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Sleeping Tigers by author Holly Robinson

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The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter by author Holly Robinson

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Story, Setting, and Emotion: Why Places Matter in Fiction




Tomorrow I’m headed to Prince Edward Island for a long weekend. This is no easy feat. From my house in Massachusetts, it takes a full eleven hours to drive to PEI in the Canadian Maritimes, where my family owns a farmhouse built in 1900 that looks pretty much the same as it always has. It will be tough to go up for just a few days instead of several sun-drenched summer weeks, but this time my trip is all about researching a setting for a book.

Our house has the peaked roof and simple lines of most of the Victorian era farmhouses on Prince Edward Island, and it’s surrounded by potato fields that flower white in the summer. The road is edged with bright lupine in spring, in astonishing Disney purples and pinks. In the fall the fields are tinged in red and gold and the flowers are scarlet and orange.

dunes at greenwich PE

The beach is just a mile away, down a red clay road like so many other red clay roads on PEI that lead to secret coves. The beaches on the south side of the eastern tip of the island are soft and white, while the beaches on the northern side are red. There are red cliffs on both sides, dropping in dramatic folds to the Northumberland Straight on the southern shore—across which you can see Cape Breton Island on a clear day—and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on the north. At the tip of the island, just a few miles from my house, the Gulf meets the Strait near a lighthouse with a decent cafe, and no morning is better than the ones that start with eggs and bacon and strong Northside tea as you watch the surf crash below those cliffs, with occasional seals bobbing about with the cormorants diving for fish.


barn at sunset pei

This part of Prince Edward Island is far from the “crowds”–which, believe me, are nothing like you see on Cape Cod or even around Maine’s coastal towns in summer—who gather to worship at the shrine of Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables. That red-haired orphan is the subject of the longest-running musical on the island, and draws Japanese tourists by the busload, for some mysterious reason, mostly women, most of them donning hats with red braids attached to have their photos taken.

My house on PEI is an hour away from Charlottetown, too, the birthplace of Canada’s Confederation, a charming town of brick and cobblestones that boasts an astonishing array of restaurants, musical venues, and art galleries. But we see none of that where I go to write.

No, where we are, there are the potato fields in front of the house and to one side. Behind the house is another farm with sheep grazing in the fields. How could I help but make one of the characters in my next book, HAVEN LAKE (April 2015) be a shepherdess, after all of those hours of sitting on my deck and watching the sheep do their thing?

And now, after over twenty years of spending vacations on the island, I am writing a book that is set partly there, and partly in Massachusetts. I’m excited but terrified.

To me, settings are far more than just places in books. I view settings as essential components of every novel, because so often places convey the interior landscapes of the characters and deepen the reader’s experience. In my first novel, THE WISHING HILL, I set some of the action overlooking an old snuff mill where one of the characters worked long ago. The antique building’s Gothic lines, rusty water wheels and stained clapboards seemed like the perfect metaphor for an unrequited love. And in my second novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, I used Plum Island as the setting because a barrier island—battered as it is by wind and rain, snow and tides—changes shape constantly, just as our lives change shape according to the external forces we experience as parents and lovers, mourners and creatures who inhabit the earth only temporarily.

Now that I’m looking at Prince Edward Island not just as a sanctuary, but as a setting for my next novel, CHANCE HARBOR, this trip will take on a whole new meaning for me. I’ll be trying to view the island through the eyes of my characters—the colors and cliffs, the lobster fishing and Northeasters, the lighthouses and vast empty beaches will all have meaning, depending on the turmoil I decide to put my characters through.  The eastern tip of this island, which really does feel like the end of the world, is the perfect setting for these characters, who are all reinventing themselves in some way, having to let go of their old lives and forgive the people who betrayed them as they move forward.

Should be fun, but daunting. I want to do this island justice, because this magical place is as much a part of my own inner landscape as it will be for my characters.

(Thanks to my friends Toby Neal and Susan Soule Shulins for their PEI photos!)

Yes, My Daughter Is in West Africa. Yes, I’m Scared.

Taylor on her way to Senegal



People who know me call me adventurous. I have climbed the Andes, hitchhiked around Spain and trekked the Himalaya through thigh-deep snow in March. But those people haven’t met my daughter. Compared to Taylor, I’m a TV-surfing couch potato.

