Who Am I to Judge?

3 April 2022

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

As a reviewer for Reedsy.com, I have access to a database of Advance Reader’s Copies available for review from self-published and small press writers. The manuscripts are rough, often with typographical errors, formatting problems, and plot holes. Through the typos, missed words, and grammatical errors, I look for writer’s work. They hammer out their stories alone, pushing themselves to finish, exhaling in triumph as they hold completed manuscripts in their hands for the first time. Authors are serious when they sit at the keyboard, pouring their hearts into their passion projects.

So, who am I to judge?

My first ARC from Reedsy was a brilliant book. With few distracting proofreading errors, it was a quick, enjoyable read. It thrilled me to uncover such a fun book, and I had a blast writing the review. The author reached out to thank me for what I’d written, an unexpected boost to my confidence. Since then, I’ve written several more and when I didn’t love the books, I practiced being honest without being personal. I’m up front with readers who won’t connect with the books while acknowledging the efforts of the artists whose souls I see shining in the pieces. When I had a book that truly missed the mark, I pointed out the flaws, believing that my integrity as a reviewer rests on my willingness to write negative reviews when necessary.

The gray area comes in

when I’m asked to read

unfinished work…

a book like this poses

a genuine problem.

The gray area comes in when I’m asked to read unfinished work. Riddled with mechanical mistakes and muddled in its narrative, a book like this poses a genuine problem. It comes from a passionate amateur. But the honest reviewer in me wants to cut it down, remind the author that readers aren’t willing to fill in the gaps for an inexperienced writer. They notice every flaw, get frustrated when the narrative turns to navel gazing, and need breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout if you expect them to make it to the end. Failing to fulfill these basic requirements leaves readers with two choices: keep slogging through or give up, most likely for good. I want to sugarcoat it. But some bad news is too bitter for kind words to cover.

That’s when I wonder if I’m cut out to review books. Could someone else see something I don’t? The assertions I’m making are subjective. Could I be wrong? And what happens if I pan the book or, even worse, return as “unready for publication?” Whose dreams am I crushing? Can one reviewer determine success or failure? I didn’t plan for this.

Basic guidelines aren’t a help when the answer is a judgement call. Earnest in doing the right thing, I’ve erred on the side of civility. The most recent book I reviewed is a ponderous memoir, a nightmare of technical mistakes, and desperately in need of a professional editor. It is unfinished. Instead of saying so, I compromised my ethics and wrote a bland review, telling myself that the manuscript will pass through other hands before it reaches the public. Surely, it’s not my place to pick on grammar and diction. Not in a book review. Returning it as “unready” never crossed my mind. It’s not up to me to make that call. Is it?

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The review I submitted was as gutless as a high school book report and as shallow. When the author reached out, asking me not to “spoil” what I hadn’t realized was a surprise ending, I knew I’d made a mistake. That writer didn’t benefit when I withheld the truth, didn’t gain book sales or attract an agent. I lied to him, letting him believe his ending is a surprise (by taking out the offending line) and his book might be a success. I don’t have insider knowledge, but from my years in academia, I had a responsibility to tell him that a year’s worth of writing classes wouldn’t be enough to pull his manuscript into shape. So, you won’t see my review of that book on this website. I’m ashamed of it. And even if I question my right to judge, I won’t be dishonest again.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

A Woman of Letters

31 March 2022

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I have a friend I’ve never met in person. We found each other through a writer’s critique group that communicated solely via e-mail to accommodate a hearing-impaired writer among us who struggled to feel comfortable with in-person groups. Over time, most of our members drifted away, but I kept writing to JP, occasionally exchanging pieces and becoming close through letters describing our hopes, dreams, and setbacks. She trusted me with her manuscripts, and I read them, a chapter at a time, sharpening my skills. We spoke once on the phone, but it was awkward. Writing was more natural. This fall will mark three years of my correspondence with JP. Attached to our e-mails are dozens of pieces we’ve read for each other, along with the responses, the rewrites, and shots in the dark.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Despite all this, it took me years to realize I have a pen pal. It’s such an old-fashioned idea. When my grandmother died, my mother found her yellowed love letters tied in a blue ribbon, a romantic gesture from a bygone era. In my childhood, I was paired with a pen pal from an elementary school in New Jersey. We were twelve; our letters didn’t last long. Now, I am writing every week to a person I couldn’t recognize in a crowd; we’ve never exchanged photos. Though we use emails instead of parchment and quill pens, we are the most old-fashioned of pen pals.

