Not So Different: Visiting the Muslim Community Center as a Non-Muslim

Earlier this month, I and a number of members of LEAD (Leaders Engaged and Determined) had the opportunity to visit the Muslim Community Center in Sioux Falls. As a non-Muslim, I found it to be a fantastic and educational experience. We had a question and answer session, followed by the Friday sermon and prayer service. Even though I cannot fully capture everything about that visit, I wanted to share a bit of what I saw, heard, and learned while there.

The event began with an hour-long discussion with Mohammad Qamar, MD, Director of Interfaith Dialogue and Public Outreach at the MCC, where he answered our questions about Islam and the Muslim community. A large portion of the conversation covered a million dollar question, “What are some misconceptions about Islam?” Our host joked that he could spend four hours talking about that topic alone. One of the more unfortunate misconceptions is that Islam is a violent religion. Dr. Qamar spoke about how the teachings of the Quran actually oppose violence, except in cases of self-defense. By using Islam as an excuse for violence, ISIS and other terrorist organizations are corrupting and twisting the religion, along with committing the worst kind of blasphemy.

We also learned some more about Islamic traditions, including the holy month of Ramadan. If you’re not familiar with Ramadan, it is a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. Because Islamic tradition uses a lunar calendar, this holy month occurs at a slightly different time each year. This year, it is scheduled for June. With the long summer days, fasting can be quite challenging. However, it is supposed to be a time to reflect on one’s self and experience humility, while also being generous with charitable giving. By religious law, Muslims are required to give a certain percentage of their wealth to charitable causes each year, or their wealth is not considered to be legitimate.

The part of the experience that resonated most with me was when we had the chance to listen to the sermon that day. The message of this sermon was not so different from what I’ve heard growing up in a Lutheran church. As the preacher spoke, I heard messages promoting kindness and generosity. We were encouraged to treat others with the same respect that we would like to receive ourselves. He spoke about how everyone deserves kindness, regardless of race, religion, or background.

Overall, my experience visiting the Muslim Community Center was incredibly positive. Everyone there was very welcoming and I want to thank Dr. Qamar and the MCC for being willing to host us and answer our questions. If you have a chance to visit the MCC in Sioux Falls, or someplace like it in your own community, I highly recommend that you take that opportunity. I expect that, like I did, you will find that there is much more that unites us than divides us.

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Interview with Irene Elliot

irene elliot

Today, I present an interview with Irene Elliot, author of Lucid.

1. First, tell me a bit about yourself. What would you like readers to know about you?

I have a conflicting love of things that are both utterly darling and horrifically strange. I like to write my interests, which tend toward horror, fantasy, and dumb things that only I seem to think are funny (like walrus feet). I put everything I got into what I write. I really want people to believe in the characters I write and feel like they are a part of their lives. I hope that those characters stay with them and, with any luck, help them consider something they never have before.

2. Can you tell me about your current project?

My current projects are a little all over the place. I’m working on finishing up my second novel in what I hope becomes a series of books called the Twelliger Family Tree (still a working title). It follows a family of monster hunters struggling with their place in the world, but more where they stand with each other. The first book in the series features Pauline, a young woman trying to cope with the loss of her mother and find the path she wants her life to follow – slaying monsters, or exploring the world of culinary excellence. Her father, Hunter, is struggling with the loss of his wife and desperately trying to keep up with his father’s legendary exploits. They are both at odds with each other, but there’s something bigger than both of them looming on the horizon, and they don’t have the strength they need to stop it. Should be a quirky, dark, and strange run through a fun and familiar setting for urban fantasy fans and horror readers.

3. What inspired you to explore the world of dreams in your book, Lucid?

For a long time (and still today), I struggled with insomnia sometimes caused by some pretty horrific nightmares. Sometimes I’d just lay in bed and all the gears would start turning in my head, and after I finally would sleep I’d pop up trembling from bad dreams and couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. Nothing would really shut off or shut up, so I was looking into medical options, or seeing a doctor about sleepless nights – and eventually this lead to my discovery of lucid dreaming. The whole point about lucid dreaming concerns controlling your dreams, but it takes weeks or longer of meditation, repetition, and dedication to perfecting the technique. The best I could manage was to wake up, then fall back into the same dream. It didn’t really help much with my sleep, but at the time, I was reading the book Fade, by Robert Cormier, and the themes in that story just clicked with the sleep issues I was experiencing. I loved the idea of a teenager having this amazing gift, but you know, being a teenager and not quite knowing how to control it or use it responsibly – everyone loves a super hero story like that. I was really excited to write something that could touch on so much of what I was living in my own day-to-day.

