Wednesday, May 29, 2013


by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

If you read about the Swagger Writers on the left side of this blog, you’ll see that we met at Highlights Foundation workshops at Boyds Mills.

I attended my first Highlights Foundation workshop at Chautauqua in 1999. Now they do all their workshops at their Boyds Mills property near Honesdale, PA. And what a beautiful place it is! I went there for the first time in 2001.

I have attended quite a few workshops there since then. Why do I keep going back? It is more than the beautiful wooded setting, more than the excellent faculty, more than the delicious food and pampering the attendees receive. There is always one-on-one time with faculty members, ever-present experts to help you with whatever issue you’re dealing with. I have learned more about writing for young readers in that place than I learned in the many classes and conferences I’ve been to over the years. (I also learned to load and fire a muzzleloader so I could write a Civil War scene more accurately, but that’s another story.)

And last year, the Highlights Foundation added something new! The Unworkshop (aka: Unguided retreat). No faculty members for this, but an editor from the Highlights/Boyds Mills offices occasionally dropped by to join us at mealtime.

As with the workshops, I had my own private cabin (with bath). Three times a day, at mealtimes, I walked a short distance to a place called The Barn (a gorgeous new building completed two years ago), where they served great food that fit all my dietary needs. Over meals, I got to know the other writers in attendance.

While Highlights Foundation workshops are intended for Writers for children, the Unworkshop is for ANY writer who wants time to write. At the October Unworkshop I attended, a mother-and-daughter writing duo came. Mother Rosemary writes for kids, but daughter Alicia writes for adults.

At my most recent Unworkshop (April 24-May 4), a writer named Erin and I got together after supper one evening to read first chapters to one another. It was up to us how we wanted to spend our time.
Erin signed up for only four days, while I signed up for the whole week. That’s another perk of the Unworkshop. The writer decides how much and which part of the available time, he/she wants to attend. And the price is based on how long you stay.
Kathy's latest Unworkshop crew.
In between those social meals with writers (and whichever editor may have stopped in), I was free to write. At my own pace. On whatever I chose to write.

I have now attended two Unworkshops. At the first, I worked on a first draft of my most recent novel, and at the second, I revised a previous novel. When something in Chapter 32 brought up an issue first hinted at in Chapter 10, it was still fresh in my mind because I’d worked on it just a few days before. These retreats are ideal for FOCUS.

I amazed myself with how much work I could do (37 revised chapters this last time) when there was no phone, no TV, no chores to do. My mind was never distracted by thoughts of a meal that needed cooked or a floor that needed mopped. There was no listening for a dryer to buzz or watching the clock to check the oven or crockpot. I was In. The. Zone. And it was fantastic!

I did take a break every afternoon to walk along the creek or one of the trails, but otherwise I wrote ALL DAY. For me, it was Heaven. Other writers might spend less time writing. But that’s the joy of it. It was up to each of us to plan our day. 

The Highlights Foundation also offers Guided Retreats, where authors or editors are on site to set up critiques or answer questions. With no structured sessions, writing time is up to individuals, with as much help (or as little) from the faculty as needed.

With guided retreats, unguided retreats, short workshops, long workshops, workshops on picture books, nature writing, fiction, non-fiction, novels in verse, Young Adult, fantasy, historical fiction, and so much more, the Highlights Foundation has something for every writer (and illustrator, too).

For more information, go to here.

Maybe I’ll see you there one of these days. Because I’m definitely going back.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Secondary Characters Bloghop Star

by Kim Van Sickler

I almost didn't profile this character for the Secondary Characters Bloghop...because I figured everyone would choose him. His book portrayal was complicated and riveting, and his on-screen presence blew me away.

I'm talking about Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series.

Here's our first glimpse of him in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Professor Quirrell, in his absurd turban, was talking to a teacher with greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and sallow skin.

It happened very suddenly. The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell's turban straight into Harry's eyes — and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry's forehead.

"Ouch!" Harry clapped a hand to his head. 

"What is it?" asked Percy.


The pain had gone as quickly as it had come. Harder to shake off was the feeling Harry had gotten from the teacher's look — a feeling that he didn't like Harry at all.

Is Snape friend or foe? Voldemort's right hand or a wizard who renounced the Dark Arts and is acting as Dumbledore's spy?

We, the readers, teeter back and forth through seven whole books. He hates Harry Potter. Look at how he picks on him in Potions class! But he's teaching him to steel his mind against Voldemort. Yes, he's hard on Harry during those classes, but isn't it so that Harry will succeed? Except that we learn that Harry's father bullied Snape! Of course that's reason enough for Snape to hate Harry and wish him harm. But Snape loved Harry's mother! That's reason enough for him to feel protective of her son!

