Return to India, Part 1: Chennai

For the last six months, I’ve been working on a new book—a young adult contemporary novel set in Chennai, India. The story was inspired by my family’s experiences there in 2009, when my husband participated in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange. As part of the exchange, we lived in an apartment in Chennai for five months, and my kids attended a local school.

India 2009 452

Our family in India, in 2009


For years, we’ve said we wanted to go back, and this summer we decided to go for it, before my daughter left for college in August. We flew from Chicago to Frankfurt to Chennai, for a total of nineteen hours in the air, which was as grueling as I remembered. Even though we arrived in Chennai around 1 a.m., the temperature was a sweltering 98 degrees Fahrenheit outside. After a fractured night’s sleep, we set out to explore Chennai. Our hotel was close enough to our old neighborhood that we could walk there.


Our old neighborhood, with flame-of-the-forest trees and waiting auto-rickshaw.


It was weirdly nostalgic to see the narrow lanes where the kids once played street cricket and badminton with the neighbor kids. When we found our old apartment on Karpagam 3rd Street, the building’s caretaker, Saraswati, gave us an curious look, until she realized who we were. Given our family’s very limited knowledge of Tamil, we couldn’t explain our return after six years away, but Saraswati was able to convey her amazement at how much the kids had grown.

India 2009 582

Karpagam 3rd Street, Chennai, in 2009



And in 2015


Even the owner of the nearby corner store remembered us, probably because we’d stopped by almost every day after school to buy ice cream or chips. We also saw places we’d frequented in the past, like The French Loaf (cafe/bakery with great chocolate cake) and the oddly named “36 Degrees U Go Minus”— where we’d ordered numerous banana milkshakes and plates of fries.


Our corner store in MRC Nagar, Chennai


When we lived in Chennai before, we took auto-rickshaws everywhere, but I’d forgotten how death-defying the rides can be. No seat belts, crazy traffic, and horns honking constantly. We took auto-rickshaws to some of our old hang-outs, including Citi Center Mall, where all four of us went to Terminator: Genisys 3D on opening weekend for a total cost of $10(!). We also revisited Vidya Mandir–the K-12 school where Mike had taught math, and the kids had attended school (at the time, they were in 3rd grade and 7th grade). My daughter’s class had already graduated, but my son got to see his former classmates, who crowded around him like he was a celebrity. In the evening, we had a wonderful dinner with the Vidya Mandir teachers, who overwhelmed us with their generosity.


Dinner with the Vidya Mandir teachers


Going back to Chennai as tourists, rather than temporary residents, gave us a chance to indulge a little. Rather than staying in an apartment with minimal air conditioning, dodgy bathrooms, and occasional cockroaches, we spent four days in a comfortable hotel with intense a.c., a full kitchen, and a rooftop infinity pool. We took a trip to Mahabalipuram, where we splurged at a resort with an incredible winding pool and tropical grounds (necessary for my research, as my book includes a pivotal scene set in this resort!).


View from our balcony at the Radisson Blu resort in Mahabalipuram, India


After just four days in Chennai, I realized the descriptions in my WIP were woefully inadequate. As a result, I took a lot of photos and jotted down numerous notes, with the hope that I could capture more of the city’s vitality in my novel. I’m not sure if that’s possible, but this trip made me very glad that I decided to set my current book in India.


Street scene in Mylapore, Chennai


Ice cream vendors along Marina Beach, Chennai



Posted in Biography, Travel | 1 Comment

2015 Goals

new-year-2015My original blog post for the start of 2015 had my usual writerly resolutions, like “start a new novel,” “read,” and “attend writing conferences.” Nothing wrong with these goals, except that I plan to do all of them in 2015, regardless of whether they’re on a list. If I’m going to make this a stand-out year, I need to exert more effort.

With that in mind, here’s my list for 2015. These aren’t necessarily writing-related, but I’ve found that the best life experiences usually contribute to my writing.

