Three Amazing God Stories from My Self-Chosen Amtrak Writer’s Residency

When we travel, we multiply the chances that we encounter a “once in a lifetime” event that defies all odds, seemingly flying to us on wings from the universe. I like to think of these times as God moments. Or, as my sister Doris says, “God’s poetry.”

On our BookTourAnniversaryPalooza, on Amtrak, July 1-28, 2014, we had hundreds of such moments, large and small. Here’s a sampling as told through pictures and Facebook Updates:

A gobsmacker at the very end of the trip.

A gobsmacker at the very end of the trip.

In Vancouver, mid-way through our travels, one of Stuart’s former advisees at Goshen College, noticed that we were headed her direction and invited us to visit her. We found an open spot in our schedule and stood on her doorstep a few days later. She was able to express her thanks to Stuart for his essential help years ago when she felt very vulnerable as a new student in a strange culture. What a lovely evening we had as she cooked, we all conversed — and then ate. Yum!

Karen and the special meal in Vancouver

Karen and the special meal in Vancouver

I found writer Patricia Grace King because her novella Small Country (Kindle Single, 1.99) showed up in the Mennonite Bestsellers list next to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. We got acquainted online and met in Chicago while I was on my trip. We discovered many Mennonite family and institutional connections, though we had never met each other before.

Patricia Grace King, the one with the pink hair :-)

Patricia Grace King, the one with the pink hair :-)

As you read these words, Patricia is preparing for a double mastectomy operation. Chemotherapy was successful, but the operation is still necessary. I’ve been touched by Patricia’s honesty, courage, and spirit. She needs all the love and prayers she can get just now. Won’t you join me in this moment of God’s poetry and pray for Patricia as she fights for her health and wholeness?

I’m also interested in your own stories of God’s Poetry. What moments amazed you recently? Or in your travels from anytime in your life?

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My Amtrak Writer’s Residency: Five Tips for Authors After 4,000 Superliner Miles

A few months ago, the online world buzzed with the news that Amtrak had decided to offer “residencies” –  a writer’s competition that offered free travel worth up to $900. Thousands applied, including me.

Amtrak arriving at the station

Amtrak train arriving at the station, East Glacier, Montana

The odds were stacked against winning, but the marketing campaign succeeded in reigniting my old dream of seeing the USA via train, a dream shared with my husband Stuart, who joined me in planning a BookTourAnniversaryPalooza. We started a long conversation about where to go, whom to see, how to have fun celebrating our 45th anniversary, which scenic vistas to look for, and, last but not least, how to arrange book talks and book signings for Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. After some research, we determined that the 30-day Rail Pass was our best option.

We’ve returned now after spending 28 days in July riding the rails. It was an amazing trip! Our best-laid plans succeeded almost flawlessly and unto them many spontaneous gifts were added. I can’t possibly describe a trip of this richness in one post. So I’ll treat different topics in the upcoming weeks. Today I just want to focus on authors and offer some tips on how to combine a book tour and a train trip.

Five Tips for Book Touring Authors

1. Travel by train only if you are prepared to move into slow time.

Don’t travel by train if you are trying to cover maximum territory in minimum days. The trains in this country are seldom efficient, so build in extra time and NEVER count on the train to deliver you to an event on the timetable printed in the schedule. Think of these verbs: meander, ponder, and tarry. These adjectives: leisurely, rhythmic, and surprising. These nouns: revery, rust, and majesty.

The landscape along the Pacific coast and through the Rocky Mountains will more than compensate. The movement from hectic to slack will take you deeper into thought and imagination, making you more open to serendipity in life and in writing.

Through the train window between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon

Through the train window between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon, on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Superliner.

2. Budget for the trip in a way that fits your pocketbook.

To keep the costs of train travel reasonable, place the trip in the “Travel, Entertainment, and Education” tabs in your budget, not “Profit from selling books.” If you do that, you will find the expenses transform from “expensive business cost” to “reasonably priced vacation.” You and your accountant will have to figure out what, if any, tax write off applies.

