a prompt that might be a dud

At retreat, we tried out three of Saturday’s prompts-to-be: on senses, on the unknown, on places from our memories. Each try-out revealed a necessary tweak that will make the prompt more effective. On the flip side, the prompts were a good break from the long days devoted to WIPs. The brain works best when you poke at it a bit.

We even left with a testimonial!

I want to thank you for sharing a few of the writing exercises with us this week at retreat that you and Jane Miller plan to use at the Fall into Writing workshop next Saturday at the Judge Morris Estate. I’ve been able to clarify writing goals, and now I see how I can incorporate observations from the five senses to make my writing come alive. These exercises have made such a difference to me, and I know they’ll be valuable to workshop participants. – Jean Davis

If you are a Delaware author, I hope to see you Saturday at the Judge Morris Estate for a day to honor the change of seasons—and write about it among friends. If you are interested, there is still time to register.

To Maria, Jean, Kim, and Jane–thanks for playing!

Fall into Writing

Delaware poet Jane Miller and I will tag team exercises to guide poets and prose writers toward an exploration of senses, language, voice, and metaphor. The Judge Morris Estate is an elegant and historical setting, perfect for launching a new season of writing with friends and peers. Please join us!Fall into writing

This workshop is presented through the generosity of the Delaware Division of the Arts and the Delaware Division of State Parks.


Read up! A writing prompt

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI never get writer’s block, but from time to time, I do suffer from writer’s mire. That means I get stuck in one of my own stories and grind over the same troublesome scene for days. Writer’s mire is a momentum killer and can easily destroy your enthusiasm for the story.

The sensible cure for getting stuck is moving on, but easier said than done, right?  When my willpower muscles out my inner editor, I can write FIX THIS LATER and power on ahead to the next scene. That being said, even when I can move on, that troublesome scene is like a gnat in the back of my brain. Very distracting.

A case of writer’s mire happened to me last week, only I could not get to the FIX THIS LATER step. Finally, in desperation, I tried a writing prompt to think about another idea for a while.

Do you use writing prompts? They’re easy to find via Google. They are great as morning warm-up work, or to distract yourself when frustrated. Some prompts are very specific and others less so. The one I tried last week was to “write a crazy conversation.” Since part of my writer’s mire scene included characters exchanging flat dialogue, I decided to regard “conversation” in a different way: an online one.

Here’s how it went:


Read Up! (Aka every medical conversation on social media.)

JANE: Hi, friends! I’ve been quiet because I had my spleen surgically removed today.

MARY: OMG, really? Why?

JANE:  I have spleenositosis and the only treatment is surgical removal of the spleen.

MARK: Your spleen filters your blood. It’s vital to a healthy immune system.

JANE: I am aware of that.  I researched spleens upside down and sideways because of my disease.

MEGHAN: Wow, surgery! I would never have surgery. I hope you considered carefully.

JANE: Yes, of course I considered all options. You think I had my spleen carved out on a whim?

MARLENE: Watch out for MRSA. People get MRSA after surgery. My brother nearly died of  MRSA.

MISSY: Did you try a homeopathic cure?

JANE: There is no homeopathic cure.

MARTHA: OMG, Jane, what happened?! Why would you get rid of your spleen?

JANE: Read up, Martha.

MORWANA: I had MRSA. You just take antibiotics. Don’t be such a drama queen, Jane.

JANE: Wha? I didn’t say anything about MRSA. That was Marlene.

MORGAN: You should have considered a homeopathic cure.

MELANIE: Have you considered a homeopathic cure?

MAURICE: Dandelion tea is good for the spleen. I run an homeopathic goods mail-order service. Here’s a link.

MAMIE: My cousin had acne. Dandelion tea cured it right up. You should try that, Jane.

MARTHA: Jane, were you in an accident? A car crash?

JANE: Martha, please read up.

MITCHELL: Did you get a second opinion? I’d get a second opinion before removing an organ. You should get a second opinion right away.

JANE: Mitchell, I did get a second option, and it’s too late now anyway, since my spleen is gone. See OP.

MINNIE: My cousin is a surgeon and he accidentally dropped his cell phone into a patient during surgery and it embedded in the person’s liver.

MOLLY: I’m not sure this is a good idea. You need your spleen for your immune system.

MARTHA: Jane, did you fall down the stairs and bruise your spleen or something?

JANE: Martha, Please. Read. Up.

MIGNON: Herbs help keep a spleen healthy. You should eat a lot of herbs.

MIGNON: And you should eat less red meat, since it clogs up your spleen.

MIGNON: Also drink less alcohol because alcohol is not good for the spleen.

JANE: Great info, Mignon, but I don’t actually have a spleen anymore. Read OP.

MICHELE: My book’s on sale at Books for Sale! Buy my book! Here’s a link.

MILLY:  Spleenositosis is a disease of the spleen, which filters your blood.


