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Going Home Again

Author Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” But Thomas Wolfe didn’t grow up in Northwest Iowa.

Earlier this week, I traveled back to Sioux Center, Iowa for an author panel and book signing. It’s a place I know well. I grew up on a farm outside of Sioux Center and Hull, and if you’ve read my trilogy, The Dusty Chronicles, these places will probably sound familiar. The main character, Dusty Vermeer, begins to experience supernatural phenomena as she tries to balance out her feelings for her boyfriend and a spirit she’s never met. She goes to Boyden-Hull High School, attends a Reformed Church in town, checks out books at the local libraries, and goes on dates to the local Pizza Ranch and movie theater. The characters all call Northwest Iowa home: Dusty, Mark, Sadie, Kris, Sadie…to them it’s an amazing place to exist.

There are many locations I could have based my series, but Stephen King says one should write what you know. So, there’s a reason I chose to set my first book series in my hometown.

The people.

While I was only in town for a day and a half, I’d never felt more welcome anywhere in my life. I haven’t lived there in 30 years, but the folks are still as warm and friendly as ever. Everywhere I went, I was met with a smile and a “So happy to meet you!” People I had never met were friendly and welcoming. And, many members of my extended family still live there as well as quite a few of my childhood friends. They came out in droves to see me and support my career on Tuesday night.

 

While the whole reason I went back was to be a part of the Dessert with the Authors event at the public library in town, I was also determined to make the most of the short time I had there. I wanted to check out the areas that had influenced me when I was young – the same places that influenced many of the locations in my books. The first place I went was Casey’s Bakery at the mall just off of Main Street. Uncles, aunts, and cousins showed up to see me. As we all had coffee and breakfast together, I heard, “We’re so glad you’re here!” and “You’re far too skinny!” Both comments were good for my ego.

If you’ve read Imprint, you’ll remember a scene between Dusty and Sadie that takes place at Casey’s Bakery. Not only can you get cakes and donuts from there, but they also have traditional Dutch items such as almond patties and windmill cookies. After all, in a community that is primarily Dutch, it just wouldn’t be right without the Dutch baked goods. They also have an area where they serve hot breakfast items and have possibly the best coffee I’ve ever had…and as an author, I’ve had lots of coffee in my lifetime.

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Casey’s Bakery in Sioux Center, Iowa

Later, I went back to the old homestead…the place that inspired Dusty’s farm and where she met Jack, her soulmate.

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Remember that scene with  Dusty and Jack in the hay mow? Well, there you go.

My house still looks pretty much the same. The window in the upper left was my room (the same as Dusty’s) and the upper right was my brother’s growing up. And the doorway and stairwell that leads from the kitchen to the bedrooms upstairs hasn’t changed at all: the same door, the same wood paneling, and the same carpet on the stairs. It brought back a lot of memories of sneaking downstairs as a kid and trying to listen in on conversations between my parents and older brother. As the current owner walked me through the old house, I pointed out corners and rooms where major plots took place throughout the series. It was surreal to be back, walking through a home that had given me so many memories.

Later that day, I had lunch at the Pizza Ranch in Sioux Center. That restaurant and the mall in town all played a part in my trilogy. I didn’t manage to make it to Hull’s Pizza Ranch where Dusty and Mark had their first date, but I’m hoping to make it there during my next visit.

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Mark and Dusty had a date night here. It’s also the same place that Dusty and all of her friends ate after a night at the indoor pool.

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The parking lot where it all went down in book 3. Mark – 1, Austin – 0.

In the early afternoon, a reporter from the Hull Index came to interview me at the Pizza Ranch. To be interviewed by my hometown newspaper was exciting and a bit frightening. The reporter, June, was wonderful and easy to talk to. I just kept telling myself not to let my “awkward” show too much because…well…I’m awkward.

The time finally came for the signing at the Sioux Center Public Library.

