the-swedeDuring the last season of Hell On Wheels (spoiler alert!!), in which the Swede (played by Canadian actor Christopher Heyerdahl who, when called a Swede, always replied, “I am from Norway”) was hanged, I was happily immersed in Karen Swensson’s Conversations Loosely Translated, a book in which a brilliant author is able to evoke (literally) the ghosts of her Norwegian forebears. Swensson has done a fabulous job and the ghosts are among the most amenable and interesting of any I have met in book pages or on Halloween.conversations-loosely-translated

What floored me is that her method works. Any writer worth their salt knows the tingle of joy when discovering another writer trying to carry off something difficult that SUCCEEDS. It is like a permission slip to all of us: “See? If you learn to write as well as Swensson, you too will be doing flips in the air and walking on foam.”

I can just imagine what inspired her. After all, Swensson’s American roots are in Wisconsin, in the farmhouse that burned down taking  the lives of many including her own mother. The farmhouse was built in 1845. You can read on Amazon about the chain of events that made Swensson look backwards to the past.

Watching Hell on Wheels while reading Swensson’s book brought the vivid American past into a swirling reality. But I do not think it is just Hell on Wheels fans who will appreciate what Swensson has done in Conversations Loosely Translated–Ancestry.com users and other family tree researchers will love the way she makes the ghosts interact with the writer.

Thus the “conversations” are with these Norwegian phantoms. Even though Swensson tells the reader exactly what she is doing, it all feels real.  I really felt the ghosts were there. No doubt that is because Swensson remembers to add descriptive details and weaves story patterns into the book.

I liked reading about great, great grandfather Ole relate how the Norwegian settlers arrived penniless and had to be taken in by Norwegians living in sod houses dug out in the Koshkonong area. Since the the Hell on Wheel‘s Swede’s accent was always heavy, he must have come over as a teen and had quite a few dinners with gophers digging through the wall to join him and the other Norwegians.

Swensson is a good researcher. History buffs will enjoy reading about the Norwegian ship that avoided Spanish pirates by doubling back to Europe for a day and a half, only to make a U turn to get back on track for the New World!

9781634130158 The term for people who travel via the written page: armchair travelers.

The word for people reading because they have no choice: students.

A correct synonym for reading: escape.

Reading is many things to many people. One of my favorite reading experiences this summer was a book I never expected to find: The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club by R.C. Goodwin. This collection of stories, written by a relatively new author who has worked in private practice, jails and prisons, a facility for the criminally insane, and the counseling center at a large university,”convinced me of an authenticity that only someone who has been in close proximity to such people can provide.

Each story  reveals a different side of the human soul, one that characters have been unaware of until circumstances change. The title piece of the collection has a powerful hook, starting out by detailing the intelligence quotient (I.Q.)  rank of several inmates on death row. The psychiatrist who has to talk to each inmate hits a wall of depression before meeting these men, for what on earth is a shrink supposed to do for a condemned man? Make him fit for human society?

The psychiatrist is surprised when one of the condemned prisoners asks for Stephen Hawking’s  A Brief History of Time.  The prisoner in question reads it and discusses the very difficult subject matter with clarity and precision, making the reader wonder what that inmate might have become if he had experienced a different childhood. (That question is the premise of another story titled “Blank Slate,” in which a head injury changes the character of a violent criminal.) The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club alludes to the fact that more than one prisoner reads this difficult book and is affected by it.

All the stories are excellent. I was personally struck by “One on One” in which a rapist and his victim meet, more than once. I was not even aware that such a program existed or that a convict or his victim would wish to partake. The story unfolds in unexpected fashion. Like all the stories, it held me in its grip. I highly recommend this compelling collection to all lovers of unexpectedly intelligent and interesting story telling.



Certain red flags signal to writing teachers and book judges that a book or story is written by someone who does not use a writers’ group or contests to help hone skills. Seasoned judges and teachers expect further mistakes once they bump against the first. Sadly, mistakes distract from good story telling and hurt writers’ chances for publication and attaining readers.

  1. Any story or book that starts with pronouns “he” or “she,” rather than naming a protagonist until many paragraphs or pages in, is written by a beginner. Chances are high that the story will percolate with other wannabe writer annoyances.
  2.  Misuse of punctuation.
  3. Misspelled past participles. The most commonly misspelled past participle is “lain.” People wrongly use “laid.”
  4. Misused verb tenses. Many writers do not go to the trouble of correctly using present perfect tense, relying on “just” in front of simple past: “I just ate.”
  5. Overuse of adverbs. “Even,” “just” and “basically” are ubiquitous.
  6. Starting a story with a character the reader has no sympathy for. Telling a tale through the eyes of a despicable person is hard to carry off. Readers need to bond, just like babies do.
  7. Trying to be too mysterious. (This hooks with number #1.) Writers who think they are being mysterious and refuse to give information that is descriptive and logical fall on their noses in the land of vagueness. No reader wants to be lost. This mistake always shows up early in the text.

Anne Frank – Imagine being any one of the 15 idiots who thought that her diary wasn’t publishable.

Source: Don’t Burn Your Manuscript Just Yet!

You are a writer with a great idea for a children’s book. Better yet, you are an artist, or you have a friend who is an artist. You already have fantastic illustrations for your story. You have been to the bookstore and you are amazed at how good your idea is compared to what you see already available.

childrens authorMaybe a friend of yours who is a writer–or a writer friend of a teacher you know–will be able to point you in the right direction. Whom should you write to with your fabulous idea? You don’t want to just put your story with the great illustrations on Amazon Kindle so as to compete with five million other books self-published there (oops it might be eight or nine million by now) because then your children’s book might not rise to the top. People might not see it when they go onto Amazon.