MILLY: You said your spleen was removed. You can’t have spleenositosis without a spleen. ??????

MARTHA: I just don’t understand why you would do something this crazy, Jane.

JANE: For god’s sake, Martha, READ UP! UP! UP!

MARTHA: Jane, why are you yelling at me? I CARE. Why are you being so secretive about this spleen thing?

MITCHELL: Patients get tricked into into unnecessary surgeries all the time. I will PM you 72 links right away so you can see how you got taken in by unscrupulous big pharma and the money-sucking medical establishment.

JANE: OMG!!! All I wanted to do was explain why I had been quiet! How about an “I hope you’re okay, Jane,” or “I’ll make you a casserole.”

MIKE: You seem stressed, Jane. You need to buy some St. John’s Wort. Here’s a link.

The End

I had fun writing this, and it broke me out of the mire! Sometimes something completely different is worth a try.

What would you write as “a crazy conversation” writing prompt? And, if you have another cure for writer’s mire, I’d love to hear it!

In Our Own Words

I have never kept a diary. I’ve written about this before and, though I have made attempts, each diary peters out after a few entries. I do keep a little health journal with dates and procedures and questions for my doctor (How do I balance the need for Vitamin  D with the risk of melanoma?) but at the end of the day, it’s not very exciting reading, even for me, and it’s my body being discussed.

On my desk are a number of writing diaries and my beloved sprint journal. Every time I go away to retreat, I bring my retreat book. I begin on Day 1 with what I want to accomplish overall, record a work plan each day, and end with a summary. It is helpful, but it’s not something I revisit, and I can’t imagine my work plans making it into a panel in the Life of Ramona Museum. (A made-up thing I joke about with my family. Don’t ask about admission. It involves chores.)

But I have come to realize that I live in interesting times. All times are interesting, of course, but this is the only one I’ll be living in, so maybe I have an obligation to record this time in my own words, through my own world view, so the future can have an honest, first person account.

Why me? Is it hubris—conceited—to think that some future generation might learn from and value what I think, what I feel, what I fear, what I hope? I am not famous or extraordinary. I’m just me, just Harry…I mean, just Ramona. There won’t be any Museum of Ramona. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s hubris to value my time in the world. It is my responsibility as a storyteller.

And yours.

I see and hear my friends lamenting these difficult times and the ones ahead. There are many ways to bring about change, many ways to fight it. This is one. Tell the truth of what’s happening and what it means to you. History is not only recorded by professional  historians, but by everyday people: soldiers, settlers, housewives, orphans, artists, survivors.

Anne Frank kept a diary. Think of the illumination her words have brought to the world. Did she have any idea of her legacy? No.

If today is a day that worries you and tomorrow is one you fear, write about it—to yourself, to a friend, in longhand, on a tablet. Your thoughts and feelings are part of our national consciousness, and our nation’s conscience.

Be heard. Write your story. Be like Anne Frank.


Guest Post at Jungle Red Writers

Is there any better friend to crime writers than Hank Phillippi Ryan? Writer, reporter, blogger, her generosity is legendary.

Today, I’m happy to be the guest of Hank and the other wonderful authors at the Jungle Red Writers blog. It’s a place where everyone who is anyone in the crime writing world ends up, as a reader, as a guest, as a commentor. I discuss the many things that frighten me. Please pop over to read about Some of All My Fears.  Some of those fears are about going Into the Woods….

Into the woods front cover

Retreat at the Beach

It is no secret that I love the beach. As a child, I spent weekends at Grand Isle, the barrier island made famous in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Now I live at hour-plus-change from Rehoboth Beach, where I go every spring and fall to remind myself of the cleansing power of water, waves, sand, and fresh air. Those weeks rejuvenate my spirit. Continue reading

Sally Ride Gets a Stamp

Last week, the United States Postal Service unveiled a Forever stamp honoring astronaut Sally Ride.


Sally Ride was a physicist and astronaut. When she was a student at Stanford University, she and 8000 other people responded to a NASA ad in the student newspaper. The ad was an open call seeking  applicants for the US space program. Sally answered the call, and the rest is history.

Sally Ride joined NASA in 1978. In 1983, she became the first American woman in space as a crew member on Space Shuttle Challenger. She was 32, and the youngest American astronaut to travel in space. Although she kept her personal life intensely private, Sally Ride was also a ground-breaker in another area. She was a lesbian and so is the first known LGBT American astronaut.

Sally Ride’s career as a NASA astronaut lasted until the late 1980s. She then worked at a couple of California universities and eventually headed the California Space Institute, but she never left behind her connections to the space program. She led two public-outreach programs for NASA. She wrote, or co-wrote, seven books for children on space exploration and science.

