The Blue Chair Blog

It's not just about the novel

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Be a poet even in prose

DWJournalI dawdled at Orca Books for a while on Friday before meeting a friend for lunch and, on a whim, I bought a slightly battered little book, Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. A stamp and handwritten note on the flyleaf revealed it had been purchased at Dove Cottage, Grasmere in 1970. At the time, it cost 45 p. I am enchanted  by it, and inspired. The first few pages of Helen Darbishire‘s engaging introduction, written in 1958, have me in tears. What better source for learning how to describe; describe nature, the natural world, and landscape but also people. She could sketch a character or a first impression indelibly in only a few lines. I bought the book without much investigation because it was cheap and because these early journals are close in date to the period I’m writing about — 1798 and 1800 to 1802. Isn’t it lovely to indulge in an inexpensive little whim and have that whim so well-rewarded? Dorothy did not want to be an author. She did not see herself as a poet. As Miss Darbishire wrote, she was a poet in prose:

There is something . . . that imagination does, the simplest thing, the central thing. It pierces through the familiar surface to something nearer to life itself than what we ordinarily see.

There is only one known portrait of Dorothy, a sad one made when she was quite old, and yet she lives. Not only through her own vibrant words, but in her brother William’s poetry — some of which is clearly sourced from her journals — and in Coleridge’s, too. And from the tender regard both men had for her. “[H]is exquisite sister,” Coleridge wrote, and you have to credit his perspicaciousness: “[H]her person is such that if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary; if you expected to see an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty!”

William Wordsworth was speaking more generally in the following quotation, but these journals are so beautiful, so captivating, that he could easily have been writing of Dorothy:

Of genius in the fine Arts the only infallible sign is the widening the sphere of human sensibility for the delight, honour, and benefit of human nature.

She was a great walker, along with her brother and Coleridge. In 1818, when she would have been about 46, she climbed Scafell Pike (the highest mountain in England at just over 3,200 feet) with another lady, a maid, and a pair of local guides. She never married. She fell ill from about 1829 and eventually her mind grew frail as well.

As ever, all we have is now.

Dorothy Wordsworth on Wikipedia.

Dorothy Wordsworth on The Poetry Foundation website.


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More writer events than you can shake a stick at

Yes, there are more literary adventures available than you might think down here in the state capital, which is after all a college town times three. Here’s what I’ve been able to take advantage of lately and I’m feeling SO fortunate.

At the end of September, I took up a week-long writing residency at Holly House, which is a retreat center for women “of all creative talents” on Arcadia Point in Mason County. Holly House is maintained by a small jewel of an organization, Hypatia-in-the-Woods. The cottage is a 40-minute drive from my house, but a whole world away. This is a solo operation and nature, nurture, beauty, and peace abound. I wrote, slept, read, walked and came home renewed and full of gratitude for the opportunity.

A few days later, Jess Walter, author of  Beautiful Ruins and some kick-ass short stories, spoke at Saint Martins University in Lacey. An SRO crowd filled the hall and Jess’s long-time friend Jim Lynch introduced him with love and laughter. I continue to be delighted that writers like Jess are showing up — right in my neighborhood! — to charm and inspire readers and writers. One of his messages to writers, echoed by Liz Gilbert (more on her shortly) is that you don’t necessarily need an MFA to be “A Writer” and that starting a writing career with $30,000 in debt is probably not a great idea. This is the second annual talk in SMU’s Les Bailey Writers Series and last year’s speaker Brian Doyle was also terrific.

It’s not a literary event per se, but whether it’s Spring or Fall, Olympia Arts Walk is an unmissable Olympia cultural phenomenon, so I didn’t miss it. There is always plenty of energy, lots to look at, and you are bound to run into someone (or many someones) you know.