  1. Get out of my comfort zone. In 2008, I went to my first writer’s conference, without knowing a soul there. It was scary, but I did OK. I was anxious when I attended my first Wisconsin RWA meeting in 2011, but I ended up meeting a lot of great people. It’s hard for me to break out of my shell, but it’s almost always worth it, especially when I get to connect with writers in person.
  2. Explore! There are art exhibits, and cool restaurants, and all kinds of things going on in Milwaukee and the suburbs, but I often make excuses not to get out. A lot of the time, I don’t want to deal with driving somewhere new and finding parking, but that makes me sound so old. My goal is to try one new thing a month, even if it’s as simple as a hike at the nature center or dinner at an ethnic restaurant.
  3. Write something new and different. It could be a short story for an anthology, an essay for a contest, or an assignment for an online writing class. I need to step up my game and challenge myself.
  4. Try to enjoy winter more. This is tough for me, because Wisconsin winters are long and cold, and I’m a west coast girl at heart. Now that the kids are older, I don’t have anyone to take sledding and no one wants to build a snowman anymore (I feel a song coming on!). But I could try skating on the nearby creek or snowshoeing.
  5. Go to more movies. Last year, I went to less than ten movies in the theatres, which is nuts, because I LOVE going to the movies. I love all the trailers, I love the big screen, and I love the collective energy of an excited, enthusiastic audience. Yes, movies are crazy-expensive, but we have $5 Tuesdays where I live, which is a great deal. I also need to watch more Bollywood movies, because they’re so much fun and always put me in a good mood.
  6. Write more letters. Over the winter break, I wrote a long letter to a friend that I’d lost touch with. She wrote me back, and it was awesome. This made me realize that it’s not that hard to write a letter or an email to catch up with distant friends.

None of these goals are life-changing or amazing, but I’m already excited, thinking about how I might carry them out.

What about you? Any fun goals for 2015?

Posted in Just for fun, Writing | Leave a comment

Favorite Reads of 2014

This year I read an unprecedented number of books (91!!), which is a new personal record. If anything, I wish I had time to read more, because my e-reader is still filled with awesome books I haven’t touched yet. Here’s a list of my favorites from 2014.

15819028The Golem and the Jinni – by Helene Wecker. A beautifully written blend of historical fiction (turn-of-the-century Manhattan), fantasy, and Jewish/Arab folklore and mythology, this was the best adult fiction I’ve read in a long time. In fact, I liked it so much I read it twice—once in January, and then again this month.

My Salinger Year – by Joanna Rakoff. A delightful recounting of the author’s experience, in the late 1990s, as an assistant at a literary agency whose clients included J.D. Salinger. The memoir wasn’t so much about the author’s interactions with Salinger, as her first year struggling to survive on her own, in a “real” job, with a crappy apartment and an obnoxious boyfriend (a wannabe writer). I loved the details about her work for the old-school agency, a place that used typewriters for all their correspondence and only had one computer for everyone in the office!

Middle Grade:
20454626Hook’s Revenge – by Heidi Schulz. I’m not a huge fan of J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan, although I love the world he created. This book took one of the best parts of the original (the pirates!) and made them the focus. I loved the spirited main character (Hook’s daughter, Jocelyn) and the wonderfully snarky narrator, reminiscent of Lemony Snicket. Bonus points for the gorgeous illustrations by John Hendrix.

Five, Six, Seven, Nate! – by Tim Federle. If I’d written a favorite books post in 2013, I would have included Better Nate Than Ever among my top MG reads that year. The sequel does not disappoint. Having successfully landed a role in E.T.: The Broadway Musical, Nate now has to contend with all manner of Broadway types, including child stars with more experience than him. Nate’s fantastic voice, coupled with the author’s inside knowledge of Broadway, make this a wonderful read for any theater geek.

Young Adult:
14061957The Grisha Trilogy (Shadow & Bone, Siege & Storm, Ruin & Rising) – by Leigh Bardugo. Technically, this isn’t one book, but I’m lumping all three books together, because, after Ruin & Rising came out, I binge-read the trilogy over the course of a lazy summer week. This is, hands down, my favorite fantasy series of the year. The world-building, the intricate magical system, the great characters made this a superb trilogy.

Stitching Snow – by R. C. Lewis. I’m a huge sucker for fairy-tale-inspired stories, and this is one of the more creative ones I’ve read. It’s a reimagining of Snow White, set on a mining colony in outer space, with droids filling in for the seven dwarves, and a truly nasty evil queen. There was lots of fast-paced action, plus enough political intrigue to keep the story moving without being confusing. I also appreciated that it was a stand-alone, with a satisfying ending.