Sally Ride died of cancer in 2012. I remember her communications from the flight deck of the Challenger. She was always smiling, as if she was thrilled to be doing a job she loved. Isn’t that what we all want, to be fulfilled and respected in our life’s work? She left an incredible legacy for women and for the world–Earth and beyond.

To become an astronaut, a person has to be intelligent and physically fit, know how to work with a team, and balance bravery and wonder. Sally Ride was all of those things, as well as a gender ground-breaker. But every ground-breaker has to put up with backlash, disapproval, and resistance. My admiration for  Sally Ride grows exponentially every time I recall a pre-flight interview with the Challenger crew.

First, Sally Ride was asked if her reproductive organs would be affected by the flight. She answered that there was no evidence of that.

Then this question: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” She said, “How come nobody ever asks Rick those questions?” and refused to answer beyond that.

At the end of the interview, she said, “It may be too bad that our society isn’t further along and that this is such a big deal.”

Damn skippy, Sally. For making that public observation, she not only deserves a stamp, but her own planet, if you ask me.

Now I’m going off to buy some Sally Ride stamps. You?

Femme Fatale for a Day

No, not in the style of Edie Sedgewick or Nico (for you music lovers), but I am very pleased to be today’s guest at the Femme Fatales blog. The Femme Fatales are a dozen or so “ferociously talented women dedicated to the fine art of crime fiction.” My pal Hank Phillippi Ryan arranged my visit to talk about PBS’ Great American Read–and to give away a copy of the Into The Woods anthology.

Please pop over to the Femmes and comment on Reading Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry!

Love story



What’s inside the box?

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI hereby declare—since hereby declaring is a popular thing now—that I am all conferenced out.

This temporary condition will certainly  pass, but for the moment, I am unpacked, the suitcase is in the closet, and I have no immediate travel plans.  Give me a week and I’ll be screaming about cabin fever, but for the moment, it feels good to tuck in and enjoy some home time.

But staying home has hazards of its own. Like the rest of the world, every time I walk through the rooms of my house, I think about decluttering. There are still boxes in the basement we have never opened since our move from Pennsylvania 20+ years ago. Part of my fear in opening those boxes is that I will be delighted with whatever forgotten items have been waiting there, and I’ll be adding more instead of embracing less.

Life is full of chancy moments like this, when you don’t know what’s ahead: something you’ll never use, or something you’ll never forget.

A workshop is like an unopened box, I realized this weekend at the Pennwriters Conference.  You have no idea how deeply you’ll connect to the writer presenting or if their shared wisdom will hit you in the right place at the right time. One such moment, when a line is just what  you need to hear today, is a gem.

I came away with three gems from last weekend. The following quotes flew across the room and stuck to me like spaghetti on a wall:

“Plot the conflict.” – Susan Meier

“When the book opens, the villain already has a game plan.” – Gayle Lynds

“The inciting incident is the only scene in your story that can be totally random.” – Hilary Hauck

Wise words, yes? Susan’s advice means to stay on track in planning the action that drives the story. Gayle’s words are a reminder that the villain is always present. Hilary’s quote is an a-ha that the writer is allowed only one freebie from the universe.

Three gems in a single weekend means Pennwriters was a wonderful box to open.

Now, please excuse me. There’s a Mother’s Day hammock in the back yard I need to break in, and I have three takeaways to ponder while I do that. Those boxes in the basement have waited 20  years. Another day won’t hurt them.

Buy my book, cher

“After three weeks in jail, Mama asked me to talk to Judge Rousseau about getting her some decent food to eat.”

This is the opening line to “Light of the Moon,” my short story contribution to Into the Woods, an anthology of short fiction, essays, original music, and one walking meditation. The collection comes from writers who attend the Mindful Writers Retreats in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. After years of bonding and enjoying guided meditations, walking in the woods, and silent writing in the lodge’s great room, the twenty-six writers decided to share our work in an anthology for charity. All proceeds from Into the Woods benefit the work and research of the Children’s Heart Foundation.

Into the woods front cover

The print version of the book will make its debut at the Pennwriters Conference later this week. The eBook will release on May 21. We love orders and pre-orders!

I contributed a prose poem as well as “Light of the Moon,” which is set in the fictional Louisiana town of Bayou Rosa. The story includes love and death, war and myth, and the woods, of course.


My grandmother, Grom.

The print version of Into the Woods was released on Mother’s Day, so of course I thought of my grandmother. Grom taught me storytelling and oral history, and made me appreciate the travails of my Acadian ancestors. She believed in hard work and le Bon Dieu; she appreciated good food and good-looking men; and she spoke a mixture of Cajun French and English that peppers this story, and many of my others. Every story I write, in a small way or a big one, is a tribute to her.

Grom called people she loved cher, which is the French word for “my dear.” Grom had a big heart. So, my dears and chers, I hope you’ll open your own hearts and buy this book to support children who need your help–and to enjoy the work of writers who found inspiration in the woods.