Although Seattle is a little beyond local, I did head on up to the big city to see Elizabeth Gilbert in person last week. Her new book Big Magic has so many terrific things to say about creativity and living a big life. I’ve been listening to her practical and encouraging Magic Lessons podcasts for several weeks and got my hands on the book as soon as I got back from Holly House. God love her, she is OUT THERE on a few things but that’s kind of the point. She puts herself out there in a way that convinces you she’s fully alive and that she wants you to take every opportunity to be the same. My goodness, can that woman communicate — novels, podcasts, talks, photos, and her one-of-a-kind, worth-joining-for Facebook page.

The very next night, there was another cool local event, a book signing for my friend Russ Cahill’s novel of ancient Hawaii, Kolea. I never did get to talk to Russ because friends, friends-of-friends, and new fans were all lined up to get books signed. Now he’s off on a research trip to Yosemite for his next book, living the writing life.

Then the following evening (this is three nights in a row, folks), Timberland Regional Library (one of the best regional library systems imaginable) launched its new anthology, Timberland Writes Together, which builds on the success of its program Timberland Reads Together. No, I’m not one of the 15 writers included, but my friend Meagan’s story “Going Without” is in there. You can download or borrow the anthology from the library (of course), or buy it online, and discussions and panels centered on this project are scheduled in Thurston, Mason, Pacific, Grays Harbor, and Lewis Counties. I’m so impressed that TRL has taken this project on and fascinated to learn how much writing has been going on around here. Even more than I had suspected!

According to my calendar, more bookish adventures are waiting. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I got this post written and now it’s back to the WIP.


My Bloomsbury


Queen Square Park

Just as I returned home toward the end of July, BBC2 began broadcasting Life in Squares, about the Bloomsbury Set — Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and all that — of whom it was said they “lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles.” Very amusing, I’m sure.  That particular set is gone but Bloomsbury is still known for its garden squares, literary associations, and its cultural, educational and health-care institutions. Over the years I’ve stayed in quite a few different areas of London — Swiss Cottage, Ebury Street, Bayswater, Earls Court, Sloane Square and several hotels in Bloomsbury, to which I keep returning.  By way of contrast, last fall I stayed in a lovely hotel in Sloane Square but didn’t really enjoy the area — too upscale for me, I suppose. Bloomsbury (click for a walking tour) is comfortable, vibrant, multicultural, and wears its academic connections like a pair of old slippers. It’s slightly scruffy in places, but who cares? If I am within a stone’s throw of Russell Square and the British Museum, with the British Library not too far away, I feel perfectly at home.


Breakfast at 49 Cafe

If you travel in from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line, you alight at Russell Square Tube station. Follow the Way Out signs, climb a short flight of stairs with your suitcase, wait impatiently for the cattle-car style lift, pop your Oyster card on the reader, walk across Bernard Street to Marchmont Street and there you are. For starters, have you seen the movie Pride? It follows events that actually occurred during the 1984 miners strike, when a group of gay and lesbian activists provided dedicated, direct support to some Welsh miners and their families. The two groups ended up making a deep and long lasting connection that is recounted in the film with humor, sensitivity, outrage, and yes, pride.  The first time I saw it, I immediately recognized  Gay’s the Word on Marchmont Street, a Bloomsbury bookstore that was a sort of headquarters for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.  It’s still there, a little bit of modern history where you can wander in and browse, or buy a T shirt. Anyway, the film deserves to be better known and more seen and I recommend it whole-heartedly. Also on Marchmont, there is a terrific place for breakfast at No. 49, helpfully named the 49 Cafe (lovely food, lovely staff), and Judd Books, which specializes in second-hand academic books and carries much else besides. North Sea Fish Restaurant and Takeaway (deservedly highly rated for fish and chips) is around the corner on Leigh Street. And Brunswick Centre, a shopping complex adjacent to the Tube station, will have everything you could possibly need and quite a few things you don’t.

There is a nice cafe, with outdoor seating, in the north corner of Russell Square, and one of only 13 remaining cabman’s shelters is on the west corner. When the weather is mild, I love to sit on bench or at the cafe with a book or notebook, people watch, and read or write, and day dream.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of what Bloomsbury has to offer. If you have a favorite London neighborhood, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!