And the letters, even if they’re digital, are something special. They remind me we can say more in writing. In spoken conversations, especially on emotional subjects, our words drown out much of what we hear. Planning what to say next takes precedence over careful listening and tendencies to anticipate the other’s response undermine deep connections. Letter writing allows us to speak uninterrupted. We preserve the flow of our thoughts without distracting questions, digressions, and outside muddling. In letters, we choose our words with care, re-writing, adjusting, re-phrasing for emphasis and clarity. We can reread them for deeper meaning and cherish them when we are lonely.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

For a writer, letter writing is not a lost art. In our letters, we practice our craft, learning how our words can touch, amuse, and gall our reader. Responses will be full of the same honesty, humor, and snark. Especially if they come from a fellow writer.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Fred: An Unbecoming Woman

By Annie Krabbenschmidt

Reviewed, 24 March 2022

Photo by Juan Vargas on Pexels.com

Annie Krabbenschmidt writes, in their introduction, “This project started with a question: ‘Why is it so hard to come out of the closet?’… why is it that for some, we can more easily picture killing ourselves than living full and happy lives? ‘… What does it take to feel free?’” With these questions, they reach out to the reader they can’t believe is really there. From the first page, they address us directly. Midway through, they wonder if any of us have made it this far. At the end they thank us, their “dozens of readers,” for listening. Self-effacing to the last page, Annie knows they’re telling a story not everyone wants to hear. Their humble words belie how often people have turned away from them.

Annie is charming because they are trying not to be charming. No doubt, they hate charming people. But in their honesty, complete though never brutal, they draw readers into their story. Whether or not they want to, they charm us. That’s the tension in this narrative. Annie shows their flaws, but their messy, mixed-up coming of age is a shared story among humans. Though they have faced ugly criticism and emotional harm, they’ve emerged, not in self-satisfied triumph but in burgeoning self-knowledge that shines a light on our humanity.

Fred: An Unbecoming Woman

is a book of hard-won insights

and long-pondered problems.

Fred: An Unbecoming Woman is a book of hard-won insights and long-pondered problems. Through the lens of their LGBTQ+ experiences, friendships, and romances, Annie tackles the feelings of “otherness” that dog humans on their way to authenticity and fulfillment. Their sexuality magnifies the ostracism they face; they can’t ignore the tangled strands of their life. Their fight to be free will inspire many who do not share their specific challenges. Betrayed by labels like “privileged,” “introvert,” and “lesbian,” they attack stereotypes and share their journey, even though they’re pretty sure a lot of us will tune them out. In their unrelenting self-awareness, they dare us to keep going. The reward is a story of resilience, a life lived with intention, and a human being still on the road to their truest self.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Thanks to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. The book launches, 13 April 2022.

This review appeared first on Reedsy.com.

Writing About Writing

22 March 2022

Photo by Caryn on Pexels.com

Every writer hears, “Write what you know.” And what every writer knows is writing, its intricacy, weight, and solitude. As a writer building credits, I am relentless about creating and submitting my work. Week after week, I submit to literary reviews and magazines, noting various guidelines. They often include lists of subjects editors will accept. Or dismiss. Once or twice, I’ve been surprised by journals who reject pieces about writers. “We’ve read enough stories about the writing process,” they say. “Your readers are not exclusively other writers.”

True. But any well-written story will find readers. I am not a WWII vet and yet I am swept away by Kurt Vonnegut’s novels based on his war experiences. I’ve never been to a bullfight, but Hemingway draws me in like few other writers. Vonnegut’s troubled author, Kilgore Trout, appears in several of his most applauded novels. Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises is an American writer for a Parisian newspaper. I’ve placed two stories for publication in the last twelve months featuring writers as main characters. (Check out the latest one, Real Writer on East of the Web) Did the editors who accepted them forget their readers are not necessarily writers?

