The Real Gift of Christmas

What’s your favorite Christmas gift?

For me as a child, it might have been a doll’s tea set, a flute, or another of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books (the Island Stallion was my favorite).

As an adult, hmm . . . My child’s artwork, a small hand pressed into plaster-of-paris and painted at school?  The Lladro piece that fit me perfectly, sent by my husband while he was out on his submarine?  Mostly, it’s just being with my family.Lladro EmbroidererWhatever it is for me, whatever it is for you, this is the real gift – and it’s fast become my all-time favorite short Christmas video.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  And take joy this Christmas season!

Flunking NaNoWriMo, Finding a Writing Rhythm

Maybe Next Year!

Maybe Next Year!

I admit it:  I flunked NaNo this year.

I had great plans of using the month to crank out a down-and-dirty rough draft of Shimmer #2.  What I discovered was that a good story (not just a large word count), necessary historical research and a 30-day deadline do not make a good combination!

At about the 10,000 word mark, I discovered a resource that filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about life in the canal construction camps of the 1830s.  Great info, but it also meant stopping to read, re-imagine and re-plot before I could move forward again.  And when local book signings and a marketing push on Mother-Daughter Book Reviews took over my brain, and NaNoWriMo went completely kaput.


On the other hand, when I was working on those 10,000 words, I discovered a great rhythm for my writing time!

As many of you know, my back isn’t always nice to me, but it’s much happier when I take regular breaks from the computer to get up and walk around.  So I decided to spend 25 minutes writing followed by 5 minutes of walking around the house (adapted from the Pomodoro technique).

freedom128Good decision, but how to avoid getting sidetracked?  Minesweeper Historical research beckons, you know!  Enter internet-blocking apps such as Anti-Social and Freedom, along with their timers.  I set mine for 25 minutes and voila, no Facebook, Twitter, email, or other online distractions until the time is up – and it won’t let me get back into it without re-booting the computer!  So even if I want to go browse, I can’t.

And you know what?  It works!

As long as I know what’s happening in my scene, I found that I can write 700-900 words in that 25 minute block, and about 600-800 in the next block.  I have to know where my scene is going, but as long as I take time to plan that, it’s all very productive.  I didn’t succeed in doing three blocks in a row during NaNo, but if I keep at it, that will come too.

There’s a lot more research to do, but now that my historical “daily life” gap is filled, I’m writing merrily away again.  Which is a good thing, because I have a commitment to have this book ready for a signing at Conner Prairie in May 2015.  Onwards!

Did you succeed at NaNoWriMo?  And what writing routine works best for you?  Leave a comment, because enquiring minds want to know!



Author Interview: Kassandra Lamb & the Story Behind the Story

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Story, with a capital S. Why do we authors feel compelled to tell stories? Why do others read our stories?  Why do we choose one story to tell over another?

Mystery Author Kassandra Lamb

Kassandra Lamb

So I decided to interview a writer friend of mine who has just released the seventh book in her mystery series, and who also happens to be a retired psychologist, to see what her answers to these questions might be.

So let me introduce you to Kassandra Lamb, author of the Kate Huntington mystery series.

Hi, Kass, thanks for joining me today.

Thanks for having me, Jen.

We wouldn’t be writers if we didn’t have stories itching to come to life.  So why do you feel compelled to tell stories?

"Storyteller Under Sunny Skies," clay sculpture by Rose Pecos-SunRhodes, in The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

“Storyteller Under Sunny Skies,” clay sculpture by Rose Pecos-SunRhodes, in The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

*laughs* Have you ever seen one of those figurines of a Native American storyteller surrounded by children, some in her lap, some hanging over her shoulders? I’m convinced that was me in a former life.

I think human beings are storytellers by nature. Our earliest cultures used stories to entertain, to educate and to explore deeper issues in life.

People constantly ask me where I get my story ideas, and I’m sure you get the same question. How do you answer it?

The idea is not usually the hard part. We authors have over-active imaginations that love to contemplate the “what if’s” of life. What if this happened, or that happened?

My recent release came out of a thought I had about two years ago: What if a therapist was kidnapped by someone posing as a new client? It could happen oh-so-easily. Therapists trust that the people calling to set up appointments, and then walking into their offices for the first time, are on the up and up.

Where do you go from there with the “what if” thought?

