Inspiration (Flash fiction piece featured at Helicon West, June 2014)

There’s a knock at the door.

That’s where I’m stuck. My protagonist is standing over her boyfriend’s corpse, the murder weapon in hand, and she hears a knock at the door.

It could be the police.

Nah, no good. If they knew about the murder they’d break down the door, and if not, why would they be there?

Her best friend? Real friends help you move bodies, right? That’s a bit cliché. So’s the knock on the door, though.

The cat hops up and sniffs my screen, then steps on the keyboard.


“We used that line last time.”

I drop the cat on the floor, hit backspace a dozen times, and lean my swivel chair way back. My hair and arms dangle over the edge as I spin and stare at the patterns on the textured ceiling. I spot a horse, a dancing couple, and a dolphin with a creepy mustache. No inspiration there.

My ever-patient husband took the kids out, giving me the whole day to myself.

“You have to have fun,” he said. “Get some work done on your story.”


Three hours until they come home. So far I haven’t had fun or written a word. I cleaned the bathroom, even reorganized the toilet paper, soap, and feminine hygiene products under the counter. Then I overthrew a new civilization forming in the back of the fridge. It may once have been lasagna.

If I can just get past this scene, I’ll call the day a success. I’m sure the story will pick up from there.

I lower my foot, dragging the chair to a stop, and notice the cobwebs over the curtains. Ugh. How long has it been since I’ve dusted anything around here? My new vacuum has an attachment for curtains. According to the kid who sold it to me, it has an attachment for everything.

The box of hoses and brushes is as big as I am. I sort through them until I find the one for removing cobwebs from curtains. It works so well, I use it in the other rooms too, even the ones without cobwebs.

Back to work. My cursor ticks a steady rhythm, mocking me. How hard can this be? Pick the worst thing that can happen to your character and make it happen. So, a meteorite crashes through the roof and kills her. The end. Nah, that’s not the worst thing. It’s too easy.

I spin my chair, this time in the opposite direction. Maybe that’s not a dolphin up there. Maybe it’s a porpoise.

The cat slinks up, purring and wrapping herself around the desk leg.

“Didn’t someone feed you this morning? I’m pretty sure it was someone else’s turn to feed you.”

I sigh and swing to my feet. The cat bolts ahead, her sagging belly swaying back and forth as she runs.

“Maybe you could stand to miss a meal. It might be time to give you a bath or something too.”

There’s still food in her dish. She just wants me to shake it around a bit. Still purring like a clogged lawn mower, she rubs against me, leaving a trail of hairs clinging to my black sweats.

The vacuum has a pet attachment too.

I glance at the clock. Two hours until Greg gets home with the kids. I’ve got plenty of time to figure out that knock at the door.

* * *

“We’re home!”

The kids stampede up the stairs.

I shut my laptop with a scowl at the blinking cursor and the last words on the page:

There was a knock at the door.

The kids dart around the disemboweled vacuum cleaner sprawling across the living room. My husband scratches his head and stares at the scattered parts.

“Did you get a lot done?” he asks.

“Oh, yeah, I did. Thanks.”

His jaw’s working. I know that look. He’s trying to decide if he wants to ask. Before he can, the kids squeal and giggle, pointing at the shame-faced cat as she darts for a safer hiding place.

A door-to-door vacuum salesman. That has potential.

I whip the laptop back open, hunching behind it to muffle my words. “The vacuum’s clogged.”


(Flash fiction is a story under 1000 words complete with fully-developed plot and characters. They can be a fun change of pace to deal with writer’s block or burn out on bigger projects. As this is a work of fiction, no cats were denuded in the making of this story. 🙂 )

In With The New blog hop

Pitch contests have a lot to offer writers, including feedback on your pitch (the hook, query letter, and/or first page of the book you’ll use to entice agents and editors), a chance to get your work in front of agents, and meeting, learning from, and commiserating with other writers.

As part of the fun associated with the recent In With The New pitch contest, I’ve been tagged by fellow writer Keith W. Willis (@kilbourneknight) in a blog hop. So, it’s my turn to talk about the novel I pitched, a Victorian historical fantasy, Shadows of Elfland.

What is the name of your main character? Is he/she fictional or historical?

Shadows of Elfland is a multiple-point-of-view book, but the two main characters are Cassandra Weaver and Henry Stewart. Cassandra recently moved from the city to Drixton, a (fictional) village in the Victorian countryside, where she’s struggling to play the part of a country gentleman’s daughter while dealing with her new neighbors’ superstitious ways. Henry’s hiding from his past, trying to make a new life for himself in Drixton, and he knows the villagers have good reason to be superstitious.