We are still doing the expense documentation for the trip, but I am pleased with the results so far. I spoke to about 400 people, many of whom had not heard about my book before. I had four speaking events that paid honoraria and sold all the books I carried in my suitcase plus fifteen more my publisher shipped midway through the tour. In addition, my Amazon rankings bumped up modestly and looked like this during the days on tour:

Amazon rankings July 1-28

Amazon rankings July 1-28, the peak day was July 12, just after my visit to Third Place Books in Seattle

3. Call upon your friends and relatives for help.

Facebook and Twitter can produce amazing stories. Facebook, in particular, does something very valuable in addition to offering you a place to share (selectively — don’t overwhelm) pictures and highlights from your journeys. The search function allows you to search for “friends in Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago,” etc. What an easy way to see who you may want to see and who may want to see you.

I started planning this trip after receiving an invitation to speak in Vancouver, BC, July 13, which we then decided would be the “Anchor” location. We got serious about reserving hotels in April, and I made up a Google Doc so that Stuart and I and some of our hosts could edit the plan as it unfurled. Planning took a lot of time because it involved phone calls and emails to multiple people whenever we needed help with lodging, venues, and transportation.

Our dear, dear friends helped us so much. Sometimes we asked them and sometimes they volunteered. We tried to be low maintenance/high gratitude guests, and we were overwhelmed by generosity so many times.

The numbers show a portion of how much help we received along the way.

The numbers show a portion of how much help we received along the way.

4. Document with photos, diary, receipts, and social media.

A trip like this is an investment, not only in your writing, but in your life. It has not just helped you reach a wider audience and sell some books, it gives you a rich vein of material for new writing. I bought this little pocket notebook in Santa Barbara and filled it up. It fit snugly into my little travel purse next to my passport and smart phone, the other essential tool for documentation and sharing.

The travel diary.

The travel diary.

5. If you plan to include visits to National Parks in your trip, . . .

Start reserving lodges a year in advance if possible. We were amazed that our first choice lodge in Glacier National Park was booked three months before we wanted to go. The agent suggested a year’s planning for these highly attractive locations with very short tourist seasons. Also, if you get off the train, you may want to rent a car for travel within the park. We didn’t do that and were saved by a good shuttle driver who helped us navigate successfully using his services and other public conveyances. Plus our feet! I was very glad for a good pair of hiking shoes.

I’ve just scratched the surface of all the wisdom gained from this trip. So please jump in to ask more questions. I’ll not only comment, I’ll go into more depth in future posts.

If you were going to plan your own writers residency on a train, what criteria would you set for yourself?

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On Being Not Quite Amish: A Mennonite Perspective

Last evening, as Stuart and I came into Union Station by train here in Chicago, we followed two young Amish families. They walked rapidly, carrying a matching powder blue luggage set without wheels, assorted other bags, and several babies. The men wore black hats. The women black bonnets, black hose, and long dresses.

Stuart speaks with his first cousin at the Rhodes Reunion -- name tags necessary!

Stuart, on left, speaks with his first cousin at the Rhodes Reunion -- name tags necessary!

Everyone around us was intent on getting somewhere, and costumes vary wildly in a large city, so no one stared at them.

They didn’t know that we were spiritual “cousins,” because no one looking at us could tell outwardly that we are Mennonite.

Nevertheless, when I see Amish people, I smile. We share a faith with family feeling.

The Rhodes Reunion this summer made that feeling palpable. Four hundred fifty-five people gathered as descendents of the same two people — Stuart’s grandparents. You can read the story and see the pictures here. You have to see the picture of that pie table!

I’d love to hear your family reunion story. Do you share this tradition?

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Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Grandma Hershey’s Way of Peace

When I think of peacemakers, I don’t think of soldiers or guns or even the Peace Corps. I think of this verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Then I think of Grandma Hershey.

Sue Snyder Hershey about 1980. Daughter Lois in the background.

Sue Snyder Hershey about 1980. Daughter Lois in the background.

Grandma Hershey was soft. When I was sick, she made me soft-boiled eggs and toast and put them in a cup. When she sewed, which was often, she wrapped her soft arms around me and brought me close to show me how she did it.

She and my mother were the peacemakers when their husbands could not understand each other. Under that softness was a very tough willingness to suffer for the sake of peace.

