By Nandy Ekle

The heart, the center, the core, the theme, the main idea. This is a very important part of your story. The heart is what the story is about.

Look at anatomy. On the outside we see skin, hair, fingernails. But we don’t see what’s under the skin. We don’t see the bones, the muscles, or the blood in its vessels. But we can look at the skin and see the evidence of those deeper body parts. Our skin has a firm shape because of the bones under it and it’s warm and has a rosy color because of the blood being pumped by the heart through the blood vessels.

Our stories are the same. We talk about story layers all the time, and that’s another good analogy—the onion theory. On the topmost layer of the story you have what’s happening at the moment. The next layer might be what’s going on inside the characters’ heads, and there might be a layer of tension between the characters because of the relationship between them. You could even have a layer of discovery and healing when the relationships change. But the very center of the story, the heart, is what the whole thing is really all about.

The other definition of “heart” I want to talk about sort of fits parallel with this one. Heart equals feelings. One of the best ways to connect with your reader is with emotions. You have a main character that wants something so much they are willing to risk everything to get it. You want your reader to feel this yearning and hunger as much as the character. You want your reader to feel every struggle, every disappointment, every victory with your character. When that happens, the center layer of your story goes right into the reader’s heart and they learn the same lesson the character learns.

In my blog next week, we will look at ways to burrow down into a reader’s heart and make your story become their story.

Congratulations. You have just received a post card from the muse.



by Sharon Stevens


I inherited so many cases of books this past week. A friend with a passion for history and heritage was moving and needed to unload instead of transporting to the new home. We packed them up into boxes and I took them to our Buffalo Bookstore until I could sort them out. The actual number of tomes doesn’t matter. My husband says there are too many, and I think there is never enough. But he didn’t see all the treasures I put in the box.

One of the books in the mix was Don Taylor & Jeanne Smalling Archer’s book, “Up Against The Wal-Marts.” This wonderful book was written by a man who was strong in the Canyon Economic Development Corporation in Canyon Texas, and works toward helping small businesses compete with the mega-giants by simple and basic means. I found an interesting quote in the chapter on survival strategies… “Remember that when you misspend one dollar you really wasted two-the dollar you misspent and the dollar you could have spent well.”

Another gem I found was the 75th Commemorative Edition Special Anniversary Issue of the July 1997 New Mexico magazine. One of the stories was written by Sheila Tryk with photography by Ralph Looney. “O’Keeffe’s World” celebrated thoughts of O’Keeffe with interviews and insight into her life. The story briefly mentioned when she taught in Amarillo, but didn’t mention her time at the college, which is now WTAMU or where she found her passion in Palo Duro Canyon. I found it interesting that later on after she married that she left her husband in New York for months at a time while she pursued her passion at Ghost Ranch.

Each year, when O’Keefe went back into her husband’s orbit, she took mementos of the West. Stones, weathered and worn smooth. Artificial flowers, (“They were popular then, and there were some very lovely ones being sold in the country stores here.”) And desert bleached bones. “To me they are as beautiful as anything I know,” she once wrote. “To me they are strangely more living than the animals walking around—-hair, eyes, and all, with their tails twitching. The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable—and knows no kindness with all its beauty….I took back a barrel of bones,” she says now, her eyes amused at the recollection. “I remember it cost me 16 dollars by freight.” One wonders at her husband’s reaction to this delivery.”

O’Keefe was able to find her passion within bleached bones. Anyone who has ever seen her paintings of skulls knows what she sees within. Just like my boxes of books, I can find treasures among the words. Whether its a quote, passage, or sentence…all pull me to a story or memory, a sweet reminder of what touches my heart day in and day out. I take nothing for granted, and never overlook a single moment.

I truly believe that to me if I leave a stone unturned, that it represents a misspent dollar that I could have spent well. As a writer, just like O’Keefe as an artist, I can take an object and use my imagination and creativity to weave it into a story with tangible ties.

Even though O’Keefe used bare bones and stones to express her soul, I just happen to cherish anything I find in a box of books.

Uncle Max

Outtakes 100

Uncle Max

By Cait Collins

Our cousin, Jack, sent out an email last Tuesday. Uncle Max had died in his sleep. He was 86 years old. I did not know my uncle well. My dad’s military service separated us from family for three to four years at a time. We missed many a family gathering. However, we know our cousins. They have stood by us in the hard times, and we wanted to be there for them. My sisters and I discussed attending the service when we go together for a birthday dinner that evening. Sis 4 could not get off, but the rest of us got the time. We left Amarillo at about 9 AM on Friday morning for the nearly five hour drive to Graham, Texas.

