Monday, August 25, 2014

A Grandmother's Life Inspires Historical Fiction

Mary at 23
It's not unusual for writers to stay "close to home" as landscapes and way of life provide ongoing inspiration. In her memoir, Growing up Country, Carol Bodensteiner writes of family life in Iowa. The rural Midwest also sets the stage for her debut novel, Go Away Home. The  main character, Lidde Treadway, is based on Carol's grandmother, Mary Haylock, a farmer's wife and woman of courage and fortitude. I invited Carol to talk about her writing process, women's empowerment which is a theme in the novel, and the research that goes into historical fiction. My review of Go Away Home can be read here.

Carol's essay on her memoir, Growing Up Country, which she wrote for the Women's Writing Circle last year, can be read here. Please welcome Carol to the Circle. ~ Susan

Mary E. Haylock
Your main character, Liddie Treadway, is a woman much like your grandmother. What made you decide to write a novel based on her life?

The seed for this story was planted when I learned as a child that my grandfather died of the Spanish flu in 1918. My connection to that major world event and the grandfather I never knew stuck in my mind.

I always knew my grandmother as a stern, often critical, old woman. Even though she lived until I was in my 20s, I never asked her a single question about him or their lives together. So while the story started with a few tidbits of family lore I picked up from my mother over the years, it truly is fiction.

 After I published my memoir and was looking for the next writing project, the idea of doing something that started with my grandparents finally took root and grew. In a way – for me – Go Away Home creates a life for my grandparents before they married. But the story is fiction.

What are the challenges of historical fiction, in terms of research, writing about social conditions of the time, creating an accurate setting?

Farming in the early 1900s was similar in many ways to farming in the 1950s, the time of my memoir. A closely knit family, hard work, limited yet strict expectations of what women can do. So I started with an understanding of the place and dynamics. The challenge was getting my head around life before electricity, travel before cars, and how the Great War impacted life on the home front. I have to be able to picture things in my mind to write about them, so I went “on-site” as often as possible, to the Living History Farms, the streets of Liddie’s town, Chicago. The county and state historical societies, libraries, websites, and first-person stories were also rich sources.

Liddie dreams of adventure and a career. In the end she realizes her happiness lies on a more traditional path. What was it like for women at that time, what did you learn and how could you apply that to your own life?

Carol and her mom
Women of that time, particularly rural women, didn’t recognize a lot of options for their lives, which does not mean they didn’t have opinions and aspirations. Young women were expected to get married and raise a family. A girl might teach school for a while but when she married, she was not allowed to teach any longer.

Liddie wanted to be a seamstress but the expectation was that she’d do that only until she married. Women were dependent on men for respectability and security, but they were pushing the boundaries. Women like Liddie’s maiden Aunt Kate were single and successful in a career. Women were speaking out to get the vote. Throughout the 20th century, women traveled along a spectrum that led to ever-greater independence and equality for women. That journey continues. I admire Liddie’s willingness to keep pushing to pursue her dreams, and being strong enough to take a path she originally thought she didn’t want when her heart led her there.

Liddie’s sister, Amelia, is shamed for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Forced to leave home and marry the father, she becomes old before her time. What did you hope the reader might learn from Amelia’s story?

We all make choices in our lives. Some of them turn out well, some of them not so well. That’s as true today as it was 100 years ago. Amelia made choices in the beginning that she thought would make her happy, then she had to live (as we all do) with the consequences of her choices. We also have a choice in how we handle the tough times. Do they make us bitter or do we learn and grow? Amelia sets up a discussion of these issues as well as any character in the book.

At the end, Liddie faces difficult circumstances and decisions that family and society might say she has “no business” making. How much or how little have society’s views of the single woman changed? Was women’s empowerment an issue that drew you to writing your grandmother’s story?

I believe women have always sought to find their voices. The obstacles to doing that have changed over the centuries, but the desire remains. Some find fulfillment with home and family, some outside the home, some pursue happiness in both. No one approach is right or wrong. Today, women can vote, run for office, own property, have a career, marry or not. But individually and collectively, women are still reaching for their dreams. My writing goal was to tell the story as well as I could. If that story speaks to women’s empowerment, I’m happy.

Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. She published her memoir Growing Up Country in 2008. Go Away Home is her debut novel.

Go Away Home is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook

Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl is available on Amazon paperback and ebook


Tweet @CABodensteiner



Monday, August 18, 2014

Spiritual Memoir Leads To Self-Discovery

In her new memoir, Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, Lorraine Ash eloquently writes about her search for meaning after the stillborn birth of her only child, a daughter. She asks: What does it all mean? What matters in life? How do we reconcile faith in light of unknowable and often senseless tragedy?