I am going to go so far as to say that the BIG QUESTION of whether Snape is good or evil is the most suspenseful character mystery of all time!

Even when we think we know the answer, there's more information to come that turns what we thought on its head. This man has more layers than a wasps' nest.

As if J.K. Rowling's character development of Snape isn't perfect enough, along comes actor Alan Rickman to bring him to the movie screen. That oily, caressing, condescending voice of his! It sends thrills down my spine! That straight black hair! So severe, yet it frames that expressive face like a curtain. That face! Sexy, yet repulsive at the same time! OMG! I love him and hate him. One thing for sure, he steals every scene he's in.

He knew what a treasure trove he'd been given. The role challenged him so much as an actor that when it was over, he took out a full-page ad to thank J.K. Rowling for writing it.

Severus Snape...scintillating...meaty...complicated. A character study in contrasts. Bloody brilliant.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I was on my way home from kindergarten when I spotted something white and made of wood, sticking out of a neighbor’s trash can. I pulled it out to find a broken knickknack shelf.

I dragged it home. “Look what I found, Daddy!”

Dad could have said, “It’s trash, Kathy. Put it back where you found it.” But he didn’t. He repaired it, gave it a fresh coat of white paint, and hung it in my room.

The knickknacks have changed over the course of five decades, while it hung on walls in my different houses and apartments. It has been repainted and repaired again. It hung in my daughters’ room for awhile, and now it hangs in my office above the desk where I write each day. It reminds me of the man who turned trash into just-one-more reason to treasure him.

I share this story with you today because May 16th marks 20 years since my dad died, and I still miss him every day.

Twenty years ago, my family asked if I would write a poem to be read at his funeral.

“I’ll write it,” I said, “but I won’t read it.” I didn’t think crying and blubbering and reading garbled words was the right way to honor my father. So my daughter read it.

As a father and grandpa, you’ve given much more
Than your love and your welcome concern.
For they say that we learn by examples we see,
And you’ve given us plenty to learn.

We have grown up observing a man who could care
While he taught us the right from the wrong.
We have learned by your love and devotion to God
And we’ve witnessed your faith ever strong.

You have had to endure lots of problems with us
From the big ones to some very small,
But you showed us that hard work when tempered with love
Makes us able to get through them all.

It was plain you were tender and knew it’s OK
To let sentimentality show.
You have taught us to honor tradition and roots
And you still have allowed us to grow.

We watched your good examples, but if we would choose,
Second only to God up above,
The example we’ve taken the most to our hearts:
The importance of family love.

We will need all that love just to give us the strength
To get through the days you’re not there.
We’ll continue to pray for each other and trust
That our Dad is in God’s loving care.

It’s been twenty years since Kelly read those words at Dad’s funeral. Just listening, I cried and blubbered. Today, tears fall on my keyboard as I still miss the man who made laugh-out-loud jokes about his bald head, the man who walked me down the aisle at my wedding, the man who babysat his grandkids so I could attend church, the man who turned trash into treasure.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Spinning History

by Kim Van Sickler

History is written by...people. People with their own agendas, biases, opinions, and artistic flairs. Over time, events and people are romanticized or vilified. Even though the evidence might point to a very different reality. Frankly, it's fascinating to me how we've come to accept certain historical stories as facts. And since I was just in Gettysburg, here are some of my favorites from that era.