4. Where did you get the character inspiration for Olive?

Olive is different pieces of people I knew growing up and went to high school with. I wanted to dig a bit into loner type characters that want to feel close to people but don’t quite know how to approach them. Giving the character an ability to do this without socializing is a good way to explore themes of isolation, social anxiety, and how an atypical girl thinks about these issues.

5. How did you discover your love of writing?

I was in middle school and burning through every Michael Crichton book I could get my hands on, and also some not so great teen horror novels… yeah. I wrote the worst, pulpy horror stories imaginable and I would show them off to my friends just to try and gross them out, or get a reaction. Most of the time it worked, but from there, I just loved creating something from the dumb pit of my brain and now I just like to see it build into something bigger.

6. What is your favorite part of being a writer?

I love writing dialogue. I don’t know what it is specifically about it, but it’s really satisfying to have a good, natural string of words evolve between two characters. It’s one thing I’ll say I do well at. I’m not sure what that says about me that I can make two fake people have a natural sounding conversation when I’m bumbling and stumbling over my own spoken words in the same situations, but there you have it!

7. What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

Marketing yourself. That and not giving up. They go hand-in-hand really. It’s a vicious pairing really. I’m not one to really talk about myself in any capacity, so when I’m trying to sell myself and my work – it’s extremely difficult. I’m proud of it, but I have trouble convincing people to purchase something I worked really hard on. Maybe that’s a Midwest thing, or maybe it’s a social thing – but it’s hard! So, when you’re getting about $1 to $2 margins for a paper book, and $3 digital sales (minus 30%), it can be incredibly discouraging. It’s important to look at what you’re doing, evaluate what’s working and what’s not. It might force you into doing something you’re not comfortable with, but in the long run, it will likely help your career. I didn’t think I would do any sort of book fairs, but I did two last year and I’m lining up to do another at Siouxpercon because they can be really beneficial in getting the early word out, get people to take a chance on you because they can put a face and a personality to the cover. It’s something I keep working on every chance I get.

8. How do you find inspiration and motivation to write when you feel stuck?

I tend to dig around a lot in some massive image folders on my laptop or listen to new types of music to generate new thoughts, latching onto lyrics and turning them into concrete ideas. I’ll also just read up on some topic I know I’m interested in and come up with little snippets of stories that may not go anywhere, just to see if the idea is worth exploring. Worst case scenario is just writing whatever my brain barfs up. It’s going to be hot, clichéd garbage, but it gets me in the groove of writing consistently and making it a habit. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a small nugget of gold somewhere in all those muddy words. Or maybe it’s just mud, and that sucks. But hey, you won’t find the big win if you don’t try, so. See question seven regarding “staying positive and not giving up.”

9. What’s your favorite way to take a break from writing?

I’ve always been big into video games, so I’ll hop on a few different multiplayer games with some friends, play something one-on-one with my husband, or deep dive into a stable of well-worn horror games where I feel like I’m in my element. I also love hiking and being in nature, so if I can get the chance, I like being isolated out with my hubby in the middle of nowhere.

10. What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring or new authors?

The old adage “good artists copy, great artists steal” has always stuck with me. People always say there is nothing new under the sun, only different perspectives and takes on plots and themes we already know. But if you think the idea for your story already exists – so what? This is YOUR take, YOUR story, YOUR words. Own it and spread your perspective. I’d love to see it, just like I hope you will love to see mine.

You can follow Irene Elliot at these links:

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Goals for the Next Five Years

Today is my 30th birthday. As I reflect on where I’ve been and where I want to go, I decided to come up with a list of goals that I want to accomplish over the course of the next five years. I initially wanted to do something clever like “35 before 35”, but I couldn’t think of 35 goals that were substantial or meaningful enough to warrant inclusion in a five-year plan. That said, I believe the goals that I have laid out will still keep my plenty busy. While updates on my writing goals will be the most frequent, I will also occasionally write posts about the other goals as I hit milestones. I hope that writing about them will help me stay motivated and accountable.

Writing Goals:
Read 150 Books
Finish and publish one novel each year
Read an average of one book per month on writing itself
Write one short story each month
Get a short story published in a literary publication or magazine
Be able to write full-time
Participate and win NaNoWriMo each year

Fitness Goals:
Achieve body weight of 180 pounds
Run 4 miles in 30 minutes
Bench press equivalent of body weight 20 reps
Pull up equivalent of body weight 20 reps
Squat self + equivalent of body weight 20 reps

Political Goals:
Write letters to the editor once a month on issues I care about
Contact Representation once a week on issues I care about
Run for public office or help a friend do so

Become reasonably proficient in a second language (probably Spanish)
Learn to cook one new recipe a month

Interview with Kendra Elliot


Today, I present an interview with Kendra Elliot.