Grandma Hershey had soft eyes. You can see them in the picture above. She left this earth in 1985, but I still feel those kind eyes on me. She’s expecting me to be peacemaker too. Here’s how I described the way she taught me without words in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World:

 The “girls” in the Hershey family, my aunts, all acknowledged each other and their mother the way all adults in the church did. They performed the ritual of the same-sex, “holy kiss.” I observed this custom often from a rocking chair on the porch, watching each aunt approach Grandma Hershey as she gathered them to herself, one at a time, like a hen with her chicks. In the gesture of those serious kisses was great love and respect quite different from the effusive hugs I later saw and envied in other families. It carried a tone of awe for the divine order of things and for the great commandment to love one another as God has loved us.

The “holy kiss” was one of the ordinances of the Lancaster Conference Mennonite Church. From the Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church, 1968, pages 16–17:

“The salutation of the holy kiss should be observed and practiced by the believers, brethren among brethren and sisters among sisters, as an expression of fervent love. It should be practiced when meeting for worship as well as when meeting for social fellowship.”

I wrote about ten ways to practice peace in my latest Not Quite Amish contribution. I hope you click on the link and join the conversation there. And I invite you to name a peacemaker in your life below. Tell us what brings them to mind when you read about Grandma Hershey or Atlee Beechy (in the Not Quite Amish essay).

Also, another way to find peace is to go on vacation! This blog will return on July 30, 2014, a special day for me. I’ll report on the BookTourAnniversaryPalooza which I am now enjoying to the hilt! Wishing you peace, and joy, until we meet again.

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The Tie that Binds: How Mennonite College Friendships Grew from Twig to Vine

I’ve just said good-bye to my three closest college friends: Mary, Tina, and Gloria. We gathered in Gloria’s home, State College, Pennsylvania, just to renew our friendship for three days.

L-R Shirley, Mary, Tina, Gloria

L-R Shirley, Mary, Tina, Gloria

This photo was taken next to a pergola covered with trumpet vine. The story of how the vine grew over time, told by Gloria the gardener, struck me as the perfect analogy for our friendship.

We began as twigs.

In 1966, when we first met, we were malleable sprouts, newly separated from our parents, but eager to find new growth on our own.

Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.

Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.

Our twigs formed themselves around the combination of intellectual and spiritual pillars at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Just like these slender stalks, we needed each other and we needed the occasional help from a binding material like the string on the photo above.

Following Mary McCarthy, we somewhat ironically called ourselves “The Group.”

We were a tame Mennonite version of those eight Vassar graduates from the scandalous book we read about but didn’t read. We spent hours telling each other stories and helping to analyze and understand the world around us, the chaotic 1960′s world of rebellion and protest, experienced within a religious tradition that was itself counter-cultural.

The Eastern Mennonite soil fed us, and our environment shaped us, as did the partners we found, and the careers we chose. Eventually, we scattered. Then there were children. All the while, our roots and branches grew.

Now we are grandmothers.

Our vines are full. They put out new roots and branches, offering abundant shade.

The mature trumpet vine. Entwined and sturdy.

The mature trumpet vine. Entwined and sturdy.

The ties that bind us to each other are fused by time, faith, laughter, tears, similarities, and differences.

When we greet each other, we jump for joy. When we part, we sometimes wipe away tears. This time we actually sang the hymn, next to the pergola, arms entwined.

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Without the posts that held us when we were young, we might never have stayed in touch. Without the deliberate entwining and binding, we might have grown tall separately.

Do you have lifelong friends? Is there a “Group” in your life, whether scandalous or tame? How did you/do you stay in touch? What binds you to your friends? What obstacles have you overcome? What cycles has your friendship experienced?

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Mennonite Memoir, Lutheran Setting, Universal Spirit: Reconnecting After Twenty Years

My Mennonite memoir had a Lutheran birthplace: Valparaiso University.

I was a Senior Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts (LFP), headquartered at Valparaiso, in 1994-95.

The name Valparaiso means Vale of Paradise.

Mark Schwehn, who led both Christ College and the LFP when I was there, wrote the book that gave us the language for year-long conversation: Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America

My only teaching obligation was to create a year-long Colloquium for younger Fellows and Mentors. I chose the theme of spiritual autobiography and encouraged each member to probe the origins and conflicts in their spiritual lives.

I got to write and read and think — great luxuries in any life. I also felt my first stirrings of the call to write memoir there.

I made friends — deep, spiritually connected friends — with Fellows Tom, Jim, Beth, Susan, Paul, and Stephanie, all with dissertations to complete and new identities as professors to forge as they left graduate school behind and tested a vocation in undergraduate teaching and research.

