Letter from the Editor: Five Tips for Writing Feature Stories

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We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
–Ernest Hemingway

So I am officially the Editor-in-Chief for the college newspaper in the fall, which will be my last semester at PSC.  I will graduate with an A.S., and, because I want to go farther, an A.A. (as I am so done with math).

If there’s one thing that the class from hell (i.e., Statistics) forced me to do, it was learn superior organization, which will come in handy when overseeing each issue.

Being a confirmed introvert, the idea of being a leader of anything is intimidating, but I tell myself, “I can do this.  They’re just people.”

I am very excited about this opportunity.  I wasn’t going to go for it, but let’s just say my adviser made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

*

Since my post about tips for writing college feature stories (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/04/feature-story-ideas-for-a-college-newspaper/) has, by a landslide, been my most popular post, I thought I’d share a few other things that have helped me not just become better but more prolific:

  • Be aware—not only of what is going on around you but also the people around you—pay attention to quirks, distinctive tattoos, and even cars with a bunch of crazy bumper stickers.  For example, on the first day of my ENC1102 class, my professor asked everyone to write something true and something untrue about themselves; the rest of the class was supposed to guess which was true and which was false.  Remember the true things that are interesting, and reach out to those students.
  • If you’re in online classes, and there is a “Get To Know You” discussion forum, read all the bios, but, as Troy Moon (a former columnist for The Pensacola News Journal) said, “Everyone has a story, but not all of them are interesting.”  
  • Craft your interview questions in such a way that you won’t get a yes or no answer, and do not use direct quotes like, “It was great.”  That’s so boring and generic, it’s paraphrasable.  Ask great questions, get good quotes.  
  • An easy way to gather quotes (speaking from an introvert’s point-of-view) is to cover events where people are speaking.  This way, you don’t even have to ask questions.  When I covered Carl Hiaasen, columnist for The Miami-Herald, I recorded his entire talk on my phone and got excellent (and accurate) quotes.  
  • Read other college newspapers in-depth, because all I’m doing is telling you how it’s done—they’re showing you.

My ultimate goal for our publication is to get more student names and faces in every issue, because, as Diane Varsi (as Allison MacKenzie) said in the 1957 movie, Peyton Place: “It was nice to come back to a place where the names in the newspaper meant something to you.”

That embodies the very idea of “community,” and The Corsair is a community college newspaper.

Updated 12/27/2019

Influences on my early writing

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It has been at least fifteen years since I’d read My Sweet Audrina.

I’ve always considered V.C. Andrews novels a guilty pleasure (like the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella). They are easy reads, and, considering I do most of my reading in bed at night before I go to sleep, it’s what I need.

I was afraid of reading Audrina—afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered—but even though V.C.’s novels aren’t considered literature, Audrina touches on a variety of important topics: self-hypnosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, brittle bone disease, autism, and how parental favoritism can destroy the favored child.

What is haunting about V.C.’s Southern Gothic horror novels is their timelessness. Reading this book made me nostalgic for that time when I was getting into more “adult” novels.

 

The first time I came across a V.C. Andrews novel was at a “Friends of the Library” sale (https://www.facebook.com/FriendsOfWFPL). It was Dawn—the first book in the Cutler family series—a crisp, hardcover edition sheathed in a dust jacket with a haunting family photo on the cover. I was immediately intrigued, and of course, I had to read everything she wrote after that.

When I was a teenager, I wrote part of a sequel about the Lamar Rensdale character in Audrina, bringing him back from the dead. I wanted Audrina to ditch Arden and marry Lamar instead—a man who helped her—even as Arden had failed her the first time, a second, a third…

I think my juvenile attempt to write a sequel to My Sweet Audrina was my way of living in that crazy Whitefern world just a little longer.

What’s more, I’ve always wanted to give characters happy endings—just like I wanted to give a happy glimpse of Ginger (from Black Beauty) in the afterlife.

 

Audrina is unputdownable, for it drew me into this strange, Whitefern world. Coming from a caring, but odd and somewhat dysfunctional family (a neighbor of ours, I found out, once referred to us as the Addams family), I related, however distantly, to the Whiteferns/Adares, for they live in an old house where things don’t always work and consider themselves outliers in the community. (My parents don’t even watch the local news.)