1. First, tell me a bit about yourself. What would you like readers to know about you?

I consider myself a mom before anything else. I only started writing about ten years ago; I’ve been a mom for nineteen. I consider myself very fortunate to make a good living while writing. I know plenty of hardworking, talented writers who haven’t received the success they deserve. Luck and timing are elements in the complicated formula to success in this business.

2. Can you tell me about your current project?

Right now I’m working on the third novel in my Mercy Kilpatrick series. This will be my twelfth novel in addition to five novellas.

3. Your work brings together the genres of suspense and romance. What attracted you to writing in those areas?

I write what I like to read. The actual romance is pretty light (and growing lighter) in my novels, but I’m a big fan of writing characters for my audience to root for. Nothing makes my readers more satisfied than when a favorite character finds a deep and lasting relationship. Emotions give depth and complexity to characters. I’ve read dozens of mystery and suspense novels where I wanted to beg the author to spend more time on the relationships and emotions of a favorite character. Blending those aspects with edge-of-the-seat action and suspense makes for a satisfying read.

4. What drew you to using the Pacific Northwest as a setting for your novels?

I believe in write what you know. I’ve lived here all my life and know how the people think and talk. I’ve found that readers around the world are slightly fascinated with our corner of the US. There’s a deep appreciation of the land and the rugged beauty of the mountains and coast.

5. I’m a fan of strong female protagonists. Where did you get the inspiration for Mercy Kilpatrick?

I can’t say I had a specific inspiration for her. I’m fond of smart and logical heroines who are skilled in their professions. They might stumble in the relationships with the people closest to them, but they will fight for what they want.

6. What was it like to collaborate with Melinda Leigh on the Rogue River Novella Series? How is it different than working on a project by yourself?

It’s such a great partnership. Our publisher was the first to suggest we work on a project together. We didn’t see how it was possible because neither of us liked the idea of another author messing with our voices and our writing. When we figured out that we could plot the novellas together, but do the actual writing on our own, we knew it would work. We plot the year’s series in-depth at a getaway in Seattle (we live on opposite coasts) and then each write a novella on our own, only checking each other’s work for continuity. She’s a much better brainstormer than I am, so I milk that for all it’s worth during our plotting sessions.

7. How did you discover your love of writing?

Love of writing? What’s that? I have a love/hate relationship with writing. It’s freaking hard work and I’m notoriously lazy. I love the writing when it’s finished. It’s the getting to the finish line that I hate. But I do it because the reward is incredibly satisfying.

8. What is your favorite part of being a writer?

Working from home. Being available whenever my kids need me. Scheduling a vacation when I please. Attending conferences all over the US and calling them business expenses. Hanging out with my tribe: other writers who know the ups and downs of this crazy business and harbor a deep passion for books.

9. What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

Staying on task and keeping the books fresh. Each book is harder than the last. It’s incredibly difficult to come up with new ways to kill people, find new character motivations, and write clever dialog. I’m also easily distracted. Working from home, I find that I need to do laundry, scrub a toilet, or procrastinate on Facebook when the words aren’t coming. I’m more efficient when I go write in a coffee shop.

10. How do you find inspiration and motivation to write when you feel stuck?

I read. Nothing is more inspiring than reading a book I wish I’d written.

11. What’s your favorite way to take a break from writing?

A vacation. It doesn’t matter if it’s two days at the coast or two weeks in Italy. A change in my environment makes me feel like I’ve broken away from the daily grind of getting words on the page.

12. What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring or new authors?

Keep going. Writing life is filled with highs and lows. Sometimes it feels like you’ve encountered low after low after low. The highs will come. They may not balance out the lows, but they’ll renew your vigor to push ahead. Write for yourself, not for others. Don’t get into this business for the money. Take lots of classes to improve your craft and study the business side of writing. There is always something to learn. Listen to advice from others, but only take the advice once you’ve studied it from every angle.

To learn more about Kendra and her work, you can check out these links:

Stay tuned for more author interviews soon.

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Interview with KT Webb, Author of the New Era Saga

KT Webb

Today, I present an interview with KT Webb, Author of the New Era Saga.

1. First, tell me a bit about yourself. What would you like readers to know about you?

This might be a bit random. I’m a little crazy. I love to have fun and am always ready with a snarky response. I’m a wife and mother with two adorable kids that are my world. My husband describes me as a super nerd; my main fandoms are (in no particular order) Supernatural, Harry Potter, Once Upon a Time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. I am a strong supporter of independent authors and love to help new authors find the resources I didn’t have when I first started.