I usually let it percolate for a bit. Some ideas fade out and are forgotten. (Jen’s note:  thank goodness!)  Others grow and a basic storyline starts to form in my mind.

You have an ongoing series with a character you know well. How do you decide which story idea to go with next?

Once I have a new idea, I ask myself if it works with my characters. Is there something in this new storyline that will push them to change and grow in some way? Sometimes I postpone an idea until later in the series, because it’s not right for where the characters are at that time.

When I first had the “what if” idea for a kidnapping from a therapy office, I assumed that my psychotherapist protagonist, Kate Huntington, would be the victim. But then it would have to be the last book in the series. No way would a therapist continue in private practice after that had happened to her! So I tabled the idea.

A few months later, it occurred to me that Kate’s former boss, Sally Ford, could be the victim, and Kate and her P.I. husband would be trying to find her before the kidnapper killed her.

So once you’ve decided on a particular plot line, what’s next?

I try to dig a little deeper. What will be the theme of this story?

Theme is the deeper meaning, the question or issue we want to explore so that our stories not only entertain but enrich our readers. I want them to come away from my stories with a new perspective on something that maybe they hadn’t thought about much before.

One of the things that really stirs my empathy is missing people. I’ve never had a loved one go missing, but I can imagine it tops the list of worst experiences ever. How do our overworked police departments respond? How do the individuals who care about the missing person cope (or not)?

Also, one of my objectives in each book is to give readers a sense of what it’s like to experience one or more psychological disorders. In this story, Fatal Forty-Eight, the reader gets a close-up view of a psychopathic serial killer.

Close up of a psychopath – shudder!  But this story is definitely more a thriller than your regular whodunit mystery. What made you decide to go that route?

In a thriller, the bad guy is revealed early on. The main characters may not know his name, but they at least have a general idea of who he is. And they’re trying to stop him from doing whatever heinous act he is planning.

This seemed the right way to go with this story. I wanted to show the readers the unfolding of the bad guy’s pathology, as well as the main characters’ attempts to find him before its too late for Sally.

Once you have the story idea, do you carefully outline the plot or are you more a seat-of-the-pants type writer?

I’m definitely more of a pantser. I like to see how the story pans out as I go along. I’m often surprised and delighted by where things go, especially when characters evolve in ways I hadn’t anticipated. In this story, several of the secondary characters did this.

One was the hard-nosed female police detective who’s had a minor role in previous books. Standing in her shoes was very enlightening as she has to tell people that someone they care about has been kidnapped by a killer.

The victim’s lover, Charles, was originally supposed to have only a few lines. But a good man wouldn’t just fade into the background as I’d intended he would. He’d pursue every avenue to find his woman. Early on, Charles is confronted by the fact that there’s very little he can do, and this sense of helplessness almost drives him crazy.

And then there’s the victim herself. Sally Ford was a minor player in my first three books. I’ve always liked her elegant style coupled with a no-nonsense mentality. I thoroughly enjoyed developing her character further in this story. She is someone I would want to know in real life.

Those were my questions for Kass, but now it’s your turn.  Did any of her answers surprise you?  Do you have anything you’d like to ask? Share your thoughts in the Comments section, and she and I will be popping in to answer!

Also, check out Kassandra’s new thriller below.  She’s holding a contest with some cool prizes, to celebrate her new release. Click HERE to check it out. You can enter several times.

Fatal 48 by Kassandra LambFatal 48

Celebration turns to nightmare when psychotherapist Kate Huntington’s guest of honor disappears en route to her own retirement party. Kate’s former boss, Sally Ford, has been kidnapped by a serial killer who holds his victims exactly forty-eight hours before killing them.

With time ticking away, the police allow Kate and her P.I. husband to help with the investigation. The FBI agents involved in the case have mixed reactions to the “civilian consultants.” The senior agent welcomes Kate’s assistance as he fine-tunes his psychological profile. His voluptuous, young partner is more by the book. She locks horns out in the field with Kate’s husband, while back at headquarters, misunderstandings abound.

But they can ill afford these distractions, when Sally’s time is about to expire.

Connect with Kassandra here:


Winnie the Pooh Gets Banned

The Original Winnie the Pooh Toys (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Original Winnie the Pooh Toys (via Wikimedia Commons)

Pooh Bear, that “tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff,” has been banned and lambasted by a Polish village.

