Category Archives: Introspection

53,550 Words

I am finally coming up for air after thirty days of writing, writing, writing during NaNoWriMo, also known as National Novel Writing Month, when thousands of people all over the world are hunched over their laptops, tablets, computers, notebooks, journals, and phones, all trying to crank out 50,000 words in just thirty days.

I tried NaNoWriMo last year, but thanks to a) not having any real plot in mind and b) landing in the emergency room courtesy of some unfortunately seasoned green beans setting off my food allergies, I stalled out at 23,000 words. But still–23,000 words. Which is a lot of words, especially when I remember the days in high school where having a week to write a 250-word essay didn’t seem like enough time.


But this year was magic. I won, knocking at 53,550 words by midnight on November 30. And as wonderful as having drafted about 80 percent of a novel might be, I am coming of of the process with some really important life lessons and moments of self discovery.

  1. In real life, I waste a lot of time. I truly wondered if this was the year to try NaNoWriMo again. We were hosting two big events at the museum and tearing down and setting up our major exhibit space. I’m also part of this year’s Leadership Franklin County class. These are all awesome things, but it means that I’m already pretty worn out half the time. But the reality is that when I get home, I can choose to while away my time in front of the television, or I can choose to spend some of that time writing. You can guess which of those two is easier.
  2. Writing every day really is important. NaNoWriMo’s goal is 1,667 words a day. Some days, I all but fell asleep in my chair when I hit 300 words. On other days, I wrote more than 3,000 and had to force myself to stop so I could go to sleep. No matter what, touching that novel EVERY SINGLE DAY was what kept it real, kept it fluid, kept it moving. Those few times when I came back to it after missing a day  were the hardest, because it takes time to reconnect with the story’s soul if you’ve let it drift out of reach.
  3. Understanding the central theme of my story helps me keep it moving better than knowing the plot. When I was in high school, I took a summer workshop with a professional storyteller. She insisted that a good story had a central theme you could describe in one or two words. It isn’t the plot, but that nugget of truth that drives the plot. And while I was making dinner one night, the word CONFINEMENT rang through my head and suddenly it was like flashes of light and rainbows and unicorns were dancing in circles around my novel and I was no longer flailing my arms for a life preserver of a plot. I was in the boat and the current of truth was taking me where I needed to go.
  4. Tell the truth. This comes straight out of Stephen King’s miraculous book on writing. No matter what you’re writing about, for a reader to care about the story, it needs to ring true, even if that truth is painful or icky and makes you a little queasy.
  5. Be accountable. The best thing about NaNoWriMo is that it forced me to set a goal and hold myself accountable to meet that goal. I touched base with one of the regional Kansas NaNoWriMo online communities almost every day. I posted my word count almost every day. And I took a few minutes every evening to cheer on other writers who were doing the same thing. It kept me going, it kept them going, and a whole lot of us made it to 50K.
  6. Writing is exhilarating. Writing is also hard, frustrating, teeth-pulling, brain-grinding, gut-wrenching, and tear-inducing. But when it’s 12:30 in the morning and the you can barely type fast enough to keep up with the story that’s pouring our of your thoughts, it’s absolutely glorious.

November is over; my novel is not. But for the first time in three years–three years that include two abandoned drafts of novels and hundreds of hours researching true crimes for which I don’t think I have enough to write entire books about–I am finishing a draft. And that’s a glorious thing.


When Bad Luck is the Best Luck

This past month, I’ve been blogging about luck for Kansas Women Bloggers, an organization that brings together women from all over Kansas who share their stories and ideas online.

I think we make our own good luck by being open to it, which is why I’ve spent the past month writing about the good things that have come out of bad situations.

Meet Diana Staresinic-Deane, Blogger of the Month
A short autobiography.

When the Job You Didn’t Want Turns Out to be Exactly What You Needed
I was not a happy camper when my husband and I decided to move. But in the end, my new job turned out to be a positive and life-changing experience. BONUS: I drew my own artwork!

Sometimes the Hardest Moments Are the Luckiest Ones
We’ve all had unhappy work situations. Here’s my story about how a bad job set me on a happier path.

The Luck of Learning Life’s Lessons
We’ve all had those moments when we’ve done or said stupid things. If we’re lucky, we learn something from them.

