Reading to Improve Writing

I feel a little sorry for my kids. I’m a recovering educator and I know how easy it is over the summer months to forget everything that went in the brain all school year.  So, I have an easy “keep it in there” program going. We have Math Mondays where everybody practices math facts, usually with a card game. Each kid gets a math challenge problem on our refrigerator every week to solve to keep those math juices flowing. We have “read aloud to Mama” while I cook dinner and ask questions for understanding. But their most favorite thing is the timed reading frequency game we play. I time them for one minute on a passage to see how many words they read and we chart it to see improvement over time. There’s more to reading frequency evaluation but for our purposes this is fine.

Reading and understanding what you just read is the most important skill I can try to arm them with, academically. It’s also one of the most important things I do as part of being a writer.

In the day-to-day-work-for-a-living I write businessy stuff. It’s a much different style from the fiction that I enjoy writing. It can be a difficult thing to do the brain switch when going from one to the other. Reading fiction and non-fiction of all types helps me with that a bit (so does good editing and beta readers). It also helps me to evaluate my own writing: what works, what doesn’t, why did this author use the word “totally” twelve times in the same paragraph, that kind of stuff. I read or listen to an audio book every day and have at least two to three books going at any one time.

So far this year (since January) I have read:

  • The Shining, Stephen King (re-read, first time I read it I was 11 years old way back in the 70’s)
  • Doctor Sleep, Stephen King
  • Divergent, Veronica Roth
  • Insurgent, Veronica Roth
  • Missing 411: Western United States and Canada, David Paulides
  • Black Magic Rose, Jordan K. Rose
  • Ransom Lake, Brent R. Taylor
  • Looking for Alaska, John Greene
  • Ours, Regina Puckett (short story)
  • Real Vampires, Night Stalkers, and Creatures From the Dark Side, Brad Steiger
  • In the Shadow of the Mountains, M.R. Graham
  • The Body Finder, Kimberly Derting
  • How I Kept My Head When I Lost My Breasts: A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Journey, Sandra Fuentes
  • Four to Score, Janet Evanovich (currently)
  • On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King (currently)

Spurned by my recent stay at the Stanley Hotel, I seem to be on a bit of a Stephen King rant right now. Not such a bad thing, in my opinion.

I write almost every day, too. I get up very early, before my little kids get up, to work on my fiction. Some days the words just flow and my fingers fly across the keyboard and other times it is a flurry of fits and starts. I need to get a better habit down and go from almost to every day. When I write every day things just move better.

My little kids (that’s how we refer to the ones still at home with us) love to write as well. Maybe it’s from watching me, I don’t know. One kid writes hilarious comics in the vein of his favorite author, Dav Pilkey. He’s a pretty good artist and has an excellent sense of humor, granted it is mostly potty humor but that’s what he likes! The twins write about mermaid princesses and hippo-unicorns. Of course these are my girls, so the princesses always know karate or can shoot a bow and arrow or know the secrets of picking berries and save the day (my oldest arrests shoplifters and burglars and the like for a living, that’s the kind of girls I raise).

Plumbing Problems by my kid!

Plumbing Problems by my kid!

Reading does improve my writing but I also really enjoy it. It’s relaxing to get lost in another place or character. I hope I’m not just raising comedians and hero-warriors but readers and writers.

What are you currently reading? What was the last book you read? Can’t answer that? UGH! Pick up a book, will ya! I hope my novels will be on your list when they are released into the wild but for now, thanks for reading this…quiz to follow, just kidding.


Spooky Vacay

Summer is in full swing and unfortunately this year we won’t be planning any big trips. Just our usual camping and fishing trips. I have camped and fished my whole life. The many weeks I spent doing this activity as a kid are among my biggest and best memories of growing up. Now as an adult, it really is my favorite pastime. There is just nothing more relaxing than to be the only human for miles, listening to the wind in the trees, cooking over an open fire, heavenly.

I know that for many people this just isn’t their cup of tea. Bugs, wild animals, creepy forests, the feeling of isolation, and the all the rest. I admit that on occasion I’ve been a little nervous for some of those reasons. I’ll even go so far as agreeing that nature can be dangerous.

I grew up in Alberta, Canada. They have bears there, lots of bears. We have had several close calls with them, like the time a mama bear came sniffing around our campsite, including the tent we were sleeping in. The sun was just rising and we watched her shadow lumber past followed by two little cubs. One of our party had a pick-up and camper, she went around to their rig and placed her paws on the hood, stretched up and tried to peek in the upper bunk bed window. That’s how big she was. When the coast was clear we ran to the cars, luckily she wasn’t interested in us.

We’ve had a pack of coyotes so close to our camp you could just make out their silhouettes as they ran around us just outside the light of the campfire. That was a little worrisome, healthy coyotes are usually too afraid of humans to get that

I’ve heard weird sounds in the woods that I was never able to identify. I’ve had the occasional feeling of being watched, but I usually chalk that up to mountain lions. I’ve even had the fleeting thought of an ax-wielding maniac stumbling into our camp with help many miles away. So I can relate to why some people would rather scrub outhouses with toothbrushes than go camping. But even with those problems, I absolutely love it.

