Interview with an author: Victoria Laird

LairdCover-webIn Retrieving Adventures! Lincoln and Nicholas Go to Alaska, the latest children’s book by author Victoria Laird, two Golden Retriever brothers travel to Alaska and have many exciting adventures. In this interview, Victoria discusses her favorite children’s illustrators, what makes Golden Retrievers so great, and much more. Retrieving Adventures! can be purchased at the Write Place online bookstore or from the author’s website.

Tell us a little about your background as an artist. What mediums do you work in? How did you develop your skills? What is your favorite subject matter and why?

I primarily work in pastel, watercolor, colored pencil, and pen, although I occasionally work in oil or acrylics on canvas. I have a BS in art from West Liberty State University 1977, with a minor in journalism. I have been selling my portrait art since 1971 and teaching art most of my life. I have been teaching at William Penn University since January 1992. Demonstrating art techniques and helping students with their projects has also helped me figure out new techniques. My favorite subject matter is animals of all types, but I also paint people, flowers, and landscapes.

Is this the first children’s book you’ve created?

No, I wrote and illustrated children’s books back in the 1980s, but they were mostly written for my children. I loved reading books to my four children, and loved good illustrations. To me the pictures are a huge part of what makes a children’s book a success. I illustrated children’s books for author Dr. Nancy Frakes in the 1990s. A natural foods cookbook I wrote and illustrated, America’s Favorites, Naturally, was published by Melius and Peterson Publishing in 1986.

Did you have to teach yourself to write for children, or did it come naturally? If research was involved, how did you go about it?

I think writing and illustrating came naturally after reading hundreds, probably thousands of children’s books to my kids. Some books could be read daily and always were wonderful with beautiful, colorful illustrations. I loved illustrations by Jan Brett, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, and others. I did take creative writing classes in college, but mostly I wanted to write stories that made children smile, giggle, imagine, and feel optimistic about life.

The two Golden Retrievers who are the stars of this book are based on your own pets. How long have you had Golden Retrievers, and what do you particularly like about the breed?

We have four Golden Retrievers, getting our first in 2003. My husband and I have owned dogs our entire lives, of assorted breeds, but the Golden’s temperament seems to us to be uniquely wonderful. They are very intuitive, very easy to train, love to please, and make wonderful therapy dogs. When they look into your eyes, it feels like they connect in a soulful way, unlike any other breed we have owned.

Why did you choose Alaska as the setting for your book?

We took a trip to Alaska in 2010, which had been a lifelong dream of mine. I enjoy painting places and animals I find beautiful, and Alaska is an incredibly scenic place with such diverse wildlife, it seemed the best place to start. All the illustrations are based on photos that I took. Lake Keomah in Iowa is also featured on the last illustration of the book, as we have beauty here as well.

What’s in store next for Lincoln and Nicholas?

In 2016, they will take a trip to Africa, again chosen for the beauty and diversity of wildlife there. A friend of mine, Bob Barnes, has graciously granted me permission to use his African photography to base my illustrations on. In the years to come the brothers will visit Australia and the Great Barrier Reef, the rain forest, Scandinavia, and many more places I hope.

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Interview with an author: Ann Fender

Ann Fender wrote Osky Pride, an ABC book, to help kids learn why they should be proud to call Oskaloosa, Iowa, their home. Below, Ann goes deeper into her love for her community and her motivations for writing the book. Osky Pride can be purchased at the Write Place online bookstore.

In your opinion, why is it important for kids to learn about their community?

It is important for the kids to learn about their community so they can develop a sense of “belonging to a group” as well as a great feeling of pride. Kids can explore, learn life lessons, and gain a sense of their own history as they learn about their town.

How can parents help their kids learn about and take pride in Osky?


Ann Fender gifted the first graders of Oskaloosa Elementary with copies of her book.

By getting involved in our town. There is much to learn from our past history but much more to be gained by being involved in our future. A town is not just a place to live, it is a place where we can support each other and share beliefs that we pass on to future generations. In a community, we rally for each other and work as a team.

For those not from Oskaloosa, what makes your community unique?

