Uncategorized, writing advice

Creating Stone Soup With a Pen

Now, you all remember Stone Soup, don’t you? In it, starving strangers convinced villagers to add ingredients to their pot of broth, one containing only water and a single stone. As the villagers agreed and added their contributions, the soup fed them all.

So, stay with me here. When writing, the stone is your story idea that you water while you also add ingredients to the genesis of that idea. For example:

Tossing carrots into the pot could = creating characters.

Potatoes? Plot!

Squash is the setting. You get the idea.

In the case of soup, if you needed something heartier, you could just add milk and salt, and then blend it all together – well, please remember to remove the stone.

With writing, it would be nice if we could just delete the words we don’t need and then put all of the rest into a Word-Whirl-a-Blender to mix everything into perfect proportions.

But, first, someone needs to invent a whirl-a-blender for writers. Besides, more ingredients – also known as life experiences – are needed, as well. Here’s what I might add; your list would be different.

Early signs of becoming a writer often include being a voracious reader, as I was and still am. You know you’ve reached that point when, to make room for your next set of books, you’re planning to discard the refrigerator.

Going back in time more than forty years, when I was only ten years old, my grandmother introduced me to a mystery novel written by a British woman named Agatha Christie. I thought it was the most incredible story ever told. My nana then suggested I ask the library to allow me to check out more Christie novels, even though the age limit for such an adult check-out experience was twelve.

I asked.

I received.

And, when the librarian explained to me that there were even more mystery series than those written by Christie, I believe I swooned. (Note to my readers and listeners: If my New Year’s Resolution hadn’t been to limit my personal use of hyperbole, I would have claimed that I’d fainted.)

I quickly stopped getting invites to book clubs, though. While other attendees might want to discuss how romantic the leading characters were, for example, I’d focus on reverse engineering what the writer did so I could try that technique myself.

I wore out my friends pretty quickly, too, when all I’d wanted to do was have each of us read a different book and then create quizzes about the books for other people to take.

Fun, right?

By this point in my life, I was wondering if I, too, could someday become a writer. And, since every writer wants to create at least one true masterpiece in his or her lifetime, I was exceptionally fortunate when I wrote mine when I was just twelve . . . years . . . old.

Titled The Haunted House Mystery, it cleverly used every device ever invented in any Scooby-Doo episode ever aired but using the neighborhood kids as characters. Velma was transformed into Kathy and Fred into Mikey, and so on and so forth.

Of course, since, as an adult, I now recognize this as plagiarism, I would have to remove this specific ingredient before putting the other ones into my literary blender. Having said that, I could still hold onto the lessons that writing this play had taught me.

And, when I started writing for submission, you still needed to dance an intricate waltz of knowing just the right steps of including a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Just as I was getting that minuet down, though, along came the concept of online submissions — making my envelope skill as relevant as doing a mean bump to KC and the Sunshine Band at the local discothèque.

Then there’s that stale taste of rejection. It reminds me of the flavor of a wooden tongue depressor that’s been sitting in a doctor’s office for far too long. Open up wide; just say “awwww.”

I went through a stage of Bob Dylan envy, I have to admit. Mostly, it consisted of listening to the lyrics of a song written by Bob, and then wishing I’d been able to think of such exquisite phrasing. That stage started when I was a teenager and it went all the way through – well, I’m still in that stage. So, what.

I was writing prose at that time, but I also wanted to write poetry. Initial strategies included calling a piece of my writing a prose poem. I mostly used that phrase, of course, with people who didn’t even know what it meant — and I practiced saying it with confidence! “This, my friend,” I’d say, raising my eyebrows high and nodding in a knowing fashion, “this is a Prose Poem.”

And, while other people looked at restaurant menus as mere vehicles to decide what one wanted to order for dinner, I could now look at a listing for, say, apple-glazed salmon, and realize how this food description could make quite a lovely haiku.

Then, around 1994, I suddenly needed to make a huge decision. Was I willing to give up the sharp smell of fresh pencil shavings for the sleek experience of computer keyboarding?

Ultimately, I did. And here’s why. In 1990, I’d made $35 in my freelance writing career. Yes, that’s for the entire year. In 1991, I made $25. When my husband gently pointed out how, if you added these two figures together . . . then divided them in half . . . then I was making an annual salary of $30 —and that was before taxes.