In short, I got to be a mentor. I loved it.

I loved them. All of them.

With Stephanie Paulsell at Lilly Fellows Reunion

With Stephanie Paulsell at Lilly Fellows Reunion, June 6-8, 2014

I also had my own mentors: Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass, two of the most insightful, engaged, devoted Christian teachers and scholars I have ever known.

Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn, listening with attention

Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn, listening with attention -- a gift they share with each other and model for their students.

June 6-8, 2014, I came together along with many other former Fellows to celebrate twenty years since the publication of Mark’s book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. Mark also worked with many others at Valparaiso to create the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. The first director of the program, Arlin Meyer, was also present to celebrate both the program itself and Mark’s retirement from his current role as provost of the university.

Sharon and Arlin Meyer

Sharon and Arlin Meyer. We called him "the Abbott." One of our texts was the Rule of St. Benedict.

I felt a little weepy all weekend.

I wept because Mark allowed himself to weep as he thanked us, his many protegés who rose up and called him blessed.

I wept because Stephanie Paulsell, one of the Fellows in “my” class 1994-95, who is now Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School, has moved me so often with the softness of her voice combined with the sharpness of her mind. She spoke twice at the conference. Listen to her describe friendship in this video. I think you’ll understand what I mean.

In the middle of the conference I took a walk back to the place where I lived 1994-95, Linwood House. My eyes got a little misty here, too.

Linwood House

Linwood House

The Linwood Living Room where we told our stories.

The Linwood Living Room where we told our stories and lived into the questions of our texts.







Every Monday afternoon twenty years ago, we Fellows and Mentors sat together in the Linwood Living Room and shared our spiritual autobiographies.

More than once, there were tears as each person told us the stories of how they had been formed or deformed by faith and what they longed for.

In that context I told a story about my father’s death that I had never told any other group of people, a story that I had pondered in my heart for fourteen years.

Because of that story, I eventually wrote Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. And because of that year I returned to Goshen College and then to the Fetzer Institute with a renewed vision of my calling.

Because of their stories, each member of the Lilly Fellows Program, went deeper into his or her own exploration of vocation. I am deeply grateful for that year, for those stories, and for each person whose story wove itself into mine and strengthened the tie that binds each of us in the mysterious created world to each other.

As we said often together in the Chapel of the Resurrection, “Thanks be to God!”

If you were to choose an Edenic year from your life, which one would it be? What made it so?

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Book Expo America: Three Tips to Keep You from Going Broke or Crazy

It’s all Dan Blank’s fault.

Dan Blank, culprit, is on the right

Dan Blank, culprit, is on the right

Dan’s an entrepreneur and heads a company called We Grow Media. Last year he wrote about experiences on the floor of the enormous Book Expo America (BEA) in his newsletter. New York, of course, where BEA usually takes place, is also the hub of the publishing industry in America. Dan’s blog post illustrated the way in which this one trade show connects readers, book buyers and sellers, authors, publishers large and small, and many ancillary enterprises — brokers of foreign and movie rights, video producers, etc.

Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World reaches its first birthday in September. Since the shelf life of every book seems to get shorter as more and more books are being published, I figured this is the year to go. When I learned that my publisher wasn’t going to invest in an expensive booth (hence the only way I would have to participate in the book signings would be to send 100 copies at my own expense), I decided to go it alone. Not as an author but as a blogger (mostly for the discount offered but also to bring the event more to human scale –from thousands to perhaps 300 people).

I’ve had a special interest in New York City ever since our son Anthony moved there, married there, and invited us to live there for a year to take care of grandson Owen. And I have always dreamed of doing book talks in the city of books. So I began to wonder what kind of week I could put together that featured the BEA in the center but also included book talks, museum and park time, and then top off the week with this kind of time:

With Owen and Julia at the park

With Owen and Julia at the park before soccer class.