I’ve encouraged and embraced Taylor’s adventures vicariously, from the year she learned to scuba dive in Indonesia to her work with the U.S. Forest Service on a remote Alaskan island. Nope, I didn’t like getting those emails reporting that she had nearly gotten the bends under water, or hearing about her close encounters with grizzly bears, but I always believed that Taylor was sensible and smart and would find her way home.

This, though, feels different. This past weekend, Taylor left as a Peace Corps Volunteer—part of her master’s degree program at Oregon State University—destined not for South America, where I thought they would surely send her because she speaks Spanish, but for Senegal, West Africa. As in, the part of Africa where the World Health Organization is predicting that there will be 21,000 people afflicted with the Ebola virus before it’s fully contained. (If, that is, they can contain it at all.) The Peace Corps pulled its volunteers from the three West African countries with the most cases—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—but, since Senegal has so far seen only one patient with the virus, the organization is continuing its work there.

Good for them. I just wish my daughter weren’t one of their volunteers.

Taylor, though, could not be dissuaded from going. She believes in promoting sustainable agriculture efforts worldwide and is invested in learning more about population ecology and agroforestry. Nothing could prepare her better for a career in that arena better than working on projects through the Peace Corps. Plus, everyone she knows who has been in the Peace Corps says the same thing: It will transform your life.

Good for her. But I just want her to come home.

Often, however, we mothers have to step aside and sweep our fears under the rug. I believe, with all my heart, that the Peace Corps is absolutely right to continue their projects in Senegal and other African countries. Those countries need international assistance now more than ever.

And I do know that Taylor will come home transformed, because her world perspective will be both broader and deeper. In return, perhaps the people she meets in Senegal will know more about people from the U.S.–an essential cultural exchange, since we are all sharing the same fragile planet and its limited resources.

I am proud, terrified, joyful and amazed by my daughter all at once, every day. I wish she would come home right now, but I hope she stays in West Africa. If she does, the Peace Corps and her work in Senegal will shape her into the person she is already becoming: a woman who not only wants to do well in life, but one who is committed to doing good in the world.  A daughter who fills her mother’s heart with love.


Marketing Your eBook? 5 Surefire Strategies



Recently, a friend asked if I had any foolproof strategies for marketing ebooks. My first response was less than quotable: “Um, no. I just try everything.”

But, as I looked back at the past year and dug a little deeper into the various marketing strategies I used, I realized that I did, in fact, discover some things that worked better than others. And the best part? They were easy and free! Here they are, in case you want to try them yourself:


  1. PUBLISH MULTIPLE BOOKS. It’s very clear that ebook sales for my first two novels, SLEEPING TIGERS and THE WISHING HILL, jumped when I published my third book, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, clear evidence that you can ramp up your audience reach as you put more books on your virtual shelf.
  2. THINK BIGGER THAN YOUR OWN WEB SITE. Yes, it’s helpful for a writer to have a web site, to blog, to be on Twitter, to do meet-and-greets in bookstores, book signings, etc. But I see the most sales in ebooks when I write something that is then picked up by a popular online site like The Huffington Post. It’s also important for authors to write guest posts for sites that draw a big audience of ebook readers, like IndieReader, Venture Galleries, and Shelf Pleasure. If you do a lot on Twitter and blog regularly, consider joining a Triberr group, which is essentially a gathering place for bloggers interested in reading and disseminating each other’s work.
  3. TRY BLOGTALK RADIO. Authors should definitely consider blogtalk radio shows. A lot of blogtalk radio shows have solid followings, and people who follow them download the podcasts and listen to them on the computer or while they’re at the gym, using their iPhones or whatever. Listeners can immediately click on a link to buy your ebook if they like the show. e.
  4. TARGET SPECIFIC MARKETS. In addition to targeting popular book-related web sites, it helps ebook sales to reach out to specific target audiences who would be particularly interested in the themes in your books. For instance, BEACH PLUM ISLAND revolves around half sisters and a second marriage, so I made myself accessible to stepmothers by writing guest posts for web sites like The Evil Stepmother Speaks and StepParenting with Grace. When my next novel, HAVEN LAKE, is published, I’ll contact web sites targeted at veterans, PTSD survivors, etc., because that’s a theme that runs through the novel.  I’ll also do the same with web sites that draw knitters and people raising sheep, because guess what?  Fiber arts and sheep farming are also featured in the novel!
  5. KEEP ROLLING AND BUILDING A BIGGER SNOWBALL. Finally—and this is probably the most essential strategy—authors should realize that the days of a single book launch event (or even a week of launch events) are over. With social media, you can use a snowball marketing approach. Keep rolling out your words and ideas, and the readers will come!