It wasn’t the same library where I’d spent hours upon hours as a child. Sadly, the building is long gone due to a fire. But upon walking inside this new library, the feeling was the same. And seeing my book on display as you walk through the front doors…it was a moment I will never forget. After all, the Sioux Center Library was where it all began for me. It’s truly where I discovered my love of books, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

During the event that night, I talked about my publishing journey, my books, and why I write young adult. I even talked about my #beceaseless campaign and how it came about. Friends and family showed up to support me as well as the other authors in attendance. I’m hoping to come back later this year and give a creative writing workshop to local teens. I may need to lure them in with pizza, but then who can say no to pizza?

IMG_20160413_104848It was wonderful being home again. In fact, it even got me wondering if I should move back there one day. Only time will. But I learned something this week. I discovered that you can go home again. Especially if your hometown is anything like mine.

An Open Letter to My Daughter on Her 21st Birthday

Dear baby girl,

Happy birthday, my love. And congratulations on making it in one piece to this incredible milestone in your life. That’s not to say there haven’t been some bumps and potholes along the way, but then who in life can say they haven’t experienced the same? Now that you’re an adult, there are some words of wisdom I need to share. Much of it comes from my own experience. And some comes from just paying attention to the world around you. So pay attention.

  1. Your siblings are your lifeline. Friends will come and go, but your siblings are forever. Lean on one another during the hard times. Cry on each other’s shoulders for comfort. Call them first when good things happen. And never judge their choices, behavior, or decisions harshly, because one day you will need them to be just as non-judgmental when you do something questionable. Never ever take that bond you have for granted. It’s possibly one of the greatest gifts that we as parents can give you…a friend for life.
  2. I know that getting up every morning for work isn’t easy and that sometimes dealing with other people and their crappy personalities can be rough. Stress will become an everyday companion as you enter the adult world, but it doesn’t have to control you. Remember that your job is just that…your job. It isn’t your life. Leave work at the door.
  3. Do what you love. Love what you do. For goodness sakes…don’t work in a career field you hate for 40 years. Your sanity and happiness are worth more than money.
  4. Responsibility sucks. But so does living paycheck to paycheck. Never ever quit one job before having another lined up. Trust me. You’ll never find a new job as quickly as you think you can.
  5. Get rid of the toxic people in your life. Being an adult can be tricky, but having the right people at your side can make all the difference in the world. If there are people in your life sucking the happiness out of you, separate yourself from them. For good. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
  6. Never rush into anything important. Rash decisions are usually a bad idea. Buying a home, buying a car, getting married, having children, choosing a daycare…..always take your time.
  7. Be spontaneous. I know, I know. I just contradicted myself. But hear me out. Go out for dinner at the last minute with the man you love, even if you aren’t wearing any makeup. Wake up on a Saturday morning and drive for 3 hours just to eat at a burger place in a different county. Have fun. You’re only young once.
  8. Find your tribe. A tribe is a group of people who like you and will support you no matter what. They will lift you up and encourage you at every turn. When you fall down and feel like you can’t get up, they’ll be there to help you get back on your feet. I can’t begin to tell you how important this is.
  9. Follow your dreams, whatever they are. My entire life was spent trying to fit into a mold of someone else’s design. I was told that I could be anything I wanted to be so long as it was exactly what they wanted me to be. In the end, I spent the majority of my life trying to make other people happy while I was making myself miserable. And being miserable just made those close to me miserable as well. But once I surrounded myself with a supportive tribe of people who truly believed in me, and I started to live my dream, life began to fall into place. And I was happy.
  10. Never give up. When you fall down, get up. When you fall down again, get up again. Repeat as necessary. Eventually…you’ll stop falling.
  11. If you never try, you’ve already failed. So regardless of how afraid you are of something, give it a shot. You have nothing to lose.
  12. Fear is not your enemy. Complacency is.
  13. The older you get, the faster time flies. Trust me. One day, you’re minding your own business thinking how young you still are and suddenly you’ll look down and realize you have the hands of an old woman. It catches up to you fast. Don’t be in a such a hurry to get to Friday each week. Those Fridays add up. Don’t be in a such a hurry for your children to talk, walk, and start school, because one day you’ll look up and they’ve left the nest. Time is an unkind mistress. Make every day count.
  14. Be grateful for what you have and don’t pine for what you don’t. Let’s face facts. We can’t all be millionaires and live in giant home, drive fast cars, own registered horses, and go on expensive vacations. As much as we’d like to have those things in our lives, it isn’t realistic for 99% of us. Instead, be happy with what you have. And most of all, don’t go into debt trying to attain that perfect life. Perfect is a relative term.
  15. Never…and I can’t emphasize this enough…never ever compare yourself to anyone else. It’s exhausting. And the funny thing is this — while you’re comparing yourself to other people, wondering why you fall short of their perfection, someone is looking in your direction thinking they need to compare themselves to you.
  16. Figure out who you are and be that with everything you have. Never apologize for being you.
  17. When you find THE guy, make date night a priority. Even if it’s only once a month. Make the time to be a couple. Don’t get so consumed in your lives that you forget why you’re together in the first place.
  18. Life is full of pain. We all have it in one form or another. But it’s how you deal with that pain that will define you. If you focus on the pain and things that are completely out of your control, that’s all you’ll know. Instead, focus on the things you do have control over. Focus on the good. Place all your energy into making your life and the life of others better.
  19. Stay out of debt. If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.
  20. Trust your gut. As a woman, it will rarely fail you. But you have to listen to it.
  21. Write down your goals. Look at them often. Figure out how to achieve them.
  22. Never tell yourself you can’t. Always ask yourself how can you.
  23. If you’re rude to a server at a restaurant, just know they’re spitting in your food. Kindness begets kindness. Being a jackass has repercussions.
  24. A crockpot can be your best friend.
  25. Get a pet. Stop worrying about the hair. That’s why you own a vacuum. They’ll love you unconditionally. Trust me. After a bad day, they can make it all better.
  26. Take care of yourself. Take care of your teeth. Work out. Drink plenty of water. Use moisturizer. Take vitamins. Eat a balanced diet. I’m telling you…you don’t want to look back and wish you’d taken better care of yourself. By then, it’s too late.
  27. Never buy generic toilet paper.
  28. Always buy generic dry noodles.
  29. Target is the most addicting place to shop. Never ever think you can simply go in for one item and leave with just that one item. You’re just kidding yourself.
  30. Smile more
  31. Cry more
  32. Love more