While my characters are fictional, some of them have significant connections to historical figures and events. I can’t say more, because that would be a spoiler. 😉

When and where is the story set?

My book takes place in England in 1869. I’ve tried to stay true to the historical setting, with the twist that the folklore that many Victorians still believed in is real.

What’s the main conflict? What messes up your characters’ lives?

The Faerie come hunting in Drixton, which throws Cassandra into a reality she doesn’t think she can handle and forces Henry to deal with a past he’s trying to escape.

What’s the personal goal of the main character(s)?

Cassandra’s been uprooted from her home and is recovering from a crippling illness, so she struggles to fit into her new role without losing sight of who she is. Henry wants to prove to himself that there’s a place for him in the human world, despite a rather atypical upbringing.

Where can we see more?

I don’t have any excerpts online at this point, but you can follow this blog to track my progress in my writing adventures.

Who’s next in the blog hop?

I’m going to tag three other In With the New contestants: Marjorie Brimer (@margiebrimer), Jenny Ferguson (@jennyleeSD), and Jaclyn Davis (@jaclyndavis01) ‘cuz I want to hear more about what they’re writing. 🙂 If anyone needs a spot to post their answers, I’m happy to put them up here.

Using Google Ngram Viewer for historical fiction and historical fantasy

Google Ngram Viewer is one of the writing tools I turn to often when writing a story with a historical setting. This tool searches Google’s vast collection of online books (5 million plus) for the words or phrases you enter and graphs the frequency that the word appears in print. Since it’s searching printed books, it’s pretty sparse when dealing with the Renaissance or Early Modern era, but if you’re into the Regency and Victorian periods, it’s a great help. It does have some options for foreign language books as well.

For instance, during the Victorian period, the cravat of Regency fame evolved into a close relative of our modern necktie. When I’m describing my male character’s clothing, though, I don’t want to say necktie, because that will give my modern readers the wrong mental image (especially if they picture colorful modern ties). On the other hand, I don’t want to call it a cravat if that’s not what the Victorians would have said. So, I went to Google’s Ngram Viewer:

I entered “cravat” and “necktie,” separated by commas, so they would appear on the same graph. It told me the word “necktie” first appeared in print in the late 1850s, but “cravat” continued to dominate literature until after 1900.

There are some things to be aware of with Google Ngram Viewer. “Cravat” still appears frequently in modern books, almost as often as “necktie.” Why? Because we love Regency and Victorian novels. Not many people would say cravat now–most of us would even say tie instead of necktie–but the word still appears in print because of historical fiction. Still, given the dominance of “cravat” in literature through the end of the Victorian period, I feel pretty safe assuming it was still being used to refer to contemporary Victorian fashion. (Also, it was the word I wanted to use to keep my historical flavor, so I’m prejudiced in its favor.)

Another thing to remember with Google Ngram Viewer is it doesn’t understand the evolution of a word’s meaning; it just tells you if a word was used in print. So, the word “lover” appears more frequently in Victorian literature than in modern, according to the Ngram Viewer. Don’t let this overthrow your ideas of Victorian propriety–they used “lover” to mean a suitor or romantic interest, not necessarily to imply physical intimacy as it would today. In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Bennett says Wickham, “… simpers, and smirks, andmakes love to us all,” he certainly doesn’t mean it in the modern sense! This is where a good dictionary that includes archaic meanings comes in handy for the writer, and where readers might need context clues to make sure they understand how you’re using the word (and some words you just can’t use–they’ve acquired too much baggage over the years).

Google Ngram Viewer won’t solve all your historical word choice dilemmas, but it can help you determine if a word is appropriate for setting the right tone for your historical fiction or fantasy. It’s also a fun way to waste time when you’re supposed to be writing, and you can call it research.

Buried in woollen; or, Life, liberty, and the right to eat hamburgers any day of the week

I’ve been reading through some English sources from the late 1600s that mentioned people being “Buried in Woollen.” I wondered at first if Woollen was a place, but there were notes throughout about people not complying. So I did some more research and discovered this random history fact of the day:

In 1666 and again in 1678, King Charles II passed laws that made it illegal to be buried in anything but British wool cloth. No fancy clothes. No white linen shrouds. Plain old wool. Why? To bolster the all-important English wool trade, of course. Everyone’s going to die, and the last thing they’re going to do on their way out is support the national economy. The only exceptions were plague victims (bury them fast to avoid getting infected) and the very poor. If you didn’t comply, you paid a 5 pound fine–a pretty significant sum back then. Some people thought it was worth the fine to be buried in their best clothes, and eventually enforcement got pretty lax, so in the early 1800s the law was finally repealed. But if you’re a writer burying a character in Britain between 1666 and 1814, make sure they’re wearing their woollens!