We interrupt this program for a book review

I’m smack in the middle of rolling out several posts about my recent travels, but I just finished my friend Russ Cahill‘s new book and wanted to post a brief review.

Kolea by Russell Cahill


In the tradition of epic story telling, Kolea takes the reader on a sweeping and dangerous journey among the Hawaiian Islands and eastward across the Pacific. Russ Cahill’s first novel demonstrates his deep understanding of Hawaiian culture and history as well as his knowledge and appreciation of native people of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In particular, his descriptions of designing, building, sailing and navigating the great canoes are fascinating.

Because I’m a friend of the author (and grateful to be mentioned in acknowledgements), I’m only providing a brief review of Kolea, but I encourage you to read it. It’s available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon,  and also online in paperback from Barnes & Noble. If you are in the South Puget Sound area, you should be able to pick it up at Orca Books.

Next Monday, I’ll take you on a visit to my favorite neighborhood in London. Stay tuned!

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Not so secretly, I admire you (repost from NaNoWriMo Blog)

A  few weeks ago, NaNoWriMo solicited folks to write “not-so-secret admirer” notes to people who have inspired them as writers. For my money, writing as part of a community is different, and better, than writing in total isolation. A lot of people and organizations have inspired me from afar and supported me up close, including Kamy Wicoff and, Russ Cahill, Deborah Harkness, Meagan Macvie and Off Point Writers, Hedgebrook, NaNoWriMo, personal friends who keep low profiles, and at least half of those I follow in my Twitter feed.

First and foremost are the five remarkable women who make up WISH, the Wild and Inspired Sisters of Hedgebrook. Here’s the note I wrote to them, which was published on the NaNoWriMo Blog today:

Dear Colleen, Kay, Niki, Teresa, and Traci,

Yes, my wild, inspired sisters—you are the reason I am able to write, not just reclusively as writers must, but also as part of a small but vibrant writing community. Aren’t I lucky to have this opportunity to write out loud about what a difference you have made in my life! 

How could we have imagined when we first met at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers in Washington state, that we would still be in almost daily contact over a year later? We were together in a historical fiction master class for only a week, learning from the phenomenal Deborah Harkness and reveling in Whidbey Island’s magic. Although Hedgebrook and its dedicated staff remain close to my heart, you are the gift that keeps on giving. Even now that we are scattered from the West Coast of the US to Germany, thanks to technology we are there for each other almost every day, and sometimes even in the middle of the night.

What we have in common connects us — our obsession with historical fiction, alternating fascination and frustration with the writing process, and a passion for red wine with salt and pepper potato chips. I have seen most of you at least once in the intervening year and I cherish those times, too. Only with true friends can you meet and take up the conversation again without missing a beat. And what conversations! Encouragement, sympathy, understanding, humor — each of you has these things in abundance and shares them unquestioningly.

Thanks for always being there, convincing me I can succeed, and cheering me over all the hurdles. Maybe I could do it alone, but I’m glad I don’t have to try.



After telling the NaNoWriMo folks about WISH, I was excited to receive an invitation to write the note for publication and absolutely thrilled to wake up this morning and learn that it had been published. The blog’s headline writer got it exactly right. Here’s to writing groups who become true friends!

The original text of my note is here.

Hellebore on the farmhouse table

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Joy and thievery

Because I’ve just seen Far From the Madding Crowd, I’m temporarily wandering through a pastoral, gilded version of England that probably never existed outside of fairy tales. All the same, I expect the visual experience of the film will inform my writing at some point.

Quay in Flusing

Research visit – Flushing, Cornwall

There are literary types far wiser, better read, and better educated than me to inform us about the possibilities and the impossibilities of reproducing the past. I may or may not be doing it “right” but here’s what I think: Writing a novel set in the past calls for imagination, interpretation, taste, and a dash of common sense. And a lot of information — historical fact, literature and essays of the time, fiction and literature set in the time, paintings, films, music, and — if possible — site visits. This research (a word that sounds far too scholarly for what is, after all, quite a bit of fun) is a kind of immersion, I suppose. And because research is so much fun, it’s a principle reason why I am writing historical fiction.