 

I think, when we read a book, we either like to be taken away or see ourselves in someone else’s work, to feel less alone—Audrina was both. It was also well-edited, unlike some of V.C.’s other books, where last names are spelled two different ways and middle names were changed altogether.

 

I don’t recommend any V.C. books after the Logan series, because the quality tanked and they all started to sound the same. I have no plans on reading Whitefern, the sequel to Audrina that Neiderman wrote, though I will try the televised version of Audrina. (The original flick, Flowers in the Attic, though not a masterpiece, had a haunting quality about it the TV movie lacked.)

 

V.C. Andrews had one hell of an imagination, and it’s too bad she passed away before she got to write more books. She was an influence on me in my early writing (who doesn’t love dark family secrets?), just as the breezy, Shopaholic series lightened what V.C. darkened.

 

Even though I read many novels by different authors, I think series books will always have a place in my heart, because I fall in love with the characters, and don’t want to let them go. I think that’s why I’ve always preferred novels over short stories, and short stories over poetry. It’s always been about the characters for me. Even the poetry I write is often about characters (many of them wacky).

Plots may keep you reading, but characters will keep you rereading.

 

A Long Good-bye to the Slowly Waning Summer

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It is mid-September, and I am supine on my beach chair, soaking up the rays of late afternoon.  The chair is the aquamarine color of the bikini I always look for, but can never find in my size.  Half the problem is finding one of the two halves in my size.

My daughter is playing in her pink kiddie pool–her precursor to a bath.  Her menagerie of colorful bath toys make me think of sprinkles on a pink iced cupcake.  A cool zephyr blows through the tree behind our fence, stirring the tiny leaves.  She looks up, transfixed.  She is content.

If we had an outdoor shower, I would be taking all my showers outside, for everything is better outside during the summer, eating especially.  Every day of summer feels like a holiday, which is why it almost seems strange to be inside working.

I live in my flip-flops; I can be heard slip-slap-slopping down the shiny corridors at college.  When I leave and the warmth rushes in through the heavy door (a respite from the chilly building), I am flip-flop-flapping my way down the stairs.  My bikini top is a comfortable, makeshift bra, and my hair is still wet from the shower, but I don’t get sick in the summer.  Barefaced and barelegged, I am ready to go.  There is no having to warm Lila (our almost 25-year-old Cadillac), or putting on socks or hose, or using the hairdryer.  A swipe of lipstick and I am ready to go.  I will never understand women who will apply a full face where the humidity is about a hundred percent.  I choose to let my skin breathe; the sun is nature’s foundation.

Though my freckles become more pronounced, I have no desire to cover them (a la Jan Brady).  They make me look younger.

The inflatable pool we got on clearance from Target (they still think summer ends in July) is filled with water as clear as vodka, and I get in to cool off my skin, feeling that faint tightness that relaxes as soon as it hits the water.  I rest my head on the edge and close my eyes for a bit, listening to my daughter splash.  She loves the warmth and the water as much as I do.

I decide I want to plant some honeysuckle next year, maybe some ivy.   Once I have dipped my head in the water, cooling my scalp, I lay back on my chair as the sun lightly browns me once more like a piece of French toast, giving me that vitamin D and mood boost I need before I spend half the night studying.

As I lay there with my face in the hole facing the grass, the pool water long having evaporated, I brainstorm about the collection of nursery rhymes I am working on.  I have shelved my adult writing for a time.  As it says in the Bible, there is a time and a season for everything.  I don’t have the time.  I close my eyes once more, dreaming of Campbell, Missouri peaches.  I am unusual in that I don’t like watermelon (something about the gritty texture turns me off), so I opt for a refreshing mint iced tea, the glass of which I keep under my chair, in the shade.

