Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Book Review: Shadow on the Hill

Shadow on the Hill
by Diana Staresinic-Deane

Another area writer published a book about the same time I published mine. I "knew" Diana Staresinic-Deane from our local library. She used to work there; I still frequent there. We'd never really had a conversation, however, until we struck one up via email about the time our books were coming out.

Diana's was a fascinating project. Shadow on the Hill tells the true story of a 1925 murder that took place just one county east of here. Florence Knoblock was brutally murdered on May 30, 1925, and her husband was tried twice, but never convicted, for the deed. It was a heart wrenching story, vividly illustrated by the author who spent nearly three years researching to pull together the facts of the case.

I downloaded the book late on a Sunday evening and began reading. After only a few chapters, I remembered what a pansy I am. I got up to lock all the doors and windows in my house and had to find some fluff to read for a few hours before I could go to bed. Still, the opening chapters stuck in my dreams for several nights! 

After that, I limited myself to daytime reading so I didn't carry the story into my dreams so completely. 

Though the story is factual, bringing together countless newspaper articles, trial transcripts and interviews, it is told in narrative form. I found myself examining all the characters as they were introduced. I won't tell you who I think did it, but I loved the way Diana dropped in pieces of information and clues along the way. In fact, I spent a couple more hours reviewing the evidence once I finished the book! 

Aside from the gory details of the murder, I also loved the glimpses of Emporia's past. As someone who has recently adopted Emporia as a hometown, the story filled in a lot of blanks for me regarding the status and reputation of William Lindsey White (who passed away in 1973), in particular.

I highly recommend Shadow on the Hill to both the history and the mystery buffs out there. It is a stellar combination of the two. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Book Review: Sihpromatum - I Grew My Boobs in China

Sihpromatum - I Grew My Boobs in China
by Savannah Grace

I happened upon this book as I was researching marketing techniques by other "first book" authors. With a daughter in the midst of planning a trip to China, I was entirely hooked by the title alone. I've been watching for good travel books and this one looked promising.

I was not disappointed, though the first few chapters of the book were not what I expected. Imagine downsizing to the point where all you need to survive fits in your backpack. Savanna's family set out on the hiking trip of all hiking trips when she was 14 years old. This book covers the first portion of their journey across China and Mongolia. The book also details Savannah's maturation from resistant traveler to a young woman beginning to appreciate the gift of this amazing adventure with her family.

Wow! Once we were on the road, I was entirely hooked. Savanna has such a way with words that it was easy to fall right into step alongside her. I could visualize everything she described, from the lovely (Giant Buddah) to the terrifying (public toilets!)

I eagerly wait volume two of this wonderfully written travel log. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Author Interview: Gloria Zachgo

I first met Gloria Zachgo at a Kansas Authors Club convention. She was a new author with her first published book in hand. Since I have always been intrigued by the story behind my favorite stories, I thought I’d take this opportunity to interview Gloria about the process of writing her book.

Tell me about writing your story.  How did your book come to life?

I’m in a writing group that often writes on prompts.  It was one of those prompts – a little toy rocking horse and a gingerbread man – that led to a story.  After I wrote the story I filed it away in a notebook and didn’t think about it again until I took a writing workshop.  Driving home from that workshop my rocking horse story kept coming back to me.  I saw a young woman in a small Kansas town walking down the street, all alone.  The local sheriff saw her and was shocked – but why?  She wasn’t a local, yet he thought he knew her.  With inspiration from the workshop, I started writing so that I might know the answers myself.  Ironically, the finished book and the original story are nothing alike.

Who is your favorite character in your book and why?

Probably Barbara – because she reminds me so much of my own mother.  But that  question is really hard to answer, because each character became real to me.  I love developing characters, from people I’ve met and known, and even strangers that I’m just curious about.  I was told I even made Blaze likeable.  It was easy to do that, because every dog I’ve ever known has its own personality traits too.  