I am an unabashed magpie. Thomas Hardy comes after the time period that currently engages me, but no matter. His novels are closer in time to the late Eighteenth Century than my experience. So was the span of my grandmother’s life (1875-1967). To employ an expression my grandmother might have used, it’s all grist to the mill.

At the moment, I’m re-reading Persuasion in an annotated version, as well as one of Anna Dean’s Austenesque historical mysteries, A Woman of Consequence. My writing-related TBR list currently includes:

At some point, I will watch again the lovely 1995 film of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds as well as Emma Thompson’s tender realization of Sense and Sensibility that same year. Scenes from these films have stayed with me for years and I have cribbed from them liberally. What I steal, however, tends to be atmospheric inspiration, so even with this confession I don’t think I’ll be caught red-handed. The films helped me understand how much in Austen translates directly to the present. In Sense and Sensibility, think of Robert Hardy’s character, Sir John Middleton, and his mother-in-law (played by the redoubtable Elizabeth Spriggs) arriving for a visit with a carriage full of yapping little dogs. I have seen these same gregarious, oblivious people drive up in a camper van with the same yappy dogs and get ready to settle in for an extended stay.

Fitting music, whether for background listening or to enhance a setting, is essential. I love the way music is immersive without distracting attention away from writing. Eighteenth Century music and earlier, especially dance music, is with me constantly. This version of English Country Dances, or this one are good examples and you can’t go wrong with Mozart or Purcell. It’s all part of the game. What would your characters have been listening to or reading? Do they go to the theatre? What would they see?

And back to Austen, who is a touchstone: More people should be writing as she did. The Internet says so: See The Jane Austen Manifesto: How we can save the world by writing like Austen by Ian Flitcroft, from The New Statesman via Poets & Writers. The article, which I intend to print out and might very well memorize, also shares a Jane Austen thesaurus (free online) and a related Twitter feed @WritelikeAusten. You can also follow the author, my new hero, @IanFlitcroft.

Back to the coalface, inspired.


A different kind of connection

I just got back together with Natalie Goldberg. Even though I don’t know her, she changed my life.  At some point last year, I ran out of steam on my current work in progress. (I got back to it — all good for the moment, thanks.) Still, I kept on writing almost every day, thanks to Natalie’s sensible and transcendent first book, Writing Down the Bones. Because of that book and her wisdom, even in the throes of a creative dry spell, I developed a writing practice that got me through that fallow period and that has also has stood the test of time. The practice brought me a connection to Natalie — I often addressed what I was writing directly to her — and also to myself.

She can tell it better than I can, but what she has to say kind of boils down to this:

  • Find a cheap notebook and a fast pen
  • Write every day
  • Keep your hand moving
  • Don’t edit, don’t censor yourself, just write
  • Be specific

This approach appeals to me in part because I enjoy writing longhand. I think differently when I do. Yes, I use a computer for blog posts and book drafts, which suits the purpose but is not the same. Possibly the single best piece of advice as it applies to the content of writing is Natalie’s direction to “be specific.”  For whatever reason, I’m pretty good at not editing on the first pass. The rest is more about process and process is highly personal. This is what works for me.

I went through that book at the rate of about a chapter a day. When I finished, I decided to try a different author as my writing guide.  She’s as well-known as Natalie, maybe more so, and I believe her approach and techniques have been successfully adopted by many writers. But I found out, after working through a few of these new chapters and exercises, that I could not make a connection with this other writing guru. As a result, my writing practice fell off. I regretted that and felt guilty about it. I went back to my manuscript and let my writing practice become intermittent. Then one day not long ago, I picked up another of Natalie’s books, Wild Mind, which is about the writing life as well as writing practice. Or so it seems; I’m not through it yet.

