Bestow On Us Your Grace – Chapter One

Tomorrow is the day! Join us at Thistles in Pella from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. to celebrate the release of Bestow On Us Your Grace with Jean De Vries and the Write Place team. You’ll also be able to grab other Write Place titles—our entire inventory is on sale just in time for the holidays!

To get you excited to pick up your signed copy of Bestow On Us Your Grace, here’s a sneak peek of the first chapter of the book!


Mary leaned far over the table, stretching to place the bowl of steaming mashed potatoes in the center. Footsteps sounded on the wraparound porch just moments before the screen door screeched its own announcement, then slammed shut. Following closely behind, louder thudding footsteps sounded against the floor boards and the door screeched open again. Her young daughters quickly finished setting the silverware on the dining room table and sat down, looking so small in the high-backed chairs. The sound of boots being peeled off and thumping to the floor was soon followed by water splashing down over what she knew would be dirty hands and forearms.

She stood upright when Daniel came in the room, his face already smiling above his beard, his eyes glancing from the table to her and meeting her gaze. Even after all these years, she found it impossible not to smile back into his dancing eyes, crinkled at the corners. Caleb slipped quietly behind his father and sat eagerly in his place between the wide window and the table that stretched along it. Mary was giving Caleb a disapproving look as he pulled the platter of fried chicken close to him when she saw a shadow fall across the table. Silas walked around behind her, his silhouette stretching far across the kitchen and into the living room.

She watched him lower into the ladder-back chair across from Caleb and shook her head in wonder. It never ceased to amaze her how one day they went from looking so small, as four-year-old Anna Mae did now, to growing up so quickly that they towered over their parents. All of her sons had passed her up. Three of them now stood every bit as tall as or taller than their father’s six feet. Only Caleb still looked up to speak to Daniel, though it wouldn’t be long before even that would change. At the age of fourteen, he was following in his brothers’ large footsteps.

Mary turned to Amy, her eldest daughter, as she set the plate of freshly sliced bread on the table and took her place next to Caleb. Mary quickly sat and looked across the table to where Daniel was waiting. With a nod, they dropped their heads simultaneously in silent prayer. At her husband’s intake of breath, their heads raised and Caleb began eagerly filling his plate.

She’d heard of some Amish families who ate in silence, spending their mealtime eating instead of talking. But she’d always been thankful for Daniel’s love of storytelling and conversation. The chatter around their table whenever they were gathered was boisterous and lively. Though there were many times she had to remind the little ones to keep eating, she’d never minded much. The reward was hearing about their day and getting a window into their minds and hearts. Tonight, the discussion was about the frogs Caleb had discovered down at the creek that afternoon. It wasn’t long before he had his three sisters excited about a trip to the creek after supper. Silas, ever the quiet one, listened and smiled at their excitement but said little. Nothing unusual there. His older brothers, David and Michael, had been and were still so unlike him. Silas was an ocean of perfectly still water while they were bubbling brooks.

Anna Mae and Shelby Jo were bouncing in their chairs while Caleb quickly shoveled mouthfuls of sour cream chocolate cake into his mouth. With a smile and a nod from Daniel, their chairs scraped back across the floor and four of her children went racing outside. Even seventeen-year-old Amy followed, the bottoms of her bare feet flashing white beneath her dark blue skirt as she ran. Silas calmly sat and slowly ate his dessert. “Joseph King was asking me why you haven’t been at the Singings lately,” Daniel said to Silas, who was seated close to him.

Mary stood and quietly worked at clearing off the table and doing the dishes. Her ears were carefully tuned to listen for Silas’s response. They needn’t have been. He gave none.

“Yer brothers were building houses and planning weddings by your age,” Daniel said with a smile. It could have been taken as a cruel statement, but Daniel’s easy way and gentle smile showed his lighthearted intention.

Silas simply stared at the patterns in the wood grain of the handmade table in front of him and shrugged.

David and Michael had both taken wives at the age of twenty. Silas would be twenty-one within the week. Certainly not a cause for concern but for the fact that he did not seem at all interested in such an endeavor. For the past several months he hadn’t even been going to Singings on Sunday nights, as was typical for single boys his age. It was how the Amish young people socialized and found marriage partners. That Silas wouldn’t go was…a puzzle to her.

Daniel was undeterred by Silas’s lack of conversation. “Joseph’s daughter, Emily, seems a nice young woman. She’s about your age, isn’t she?”