Yes, you read that right. Winnie the Pooh has been banned. From a children’s park, no less!

In the small town of Tuszyn, the village council, in their oh-so-infinite wisdom, has declared Winnie the Pooh to be unfit for children – or at least unfit to be the face of a children’s playground. They can’t tell what gender he is, so he must be a hermaphrodite,  and *gasp* he doesn’t wear pants!  Actually, sometimes he completely naked.

News flash, folks. He doesn’t need pants because he’s a TOY! A toy who is suitably NOT anatomically correct, for which my young children were unknowingly thankful.  (And contrary to what one council member said, I highly doubt that Milne “cut [Pooh’s] testicles off with a razor blade because he had a problem with his identity.”)

Not only that, but he is a HE. All you have to do is read the books to know that. Here are the opening lines of The House at Pooh Corner:

One day when Pooh Bear had nothing else to do, he thought he would do something, so he went round to Piglet’s house to see what Piglet was doing.

Winnie the Pooh not for children? In my humble (or not-so-humble) opinion, the village councillors’ brains have been stuffed with fluff!

Sources:  MediaBistro, The Independent

Do you have any thoughts to share?  Or just fond memories of Pooh Bear?

Holding on to Thanksgiving

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Don’t get me wrong – I love Christmas.  Love the music, love the baking, love the special charge in the air.  And I especially love spending the month focusing on the Christ Child.

But not yet.

When the leaves are still crunchy on the ground, when the air is crisp but (hopefully) not frigid, it’s time to gather family around and give thanks for our very blessed lives.

Sure, I’d like a bit more money to accomplish things around the house.  But we have a house.  We have heat and running water and electricity.  We have food to eat, coats on our backs and shoes on our feet.  We have beautiful music and plenty of books.  We have phones to call far away loved ones and cars to take us to ones close by. We have healthy bodies and active minds, and opportunities to put them to work.  We have trees and grass and flowers in the spring.  We have beloved children who have grown into awesome adults.  And we have Christ’s Gospel in the center of our lives.

Thanksgiving is more than just the beginning of the holiday shopping season.  It’s a time to give thanks for all these blessings – enough that they could take the entire day to count.

We traditionally celebrate with a feast, so yes, it’s time for smooth pumpkin pies and crunchy Waldorf salad.  For roasted turkey and smooth homemade gravy.  For cranking potatoes through the ricer for the creamiest mash you’ve ever eaten.  But it’s also time to give thanks for the peanut butter sandwiches and chicken casserole we have on other days.

Instead of shopping, we’ll show our gratitude for family with time for football and board games, Frisbee outside and stories inside.  We’ll enjoy every minute of young men wrestling, of tripping over bedding, of many hands cooking, of talks both serious and silly.

And on Friday or Saturday, when Thanksgiving has been fully appreciated, we’ll bring out the Christmas music.

What does your Thanksgiving holiday look like this year?  What are you thankful for this season?


Remembering Maggie

What can you say about a 65 pound black Lab who thinks she’s a lap dog?

She was well-loved and slightly spoiled – and she knew it.IMG_0880She was part of the family, jokes and all:

Maggie was never a dog to play fetch. She liked to chase what you threw, but she’d rather tease and play tug-o-war than give it up to go chase it again.IMG_2895She loved to play with her blanket, tugging it off “her” big red chair and wrestling with it.  She wasn’t too excited about playing with her blonde buddy, Mindy – she preferred people.  She would nudge you with a wet nose, tease you until you grabbed (or stood on) the other end, and then play tug-o-war.

Maggie would “talk” to Mom when she wasn’t getting enough attention, and our phone calls were often punctuated by a crescendo-ing aarrooooaahh.  She loved to chase wild turkeys and lay on the blistering asphalt driveway, even when there was cool dirt and grass in the garden.  She loved car rides, drinking water from every conceivable vessel, and licking the dinner plates before they went into the dishwasher.

Thanks to a service tech who left both gates open, Mom’s freedom-loving Maggie got out and was killed by a car last week.

We know you’re romping in doggie-heaven now, Maggie, but we’ll surely miss you here!