2. Can you tell me about your current project?

No. Just kidding! I am currently working on three different books.
1. Knights of Riona: A standalone Fantasy novel with some inter-dimensional travel. There’s a princess who ends up in a different world where she is locked away in a psychiatric facility for her insistence that she is from a place called Riona. A knight who will stop at nothing to find her and return her to their kingdom so she can reclaim the throne and keep their world from dying.
2. The Last Coven: Awakening: The first installment in a four-book Paranormal series. Four teenage girls discover that they have magical powers and are descended from the first coven of witches to walk the Earth. They have to fight off the three sons of an evil sorceress and keep them from retrieving their mother from the Otherworld.
3. You’re the Inspiration: The final novella in my Chicago Love Story Collection features the youngest Hanover and her quest for love.

3. Your work seems to fall into a couple of different genres. What attracted you to writing in those areas?

Well, my passion has always been YA Paranormal or Fantasy, but I met a bunch of fantastic authors at the North Iowa Book Bash. Those authors were primarily romance writers. I found myself feeling a tad judgemental about how “easy” it is to write romance and decided to put myself in their shoes for a creative experiment. I have since discovered that it isn’t easy, but it’s fun! The other reason is that my mind just doesn’t stop. I almost always have a story forming.

4. Where did you get the idea for the New Era Saga books?

The first book was inspired by a dream. My mom and I got to talking and the basic idea for the first book was created. Once I finished the first book the next two just flowed out of me.

5. Do you have a process for developing your characters?

Yes. I will often start writing a separate document in the character’s voice. That document usually doesn’t end up in the story, but it helps me get a feel for who that person is and where they came from. It may seem like wasted writing, but it works for me and I often discover surprising things about my characters.

6. How did you discover your love of writing?

For as long as I can remember I have loved writing. I’ve always carried notebooks around to write in and have quite a few books that I started and put aside.

7. What is your favorite part of being a writer?

Sharing my books with readers. I love being able to discuss my story with other people and hearing what they liked and didn’t like. It’s fun!

8. What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

Procrastination. I set goals for myself and have a specific timeline that I want to follow, but I just get distracted by shiny objects.

9. How do you find inspiration and motivation to write when you feel stuck?

It may seem odd, but this is why I write multiple books at once. If I get stuck on one, I can switch to a completely different story and take my mind off the one that has me stuck. I also listen to different music depending on what I’m writing. For my romances, it’s often Chicago (the band). For The Last Coven, it’s been a lot of Christina Perri, for everything else, it’s pop-punk.

10. What’s your favorite way to take a break from writing?

Playing video games. If I can disappear into a video game like Tomb Raider and just focus on the objective of the game, I feel my brain “relax”.

11. What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring or new authors?

Don’t give up. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Use your resources, other authors can help you find affordable cover designers and expert editors. A well-polished book will receive much better reviews and experience much more successful sales than a book that’s just thrown up on Amazon.

To learn more about KT and her work, you can check out these links:

Stay tuned for more author interviews, including an upcoming conversation with Kendra Elliott. You can also revisit last week’s interview with Brenda Donelan.

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Short Story: Nereyda and the Ravager

I’m setting a new goal of writing one short story each month. Most of them will be in the same universe as Storm Raven, as that world lends itself well to stories that take place outside of the novels I plan to write. This first short story, Nereyda and the Ravager, is intended to be a quick, fun read. I hope you enjoy it.