Sharing our stories is an act of generosity and spirituality. That's why we light the candle before our Women's Writing Circle read around. The light illuminates the sacred container; the "magic" that storytelling evokes.

In this essay, Lorraine discusses how penning memoir with the hindsight of midlife maturity leads to self-discovery. As part of the WOW! (Women on Writing) tour for Self and Soul, please welcome Lorraine to the Women's Writing Circle.

Some years ago, I sat around a table with eight other essayists at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the door open, the salty smell of the ocean entering the room. The writer next to me, a blond gay man pushing forty years old, shared an essay he wrote in response to a writing prompt.

Steve wrote about his high school days and his first sexual experiences with another gay man, who directed the singing or acting troupe to which Steve belonged. For years, he'd thought fondly of their trysts but, later in life, he realized that he'd been too young and that his mentor should have resisted - not indulged - his impulses. As a middle-aged man, Steve felt he'd been used in the relationship, not loved.

“The director was about thirty-seven when it happened. When I turned the same age, I realized what he had done," Steve told us with a look of befuddlement, anger, and amazement on his face.

Thick, full context

By midlife, we’ve done enough living, and had so many diverse experiences, that we can see patterns in human behavior. We’ve had encounters with people older and more experienced than we were. We looked up to some and struggled with others. But it isn’t until we achieve their age that we can fully grasp their effects on us.

Writing memoir at midlife is an act of becoming fully conscious through storytelling. The past needn’t claim us, or mire us in its traumas or challenges. Science has shown us that a memory is reconstructed from different parts of our brain. When we write a memoir, we weave new insights into old memories, changing them and helping us decide what to do next.

Authoring the future

In writing, we tell, first ourselves, where we’ve been, even as we realize we are the older people now, capable of authoring our own lives and mindful we are playing key roles in the lives of those around us. That way, we’re less likely to become a person who unwittingly shows up as a problem twenty years from now, in someone else’s book.

As Jan Rubin, memoir teacher, wrote in her book Looking Back, Moving On: Memoir as Prologue: "Our autobiographies, begun with the intention of leaving behind a record of who we were, become an instrument for discovering who we are as a first step into moving forward in our lives.”


What questions come up for you in midlife? Does a particular memory, even years old, pop up? Does a statement you once heard enter your thoughts, unbidden? At this time of life memories and thoughts surface so they can be resolved. How might you begin to reckon with yours on the page?

Your comments and observations are most welcomed and appreciated.

Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life is available as a digital audiobook. Find it at and as well as in the iTunes store.

Lorraine Ash, M.A., is a New Jersey author, award-winning journalist, essayist, book editor, and writing teacher. Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, her second book, is available in a variety of formats and online stores, all presented here, . Reach Lorraine at, , or @LorraineVAsh.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Writing With An Eye Toward Literature

Writing is healing, but it can also be emotionally and psychically draining. Over the summer as I worked on my novel and sent it out to readers for their feedback, I felt the effort had taken a toll on my body and soul.

My readers are professional writers, trained social workers, psychologists and family. They read the work with an eye toward character, motivation and psychology. 

What motivates a person to do what they do? Are they repeating the self-defeating behaviors perpetrated in their family, generation after generation?

Every writer needs to be a psychologist in his or her own right, a keen observer of human nature. She needs a fair modicum of emotional intelligence. Good writers see the complexity of their characters; this is the stuff of literature. Poorly written stories present cardboard characters, black and white images . . . caricatures.

Whether memoir or fiction, it often takes a toll on the writer's mind and soul as she digs deep, searches within the far recesses of her mind to remember, comprehend and present with empathy what drives a person to do what ultimately leads to his downfall – or renewal.

That's the value of literature – the story well told that represents the human condition. In a day and age where the superficial story, the hackneyed plot, the lack of writing craft pervades brick and mortar and digital bookstores, the value of literature for individuals and our society as a whole deepens.

I discovered this article in TIME magazine entitled Reading Literature Makes us Smarter and Nicer: "Deep reading" is vigorous exercise for the brain and increases our real-life capacity for empathy.

In part, it states: “Deep reading” — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them."

For the writer - penning the deeper story, the one that plumbs the depths of the human condition takes tremendous effort. It's why writers often smoked or drank themselves to death. In the end, however, it is our job – our obligation to our readers - to write the dark and the light; portray what drives and motivates people in our own little corner of the world, like Jane Austen, one of my favorite authors, did.