I got to know my uncle during the service and the brief visitation at the cemetery. I did not know he had served in the Army during World War II. He loved his country, but chose not to re-enlist because he believed he could better serve the nation by growing wheat for food and working the oil leases to provide energy. He was unfailingly loyal to his commitments. He missed family gatherings because he was working to provide for his family and to support his employer’s needs. He worked for the same company for 54 years. Uncle Max was the original environmentalist. He loved the land and respected its bounty. He taught hard-headed kids the things he had learned.

Yes, he was a hard man, but he loved his family and his extended family. When Uncle Scott died, Uncle Max stepped up to be a role model for my cousins, Scott and Jack. He came to my father’s funeral to offer his support to mother. Over the years, he would ask his wife about mom. If my aunt had not spoken with mom in a while, she would call to check on us. Uncle Max kept letters, cards, graduation announcements, wedding and birth announcements. His children became concerned he could not afford new clothes as he always wore the same grungy overalls. They sent him boxes of new overalls, white tee-shirts, socks and shoes. The care packages were found in a closet.

The more I thought about what I had heard, the more I realized I had met Uncle Max in many a book or short story. He’s that character who would greet an intruder with a loaded shot gun. But when the snow falls, he secretly clears a widow’s sidewalk and driveway. The sheriff does not need to ask for his help searching for a missing child. The curmudgeon is already beating the bushes. The town bully taunts a timid child to go knock on old man Hunter’s door. Although terrified of the consequences, the kid accepts the challenge. A hand reaches through the partially opened door and yanks the boy inside. The sheriff arrives in response to a kidnapping report and finds the child pulling weeds in the garden under Mr. Hunter’s supervision.

The shadowy person may not be a primary character in the work, but he does have a role in the development of the story. Information he provides the authorities may break the case. The protagonist rescues the hardened character. When he dies, his estate goes to the hero. Old man Hunter dies. His game-rich property is left to the county as a wild life preserve. Or what if this cagey character is killed in a gun battle? The investigation reveals he shielded drug runners. The plot lines are infinite when an “unknown” person is introduced. Thank you, Uncle Max. You just taught another hard-headed kid a valuable lesson.



It’s the middle of the night. Pitch black. The cricket’s chirping fiddle serenade has ceased and the man on the moon has shut his eyes in sleep. After what feels like the deepest sleep you have ever experienced, you sit straight up in the bed with the greatest story idea—ever. Frantically you try to remember the smallest details. Your mind races back to the beginning of the dream to piece together the plot line. Sleep fights the adrenaline as your eyes begin to close. In a haze you convince yourself that you will remember it in the morning.

As the alarm startles you awake and your eyes open and begin to focus, horror sets in because you can’t recall the greatest story idea—ever!

You didn’t write it down.

Keep a notebook or writing pad by your bedside and make notes when the thoughts happen or they will be lost forever.

The Story in Your Head

The Story in Your Head

By Natalie Bright

A librarian asked me, “Does the story you’re working on ever leave your head?”

As writers, you know the answer. And what most people don’t realize, it’s not just our current work in progress. A multitude of characters, settings, snippets of dialogue are all scrambling for attention in our brains. Which explains why we have no down time in this crazy job of writing.

In a previous blog, Crazy Daze, I mentioned how the month of May has always zapped me of my writing time. The month flew by with hardly any moment for me to sit with hands on the keyboard. That doesn’t mean I left my story behind.

Although I wasn’t actually generating new words, my mind has been totally occupied with the current WIP. It’s another western, so in the late night hours I’ve been reading Elmer Kelton, watching old movies and those black and white series like The Virginian. And I’ve rediscovered Dr. Quinn reruns. All of this got me to thinking about one of my main characters, Roving Wolf.

Roving Wolf is a Comanche brave and I decided that he needs to break the stereotypical image of Indians portrayed in the western genre. In the old movies, Native Americans were so serious and always picking on the innocent white man. On occasion the viewer might learn of their motives and their true lifestyle, but rarely. I want my character to break the mold. I’ve decided to make him the rowdy and funny one. I’m thinking the white guy is not so innocent in this story and Roving Wolf turns out to be the hero.

As Roving Wolf grew larger than life inside my head, I finally found time to write and he came storming into the story just like I knew he would. The first thing he did was shoot my other main character with an arrow. I can hardly wait to find out what he does next.

Writing is torture, and on somedays, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have.  I love this job.


