Author. Word gatherer. Developmental editor. Speaker. Wayfinder. Encourager.

Wishing you peace in the holiday season

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 26•17

Snow and freezing rain swooshed into the region on Christmas eve leaving a dangerous layer of ice. But with it, came beauty and a winter’s hush. Wishing readers and writers peace and hope in this lovely season. I realize that 2017 has been a hard, trying year for many of us, but together we can build a better world. And as always, keep writing, keep believing, and keep dreaming.

Book Recommendation for History Buffs: The Color of Lightning

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 19•17

More dry and cold weather is on the way. I’m winding up my Christmas shopping, staying cozy, and started baking Christmas cookies. Now to give most of them away….  But first, in case you still need books for holiday giving I have another title for you.

Last summer with current events threatening my sanity, I escaped into historical fiction. And Paulette Jiles again won my heart with her latest books The Color of Lightning and News of the World.  Both are set in Texas in the 1800s, both are being turned into movies,  and if you have never read her stories, you’re missing out. The research is meticulous, the language is exquisite, and the characters unforgettable. The setting comes alive with poetic cadence and the whole is gripping and captivating.

In fact Jiles is also a poet and memoirist and she’s a savor-every-word author, and you’ll find yourself pausing, rereading, and underlining as you go along. Sentences and paragraphs like this: He started out in a spring windstorm and made thirty miles by evening. As he came in the low, even valley of the Brazos, he turned into the shelter of the trees. Tall white-bodied sycamores whipped toward the southeast and their new leaves streamed like sequins into the wind. Lightning forked out of the clouds and in its brief catastrophic flash he saw the tree trunks become incandescent. The heaps of crumbling flood debris and jittering small leaves of the chokeberry lit up as if with pale fire. He unsaddled and sat with Moses Johnson’s good slicker over his head under the drumming rain. It sprang into glossy bars as the lightning flashed again and again. The wind tore at the slicker as he grasped its edges around himself and the horses like stoics with their heads down.

When he woke up the wind had died and he could see stars overhead through the leaves. The Dipper stood at midnight when he re-saddled and laid his hand on the packs and checked all the wet knots and stood into the stirrup and went on.

He splashed into the Bravos River in a blaze of moon reflections at a ford that he had used before. Beyond this he only knew to go northward toward the Stone Houses and the Red. 

The story begins in 1863 and former slave Britt Johnson has relocated his wife Mary and their three children to the Texas territory. As he’s away from home establishing a freight business,  the unthinkable happens: a marauding band of Kiowas and Comanches raid his settlement and kidnap and murder his family and friends. Did I mention Johnson was a real person? Jiles has shaped him into a bigger-than life hero on an epic quest as he travels into Indian Territory bent on ransoming his damaged family. His wife Mary has been brutalized, raped, and traumatized and I cannot understate the tension her ordeal brings to the story.

Meanwhile, the Johnson’s neighbor and grandchildren were also captured and their tale is another firm subplot. The details of day-to-day life among these tribes is fascinating, rich, and immersing. Jiles also mixed in a Quaker, Samual Hammond, who is assigned to oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs, attempting to convince these warrior tribes to become farmers.  It’s a masterpiece.

Here’s the opening: When they first came into the country it was wet and raining and if they had known of the droughts that lasted for seven years at a time they might never have stayed. They did not know what lay to the west. It seemed nobody did. Sky and grass and red earth as far as the eye could see. There were belts of trees in the river bottoms and the remains of old gardens where something had once been planted and harvested and the fields abandoned. There was a stone circle at the crest of a low ridge.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Book recommendation: Winter’s Bone

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 12•17

Another fine sunrise this morning and continued dry, crisp weather. Tonight it’s going to freeze–oh happy days. I have allergies so a freeze kills off the abundant leaf mold that’s around here. My tree is installed and tonight I’m going to add the ornaments. Christmas baking has begun and a few gifts exchanged. Saturday night we went out to hear Confluence Chorus and their stirring harmonies and message of peace seemed to settle into the deepest, most worried parts of me. And despite these troubling and difficult times in our country, the beauty and  magic of Christmas is taking hold in me.