If only you knew the right person! Maybe the people who write this blog are the right people. Connie and I have published books. We know other writers who have published books. Ask us. Go ahead, don’t be shy.

Here is my answer: You need to get your feet wet. You will have to subscribe to the various emails that are worth their weight in gold in telling you where to look. Emails from Authors Publish Magazine, which kindly sends emails right to my inbox, features YA authors like Chantelle Atkins and other generous spirits who will encourage you, talk to you and perhaps share the names of their agents or publishers.

You’ll want to check in at resources like Absolute Write, which has been around for years and is more helpful than ever. Here, authors counsel each other, telling each other about publishers, agents and their experiences with them. I love Literary Rambles for its great agent interviews, offering writers a sense of agents’ personalities and reading tastes.

While the multiple award-winning novelist C. Hope Clark is a wonder in the research and writers’ links she offers in funds for writers, bless her mystery-writing heart, Writer’s Digest has been my lifeblood in the formative articles I received in the pre-internet days via magazines that came all the way to Saudi Arabia. Writer’s Digest offers an annual self-published book contest in biographies, children’s, young adult novels, adult novels and inspirational. Much of the great information I paid for is now free. There is no excuse not to dive in. If you want and love to write and publish, the first step is to become familiar with all these sources. They will guide your steps.




 picture by Yousef Eshmawi

Happiness is not seeing my brother suffering from the lack of seeing his kids. My brother Lino raised his kids to the age of five, but once they reached the age at which they didn’t need a babysitter, the mother took full custody of them and limited the visitations he had with them. Now when they visit him, only on the weekends, the are excited to see him, when their mom picks them up at the end of the day, they cry to leave, and leave my brother with a broken heart. In his mind he never thought she would do this to him. At first she would go out and party, leaving my brother to raise them. He would beg her to come see the kids when they were babies, but she never did. Once they started going to school full time, she took my brother to court for custody. Lino was scared to go because he had a bad reputation with the law. Regardless of how he was in the streets, to his kids, he was the best. To this day, he only gets to see them when she wants. To me it’s sad because my nieces tell me they can’t wait to reach the age they can choose who to be with.

Ramon Ibarra

Happiness is not coming home from school to find your mother and father arguing. There are thousands of kids in the world who come home from school to find their parents fighting. In my opinion, this is unfair because young kids shouldn’t have to see this behavior. Furthermore, when kids see their parents arguing, it messes with their way of living, which prevents them from being happy. Unfortunately, this is the way life is and we’re just going to need to toughen up and deal with it. I’ve learned that if we depend on others to be happy then we’re never going to be truly happy.

Eduardo Berriel

Happiness is not looking at your bank account to find there is no money in it. Many Americans get mad when looking at their bank accounts, seeing no money in the bank or  thinking they have money to spend and then finding there is none. We blame our jobs for not paying us enough but we fail to realize we are the problem because we let the credit/debit card take over.

Mayra Lares



elvis and nixon

Let me begin by saying I didn’t expect much from this movie, especially since it is being pushed as a comedy. There was another movie made years ago on the topic, and if memory serves me correctly, it wasn’t very good. So, when I went to see the new film yesterday, I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed it. This is a lighthearted, feel good film from Amazon that does an amazing job of getting into both Nixon’s and Presley’s characters. In fact, I have to give a shout out to Michael Shannon: his is the best portrayal of Elvis I have seen in any film to date—short of Elvis himself of course, ha ha.

Shannon captured Elvis’s personality and charisma in a way that made me believe he was Elvis in the movie—not something easily accomplished when dealing with an Elvis fan of 50 years. And interestingly enough, it didn’t matter a bit to me that Shannon looks nothing like Elvis. I will be curious to hear whether other fans have a similar take, so if you’re reading this, please let me know via the comment section of this post.

As for Nixon, I did a tremendous amount of research on him for my book, Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream (conveniently rereleased by my publisher back in November and currently available on Amazon, hint hint), and judging from all of that, I would say Kevin Spacey also did a fantastic job of playing Nixon. This was especially noticeable during the meeting with Elvis, when Nixon went from a grumpy old man irritated by Elvis taking up his time to fully enjoying his visit with the King. Having read so many books on Nixon including his own massive autobiography, I could totally envision him acting exactly that way.

As Shannon said during an interview on ABC, no documentation exists of the actual face-to-face meeting between the King and Nixon, so no one knows what happened behind closed doors until the photo shoot that happened at the end. Being quite familiar with both of their life stories, however, I found the script to be very believable. Elvis acted like Elvis and Nixon the same. Elvis’s amazing charisma could and probably did totally blow Nixon away. In the film, the two wind up chatting like a couple of old friends on the couch in the Oval Office, eating M&Ms and drinking Dr. Peppers.

There are some really funny scenes in this film, but I don’t think any of them are meant to make fun of Elvis in a mean spirited way, and that in itself is a real step forward for the mainstream media. Elvis was not your average, run of the mill celebrity. He lived life in the fast lane for the most part, but he was also a deeply spiritual, well-read, thoughtful individual who loved his country. Yes, it seems pretty crazy that he wanted a narcotics badge so he could become an undercover agent–but his thinking behind it, that he could infiltrate the Counterculture’s drug scene and help stop it–was certainly well meaning albeit pretty unlikely. Chances are Elvis knew that himself, but he had decided he wanted to meet the president of the United States and run it by him, just in case. As with most things Elvis, when all was said and done, it was mission accomplished.