Going to school

A Pinch of Rodeo

By Joe R. Nichols


Going to school

I went to my first bronc riding school at 18 years of age as a freshman in college. Taught by Lyle and Ike Sankey, it was a three-day event that benefited me immensely.

Since age converted me to a team roper, I have attended numerous roping schools. You have to have high credentials to put on a school. These are people who have achieved great success, or are making their living at what they are teaching.

However, I have been around some of the most talented and accomplished cowboys in the world, that couldn’t teach you how to tie your shoe. Some folks have such a natural talent for doing something, they don’t even know how they accomplish it. Therefore, they are at a loss at how to explain the method to someone else.

In contrast, I’ve never encountered a published author that I couldn’t learn  from. They all seem to have the ability to pass along valuable, helpful, information. They are willing to encourage your given voice, without imposing their own style as the only correct way of writing.

I’m grateful for the talent I’m surrounded by in my critique group, and the other contacts I’ve made through Jodi Thomas and her Writers Academy at WTAMU.

I intend to keep learning and improving in my writing and roping. I just wish some cowboys could express what they know as well as authors.

I Love A Terrible Book


I Love A Terrible Book

By Nandy Ekle

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says, “So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.”

When I started writing my prose was a stream of repetitious flowery poetic vomit. I did keep to the rule of three, but everything I wrote repeated itself three times. I had three metaphors, followed by three adjectives in a long sentence with three complex parts. I had endless descriptions of every molecule in the space my characters inhabited. I wrote conversations that sounded like Shakespearean type speech. I was determined to wow the world with how many words I knew and how well I could put them together. And to make matters worse, I defended my writing style to anyone who criticized it.

One day I picked up a book by an author who actually has a fair size following and began reading. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my style was a lot like his. The kicker to this was that I hated his book. I read another one of his stories, and didn’t like it even more than I didn’t like the first one. And it seemed that the more of his writing I read, the less I cared for him as an author.

I took another look at my own stories and cringed with embarrassment. It didn’t take long for me to re-evaluate my style and change.

I have realized that even though I will never be a fan of this particular author, I am very grateful for having read his books. He was as effective a teacher as a doctorate of the English language would be.

When reading a story, whether an article in the newspaper, confession magazine, or epic novel, pay attention to the author’s style. If it’s good, learn from it. If it’s not so great, learn from that too.

Congratulations. You have just received a post card from the muse.



By Sharon Stevens

“Scum-the refuse, the recrement, that which is vile or worthless”

Webster’s 1890 Dictionary Definition

While getting cookies at the local discount store for our cookie jar at our family business I spied a package of Kool-aid someone had knocked to the floor. (Black Cherry if I remember right.) It took only a second to pick it up and put it back on the shelf. That’s all I did, nothing more and nothing less. There was no fanfare, no flags unfurled, no pageantry anywhere around me. All I remember is looking at the image for just a moment, remembered the brand, then placing the bright colored picture back where it belonged among the others. I then simply walked on down the aisle.

But I came away from that brief encounter with memories that flooded and overwhelmed me deep within my heart all the way down to my toes, so much so that I couldn’t shake it off.

My husband worked with a man who had been in Vietnam and had battled some of the fiercest fighting of the war. He was just nineteen years old and from a small town in Texas surrounded by every horror known to man. He told us that he would never forget a hometown gesture that really kept him sane. He said that friends and neighbors back home would send him packets of Kool-aid. When he came to a steaming creek or river, all he had to do was skim the scum off the top of water, fill his canteen, pull out a packet with the bright colored logo, empty it in, shake it up and voila. In the horrendous heat of the tropical jungle he had a drink that instantly reminded him of cool glasses of lemonade on the front porch, or back porch, at the lake, at the baseball field, at a family picnic, or after a hard days work. His thoughts could return to home even with the drones of every insect, the scavengers in the water, and the bombardment of the deafening fight that surrounded him.

I will always remember Mrs. Gordon-Cummings, our neighbor next door out in the country. She was one of the original pioneers of our area. Until her death she would ask her caretakers to go down into the canyons, to the artesian springs, and bring her back a glass jar filled with cool water. I have been down to those very springs and they are covered in a scum that transcends nasty. But to her, for some reason, this was the nectar of the Gods.

But then again, when I think about it, I have gone down to these ponds and noticed a sweet smell, something that I couldn’t put my finger on. Earth, flowers, water, grass, leaves…all the colors of the rainbow would fill my senses. Years later I could be walking next to a stream in Colorado and be surrounded with these same thoughts.