So, I realized how I needed to up my game and I got a job as a freelancer at the local newspaper. We were called “stringers” back then, and we were required to submit our articles through a computer they’d provided me. So, welcome to world of the keyboard.

I boldly took on the task of writing about mud ordinances — if you put mud on the road, were you legally obligated to remove that mud? — along with an entire series of pieces on what to do with a water tower when it was no longer a viable part of a city’s water system. (So, yes. You have now actually met the writer of the water tower series!)

Why, I even started getting published in magazines, including a fine piece — if I say so myself — on washing machine warranties. I gained mad skills, including how to keep on keyboarding in sticky splendor when the cat dumped a cup of coffee in precisely the wrong place. Bylines were pretty cool, too, even when they misspelled my last name.

And, after years of reading in issues of a writer’s magazine that I should keep a pen and pad of paper by my bed at all times to capture late night ideas, I actually had a middle-of-the-night notion that was worth writing down.

Unfortunately, reading it the next morning only reminded me of when my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Kane, informed the entire class that my handwriting may be beyond redemption. It also reminded me of my eighth-grade English teacher, Miss Wrezinski, who more kindly told me that she was sure I’d written something magnificent. She only wished she could read it without the need for a magnifying glass.

Another night, after binge-reading British cozy mysteries, I had a horrible nightmare — one where I was being viciously chased down by a giant Mack truck. I awoke, screaming, “That bloody lorry!” in my best British accent before wondering. If I paced the re-telling of this story just right and created sentence structure that brilliantly built up a mood of suspense, could I write down this anecdote in the word count required by Reader’s Digest?

I began experimenting with literacy devices, too, especially loving alliteration – although I would wonder about the wisdom of writing that way. (Wink, wink.)

I learned more about revision, especially after learning that people prefer intriguing characters over stereotyped ones who spoke in clichés. Whoever would have thought? I also learned more about proofreading techniques. This helps if, say, your character with a shiny blonde bob of hair on page twelve was, on page three, actually a stunning brunette—and no hair coloring scene had taken place in the interim.

My family got used to choosing between peanut butter sandwiches or scrambled eggs with ketchup for dinner when deadlines got tight. And, because I was so enthusiastic about writing, I often took on too much work.

I knew I was finally making it, though, when five amazing things happened.

  1. Research librarians were calling me by my first name.
  2. A bookstore owner said, “Ma’am! I’ve got great news. We have a new thesaurus.”
  3. My nephew earnestly told me he wouldn’t consider me a nerd. No way. By now, Doug thought, I was a full-fledged geek.
  4. My cousin Steve, who is a college professor, let me know that a student got caught plagiarizing – and it was from one of the books I’d written.
  5. Even deadlines felt – and still feel – quite marvelous. 

Life got deep sometimes, though. For example, if I saw an error on a billboard, I started to spend countless hours meditating on its metaphorical implications. I became encouraged to delve more deeply in my writing, too, which was good advice. Sometimes, that was reasonably simple to achieve, comparable to getting your great-grandma some parsnips from her root cellar. Other times, though, it felt like spelunking in an underground cave, trying to listen for the sounds of the water table.

Being a writer is to be a lifelong learner. A few years ago – already in my fifties – I decided to take a poetry class at the local college with a highly regarded professor who had an illustrious portfolio of poetry. I could do the assignments, following his instructions about form, topic, and so forth — but I didn’t really understand what he’d meant when he said that prose uses sentences and poetry uses lines.

I followed up that class with a 15-week independent study with this professor and, several weeks in, I shouted the following: “Prose,” I exclaimed, “uses sentences and poetry uses lines!” His expression was completely deadpan. I don’t think he knew whether I was being a smart aleck or whether I’d finally gotten it. But I had my eureka moment, one that continues to propel me forward as I learn more about the art and craft of poetry.

As for the professor, on that day, he just said. “Yes. Um. That’s correct.”

And now that I’ve reached the thirtieth year of my professional writing career, I can say that there are two especially wonderful parts of the writing life. The first one is, you can keep on creating (at least on pieces that aren’t already under contract!). Unlike real life, then, in your personal writing, nothing needs to be finished until you say it is.  