Silas only nodded. Though now, Mary observed, he looked visibly uncomfortable. Mary knew Emily King. And though she was nearly twenty years old, she was still unattached and a sweet girl. Emily was a fine baker, famous for her coffee cakes, and Mary had noticed at several quilting frolics how fine her stitching was. She had a quiet, gentle, and shy way about her, much like Silas. She’d make a gut Amish wife.

“Oh well, perhaps she’ll wait for our Caleb,” Daniel teased and smiled at Mary. She watched as Silas’s mouth tried to grin, but he gave up. Silas caught her watching him and quickly averted his gaze out the window.

“Perhaps Silas has his sights set on someone else,” Mary lightly reminded Daniel.

Daniel turned his gaze back to Silas, his brow raised in a question.

“No,” Silas answered.

“Amy would appreciate yer going to Singings again. She doesn’t like to drive herself, especially when it’s a long ways,” Mary encouraged.

Silas was again silent, staring out the window with a determined
set to his face.

“Speaking of Amy, I should go down to the creek and fetch her and the children back. They and their muddy, frog-filled pockets.” Daniel winked at Mary. His boots made loud, slow stomping sounds down the front porch steps. Silas stood to follow him.

“You’d like being married, Silas,” Mary called to him, stopping him at the door. “Someone to help ya with yer work. Someone to talk to, raise a family with.”

She watched his shoulders rise and fall in a silent sigh. “Yes, Mama,” he said without turning to face her. Mary watched Silas walk slowly away to the refuge of his workshop.

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Bestow On Us Your Grace – Prologue

There are less than two weeks to go until the book signing for our 2016 Book Contest winner by Jean De Vries! To tide you over until December 3, here is a sneak peek at the prologue of Bestow On Us Your Grace. Check back on December 2 for an exclusive look at Chapter One!


Kirsten stood in the doorway of her mother’s room, barely able to make out the shape of her body huddled beneath the blankets. Despite the dark, it was only 6:30 in the evening, the winter sun having gone down an hour ago. Kirsten listened and was relieved to hear only the sound of her mother’s quiet breathing. Last night her mother had woken her with her sobbing, and Kirsten had crawled into her parents’ bed, wrapping her eight–year-old arms around her mother. Suddenly, strangely, their roles had been reversed.

She turned from the door and went to the dark living room, picking up an overdue library book and flicking on the lamp beside the couch. She grabbed a box of cereal out of the cupboard and sat down, crunching through the Fruit Loops as she slowly turned the illustrated pages. Turning on the television was out of the question. Nothing was worth waking her mother. Even worse was the pain of watching commercials and sitcoms full of happy children with their fathers.

A strange clattering outside brought Kirsten to the living room window. No headlights or sound of an engine. Only the black form of a horse shifting slightly, a shadowy buggy behind it. The doorbell’s piercing chime startled her, even though she was expecting it. Ever since that police officer rang the doorbell just days ago, the sound had become an ominous source of fear. Kirsten’s mother shuffled around the corner and turned robotically to the door, her face void of expression. It was either all emotion or none the past few days.

“Hello, Mary.” Her mom’s voice sounded hollow and wooden as she stood in the doorway, one hand still clutching the doorknob for support. Kirsten silently stepped beside her and wrapped her arm around her mother’s leg, staring wide-eyed at a woman in a long dress who was standing on their front step holding a covered basket.

“Elizabeth,” the bonnet-headed woman said, blinking slowly. “We are so very sorry for yer loss.”

Her mother nodded. Why was she nodding? Daddy wasn’t lost. Kirsten knew precisely where he was. In a hole in the ground at the cemetery in town.

Kirsten’s mother accepted the basket from the woman. She’d seen others dressed like her before, of course. They lived all around. In fact, it was Kirsten and her family who were the oddity in this particular area of the county.

The woman turned to look for a long moment at Kirsten, who stared back up at her. Kirsten saw there the same expression all the grown-ups gave her lately. No one smiled at her anymore.

“May you find comfort and strength in the Lord,” the woman said, turning her attention slowly back to Kirsten’s mother.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth mumbled. Kirsten could feel her mother’s leg tremble and gripped tighter. Slowly, Elizabeth shut the door and turned to stumble back toward her room, pulling away from Kirsten’s grasp. She carelessly dropped the basket in the middle of the living room floor. Kirsten went to watch out the window as the woman climbed back into the buggy. The horse started forward in a slow circle and left the yard.

“Mom?” she said, turning to see that Elizabeth had nearly reached the doorway to her room. “Why don’t they drive a car?”