Nereyda perched on the edge of the dock, her legs dangling so that her bare feet rested in the water, with her boots sitting on her left side. As the refreshing night air breezed through through the black hair that trailed over her shoulders, she gazed at the silver moon on the horizon with her violet eyes. Her ship, the Storm Raven, rested behind her in the harbor water. Most of the crew had gone into town to spend the loot that they had taken on the last voyage. Only a handful of crew members remained on the ship, including Nereyda’s first mate, Brynja.
A cry broke the peaceful atmosphere. Looking up, Nereyda saw two men dragging a young woman along the dock leading to the Ravager, the ship of Nereyda’s rival, Captain Flint.
Nereyda looked over her shoulder. “Brynja, round up the crew and get the ship ready.”
“Now? We’re not supposed to leave until tomorrow morning.”
Nereyda gave a quick nod. “Now.”
“All right, Captain.” Brynja ran off.
Turning back to the commotion on the other dock, Nereyda saw that the pirates had nearly dragged the woman to their ship. Despite her struggling, she had not managed to get free of her captors.
After clipping her boots to her belt, Nereyda slipped into the water and began to swim across the harbor. She swam toward the aft of the Ravager, away from the shore. Distracted with taking their hostage aboard, the men didn’t notice her approaching their ship.
As she reached the hull of the ship, Nereyda heard the girl crying from the deck above.
The ship towered over her, with three rows of guns bristling from her side. She began to pull herself up the side of the Ravager, using the crossbeams and gun ports as hand and footholds. As she climbed, she overheard the pirates talking.
“Look what we found,” said one man.
“Oh yes, she’ll keep us entertained on the trip to the Mucever Strait,” said another.
“Please,” said the girl, “just let me go back home.”
“We’ll bring you home,” said the first man, “along with all of the loot we take.”
Footsteps pounded on the deck, then halted.
“Where do you think you’re trying to go?” said the second man.
“Let me go.”
“No, I don’t think I will. It’s time to see how good you’re going to be.”
Nereyda reached the railing and peered over. One of the pirates shoved the girl against the central mast. His left hand rested on the mast as he used his arm and body to prevent her from escaping. He ran his right hand along her cheek. She tried to turn away, but it was a useless move. The other man watched with a crooked smile.
Creeping over the railing, Nereyda slipped her boots onto her feet and drew her knife from her belt. In her dark leather armor, she remained invisible in the shadows. She stood and, with a flick of her wrist, sent the blade sailing through the air.
It plunged into the pirate’s hand, pinning it to the mast.
“Argh!” he shouted. His hand shot away from the girl and clutched at the knife. Blood ran out of the wound.
The other pirate looked over at her with wide eyes and a gaping mouth of blackened teeth.
Nereyda looked the girl straight in the eyes. “ What are you waiting for? Get the hell out of here.”
The girl slid out from between the pirate and the mast, then ran down the gangway to flee.
“What are you doing here?” said Black Teeth.
“I heard that you wanted some fun and thought I could help you out.” Nereyda smiled.
The pirate by the mast sucked in his breath with a hiss as he pulled the knife from his hand. He dropped the blade to the deck and clutched his wounded hand. “What about this seems fun to you?”
She sauntered out of the shadows and into the moonlight. “To me? Well, now that you aren’t about to hurt someone, all of it.”
The door from the cabin at the aft of the ship groaned open. A tall, lanky man walked out onto the deck, flanked by two other men. “What’s going on here?” said the tall man. Nereyda recognized him as Berk, the first mate of the Ravager.
“We caught a girl for some fun, but this wench let her go.”
Berk looked over at her. “Aren’t you Captain Nereyda?”
“I am. If you have a pen, I’ll even give you my autograph.”
He laughed in her face. “Aren’t you supposed to be some hotshot new captain? You’re just a little girl.”
At nineteen years old, Nereyda was well aware that she was one of the youngest pirate captains. “What does that say about you? A little girl sneaks onto your ship, and you think you need five men to get rid of her.”
He sneered at her. “You know it’s a great crime in Freyport to trespass on another captain’s ship.”
“Maybe,” she shrugged, “but so is kidnapping. By the way, nobody in my crew has to capture someone just to get laid.”
He looked around at his men. “Get her off this ship, one way or another.”
The group of pirates surrounded Nereyda as she backed against the railing and rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. “Before we get started,” she said, “what’s this I hear about Mucever Strait tomorrow?”
Berk rounded on the man with black teeth and the one with the bloody hand. “Which of you told her about the gems?”
“Actually, you just did.” She winked.
“Enough of this.” Berk charged at her and drew his sword.
Nereyda drew hers just as he slashed down at her. She raised her blade to deflect his. The impact of the blow pressed her back into the railing.
She swung her sword from her left shoulder to his right side.
Berk brought his blade across to sweep hers away.
As he did this, he opened up his stance, and she stepped inside his reach. An elbow strike to his nose made him stagger back. Nereyda spun past him to face the rest of the pirates.
Her opponents pressed in from all sides.
Dodge left.
Parry right.
Block high.
Nereyda moved in a flurry to defend herself.
A gap opened between them, and she rolled out of the melee.
After breaking through the line of pirates, Nereyda dashed up the stairs to the helm. As she sprinted past the wheel, she bent down and slashed the line that connected it to the rudder. With the ship disabled, she jumped onto the aft railing. Spinning around on the balls of her feet, she bowed to the pursuing pirates and bowed. “Thanks for the tip about the gems. Maybe I’ll bring you one as a souvenir.” She turned back around and dove into the water below.
As swam through the chilly water, gunshots sounded from the deck of the Ravager, though the bullets all splashed into the water around Nereyda without hitting her. When she reached the dock where the Storm Raven sat, she climbed out of the water and ran onto the deck of her ship. Brynja stood waiting next to the helm.
“Is the whole crew here?”
“They are.”
“Good.” Nereyda took her place at the wheel. “Let’s set a course to the Mucever Strait.”

You can find more information about the upcoming novel Storm Raven here.

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Interview with Brenda Donelan, Author of the University Mystery Series


Today, I present an interview with Brenda Donelan, the author of the University Mystery Series.