 Tip #1 How to go without going broke:

  • The standard Early-bird admission for BEA was $349. I chose to add the Blogger’s conference which for some reason made the four days cheaper ($145). I also learned later that if you join the Authors Guild for $90, you can get into BEA for $104.
  • My week in the city cost mileage to the train station, Amtrak and subway tickets ($325), badge ($175, including one special event), and some meals ($100)
  • I took ten books with me and sold or gave away all of them (profit of $80)
  • So the business part of the trip cost a little more than $500.
  • I had a time share to use which meant no hotel, breakfast, or dinner bills, a huge savings (other people use AirBnB or couch crashing to save that major expense)

Tip #2 Select a manageable goal and prepare for a totally unmanageable environment:

  • I decided to make strengthening relationships my primary goal. I made three totally new friends, found numerous online friends, (Viki Noe and Porter Anderson), reconnected with other people had I met before (Jane Friedman and Sue William Silverman), and collected a pack of business cards. The best place to make new friends was the first day at the blogger conference. I still need to sort through the cards and see if some of the people I met want to stay in touch.
  • A secondary goal was to report on the conference. In other words, writing these words to you was on my mind from the beginning. I know that some of you are authors, some are readers, and some of you are readers-in-the-process of becoming authors. How could I be helpful to you? I did a little tweeting while there and also enjoyed following other conference tweets (you can read them at #BEA14 on Twitter).  Bloggers are still using that hashtag, and following it will give you a great overview of the many experiences people had there.
  • Thirdly, I decided to treat the event like any other spectacle and to “go on the rides.” I picked up swag for Owen and Julia, children’s books and toys that were giveaways. I didn’t go as one of the thousands of  “fan girls” to drool over John Green or Benedict Cumberbatch or Neil Patrick Harris or Hugh Howey. I did catch glimpses of many stars, but chose not to stand in any long lines for their autographs. Here’s a great post about the BEA and celebrities from fellow blogger Alison. I also got my own “stash” by going to book signings:
BEA stash of free books

BEA stash of free books

Tip #3 Expect Serendipity:

  • Serendipity found us in the first hours of our trip, before the BEA began. I’ve already told that story.  But the “small world” stories continued even in the huge arena in the middle of BEA. I tried to make a list of people I wanted to meet in advance of BEA so that I could make coffee dates. I had several of these. But it didn’t occur to me that I might run into a former student, Gayatri Patnaik, who is now an executive editor at Beacon Press. We had a delightful conversation, the first in twenty-five years.
With Gayatri Patnaik, executive editor, Beacon Press

With Gayatri Patnaik, executive editor, Beacon Press

  • Serendipity also led me back to Dan Blank, the original culprit who drew me to BEA. Dan spent much of his time walking the floor with his client and mutual friend Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. I had arranged a meet-up with them, appropriately next to the Starbucks, a place Dan often uses for his office:
Hanging out with Dan and Miranda

Hanging out with Dan and Miranda and NYT Bestselling Bittersweet

  • Neither Dan nor Miranda could have predicted that Bittersweet would hit #20 on the NYTimes Bestseller list just at the peak of BEA. But it was not bitter, it was SWEET to celebrate with them. I’ve reviewed the book online and have been along for the ride as they together went all out to create experiences for readers prior to the book’s release. Did these two suddenly-famous people snub the “little people” who followed along? Not at all! They walked the halls talking to all their friends and introducing them to each other. That’s how I got to meet a fellow fan of Bittersweet, Erin Cosenza, the Read-at-Home-Mama.

Have I convinced you to try BEA next year? What else would you like to know before you decide? Or what else would you like to share from your own conference experiences, BEA or others?

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Happy Birthday, Bill Moyers! Eighty Years Young

I first met Bill Moyers while working at The Fetzer Institute, which helped to sponsor Bill Moyers Journal.

What a pleasure!

We’ve stayed friends even after the Journal went off the air. I’ve been watching Moyers & Company online. But last week, Stuart and I stopped in to see Bill and Judith at their offices in New York.

Bill and Judith Moyers with Stuart and me in Manhattan

Bill and Judith Moyers with Stuart and me in Manhattan

I learned soon afterward that Bill turns 80 on Thursday. Since he has disallowed a party, I’d love to collect good wishes from those of you who know and love his work. Maybe you saw his interviews with Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth or his Death and Dying series.

No one else has done what Bill has done in journalism, whether you are comparing length, depth, or breadth.


At age 80, he’s still working hard to put a weekly program on air.


He never quits after just one question; he drills down until the interviewee locates a deeper answer.


He doesn’t do just political and economic news stories. He also brings artists on air, and when he does, they light up the screen.