And speaking of Christmas, I have another book recommendation: Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. He’s one of my favorite authors and this is one of my favorite stories of all times. A desert island book. A top ten book.  Woodrell is a writer’s writer; that is, there’s something to learn and appreciate on every page.  It’s a gritty, compelling, and scary because the protagonist faces so much risk and jeopardy. And the antagonists are rawboned, mean types who will would shoot you dead without  blinking. Here’s a review from The New York Times that I wish I’d written.

The story also features one of my favorite characters Ree Dolly. In fact The Writer magazine asked me to list my 10 favorite protagonists and I included her: Ree Dolly (of Winter’s Bone) exhibits an unflinching loyalty to family and depths of strength in one so young. She struggles to uncover the truth of her father’s disappearance and save the family home, becoming matriarch to her siblings and mentally ill mother.

Woodrell usually writes about poor, desperate people who commit crimes and make lousy decisions. The story begins with a sheriff’s deputy showing up at the Dolly’s home in the Ozarks and informing sixteen-year-old Ree that her father has skipped bail and the family home was his collateral. She needs to find him so they won’t lose the house. And this puts her in the path of some really badass types most of us would leave town to avoid. Here are the opening lines:

REE DOLLY stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by snagged limbs, venison left to weather for two days and three nights so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.

By the way, the film, directed by Debra Granik,  is nearly as good as the book and Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes deliver stunning performances.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Book Recommendation for Dog Lovers: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 08•17

Was just watching the sun rise over a stand of Douglas firs. Pale pink striations because we’re in the midst of a lovely dry spell. Winds have been whipping in from the Columbia Gorge, whisking away the leaves I needed to rake up. Although I enjoy raking, don’t you? I’m going out Christmas tree hunting this weekend and plan to hear some holiday music. So despite a virus that keeps warring with my immune system, despite the ongoing shit show in Washington DC, I’m going to focus on some magic in the coming days.

And in case you’re buying books for the holidays I want to suggest some gems for your gift list. I’m currently re-reading Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. The narrator is a dog, Enzo.         And if that sounds silly or gimmicky, it’s not. It’s profound, funny, heart-wrenching, and beautiful and will make you forget politics or your flu or your worries. I was reading it last night and practically wept it’s just so fine. I’d almost forgotten how much I loved Enzo’s voice.  He’s a racing fan and car nut. A philosopher who watches too much TV.  He loves his human companion Denny with such a complete and simple devotion and it’s also an adventure. Young adults will adore this story too.

Here’s the opening page:

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood with no question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and is therefore, a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and polysyllabic sounds that can be linked to form sentences. And that’s why I’m here now waiting for Denny to come home–he should be here soon–lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.

Storytellers ought not be too tame….

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 28•17

Rains are here again today–steady thrumming against the tin roof of my porch, the backdrop as I work on a client’s story. I’m still eating Thanksgiving leftovers, getting over a cold, and wearing layers as befitting my circumstances. A house not as snug as I’d like during these short days of winter’s looming.  But, I’m looking forward to the magic of more holidays. Yes, I’m one of those people who believe in the goodness and magic and beauty of the winter holidays. Bring on the carols, the decorations, the baking, the gatherings.

As for this gem, I could not agree with this more.

“Storytellers ought not be too tame. They should be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness they cannot give us the truest joys.” ~ Ben Okri

Description must work for its place

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 20•17

Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action. ~ Hilary Mantel

Fill your ears with the music of good sentences….