1. First, tell me a bit about yourself. What would you like readers to know about you?

I’ve always lived in South Dakota, but I love to travel. I’ve been to several countries and intend to keep traveling as long as I can. Travel is one of the best ways to learn about other cultures and yourself. Of course, one of the best things about travel is coming back home. I also love cats and have a 15-year-old Persian named Taffy. Besides reading, I love attending rock concerts, especially outdoor events with music from the 80s and early 90s.

2. Can you tell me about your current project?

I’m writing the fifth book in The University Mystery Series. The book, although nearly completed, doesn’t have a title yet. I’ve been referring to it as #5. This book was started in October with the bulk of it written in November during National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). The series is set in the fictional town of Elmwood, South Dakota on the campus of Midwestern State University. Marlee McCabe, my protagonist, is a professor of Criminology who is either pushed, pulled, or shoved into solving mysteries that happen on her campus and in her town. My books are considered cozy mysteries, meaning that they don’t contain much sex or graphic violence. I try to bring in the flavor of South Dakota when describing the people, the customs, the food, and the surrounding towns.

#5 (I really need to decide on a title) is a flashback book in that Marlee McCabe is now a college student in 1987. We get to see her, no longer as the professor with high ideals and little tolerance for slacker students, but as a student ready to cut corners and justify less than stellar academic behavior. The book will take readers on a walk down memory lane with references to 80s fashion, slang, and technology. Marlee and her friends seek to find out more about a fellow student who was found dead at a college party. This death leads to another mystery and back to present time.

3. Your University Mystery series is based on a real event, correct? Can you tell me a bit about that event and how it inspired you to write this series?

My first book, Day of the Dead, was inspired by real events. I was a college professor in 2004 and a fellow professor was found dead on campus. The resulting investigation left many of us on campus with more questions than answers about the victim and the cause of death. Day of the Dead is a work of fiction, but I used the premise of the body of a dead professor found outside his campus office.

4. How did you develop the character of Marlee McCabe?

If you were to ask my mom, she would say I am Marlee McCabe. Certainly, there are tons of similarities, but I am not the protagonist in my books. Rather, Marlee is who I would like to be. She’s much more outgoing and brave than I am.

5. How did you discover your love of writing?

I’ve loved to tell stories and write stories as long as I can remember. As a little girl, I read Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and other books with strong female protagonists. I remember fantasizing about being a detective, and as I got older, I was able to do investigative work in a number of my careers. I worked as a social worker, a probation officer, and a federal investigator for a total of 9 years before I started teaching at the university level. By then, I was over the idea of being a detective anymore, but I found that I still liked writing mysteries. After teaching sociology and criminal justice for 11 years, I decided to work full time as a writer. Now I’ve been writing for 3 ½ years and have self-published four books with the fifth to be released this spring.

6. What is your favorite part of being a writer?

I love being my own boss. I decide when and how I want to write, what the cover of my book will look like, and how I will advertise and promote my books. If I had a traditional publisher, many of these decisions would be taken out of my hands. Being self-published allows me complete control over my books from start to finish. Writing for a traditional publisher would take the fun out of writing and turn it into work.

7. What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

To stick to writing one book at a time. As soon as I begin a book I immediately begin thinking of ideas for other books. I know myself well enough to realize I can only work on one project at a time. Keeping a notebook of ideas for upcoming books helps me remember my ideas and then put them away so I can get back to work on my current book.

8. How do you find inspiration and motivation to write when you feel stuck?

Stuck seems to be a state of mind for me. If I can’t write it’s usually because I’m being lazy or working on another project. I can only work on one thing at a time, so sometimes my writing gets put on hold while I finish beta reading another author’s manuscript or devise a new marketing campaign. If I get truly stuck, then I write short stories. It usually helps the creative juices start flowing again.

9. What’s your favorite way to take a break from writing?

If the weather is nice, I like to go for a walk to clear my head and think of new twists and turns for my novel. Otherwise, I go on Facebook and mindlessly sift through photos people post. I even like looking at pictures of people I don’t know and trying to imagine a backstory for them.

10. What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring or new authors?

Just keep writing. Even if you only write a little bit every day or a few times a week, it will add up. Also, I’d suggest not spending too much time reading what others have to say about writing. Certainly you should take some advice, but I think it’s easy to become bogged down and overwhelmed if you spend too much time reading the “do” and “do not” suggestions that everyone seems to have. In my opinion, you can either be a writer or you can be someone who spends all their time reading about being a writer. Many a writing career has never gotten off the ground because too much focus was placed on what others had to say.

To learn more about Brenda and her work, you can check out her website and Facebook page.