For example, even The Haunted House Mystery could be brought back into the light and made better. In that case, of course, it would need to be made much better. As in much, much, much better. But you get my drift, don’t you?

Finally, here’s the very best part. It’s the people you meet, those with whom you can exchange Stone Soup ingredients. They understand perfectly, for example, when you wander about a room, appearing to be talking to yourself. They realize how you could be trying out your character’s quirky voice or mulling over the meter of your newest poem.

Or, maybe you’re just creating a grocery list — and that’s okay, too. Writers need to eat, even if it’s just a P and J sandwich on the run. And, when you extend these same courtesies to the other amazing people on your Stone Soup journey, this makes for a uniquely beautiful life.


Copyediting Certification Course

You Can Do It!

If you’ve been thinking about learning new skills that can help you to earn income or strengthen your knowledge, I will be teaching a ten-week copyediting class through Writer’s Digest University that starts on September 3, and here’s the description:

This workshop will provide training for aspiring copy editors in order to give them practical and marketable workplace skills. As a student in this certification course, you will progress from the fundamentals of grammar, form, and composition to advanced copyediting skills.

This certification course incorporates critiqued writing assignments and tools to communicate directly with your instructor and fellow students—to make sure that you are grasping the content. You will also have quizzes to check yourself along the way and a comprehensive test at the end of the course.

Students who complete all the assignments and pass the comprehensive test will receive documentation from Writer’s Digest of their completion of the Copyediting Certification Course. The lessons run for ten weeks and then there are an additional two weeks in which students have the chance to pass the final test.

Enrollment is limited to 35 registrations per session. Sign up here.

I hope to see you there! If you have questions, please feel free to email me at kbsagert@aol.com. (Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash)

Historical writing

Speak the Name: Lodowick G. Miller

In the summer of 2018, I began the in-depth process of researching the life of Wells Waite Miller, a man who played a key role on July 3, 1863 as Captain of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His actions, and those of the men who fought with him, are increasingly being seen as a crucial element in the battle now known as Pickett’s Charge, and in the Battle of Gettysburg, overall.

As part of this research, I would find tantalizing scraps of information about an older brother named Lodowick—and what I found (and what I was given by retired teacher and history/research buff, Bill Molina) would play a role in Lodowick’s name being entered into official Civil War records, allowing him to receive the recognition, honor and dignity that he deserves (more about that later in the post). Because Lodowick died on March 30, 1862, I’m publishing this post on March 30, 2020.

Born in 1830 in New York, Lodowick was listed as a farmer in the 1850 census.

Lodowick Miller 1850
1850 Census

He came to Castalia, Ohio in 1852 with his parents, Amos and Emily (Graves) Miller, and his younger brother, Wells, who was born on February 20, 1842. Sadly, three of Lodowick’s siblings had already died, perhaps during a cholera epidemic: Delia (1835-January 30, 1841); Helen (October 7, 1836-February 5, 1841); and Amos (June 26, 1838-February 6, 1841).

Lodowick Miller's siblings

Life in Erie County, Ohio

Amos Miller bought a farm in Castalia, one that was still in the family more than 100 years later. But, in 1860, Lodowick (who had named his occupation in 1850 as “farmer”) was listed in the census as having “erratic” employment. Why he wasn’t working on the family farm or elsewhere, I don’t (yet) know.

Lodowick Miller in 1860
1860 Census

Shortly after that, Lodowick married Mrs. Sarah Fleming. The marriage contract was “solemnized” on March 6, 1861 and the wedding date was May 18, 1861.

Lodowick and Sarah Marry
Lodowick Marries Mrs. Sarah Fleming

Lodowick Enlists: 72nd OVI

He enlisted in the 72nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Company A, in January 1862 for a three-year term of service. Only a couple of short months later, though, he died. He was “at hospital” at Camp Shiloh, dying on March 30, 1862, just a week before the Shiloh Battle commenced.

Lodowick Dies

As the image indicates, his wife was awarded a widow’s pension of $8 a month, which was fairly typical. In his military records, his cause of death was listed as typhoid fever.