18079719Grasshopper Jungle – by Andrew Smith. This is the third book I’ve read by Winger, and they’re all so good. This one, however, had such an insane premise that it reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Mix together hordes of giant, flesh-eating grasshopper-creatures, a coming-of-age story brimming with sexual confusion, a colorful cast of small town characters, and an apocalyptic vibe, and you get a truly memorable read. I devoured this one straight through, without stopping.

Of Scars and Stardust – by Andrea Hannah. You know the kind of book, that when it ends, you think, “Wait. What happened there? What was true and what wasn’t?” That’s the kind of book this is. I won’t give anything away, but this is a dark, brooding read that makes Ohio in the winter seem like the spookiest place you could ever live. Beautiful, atmospheric writing.

What were some of your favorite reads of 2014?





Posted in Reading | 2 Comments

To All Pitch Wars Participants

For two years, I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a mentee in Pitch Wars. This year, I’ve been observing from the sidelines, and I wanted to share a few thoughts before the agent round begins tomorrow. This part of the contest is always the most stressful. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time, because anything can happen. Whenever I entered pitch contests (and I’ve done a bunch), I wanted to be optimistic, but a part of me worried that the agents would pass my entry by. That I’d end up with “0 comments” and no requests.


As luck would have it, this did happen to me. Twice. Not with Pitch Wars, but with two other contests. And it stung. I’m not going to lie—it was hard to scroll through all the congratulatory tweets, and not feel the slightest bit jealous.

But, here’s the thing. No matter what happens during the agent round, you’re already a huge winner. The fact that you were chosen is a testament to your writing, since the odds for being picked were less than 10%! You were chosen because an experienced writer thought your work had merit. Not your mom, not your best friend, not your spouse. Someone who’d never met you, or who only knew you from your mentee bio, waded through dozens of entries and picked yours. They chose your manuscript, knowing they’d spend hours reading it, critiquing it, and helping you craft your pitch. This contest proves that “it only takes one yes.” If it happened with Pitch Wars, it can happen again with an agent or an editor.

Furthermore, your manuscript is now better, stronger, and more polished than it was back in August. You’ve probably grown as a writer, and your writing has improved, thanks to all the feedback you’ve gotten from your mentor. I’d call that a major win.

cat high five

So, if you don’t get any requests during the agent round, it’s all right. Maybe your entry wasn’t what these agents were looking for at this particular time. That doesn’t mean that other agents won’t take an interest your manuscript. You can still get that elusive “yes” through the slush pile, via another contest, or with a conference pitch. Maybe not with this manuscript, but if you keep persevering, you’re bound to see results eventually.






Posted in Writing | 2 Comments

NaNoWriMo – Take 2

Participant-2014-Square-ButtonSo, maybe I’m delusional, but I’m thinking of attempting NaNoWriMo again this year…

The object of NaNo (National Novel Writing Month) is to write a 50,000-word novel (or at least the start of one) during the month of November. The last time I participated in NaNo was November 2012. I got off to a strong start, but I lost momentum at the 10,000-word mark. Before I could get my act in gear, I received an R & R (revise and resubmit) on the novel I was currently querying, so I turned all my attention to that task.

No big deal. There’s no fee to enter NaNo, and there’s no real prize for winning, other than a feeling of accomplishment and a lot of words written in a short time.

But I’d still like to “win” NaNo, just once, and I feel like the odds might be in my favor. Why?

  1. I downloaded the free trial of Scrivener. Although I’m still learning my way around the program, it has a lot of potential for pre-planning. I can create character and setting sheets, pin images, and create links to websites for research. Which is OK, because pre-planning is encouraged in NaNo.
  2. I need a new project. I’ve tinkered around with a bunch of different ideas for YA contemporary novels, but I haven’t been able to commit to just one. I need to focus, and NaNo will give me the incentive to do it.
  3. For the first time ever, I have my own laptop. I don’t have to share it with my kids (no Sims games, no Minecraft), and I can take it everywhere I go, including my in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving weekend. Even though we have a lot of family time then, I should be able to sneak away for some writing sprints while everyone else is watching football.

I’ve already made some writing buddies on the NaNo site (I’m there as casacullen) and I’m hoping this will help me with accountability. If nothing else, I want to get fired up and share in the collective enthusiasm of thousands of other writers, all trying to reach their 50,000-word goals by November 30.

liz lemon

What about you? Are you doing NaNo this year?