Maybe you are one of those people who are not at all frightened by the woods and seek a more extreme experience. Ghost stories around the camp fire are all well and good but not nearly enough for you? I ran across an article that may provide the answer. Out in California, on the Alameda Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, there will be a wilderness camp that is geared for the more adventurous camper.

As far as I know, this is a first, “The Great Horror Campout” will be held in July. You get to watch horror movies, roast marshmallows, and choose to hang in a less scary area or go all out in an interactive game. The game involves “scare actors” and very spooky challenges. Don’t worry you can make it all go away by saying: I want my mommy! It sounds like fun. I won’t be able to go but if you go, come back and tell us about it! I could see franchise opportunities here.

Pretend scares still not good enough for you? Read Missing 411 by David Paulides before you enter the woods. He discusses mysterious and weird disappearances of people from National Forests. Some of the stories are so disturbing that you won’t want to let anyone from your group out of your sight. You may even think twice about visiting the woods yourself.spookylake

I’ll be lurking out there in the woods this summer, just like every summer. Happy trails to everyone who is going on vacation and remember, Never Turn Off the Lights. However, that could be difficult if you are camping because your flashlight battery will die and you will be left in the dark and who knows what may be lurking with you.

Tuition Isn’t the Only Scary Thing on Campus

I apologize for the sporadic postings, I had a personal loss that has knocked my writing schedule off. Our little kitty disappeared on Easter morning. As best we can tell she went out the doggie door in the pursuit of birds and she got lost or something. She was my little writing partner and it has just been too lonely to write without her here. I’m still looking for her but I know its time to get on with it. I know that some writers will say, use your pain in your writing, I’m not so good at that.

Such is life, I suppose. Loss is inevitable, change is the norm. Spring is the epitome of that observation. Sure new things are being born, plants and trees are being reawakened but it’s also a time of transition. That is felt most acutely for many of us in the ending of the school year. Particularly if you are celebrating a high school graduation.

The end of a high school career is a loss and a rebirth all in one. Parents loose their little kids to a young adult (hopefully) and kids go from high-schooler to something else, in the literary world it’s called “new adult”. It’s an exciting and scary time for parents and students alike. The possibilities are endless but some kids already know exactly what they are doing and where they are going in a few short weeks. It’s the same thing one of my kids did, move away from home and into a dorm.

I wasn’t sure how this particular kid with a super vivid imagination was going to do living on her own. Well, I know there are a bunch of other kids in the dorm but this is the kid that would turn on every light in the house if she was home alone after dark. I mean, every single light would be blazing when we got home, think the Griswald’s in Christmas Vacation. In the weeks before she moved out she refused to watch any scary movies or hear scary stories, particularly about haunted dorms. Not an easy feat in my house.

The day we arrived at her university to move her in some upper classmen were there to help unload the arriving freshmen. They asked what room she had, we told them, and their response was a uuuummmmmm. I saw in her face that her first thought was: holy crap I got the haunted room! When asked what was wrong with that room the boys said, nothing, its just on the third floor and there is only one elevator. Phew for her but I must admit I was a bit disappointed. As far as I know she never had a spooky experience there. Scary roommates, scary food, scary class load but not spooky.

Not surprisingly, most major universities have some kind of ghost lore. The environment and emotional landscape create the perfect conditions for such stories to spurn. Large, usually older buildings dominate campus where years of human drama have played out leaving an indelible mark. Additionally, for many people it is the first time they are out from under the protection of their parents and the safety of their familiar surroundings. Maybe, ghost stories create a place for some of those unspoken terrors to be worked out and shared. Here’s just a few that I know about, feel free to share!

Are You Moving Here?

University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colorado
This one is in my state and I know many people who have attended in the past and currently. This picturesque campus has more than a few spirited tales. Edith, is the most well known specter on campus. She haunts Wiebking and Wilson halls. Residents report electrical anomalies, the sounds of moving furniture, and click-clacking of the marbles she used to roll to relieve stress. Clearly, she had lots of stress. It’s reported that she was meant to be a RA but the girls in the dorm were awful to her, so much so that she hung herself. The basement of another dorm, Harrison Hall, is haunted by the ghost of a janitor who was killed in a freak accident there.

Wiebking Hall, University of Northern Colorado

Wiebking Hall, University of Northern Colorado

Ohio University, Athens, Ohio
Established in 1804 making this the 9th oldest public university in the US it maybe number one in hauntings. Here’s a strange coincidence (or is it?), in both Bush and Jefferson Hall people have reported hearing the sound of rolling marbles and have poltergeist type activity very similar to the UNC haunting reports. Why do dormitory ghosts like to play with marbles? Residents of Crawford Hall have experienced poltergeist activity and apparitions of a young girl, sadly this may be the ghost of Laura who fell out of her fourth story dorm room by accident as was killed in 1993.