Were there any characters who surprised you?  Characters who didn’t end up being quite what you thought they would be when you started writing your story?  Tell me about how they changed.

All of them changed as the story developed and they became more real.  But Katherine was the one who changed the most in my own mind.  She started out cold hearted.  Then she became vulnerable and a softer side started to come through. 

When writing The Rocking Horse, did you outline and then write, or did the story develop chapter by chapter?  Did you know when you started where you were going to end up?

No, I didn’t know where I was going to end up as the story kept changing with the development of each new character.  I didn’t use an outline for The Rocking Horse.  I  titled each chapter, so that I after I’d completed my manuscript, I could weave them  together into the book.  I made an epilog on the first try.  It didn’t work right.  When I tried again, I ended with a chapter that might let me go back to Shady Creek someday.  That’s not happening yet.  I have another story to tell now – totally different than this one.  I’ve had a lot of requests to find out what happened to several characters (especially Larry).  I hope I get the opportunity to visit them all again, but for now I have to write what’s in my heart. 


Gloria Zachgo grew up on a farm in a small Kansas community where neighbors were friends and family.  She rode her horse Nellie over pastures where the buffalo once roamed, and she attended one of the last one-room schoolhouses in the country.  Is it any wonder that she loves nature and her own independence?

Gloria married her high school sweetheart shortly after finishing business school.  They lived out of state for a short time.  When they found their way back to Kansas, Gloria ran a small business out of her home while her children were small.  When the kids left home, she pursued her interests in painting and later in writing.  When she joined a local writer’s group,  she explored writing fiction, and knew she had found her true love. 

Gloria told very few people that she was writing The Rocking Horse.  Writing in the early mornings after her husband left for work, she spent nearly a year working on the novel.   When she had a completed manuscript, it was a surprise for her friends, family, and her weekly writing group, and when she shared it with them, they encouraged her to get it published. 

The Rocking Horse was published in 2011 and has recently won “Honorable Mention” in the 20th Annual Writer’s Digest Self Published Book Awards.

The Rocking Horse can be found at:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday Book Review: A Field Guide to Now: Notes on Mindfulness and Life in the Present Tense

A Field Guide to Now: Notes on Mindfulness and Life in the Present Tense

It's kind of funny that a "field guide to now" first sent my memory drifting back to my earlier days of parenting, though for every "I remember" Christina Rosalie's beautifully written and presented book brought to mind, her journey also often struck me as very different from my own. Then I got to the chapter titled "Hurdle" and it all fell into place. The connection with another female writer, one who blossomed in her words and art in tandem with growing babies, and the element of now I was seeking from the book's title. 

"Becoming a parent has forced me to listen again and again to my stirring heart in a way I never did before. It has propelled me toward my creative work with the kind of awesome advantage that female athletes have after having a baby."

This is the chapter where I stopped reminiscing and started declaring, exactly! Here is a woman who has felt it to, the creative wholeness that having children can bring to a life, the determination to become now rather than wait for a more convenient, less full time.

"The very fact that I am not always at the center of my own life is what spurs me to acknowledge the only Someday I'll ever have is right now, and to dig in."

Each of Rosalie's essays rolls through the heart and mind, some words lodging and making you want to grab hold and savor them a bit, others dancing merrily past. It's a book you want to breath in, by essay, by page, or sometimes by paragraph. And the mixed-media images she includes have a beauty all their own. I was especially drawn to her pictures of hands, a theme that comes up in my own limited exploration of visual arts.

A Field Guide is a comfort book, a perfect book for giving as a gift, and a book that should be passed on to new and experienced mothers, alike. It is as wonderful in bits and pieces as it is in one full reading, from cover to cover. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Confessions in Writing... Getting to Know the Characters

Dad was still turning pages of the newspaper, but looking at me with an expectant expression. Eventually he said, “So… the back seat of your car is awfully full. You’re not planning on moving back in, are you?”
I looked at the table and found a spot to scrub with my thumb.
Mom had returned to the dishwasher and I could tell she was listening for my response, as well.
Dad looked at his watch. “I’d really like to talk about it now,” he said. “But I suppose it can wait till this evening if you are not ready.”