Oskaloosa is unique in its incredible history. Music is especially strong here. We have great businesses, even nationally recognized ones! We should know and recognize this, and if we don’t learn about our past, how would we know that and develop pride?

About how long did it take you to create this book?

IOskyElem-3 have wanted to write children’s books for 10 years. One of my brothers has published two poetry books and once told me he wanted to do that as a legacy for his grandchildren. Now that I have a grandson, I decided to get serious about it.

I started by working on a book about “hands.”  Then Linda Fox and I were chatting one day at the elementary school. We wondered if kids really KNEW what Osky Pride was, though they say it every day. Since I love taking photographs, it was easy to put together things in Oskaloosa that we all should be proud of. It took some consideration to decide on a format, and ABC order seemed to work the best. I am sorry about the businesses and things that got left out from this alphabet book. My son suggested I had a page for “the ones that didn’t make it.” OskyElem-4Maybe a Version II is in order…??

As far as how long it took to complete, I have worked on it off and on since I retired, but not seriously until last spring. I lost my first notebook with the ideas for photo subjects, so had to re-create it all. A couple of friends offered help with the ideas, and I am thankful to them. It took some running around and researching the places, but along the way I learned some interesting facts, not all of which are in the book.

What was the most difficult letter for you to find a subject for?

None of the letters were really hard, it was more difficult to narrow the photos down to one. Now, a second version might be difficult for the X!

What was most fun part of creating this book?

The most fun now is delivering the books to the first graders in town. They get so excited! Linda Fox and I delivered them to the Oskaloosa Elementary School students. I took them to the Oskaloosa Christian School students. When they see their teachers’ pictures in the book, they can’t contain their excitement!

That has been the most fun for me. It is exciting that people are interested in the book. I am already on my second printing. Yay!


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The case of the confounding comma

How to avoid a common comma mistake

It’s amazing how much trouble a tiny little punctuation mark can cause. And no other mark is used—or misused—as often as the comma.

One of the most common uses of the comma is to join independent clauses. The rule for using a comma before a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) between two independent clauses is actually quite simple, but it is one of the errors editors find themselves correcting most often.

What is an independent clause? A group of words that can stand alone as a sentence and contains both a subject and a verb. So if two independent clauses are joined by a conjunction, you’ll need to add a comma before the conjunction.

Example: The weather was bitterly cold, so I decided never to leave my house again.

Here we have two independent clauses joined by the conjunction so. It’s pretty easy to tell they are independent, because both of them work on their own as sentences. Plus, they both have a subject and a verb (weather, was; I, decided).

A common mistake is to add a comma before a conjunction like and or but even when it is not being used to separate two independent clauses.

Take this example: I decided to never leave my house again and then proceeded to stockpile canned goods and bottles of water.

This is called a compound predicate, which is really one independent clause with one subject that governs two verbs. No need for the comma before and here; the second half of the sentence contains a verb, proceeded, but it is still governed by the subject I at the beginning of the sentence.

Still pretty easy. But there are cases that aren’t so easy.

One last example: I ventured out of my self-imposed hibernation when I went to work on Monday, and on Tuesday decided that it was finally warm enough to rejoin society for good.

Some editors may remove the comma before “and on Tuesday,” since the subject I governs the verb decided. However, The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn dictates an exception in cases like these, when the comma will prevent a misreading of “I went to work on Monday and on Tuesday” as a unit of thought.

Isn’t it nice that the rules of punctuation can be flexible sometimes?


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Interview with an author: Rick Birkenholtz

Rick_Birkenholtz-webresRebecca’s Run by Rick Birkenholtz takes readers on an adventure through many Iowa towns as its heroes try to foil the plot of Nazi spies. The novel is available for purchase from the author, who can be contacted at It can also be purchased at the Write Place online bookstore. Rick kindly answered questions about the research and inspiration that went into writing the book over ten years’ time.

How did you get interested in the subject of Rebecca’s Run (Nazi activity in Iowa in WWII)? How did you conduct research?