Do You Have a Tribe?

Hanging out with my tribe in Nashville. June, UtopYA2015

Hanging out with my tribe in Nashville.
June, UtopYA2015

When you think of the word “tribe”, you probably think of native people living together in groups, living off the land. But it can also have another meaning. A tribe can be those with like minds and similar interests that support one another, and in my world it’s a community of authors, bloggers, and other bookish types with like goals that aspire to lift as they climb. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

Everyone needs a tribe. Whether you’re a stay-at-home mom, PTSD survivor, recovering alcoholic – we all need people in our lives who make us strive to be more…do more. For many years, I kept to myself believing that I didn’t need anyone. I’d been burned by friends in the past and decided that it was better to be alone than deal with the heartbreak that others can bring you. For years, I floated in a sea of anonymity, content to live out my life struggling to figure out the book world on my own. I was stubborn like that. I liked my bubble – my space.

At least I thought I did.

Two years ago, I staggered into my very first book convention, UtopYA in Nashville, TN. I was anxious and did my best to blend in all while trying to be invisible at the same time. Trust me…that’s not an easy task. I desperately wanted to be a part of that world, learn from those who came before me, hang out with like-minded creative types while at the same time not draw attention to myself. I mean, these people could have cared less about a new face, right? And some of those people were intimidating as heck, each rock stars in their own right. NY Times bestselling authors, bloggers, super fans…I felt as if I was out of my league.

But they didn’t allow me to feel that way for long. Over the course of the past few years, these people…my people…took me in and made me feel welcome. They encouraged me, gave me advice, and showed me that it was okay to need people. And over time, I began to show other the same thing. My people lift as they climb. They are my tribe. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

So, if you don’t have a tribe…find one.
If you can’t find one…create one.
You are special and belong somewhere. Don’t forget that.

Lift as you climb. The mantra of my tribe.

Lift as you climb. The mantra of my tribe.