The writer’s struggle

is emblematic of the

larger human quest

to find peace and order.

The literary world is full of stories about writers. Novels by Stephen King, Michael Chabon, and Virginia Woolf place writers in leading roles. Readers love these books for their authenticity. In their fictional worlds, the writer’s struggle is emblematic of the larger human quest to find peace and order. Hollywood relies on authors, too. Movies as varied as The Shining, Sideways, and Almost Famous are adaptations (by writers) from books about writers. Shonda Rhimes’ recent Netflix series, Inventing Anna, tells the dual narrative of an infamous con-artist and the writer who made her famous. Writers may risk seeing no farther than their own keyboards. But editors who refuse to read stories about writers chance throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

As writers, we have plenty of models for transforming our writing lives into interesting stories. Check out the lists below of the most loved books and films about writers. They speak volumes to audiences everywhere. And if you find editors who’ve already read enough about writers, submit elsewhere.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Top 25 movies about writers and writing by K_kugelis | created – 22 May 2011 | updated – 22 May 2011


Sam Burt Jun 19, 2018

Don’t A-BAN-don Me

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ll admit, the whole idea of banning books makes me nervous. Challenges to school library collections, attempts to prosecute librarians, and cries to ban dozens of titles worry me. Legislators and parents’ groups say they’re keeping kids safe from inappropriate content. But defining such content is a prickly proposition.

Recent ban requests include the 20th century classics To Kill A Mockingbird (H. Lee), The Handmaid’s Tale (M. Atwood), and The Bluest Eye (T. Morrison). These prize-winning novels tackle tough issues of racism and sexism. Efforts to ban them may fit into a larger cultural conversation. Many current critics, uncomfortable with the way earlier generations expressed themselves on these topics, undervalue the preservation of these literary testaments to how far we’ve come.

Other ban efforts target 21st century titles whose authors speak to youth seeking race and gender equality. Motions to remove these titles attack young adult books like Not Every Boy Is Blue by George M. Johnson and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. Art Speigelman’s Maus draws criticism for its frank depiction of the humiliation, degradation, and violence of Nazi Germany. I wonder how today’s students will find their way forward if we erase records of the past.

Some groups …have

essentially weaponized

book lists meant to

promote more diverse

reading material

E. Harris and A. Alter,
New York Times

Advocates for freedom from censorship are speaking up against the proposed bans. Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter quote Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of the free-speech organization PEN America, in a recent New York Times article. “‘If you look at the lists of books being targeted, it’s so broad,’ Ms. Nossel said. Some groups, she noted, have essentially weaponized book lists meant to promote more diverse reading material, taking those lists and then pushing for all the included titles to be banned.” Parent’s associations use social media platforms to spread one-sided information on challenged titles. Concerned parents may be unfamiliar with the debated material or shy away from depictions of marginalized people. As controversy swirls, it’s hard not to notice that most of the titles in question discuss BIPOC, LGBTQ+ experiences.

Fractured politics tarnish the conversation as opposing sides line up with little hope of compromise. After tense meetings with salacious excerpts read out of context, librarians and educators suffer along with their students. School districts in several states registered criminal complaints against school librarians for distributing pornography to minors. In the case of Not All Boys Are Blue, Flagler County, Florida filed charges against the book itself.

Photo by Lerone Pieters on Pexels.com

The good news is that these censorship initiatives are failing. “So far, efforts to bring criminal charges against librarians and educators have largely faltered, as law enforcement officials in Florida, Wyoming and elsewhere have found no basis for criminal investigations. And courts have generally taken the position that libraries should not remove books from circulation.” (Harris & Alter, NYT 2/8/22) Many school boards who approved the removal of books in recent months have since walked back their bans, restoring materials to library shelves and reading lists.

Book bans are nothing new. From ancient times, power elites have sought to suppress cultural disruptors. But readers take interest in books that raise questions, inspire controversy, and move the conversation forward. Book banners, past and present, are the instruments of their own demise when they draw attention to the titles they oppose. What better book to read than the one accused of explicit content? How better to challenge the powers that be?