Most Americans are unaware of the fact that there was Nazi spy activity in America BEFORE World War II. Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party were fully aware that a war with Great Britain would, at least, involve American military aid. Later, if the United States should declare war on Germany, information obtained by Nazi spy activity would be vital for them for sabotage. I thought that this scenario would make an exciting base for a historical novel.

I have read and studied history my entire life and, as a result, have absorbed many facts and figures from various sources. The antique car magazines to which I subscribe often feature historical articles that relate to the cars. The internet had many details for 1939 that I was able to sprinkle throughout the novel to make it as historically correct as possible.

I consulted books in my own collection for details. One book had the history of the Burma-Shave signs. I contacted the Pella Historical Society to find out what bakeries were in business in 1939. As you can see, research comes from numerous sources.

Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

Because of my love of history and writing I always wanted to write a historical novel. The year 1939 was a pivotal year in history, so I chose it. Involving ordinary people with Nazi spies added mystery and adventure in a believable scenario. I felt that Rebecca, the main character, needed to have a love interest that fit the plot, so I added Erick. He also had tragedies in his past. I also wanted to promote Iowa history and famous Iowans, so Iowa was the venue for Rebecca’s Run. I was both pleased and a bit surprised about how well all of the elements came together.

Cover-webresWhat did you find the most enjoyable about writing and publishing your book?

The most enjoyable part of writing is creating, from scratch, an entertaining story from a lifetime of acquired knowledge and personal experiences. Writing the 90,000 words for Rebecca’s Run turned out to be the easy part!!

Much frustration and depression came when I tried to find a literary agent who, in turn, would find me a suitable publisher. Most of the agents were based in New York and were either too busy to even see what I had written or did not reply at all! I attempted this traditional path several times over the next few years to no avail. I even contacted a couple of published writers from Iowa State University who basically told me to keep trying. I gave up! Several more years went by.

After I retired I wanted to renew my quest for a publisher. Getting published was still on my bucket list. Almost by accident I discovered the Write Place in Pella. Since 2007 they have been writing consultants and publishers. As a bonus they were based in Iowa, too! In spite of my having several Dutch jokes in my novel, they took me on as a client. I found it very easy to work with them. I had the first proof copy of Rebecca’s Run in my hand in only three months after I sent them my final manuscript draft!!

It took you ten years to write the book―where did you find the determination to finish it?

Getting a novel published was always a major item on my bucket list of life. Unfortunately, life got in the way. After graduation from ISU there was a job, marriage, starting a business, helping my father with the farming, church activities, and raising a daughter to keep me busy. The writing and research was done in spurts, often months apart, over the ten years.

What is your favorite book?

One book that I read as a teenager and then again as an adult has always fascinated me. It was the biography of Leonardo da Vinci. We had so many things in common. He was tall and light haired. So am I. Leonardo was creative and had a curiosity about a great many things. So am I. Leonardo was best known as a painter but he also drew thousands of sketches about many subjects. I was amazed that we shared interests in painting, drawing, designing, writing, poetry, birds, fossils, geology, water hydraulics, and mechanical items.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Yes, keep trying―but don’t let twenty-three years go by, like I did, before you get something published.

Always write about something familiar to you and about something that you enjoy. If you have an area of writing with which you are not completely knowledgeable don’t be afraid to do some research.

What are your future writing plans?

As I wrote the manuscript for Rebecca’s Run ideas for four other novels came to me. I decided that one of them would make a great play. The play is now nearly finished. After this play is finished I hope to start on another novel.


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Crafting a marketing battle plan

Book Marketing PlanA common theme at the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Publishing University I attended this spring was that marketing a book was just as much work—if not more—than actually writing it. The strategies available are endless, and marketing could easily become a full-time job. But for those of us with limited time and money, a detailed book marketing plan of attack is essential.

In one educational session, “Build Your Nonfiction Book Marketing Plan” by Stephanie Chandler, she recommended creating a table, divided into rows and columns, listing each marketing tactic, a description, cost, priority, and target completion date. This appeals to my Type A list-making personality, but more artistic souls may find this a new experience. If you consider yourself the latter, be assured it’s a skill you can easily learn! Your table can be created in Microsoft Word or Excel, then printed off and hung above your computer or workstation so that it can’t be ignored.