If you want some vintage (1973) Moyers and if you are still finding it hard to say good-bye to Maya Angelou, here’s a wonderful interview re-posted a few days ago on the Moyers website.  Watch for the place where she says “bringing women onto your crew has made me love you more.” And then this amazing exchange: when she describes the role of enslaved black women nursing white boys at their breast who will grow up to rape their daughters and kill their sons, Bill says, “That’s strong.”

Maya responds as a friend, looking straight at him, “I know, but it’s the truth, Bill. It’s the truth.”

Finding the truth in love has been Bill’s passion. In Maya Angelou he found a kindred spirit. I’m sure she would want us to celebrate with our own words showered on Bill.

Maya Angelou on the Noble Story of Black Womanhood (1973) from on Vimeo.

Throughout our working relationship, Bill amazed me with his consistency. He was always the same curious, creative, and compassionate man whether on-screen probing for answers to tough questions or off-screen placing the spotlight on friends and new acquaintances.

Bill doesn’t like fuss, especially fuss directed at him.

So let’s not fuss.

Let’s just sing “Happy Birthday” in four-part harmony!

Please offer your greeting below. I’ll make sure Bill sees it. On Thursday. On his birthday.

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Interview with Carol Bodensteiner, Memoirist Turned Novelist

Meet Carol Bodensteiner. Pershaps you already have. Fellow writer Janet Givens refers to her as my twin!

That’s because both of us wrote memoirs about being country girls and growing up on dairy farms. But only one of us is a blonde.

Author Carol Bodensteiner

Author Carol Bodensteiner

1. Your first book was about growing up on an Iowa dairy farm in the 1950′s and ’60′s. I loved your well-told stories and felt like we had lived parallel lives when I read your memoir. Did people expect you to write a sequel to your first book? Why did you choose not to do that for your second book?

Cover of Growing Up Country by Carol Bodensteiner
Cover of Growing Up Country by Carol Bodensteiner

I felt a kindred spirit when I read your memoir BLUSH, Shirley. I’m glad our childhood experiences connected us. The stories in my memoir Growing Up Country dealt with the time in my life when my world revolved around the insulated nucleus of our family, church and country school. The stories felt complete as they stood. A sequel didn’t occur to me until I heard from so many readers that they wanted more stories about growing up on the farm. But by then I had moved on to writing my novel.

Still, my readers planted a seed that may yet come to be. Should the seed germinate and grow, it would need a title something like, She Got On The Bus, because the stories wouldn’t be confined to the farm, they’d engage the broader years and experiences of high school and college.

2. When did the idea for your novel come to you?

Go Away Home was inspired by my maternal grandparents. My grandfather died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Throughout my life, I’ve been intrigued by my connection to this major world event. Of course I never knew my grandfather and even though my grandmother lived until I was well into my 20s, I never asked her a single question about him or their lives together. And she was not the type to share. So, this story is fiction based on a few facts. It creates a life for the man I never knew and for the grandmother I only knew as a stern old woman.

3. Was the novel easier or harder to write (than the memoir) as a first draft?

The novel was a much greater challenge. My career had been spent in business writing where I communicated facts as clearly and concisely as possible. Memoir writing was an easier step because I knew the stories, the people, and the places. The challenge was to write in a way that would show that life to readers.

With the novel, I started out with a few places and dates and family stories in mind, but I eventually learned I had to let go of even those few touchstones because they didn’t serve the plot that was developing. While I thought it would be easier to start with some facts because that was what I was used to, the reality was there was great freedom in starting with nothing.

4. How about the revision process?

This novel went through at least three significant rewrites. Because I’d never written fiction before, I was learning the craft as I went. It took these rewrites to help me finally break from the starting point facts and let the story be what it needed to be.

5. Plot construction for the beginning novelist is often a challenge. Did you find it so? How did you educate yourself on ways to keep the reader turning the page?

Plot construction was perhaps my largest challenge. The thing that helped me most was attending advanced novel workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It would have saved a lot of time if I’d taken a “plotting the novel” workshop before I even started. As it was, I retrofitted what I learned in each workshop to where my manuscript was at the moment and went from there. Now, I analyze every novel as I read with an eye toward plot construction and keeping the reader moving along.