My Tattoo

While tattoos today are more widely accepted than they used to be, I know that there are still some who find them tacky and pointless. My own parents believe that marking your body permanently in that way is ridiculous and stupid. For that reason, I’ve always fared on the side of caution and carefully placed my tattoos where they would remain out of sight. That way, there was never an argument or the inevitable eye rolling that would ultimately commence once my parents saw them. In fact, most people are shocked to discover that I have them at all. Apparently, I don’t look like the kind of person with tattoos.

I often laugh at this statement because, let’s face it, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

This past weekend I received some new ink. This one, however, is clearly visible. It was a deliberate and deeply personal choice to place it prominently on my forearm. It will not only be visible to others but, more importantly, it will also be visible to me.

ceaseless

It’s just one word – ceaseless. It’s a simple, innocuous word that rarely gets used in today’s conversations. Merriam-Webster defines it as “continuing without cease: seeming to never stop: continuous or constant”.

But it’s a word that has far greater meaning to me than just its definition.

It all began some months back when 2 of my daughters decided that it would be fun to come up with song titles that best described each other. They laughed and had fun with it, coming up with silly songs that emphasized personality traits, humorous shortcomings and unrequited loves. But when my youngest asked her older sister what song best represented “mom”, her answer was “Keep On Keeping On”.

I had never heard the song before and wondered what it was, so I pulled it up on YouTube and watched the video. By the end of the song, I was in tears and instantly became reflective of my past.

My kids’ childhoods were never easy. I married young and had 2 young daughters within the first 5 years. Then, 2 years later, I found myself a single mother who quickly had to figure out how to survive. I worked full-time during the week as a clerk and junior buyer at a large corporation. My weekends were spent waiting on tables, slinging alcoholic beverages in a sports bar. And throughout all of that, I was attending school at night to earn my Bachelor’s degree. Sleep was a luxury I couldn’t afford. Money was tight, and there were times when my kids ate and I didn’t. Yet, somehow I managed to pay my bills, keep a roof over our heads, and food in their bellies.

Before long, I met a guy, fell in love, and became engaged. I began working at a new company. Later, we bought a small townhouse, just big enough for the 4 of us. But within a year, we welcomed daughter number 3 and the house became a little smaller. Not long after that, my husband joined the US Army Reserves and left for basic training.

Over time, the house grew smaller as the kids grew bigger. We knew we needed to sell it and find a larger home. Eventually, we found a large rental house to move into. Instead of selling our home, we made plans to rent it out to a woman I used to work with who had gone through some tough times. But after only a few months in, she and her kids packed up in the middle of the night and left us with both a mortgage payment and rent. We had to let our townhouse go and we thought the worst of it was over.

But it wasn’t.

And then I lost my job. Long story short, this began a spiral of ups and downs that, at times, I didn’t think I could recover from. We had a car repossessed, were close to living out of our van – twice. And there were a few Christmases that nearly didn’t happen.

We eventually dug our way out, but I always worried about the impact that all of it had on my girls throughout the years. Would they see me as a failure? Would they look back at their lives and wish that things had been better? Would they resent me for not being able to give them everything they wanted growing up?

The 3 best things that ever happened to me.

The 3 best things that ever happened to me.

Fast forward to today. My middle daughter believes that the song “Keep On Keeping On” is indicative of who I am as a person. It speaks of having dreams, believing in yourself, working hard even if you keep losing, and one day realizing that all that hard work has paid off. In other words, it isn’t about how many times you get knocked down – it’s how often you bravely claw your way back up.

So, while I worried about leaving a legacy of failure behind for my children, without even realizing it I was leaving a legacy of perseverance instead. My apparent tenacity and courage, my ability to get back up whenever I was down, is what resonated with my daughters. I was leading by example.

So, as a constant (and permanent) reminder to never give up – no matter what – I had the word “ceaseless” tattooed on my forearm. It will serve as a reminder to lead by example and show my daughters how to face fear and defeat it head on.

Children learn not only from your successes but also from your failures. Never be afraid to fail.

Children learn not only from your successes but also from your failures. Never be afraid to fail.

Why I Write

Many people are under the impression that authors write because they want to be famous. This is true in some cases. However, that isn’t always the case. Some do it to supplement their income. Others do it just for the joy of writing. Many do it because they feel they have something to share. For me, the reason I write is personal.