As previously mentioned, marketing tactics are endless, so I’ll keep it brief here. A blog, website, social media, email marketing, print materials, publicity and outreach, reviews and endorsements, a book launch, other speaking and signing events, book awards…each should have its own row on your marketing plan.

In the description column, get in depth about each tactic. What tasks will you have to perform, who do you need to ask for help, what do you need to write or design or coordinate? In creating an author blog, for example, can you set it up yourself or will you need to find a web designer? Who is your target audience? How frequently will you post, and what will you post about? How much time will you set aside weekly to write for your blog?

Your cost and priority columns will help you when you are running low on time or cash. After looking at the costs associated with each marketing tactic, you might decide you want to spend the majority of your budget on a nice website and devote the rest of your time to free social media marketing. Alternately, if you have a book targeted at a niche or location-based market (like a book about a specific region of the U.S. or a book about antique cars), you can spend your money on local advertising or ads for special-interest magazines or websites.

The last column, target completion, is essential because that pesky publication date always sneaks up on you—trust me. For some things like a blog and social media, there is no such thing as starting too early. If you’re asking for reviews or endorsements, keep in mind people’s busy schedules and the time it will take them to read the book. Websites, too, always take longer to get from development to go-live than you expect. Certain venues for speaking and book signings have schedules that fill up early. Check book award deadlines.

Of course, a plan is only the first step. Keep an eye on our blog for future articles going in depth on implementing different marketing tactics.


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Interview with an author: Jean Saxton

saxton-photoJean Saxton is the author of four books, three published with the Write Place. Her most recent book is a poetry collection entitled Mind Set, which you can read more about at our website. Jean spoke to us about her life and poetry:

Have you always been a writer?

I’ve always enjoyed writing and before the days of computers did a lot of correspondence to friends in hand writing. English was my best subject in school and in high school I was the editor of the yearbook my senior year. Since college I’ve been a daily list maker, which at my age is a very good habit to have acquired. Recently I’ve had a strong urge to share my experiences and my thoughts with others, hence the four books.

How did you begin writing poetry? Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

Not being an early reader of novels I enjoyed poetry and likened it to a very short story in most cases. As an elementary teacher I also enjoyed sharing nursery rhymes and poems by famous authors. I’m thinking the first poem I wrote may have been an invitation to a party decades ago, and later I wrote two poems for programs at PEO Reciprocity dinners.

How do you find inspiration for your poems?

With my eyes wide open.

When is your favorite time to write poetry?

With my morning coffee, though occasionally in bed around 3:00 a.m.

What did you find most enjoyable about writing and publishing your books?

Living alone I found it to be a great mental release. I also appreciate any and all comments about my books from friends and acquaintances whether positive or negative. And when I read and re-read my own books it brings back a flood of memories.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Go for it―many folks down the road will benefit from your printed words at some point.

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The story behind the story: Lost in the Tallgrass


When I started doing research in 2009 I had no intention, not even a notion, that I’d soon be writing a novel. My mother died in February 2009, so I decided to do some genealogy research on my family. Lesson one: Don’t begin genealogy research after your parents die.

As I thought about putting something together about our family I came to the realization that I was missing a lot of the major pieces of the genetic puzzle. I took a one-day class in genealogy at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio, home base for me. That whetted my appetite. I had been a journalist for more than 40 years so the idea of doing research appealed. Besides, I had flunked retirement and, aside from fly-fishing and birding, I needed something to do.

After another longer class in genealogy research using the great electronic tools available, plus a subscription to, I was on my way. While my mother’s branch of the tree was closer, she being a Cleveland native, it was my dad’s side that intrigued. I knew bits and pieces of his family history, but not much. Not that Rusty (as his siblings called him and as he becomes in the novel) intentionally hid anything from us (I believe), it’s just that he was a quiet guy who led more by example than words. I recall once asking him, when I was probably eight or nine years old, why we had a grandma on Mom’s side of the family but not on his. His response was that his parents died when he was a kid. Okay. When you’re a kid you don’t think to ask the follow-up questions.


