The caretaker’s cottage on Elsie Street (Bernalwood San Francisco)

The “cottage” on Elsie street, razed in 1971, was the primary residence for four generations of my family from about 1870 to 1942. That was the year my mother graduated from high school and when she and her sister helped their grandmother settle into elder care. Thomas Quinlan was my great-great-grandfather. He followed his parents and brother to San Francisco in 1868. In 1871 he had received the position of caretaker for the Holly Park (or College Hill) reservoir. He moved into the house on Elsie Street with his wife, Caroline, and children James and Mary.

Mary married the son of a neighborhood shoemaker, Justin McCarthy by whom she had three children. Sometime after the death of her mother, Mary moved back home with her family to take care of the caretaker, you might say. By 1902 she was a widow with two school aged children, the eldest daughter, Kate, having died in a streetcar accident in the 1890’s.

The second daughter, also called Mary and nicknamed May in the family, grew up to become a teacher and then a vice principle in the neighborhood school. Although the son, William Justin, moved to Sacramento, he spent may of his holidays and weekends back at Elsie street.

During the time of my family residence in that “little cottage” many family members found relief and a warm fire in Mary’s kitchen and home. In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake relatives displaced from their own homes found refuge in Mary’s home. She is reported to have been a kind woman with a great sense of humor. By the time of her passing she had buried her mother, her father, both daughters and her son, giving to the end. A beautiful soul.

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A new year at last!

In 2017 I decided to have the quirks fixed in my old German horn, built between the wars. In 1965 when I no longer qualified for use of the school provided horns, I bought one for $350–my car cost $300–and my dad co-signed the loan. I was working at the county humane society for $1 an hour as girl-friday in the satellite shelter by the tanning company. [TMI, sorry, I digress.]

2018 was long, dragging slowly, overfilled with distracting activities that I filled my calendar with while I awaited my new horn from Germany via New York .

Nothing was right with that horn except for its beautiful German tone. I had it repaired, remodeled, redone to exhaustion–mainly Ben’s exhaustion. Finally he said to me, “Get a new horn.” The Northwest Horn Society was holding its consortium in Tacoma. I went, tried out a dozen or so new and used horns. Zeroed in on the German sound, then down-selected to the class with small handprints (horn players seem to have large hands!). And ended up with a perfect 10-for-me instrument. Only drawback I wasn’t buying the demo. The horn had to be ordered from Germany. I’d have it in three to four months, which then expanded to 6 months.

New French Horn

Our orchestra season ended and I piled on my schedule with workshops to sponser, mini vacations, starting a new novel, and joining a writing group as well as Toastmasters–all skills I had been planning to build in 2018. The time allotted to breaking in a new horn evaporated till the week our fall season began. And hanging over my head all this time was the knowledge of our two week vacation to the East in October for visiting the colors.

We plowed through the last quarter of the year with three library functions, our big trip to Cape Cod and New Hampshire, and then the invite to Hillsdale High School 55th year reunion, which I could not miss. By the holidays I was exhausted. But I had already set up a workshop for January.

I sadly need to publish this catch-up in order to move on with our 2019 projects. I am looking forward to backing off the distractions and focusing on my new book, a few workshops on craft and much horn playing. And keeping Ed and I both healthy and well!

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Telling Your Story – A summer workshop

The urge to create story rises up along many paths through your creative mind. A picture, a scent, a name, or a feeling might invoke the sense of story. Some people can capture the essence quickly and jot down the first draft in a few hours or days. But more often, the story dances around your desire, eluding your focus, every time you try to write it on the page. You may be new to the practice of story. You may be stuck in a sea of choices not knowing which path will take your character to a just finish.

In this two-day workshop, you will write a series of exercises to build the basic elements of story structure. Day one will explore character, setting and conflict as they provoke tension in order to create conflict and disorder. Using the discoveries of these 5-6 writings you will discover the elements of your plot and build a working plot outline. Day two will explore the plot points as they drive characters forward, from the first scene through crisis to resolution. Theme will be worked on last, offering the pillars of beginning (hook) and ending, to unify the writings into a cohesive story.

2018 Summer Workshop in Langley, WA
at Silly Dog Studios
  August 17 and 18  (Friday and Saturday)

Registration information here



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Writing Family: A favorite uncle

Family stories grow out of what we remember about the characters and relationships of our families, or from stories passed down from earlier generations.

When we write about our families, we are writing about characters who have loomed large in our lives, or people who have had an impact on who we are today. We rely on wisps of remembrances, emotional charges, and mental images of places, people and events.