I encourage you to explore the lists of bloggers connected through KSWB. There are some amazing women blogging about agriculture, cooking, history, travel, family, faith, and many other topics. Their voices make our state an even bigger, more amazing place.

My Writing Process Blog Tour: Insomnia, Procrastination, and Weird Conversations in Public Places

You may have seen some of your favorite writers blogging about how and why they write, and author and Twitter Superhero Jami Gold just handed the baton to me. So…

What am I working on?

Depending on the day, I’m working on everything, nothing, moving toward my goal with a project, or sidetracking myself with something else. I was once asked to speak to a group of high school students about writing and wanted to impress upon them that writing is everywhere, and that the need to create the right narrative exists in everything from leaving a note for a colleague to posting on Facebook.

The really big projects I’m working on right now:

  • Researching my next historical true crime (which is proving to be challenging, because the murders I’m researching all happened in places that require field trips to other counties)
  • Researching and writing for my blog
  • Periodically kicking around a novel that made it to 80,000 words before I realized I wrote myself in a corner and my characters exchanged voices and now I don’t know what to do with it
  • Handling much of the social media communications at my new job with the Old Depot Museum (and a new blog coming soon!)

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

A lot of true crime is journalistic in nature. I really want my work to read more like a good story, and part of that is getting into the heads of everyone who witnessed the events. Florence Knoblock’s murder changed the way an entire town behaved and the way other people in other towns thought about Coffey County, Kansas. When I was writing Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder, I wanted readers to understand how even remote townsfolk were pulled into history as witnesses, jurors, experts, and avid newspaper readers. It wasn’t just the history of a murder, it was a snapshot of Kansas in 1925 and 1926.

I’m really interested in “microhistory” — not just big textbook history, but the history of a postcard or a building or a farm. For example, Sheriff Frank Hunter, the Knoblock murder investigator, was also dealing with bank robberies, car thieves, and the installation of  Burlington’s first-ever stop signs during the trial. All of these things impacted him as a person and as a sheriff. Multiply the personal stories by the number of individuals involved and you start to see how very rich and complex the narrative becomes.

Why do I write what I do?

Believe it or not, I started out wanting to write romance. I’m a big romance reader and I especially love light and funny romances. But my writing was never convincing. I just didn’t have the voice for it.

I started writing historic true crime almost by accident. I discovered the Florence Knoblock story when a folder fell at my feet when I was walking through the stacks of the public library where I worked, and the next thing I knew, three years passed as I researched the story. I remember how surprised I was that a murder story that occupied the front page of several newspapers for nearly a year almost completely vanished from memory. It was hidden away on newspaper reels in a county museum. I wanted to pull that story together and give it back to Kansas and preserve it for future generations. One of the most awesome things a reader told me was that the book inspired her kids to start talking to their grandparents about what life was like “back then.”

Every time I wander down a back road and discover Santa Fe Trail ruts or an old cemetery or the shell of an old building, I want to share that experience and sense of wonder with other Kansans. Traditionally, we’re either beat up by the press (and not necessarily without cause) or we’re forgotten entirely. Our Kansas ancestors were a gutsy and amazing bunch, and we should honor and celebrate them, warts and all.

How does my writing process work?

Well, the research goes like this:

Something catches my eye. And I dig at it like a dog after a bone and then something shiny distracts me and I research that for a while. I’m a living, breathing example of XKCD’s cartoon called “The Problem with Wikipedia.” I know I’ve found the right research topic when I’m living it, dreaming it, and what-if-ing it all day long. I walk around muttering through the holes in the story as I examine yogurt labels at the grocery store and I don’t fall asleep for hours because my brain is in hyperoverdrive while processing data I’ve collected. I get frustrated when I hit dead ends and just as I think I’ve wasted a boatload of time and money on an undoable book a tiny breadcrumb falls in my lap and I’m back on track.

And then I drag the people around me into the process as I bounce ideas off of them. I sometimes forget that not everyone wants to discuss the details of slicing throats with old razors over dinner. My husband has told me he sometimes wishes I had a button that says, “It’s okay, I’m a writer.”

The writing goes like this:

Repeat the first three sentences from the research portion. I’ve written my best blog posts when something shiny caught my eye in a moment of frustration with the book. Or when I was supposed to be packing because we were moving to a new town.