Her genius resided in painting indelible portraits of the contemporaries of her time and place from wealthy young men searching for wives, old maids, squires and country gentlemen and clergymen. She wrote what she knew and lived.

This past week I took a break from the rigors of writing a complex story. I traveled to places that serve as touchstones to my past – the beauty of Pennsylvania’s small towns, as if in them I might slow down, take a deep breath and revel in summer; maybe even regain some lost innocence. 

I saw a comedic play by a local playwright, enjoyed conversation with a close friend, ordered homemade gazpacho watermelon soup . . . sat in a small coffee shop with a view of the street where American flags flew from corniced window tops.

I sat on a bench and watched ducks glide along the Delaware River, their green and brown feathers bristling in the sunlight as they shook water off their sleek bodies. I took a deep breath, appreciating the beauty of my surroundings, no timetable. I owed it to myself and my story to restore my energy.

What about you? How do you restore yourself from the rigors of writing?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Is Life Too Short For Bad Books?

Recent headlines indicate that more and more readers purchase ebooks, but never make it beyond the first 10 percent of the book before putting it down.

I admit I've become a fan of the shorter book, particularly in a day and age where many people, myself included, are pressed for time and have other options, including movies and Internet.

Are readers telling us life is too short for bad books? 

Take the case of a recent bestseller: Writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof 

We may now have a new “most unread best seller of all time.” Data from Amazon Kindles suggests that that honor may go to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which reached No. 1 on the best-seller list this year. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote that Picketty's book seems to eclipse its rivals in losing readers: All five of the passages that readers on Kindle have highlighted most are in the first 26 pages of a tome that runs 685 pages.

Writes Ellenberg in a column entitled The Summer's Most Unread Books - How can we find today's greatest non-reads? Amazon's "Popular Highlights" feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book's Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

It's interesting, too, that Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited subscription pays author royalties only after readers have read the first 10 percent of the book.

"KDP Select authors and publishers will earn a share of the KDP Select global fund each time a customer accesses their book from Kindle Unlimited and reads more than 10% of their book-–about the length of reading the free sample available in Kindle books-–as opposed to a payout when the book is simply downloaded. Only the first time a customer reads a book past 10% will be counted."


I used to force myself to continue reading a book, even when it was bad, just to give myself a sense of accomplishment. Now, if I’m not enjoying a storyline, the characters are poorly developed, or the plot could have been written in 100 pages less, I close the book.

I admit it.  I'm all about the page turner. Is life too short for bad books? 

Do you have books in your bookshelf where bookmarks show you stopped reading? 

What are your thoughts on book length and trends that reveal people are not making it to the end of the book?  

Your comments are most welcomed and appreciated.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Is It Time to Reconsider Self-Publishing?

"What have you got to lose by shopping your book around?" my friend asked.

Although I have been an outspoken advocate of self-publishing for years, I admit this wasn't the first time I considered the traditional publishing route. Why not shop it around?

Last week I completed the final FIRST draft of my novel. I sent it to a few readers, including my son. “Mom,” he said. “It’s really good. I don’t think you should self-publish this time."

Ah, the enthusiam of youth! And, of course, he is my son.

But what he proposed struck a chord, especially when another reader said, "It's by far your best work.  I see it as a movie!"

I'm not naive.  I'm a journalist, after all.  But I believe in this book.


Was it time to reconsider self-publishing?

I love self-publishing; the total creative control; the collaboration and sharing of pioneering indie authors as we explore the new publishing dynamic. I like setting my own pricing, and the digital royalties at 70 percent an ebook are great.

What I don't love . . . this quote from author Hugh Howey sort of sums it up

"Indie authors are maniacally focused on the reader, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Low prices, fun and interesting genres and styles, a direct relationship, frequent output, you name it. Indie authors are doing well because they know it’s all about the reader."

I'm good with the part that it's all about the reader, but "frequent output"? And "fun and interesting genres" sounds like romance, mysteries, witches and warlocks, sci-fi That isn't me and never will be. My hope is to produce something lasting and at least quasi-literary.  And, in fact, this new novel may very well be my last book.

Since I am not an author who toyed with the idea of being a self-publisher, but ACTUALLY DID IT,  (I created my own imprint this year called Writing Circle Press), I have experience when it comes to publishing strategies and options.