What I Learned On My Fifth Summer College Tour: A Mom’s Survival Guide


Like most parents with juniors and seniors in high school, I’ve spent some of my summer touring colleges. This was my fifth time around, so I thought it was time to pass on what I’ve learned.

Does It Really Matter Where Your Child Goes to College?
In our experience, not so much. We had three children graduate from private schools—one Ivy, two middle-reach schools—and one from a large State university. All four of our graduates landed jobs and are supporting themselves. Three are working in their chosen fields.

Without exception, our children were hired not because they had degrees or graduated from a particular school, but because they had done other useful things during their college years. Press your children to take advantage of field work, internships, co-ops, part-time jobs, and any other sorts of opportunities that translate into work experience on a resume. For instance, one of our sons earned a film studies degree, and is now working as an art director in Hollywood because he had a summer job as a carpenter. His tool belt helped him land entry level positions and move up quickly from there because of his degree. Another son, an English major, wrote copy for web sites while in school. He was immediately hired by a big PR firm to develop digital copy for company web sites.

And by the way? The child who went to the large (and affordable) State university received the most job-related opportunities after graduation. She’s now in grad school but has easily found work along the way because of her hands-on experiences. Relax. Your kid doesn’t have to go to an Ivy to succeed.

Let Your Child Drive
I mean this both figuratively and literally. Literally, let your child drive the car at least part of the time. Your child is about to feel—and be—independent. Driving will allow your child to “feel” how far away a school is, what the surrounding area is like, etc. That’s all important information. It’s also crucial for your child to drive the college tour process, helping you plot out your journey. The initial list of schools to tour should be your child’s. (Ideally, your child will have generated that list with a guidance counselor who has given him or her a realistic expectation of what qualifies as a “reach” or a “safety” school based on your child’s high school record.) Then you can add a few.

Don’t Judge a School Until You’ve Seen It
Every college will trumpet about “hands-on experiences,” “personal attention,” “topnotch faculty,” and their U.S. News & World Report status. That’s fine, but see the schools for yourself. A lot of teenagers don’t really know what will “feel” right until they actually stand on different campuses. Try to walk around in the city or town the college is in as well as touring the campus. Trust me. Your child will know if a school fits.

Ask Questions
When it’s question-and-answer time on an admissions tour, don’t be afraid to ask questions that might embarrass your kids, like what the freshman advising system is like, the student retention rate, what percentage of students do internships and coops, what the career development office does during the years your child is there, what social activities are offered on weekends, etc.

Eat Your Way Across the Nation
Since our youngest is a boy, I packed lots of food in the car this summer. Yet we stopped every two hours to eat in restaurants anyway. Why? Because eating on campus or in restaurants in a school’s geographic area is a way for your child to visualize what it would be like to live there. Most schools will let you eat in their dining halls, so be sure to do that as well.

If You Miss a School on Your List, It’s Okay
There are only a certain number of days in your vacation, so you might not make it to every school on your child’s list. That’s fine! Encourage your child to apply anyway. If he or she is admitted, you can go to one of the “admitted students” days, where the college will try to woo you with food and information. Many colleges also arrange overnights for prospective students.

No Matter What, Don’t Panic
I’ve had children balk on tours and demand to leave “because the kids here are all posers.” I’ve had children say they’d slit their wrists if they had to attend a certain school, then choose that school and be happy there anyway. One of my daughters told me that a certain dormitory “is begging me to throw myself out the window.”

Two of our children decided to transfer after they’d spent a year or two at their top choice schools and discovered they didn’t like them. They both ended up in better schools—sometimes admission to a top-tier college is easier if your child has already earned good grades at another school.

My point is this: no matter what choice your child makes, don’t panic. Take a close look at the financial packages—be sure there aren’t a lot of loans embedded in the package, and definitely calculate in the cost of two or three roundtrip airline tickets per year if the school is far away—and then, if the school your child chooses is affordable, go for it. Never mind if you don’t think it’s the right fit, or if you really wish you had a good excuse to spend Parents Weekend in Vermont (where I took this picture while waiting for my son to check out a skate park near the University after our tour) instead of New York City. The most important thing is that your child is happy with the choice and ready to embrace the experience of college.