So what’s that have to do with your right to eat a hamburger right now if that’s what you’re craving?

During the Renaissance, Monarch and Parliament regulated almost every aspect of life and death: what their citizens ate, drank, wore, and read, where they went to church (and they had to go), and where and how they were married and buried. The law also had a significant impact on where people could travel, what work they did, who could inherit their property, and sometimes even who they would marry.

Modern governments still regulate some of these aspects of life, especially when they might impact public safety, but usually not with the same attention to detail as Renaissance governments. Are you an author? Or maybe you’re planning a vacation? In Renaissance England, you couldn’t print a book or travel abroad without the government’s express approval of your plans and of your good character. When the government wanted to support the fishing trade, they banned the eating of meat during much of the year. No hamburgers unless they said so.

People accepted many of these restrictions and rebelled against others quietly, but those who did so loudly found themselves in jail (gaol, as they spelled it) or at the gallows. These words from 1776 may not seem like much more than nostalgia and idealism to us today, but keeping in mind previous attitudes about people’s relationship with the state, they were revolutionary in more ways than one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Cover Reveal for Robert Polk’s Operation Tree Roper: An Eye Above

Here’s an upcoming middle grade book from Christian/inspirational publisher Anaiah Press. I have no official affiliation with them, but I think they’ve designed an appealing cover, and I look forward to checking out this book and their other offerings.

Operation Tree Roper: An Eye Above by Robert Polk

Adventures, Anaiah Press



Twelve-year-old Declan Parker was born with only one eye, but all he seems to have trouble seeing in proper perspective is himself. All he wants is for kids to see him as normal before he starts a new school in the fall. To that end, he sets out to make money helping with his dad’s tree care business.

Unfortunately, when his dad lands in the hospital after a climbing accident, Declan’s surgery hopes are wrecked. His only hope remains in a neighbor girl and her uncle, a wounded army veteran. Can they help him save his dad’s business, or will Declan’s once-courageous drive turn into total despair?

Operation Tree Roper: An Eye Above is a well-crafted story about a strong, dauntless young man who redefines the value of self-reflection. Declan is a character you won’t be able to forget.

Welcome to your new favorite book…


Release Date:

October 7, 2014




Anaiah Press:

Robert Polk lives in western Nebraska where he shares his love of books and the great outdoors with his wife and seven children. He is a former school counselor, business owner, and tree climbing arborist. Robert participates in his church and local community, currently serving on several non-profit boards.

Author Photo- Robert Polk




What’s in a name?

I need to know what my Elizabethan characters should call each other.

I feel pretty well-versed in Regency and Victorian name etiquette. For the most part, with Victorian forms of address, someone was Mr., Mrs., or Miss to the opposite sex unless the speaker was closely related or engaged to them. Men almost never used first names with one another (unless they were a “Sir,” and then it was “Sir John” or “Sir Walter”–isn’t that odd?). Mr. Smith and Mr. Wallace became Smith and Wallace if they were good friends. Female friends might “propose” to one another, declaring themselves close enough friends to use first (“Christian”) names. Otherwise they were Miss [Surname] or sometimes, in the case of younger sisters, Miss [First Name]. Male servants were often called by their last names, female servants by their first unless they were older or high up in the servant ranking. Sometimes the mistress of a house would “rename” a servant, so Augustine might be called James and Georgette could become Jane if it fit the mistress’s whim or sense of propriety (not wanting servants to get “above themselves”).

That’s not too hard, right?

The trouble I’m running into is figuring out Elizabethan name etiquette. I’m not interested in Elizabethan forms of address for courtiers at the moment–they’re a whole different matter. But when did your average, relatively well-to-do Elizabethan man or woman call people by their first names? I have an MA in this period of British history, and I’ve never come across an explanation of the social rules of Elizabethan names. I read a stack of “Life in Elizabethan England” type books, and none of them offer the details I’m looking for, so I turned to primary sources–poems and plays from Renaissance England–to see what I could glean.

Men and women were generally called “Master [Surname]” or “Mistress [Surname].” Sometimes a women might be called “Mistress [First name]”, maybe especially by men who were close to her or to her family. I’m still trying to work out the details of when that was acceptable.