We want to record our memories of people before they are lost to the ages. But how do we write about them? Even if we have no mementos or pictures, we still have our memories to draw from. How do we pull these scraps of memories together into a cohesive picture?  I mined the depths of my own childhood for images  to create the following portrait of a favorite uncle.

My Uncle Henry was a giant man, well over six feet tall, weighing two-hundred and forty pounds, and solid as granite. He walked with a pronounced limp and would hoist himself into the kitchen chair to park for the evening with his cigarettes and coffee. A stroke had left him with the sagging face of Bell’s palsy. He cleaned restaurants and bars at night, built coffins during the day, and played cards on the weekend. Despite his gruff ways and almost thuggish looks, Henry had a strong sense of good manners, proper language with the ladies, as well as a heart of gold.

There are several types of “stories” which can help us capture elusive details. Vignettes are like smoky old pictures which capture the lights and shadows to give a glimpse of who the person was behind our family member. Character sketches give a flavor of how the person lived in her time, what her values were, or how others viewed her. Incidents show what the person did at a particular time or how he executed the duties of his profession, or how she dispatched a particular episode in her life. Anecdotes are small cameo stories that involve a situation and usually other people.

Whether these forms are memoir or biography or fiction they can be equally effective. The first two genres are from actual people and occurrences, whereas the third genre is imaginative writing altogether. Regardless of how you record these stories, the important thing is just to write them down!

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Your Writing Voice-Uniquely You

Your unique voice comes from the well of memory, a lifetime of feelings and experiences accumulated over a lifetime. Gems of experience forged deep in the subconscious, are small cocoons of thought wrapped in sensory data and bound by emotion, unknown and unremembered. Then a chance encounter out of the blue—a face in the park, the scent of rosemary,  a carnelian shade of red—evokes a past event, half remembered that compels you. Your mind is full of these gems.

The day you fell into the neighbor’s pool at three feet, too short to keep your head above water. You can’t find a hand hold. Your body drifts down to the deepest end. You are drawn toward the company in the blue grotto calling for you to come. You want to but are now aware of the dark shadow overhead, the large hand grasping your slight shoulder, and swooping you onto the cold concrete deck.

At sixteen, you try to write about a moment of fear. But when you call up the memory you find there is no fear in the moment of the seven-year-old. Old remembrances of fear have become curiosity. The bottom of the pool offers comfort. You are curious about those people. Do you know them? You see the grotto as a blue gate into something else. You try to move toward the center of joy. But a dark shadow falls over the pool, and a hand swoops in grabbing your swimsuit. Screaming and shouting on the deck means big trouble will be added to the litany of wrongs you have committed against your family. Through the telescope of time, details are now cast on memory shaping it with evidence of outcomes, with broken rules and probable misfortunes.

In another decade the memory is evoked again in the incongruous setting of a hotel restaurant in Southern California, which is decorated in the manner of a Tuscan villa. I am eating a bowl of pasta and white beans in a natty business suit. Across the lobby, a crowd of well-heeled personas from the art world, perhaps artists and critics and buyers, donned in the colorful patterns of African frocks and suits, topped with fanciful headdresses. They are milling around large paintings of African landscapes and fanciful humans and animals filling fantasy landscapes.

One colorful landscape of greens and yellows falls against a bright blue sky, that blue, the color of the grotto at the bottom of my dream pool. And I am transported to that pool many years before, the water warm and much too deep. The hunger of a seven-year-old for the love and company of those souls in the blue grotto at the bottom of the pool. The bright African colors of awatery crowd calling me toward heaven beyond the deepest blue.

Everything you recall from the past is re-imprinted with new experiences and emotions as memories respond to your expanding view of the world. Because your exact experiences and emotions differ from everyone else’s. The collage formed by memory, education, experience, genetic threads, and much more, are different from those of every once else. You are unique. You draw upon this in everything you write. And this alone defines your unique voice.

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Writing Workshop Fun

Recently I had the privilege of leading a writing workshop for a language arts class in  middle school. Being a night owl of sorts, I was not looking forward to the 7:30 am duty call. But the laughter, chatter and scurrying footsteps filled the silence like a cheerful Mozart sonata. A little nervous, I offered the first writing exercise, wondering how it would be received by the attentive and respectful students. Using their own favorite topics, each created a list of ten words which would form the core of the workshop. The list expanded into ideas from which they could build a poem, write a story, and form a personal essay. The group was congenial and ready to play with their words in many ways.  It was a great day.

You can try your hand at a writing on Saturday November 5 on Whidbey Island at Madrona Writers Workshop.

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Why I Like Writing Workshops

I believe in the power of words and in building my own power with just the right word. I work to find the right word for each idea I want to communicate. This is very important in a poem, It is also important in writing stories, essays and letters, any vehicle you use to communicate to others.

