Friday, March 28, 2014

Everything I Learned about Critique Groups, I Learned from Alaska

I got hit with a sobering and depressing reality check just the other day. I lived in Anchorage for three years. It seemed like a goodly amount of time if not NEARLY long enough. And to this moment it looms in my memory and my heart as if I left yesterday. But I didn’t. I’ve been back in Minnesota for five years.

Five years! Sob.

So much has happened in that time, but one thing hasn’t changed. I feel as close to my friends there as I ever have. They might not know it, but they are never ever far from my heart. Ever. I wondered why this is, and the answer came to me without me even trying. The people of Alaska are as big of heart, as varied in riches and gifts, and as unforgettable as Alaska is herself.

Things (all things—tasks, working, shopping, playing) move just a little more slowly in Alaska than they do Outside. I don’t mean things are “slow” (as in short bus slow), but there’s an ease born of a “Hey, what’s the rush? Where are you going to go?” attitude you won’t find in states where you could, potentially, get out in a hurry. This applies to friendships as well. There is/was SO much time to cultivate closeness. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Alaska Chapter of Romance Writers of America - early years

And my friendships spilled over into my then baby seedling of a career so that my writing became my joy because my friends were with me. And they (my friends) also became my critique partners, and I hung on their words and advice, even when I crossed my arms and pretended I didn’t want to hear them . And the more I got to know these friends’ secrets and true selves, the more their experiences and insights shaped my own. We were a band of sisters made up from many stripes and backgrounds and beliefs, but I had the time and space to learn from them all, and love our differences.

Let this sound like a mere exercise in being maudlin, I promise there’s a reason for my schmaltzy words. When I had to leave Alaska it took a big chunk out of my heart. Let’s don’t even talk about missing the land itself—that’s another blog topic entirely. It was the people I couldn’t stand leaving behind. But here’s the thing—I took them all with me. I didn’t realize it for a long time, but I eventually figured it out. I learned so much about working together and taking time to appreciate everything about a group of friends, that I can’t thank Alaska enough for giving me the opportunity.

I have a new critique group here in Minnesota. There are only four of us and still, it was very hard to start this group—it felt awkward and disloyal and not close for a long time. But I went back to the memories of Alaska and remembered all the big-hearted things I learned in the big-hearted place I still love: patience, admiration for differences, listening, taking time—lots of time—and seeing other peoples’ strengths. I learned to love my new critique group because I still love the first one. Everything I learned about how to make this work, I learned from Alaska.

See, she has a big, sharing heart that way!
So, salute to all my old CPs (AKA Best of Friends) still slogging away up North. Here’s wishing everyone a chance to fall in love with the people of Alaska just as I did!

--- Liz Selvig

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Difference Between Alaska and Colorado

Footwear of AKRWA members
Annual retreat in Soldotna, Alaska

On a map, Colorado is a rectangle --- and Alaska, stuck off in the corner, resembles a flung blob of spaghetti, but people still get them mixed up.

I recall an advertisement for an Alaska telecommunication company which featured kids sledding in the wonderful Alaskan winter. Except it wasn't Alaska. The mountains in the background included the Snowmass ski area.

Colorado advertisers aren't exempt from the confusion. A political campaign for a Colorado candidate included a photo of what he thought was Pike's Peak. Woops! It was Denali, Mount McKinley to everyone outside Alaska.


The mountains in Colorado look like Alaska but only if viewed from the north. Viewed from the south, where the Colorado sun shines hot and dry, these same mountains look like Arizona.

In Alaska, both sides of the mountains look like Alaska.


Colorado is sunny. It snows a bit and then it's sunny. It rains and then it's sunny.

Alaska: fog, wind, snow, rain, more snow, overcast, ice fog, high winds. Alaska might get sun for an afternoon, maybe in June.


Those conifers. You know what I mean, the type of conical trees you cut down for Christmas. In Colorado, they might be spruce or they might be pine or they might be fir or Douglas Fir.

In Alaska, if there are any around, they're spruce, different kinds of spruce, but still spruce. That is unless they're planted in a yard in Anchorage.


In Colorado, your Chihuahua might get eaten by a mountain lion.

In Alaska, he's on the menu serving bears, wolves, eagles, and mosquitos.


Alaska is noted for having the worst dressed city in the US. We aren't sure if that distinction belongs to Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks, or Bethel.

Colorado is better dressed, but not by much. If in doubt, check the footwear. If you see waterproof boots such as brown rubber XtraTufs,
you're in Alaska.

Children dancing during book festival at Loussac Public Library. Anchorage, Alaska

--- Lizzie Newell writes science fiction romance. She lives in Anchorage most of the time but travels both inside and outside Alaska attending writers' conferences. Her travels frequently take her to Colorado.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Alaska on My Mind

When my first novel was published, my local Homer newspaper wrote an article about me, which then got picked up by the big-time Anchorage paper, where it went online and people got to comment on it. That’s when things got interesting. Someone sniped about the fact that I’d set the series in Southern California rather than Alaska. “Is Alaska too real for her?” they wondered.