Should I traditionally publish?  When I say traditionally publish, I’m talking about legitimate big and small publishing houses - not publishers and small presses who offer limited exposure and distribution; or those which are, in actuality, vanity presses in disguise, treating authors like customers.

Maybe, in order to reach a decision, I needed to re-examine the realities of self-publishing. 

“Evil Amazon” -  Amazon hatred, or the “evil” Amazon as some writers refer to that conglomerate, has grated me for years. Frankly, where would most of us be without Amazon? I'm not saying who's responsible for this outrage/prejudice. I'm just saying it makes it difficult. When authors complain about Amazon, it seems like shooting oneself in the proverbial foot.

I DO happen to think CreateSpaces does a bang-up job for a very reasonable cost and outstrips the competition in that regard. Their formatting and cover design teams are excellent – I love the look and quality of my ebooks and my trade paperbacks.

Bookstores and Libraries -  Isn't it nice to think your book might be sold at the Barnes and Noble in Seattle? No matter how hard you hold out hope that your book might some day land in bookstores and libraries across the country, this is mostly a pipe dream for authors not published by the Big Six (now the Big Five). How important are bookstores?  Important.  People still love to touch and hold a book as they browse a bookstore.

Audience - I write with the idea of  reaching as large an audience as possible. To say otherwise, as some do, sounds disingenuous – or somewhat lacking in confidence. The average self-published book sells 250 copies. Forbes  recommends Guy Kawasaki's book which includes chapters on traditional publishing and the self-publishing revolution.

Reviews – As an indie author, you soon learn that well-written and thoughtful reviews that evaluate why readers should buy your book are scarce.  A national review would be nice, wouldn't it?

Hustling and Bussing Books – Neither self-publishing nor traditional publishing precludes marketing and promotion. That said, driving around to stores and shops, selling books on consignment as I have done over the years . . . can get wearisome. Things I have NOT done. . . pay for blog tours . . . run a Crowdfunding campaign, spend thousands of dollars on editors.  Random House where are you?

Wait Time - With self-publishing and many small presses, you don't wait sixteen or eighteen months (years?) for your work to reach the light of day. (Some small presses also use CreateSpace as their printer.) That's great and no denying the prime reason people self-publish. But if I truly believe my book deserves a place in a New York City bookstore, isn't the wait worth it?

As I begin seeking a publisher, an agent, or continue to self-publish under Writing Circle Press, I'll keep you posted on the journey. The one thing I'm certain - neither publishing route is a great alternative. Both are rife with flaws, but having gone down one road . . . the other is starting to beckon.

Love to hear your thoughts. Are you considering or reconsidering self-publishing or traditional publishing? 

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Widow's Story - Books That Transformed Me

This week I’m remembering the 4th anniversary of the publication of Again in a Heartbeat, my memoir about being widowed at a young age.  The book changed my life.

Another milestone: In October, I’m coming up on 20 years as a widow.

In the days and months after my husband John Cavalieri died, I sat in my bedroom at night and thought  . . . some day I’ll be saying its been 20, 30, 40 years since he’s gone. Impossible.

Now the impossible is the reality.

As I look back on the last two decades, I realize that "after changes" – as Paul Simon said, "we are more or less the same." I’m still the brash, high-spirited woman I was when John first met me under dogwood trees at Valley Forge Military Academy. I was 26 then . . . so young and so hopeful. He was 29.

Yet, I am light years away from that young woman, too, tempered by age and the realization as Joan Didion wrote in this article and in her memoir – The Year of Magical Thinking: "Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."

My journey as a widow has immeasurably been shaped by the many people, good and bad, I’ve met along the way, as well as my belief that it can all change in "a heartbeat." Most of all, events and circumstances too numerous to mention have made me realize one thing - if we allow it, great abundance can come out of great loss.

That doesn’t make loss any easier.

There is no way to sugarcoat how challenging these last two decades have been. Raising two children; being sole breadwinner; keeping my home; mapping out a plan in retirement that in all likelihood will be alone . . . the resourcefulness and resilience so necessary to survive are attributes I believe I developed due to the death of my husband – and my writing.

Many times I had to challenge the traditional “myths” society holds about the single woman and single mother. Women like me and those who have come before me have had to rewrite the narrative we grew up with in order to discover our own path and choices.

That's where writing comes in. Writing encourages psychic growth. It also serves as testimony and a way to break the silence. A woman in the Circle wrote about her first and truest love who died tragically in a horrible accident. Despite her children and grandchildren urging her to stop - "What's the use of reliving the past?" they asked, she went ahead anyway. Last week she told me, “I finished my story! It's as if a weight has been lifted. I feel so much better!  Now my granddaughter understands who I once was - that I had another life!”