Hannah starts to let me know she’s getting tired, and I go to bathe her, the water warmer now (hopefully not with pee) than when she was put in.  I make a game of naming each animal (I have to make it interesting somehow):  There’s Escargot the Snail, Soup the Turtle, Gucci the Alligator, Cracker the Goldfish, Jonah the Whale, Prince Frog, Plucky Ducky, Hannah Swan, and so on.  Of course, I change up the names a bit each time (I love naming things, probably because I love to create characters) to keep it fresh, and I teach her the colors (as each has a “color mate”), but what really delights her is when I toss them up in the air and call out, “One little, two little, three little animals”, etc.

Tomorrow is the thirteenth–I will be thirty-three.  I remember reading somewhere long ago that that is considered one’s prime (I daresay, Miss Jean Brodie was well past that age!), because Jesus was at His prime when He made the sacrifice.  It has been tradition that every year on my birthday, we go to the Cactus Flower Café.  (We started dining at their beach location last year.)

We always choose to sit outside, away from the noise of the diners and the overhead music, with the breeze blowing in from the sound side of Pensacola Beach.  I always get a sangria and a chicken-stuffed chili relleno, topping it off with a homemade flan for my free birthday dessert–creamy and caramelly, smooth and cool to the mouthfeel (texture and temperature in food is as important to me as taste).  The material of whatever flowing dress I’m wearing feels wonderful against my exfoliated, shaved and lotioned legs.  I slide off my flip-flop and rub the bottom of my foot, smoother now, on the rough, unfinished boardwalk beneath us.  I am already feeling the effects of the sangria; I feel like laughing.

The food is fresh, abundant in color–thick, verdant lettuce, spicy, chili pepper red tomatoes, and beans and rice perfectly seasoned.  I close my eyes to savor, just like I can hear better when I close my eyes.  Dull one sense, another heightens.  I’ve heard that eating in the dark can enhance the dining experience, but I have never done so.  I want to see what I’m being served before I eat it, as I eat with my eyes first.

On other days, days when I am alone, towards late afternoon, I can roll down the windows and leave them down, not at all worried about my hair getting messed up, as it’s always in a ponytail.  For this reason, I never have a bad hair day during summer.  The rushing air cools any perspiration that collects on my scalp.  I will be listening to Dave Ramsey or Branden Rathert on the radio as I cruise over the Three Mile Bridge into Gulf Breeze, the water the color between sapphires and emeralds.  The boats and the rocks below are picturesque.

Twilight has always been my favorite time of day–a time to settle down, but not turn in.  I’ve always associated periwinkle as being the color of twilight; thus, it was always my favorite color in the Crayola 64 pack.  Periwinkle, besides its whimsical name, was always the stars, the sun and the moon–all in one, a celestial hue.

Summer is wonderful at night, too.  The surfside beach is still warm, and the sand sparkles pristine, like tiny, ground pearls, moonstones, and stardust sprinkled with salt, luminescent in the silvery moonlight.  The view is otherworldly.  The sand is cool beneath my toes; I think of Abraham’s descendants.  I dip my feet into the water, the salt burning the open pores on my legs.  The sand beneath me is squishy now.  I bend to pick up a broken sand dollar, skipping it a few times in the water.  We walk for a bit, hand in hand, the different colored beach houses visible, but seemingly so far away.

The drive home is subdued, but the silences don’t stretch too long.  The radio is off.  Somehow, turning it on would break the spell of the magic of the evening.

Once we’re settled in for the night and get into our house clothes, I return to my beach chair to unwind, squeezing the last drops of enjoyment from the remains of the day.  I pick up the beach read I was reading.  The light from our patio gives just enough of a glow for me to see, but it still dim enough to feel private.  The next door neighbor’s sprinklers come on, spraying the exposed bottom halves of my calves; I let my foot just graze the tops of the moist, cool blades of grass.  I feel myself drifting off for a catnap, until I hear thunder rumbling in the distance.  The air suddenly smells sweeter; the atmosphere is breathless with expectation.  I put the book down and lounge a bit longer, just being, and then go inside when I feel the first raindrop on my head.

There is a gritty film noir on our DVR, and as it starts to pour (summer rainstorms are the best), the raindrops like a drumbeat on Hannah’s pool, I curl up on our couch with the fleece-tie blanket one of the ladies at Grace Lutheran made for Hannah.  As my husband sits in his recliner and I curl up on the sofa, the black-and-white images shadowing my rosy face, I can already feel my eyelids getting heavy.  It has been that kind of a day.