Stay tuned for more author interviews, including an upcoming conversation with K.T. Webb, author of The New Era Saga series.

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Reading Recommendation – The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Two months ago, I sat in an airport, waiting for a flight to Florida and looking through my Kindle for something new to read. I stumbled across Shadow and Bone, the first in the Grisha Trilogy, and was soon transported into the world that Leigh Bardugo has crafted. The three books, Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising, are an excellent read in the YA fantasy genre.

Here is the synopsis for Shadow and Bone from the author’s website:

Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha…and the secrets of her heart.

Since I’m writing about the whole trilogy and don’t want to give away spoilers, I won’t discuss much about the story. However, I do want to dive into aspects of the characters, setting, and themes that I enjoyed.


Alina is believable as someone who is used to being unnoticed and unremarkable before having a rare and powerful ability thrust upon her, along with the pressure and attention that follows such power. I like that she is constantly torn between wanting to set aside her power to return to her old and familiar life and the desire to obtain more and more power. As the series progresses, it sets up a choice between love and duty, and I did not know which she would choose until the very end.

Many other characters are also memorable. The antagonist is also richly developed as someone who is mostly monstrous but has enough of a human side to evoke some sympathy. Alina’s best friend is also an important character and their relationship is one of the most dynamic and fascinating in the series. Finally, the supporting cast is full of diverse personalities that lead to a wealth of fun, interesting, and conflicting interactions.


From the moment I entered the world Bardugo has created, the setting felt like a breath of fresh air. The Grisha Trilogy is not set in the stereotypical Medieval Europe-like setting that is, in my opinion, overused in the fantasy genre. Instead, the story is set in an era just before the Industrial Revolution and the land of Ravka is heavily influenced by the Russian Empire. From the naming conventions to a general sense of cold, dreary oppression that pervades Ravkan society, I felt like I had been transported to a fantastical version of historical Russia. There is even a creepy priest that is reminiscent of Rasputin.


Especially for a book that explores a literal conflict between light and dark, Bardugo successfully avoids a black and white struggle between absolute good and total evil. As stated above, Alina is always tempted by the pursuit of increasing of her own power. She and her allies are forced to make physical, emotional, and moral sacrifices. Some of the antagonist’s goals are actually laudable, even if the methods he uses are horrifying. At times, I wondered if the antagonist could be redeemed or if Alina would become the villain of her own story.

I found it especially inspiring to read this series at a time when I’m working on my own fantasy novel, Storm Raven. In some ways, Bardugo’s Alina and my Nereyda are similar. They both start off as characters without magic who stumble into it and struggle to figure out what their new abilities mean for them. However, they are also vastly different characters. Alina starts her story as a quiet and humble rank-and-file soldier, while Nereyda is a cocky pirate captain. Still, I found myself coming up with a number of ideas for my own story as I read through these books.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading the Grisha Trilogy and highly recommend it. You can learn more about Leigh Bardugoa and her work here.

If you want to check out my own upcoming work with Storm Raven, you can visit this page.

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Interview with J.A. Jance


Today, I’m happy to present an interview with New York Times Bestselling Author J.A. Jance. This is the first in a series where I will interview a different author each week.

1. First, please tell me a bit about yourself. What would you like readers to know about you?

J.A. – I’ve been writing murder mysteries for more than thirty years—long enough that some of the early Beaumonts probably qualify as “historical fiction.” But writing is what I always wanted to do, and although that dream was put on hold for a while, it’s still a job I love.

2. In the About Me section on your website, you mention facing some initial discouragement about pursuing your writing career. How has that experience affected your growth as a writer?

J.A. – I was not allowed to enroll in a university level Creative Writing class in 1964 on account of being a “girl.” I married a man who was allowed in the class that was closed to me.  He never published anything and told me in 1968 that there would only be “one writer in our family.”  I didn’t sit down to write my first mystery until two years after I divorced him.  As for not being allowed in the class?  It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.  They would have tried to stuff me into a literary fiction box.  Trust me, it wouldn’t have been a good fit!

3. Can you tell me about your current project?

J.A. – Two days ago I finished the final editing of Man Overboard the upcoming Ali Reynolds book, and I’ll be going back to work on J.P. Beaumont # 22 later today.

4. Where do you get the inspiration that sparks your story ideas?

J.A. – I’m a sponge, forever gathering ideas.  Yesterday my grandson asked me if I ever put random people I meet into my books.  The answer is yes. Sometimes I don’t even have to meet them.  Years ago, in a restaurant while my husband conducted a business meeting, I observed an older gentleman arrive with a young trophy wife on his arm.  They were there to meet with a real estate agent.  The trophy wife wanted to buy a new house—preferably the best one on the block.  The man knew how much he made, how much he owed in alimony and child support, and how much the new house would cost.  His misery was so apparent that I went straight home and wrote him into the book I was writing at the time. I never even knew his name.