Growing up, I was told I could do anything I set my mind to. But each time I made a decision on what kind of career to pursue, someone in my life told me why I shouldn’t.

“You can’t go to school for journalism. No daughter of mine is going to be a filthy liar for a living.”

“I think becoming a radio D.J. is a bad idea. There’s no future in it.”

“You’ll join the military over my dead body.”

“You want to go to school to study literature? There’s no money in that. You need to be more realistic in your goals. Dreams don’t pay the bills.”

You get the point.

So, for years I went along with all of it and did what was expected of me. I went back to college and earned a degree in business. Any love of writing that I had left in me went dormant. I went about raising my daughters and going through my 9 to 5 days as if nothing was amiss.

And then in 2009, something happened that changed my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the start of something amazing. Something big. Humongous.

I lost my job.

Yep.

So there I was. No job and no way to help support my family. I tried to find a new job, but it was tough out there. I became withdrawn thinking I had disappointed my children and my husband. I cried almost daily and couldn’t get out bed. But after a few months, I discovered something that consistently seemed to cheer me up.

At the time, the Harry Potter movies (at least the ones I owned up to that point on DVD) played 24/7 in my bedroom. I watched them over and over – and over and over and over. They made me smile. They gave me hope. And they gave me an idea.

I pulled out my husband’s old laptop and just began to type. I’m not sure where the words came from, or the story for that matter, but they started to flow nonetheless. It began to develop into a narrative about a girl who discovered an ancient secret that was handed down from mother to daughter. Her newfound powers were to be used to save the world and her family. And since my oldest daughter’s birthday was coming up, I decided that I would finish it and give to her as a birthday gift.

When I finished, I thought the story was brilliant.

Looking back, the story was crap.

But I wrote it. I wrote every single word. I poured my heart and soul into the story, and in the end I dusted away any of the cobwebs that had gathered in my brain throughout the years. My juices began to flow and I wrote another book. Then another, and another, and another.

And then those same people who discouraged my dreams early in life came back and said all the same things.

“You can’t make any money writing books.”

“So after you write this book and get it out of your system, are you going to quit writing and get a real job?”

“Don’t you think your time would be better served cleaning your messy house than writing books? It’s not like you’ll ever be famous.”

But this time, I didn’t listen. I smiled politely and walked away.

Why did I continue to write? It wasn’t necessarily to become famous, or make a lot of money, or even to get noticed – although those are all nice goals.

It was because I’m not just an author. I’m also a mother to three amazing young ladies. They look to me for guidance in life – a role model to show them how life should be lived. And what kind of role model would I be if I gave up on my dream?

“Don’t do as I do. Do as I say.” I heard it a lot growing up – almost daily. But as the years passed, I realized that it was some of the worst advice anyone could have ever given me. Actions speak far louder than words. My daughters look to me to learn how to deal with life’s situations through my actions and reactions. Because – come on – let’s get real. How often do our kids really hear what we have to say?

I write because I want to show them that following your dreams isn’t folly. It’s important. It’s the dreamers in this world that have given us movies, books, music, television shows, new medicines, prosthetics, art, and a whole slew of other things that are important in this life. Einstein was a dreamer as was Edgar Allen Poe. They all dreamed of giving the world something we’d never seen before. Where would we be if they had given up?

My 2 oldest daughters

My 2 oldest daughters

My daughters need to know that failure happens. People fail every day. But if you get up each time, dust yourself off, and keep moving you haven’t truly failed. The only time you really fail is if you stop trying.

I have one daughter who dreams of one day working in TV, film, or Broadway as a make-up artist. I have another daughter who wants to become a pastry chef. Neither of these are “practical” goals. Some might even say they’re unrealistic or impractical. But why should that stop them from following their dreams?

My youngest daughter

My youngest daughter

So I continue to write – push ahead – improve my craft in an effort to make my children proud and show them how to succeed in life through example. I don’t need to be famous. I don’t need to make a million dollars. I only need to show them my resolve, and then maybe…just maybe…one day I can show them how that hard work pays off.