What I can say is that beginning to read the Introduction to Wild Mind felt like a homecoming. Not so much the kind where you are greeted with open arms as a long lost relative, but more the kind when you walk in your front door, slip off your tight shoes,  sink into your most comfortable chair, put your feet up, and silently shout, “Hallelujah!”

I’ll certainly explore other writing books and teachers, but I think I’ll always come back to Natalie. Thankfully, she’s given writers quite a few resources. Even if she hadn’t, I bet I could pick up Writing Down the Bones and work my way through it again one chapter at a time to find new insight, inspiration, and encouragement along the way.

It’s Natalie who speaks to me, but the list of writers and teachers sharing their gifts is long, varied, and rich. I would love to learn about your favorites in the comments.


Only connect

If the online world sometimes seems both a blessing and a curse, this morning I know it’s a blessing because it connects me to other writers. In the real world, even. Like anything else, the more you sow the more you tend to reap. Writing comes first and reaching out does take effort, but it is SO worth it.  I’m still a little high from a terrific book event I attended yesterday evening at Third Place Books up in Lake Forest Park. The event was part of She Writes Press spring book tour and featured Kamy Wicoff, author of Wishful Thinking; Leanna Lehman, author of Vote for Remi; and Celine Keating, author of Play for Me.

It’s a bit of a haul from where I live up to Lake Forest Park and Puget Sound traffic is a bummer. Also, the weather was dark and stormy. Before I left, it hailed. Hard. And there were a million other things I could have been doing, including putting my butt in my seat and writing a few hundred more words.  But writers need to put some balance in their lives (at least I do, constantly) and they need to feel connected, because writing can be a lonely enterprise.

I was so happy to see a familiar face when I arrived — Louise from Hedgebrook, along with Bre, whom I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting. Pretty much everything Hedgebrookian brings me joy and of course there is a natural, sympathetic connection between She Writes Press and Hedgebrook. Finally meeting Kamy after reading and reviewing her book was a genuine pleasure. She, Leanna, and Celine gave delightful readings and of course I had to buy all three books. (An extra Wishful Thinking can’t hurt!) Writers are readers, too, and I imagine we all have tottering To Be Read piles, but isn’t that better than the alternative?

These warm, bright, and interesting women also know how to engage an audience!  All of  us (maybe 40 — I’m bad at estimates) introduced ourselves and shared what we were currently reading or writing. How much there is to learn this way! People were reading everything from mysteries to the sciences and writing about everything from nonfiction about serious illness to fantasy fiction. I was excited to meet the triple-threat writer, editor and instructor Lori A. May and hear about her book The Write Crowd, Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life (arriving on Friday, thanks to Amazon Prime).

Here’s to community and connection among writers. If you have suggestions for how to expand our connected universe, please do share them along with any other thoughts in the comments!


Have you ever wanted to be in two places at once?

I happened to receive a galley copy of Hedgebrook alumna  Kamy Wicoff‘s new novel Wishful Thinking and since I was invited to write a review, I did. It’s a delightful book. Here’s the review on Goodreads but I’m also posting the text of the review below. Please share!


We’re all pretty much trying to do our best in this life, and Jennifer Sharpe, the hardworking single mother of two young boys, is no different. She’s got an unreasonably demanding public sector job, only a little bit of outside help, a feckless ex-husband, and not much money. She runs from one obligation to the next, shorts herself on sleep, and would give anything for a few more hours in the day. Then she loses her phone (her phone!) and it comes back to her with a strange new app already installed. Wishful Thinking, it’s called — An App for Women Who Need to Be in More Than One Place at the Same Time.

Jennifer’s first reaction is, of course, disbelief. But she’s also a little bit desperate. When she sees an opportunity to show up at her son Julien’s guitar recital and therefore not disappoint him for the umpteenth time, she decides to give it a try. On the one hand she’s in the middle of a critical business meeting, but on the other, she’s watching her son play his guitar only for her.