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

Star Wars Marathon 2014

Labor Day weekend is one of those long, lazy weekends when a lot of TV channels run viewing marathons (of TV/movie series, like Star Trek and Twilight Zone). In the spirit of this tradition, I decided to post about my recent Star Wars movie-viewing marathon, which took place 2 weeks ago. At the time, my 13-year-old son and I had the house to ourselves (my husband and daughter were on a college visit to DC), and he suggested a movie marathon. There were a lot of great choices (Marvel superheros, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones), but, in the end, we went with Star Wars, partly because we’d never viewed ALL the movies in chronological order.

sw giphy

Here are my thoughts after watching all 6 movies, back-to-back (over two days). Keep in mind that these are issues/thoughts that came up during our viewing. I wrote them down right away, without bothering to look up anything for verification, because I wanted to document my immediate reactions.

And, obviously, SPOILER ALERT (in case you haven’t seen all the movies).

  1. R2D2 is Awesome – I always thought of R2 as a fun sidekick and a form of comic relief (along with C-3P0), but there are numerous occasions, in BOTH trilogies, where he saves the day. He saves various spaceships mid-flight, often while under attack (when he’s riding along with Luke, Obi Wan, AND Anakin). He is constantly plugging into other computer systems to open/close blast doors, stop garbage chutes, and find out about captured prisoners. And it’s because of his “mission” that Luke connects with Obi Wan and sets events into motion for Episode IV and the movies that follow.r2d2 giphy
  2. C-3P0 is Annoying – At first, he’s kind of funny, because he’s so neurotic, and he’s often the voice of reason. But by the sixth movie, I just wanted him to shut up, especially because he’s always ragging on R2D2.
  3. Han Solo is (Also) Awesome – After watching the prequel trilogy*, where most of the characters act formal, and often refer to each other as “my young apprentice” (in that slightly condescending way), and most of the humor is so forced (Jar Jar, anyone?), Han Solo is a breath of fresh air. He’s not a hero at the outset. He’s cocky, self-centered, and in it for the money. He’s a great counterpart to Luke and Obi Wan, because he doesn’t take the Force seriously. That’s why his swooping in at the end of Episode IV to help Luke is such a huge victory. He becomes a hero by how he chooses to act, not because he’s the “chosen one.”han solo giphy
  4. The Emperor is a Cool Villain – When you watch all six movies in a row, you realize that the Emperor has an awesome character arc as the villain of the entire series. He starts off as a senator, becomes the chancellor, then the Supreme Chancellor with Emergency Powers, then Emperor, and by Episode VI, he has almost gone insane, but still wields so much power. The fact that Luke and Vader/Anakin team up to defeat him is a bigger victory than anything else in the movie (including blowing up both Death Stars)emperor giphy
  5. Special Effects: Old vs New – For obvious reasons, the special effects are way, way better in the prequel trilogy—cool creatures, great spaceship battles, awesome interior shots and visuals (especially planets like Mustafar and Corsuscant). I’m pretty sure CGI didn’t exist when Lucas made the o.g. trilogy, so I think most of the spaceships were models and the monsters/aliens were people in suits. (I could be wrong about this). However, most of the time, the primitive special effects weren’t noticeably bad (not to me, that is). The BIG exception is the computer screens or viewing devices. The graphics are primitive—not much better than Pong or early Atari. My son snickered at the “targeting computer” used by Luke when he’s trying to blow up the Death Star in Episode IV.Targeting-computer
  6. Strong Characters Matter – There are a lot of reasons why I like the original trilogy better, but the number one reason is the characters. I love the Luke-Han-Leia friendship/love/rivalry that starts in Episode IV and grows through V and VI. These people start out as strangers, but in the end, they grow super close and make sacrifices for each other. My son said it reminded him of the Harry-Ron-Hermione friendship in the Harry Potter series. The prequel trilogy has nothing like this. The closest it comes is in Episode II, when Padme, Anakin, and Obi Wan are fighting huge monsters on Geonossis.han luke leia giphy
  7. Storytelling Matters – Another reason I like the original trilogy better is that it’s easier to understand. When I first saw Star Wars IV as an 11-year-old (during its original run in the theaters), I understood the basic premise right away. Empire=bad guys, Rebels=good guys. I didn’t need to know the politics of the Empire or how it grew to be so powerful. The prequel trilogy tries to explain the Trade Federation and the blockade, and has a bunch of stuff about the Galactic Senate and so on. Whatever. In the o.g. trilogy, the Empire was evil. Boom. We got it.imperial cruiser giphy

So, these are my own (completely biased) opinions. What about you? Any thoughts on the movies? On the original trilogy versus the prequels?