Wilson Hall is probably the most interesting haunt on the campus. In the city of Athens there is reportedly a set of several cemeteries, if you connect the dots of these cemeteries on a map they form a pentagram, in the middle of this pentagram stands this dormitory. There are numerous reports of paranormal activity here including apparitions, disembodied voices, cold spots, and banging sounds. There is even one dorm room, 428, that is haunted by such a violent poltergeist that it remains sealed shut.

250px-Entrance_sign_CSUCICalifornia State University Channel Islands, Camarillo, California
Perhaps the youngest, but among the scariest, this campus opened in 2002. Built on the site of a former mental hospital there are several and varied reports of paranormal activity. Electrical anomalies, scratching and rustling sounds, and voices are reported in the dorm areas. Doors slam and lock themselves only to unlock themselves. Scratched into the wall of one lab area are the words – no one can help me. You may recognize some of the campus from the movie The Ring.

Fordham University, Bronx, New York
This Jesuit university was established in 1841, so there has been plenty of time for stories to percolate and be shared, the gothic flavor of the architecture has surely aided in this. An old hospital was torn down to make room for the university. Keating Hall supposedly now stands where the hospital morgue once stood. Residents report being touched by icy invisible hands and seeing apparitions, in particular a young blonde woman in the showers. Finlay Hall not only used to be the hospital crematorium but in the early days of the university it was the medical school and all that entails, including housing human cadavers. Many residents have reported being awoken by cold hands on their throats.

Parts of The Exorcist were filmed on this campus but Queen’s Court dorm was reportedly the sight of a real-life exorcism. As the story goes it was the summer of 2003 and some Residence Assistants and the Residence Director were left behind to check dorms for damage, repair them, and clean up all summer to prepare for the upcoming fall semester. In one room mattresses kept being mysteriously moved much to everyone’s amazement. One night, very late, a priest knocked on the door and told the RA who answered the door that he has taken care of the problem in that room. The next day the RA discovers that no one knows who this priest was or who sent him.

Fordham University

Fordham University


Regis University, Denver, Colorado

Main Hall; Regis University; Lowell Campus; Denver; Colorado

Main Hall; Regis University; Lowell Campus; Denver; Colorado

Back to my state and the place where I attended class. Another Jesuit university, this one was founded in 1887 by a group of exiled Italian priests. The main campus is small but beautifully landscaped and maintained with native trees and flower beds. No matter what class you are taking or what area of study you are enrolled, all students are encouraged to attempt to answer the question: How ought we to live? That one tenant has shaped many, if not all, of my life choices and I am thankful for being directed to such a thoughtful life. However, some of the older buildings are a little bit creepy in that old-religious-building kind of way. I did have one weird experience on campus but I’ll tell you that story in a minute.

As the campus at the North Denver location grew, the part of the campus that served as a Jesuit cemetery was overtaken and the graves were exhumed and moved. When the bodies were relocated new headstones were also installed; however, the old headstones are stored in the basement of the Main Hall. This same basement once served as an entrance to the underground tunnels that priests used to use to get around campus, these tunnels have since been sealed for safety. But you all know how strange abandoned tunnels are, right?

In the various residence halls there are reports of poltergeist type activity like doors slamming shut and open by themselves. Ghostly black cats are often seen in a coven near the Science building. The baseball diamond is said to be haunted by a ghost dog buried 30 years earlier there by a student.

Freaked out? No need to worry, I doubt highly there is anything malicious there as the campus is blessed from time to time by priests.

As for my story, I was taking a night class on Cultural Awareness in Education in the Main Hall upper level classrooms, at least I think it was in this building oh so long ago. On this particular night class ran a bit late and apparently the night maintenance crew did not realize we were up there. By the time we left all the lights were out on the main floor. Being in the dark was creepy enough but the lower floors were being remodeled and there was construction sheeting up all over the place giving it a “serial killer” vibe. I first walked all the way to the doors nearest to where I had parked my car only to find them locked. I had to walk all the way to the other end of the building through the creepy-creepiness. I burst out of there as quickly as possible and had to walk all the way around the building to my car, in the dark, by myself, late at night.

I got disoriented for a minute and couldn’t remember if my car was to the left or right, I hesitated and then took a step to the right. Very clearly and very much right in my ear I heard, NO. I froze. I scanned the area for any potential attackers, all I could see in the dark were the shapes of buildings and the trees swaying in the wind. I quickly turned left and bee-lined it directly to my car. Had I gone right I would have ended up way far away from my car. In the dark. By myself.

Who was it? What was it? I don’t know. All I know is that wasn’t the first time I had help whispered in my ear and not the last either. I just gratefully accepted the help. College, as is life, can be pretty challenging. We can use all the help we can get. How ought we to live? That night, grateful for unseen protection and help, who knows what or who might have been waiting in the dark.

Just google your prospective place of study, chances are there are ghost stories and legends associated with it. Just remember, Never Turn off the Lights and you should be just fine. Should be…