(PS: for those who know Mom, please don’t call her to talk about Maggie.  You know she hates crying in front of people and she doesn’t like to talk about what she can’t change.  She still likes to chat about other things, though.)

NaNoWriMo and Shimmer of Time 2

It’s that time of year again, when writers all over the world hunker down together and begin a new novel, with the goal of at least 50,000 words (that’s about 200 double-spaced pages) by the end of November – National Novel Writing Month.  Would you believe there were 310,000 NaNoWriMo writers last year??

I’ve “won” NaNo twice before, once finishing the majority of an adult novel, and once with a YA experiment with mixed results.  I haven’t participated since I got back from Ireland, but now I’m all set to go with the sequel to Through the Shimmer of Time (click to read an excerpt of Book 1).

Jim and Hannah will be back, of course, along with a new village resident named Mr. Oppenheimer, a young Irishman named Donal, and their immigrant canal-building buddies.  Plus a nasty dude who has no name yet, and plenty of adventure and danger.  I’d continue, but if I told you everything I have planned, then reading the book next spring would be no fun!  My lips are sealed.

I’ll try to keep blogging this month, and I’ve got a book signing coming up – more about that later.  But if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I’m immersed in 1838.  Happy writing!

Are you taking on the challenge of NaNoWriMo? What are you working on?  And if you’d like to be writing buddies, my user name is JenJensen. 

Halloween Story Starters

Capture a Spooky Setting

Capture a Spooky Setting


Do you love spooky stories?  Ones that make you shiver, jump at an unexpected sound, feel like someone is watching from the shadows?

Here are some opening lines to start you writing your own.  But first, a couple of tips:

  •  Fear builds when something unknown happens or might happen.  Don’t simply include gruesome monsters or menacing wraiths – instead, let your character hear/feel things that shouldn’t be possible.
  •  Don’t forget the surroundings, including the unexplainable from above, such as things that move with no wind or that don’t move when they should.  Your character’s observations and reactions will heighten the tension.

Okay, ready to write? You can use these openers as written, change the gender or other details, or let them be triggers for your own ideas.  Whether you write a paragraph or a complete short story, have fun giving someone else the shivers!


  1. She stared at the candle, watching the flame flicker until it drowned in melted wax.
  2. His footsteps echoed on the staircase and a door clicked shut above.  Who else was in the building this late?
  3. The fog crept closer, wispy fingers reaching through the orchard until the trees were smothered in white.
  4. It was an ordinary Monday night with the kids asleep upstairs and the ball game blaring from the family room, until the doorbell rang.
  5. The old woman walked back and forth, back and forth, from one room to another.  Sometimes she seemed to be carrying something heavy.  Once she stopped to laugh.

If you’d like to share a bit of what you wrote, please paste it into the comments below.



Weird Names & the War That Wasn’t a War

Stolen Ohio chickens, a lost Michigan militia, and men with numbers for names?  You never know what your fiction research is going to uncover.

Photo by "JoanaCroft" via FreeImages.comThere I was, digging into Midwest canals and railroads for Book 2 of my Shimmer of Time series.  Lots of cool stuff for the book, right?  But I got sidetracked completely by Benjamin Franklin Stickney, who had weird tastes in names and was (probably) responsible for a war most of us have never heard of.

Stickney’s mother was a favorite niece of Benjamin Franklin (that’s right, the key-on-a-kite-string Benjamin Franklin, “discoverer” of electricity and inventor of my ever-necessary bifocals), and she named her son after him in 1773.  So Benjamin Stickney grew up, got married, and named his sons …

wait for it . . .


Two Stickney

One and Two!  Evidently he wanted to let them choose their own names when they got older, but they never did.  So early Toledo, Ohio residents had friends named One Stickney and Two Stickney.  Can you imagine the tavern?  “Hey, One, come have a drink with me!”

Good old Ben also wanted to name his daughters after states, but his wife put her foot down.  His first two girls were Mary and Louisa, but by the time the third was born, he was the Indian Agent in Fort Wayne, Indiana Territory.  Who knows why his wife agreed, or if he just plain over-ruled her, but that daughter became Indiana Stickney.  Poor girl. Poor boys!