*In this post, the prequel trilogy refers to Episodes I-III. The o.g. trilogy refers to Episodes IV-VI.

Posted in Just for fun, Movies | 4 Comments

Read-A-Romance Month: August 2014

It’s Read-a-Romance Month, which means writers are joining together to share the theme “Celebrate Romance” on their blogs. My local chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the Wisconsin RWA, is participating with a series of blog posts. Writers who contribute are asked to write a short essay on romance, answer three questions, and recommend other romance authors.

VHoltI’ve always enjoyed love stories, but I didn’t discover romance novels until high school. My first exposure was in 9th Grade, when a friend turned me onto the Gothic novels of Victoria Holt. Most of them were the same: brooding alpha-hero, virginal heroine (usually a governess-type), huge estate/castle, and an element of danger. I couldn’t get enough of these, and after I’d finished all of them, I read everything the author wrote under her historical pen-name, Phillippa Carr.

By 10th Grade, I craved something a little steamier. That’s when my best friend and I discoveredroserogers historical romances. She’d found a novel on her mom’s nightstand entitled The Power and the Passion, and we took turns reading the racy scenes out loud. That summer, I found a used bookstore that sold historical romances for a quarter, and I started buying them by the bagful. This was the 1980s, so we’re talking bodice-rippers like Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers, with descriptions like, “from the steamy bordellos of New Orleans to the glittering splendor of St. Petersburg” (or something like that).

Even though I enjoyed romance novels for years, I never identified myself as a “romance writer” until recently. My novels were heavy on kissing and always ended with a HEA, but I placed myself squarely in the fantasy genre. Not until I joined RWA (and met loads of great writers through WisRWA) did I realize that it was possible to call myself  a romance writer, whether I wrote science fiction, fantasy, or young adult novels.


  1. Describe the most daring, adventurous, or inspiring thing you ever did.

Elephant ExpeditionThe most daring thing I ever did was move my family to India for five months. In 2009, my husband, who teaches high school Calculus, applied to be a Fulbright Exchange teacher overseas. When we found out his exchange would be in Chennai, India, we were shocked, because we’d expected to be posted to England. We decided to accept the posting, and moved to India for five months, along with our two children, ages 12 and 8. Going from our small town of ten thousand to a bustling city of 6 million people was a huge adjustment. Our experience was at times exhausting and overwhelming, but also amazing and life-changing. In the end, it brought us closer as a family, and we’d love to go back.

  1. Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer.

It’s hard for me to remember when I didn’t want to be a writer. I wrote and illustrated a lot of short stories in elementary school. By the time I was fourteen, I’d written my first novel (a lenghty epic best described as Biblical fan fiction!). I wrote as a hobby, on and off, for years, but I didn’t consider pursuing the craft seriously until 2008, when both my children were in school full-time. Since then, I’ve been writing non-stop. For the most part, I write YA, because I love reading that genre, and because I’m still a kid at heart.

  1. Tell us About a Book That Changed Your Life.

illusionI’ve read so many wonderful books that it’s hard to pick, but one of the most influential books I’ve ever read was Illusion by Paula Volsky. Up until then, every fantasy novel I’d read was set in a world that resembled Medieval Europe. However, the premise for Illusion was “the French Revolution, with magic.” For the first time ever, I realized that world-building could encompass different cultures and historical periods. As a result, I completely rewrote the fantasy novel I was working on, changing the setting from a generic medieval kingdom to a land similar to 16th Ottoman Turkey. My next novel took place in a country similar to 16th century Persia.

Most of my recent recs are in the Young Adult and New Adult categories, because these are the categories I read the most. I’ve provided links to Goodreads, so you can read the plot summaries there.