Tracy Million Simmons. Tiger Hunting (Kindle Locations 174-180)

In writing fiction, there is often this idea of author as god. It's your universe. You can do anything you want to, right? 

To some extent I suppose this is true. More often, however, characters plot their own paths. 

Jeni's father was very much a mystery to me when I started writing Tiger Hunting. I had a fairly good picture of her mother, but I wasn't entirely sure that her father would even be a part of the story. I really wasn't sure what kind of man he was. Was he a stern man? A man who was incapable of bonding with his children? Was he the kind of person who preferred his children as infants and continued to treat them as such once they were grown?

It sounds strange to say, but when I started writing the story, Jeni's father was a character that kind of stood in the doorway of the room for a while before stepping in to say, "Hey, I have a role in this story, too."

All I could do was keep writing to learn who he was.

A few pages later, Jenni and her father are having a heart-to-heart.

I looked up at him. He was studying my face, listening to me with both ears fully engaged in the way that only my father has ever paid attention to anything I’ve ever had to say. He wrapped his arms around me and held me there on the curb.
A Dodge City patrol car pulled to a stop in front of us. “Everything okay?” the officer asked.
“We’re fine, sir,” my father answered. I raised my head and smiled at the man so that he’d know I wasn’t in trouble. The policeman tipped an imaginary hat to us and drove off slowly. I felt him continuing to watch us from the rearview mirror.

Tracy Million Simmons. Tiger Hunting (Kindle Locations 928-933). 

This is the scene where I finally decided Jeni's father was a man I truly liked and respected. I began to recognize in him the finer qualities of the men I have known and loved in my own life -- my brothers, my uncles, my dad, and the fathers of some of my closest childhood friends.

In many ways, writing fiction is like exploring. You place a character on a page and prod it along. Eventually they take off on their own, and your job as a writer is to follow and record the important things along the way. Sometimes they don't take you very far. I have plenty of starts and half-finished stories to prove it. But some days, if you stay at it long enough, you start to understand where your characters might take you, what story they are trying to help you tell.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Via Cheryl Unruh, Flyover People Columnist for the Emporia Gazette

"Tracy presents scenes that a reader could walk into and feel at home. For me it was easy to feel as if I were in Jeni’s mind as she interpreted her parents’ words and facial expressions. It seemed as if I were experiencing the complicated interactions that are a part of any family. I discovered that Tracy is really good at this, at communicating the expectations that a person feels from herself and from her family."

Or read the entire column at the Emporia Gazette website.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Confessions in Writing... Fiction and Place

A real sea of red and blue gowns, Dodge City Senior High School graduation ceremony, May 1988.

My novel takes place in Dodge City, a town of about 27,000 people in southwest Kansas. It was a bit smaller when I was growing up. I would guess the population was about 22,000 when I left home for the first time in 1988. It's true; I returned. After college and five years in Houston, Texas, I went back to Dodge City for a spell. My third child was born there.

In the second chapter of my novel, I write:

"The photographs on the mirror were curled with age, that clear “magic” tape still doing its job. I ran my finger along a line of school photos of myself. First grade. Second grade. For some reason third grade was missing. In the fourth grade I’d gotten glasses and in the eighth grade I’d stopped smiling to hide the fact that I was wearing braces. Looking at each photo, I could almost imagine myself again, the person I once was. Closing my eyes made me feel dizzy. It was similar to what I felt when I sat in front of this same mirror as a kid wishing with my whole being to be older, to finally be grown up so that I could get the hell out of Dodge and on with a life that would be more worthwhile and exciting."
Tracy Million Simmons. Tiger Hunting (Kindle Locations 96-101)

In this scene, my character, Jeni, could very well be myself. She could be most any kid that grew up in Dodge City, I think. Getting the hell out of Dodge was our key phrase. We owned it. We claimed it. And I think the majority of us imagined it with at least some level of longing for most of our teen years, if not longer. Anyone from any other place in the world who said, "Get the hell out of Dodge," was just pretending.