 

The Trees of Life: A Poem, and other musings

It has been almost a month since my last posting.  Spending more time with family, enjoying summer, and wading through all the red tape to go back to school has taken up most of June.  I have been hopping from Building 5 to Building 2 to back again for weeks now, and I have yet to make it to the beach.  It is the raining season in Florida.  One year (I don’t remember which, but it’s been within the last three years), it rained every day in July.  I have, however, made use of all my old seashells (pictures to come later).

I have finished my story for the Saturday Evening Post Great American Short Story contest, and I got together with a friend of mine over coffee to help me edit, and hopefully, publish and market “Golden Stars and Silver Linings”, my collection of children’s nursery rhymes (50 in all), complete with a few recreational drug references and double entendres (however unintentional).

Though I don’t consider writing poetry a waste of time (they’re great writing exercises and fun to write, too), poetry for adults just doesn’t sell; though I have several favorite poems by the greats (Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe), I never read modern, adult poetry.  I’ll still enter free poetry contests for which there is a cash prize (a pine needle in a hay bale?), but I refuse to pay any more entry fees when it comes to poetry contests.  Poetry isn’t hot (people like stories), and so those venues that publish it have to charge entry fees just to stay in print because they don’t make money off subscriptions.  Harlequin romances sell, and that’s my focus right now (as far as adult novels go).  Poetry might be more fun to write, to do, than to read (like tennis is more fun to play than watch).  I tend to feel about poetry in novels like I feel about paragraphs written in italics:  (obvious) dream sequences bore me as much in novels as they do in movies.

There is one movie, “The Woman in the Window”, with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett (highly recommended), in which almost the entire movie is a dream, but that’s okay, because we don’t know it till the end.  The fact that it was all a dream was a bit of a letdown.

Though Dorothy’s adventures in Oz also turned out to be all a dream, I prefer to believe she somehow, telepathically, traveled to a parallel universe.

The poem you about to read is based in reality, though creative license was taken.  It was entered into a tree-themed poetry contest.  I never heard back, so I assumed it wasn’t chosen.  I have noticed that many journals that publish poetry specify they don’t care for rhymed poetry, that it reads better, blah, blah, blah.  I believe there is a certain snootiness where rhyming poetry is concerned–it is seen as not edgy or provocative, but trite and childish.  I disagree, as long as the rhyming isn’t forced and is written well.  With this poem, I experimented with rhyming every first and third line, and every second and fourth.  It was a very difficult task, and quite unnecessary; second and fourth would have been sufficient.

However, here it is:

The Trees of Life

Twas under the magnolia tree with its voluptuous, white blooms,
where I read piles of books while drinking sweet tea from a tall glass;
by the light of the pearl moon I read, the honeysuckle releasing its perfume,
my pillow a denim backpack, my bed a lush patch of St. Augustine grass.

Twas under my grandmother’s dying hickory trees,
that I wiled away the lazy summer days in sweet repose,
writing the kinds of stories I loved to read,
the scent of peach pound cake teasing my nose.

Twas under the ancient oak at my parents’ house on Jackson Street,
that my husband-to-be, knelt in the sand on one knee;
*his grandmother’s band of rose gold with a pearl solitaire,
slipped it on my finger–this intricate heirloom of sentimental wear.

Tis every birthday, under the curving colonnade on Twelfth Avenue,
my husband takes me to the Cactus Flower cafe,
classical music playing with the window down partway,
the breeze blowing through my hair those warm, September days.

Tis past rows of swaying palm trees I walk,
flip-flops slapping hot concrete on the way to the boardwalk–
the beauty of the Emerald Coast shimmering in the background,
full of seashells—jewels of the sea–just waiting to be found.

Tis under the Christmas tree,
I lay my baby daughter beside me,
to look up at the twinkling lights–
lights in red, green and white.

Tis amongst the pine trees in the park we watch our children play,
picnicking on our tattered blanket of blue and white squares,
enjoying a Southern smorgasbord of homemade foods artfully arrayed,
whilst a spray of dandelion seeds and yellow butterflies float in midair.