Well, first of all, that’s just silly. Every place is real to those who live there. And I’m writing fiction, so frankly, none of it is “real.” I stated my case at length with that commenter -- completely in my own head, of course, since I’m not one for online arguments. Salient points: I started writing the series before I moved to Alaska. I wasn’t slighting my new state – I just didn’t know it well enough yet to set something there. Also, for that series I wanted the setting to be the kind of environment that SoCal offered. Something that wouldn’t take the focus away from the characters, the story and the romance.

The fact is, when you set something in Alaska, it’s hard to make Alaska stay in the background. It dominates, with its extreme weather and its magnificence and complicated characters. If your story takes place in the summer, you have to mention the endless daylight, and vice versa for winter. You have to know exactly where the story takes place – the harsh Interior? Rainy Southeast? Above the tree-line Nome? They’re completely different. There is no such thing as a “generic” Alaska setting. How do you incorporate all that rich, fascinating detail without Alaska becoming a full-fledged character in your story?

Once I moved to Alaska, my friends often asked me if I was going to set something here. “Sure, someday,” I always answered. What was I waiting for? “But I just moved here. I have to get a feel for it first.” But I’ve set other stories in places I don’t know intimately. I can learn enough from brief visits and from cruising the Internet, reading websites and scanning photos. Hey, that’s what Google Earth is for.

But Alaska … feels different. As a relative newcomer of only seven years, I don’t want to set something here until I feel that I can do this place justice. I want to get the details right, but much of that can be determined by doing research. More importantly, I want to get the spirit right. I wouldn’t want to write a book set in Alaska that feels as if it could take place anywhere with snow. There’s something about Alaska that sinks into your soul and fills you with awe. I think it’s a mark of respect for the state that I haven’t set anything here yet. I have no doubt the time will come when I write an Alaska story. Every day I spend here brings me closer to earning that moment. 

What do you think? How knowledgeable should an author be with the place where his or her books are set? Is it better to live there, or can enough be learned through research?

Jennifer Bernard's latest release is FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FIREMAN. Click the cover for more.

Friday, March 7, 2014

 Pizza, Clay, San Pellegrino, Fleetwood Mac, and Overalls

What do these things have in common? In my world—as of this moment—they equal inspiration. I'm an author, which means the things that inspire me don't always make a lot of sense to everyone else. Anything can inspire if you are open to listening. Except housework. I don't ever see that inspiring anyone. If it does, I'd like to hear from you so I can pick your brain.  

Currently it's after midnight (I love the time after midnight, but that's another subject) and Fleetwood Mac is playing on Pandora (I'm a huge fan) and I'm eating leftover pizza (two days leftover now as I don't have time to cook as well as clean) and drinking an orange flavored San Pellegrino. Magic happens when you put these things together.

Let's start with pizza:

The food of the Gods. Seriously, a food that brings together ALL the food groups. Meat, vegetable, bread, and dairy. Really? Perfection. Enough said.

Fleetwood Mac:

Creativity personified. Lyrics that bring about magic and fuel imagination. Plus Stevie Nick's clothes are the bomb. I strive to be like her. You should see my wardrobe.

Orange San Pellegrino:

Now here I get a little deeper. I'm currently writing a Russian Roulette Series that my agent is hammering for me to finish. She knows it's good and she's only seen the first 50 pages. Wait until she sees what I just wrote. Yeah, feeling pretty freaking awesome right now. That might change when I reread what I just wrote come morning (I'm always brilliant in the midnight hours). Still wondering how San Pellegrino comes into this?

Well, long story made short. I was a high school foreign exchange student to Finland where I had my first taste of orange San Pellegrino and was immediately hooked. You know how smells and tastes take you right back to a time and place? Well San Pellegrino does that for me. The first book in my Russian series is set in Finland. Getting the picture? But still lost on the clay reference? Relax, I wasn't going to leave you hanging.


I'm an artist and clay is one of my mediums, words another. I can mentally paint with words, but I work in clay for form and function. Most artists have more than one creative outlet and sometimes, if you are lucky, they feed each other.

Clay feeds my writer's soul.  

Pottery is my hobby (profitable hobby, but hobby none the less). Writing is the full-time gig. Most times more than full-time as I tend to put in 12 hours a day at it. I can, and do, get burned out. When that happens, I head to my pottery studio. A few hours—or days—in my studio restores me, refills the creative well, so to speak. I feel amazing after a day throwing clay. I'm working with my hands, creating something tangible. With writing, I can't see it, feel it, or use it. Pottery is something I can get messy with. I can hold it, see it, form it. And while I'm doing all this my mind is free.


In my studio you will find me wearing my grandmother's overalls. We were very close. She died seven years ago and was an artist in her own right as a wood carver. When she carved, she wore the overalls I inherited from her. I'm connected to her. She was also a published author and wrote many articles for the Alaska Journal and was featured in the hardcover publication of The Last Frontier. She is still my biggest inspiration. So I wear her overalls. I also set my Pandora station to Fleetwood Mac and then I play. While I'm playing, my mind is free to work, solve problems, think up new characters, and situations and how I'm going to really mess up my characters' lives. Subconsciously this is all happening. I'm not really aware of it as I'm singing at the top of my lungs along with Stevie. By the end of one of these sessions, I am renewed, reborn, energized.  

And feeling freaking unstoppable.

I can't be the only person out there who experiences this phenomenon. I'd like to hear what inspires you?

--- Tiffinie Helmer