I allowed my story to take place in Dodge City because it felt rooted there. The opening scene of a circus caravan accident, with a dolphin dying on the side of the road, could only be so absurd and unlikely in a setting like western Kansas, where the river beds have never held significant water in my lifetime.

Through the first draft of the story, I didn't worry too much about blending my fiction with the real town that I know better than any other. It was an exercise in writing, at that point. It was a challenge to myself to complete a manuscript that contained a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In deciding to present my fiction to the public, however, anxieties immediately crept in. Dodge City is a very real place, and for those who also grew up there, I am sure there are scenes that ring entirely true. I have no doubt that every graduate of Dodge City Senior High (at least, before the new school was built) has visual images of Zach's graduation that look very much as I imagined them as I was writing my story. We picture the same red and blue gowns. We have the same memories of sitting in the seats at Dodge City's Civic Center watching the Tournament of Champions basketball games, attending the annual floor show, and watching our friends, year after year, cross that stage to pick up graduation diplomas.

The characters in my story may be a bit shifted in time, as their experiences in many ways mirror those of mine and my classmates, but they also carry cell phones that did not exist in 1988.

As I was rewriting and massaging Tiger Hunting, trying to get all the scenes to flow, one element I kept getting hung up on was reality. The adventure starts out south of town and I struggled with that setting for a long time before moving my tiger hunt north. I know the countryside south of Dodge City, you see. I spent the first 18 years of my life there. I learned to drive on those dirt roads. I spent summers riding bikes down them with my cousins. I took day-long horseback rides at a slow and steady pace that allowed me to soak in the scenes from every square mile so completely that I can close my eyes today and still imagine myself there.

North of town, my experiences aren't nearly so deep. I was able to shrug off what I knew to be true long enough to focus on the story. I didn't have to worry about how the real Mr. Nicholson would respond to a white tiger lurking in his back pasture. I was able to create canyons that are deeper and wilder than the real things. I made up countryside that might not be entirely recognizable to a kid who did happen to grow up on the north side of town. The general idea of Dodge City remains clear, but by walking away from what I knew best, I was able to more easily fictionalize to suit my story.

I think the fear as a writer, of placing fiction in reality, is that someone is going to call you on it. I still imagine a reader who knows the roads as well as I know them. I imagine them correcting me the way an editor shows me where I used the incorrect homonym. And then I think about all the times I've gotten together with people from my past and we've enjoyed sharing stories and reminiscing. How many times have I found myself a key figure in someone else's memory, only to realize that even our realities differ.

If reality can enjoy so much variety in interpretation, imagine all the places fiction can take us. It was this thought that allowed me to go tiger hunting in western Kansas. It was this that allowed me to embrace what wasn't real in a place I know so well.

The author and fellow DCSH graduate, Derek Simmons.

The author and fellow DCSH graduate, Yvette Bertholf Ediger.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Whoot! Box O'Books

They arrived today! I have copies of Tiger Hunting ready to deliver into the hands of eager readers. If you are one who enjoys collecting signed copies of books, you may purchase via my virtual book tour at any time. You can pick up a copy at my favorite local bookstore, as well.

The next thing on the list for this great publishing adventure is to create a calendar of events. Until I get to it, here are a couple of save-the-dates. 

  • I will be talking about my book at the District 2 meeting of the Kansas Authors Club on Saturday, June 8, in Lawrence, Kansas.
  • I will also be participating in the Town Crier Author Extravaganza in Emporia on June 15, from 11:00 - 1:00 PM. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Tiger Hunting by Tracy Million Simmons

Tiger Hunting

by Tracy Million Simmons

Giveaway ends April 10, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

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