Tis under trees of various species,
we gather ’round the table in our backyard,
enjoying the warmth of the bricks under our feet,
the steaks juicy, the peaches deliciously charred.

And then the day will come and so it will be,
that under the shade of a weeping willow tree,
I will return to the earth in eternal rest,
peace in knowing I have lived my best.

Easter Sunday 2011

What Editors Want…

Christian films (and movies with Christian themes) are rising in popularity.  A revival is going on.  How much that influences what magazine publishers/editors are looking for, I have no idea, though I wish I did.

For instance, “The Saturday Evening Post” is sponsoring a Great American Fiction Contest, and one of the guidelines is this:  Think local. The Post has historically played a role in defining what it means to be an American. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America, past, present, and future.

Now I can do that.  However, being a Christian (especially growing up in the Buckle of the Bible Belt), it is very hard for me not to include any mention of religion (good or bad) in my writings.  It is not only what I know, but it is part of what makes me, me.  I always think, before I send a piece that has even a passing mention of Christianity, that it will be rejected for that reason.  What I write tends to be too liberal to qualify as Christian fiction, and too conservative for mainstream fiction.

Hence my dilemma in crafting a story for this contest.  If I was submitting a piece for this magazine seventy years ago, this wouldn’t even be an issue.  My thought is that I’m writing to impress the editors, not the subscribers, because I have to get past the editors first.

When I think of what constitutes Americana, I think of “Huckleberry Finn”, “Leave it to Beaver”, baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, Stephen Foster and Norman Rockwell.  I think rural.  The story I originally wrote for this contest is about a group of young Mormons living in Montana (as I was once a young Mormon living in Montana).  I fear even the mention of the word Mormon, much less most of my main characters being members of such a controversial religion, might scare off the editors, who fear offending anyone.  That’s the kind of country we live in now.  We (or some of us) live in fear offending anyone, and if we do happen to offend, we must apologize immediately.  It doesn’t pay to be honest anymore, but rather, it costs us.  I can write what I want, all I want, but if I want to win a contest, I’ll probably have to censor myself a bit, thus making my piece less authentic.

So, I am at a crossroads.  Because of the ten dollar entry fee, I don’t want to send something I’m pretty sure won’t be chosen, but I am grappling with a story that will appeal to the masses (though I do believe Christianity, portrayed in a positive light, would be appealing to most people, but again, I have to get past the editors).

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain”, a fifties movie starring William Lundigan, as a Protestant minister, and Susan Hayward, as his wife.  I’d read on an imdb.com message board that it was serialized in “The Saturday Evening Post” and it (the movie) was a perfect example of what qualifies as Americana.  The movie is a good watch, but milk without the meat.  Things happened, but it didn’t have a plot (which is fine; “Our Town” didn’t either, and I loved it).

I am thinking of abandoning my original story (or perhaps omitting the Mormon angle altogether, even though that’s what my characters are; I borrowed them from a book I will publish someday in which the Mormon theme is integral to the story), and writing something brand new.  No borrowing.  I am thinking of penning an homage to my hometown of Pensacola, Florida–a small city that is steeped in Christianity.  If I write as an observer, I might just get away with mentioning the existence of churches, maybe even God!

 

 

 

The Saturday Evening Post-It

So I am writing a story to submit to the Saturday Evening Post short story contest.  See:  http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/fiction-contest

I like specific guidelines, one of which is this:  Think local. The Post has historically played a role in defining what it means to be an American. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America, past, present, and future. 

I am an American who lives in America, living in a town that supplies endless material (both complimentary and not so complimentary).  Lots of writers love to write about the South (Tennessee Williams comes to mind).  I’d had the road trip for a story all mapped out, until I realized it might be too religious in nature.  It was going to be about a group of four girlfriends, one of whom leaves the comforting folds of Mormonism, and how her leaving affects the rest of them.

My idea preceding that one was going to be about two sisters, Lucy and Emma Potlocki (who go by the “Anglicized” surname of Lock), who seek their fortune by auditioning for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939, then I googled for some information, and that’s when I came upon “The Scarlett O’Hara War”–a TV-movie about just that.  Sometimes you wonder if your idea is original, or, if somewhere, in the back of your mind, it’s a memory.