Longhorn cattle play a starring role in Lost in the Tallgrass.

In genealogy research you start at the end of the story and work back to the future—or current. Several days in the archives in Dekalb and Noble Counties, Indiana, where Rusty and his family lived, uncovered a lot of family history. Along the way, a second cousin, Jackie Witt Breiby, Salina, Kansas, was discovered. Jackie turned out to have a treasure trove of information about her grandfather, my uncle Clifton, and the brothers’ lives in Kansas. Included were letters Clifton wrote during the Great War. The names and references in the letters left no doubt that my dad also lived in Kansas when he was a youth.

So, given the facts, the picture began to come into focus: Rusty’s mother (Emma Harding) did die when he was young, in 1915. His father remarried within weeks and moved from Kendallville, Indiana, to nearby Auburn. Within a year of his father’s new marriage Rusty shows up in Woodson County, Kansas, where Clifton was living. They had two uncles in Woodson County.

My next stop was Yates Center, Kansas, and the Woodson County Historical Society and Museum. It was a bitter cold day in late November when the wonderful people at the museum opened their doors to me for my project. The museum normally closes on Labor Day. When we established that I was closely related (my dad’s uncle) to George Harding, one of the county’s more prominent citizens and a compiler of reams of history, I was treated like the prodigal son on his return. I left with an armload of historical information written by my dad’s uncle, factual stuff about life on the prairie.

There were, however, many gaps in the story—such as how did Rusty get to Kansas? And with whom did he live? And what did he do? That’s when I took a deep breath and made the leap over to the dark side. After more than forty years as a journalist, where telling the truth is the first rule, I was about to make things up. Over the next couple of years, as I began to write what has become Lost in the Tallgrass, there were several trips the Kansas State Historical Center in Topeka. Archivists there helped with family records (Uncle George was a member of the state legislature, twice) and newspapers, photos, and other memorabilia for the period of 1916 through 1918. There were also several hikes with Susan through the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northern Chase County, Kansas. One spring, adrenaline pumping, I tramped through a controlled burn on the prairie.Hawk at fire-web (see photos below)Prairie scene-fire-web Road wide-web

To get a feel for cowboy life during that era I read several books by Professor Jim Hoy, Emporia State University, a Shakespearian scholar and author of numerous articles and books on the life of the cowboy and life in the Flint Hills—his home. When I couldn’t find the answers I’d hoped for, on a whim I called the professor to discuss my project. After a great telephone conversation he said if I was ever in the neighborhood I should stop by. I told him I’d be there in two weeks.

Jim graciously spent a day driving me around the vast Flint Hills region. We visited with his son Josh Hoy, a fifth generation rancher—the Flying W—who also happens to be a gourmet a chef. In his son’s century-old house, I learned about early days and ways of life in the Flint Hills on the tallgrass prairie.

There have also been several trips to the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival where I worked with talented authors eager to help wannabe novelists like myself.

The rest, as they say, is fiction. And in this story it’s about equal parts fact and fiction with some of the interesting true stories not making the cut. For example, in one of Uncle Clifton’s letters he advises Rusty to go back to Yates Center (the boys had for some reason drifted across the state to Deerfield) and live with the Peake family. I researched this family and discovered, along with owning the meanest turkey in the county, old Mr. Peake was a one-story kinda guy. His story was that as a youth he lived in Springfield, Illinois, in the mid 1800s, and had a neighbor, a tall guy who wore a stovepipe hat, walked and read a lot, and was a lawyer. That clue sent Susan and I off to Springfield and the fabulous Abraham Lincoln Home National Historical Site. It took the help of an archivist but, sure enough, Mr. Peake (whose home had been destroyed to preserve the National Park site) had lived a couple houses down the street from the tall guy destined to be one of our more important presidents.

Which left me with the knowledge that I was only two degrees of separation from President Lincoln and my father never mentioned it. Lesson learned: Start your genealogy research now.

Lost in the Tallgrass by Clyde Witt is available for preorder now at a 10% discount through August 14, 2014.

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