John Brown. He's known as a devout abolitionist, and credited with triggering the Civil War that ended slavery. As an elementary school student I was taught that he was a hero, but there is certainly another side to that story. Like why did he take it upon himself and his band of sons to travel to the homes of pro-slavery advocates in Franklin County, KS, order them outside, interrogate them, and assasinate them? Pre-Harper's Ferry, John Brown had dropped out of his Congregational ministry studies and tried and discarded careers as a tanner, wool merchant, land surveyor, and farmer. He was married twice, father to 20 children, and directly influenced by his father, a staunch abolitionist. Some could and would say he was a shiftless loser. Post-Harper's Ferry, he was a martyr for racial equality.
Tragic Prelude by John Steuart Curry
Secretary of State William H. Seward. A fervent abolitionist, he was another polarizing figure. He wanted to be president, but was passed over for the Republican nomination in favor of the less radical Lincoln. Lincoln made him his Secretary of State and insisted he keep the position even when he wanted to resign right before Lincoln's inauguration. The Academy Award-nominated film Lincoln portrays Seward as the politician who is largely responsible for lining up the votes for the passage of the 13th Amendment. Seward scholars say that's accurate. Not what we were taught in school. In school it was all Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln. I never even heard that the assassination of Lincoln was a coordinated effort with simultaneous attacks on Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Seward was in bed recovering from broken ribs and a broken jaw from a carriage accident when his would-be killer jumped on top of him with his dagger and slashed up his face and neck. Yet he lived. Wow. This guy needs his own movie.
In the movie Lincoln, Seward takes it upon himself to engage in the backroom dealing necessary to get the 13th Amendment passed.
Pickett's Charge. The tide was turning in the three-day Battle of Gettysburg and Cemetery Ridge was still barely under Union control. General Robert E. Lee couldn't bare to leave it that way and decided to stop fighting the flanks and go for the middle. He ordered General Longstreet to take the center of Cemetery Ridge, so Longstreet in turn assigned three of his divisions to do the job. In the 1993 movie Gettysburg, Longstreet agonizes over this bold directive, fearing it would fail, and by golly he was right. For 3/4 of a mile, Maj. General George Pickett's division led the march across open fields towards the hunkered in Union Army. A move that historians have disagreed about ever since. Was Lee's order a brave attempt to win a close battle, or a grandiose gesture that ensured the Confederates' defeat?
Confederates walking straight into cannon and rifle fire in Gettysburg (Courtesy of the movie Gettysburg.)  
What's one of your favorite historical dramas?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Public Speaking?!?!?!

by Melissa Kline

Mingling with guests at the "Speaking Your Truth" book launch celebration.
I was meant to, I was born to speak. Okay, NEVER thought I’d say that, but the more it keeps turning up in my life and the more I practice public speaking, the more I realize it is a huge piece that I have been missing. I have been denying myself this beautiful gift simply because of fear. I have been hiding.

I didn't realize how prominent public speaking was to an author's career. Okay, maybe I did, but I was in denial about it. I never thought I'd actually be the one doing the speaking. After all, you've got to be famous to do those kinds of things, right? Wrong!

More and more I'm learning that public speaking and speaking engagements in general are the meat and potatoes of authorship...for many reasons. One, it's great for promotion, marketing and putting yourself out there. Two, it's how a lot of authors make money. Three, and this is the most important piece of the puzzle for me, is that you get to connect with your audience and hopefully inspire at least one person.

I was lucky to experience what that feels like during my first school visit as an author in 2011 right after My Beginning was published. There is nothing like being on the other end of inspiration - to be the "inspirer." We all inspire each other in one form or another, but to really be in the spotlight and know that something  you said could potentially change a person's life - that is pure magic.

My first school visit as an author.
So, how do you become a public speaker when you are scared to death - and yes, I mean death, of being seen, heard and/or dying during a speech? NEVER in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be able to front of anyone for any reason.

Not only did I have those instinctual, uncontrollable, primal fears of public speaking that seem to plague 99% of human beings on earth, but I was painfully shy as a child, and experienced traumatizing accounts that still affect my ability to be seen and heard. To me, public speaking was equal to death - so naturally, I kind of flipped when I learned that being an author meant being a public speaker, too. I knew that one way or another I was going to have to face my fear.

Not long after my first publication, I looked into speaking workshops and organizations. There were two that I was immediately drawn to - Toastmasters and Speaking Circles. These organizations are very different, but each have wonderful resources, tactics and support to help you become a better speaker. I have made a commitment to attend at least one speaking workshop a month, and already it has changed my outlook on public speaking and who I am as a speaker.

The most profound thing about speaking for me is authenticity and being present. The more I show who I truly am with my words and presence, the more I get through to others. I've also learned to take one step at a time. I don't have to have it all and know it all this very second. If I start thinking ahead of myself or fretting over the future, i.e. what I'm going to say, what I'm going to do, what I'm going to screw up on, etc., (and there are lots of etc's!), it only feeds the fear. If I stay in the moment and do the next best thing, (like attending a speaking workshop), I feel much better.

Capturing a crowd at the "Speaking Your Truth" book launch celebration.
Over the past two years, I've attended many speaking workshops and I always find them to be the most incredible, life-changing experiences.They're incredible for many reasons, but never because I am comfortable – far from it. My heart always races, my palms sweat, I always feel strangely detached from my body and like I might pass out at any second. But somewhere, somehow, deep inside, I feel complete. Connecting, breathing, being. It is a beautiful thing when you put it all together - the standing, breathing, eye contact and speaking - so simple, yet so profound.

I still feel like an infant when it comes to speaking, but I find myself enjoying it more often than not. I take every speaking opportunity that arises and see it as an adventure. I get to share my experience, strength and hope with others - and there is nothing more rewarding than that!

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." ~John Quincy Adams

For more information about Toastmasters, visit their website
Find out more about Speaking Circles go here