*

According to Branden Rathert, our local radio host, when one steps into Pensacola, they’re stepping into the year 1927.  I don’t think places like Emerald City (google it, if you want) existed in 1927, at least not openly, though Pensacola does have a church on every corner (and some in between).

However, I will not be setting my story in Florida, but rather in Sidney, Montana, where I was a live-in nanny for three girls.  Since the story has to be fiction, I juiced it up a bit.  My protagonist (I don’t use the term “heroine”, as I think it’s silly, unless she does something heroic) is from Pensacola, but has left home to do just what I did more than a decade ago.  She is LDS (as I was at the time, though I won’t make her religion central to the story; however, Mormonism is a very American religion), and that’s where the similarities between my story and her story end.  Her experience is quite a bit darker (I just can’t help myself) than mine was.

I borrowed her (and one of the main two plots) from the novel I wrote (“The Fall and Rise of Alfred Bomber”) that she is a supporting character in.  Since it will be quite some time before “Alfred” is finished (meaning edited), I thought Karsen Wood (the name of my protagonist) may as well be doing me some good elsewhere.  I see this story as Karsen’s part-time gig, rather than her full-time career in “Alfred”.  I grew quite fond of her (as she is an extension of me), in addition to the fact that her story gave me something to build on other than a blank screen.

To Pleasantville…and Back

A few days ago, I watched “Pleasantville” for the first time.  My husband thought I’d like it because most of it was in black-and-white, and was set during the time period, which, according to a BuzzFeed quiz, I belong in.

Yes, I love “I Love Lucy” (I rewatch the series every few years and am a “liker” of the Facebook fan page, “A Daily Dose of ‘I Love Lucy’; when I was younger, I always said if I ever had fraternal twins, I would name them Lucy and Ricky), I wear red lipstick (Mary Kay’s Downtown Brown, which looks red on me), saddle oxfords were my favorite shoes as a little girl, and the only pair of pants I own is the one pair I have to wear for work (dresses and skirts always outside of work); even my wedding dress (or suit) looked more like something my grandmother would have worn to the Justice of the Peace, and my wedding hat and veil (reminiscent of Jackie O)

was an original from the sixties–an Etsy find.  My grandmother’s copper Jell-O molds (which I’ve spotted in old movies–always a thrill) adorn my kitchen wall; I even work at a retro-style diner.

When I got an unexpected check in the mail, the first words that came to mind weren’t “Hot damn!”, but rather, “Hot dog!”  Yes, I watch lots of old movies (95% of the movies I own pre-date 1965, though I no longer buy movies, now that I have a DV-R).  ABBA is the most recent band I like.

I am what you would call a square, with rounded, perhaps lacy edges.

When I was eighteen, I saw a commercial with a placid woman standing in front of a lighthouse, advertising a free Book of Mormon.  The commercial appealed to me, and so I ordered a book online.  I had a choice between having the book sent to me via USPS, or I could have two Mormon missionaries deliver it to me personally.  I chose the latter (pun intended).

I chose that option because I wanted to see what Mormons look like.  Of course, the first thing that came to mind was polygamy.  I think it was more curiosity than anything that prompted me to order the book, and what a life-changing whim that turned out to be.

I ended up becoming baptized, though when the missionaries mentioned tithing, and how it was required to be a member in good standing, I, remembering what my parents said about being beware of any church that asks for money, fell away.

Nine months or so passed, and I met a boy (at a political group at University) whose name was familiar from high school, though we’d never met.  He sort of dated/socialized me back into the Church, and by the time we broke up, I was fully converted.  I hadn’t fallen in love with him, but I’d fallen in love with the Church.  The Mormon lifestyle is like a throwback to the Fifties–I felt like I’d finally found the Church that I was made for.

Living in the South, I’d churched around quite a bit.  (Being a “Jesus Freak” was big in the eighties and early nineties, though I never referred to myself as one.  Just not my personality to wear my religion on my sleeve).  Pensacola, Florida, is like a Christianity smorgasbord–if you’re a Christian, there is a church for you somewhere here.  Never before had I felt so welcomed.  It felt good, and it felt right, and it was, for me, at that time.