6. You have chosen to self publish. You have rave reviews in good quantity on Amazon and Goodreads and a following on social media. What benefits have you found in self publishing?

When I decided to indie publish my memoir, a friend who’d gone that route herself said, “Well it’s not a mountain; but, it’s not a molehill either.”  There’s considerable work in self publishing, but it’s not impossible to learn. I’m grateful to all the friends who’ve so willingly share publishing wisdom. I ‘m successful because of them. My background in public relations prepared me well both for managing the process of publishing and for doing the marketing. Authors who commit to writing and publishing a high quality book – and then commit to getting the word out – can enjoy the benefits of greater control over their own product and greater financial payback.

7. Like me, you’ve always been a writer but have only become an author after leaving a professional career behind. Can you comment on how your writing has changed over the course of your career and what you are still learning about the new world of books, publishing, and social media.

My writing has improved because I have more tools in my writing toolkit. As a public relations professional, I was accomplished at business and journalistic writing. Since taking up creative writing, I’ve learned the power of various prose styles, the value of a strong analogy, the importance of plot and conflict, and much more. There is always something new to learn, which is why I love writing. The changes in social media give me more to learn daily. We’re all lucky the social media world is such a helpful place.

Speaking of helpful places: here are two other posts from Kathy Pooler (with Mary Gottschalk) and Jerry Waxler (David Kalish) on the same subject of moving from memoir to novel. I think we have spotted a trend!

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.


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Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon.

Go Away Home will be available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon in July. Read the first chapter now. 

Which would you rather read — a memoir or a novel? Of Carol’s two books, does one interest you more than the other? Why?

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Three Reasons to Read Your Memoir in New York City

Some writers leave the provinces and yield to the siren call of the city in their youth.

My favorite author Willa Cather did that.

She was published by Alfred A. Knopf, a powerful imprint designating quality, so powerful it has survived many mergers and is part of Penguin Random House, one of the Big Five publishers that still support many authors on national book tours.

I published with Herald Press. I tour at my own expense, grateful for honoraria when offered.

Should I despair of speaking in the Big Apple? Should you?

The Empire State Building From our Hotel Window

The Empire State Building From our Hotel Window

Willa Cather was born in the nineteenth century. She didn’t do book tours. Like my friend Parker Palmer, she might christen two weeks in ten cities as “the trip from hell.”

I’m a different kind of writer from many of my mentors; I’m entering the field as a beginner. My apprenticeship in art was through reading. My reasons for writing have more to do with ending well than with a youthful calling, let alone a “career path.”

I’m a memoirist, not a novelist. There are thousands, if not millions, of others like me in the land. We’ve enjoyed careers in other fields. We have family and friendship priorities now. We love to read. And we’re responding to an inner tug: “write your story!”

I’ve done that in the form of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

Now I’m touring. I like to think that Willa Cather might like this kind of tour. For three reasons:

  • It’s organic. Every place I’ve spoken relies on re-engaging relationships from my past. Social media has allowed me to explore all the layers of time in my life and all the branches of friendships connecting close family and friends to their close friends.
  • It’s on my schedule.
  • I combine it with my “bucket list” of places I want to see before I die.

Using these three principles, I offer these parallel suggestions to other writers.

1. Review your friendships to see if you have an organic connection to New York City. I had two. One with Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship (reading there this Sunday) and the other with a blogger Charles R. Hale who lives and writes about the city and who devotes much of his life now to helping create venues for artists living in the city. He was kind enough to invite me to join Artists Without Walls last Tuesday night at The Cell Theatre, an lovely and intimate setting.

2. Create a reading that piggybacks on other events. In my case, I added readings before and after the huge Book Expo America event. I’m also planning to visit journalist Bill Moyers in his studio. I learned to know Bill at The Fetzer Institute and will be thanking him again for his wonderful endorsement for Blush.

3. Some places never get checked off my bucket list! New York City is #1 on the permanent list. Because Stuart and I are here together, we’ve already enjoyed some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I described some amazing encounters in my last post, and I know there will be more to come.

Oh, and did I mention the two most special little people in my life, grandchildren Owen and Julia, live just across the Hudson River?

I like to save the best for last. :-)

Are these tips ones you can use? What can you add or subtract from your own experience? Let’s make this a really useful list.

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© Copyright Shirley Hershey Showalter
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