Books and stories, particularly true stories, are the life blood of the grief-stricken. In them we find our way out of isolation and aloneness into a larger and more community-oriented vision of life.

I want to share a sampling of books which helped me discover my story, re-examine “traditional” narratives, challenge myths, and offer a path to transformation.

Are there books you can add to this list?  Please feel free to leave a suggested read, or just a comment.  Thank you.  ~ Susan

Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Women Writing for (a) Change by Mary Pierce Brosmer

How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

Writing As A Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (How to Finally, Really Grow Up) by James Hollis

Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting by Wayne W. Dyer

Creating Love: The Next Great Stage of Growth by John Bradshaw

Monday, July 14, 2014

Author Platform - Selling Books Or Vision?

As writers and readers drown in an ocean of new books while publishing pundits promise that you, too, can be a bestselling author, how far are you willing to take your marketing?

Which brings me to author platform. We're told that if we want to sell a lot of books, platform and branding are the keys to the kingdom.

But what is "platform"?  A hard sell? The author's artistic expression in an attempt to connect with and engage her readers online?

As Jane Friedman wrote: "Platform is one of the most difficult concepts to explain, partly because everyone defines it a little differently."

I’ll agree with that. Several years ago when I created the Women’s Writing Circle blog and website, I did so with the idea that women finding their voices through writing was my “platform” as an author.

The subtitle – "a place to share our stories" touched on another aspect – that writing is a collaborative process that brings us together in an isolating world, a philosophy also reflected in my books. I had, after all, found my “voice” by writing my memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat and Morning at Wellington Square which are about a woman’s search for meaning after suffering great loss.

As I blogged about suppression of women’s voices; the changing dynamics of publishing; writing as a way of healing; the death of my husband; my childhood Christmas memories, it became apparent that people visiting my site ("traffic") were not purchasing my books. I average about 4,000 views a month.

Comments were often lively, although not as frequent as possible, due to problems people told me they encountered trying to comment through Google.

The covers of my books were prominently displayed along the sidebar of the website with links to purchase. Links to readers’ reviews and interviews with me about those books were also displayed.

When I lamented online my lack of ebook sales, one woman in publishing who looked at this blog/website took the time to personally write this:

Susan, I suspect that you'd be more objective, and more willing to re-do, a piece of journalism than this book's promotion and website. Could that be because of the subject matter?

If so, I suggest that you consider whether or not you want to make the mental adjustment necessary to sell the memoirs and make money from them, or whether you just want to let them be.

Not making money is a valid choice for something that cuts this close to home.

Who said anything about making a choice not to make money? Not me.

But I got to thinking.  Was I too "emotionally involved" in my subject matter? And, if so, what was wrong with that? Isn't that what all the "experts" on"brand" and platform (the two are often interchangeable) advise? Let your readers know who you are. Establish a relationship with them.

My first memoir is about being widowed at a young age. As one woman in publishing suggested, Loss, Grief and Healing as the title of my website would drive the “right” readers to my books. 

But, truthfully, marketing to bereaved widows felt like an ambulance chasing lawyer - distasteful and disrespectful.

I also felt I wrote for a broader audience –  not just those widowed - who might enjoy my memoirs of a woman testing the waters with online dating, changing careers, searching for second chances and renewal.

In the end, would changing the title of this blog have made a difference in sales?

While I have considered a separate blog/website just for Susan G. Weidener, "author," I don’t expect to veer from my “platform,” which is finding our voices as writers; challenging the status quo; and empowering ourselves through storytelling.  

This is why I write. It is why I am ever grateful to the many, many readers who have read my memoirs.

This is my 294th blog post in four years. My Google+ profile has been viewed 510,000 times. This site has had 104,000 views. I regularly post on Facebook and Twitter. If platform is all about visibility, I think I achieved that. But maybe it's still not enough - to sell those bazillion ebooks, that is.

As always, your comments and thoughts are welcome.  Is platform a hard sell or an engagement with readers . . . or a combination of the two?  What are some of your favorite author websites/blogs?

NOTE: Last week, I ran a promo through a site featuring bargain ebooks.  I sold 77 ebooks and my author ranking on Amazon soared (I was 6,667) and my memoir Morning at Wellington Square  listed as #3,765 on the best seller list for Kindle ebooks. I guess that’s how you do it. Run a bargain promo and you, too, can call yourself a “bestselling author”!