Her mother stopped and spoke over her shoulder. “They don’t have one.”

“Why not?”

“They’re Amish.”

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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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Read chapter one of Lost in the Tallgrass

Cover-web-resCan’t wait to start reading Lost in the Tallgrass by Clyde Witt, the Write Place 2014 Book Contest winner? You’re in luck. Read chapter one below for free, or download it as a PDF. You can also preorder it before Friday, August 15, and receive a 10% discount here.

Chapter One

Summer 1916

Rusty decided to leave after supper, under the cover of darkness when cool evening air would make travel less of a hardship and more of an adventure. It was time to stop dreaming about being a cowboy in the Wild West and become one. He sat atop the metal boxcar, legs crossed in the manner he imagined Injuns would use at a powwow.

The palms of his hands twisted on two warm steel rods as he tried to wipe away sweat and improve his grip. As the train began to move the rumbling sound of its couplers rolled toward him in a straight line, like thunder of an approaching storm.

Rusty shifted the gray newspaper boy’s bag, worn bandoleer style, to a more comfortable position. The bag was loaded with his only possessions: one long-sleeved white shirt, one pair of black canvas work pants with a hole in the right knee, and two pairs of loose-fitting underpants stolen from his father’s dresser. He leaned against the comforting pressure of the bag as it captured wind and transformed itself into a canvas pillow.

The train’s speed increased, creating an assault on his face by cicadas and hard-shelled June bugs. They clung to his sand-colored hair and crawled along the buttoned collar of his clean white shirt. The rush of wind and rattle of steel wheels increased, replacing the familiar summer sound of crickets. With head tilted back, he screamed at the stars, “Yeehaaa! I ain’t never had this much fun.”

Earlier in the day he’d passed up an opportunity to go fishing so that he could quietly explore ways of getting to Kansas―for free. Trains ran through his town in every direction, so the obvious choice, his only choice, was to hop a freight. To a fourteen-year-old boy it seemed easy enough: just find a train heading toward the setting sun. Yates Center, Kansas, had to be out there somewhere. Uncle George had written lots of letters to Ma telling her how great things were in Kansas, so how hard could it be to find the place?

Rusty’s knowledge of trains was limited by what his father told him. If Pa said, “Stay away from the rail yard,” that was the end of the discussion. He would say, “You never know what kind of people you might find hanging around there: hobos, gypsies, even worst.”

Later that night, as the train began to move, Rusty felt the weight of Kendallville’s humid air drift back to where he hoped it would remain, along with Pa’s strange way of speaking, half-English, half-German. The smelly air could stay there too, with Sophia, the new stepma who screamed about kids always underfoot. Rusty’s stomach began to rumble, and he felt water coming up into his mouth. To make himself feel better he tipped his head back and looked at the unmoving stars that belonged to the muggy August night.

Each time the train approached a crossroad, the four-note blast of its whistle carried stories about things he wanted, like life as a cowboy, any life away from Indiana, where noisy cars and trucks were fast replacing horses. Living in the west would mean he could be with his brother, whom he’d not seen in a year. Cliff was six years older and already a cowboy. Occasionally, when rounding a curve, the train’s speed decreased, easing the pressure of the wind. Rusty could relax his grip on the metal bars and expel a deep breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. The rhythmic invocation broadcast by the boxcar’s wheels rose through the dark as the train traveled over uneven joints in the rails: do something, be something, do something, be something.

Rusty twisted from side to side searching for some way to ease the swaying of the railcar. He lifted his nose and sniffed, trying to identify insects, sparks, and ashes mixed in the aroma that pelted his face. He shuddered when cinders brushed his cheeks, reminding him of how Ma’s chapped hand used to feel when she tucked him in at night. Occasionally, invisible particles burned and he wondered if hitching a ride atop a steel boxcar was a good idea. Running away from home―or what he had called home after Sophia tossed him out of his real house, Ma’s house―had seemed like a perfect plan.

When the car swayed and rocked while rounding a turn, Rusty reacted like a bird flapping its wings to stay balanced on a wire. He rubbed his butt. His flat wool cap, first used as a seat cushion, no longer helped. His eyes became accustomed to the dark, and he studied the array of rods crossing the roof. The fat, central piece that extended the length of the car divided it into equal segments. At ninety-degree angles from the main rod, equally spaced shorter rods extended toward the darkness of the roof ’s edges. This jigsaw puzzle of symmetrical metal pieces reminded him of sides of beef he’d seen hanging in Mr. Kinkauff’s butcher shop back home.