Scum is such a relative word. When you hear or see this image you can’t help but think evil, ugly, and dark. Or child molesters, wife beaters, drug dealers, the whole gamut of despair. You can’t separate anything out other than the deepest and the worst. Men come to mind more than women, old comes to mind more that youth.

As writers you have to write your characters as you see and feel them. It is so very hard for me to write of the darkness of the soul. I don’t always look for the silver lining in whatever story I am working on, but I usually find a memory that pulls the very dregs of humanity out back up into the light. Makes me weary though. I so want everyone to be happy all the time. My heart tells me that not every story has a happy ending, or a joyous middle, or a sweet beginning. Or maybe its my brain that is forcing me to see reality between the lines.

On the other hand. I never want to get so lost in the black that I can’t ever see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think this is what happened to Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight”, as he became consumed with the darkness that turned inward.

So the next time you hear or think the word, “scum” take just a moment and place yourself away in a world where a homesick soldier is skimming aside the scum of the earth to get a quick drink of memory so many miles away from the world he grew up in. Imagine a woman that remembered while living in a dugout, raising her family, so far away from the nearest neighbor or friend that a cool glass jar filled with water from the creek could make all the difference in the world.

Maybe then, as a writer, you will see your world in a different light.

I want to take a moment and remember Elsie Batenhorst who passed away this week. PBS televised a special called, “Cathedral on the Plains” about St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Umbarger a few years ago. We had our book signing for Donald Mace Williams with his book, “Interlude in Umbarger” about the Italian Prisoner’s of War who painted this church and were featured in this documentary. Elsie came as well as Gerri Gerber and shared her memories and scrapbooks with those of us gathered. I will always remember her twinkling smile and impish laughter. She shared several stories about Mrs. Gordon-Cummings with me as well. I miss them both.

I Spy

Outtakes 99

I Spy

By Cait Collins

Working with children can be rewarding and frustrating. Sometimes I wonder if I do any good, but then I realize those small ones are wonderful, curious beings. Everything is new and exciting. They make me look at things with different eyes. Sometimes they make me want to be young and innocent again. I want to believe without questions. So I’m going back to my childhood for just a while.

Remember summer days lying on an old quilt spread over the grass watching the clouds. Did you find images in those white puffs? Describe what you saw.

I spy in the sky

A pirate ship

Go sailing by.

I see a galleon with sails billowing in the wind. The ship moves smoothly over the ocean as her crew watches for other ships. The sailor in the crow’s nest calls out, “Ship ahoy.”

“Hoist the colors.” A black flag rises revealing a skull and cross bones.  “All hands, man your posts.”

Maybe it’s a cliché, but it is a rough start on a kid’s story about the history of pirates in the United States.

Drive to a quiet spot outside the city limits where there are no artificial lights. When you find a good spot, unroll your sleeping bag in the bed of your pick-up. Settle in with your favorite snack and a beverage. Stare up at the night sky. Are the stars so close you feel as if you can reach out and pluck them out of the heavens? Count the shooting stars and follow their paths. Will you find a meteorite at the end of the flight?

Can you find the North Star? What about the bears Ursa Major and Ursa Minor? Do you see the stars on Orion’s belt? Did you wish on a star?

Star light, star bright

First star I see tonight

Wish I may, wish I might

Have the wish I wish tonight.

What was your wish? No, don’t tell. If you tell your wish it won’t come true.

Next time you go star gazing, take a child and point out the wonders of the heavens. Set up a telescope and explore the moon. Rediscover the glory of the Milky Way. Now write a science fiction short story for a children’s magazine.

Revisiting the simple activities of childhood opens the mind to infinite possibilities for children’s works. By looking up, we get a new perspective on the wonders of the world around us. It’s a world we can open for the young ones in our lives.

Static or Changing?

Static or Changing?

By Rory C. Keel

Almost every novel has two kinds of characters, static characters and changing characters.

Static Characters

A static character is one that does not change and remains the same through out the narrative. Minor characters are often considered static characters, such as an evil thug sidekick to a villain. Static characters lack the power to change or develop throughout the story.

Most often they are recognized as characters that have traits such as envy, pride, greed and revenge. While static characters can also be marked by any number of traits, they will portray them to a fault.

Changing Characters

Changing characters are truer to life because change is a part of life. A person who goes through a deeply emotional trial or event will usually undergo some kind of change.

A character in a novel will also face these internal and physical changes based upon the pressures of the situation they face in the narrative. Having the power to change makes the character less predictable allowing the reader to be surprised at unexpected changes the author writes.

As you write your characters, can you identify the static and changing characters?