Once she meets Wishful Thinking’s brilliant and mysterious creator, Dr. Diane Sexton, Jennifer makes up her mind to use this enticing technology — under controlled conditions of course — just to keep her head above water. Her best friend Vinita, who happens to be a doctor, is more than skeptical of the enterprise, but everyone else in her life is delighted with her sudden transformation into Superwoman. Now, she even has time to develop a relationship with Julien’s intriguing guitar teacher, Owen. Just like that, all her troubles are over. Or are they?

Among the joys of Kamy Wickoff’s warm, funny, and touching novel are its gentle insights about motherhood, friendship, love, loss, being human, keeping secrets and living in the moment. I found myself often reading with a smile on my face and at a certain point I could no longer put it down. I had come to care very much about Jennifer, her bright and lively boys Jack and Julien, her tough loving friend Vinita, the imperfectly perfect Owen, Dr. Diane Sexton (the eccentric genius behind it all), and even her ex-husband Norman. Once the app’s abilities and all of Jennifer’s obligations and relationships began to converge, I had to know what was next.

Can Jennifer have it all? Can any of us? Wishful Thinking — the book, not the app — just might have the answer.


Signs and whispers

I will tell you, dear reader, a little about my journey to aspiring historical novelist. I dabbled for years with stories in my head, fan fiction, NaNoWriMo, and eventually trying half heartedly to pull some of this work into a coherent novel. Like many another writer, I worked full time, had a life, and there was only so much energy left over for writing. At times, those efforts were a high priority for me. I was in some kind of flow and did little but work, eat, sleep, and write. At other times, I seemed to be at the mercy of events beyond my control. The main characters in my Work in Progress would retreat into the shadows then, but they were always with me, always whispering. They did not take kindly to being ignored.

Then a couple of things happened. I retired from my public law practice and began working with a terrific law firm. I thought I might write in my spare time. Wait, what spare time? I faced a learning curve I hadn’t quite anticipated and a significant amount of travel. A couple of months later, I came across an opportunity to apply for a Master Class at Hedgebrook, a writing retreat for women on Whidbey Island. The class was to be led by best-selling author Deborah Harkness, which really got my attention.

I had enjoyed and admired Deb’s imaginative historical novels, A Discovery of Witches and The Shadow of Night, and in fact was in the middle of re-reading them. (The Book of Life, which completed the All Souls Trilogy, was published a few months later.) As a reader, I knew Deb as a compelling storyteller, whose novels were rich with the immediacy of historical detail and context. I was also attracted because as a historian and a professor, she certainly knew history and historical research and she would know how to teach. Moreover, I had been to a Hedgebrook Salon a couple of years previously, so I had some idea of what a stay there would be like — a respite, a gift, even potentially life-changing.

In spite of my nervousness about sharing my work with others, I decided to apply — one of those things you do with modest expectations while saying something to yourself like, “Might as well.” To my joy and surprise, I was accepted. I was generously given time off, and in March 2014 was part of Deb’s first Hedgebrook Master Class, “Past Tense: History as resource and inspiration.”

Owl Cottage Mist

Everyone says Hedgebrook is magical and it is. You are in the care of an amazing and dedicated staff. I felt respected and embraced not only by Deb — who is one of the smartest and and kindest people I have ever met in my life — but my fellow writers, five women I now think of as sisters. I lived in a cottage in the woods. Writing this now, those few words — I lived in a cottage in the woods — transport me back to that time and place, what it felt like to write and read and dream in the window seat of Owl Cottage. In that short, long week I worked on my manuscript and characters, yes. But more importantly, I was given the time, space and energy to think through a pretty profound question: What do I want to do with the rest of my life?

I got past some of my shyness about sharing my work. I began to see how meaningful it would be to be part of a writing community. I admitted I did not want to practice law as much as I wanted to tell stories. I realized that, finally, at retirement age, I could give myself permission to do exactly what I wanted. When an owl flew silently across the road one night as I walked home (home!) with one of my new sisters, it seemed like a sign.