So, besides giving his sons numbers instead of names, Benjamin Stickney was a pretty accomplished dude.  He was a historian, a biographer, spoke twenty native dialects, was totally against giving liquor to Native Americans (and got into trouble for it), and was even a spy, sneaking into Canada to find out if the US could mount an invasion during the War of 1812.  But his biggest interest was the Ohio canal, and in the process he became responsible for the “Toledo War,” sixteen years of sometimes-armed conflict over a strip of land claimed by both the State of Ohio and Michigan Territory.

What’s that?  You’ve never heard of the Toledo War?  Don’t feel bad – neither have most of us.

A Toledo newspaper biography of Benjamin Stickney tells how he wanted his neighborhood not to have to pay huge Ohio taxes to get the canal built, so encouraged them to secede from Ohio and become part of Michigan in 1820.  But a few years later he found out that Michigan wasn’t going to let Toledo become an important port AND that the Ohio canal builders were moving the planned Toledo terminus to another town, which would ruin many of their financial plans.  So he convinced his neighbors to “move” back to Ohio – which Michigan wasn’t at all happy about.


The “Toledo Strip”

The disputes carried on, with surveyors sent and harassed, lawsuits flying and militias gathering.  Ohio wanted the strip back, Michigan didn’t want to give it up.  People living in the strip spent the summer of 1835 getting arrested by Michigan authorities if they voted in or held office for Ohio.

Stickney and son One were arrested, and Two took off for Ohio proper after slightly wounding a sheriff with a pen knife.

The federal government got involved and finally, in 1836, allowed Michigan to become a state if it ceded the strip to Ohio in exchange for more land in the upper peninsula.  Michigan wasn’t thrilled, thinking the upper peninsula was worthless, but finally agreed for other economic reasons.  And in the end, the “worthless” land turned out to have rich mineral resources, so Michigan came out ahead and modern Toledo-ites are Buckeyes instead of Wolverines.

So just how did I come across this eccentric guy and an unknown “war”?  One intriguing sentence in a Wikipedia article about Toledo:

“The only casualty of the conflict was a Michigan deputy sheriff—stabbed in the leg with a pen knife by Two Stickney during the arrest of his elder brother, One Stickney—and the loss of two horses, two pigs and a few chickens stolen from an Ohio farm by lost members of the Michigan militia.”

Seriously, who could resist exploring a quote like that?  So many possibilities!  Unfortunately, it’s too early and too far north to end up in the next Shimmer of Time book, but it was fun finding out.

What sets your curiosity on fire?  What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found as you dug deeper into the internet?  Leave a comment below so we can share the fun!


BlogMash: Strong Daughters, Reading & NaNoWriMo

Colliding Rivers (North Umpqua & Little River) near my mother's home.  Photo by "Little Mountain 5" via Wikimedia Commons

Colliding Rivers (North Umpqua & Little River) near my mother’s home. Photo by “Little Mountain 5″ via Wikimedia Commons

While I’m off traveling once more (to Oregon for a visit with my mother, this time), I’ve collected some cool stuff for you to read until I manage the next installment of our Irish adventure:

*** We can teach our kids to be strong and stand up for themselves, but what about when they’re facing an authority figure?  Here’s Carissa Rogers on raising strong daughters.

*** Myndi Shafer shares a heartbreaking post about the repercussions of calling someone fat.  And we should all shut up and quit asking women when their is due unless they’ve announced it publicly.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

*** Jenny Lussier sheds some insight on where she would be without books and reading.  What would your life look like?

*** For a follow-on, Pragmatic Mom (aka Mia Wenjen) has some great tips for encouraging kids to read.

*** If you’re a writer considering plotting vs. flying by the seat of your pants, here’s Kait Nolan on the myths of being a plotter.  It’s not as restricting as you think!

*** Kristen Lamb has tips to fuel up for NaNo, complete with a voodoo veve (and you know you have to click over to see what that is, don’t you?).  For our non-writing Readers, you can peek inside a writer’s brain and see how it functions during non-writing time!

*** And finally, Writers and Readers both should check out Mash Stories, a competition in which three random words are chosen as the writing prompt and you have to create a compelling flash fiction story using all of them. It’s quarterly, free to enter, with a shortlist and a winner’s prize. The shortlisted stories are great short reads, and they produce podcasts of the winning stories!

And me?  I’m fueling for NaNo by researching railroad speculation and creating my villain for Jim and Hannah’s next Shimmer of Time adventure.  Fun stuff!