YA is Everywhere

What books have you read lately? What movies have you seen? Unless you’ve been holed up in a cellar for the past year, there’s a good chance that you ran across a Young Adult novel in one form or another.

  1. Mockingjay, Part 1
  2. If I Stay
  3. The Maze Runner
  4. Divergent
  5. The Fault in Our Stars

What made all of these books such successful movies?

Was it the plot? Was it the characters?

What about “Pretty Little Liars”, “The Lying Game”, and “The Carrie Diaries”? All YA novels that were turned into TV shows.

Whether it’s through books, movies, television, or even just walking down the street behind a bunch of giggling teenage girls, you’re exposed to YA on an almost daily basis. The Young Adult genre isn’t just about teenagers who are coming of age. It’s about the journey they take to find themselves and the people who help them get there.

For me, my love of reading started at an early age. Between the ages of 4 and 11, I read everything I could get my hands on. But soon after that, I discovered the teen section at my public library. And over the next few years, I made my way down the row, reading nearly every book on the shelf. The characters inspired me to find myself – to dig deep and discover qualities within me that even I didn’t know existed.

One of my favorite things about writing YA novels is placing my characters in difficult or dangerous situations and watching how they grow and succeed in spite of it all. No one knows how they’ll react when a life threatening event occurs, and neither do my characters. But when faced with danger, they can find an inner strength to drive them forward. It may be a work of fiction, but sometimes we pick up a book or watch a movie where the characters are a reflection of who we truly want to be.

There are still many people who feel that YA books are below them and that they aren’t literary quality type reads. But I have to disagree. While “The Hunger Games” isn’t Jane Eyre, its dystopian storyline and strong, somewhat vulnerable protagonist, speaks to anyone who has ever gone through a difficult time and has come out changed on the other side. “The Fault in Our Stars” and “If I Stay” makes us question our own mortality while “The Carrie Diaries” shows how perseverance and lots of hard work can lead to realizing your dreams.

So, the next time you head out to the movies, pick up a book, or turn on the TV, check out the Young Adult titles. They may just inspire you to look inside yourself.

Is New Adult Fiction the New Teen Trend?

What will be big with teen readers in the coming months is something that all young adult, or YA, authors think about on a regular basis. What will be the new trend? What will be hot? What will teens be drawn to next? And most of all…what will sell?

A recent article by CNN delves into possible future trends that could catch teen readers’ attentions next. Books with plots that contain current issues like terminal illness are projected to be huge thanks to authors such as John Green. And while paranormal and dystopian books are still popular, themes like mystery, horror, fantasy, and anything having to do with zombies are all on the rise.

But the one thing I took away from this article was its take on the New Adult genre. The article explained that the latest trend with teens is New Adult, or NA as it is commonly called, which contains much sexier, and typically more adult storylines. The main characters are generally college age and involve steamier scenes which are attracting younger readers. This shouldn’t be surprising since it seems that more R-rated movies are being targeted at teen audiences than ever before.

There seems to be a bit of irony involved in this trend. I know that when I’m writing my YA books, my target audience is aimed at teens. I try to incorporate issues and topics that appeal to a teen reader. But I know for a fact that many of my fans and readers are adults. And now there are many NA books that are written for adults that are attracting a growing teen audience.

So, what is a young adult author to do? Do we incorporate sex or hotter storylines in our books to attract those teen readers who are reading NA? Do we delve into darker and more adult topics to find a wider audience?

I don’t think there is any need to compete with NA. Nor should we. NA has a place in modern literature and their authors have earned a place on our bookshelves. But to paraphrase “Field of Dreams”…If you write it, they will come.

There is enough angst involved during the teen years to fill the literary needs of young adults – first love, bullying, eating disorders, peer pressure, rumors, and hundreds of other pertinent topics that affect high schoolers every day – without having to compete with more adult fare. And the fact that adults are reading YA shows that there is an ever-expanding interest in what makes YA truly great. It’s not about the romance – it’s about discovering who you really are and who you are destined to become.

What do you think? Check out the article below and tell me your thoughts.

http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/14/living/young-adult-trends-diversity/index.html?c&page=0