Family members used first names with each other, though men often called their wives “wife,” “lady,” or (less kindly) “wench.” The wives commonly called their husbands “sir.” This is an interesting insight into how important ranking was to the Elizabethan mind–the husband was (in theory) firmly ensconced as the head of the house, the wife likewise just below him in her role as mistress of the house, overseeing servants and daily work. Rank and role were central to identity, maybe more so than given names.

Elizabethans usually used “Master” and “sir” (or “Mistress”) toward their social superiors who didn’t have formal titles, used surnames and occasionally first names with their friends and equals of the same sex, and used first names or even pet names when addressing servants. Servants, however, seemed to use first names among themselves, regardless of gender. Maybe because they shared a similar social sphere (though of course there were ranks even among servants).

Does this mean a man and woman who are courting might call each other by their first names? What if they’re lifelong friends of equal social standing? Does using first names imply betrothal as it did with Victorians? The courting couples in the contemporary Renaissance plays I’ve read so far don’t use names much when they speak to each other, and the women don’t do a lot of talking. In Thomas Seymour’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, a man and woman carrying on a illicit affair still call each other “Master X” and “Mistress Y”, but that might be a devise to remind the audience that their relationship is adulterous.

If I can’t find a better answer, I’ll err on the side of Victorian-like formality, but I’m a firm believer that these little details set the flavor of the story, and I want to get them right. If anyone out there knows the answer, I’d love to hear it, and if I find one myself, I’ll post an update.

Time to switch brains

I’m moving now from polishing my Victorian ghost story, Within the Sickle’s Compass: or, The Haunting of Springett Hall to revising my still-unnamed Elizabethan novel. I feel like a need to whack my head a couple of times to clear out the Victorian stuff and make way for a totally different mindset. The Elizabethans were rougher around the edges, but I can’t help thinking they had a bit more fun. After all, kissing was totally verbotten with proper Victorians, but the Elizabethans kissed people hello and goodbye and for everything in-between. Of course, the Elizabethans also had to deal with the plague. And maybe there’s a connection there.

A writer’s guide to roses

I may be one of only three people on the planet who cares about this, but as a rose-a-holic, I can’t help noticing roses in stories, and a lot of historical fiction writers get their details wrong. It’s probably impossible to get everything right in a work of fiction (or even nonfiction), but details make your setting and keep readers immersed in the story, so it’s worth it to get as many details correct as possible.

Medieval roses are especially fascinating to me. Many of them have been lost over time, but there are half a dozen or so roses still grown today that also found homes in the gardens of medieval monks and Renaissance queens. Because roses don’t come true from seed, the only way we can keep a rose variety alive is by growing a cutting of the rose. This means if you’re growing a medieval rose in your garden, it’s not just a descendant of one of these ancient roses, it’s actually a part of it: a cutting of a cutting of a cutting, perhaps, of a rose once loved and tended by royalty or by silent monks in some secluded corner of the world.

York and Lancaster, a damask rose from the 1500s named for the factions in the War of the Roses because its flowers can be both white (York's symbol) and "red" (Lancaster's).
York and Lancaster, a damask rose from the 1500s named for the factions in the War of the Roses because its flowers can be both white (York’s symbol) and “red” (Lancaster’s).

The rose has been an incredibly popular plant going back far into human history. It provides fragrance, pleasant form, and edible hips and petals. But, the rose known to medieval Europeans was different in many ways from the roses commonly found in nurseries today. If you’re reading or writing about medieval roses, there are a few facts it’s helpful to keep in mind:

  • Almost all medieval roses bloomed only once per year. Usually, this was in late spring, though the white musk rose blooms in the fall. The Autumn Damask is a pink rose of uncertain history (it may have been in Italy and Spain through much of the Middle Ages, at least), which blooms more than once a year, but it still blooms the most in the spring, with a few scattered blooms later.
  • Medieval roses had a more limited color palate. Most were shades of pink, though some could be bold burgundy-purple, deep pink that was considered red, or creamy white. Some were striped pink and white. Yellow roses were rare, unheard of in many places, and came from wild plants in the east.
  • The smell of these medieval roses is stronger and not as “fruity” as most modern roses. What they lack in rebloom and color variety, they make up for in scent. And, given that the Middle Ages were a pretty stinky time, things that smelled nice were especially prized, especially when the dried rose petals kept their scent and could be used to hide nasty odors. Sweetbriar roses, frequently mentioned by Victorian authors, are huge bushes whose leaves smell like green apples.
  • They don’t look like your typical florist’s rose. The buds are fatter, the petals more packed into the flower.
  • The fruits of the rose, called hips, were valued much more than today. They were a source of vitamin C, especially in the winter, and were used, along with other parts of the rose, in many aspects of medieval medicine.
Tuscany Superb, the Velvet Rose
Tuscany Superb, the Velvet Rose

As with today, medieval roses were seen as symbols of love. Sometimes the white roses were considered symbols of divine love, while the deep pink or red roses were seen as symbols of earthly love, though in Christian symbolism, the red could also be used as a reminder of Christ’s blood. The red and white striped roses especially carried this association with divine love and divine blood. Rosaries, used by medieval Christians to count their prayers, were made of balled, dried rose petals. Because of their association with love, divinity, and good health, some cultures believed that roses could keep away evil.