What no one prepared me for was how emotionally hard it can be to write a true crime book. Every time I sit down to write, I’m getting inside the heads of people whose hearts are aching and whose souls are weeping. I’m empathic by nature, so when other people hurt, I hurt, too. Swimming in all that sorrow–even decades-old sorrow–can be really hard. After a few hours, I have to come up for air and breathe in some sunshine.

The editing goes like this:

I am periodically impressed with myself as a read my draft, but mostly, I get a sinking feeling in my gut as I realize how much work needs to be done before this book is ready to show to anyone else. Then I procrastinate by telling myself that I NEED to do many responsible grownup things: scrub floors, dust, vacuum, clean bathrooms, rearrange my desk, make sure all of the books in my office are in order, water my plants, wash the laundry, and go outside and weed the flower beds. Eventually, I sit down and get to work.

I’ve noticed that I do better writing in the afternoons, evenings, and wee hours of the night. Editing, though, is a daylight project. Metaphorically, I think I need the harsh, truthful light of day to see the real flaws.

And now, to pass the baton:

Besides being a writer, Jennifer Mueller is one of the most fascinating ex-Kansans I know. I hope she’ll clue us in on her writing process.

And if any other writers would like to participate, here’s an open call to blog during the next week. There are four rules:

  1. Acknowledge the person and the site who invited you into the tour (that’d be me and you’d link back to this post).
  2. Label your post as part of the My Writing Process Blog Tour.
  3. Answer these same four questions about your writing process in the post.
  4. Nominate and link to up to three people to participate who would then post their answers the week after yours.

Let me know if you participate! I’ll add a link to your post.

And today I have the keys to a museum…

So I’ve been a little absent from my own blog because I had a major life-changing event. That’s because six weeks ago, this conversation happened:

Historical Society Director: Would you be interested in a job managing the museum?
Me: Would I get my own keys?

And two weeks later, I was unlocking the doors to my new home away from home, the Old Depot Museum, an 1888 former Santa Fe train depot that’s now dedicated to telling the story of Franklin County, Kansas.

Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, Kansas

The Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, Kansas.

I’m completely in love with the place. The artifacts. The history. The model trains that zip through an interpretation of 1951 Ottawa. Even the farm implements, even though I have no idea what most of them do. (Yet!)

My husband will be out of school soon, and we’ll be back on the road visiting other amazing places in Kansas and blogging about them. And should you find yourself passing through Franklin County, Kansas, visit the Old Depot Museum!

Turning 38: A Birthday in Five Generations

Can't you just see the potential in my three-year-old self? Side note: I still have the bunny. His name is Zeko (Croatian for bunny.)

My three-year-old self. I still have Zeko, my bunny.

Today I turn 38. I’ve been particularly introspective this year. Maybe it’s because my high school class is celebrating its 20th reunion this summer. Or maybe it’s because I’m watching some of my friends in the throes of minor midlife crisis meltdowns on their own birthdays. Or maybe it’s because friends and family and coworkers keep asking me how I feel about turning 38.

I recently rediscovered a folder from my high school days. In a senior year history class, we were tasked with exploring our own genealogy, and I found an old paper I wrote about the history of my family, at least the history I could gather from a bunch of family members who didn’t really want to talk about family history.

Today, as I turn 38, I look at that old history paper (printed out on fan-fold paper on an old dot matrix printer, no less) and it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time. I’m not seeing the dates and names, but the stories. The hardship. The loss. The sadness. And as I turn 38, I look at the stories of the line of women who made me possible and wondered where they were when they were 38.

Bara, maternal great-great-grandmother, 18??-19??

Though I’m not quite sure of her birthdate, I know my great-great-grandmother Bara had experienced much loss by the time she turned 38.

Bara Dolinar and the man she would marry, Stjepan Makar, were born in what is now Croatia, but what would have been the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. They married and, hoping for a new a better life, left behind their family and friends and set sail for the New World. They made a go of it in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where Stjepan worked in the coal mines. Somewhere along the way, they had three sons, but only one, little Stjepan, would survive early childhood.

Coal mining was dangerous work. In 1905, Bara’s husband died in a mining accident. Alone in a foreign land, she buried her husband in an unmarked grave before returning to the Old County with her son.