Lodowick typhoid

Fast Forward to 2020

On March 9, 2020, I was giving a presentation about Wells Waite Miller at Lorain County Community College for the Quincy Gillmore Civil War Roundtable. During it, I shared what I knew about Lodowick. On March 13, I heard from Bill Stark, the Graves Registration Officer, James A. Garfield Camp 142, of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. He had questions about Lodowick that, fortunately, I was able to answer.

By combining what he knew about Lodowick (and what question marks still surrounded Civil War soldiers from the 72nd OVI) with what I knew about Lodowick and Wells, and what Bill Molina found out about them and then shared with me, Lodowick’s information can now be entered into the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War Graves Registration Database.

This group is still working hard to identify unknown soldiers, both Union and Confederate, from the Civil War. And, it seems quite likely that Lodowick is the last “unknown soldier” from the 72nd OVI at Shiloh.

So, on the 158th anniversary of his death, I am honored to speak the name of Lodowick G. Miller. Thank you for your service!

Nonfiction Writing Advice

Defending Nonfiction Writing

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

Science fiction writers create and populate fantastic new worlds, while mystery novelists scatter compelling red herrings while deftly slipping into key clues. Romance writers make readers sigh sweetly when the heroine realizes that, yes, she really does love him, after all . . . and what about those daring pioneers as they bravely trek into unknown lands of the West?

Compared to fiction writing, nonfiction writing – at first glance – can seem downright boring. But, the reality is that there are excellent reasons for pursuing the nonfiction craft. Here are just a few of them!

Defense #1

nonfiction writing
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Nonfiction writers have a smorgasbord of delicious publishing venues to sample – and even indulge in. You can write magazine articles and/or blog posts, perhaps covering marvelous travel getaways or profiling fascinating authors, artists and more – or newspaper stories, where you reveal fast-breaking news that will cause readers’ jaws to drop. Say, what??

Encyclopedia entries may sound dull, but I’ve had opportunities to research and write in-depth histories of baseball and basketball, two sports that I love, among countless other intriguing topics. That’s right – getting paid for writing about your vocations, hobbies and interests. And, having encyclopedia credits on your resume can cause editors’ eyes to light up! This proves that you can research effectively and present information succinctly.

Then there are books – SO many possibilities there – plus plays, documentaries and much more! And, what about creative nonfiction that incorporates techniques of fiction as you pen personal essays and memoir pieces? Ghostwriting, where you write blog posts, articles and even books for publication under someone else’s name? Book reviews?

Defense #2

nonfiction writing
Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

It’s often easier to sell nonfiction writing than fiction. That’s due, in large part, because of all of the different types of nonfiction outlets, but also because daily newspapers, content-hungry blogs, large encyclopedias and more require significant amounts of writing.

Defense #3

nonfiction writing 4
Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

You get to meet and interview really cool people! I’ve gotten to chat with, and sometimes even hang out with, amazing human beings, ranging from international boomerang champions to a representative of Virgin Galactic as the company prepares for average citizens to travel in space – and from ESPN’s/NASCAR’s Jamie Little to Olympic and X Games skateboarder/snowboarder Cara-Beth Burnside. (Nora Robert on the cusp of publishing her 100th romance novel? That, too!)

Defense #4

nonfiction writing 5
Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

Truth can be stranger than fiction. Did you know that the first woman to solo-hike the entire 2,000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail was 67 years old when accomplishing her goal? Or that she hiked the entire Oregon Trail, beating the wagon that followed the same path by an entire week? True, dat! Her name was Emma Gatewood and she had only an 8th grade education – but she ended up being the toast of the town, appearing on the Groucho Marx Show and other high-profile television programs.

Defense #5

nonfiction writing 6
Photo by alexey turenkov on Unsplash

You can write both fiction and nonfiction – and it’s likely that doing both will help the quality of your writing, overall.