Camaieux, a striped rose from the early 1800s
Camaieux, a striped rose from the early 1800s

It wasn’t until the introduction of reblooming tea and china roses from Asia in the late 1700s that the world of European roses changed, adding the color variety, continuous bloom, and picky growth habits that many people associate with the modern rose.

Old Blush Rose, grown in China for about 1,000 years.
Old Blush Rose, grown in China for about 1,000 years.

If you want to know more, I highly recommend The Graham Stuart Thomas Rose Book by (guess who?) Graham Stuart Thomas and In Search of Lost Roses by Thomas Christopher.

Botzaris, a swoon-worthy Victorian rose.
Botzaris, a swoon-worthy Victorian rose.

As a side note, roses don’t carry the gene for true blue, so if an undyed blue rose ever exists, it will be due to genetic manipulation (or magic, fantasy writers 🙂 ).

*All photos taken by me. Feel free to use them, but please give me credit as the source.

Making money from your writing hobby

This post isn’t about making a full-time living as an author or writer. The only time I’ve been able to support myself solely on my writing income was when I was single and sharing living expenses with several roommates, but I’ve been able to supplement my income by writing, and worked on some fun and interesting projects in the process. Every freelance writer probably finds his or her own path to success, but here are some things that worked for me:

Develop a niche. It all comes back to “write what you know.” There are a lot of good writers out there, so you have to set yourself apart. I have graduate degrees in history and landscape architecture—a strange combination, but it gives me a unique and profitable set of skills. You don’t need an advanced degree to create a niche. Whether you love nature photography, or video games, or the mating habits of moths, if you focus on the things you know and feel passionate about, you’ll carve out your own space as a writer.

Network. Your niche is what you know, but who you know really does matter too. Tell people you’re a writer and you’re looking for work. Sometimes we’re shy to step up and say, “I want to write,” but once people know you have a talent for and interest in writing, you’ll start to find opportunities coming your way.

Put the “free” back in freelance. While your goal is to get paid, it doesn’t hurt to do pick up some volunteer projects on the side, maybe for local charitable organizations or other causes that pique your interest. It’s a great way to hone your skills and try new things, and it lets you meet people who may have paid work for you later.

Use social media. Start a blog, twitter account, or Facebook page devoted to more than sharing cute photos of kittens or what you had for lunch. Focus on your niche and connect with other people who share your interests. You can get paid for blogging, whether it be maintaining a successful blog yourself or writing content for the blog of an organization, but a professional-looking blog is also a chance to get your name out there.

Be professional. Even if you’re doing a job for free, or just maintaining a blog for yourself, always make it your best work. Think before hitting the “post” or “send” button. Proofread, or even better, have someone else proofread for you. Be honest—your reputation will make or break you, and you can’t afford to have people distrust you. Keep good records for your taxes; hopefully you’ll have some additional income to report at the end of the year.

Approach your writing with self-discipline. Writers are quirky creatures. We’re creative folks who often don’t conform well to regular schedules and chafe at routine. Because so much of writing happens unsupervised, though, it’s especially important for writers to be able to sit down and make themselves work. It can help to have a set time and place for writing, or just a general goal to write X number of hours a day, or break a project down into steps so it will be done by the deadline. Whatever method works for you, you have to love writing enough to be willing and able to follow through. Unfinished projects are the bane of a writer’s career, and will quickly dry up any potential work you might get from annoyed clients.

Try new things. Keep an eye out for writing jobs, even the part-time or temporary ones (which will be most of them). I’ve written everything from video scripts to field trip guides, and I’ve had a blast doing all of it. Some of the projects stretched and challenged me, but each one taught me new skills and opened further doors for me. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but also know your limits. Don’t take on a project if you know you don’t have the time or skills to complete it, and if you run into problems you honestly can’t solve, bring them to the attention of your clients as soon as possible so you can find a professional solution.

Most freelance writers don’t get rich, but if you follow these suggestions, you can turn your talent into a fun and profitable side job and pave the way for future successes as a writer.