The railcar shook and he flattened his hands against the still-warm roof in hopes of reducing the swaying motion of the car. He leaned forward against the pressure of the wind. To keep himself awake, he searched for familiar bright stars in the night sky and imagined Cliff doing the same while rounding up stray cows or sitting near the campfire drinking coffee.

Deep in the tunnel of darkness he saw red and yellow fireflies exit the engine’s smoke stack, then disappear into the night. Each time his body slipped he knew he was losing his battle to stay atop the railcar. He rubbed his tongue on the grit stuck to his lips and turned toward the back of the railcar in hopes of finding some safe way to get out of the wind.

As the direction of the train shifted his hair flowed with it, unblocking his vision and allowing the slightly bowed outline of the railcar’s back edge to come into view. Even though that edge seemed hardly more than three arms’ lengths away, Rusty knew the wind pressure would prevent him from standing. He could forget about trying to walk to the ladder at the back of the car.

He rubbed the tops of his thighs to relieve the numbness and feeling of pins and needles being stuck into his feet. He twisted and turned to get his legs unwrapped and under his stomach so he could balance on all fours and find a better position to fight the ceaseless rocking motion of the car. The swaying subsided long enough for him to slip his hands along the horizontal rods away from his body and seek a more secure, flattened position. Being stretched flat as possible might help reduce the wind but made it impossible to move toward the ladder. The car lurched. Rusty reached for any anchor and grabbed the metal rod that ran down the centerline. To keep himself from rolling across the top of the car, he spread his legs like a bird’s tail feathers. His jaw slammed against the roof and he unleashed a string of unpracticed profanity.

Rhythmic battering of his body against the roof sent spurts of pain through his chest. To soften the blows, he pulled and pushed at his canvas bag until it wedged between his chest and the central rod on the roof.

The rod gripped with his left hand felt slippery with sweat as he used his right to unbuckle the scarred leather belt he’d stolen from his father. When the tongue of the belt slipped free, he pushed the metal buckle under the central rod, rejoined the two ends, and pulled hard to cinch himself to the boxcar roof. Except for the pain in his stomach caused by the too-tight belt, he felt secure when lashed in place. The train moved faster than he’d ever imagined―faster than any horse he’d seen at the county fair. He lifted his head to see where he was going and a sharp pain in his neck made him tuck in his chin and rest his head on his forearm. Up ahead he knew was only darkness. With each attempt to see where he was going, his eyes stung from sweat mixed with insects and soot. He knew he was going to cry. He shivered. His right hand worked the bag closer to his face to serve as a pillow against the rhythmic pounding. He felt nauseous again. Maybe, if he could splay his arms and legs a bit more, as if he was giving this railcar a hug, it would reduce the endless swaying. He closed his eyes and was soon riding on top of a sparkling white stagecoach, seated next to Buffalo Bill himself. They were caroming between the new lamp poles of Kendallville’s Center Street, the sparking hooves of eight white horses thundering so loud he couldn’t hear the screams of children huddled against store windows in fear of being trampled. Buffalo Bill handed him the single-action .45 revolver, a huge Colt Peacemaker, to fire at the clouds overhead.


Sleep lifted from Rusty. The train was no longer moving. He forced his encrusted eyelids open on a scene of railcars the color of cooked beets stretching before him in the wide sweep of a train yard. A greenish hint of land separated the tops of railcars from the gray-blue sky. The sun poked above the line, its orb reminding him of the yolk of a fresh egg dropped in a skillet. Below the green line, railcars interrupted his view of the yard as they swayed along the tracks. Bells and whistles joined unfamiliar ticking sounds as the metal roof of the boxcar warmed in the sun. Smoke made the air feel thick as wool. Despite the clamor, there was a softness to morning in this place, something he’d not felt back in Kendallville for a long time.

Rusty sensed vibrations in his stomach. It was a soft, slow padding feeling, like a cat sneaking up on a mouse, making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He clinched his teeth as the tremors drew closer, then stopped. He lifted his head at the sound of a sharp squeak. A hissing noise followed by the unmistakable sound of the impact of a bat against the skin of a ball arrived at the same moment as searing pain in his left foot. His body jolted forward, causing his head to slam against one of the roof ’s cross members. Flames flared through his spine, into his neck, and exited as dry heaves from his mouth. Another sharp cracking sound, an unexpected wash of cold air, then intense pain made his body shake and his breath disappear. The smooth skin of his cheek scraped against the canvas bag. Rusty twisted in an effort to see his assailant; however, something held him captive.


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