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 16•17

“Fill your ears with the music of good sentences, and when you finally approach the page yourself, that music will carry you. It will remind you that you are a part of a vast symphony of writers, that you are not alone in your quest to lay down words, each one bumping against the next until something new is revealed. It will exhort you to do better. To not settle for just good enough. Reading great work is exhilarating. It shows us what’s possible. When I start the morning with any one of the dozens of books in rotation on my office floor, my day is made instantly better, brighter. I never regret having done it. Think about it: have you ever spent an hour reading a good book, and then had that sinking, queasy feeling of having wasted time?” ~ Dani Shapiro

What Writers Can Learn from Good Night Moon

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 15•17

What stories are embedded in your memory? Why do they keep resonating as years go by?  In The Atlantic’s By Heart column Celeste Ng describes how she was influenced by Good Night Moon, a story she read again and again to her toddler son.  Read it here.

“For the first three years of his life, my son insisted on hearing Goodnight Moon before bedtime. Like most babies, he was not a good sleeper by disposition—but reading seemed to help, and this book specifically became part of his whole wind-down ritual. By now, I have read Goodnight Moon literally over a thousand times. As I read it again and again, I started to wonder: Why is this the book everybody feels a child must have? Why is this the book you’re sent by all your relatives and friends, people who must know you already have a copy—but want to give you another one, just in case?

It’s a very odd book, after all. There is no real story. The story is: The rabbit goes to bed. That’s it. The text is just a list of items, and the artwork has no action in it. And yet, it really does capture something for us. Something more powerful than just pure nostalgia could explain.

We cannot help but answer the question why which, for me, is the fundamental question of fiction.” 

keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart


Gail Godwin on Characters

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 08•17

     The characters that I write are all parts of myself and I send them on little missions to find what I don’t know yet. ~ Gail Godwin

NaNoWriMo tip: Feature your protagonist’s worst fear.

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Nov• 07•17

Reading fiction makes us scared. And I’m not talking about only horror or thrillers. If a reader isn’t afraid about what awaits the central characters, and if the main characters aren’t vulnerable, then the story won’t work properly and readers won’t lose sleep to discover if the character survives.

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See readers follow a  blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and young German soldier, Werner Pfennig, in Germany and occupied France. The backdrop for the story is the period surrounding World War II before D-Day.  Marie-Laure understandably fears being alone amid a world gone mad. And indeed, she ends up alone because the Nazis capture her Papa and she’s left to survive by her wits and senses and the lessons her father has taught her.

Werner and his sister are orphans and as a techno-prodigy who can build and fix radios he’s swept up into the relentless Nazi machine. He joins Hitler Youth wanting to escape his fate of becoming a coal miner–his chief fear.  However, he’s a gifted boy. His mind is too active, curious, and mechanically inclined for this dark and brutal work.  But will he survive while tracking down the Resistance radios operating in France? Will he come to realize the truth about the brutal regime he serves?

Another technique Doerr used was to introduce Marie-Laure and Werner during their childhood before the war. As in real life, meeting characters when they’re children makes readers invest more in them.

It’s an intricate and carefully plotted tale with many of the events drawn from history. Their paths collide by story’s end and the novel makes us think about the most vulnerable victims of war. Doerr discusses how he came to write their stories here.

Circumstances are a huge factor in creating fiction–in this novel Werner is born in a mining town and Marie-Laure loses her eyesight at six.  Circumstances will be linked to the trajectory of your plot. In All the Light We Cannot See the Germans occupy Paris  in 1940 so Marie-Laure and her father flee to the Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany. Her great-uncle Etienne lives there, but he’s a recluse suffering from the effects of WWI.  The French  oppose the Nazi occupation and form the Resistance. Marie is drawn to help and is an asset because of her blindness and youth. The story also includes a rare and cursed jewel that increases the ante because a Nazi  sergeant major knows of its existence. He’s been tasked to collect French artifacts that Hitler covets. And woven through the story is magic of radio waves and their practical role in the war.

She cannot say how many others are with them. Three or four, perhaps. His is the voice of a twelve or thirteen-year-old. She stands and hugs her huge book to her chest, and she can hear her cane roll along  the edge of the bench and clatter to the ground. Someone else says, ‘They’ll take the blind girls before they take the gimps.’ The first boy groans grotesquely. Marie-Laure raises her book as if to shield herself.