Literary Lorain Poetry Contest

By the Lorain Historical Society

poetry writing contest

Theme: Women Who Empower

Prize Money:

  • First Place: $150 VISA Card
  • Second Place: $100 VISA Card
  • Third Place: $50 VISA Card

Who: Open to all residents of Lorain County

What: Submit one poem (free or formal verse) on the theme; 50 lines, maximum

When: Contest open from February, Monday 17th-midnight, March, Tuesday 17th

Where: Submit to  literarylorain@gmail.com

How: Within the body of your email:

  • Paste your poem (no attachments, please!)
  • List your legal name and, if applicable, your pen name
  • Provide your phone number and city/town

Important Notes

  • Submissions will be assigned a number; judges will not know your name
  • Poems cannot contain hate speech or sexually explicit language/themes
  • Only poems that follow the rules will be considered for prize money
  • No poems will be accepted after midnight on March 17th; to be fair to other entrants, there can be no exceptions
  • Winners will be contacted in late April and asked to read their poems at an event on Saturday, May 2, followed by an open mic

Any questions, please email info@lorainhistory.org

author interview

Author Interview: Writers of the Purple Sage

author interview: Barbara Burnett Smith

Deep From the Archives

This is an author interview that I wrote in the 1990s.

Writers of the Purple Sage by Barbara Burnett Smith

Barbara Burnett Smith proves that persistence pays. After having an agent for four years, belonging to two active writers groups, and penning several books — yet making no sales — she threw her hands up in the air and quit.

At least briefly.

“I stopped writing, stopped marketing, and even severed my connection with my agent,” Smith said. But, after another mystery writing friend, Susan Rogers Cooper, told her she was too good to not be writing, she gave it another try.

author interview, Nonfiction Writing Advice

Author Interview: Ruffled Feathers

author interview: Barbara Taylor McCafferty

Deep in the Archives

This is an author interview I wrote in the 1990s.

Ruffled Feathers by (Barbara) Taylor McCafferty

Barbara Taylor McCafferty was born on September 15, the same day as Agatha Christie. She loves figuring out a good puzzle, like those found in novels by Christie. So, what does McCafferty do for a living?

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Writes mystery novels — just like Agatha Christie!

Well, not exactly like Christie. McCafferty has her own unique style, sticking her unsuspecting characters in bizarre situations and watching them wiggle their way out of them.

“I always start a story with a question that begins with ‘wouldn’t it be funny if?'” she said. “Like in my book, Ruffled Feathers, a guy gets a ransom note and the person allegedly kidnapped is standing right next to him. So, you wonder, ‘Is this an error in timing? A gag?'”

author interview, Nonfiction Writing Advice

Author Interview: Fool’s Puzzle

author interview: Earlene Fowler

Deep From the Archives

This is an author interview I wrote in the 1990s.

Fool’s Puzzle by Earlene Fowler

Toss in one fresh, sassy, 34-year-old ex-cowgirl, mix in two parts of a murder almost spoiling a folk art museum quilt display, add a dash of a fifty percent Anglo, fifty percent Latino, one hundred and ten percent macho cop with gorgeous eyes, and what do you have?

You have the deliciously intense, tangy-tasting romance of Benni Harper and Gabe Ortiz, in Earlene Fowler’s first mystery novel: Agatha Award nominee, Fool’s Puzzle.

author interview, writing advice

Author Interview: Final Jeopardy

author interview: linda fairstein

Deep from the Archives

This is an author interview I wrote in 1997.

Final Jeopardy by Linda Fairstein

All good people, unit! Be glad that Linda Fairstein is on our side.

Fairstein has worked as a prosecutor in New York for over two decades, and she has been the chief of their sex crimes prosecution unit since 1976. She frequently speaks out against the cruelties of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and other types of violence against women, lecturing in the highest spots of the land. Those places include Harvard Law School, Kennedy School of Government, the Radcliffe College Alumna Association, Vassar College, and Cornell Medical School.

author interview, writing advice

Author Interview: The Death of Tarpons

author interview: Les Edgerton

Deep From the Archives

This is an author interview I wrote in 1996.

The Death of Tarpons by Les Edgerton

“Not long ago, I returned to the town of my youth, and made a disturbing discovery. It had weathered the intervening thirty years better than I had, at least physically, and that had the effect of giving me a bit of a jolt, as if the events of the summer of my fourteenth year hadn’t been as cataclysmic as I’d imagined.”

With those two sentences, Les Edgerton skillfully draws us into the harsh world of Corey John, a boy who reached out for love, but found kindness in meager supply and affection all too rare. When Corey dared to soar with the natural optimism of youth, his hope was carelessly crushed by those who should have loved him most.