The Church was a wonderful experience, till I went to Utah, and lost my testimony in Joseph Smith.  The father of the boy I had dated had admonished me not to go, and, to the best of my recollection, he’d told me if I went, they’d lose me, and they did.  I can never regret going, though, for because of my leaving, I am the person I am today.

I went through a period of bitterness towards the Church, and then I found my way back as not an ex-Mormon (which has an negative connotation), but as a former Mormon.  My Mormon friends, whom I’d avoided for so long, did not judge me, or stop being my friend (they are still some of my closest friends), even though they know I will never come back.

So, to segue back to my opening, I watched “Pleasantville”–a film which I believe some parts are open to interpretation (sort of like the Bible).  The townspeople who live a moral lifestyle are shown as being bland and colorless, while the ones who engage in sin become vibrant and full of life.  I don’t look back and see my life as a Mormon that way.  Being a member of the Church did not stifle my creativity, but enhance it.  Granted, some of the stuff I write now, they would not approve of, but my experience as a Mormon helped me tap into a spiritual wellspring (and bring me closer to God) that no other Church had ever been able to do.

The boy Reese Witherspoon has sex with sees a rose in color for the first time because he fell in love, but Reese doesn’t see color after their trysts because she doesn’t feel the same–she doesn’t see color until she reads a classic book for pleasure.  Tobey Maguire becomes colorized when he saves his mother from being molested by a group of young boys (after the man she is having an affair with, who supposedly loves her and she him, paints a nude picture of her on his malt/soda shoppe’s window).  Jeff Daniels doesn’t see color until he begins to pursue his passion of painting, and the woman who plays Tobey and Reese’s mother doesn’t turn colorful (or see in color) until she pleasures herself sexually/has an affair with Jeff Daniels (one of the points of the film I had a problem with–I’d have preferred her to become colorized when she and her husband had rediscovered each other on a deeper level).  Though Reese putting aside her whorish ways was a positive note to end on, Don Knotts (who will always live on as Barney Fife) using the Lord’s name in vain, was a sour one to begin with.

I know there is much, much more to the movie than what I’ve discussed, but those particular parts of the film I related to.

Though I don’t agree with everything the movie says (or tries to say), I do think it’s worth watching at least once.  A great film it isn’t (in my opinion), but it makes you think, which is more than most movies accomplish.

I do agree that a false nostalgia exists, even for those who never lived during that time.  (Just as one can romanticize the Amish lifestyle, though they would never want to live it.)  Though I love so many things about that era, I belong in this present time.  I love the technology and medical advances that exist now, and all the opportunities for women to have fulfilling careers.  I’m glad it isn’t just chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.  I love more things that exist now, but didn’t then, than I could possibly enumerate.

“Pleasantville” is a state of mind, not of place and time.  Tobey and Reese seeing “the man behind the curtain”, so to speak, ripped off the beautiful façade that television presented.  I love “Leave it to Beaver”, knowing that things weren’t exactly like that, but rather a representation of all the good things that were.

Query letter to Harlequin Romance

I’ve poked a little fun at Harlequin romances, but they SELL!  I wrote “Regina Fair” specifically for the market after my mom told me they read every manuscript they receive.  Janet Dailey, the most successful female author ever, started her career by writing for Harlequin.

~

My completed novel, “Regina Fair”, intended for the Harlequin Romance (Cherish and Riva) Line, is a light romance that deals with a serious subject: the decision to not have children.

~

Regina Morrow is a twenty-eight-year-old woman whose boyfriend dumped her several years ago because of her desire to be childfree.

Forty-one-year-old widower Rick George (whom Regina has loved from a distance for five years), is her boss, and fraternization is forbidden. It isn’t until Rick’s grown daughter, Cassie, and Regina’s kid sister, Juliet, plot to play matchmaker, that Rick and Regina are forced to acknowledge their mutual attraction.

As Regina becomes acquainted with some of Rick’s old girlfriends along the way, finding out why it didn’t work out between them, she begins to suspect that she will be just another ex-girlfriend.