Ana, maternal great-grandmother, 1904-1970

Ana Blažević married the now-grown up Stjepan Makar at the little church in Lipnik in 1922. Ana gave birth to her first child, my grandmother, in 1925.

After World War I, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire was disassembled, carved into what was perceived to be logical clumps of kingdoms. A sort of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formed, and it would become Yugoslavia in 1929. As these changes were occurring, life was hard, and Stjepan, a native-born citizen of the United States, wanted something better for his family. In 1926, when my great-grandmother was pregnant with their second child, he left them to travel to the land of his birth. But the world came crashing down on America at the end of the 1920s, and then America was at war again, and Yugoslavia would become a Communist country, and the distance between the two continents grew far larger than any ocean could ever be. Ana and her two children would never see Stjepan again.

When my great-grandmother was 38, she was trying to raise two children alone in a European country in the middle of World War II.

My great-grandfather would die on a turkey farm in Indiana in 1969.

Ana, maternal grandmother, 1925-

The only photo I have of my grandfather's simple grave. Ivica Mikan died in 1959.

The only photo I have of my grandfather’s simple grave. Ivica Mikan died in 1959.

My grandmother Ana Makar and her brother Stjepan grew up without a father. My grandmother once told me she only finished five years of school before the war, but she was functionally literate in her language and could manage a household. She was 29 when she married Ivan Mikan of Karlovac, and they would have their first child, my mother, in 1955, and a second daughter, my aunt, in 1957.

In December 1959, Ana’s husband drowned in a river near their home.

When my grandmother was 38, she was alone in a post-World War II Communist country trying to raise two little girls in a tiny house in Karlovac. She took any job she could find–scrubbing floors, tending the cemetery–to try to make ends meet. But my grandmother had the courage to dream big and wanted to bring her girls to the United States, where they were eligible to become citizens through her father, who was born in Pennsylvania all those years ago. And when a very nice man moved in near her home and began to help around her house and take care her kids, she married him, and the four of them started a new life together in Kansas.

Mary, mother, 1955-2004

My mom, in the years after a tough childhood and the years before a tougher adulthood.

My mom, in the years after a tough childhood and the years before a tougher adulthood.

My mother was born in Karlavac in 1955. She was only four years old when her father drowned in the Rjeka Kupa, and she and her mother and sister lived a hard life in their little house in Karlovac. Yet they had a television that would occasionally get translated American shows, and one of her most prized possessions was a autographed photo of Michael Landon, one of the good guys on Bonanza. When it was time to pack for their move to America, the four of them–my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, and my new step-grandfather–were each allowed one suitcase. Michael Landon made the final cut and came to America with my mother.

My mother and aunt found themselves thrust into the public school system without a word of English between them.

My mother married my father in 1974, and I came along two years later. My mother once told me that she wasn’t supposed to be able to have children, so I was a surprise.

Two years later, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Two years after that, she had my brother.

When my mother was 38, she spent several months in a hospital. Her MS went into a tailspin and there were numerous complications from her medication. Her oldest child–me–graduated from high school while she was lying in a hospital bed. A few days before my mother turned 39, she had a stroke.

Me, 1976-

Me, doing stuff I really, really love to do. Life is good.

As I examine the lives of the women before me I am realizing that I came from some tough stock. These women were determined and strong and kept pushing forward even as life threw obstacle after obstacle in their paths.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the U.S. in a good home at a time when opportunities were truly improving for women. I never once worried about whether or not there would be food on the table or shoes that fit or a safe place to play. Access to education or medical care was never once in question.

When I gave my speech at our high school graduation–a speech my mother never got to hear–I sagely told my classmates that our lives might change paths, that we might not become what we thought we wanted to be, and that that was okay. It turned out my speech was prophetic. I did not grow up to be an engineer. I did not stay as far away from Kansas as I could possibly get. But I became something so much better for me: a true Kansan who writes and learns and is amazed by a world that grows bigger and bigger as I explore it.

Every morning I get up and stand on my own two feet and know my world is full of possibilities. I have a great husband, a safe and cozy home, happy pets, and dreams to pursue.

I have the luxury to think about the things I want to do, not just the things I have to do.

But the very best part is that all of this wonder is only part of my story. Because today, I’m only 38.