5. How did you develop the characters of J. P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady, and Ali Reynolds?

J.A. – Those characters have developed over time.  I’ve gotten to know them along the way.  I did not outline them years in advance of writing the stories. I know that J.K. Rowling outlined all the Harry Potter books before she ever wrote a word of the stories.  I am NOT J.K. Rowling. I met outlining in my 6th grade geography class.  I hated it then and nothing in the intervening decades has changed my mind on that score.

6. How did you discover your love of writing?

J.A. – I discovered my love of writing by loving reading.  I read the Wizard of Oz in second grade.  From the moment I realized that someone had put the words on those pages, that’s what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be—a writer.

7. What is your favorite part of being a writer?

J.A. – Learning how my stories have touched someone else.  Just this week, I heard from a gentleman who saw himself in J.P. Beaumont’s struggles with sobriety and got himself into treatment.

8. What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

J.A. – Maintaining the pacing.

9. How do you find inspiration and motivation to write when you feel stuck?

J.A. – Knowing I have a looming deadline is a real motivator for me. Writers who don’t have deadlines imposed from the outside need to give themselves their own deadlines and then meet them.

10. What’s your favorite way to take a break from writing?

J.A. – For the last two years, I’ve been walking 10,000 steps a day.  I’ve also lost 70 pounds.  So when I get stuck, it’s time to get up and walk for a few laps.

11. What’s one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring or new authors?

J.A. – When I bought my first computer, the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so that, whenever I booted up in the morning, these are the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written today. Those words were a real gift to me when I was an unpublished writer, and they still are.

If you would like to learn more about J.A. Jance and her work, you can find her blog here:

The next author I feature will be Brenda Donelan, author of the University Mystery series.

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More Than Just Her Gender: Writing Female Protagonists

At this point, I am nowhere near an expert on writing. I’m working on launching my first novel and am about to begin revising my second. However, something that they both have in common is that they feature women in the lead roles. As I wrap up my first year of getting into writing fiction, I wanted to look back on what I’ve learned about writing female protagonists, especially since I am a male author.

The biggest trick when it comes to writing female leads is that there is no trick at all. Women are whole people with personalities, dreams, goals, and past experiences. The process for creating a well-rounded character is the same whether that character is a man, woman, black, white, etc. Characters need a whole list of personality traits, goals, family members, hobbies, and anything else that paints a full picture. For each female protagonist that I create, being a woman is a part of who she is, however, she is more than just her gender. As examples, we can look at the protagonists of my first two books.

Kayla Falk, from The Azrael Initiative, starts her story as an engineering student. She is intelligent, but like many her age, unsure of where she wants to go in life. Her personality is a bit on the reserved side, but she does enjoy hanging out with her best friend, Olivia. Together, the two of them have sparring matches several times a week. Kayla also has a much younger brother, whom she loves deeply. Her peaceful life is upturned after a couple of terrorist attacks, and she evolves into someone who is capable, physically, mentally, and emotionally, of taking the fight to ISIS.

Nereyda, from Storm Raven, is a pirate captain. After the previous captain died, she was elected to be his successor due to her skills at piloting a ship. She is a confident and capable fighter who carries herself with swagger. While she cares very much about her crew, she is apathetic toward politics and what’s happening outside of the bubble of her ship. Nereyda’s character story is fundamentally about how she handles losing the control she is used to having over her life, along with how she reacts when she’s forced to care about what’s happening in the world around her.

In both of these characters, I’ve strived to create deep, fleshed-out characters who experience personal growth in their stories. Their gender, however, still does have an impact on their stories. Kayla goes undercover in ISIS-controlled territory, which presents challenges and threats due being a woman. Nereyda is well-respected by her crew, but other captains and crews tend to underestimate and look down on her. That said, they are still not defined by being women. There are many interesting aspects of their character, and being female is only one part.

In writing your characters, their gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. should not define who they are. Remember to give them depth through their personalities, dreams, and backgrounds. Even in stories that deal with issues of identity, your characters will feel more realistic and relatable if they have more to them. It can also be helpful to read stories that are written in a voice similar to what you are attempting to achieve. For instance, I’ve learned a lot about writing in a female voice by reading books by Sarah Maas and Leigh Bardugo, who feature female protagonists in their fantasy books.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look into my creative process and that you can take something away for your own writing.

Also, if you want to see my characters in action, you can read the first three chapters of The Azrael Initiative to get to know a bit more about Kayla and an excerpt from Storm Raven for an introduction to Nereyda.

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