The thing is, Rick has always wanted more children, so, fearing he would choose to marry her, hoping she will change (and resenting her if she doesn’t), Regina decides to break it off with him.

Months pass, and Rick realizes he must convince Regina that she is all he wants. Though he’d wanted more children with his wife, that was a long time ago, and what he’s wanted in life has changed.

It’s up to him to convince Regina that she is enough for him, and he does, in a way that surprises even himself.

~

I am thirty-two years old, but have been writing since I was old enough to write. Cutting up every paper in the house was my creative outlet before then.

I enjoy writing in many different styles and genres, from light romance to Southern Gothic horror to nursery rhymes. I am currently working on the second book to “Regina Fair”, which will be part of a series set in the small town of Princeton, Florida.

Though I’m from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, I’ve lived in Pensacola, Florida, almost all my life, which has served as the inspiration for Princeton.

Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Warm regards,

Sarah Lea Richards

Categorically, some of the best books I’ve read (thus far)

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LDS (Mormon fiction):  Shannon’s Mirror, by Luisa M. Perkins

  • I think a girl/woman of any age can enjoy this book, LDS or not.  Thirteen years ago, a friend of mine mentioned this book; the title stuck in my head until I finally bought it a few years ago.  It is a very beautiful, but very sad story, about how the quest for perfectionism (which I, as a former LDS woman, struggled with) can lead to heartache and destruction.

Christian fiction:  Any books by Linda Hall

  • This is the kind of Christian fiction I like–where Christians are real people who question things.  Rich in character, and description, too, but in a way that paints a picture as you read rather than slowing the momentum of the story.

Harlequin romance:  Redeeming Claire, by Cynthia Rutledge

  • Good Harlequin romances are as hard to find as an adverb in a Stephen King novel (or so I’ve heard), but this one is a gem because again, Christians are portrayed as regular people, not holier-than-thou or square as Wally Cleaver.  And it’s actually funny!

Mainstream romance:  Small Town Girl, by LaVyrle Spencer

  • I’ve read this book several times, and will read it several more.  It’s about a country music star who goes back home to help her mother and ends up falling in love with the one boy, now a man, whom she taunted all through high school.  The fact that Poplar Bluff, Missouri, the little town I was born in, was mentioned, was a bonus.

Memoir:  In My Hands:  Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, by Irene Gut Opdyke

  • Though the subject matter isn’t unique, the voice was.

Biography:  Natasha:  The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad

  • I’ve been a fan of Natalie ever since I saw her as a little girl in “Miracle on 34th Street”, for she reminded me so much of myself when I was at that age.  She also personified physical beauty that did not come in blond hair and blue eyes (which I, and every other girl I knew, wanted growing up).  This book read like creative nonfiction.  I do think one would have to be at least a lukewarm fan to get pleasure from this book.

Chick lit:  Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella

  • Story and protagonist are hilarious (though I hope Becky learns her lesson by the end of the series).

Beach read:  The Sunday Wife, by Cassandra King

  • Though the author’s personal views are quite different from my own (and were presented in a very one-dimensional way), I enjoyed this because the friendship of two women was the focus, relegating the romance to the background.  Again, a bonus was that Pensacola, Florida (“The Buckle of the Bible Belt”/”The Redneck Riviera”), the town where I live, was mentioned.

Gothic horror:  Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews

  • I first read this book in high school and was hooked on V.C., till her ghostwriter became a hack.  I love this book because it’s just the kind of story I like to write.

Children’s book:  Many Moons, by James Thurber

  • I had read this book once, many years when I was in elementary school, and it stayed with me for almost 30 years, after I had my own daughter.  It epitomizes one of my favorite scriptures, “…and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

On writing:  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:  How to Edit Yourself into Print, by Renni Browne, Dave King and George Booth

  • This book opened my eyes on how to break my stories up into scenes–how to show, rather than tell.

Best nonfiction/religious book (besides the Bible):  What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?:  The Positive Impact of Christianity in History, by Dr. D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe

  • This was an enlightening book.  I’d never thought about how life might be different had Jesus not come yet.  Whether or not you’re a Christian, I think it makes for a thought-provoking read.