Private writing (not meant for others), such as my journal, is just for me. I am allowed to write anything I want, to explore possibilities, to ask myself hard questions of who I am and who I want to be. Private writing is not for others’ eyes. When I am done exploring my own truths and have made some decisions I want to share, then I write a personal essay, a memoir snapshot, a poem or a story. These are the writings that I share with others.

Not everyone wants to share with others and that is okay. We are all valuable players in this thing called life. We pursue our own dreams. We define our own goals. We get to say what is right for us and what is not. As young people we are under the jurisdiction of others who may not agree that we own our own truths. We must respect authority, and adapt our behaviors in order to move beyond the restrictions of ineexperience. Adaption is often tough. This line between who we are and who they want us to be establishes a base level of conflict in our lives. It will always be there. Luckily, conflict and its close cousin, contradiction, are the stuff of great writing.

Expand your world.

Expand your world.

We can question our lives through thought, reflection, meditation and playing out roles with others. Working through conflict offers the best return on our investment for creating these private writings. Boldly we select those words to grasp our feelings, and explore alternating realities in flights of fancy. From the imagination, poems burst with thunder, stories unwind to justice or to greater love, and essays swirl around misty topics until our truth unfolds to the light. Truth, then, is the great promise of all this writing.

Today we write in order to peck at the edges of our own truths.

Buckle up, now!  Take the ride of your lifetime!

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3yrsago mom

I’ve had a little break from novel-wrestling, but it’s been three years. Time to get back to the mill. I’ve expanded my interests to writing essays, playing French horn in the local orchestra, and other random stuff. Hope to intrigue you…or interest you, at least.

Novel writing is my main gig.

For the latest on my adventures in publishing, see A Cautionary Tale in my blog, The Emerging Novelist.

Work hard and play often.

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Dottie’s Attic

My mom, Dot Mudd, died on August 27 in Santa Clara, California, at the age of 89. A month before, she had retired from her day job manaGing a 24 unit apartment complex in Sunnyvale. With the departure from that job, she lost her home of 30 years, a 2 bedroom townhouse that was filled to the brim with memories and “stuff” she collected to support her varied hobbies.  My husband and I rented a trailer to haul as much of her life as we could back to our home on Whidbey Island.

The journey through Mom’s life has proven to be a treasure trove, not only of our family’s memories, but of many people whose lives she had graced over the years. As I sift through things known and unknown to me, stories emerge of a beautiful soul who lived by herself, but never alone, of one who guided others to discover their inner joys, and one who rarely compromised with life. She lived on her own terms till the end.

One of Mom’s favorite activites was innovative cooking and many times we would explore the culinary dens of the San Francisco and the Peninsula to find new offerings. One favorite was, the French bistro, St. Tropez on Clement Street which served up a delicious green delicacy, a soup made with spinach and pears. My own composition of the recipe is found below. Probably not the same but a close copy and such a good way to eat those greens.

Spinach and Pear Soup

2 cups chicken broth
10 oz. fresh spinach
4-5 ripe pears
1/4 to 1/2 tsp nutmeg
salt to taste
OPTIONAL: 1/2 c. light cream

SAUTE spinach in 1/2 chicken broth till wilted thoroughly. Pulverize spinach and broth to consistency of soup.|
SAUTE pears in rest of stock until fruit is pulpy (skins will begin to tear). Discard core and seeds, then pulverize in food blender until the consistency of apple sauce. I leave the skins on the pears for fiber; they will pulverize easily as well.
BLEND the spinach and pear mixtures with salt and nutmeg in a soup pot and cook on low for 20 minutes to amalgamate flavors.

OPTIONAL ELEGANCE: Add 1/2 c. light cream and heat just before serving

Bon apetit!


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Traveling in Hunting Season

Greetings from Huntington!

Traveling through the American South these two weeks reminds me of our last trip to these parts four years ago. Then, during the 2008 election, feelings ran high for either side as we visited our family and friends through Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Everyone had a strong opinion, yet there was little evidence of the landslide that would end the election season.

Four years later, we find our family and friends in a different mood. Few are polarizing their personal views from Virginia to Florida, some are even turned off to the politicking altogether. The strongest partisanship comes from the televised conventions and the opinionated “journalists” tossing objectivity to the wind and roiling with red and blue hate conjured up by paid ads and party insiders.

I trust PBS to keep things as even as possible, because even where personal bias might appear it is immediately countered with personal bias on the opposite team.

Still it would be nice if we all just got along and pulled the country forward like a well trained team of oxen.

That’s as political as I get.

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