Jennifer E. Smith (YA) – The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, This is What Happy Looks Like
Miranda Kenneally (YA) – Stealing Parker, Things I Can’t Forget
Dahlia Adler (YA) – Behind the Scenes
Chanel Cleeton (New Adult) – I See London, London Falling
Noelle August (New Adult) – Boomerang


Posted in Reading, Writing | 1 Comment

The Writing Process Blog Hop

Thanks to writer G. R. LeBlanc for tagging me as a participant in the 2014 Writing Process Blog Hop. We met last fall through a New Adult writing class offered by the Young Adult chapter of RWA and stayed in touch. She was kind enough to beta-read an early draft of my current project and gave me great feedback. In May 2014, we joined together, along with a few other writers, to form the Winsome and Wild Blog. You can check out G.R.’s Writing Process post at her blog Ebb and Flow.

Here we go with the questions!

What am I currently working on?

I am currently working on the second round of revisions for my YA contemporary novel, FIELD RULES, with a deadline of early August. I’m hoping to start a new project in September, probably another YA contemporary. Right now, I have a few ideas floating around, but nothing definite.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

So far, I’ve tried to set my work apart from others through unique settings. I’ve done a lot of traveling, and I love incorporating my own experiences into my writing. My first novel (trunked) was a YA fantasy, set in a Middle-Eastern type world resembling 16th century Persia. My current project, FIELD RULES, is set on an archaeological dig in Cyprus, based on my background as an archaeologist. Unlike other archaeology-set MG and YA novels, FIELD RULES isn’t an adventure story (no mummies, lost treasure, aliens, or evil Nazis): instead, it’s a realistic account of life on a dig, with a heaping dash of romance thrown in.

Why do I write what I write?

For the most part, I write YA fiction. I’ve tried writing adult fantasy and New Adult romance, but I’ve been told that my voice sounds like a teenager’s. I definitely read more YA than any other age category, and I’m particularly drawn to epic fantasy and contemporary romance. I’m not sure why I love YA books so much—maybe it’s because I’m still a kid at heart, or because I haven’t forgotten how I felt, at age 17, when the world was wide open and anything seemed possible.

How does my individual writing process work?

Before I start writing, I do a lot of thinking—usually while out walking—and I brainstorm ideas with my critique partner. Then I write a “treatment” with character sketches, a rough plot outline, and a setting. This treatment inevitably changes over the course of revisions, but it serves as my initial framework. I try to write the first draft in chronological order, but if I get bogged down, I skip to scenes that I’m excited about (usually they involve kissing!).

After I finish my first draft, I let the manuscript sit for a couple of weeks, then work on revisions. Once I feel like my work is ready to be seen by others, I send it out to beta readers. Although I’m a quick first draft-writer (it takes me about 6 – 10 weeks to write 70K word manuscript), I spend much, much longer on the revision stage.

Next on the blog hop is Wendy Bennett, a NA writer from the Winsome and Wild Blog. Wendy is currently working on her first novel, a contemporary New Adult romance featuring a hot hockey player hero. Her blog features “Hot Hockey God Friday,” which is definitely worth a look!

You can learn more about Wendy at her website:

Her writing process blog hop post will be up next Monday, on July 21.



Posted in Writing | 4 Comments

From the Field to the Page

Working on an excavation on San Clemente Island, CA

Working on an excavation on San Clemente Island, CA

If you’ve read the “About Me” in this blog, you’ll know that I have a background in archaeology. I worked on a lot of digs, got my MA in Archaeology from UCLA, and I put four years into the PhD program. My dissertation topic got the green light from my committee and I started doing field research. But instead of moving forward with my dissertation, I dropped out of grad school. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but there were a lot of forces pushing me away from that path. To this day, I don’t regret leaving. The academic world is insanely competitive, especially in a field like archaeology.

My academic background came in handy, career-wise, until I left the paid workforce to be a stay-at-home mom. As our family prepared to move from California to Wisconsin for my husband’s job, I boxed up my archaeology textbooks and my Middle Eastern history tomes and thought, “Too bad all this research won’t ever come in handy again.”

Thankfully, I was wrong.

I’ve been writing for a while now, but last fall was the first time I combined my archaeology background with my passion for writing. It’s not that I hadn’t considered it, but I had so many other stories itching to get out.