Should You Publish Indie or Traditional? A Hybrid Author Busts the Myths

Yesterday, I gathered with a group of area writers at the Haverhill Public Library Authors Fair. My table was situated between Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, an author who publishes traditionally, and Connie Johnson Hambley, a self-published mystery writer. This was the perfect place for me: I’m a hybrid author who has jumped from a traditional publisher (Random House) to indie publishing and back to a traditional house again. As I start my fourth novel to be published by New American Library/Penguin Random House, I have no contract for the next one. This means that I’m revisiting the all-important question for many writers: do I want to go solo when I publish my next book, or stay where I am?
This is a good time to roundup what I’ve learned about publishing. In the process, I want to dismantle four common myths:

1. Publishers are Out to Screw Authors
MYTH. Publishing companies are businesses that compete in a global marketplace. Their job is to make money—and, in so doing, they will make money for you.
With a traditional publisher, you will get royalties from your books—typically about 25 percent of ebook sales. This is much less than the percentage of royalties you’ll get if you self publish. Rates vary, but with self publishing, you’ll reap about 65 percent of a book sale as your royalty rate.
On the other hand, with a traditional publishing deal, you will get an advance against royalties—anywhere from $5K to $45K for most first-time novelists, though of course there are some pie-in-the-sky whopper deals. You will also get—for free!–an editor, publicist, marketing team, designers, sales people, etc. Your team at a traditional publisher will help you whip your book into shape and get it into the hands of readers.
People who self publish don’t get advances, obviously. In addition, they must shell out money in advance to designers, editors, copy editors, publicists, advertising venues, reviewers, etc.
Bottom line: Yes, I have friends who self publish and make buckets of money. However, the only self-published authors who really make a solid profit are those who are willing to write several books a year; have deep pockets to get the whole business of branding started; and most likely write romances, mysteries, or fantasy novels in series. Most say it takes them four or five books before they start seeing a solid, reliable annual profit.

2. You Have More Control as an Indie Author
SOMEWHAT TRUE. Everything—and I mean everything—is up to you as an indie author: writing, editing (or hiring editors), design, marketing, promotions, etc. You can decide everything from what kind of brand you want to create to how you want to promote that brand. Nobody can tell you, for instance, that you can’t write a paranormal book because your last book was a romance. You call the shots, and it’s a great feeling.
There is also a great deal of transparency. Your sales are visible nearly to the minute, and you can tell with some degree of accuracy whether certain ads or blog posts have caused upward tics in sales. If you’re with a traditional publisher, you probably won’t have any clear idea as to how many books you’ve sold until you get your royalty statement six months after your book is published, because traditional publishers have agreements with bookstores about returns—i.e., the books you “think” you’ve sold might actually be returned, so the publishers don’t want to tell you how many have gone out until they’re sure the books won’t be returned.
The flip side? Publishers are starting to listen to writers clamoring for more transparency. For example, Penguin is now adopting Random House’s “author portal,” which allows writers to see their royalties any time they wish, along with other info about sales, and of course we can also do that through BookScan on Amazon.
Bottom Line: Indie authors have more control both in writing and in the publishing process than traditional authors.

3. Indie Authors Spend More Time Marketing
SOMEWHAT TRUE. With marketing, Indie authors shoulder a lot of responsibility. They tend to be fiercely proactive with social media, and are paying up front for their own ads, Kirkus reviews, and publicists.
Today’s traditionally-published authors should also be building their platforms through social media, as well as meeting booksellers and librarians and participating in conferences and literary festivals.
Bottom line: The only marketing advantage traditionally-published writers have over our indie colleagues is that we have access to wider distribution through bookstores and international sales.

4. It’s Faster to Self-Publish
TRUE. To land a deal with a traditional house, you need an agent, and finding one takes time and a lot of networking. The agent might then ask you to revise the book before she shops it around to editors. This can take months.
Once an editor buys your book, you’re in for another round of revisions, first with the editor, and then with a copy editor, before the book goes into production. This process can take another year or more.
Seems like forever, right? However, if you’re going to write the best book possible, you don’t want to rush it. You’re going to want to show your book to beta readers and hire an editor and copy editor if you can swing it. I’ve seen too many talented self-published authors make the mistake of releasing their books too soon, simply because they’ve self-imposed some arbitrary deadline and don’t want to take the time to revise their books again.
Bottom line: it’s faster to publish your own books, but you never sacrifice quality for quantity when your name is on the cover.

As you’re polishing up that manuscript, consider these two key questions: Do you want to invest money up front and build your brand as an indie author, basically running your own business as you go? Or would you rather take more time and try the traditional route first?
Weigh your pro’s and con’s carefully, and don’t rush into anything. This is your book—you want it to be the best one possible.