And I’d never been able to figure out how to set a story on an archaeological dig and make it semi-realistic, rather than an Indiana Jones-style adventure. Not that I’m knocking Indy, because I love those movies, but seriously, I spent eight seasons in the field, and there were no bad guys, car/horse/Jeep chases, Holy Grails, aliens, human sacrifices, religious artifacts, quicksand, giant spiders or deadly snakes.

Nope, never came face-to-face with a snake!

Nope, never came face-to-face with a snake!

This isn’t to say that archaeology is dull – it’s not – but most of the drama in the field comes from relationships. When you stick a dozen people together in a remote location for six weeks, with minimal amenities, you’re bound to get drama!

Petra, Jordan

Petra, Jordan

Once I decided to set a book on an archaeological dig, I had a blast writing it. The end result was Field Rules, my YA contemporary novel set in Cyprus. Now that I’m in the revision stage of Field Rules, I’m eager to lay the groundwork for my next book. This time, I’m hoping to set the story in Jordan, where I excavated in the 1990s, and make use of some of my experiences, including working with the Bedouin and traveling to places like Petra and the Dead Sea.

One of the things I love about the planning process is that I get to do research. Not only am I going to read up on modern-day Jordan, but I’m also planning to do some academic research. Since two of the archaeologists in the book are rivals, I need to know what they study and why they have conflicting ideas/theories. Most of the academic stuff won’t make it into the book, but I need to know it, to understand my characters better. It’s like doing research for grad school, but without any pressure!

So, even though I’m no longer working in the field, I get vicarious joy from doing research for my characters. It just goes to show that you never know when you’ll get to use the subjects you studied in college!

Posted in Archaeology, Biography, Writing | 5 Comments

Spring Break 2014

Since last week was Spring Break for the kiddos, my family embarked on a six-day trip to Boston and New York. The plan was for my daughter (a junior in high school) to tour six colleges (three in Boston, three in NYC) and for us to visit with relatives and fit in a few tourist activities.


The college visits were interesting, although we began to notice certain things emphasized on the tours, like the campus blue lights (and the response time for the local police!), the number of clubs offered, and eating options/meal plans (always important!). As someone who went to college in the 1980s, I was amazed at all the opportunities for internships and junior year abroad programs. A few times on the tours I felt a little jealous, because my college years are way behind me.

IMG_2504However, as appealing as the colleges were, the admissions process was intimidating. The process of writing an application essay reminded me of the process involved for querying a manuscript. It isn’t something you dash off quickly if you have an hour to kill. Writing an essay (or a query) takes a lot of thought and can require numerous revisions. And sometimes it’s a matter of being the right person at the right time. At Barnard College, the admissions officer told us that they reject applicants with perfect test scores and 4.0 GPAs, simply because they believe these students aren’t a good fit for the school. The same principle applies when querying. You could be doing everything right, but you might still get rejected, because your manuscript might not be a good fit for a particular agent or publishing house.

In addition to visiting colleges, we took the subway all over Manhattan – we went to the 9/11 Memorial, the Bronx (Fordham College), the Upper East Side (to visit my aunt), the Upper West Side (Columbia) and mid-town. Since I recently signed with Erin Niumata of Folio Literary Agency, my family wanted to know where “my” IMG_2528agency is located in New York. We tracked down the address for Folio and my husband took a picture of us outside the building. (I didn’t try to go inside, because I didn’t want to appear stalker-ish!).

IMG_2532As I’ve mentioned before, my daughter and I love musicals, so we had to fit in a Broadway show. If it were up to me, I would have picked a known commodity, like Newsies or Pippin. But thanks to my daughter’s suggestion, as well as the current offerings at TKTS booth, we went to see Heathers, an off-Broadway show at the New World Stages. It was a fantastic musical, full of energy, great songs, and a full component of teen angst. Plus, it had a totally 80’s vibe, which I loved. Definitely recommended for fans of the original movie!

On our last day, I took my thirteen-year-old son to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. Truly an awesome museum, with old movie cameras, hands-on exhibits, costumes from movies like Chicago, set designs from The Silence of the Lambs and The Wiz, free screenings (we got to see The Lego Movie) and a whole row of old-school videogames, like Space Invaders, Super Breakout and Ms. Pac-Man (my personal favorite!).

Now that we’re back home, and the kids are back at school, it’s time to return to my regular writing routine. But I always love a chance to take a break, step outside my comfort zone, and explore places with my family.

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