Peruse the lists and articles from the links below. Find a book; support the authors, publishers, school districts, and students you care for most.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com


Read the Books That Schools Want to Ban

by Emma Sarappo FEBRUARY 1, 2022, The Altlantic

Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.

by Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter Published Jan. 30, 2022Updated Feb. 8, 2022, The New York Times

The Fight to Ban Books

by Amelia Nierenberg Oct. 6, 2021, The New York Times

‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Other Books Banned From California Schools Over Racism Concerns

by SAMANTHA LOCK ON 11/13/20 AT 12:09 PM EST, Newsweek

How Book Banning Works

by Cristen Conger

One last thought…

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. It brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”



Harriet and the Sparrow

Photo by Alexa Popovich on Pexels.com

Rain fell on the roof of the cottage where Harriet lived with her parents. She sat at the window while they bickered in the kitchen. “Thin soup again,” said Father.

“Earn more; we’ll eat better.”

“A good wife makes the smallest sum suffice, stupid woman.”

The rain on the roof said, “Harriet, I’m at the garden gate.”

Harriet ignored the voice and passed a quarrelsome evening at home. When she asked for butter, Mother smacked her. “We have no butter, Fool. Why ask and humiliate me?”

In bed, Harriet heard the rain falling. “Meet me at the gate at dawn,” it said. Harriet left the house early, a string bag over her shoulder. On the gatepost, a sparrow stood hopping and chirping. Harriet followed it from tree to tree, winding along the lane, until they came to a marshy place.

There, a ferryman waited, a lantern on a pole behind him, mist rising from the swamp. “One coin to cross,” he said.

“I have no coin and no wish to cross.”

“Move on, then.”

The sparrow lit atop the lantern pole to groom its feathers and jerk its head to the far shore. “I shall cross after all,” said Harriet, “And instead of a coin, I will give you this lion’s tooth.” She offered a long yellow incisor hung on a leather string. “My father traded for it in the marketplace, a totem of courage and valor. One night, as he snored before the fire, I stole it. Since then, I wear it for bravery.” The ferryman accepted and stood aside as Harriet boarded.

Passing through the reeds Harriet saw, submerged in the shallows, a sleeping girl. Hair swirling in the ferryman’s wake, the maiden smiled to herself at her own sweet dreams. On the bog bottom lay another world, pond grasses swaying in a forest of roots and branches.

…a cursed kingdom

whose unjust ruler prides

himself on his cunning.

Be on your guard.

The craft bumped firm ground. The ferryman handed Harriet ashore with a stern word. “I leave you in a cursed kingdom whose unjust ruler prides himself on his cunning. Be on your guard.” The sparrow perched on the branch of an elm overlooking a path into green fields and golden meadows. Harriet thanked the ferryman and shouldered her string bag.

The path became a track, the track became a road, the road became a street, and soon Harriet found herself at the palace gates. The sparrow rested on the battlements, calling over the din of the town. “May I enter the palace?” Harriet asked.

“No one may enter whom the king has not summoned.”

The sparrow disappeared over the wall. “I am expected,” said Harriet.

“Not by His Majesty.”

“I bring a gift.”

“What gift?”

From her string bag, Harriet drew a fine prayer book bound in gilded leather. “I received this from the bishop at my First Communion. I wish to give it to His Highness for comfort in these trying times.”

The guard inspected the volume, its soft vellum pages, and intricate illuminations. “I accept this gift on behalf of the king. An attendant will prepare your room.”

Harriet crossed the courtyard to a room with rich hangings and a bright fire. The sparrow, entering the window, landed atop a lavish mirror. Harriet shook out her clothes and straightened her hair. “You are as plain as a rag doll,” said her attendant before retiring. “His Majesty will see through you; better keep your wits.”

Harriet faced the mirror, wondering how she might improve herself. From above, the sparrow shook its wings, dropping gilded feathers among the combs and brushes. Its beak was full of silver ribbons and strings of pearls. These it wove into ornaments for Harriet’s hair and adornments for her drab clothes.

In the throne room, the king admired young Harriet, as elusive and lovely as a bird. “Dear Maid, why do you come before me?” he asked.

“I bring a gift, Your Majesty.”

“A gift?”

“I left it at the gate.”

The king folded his hands and leaned forward on his throne. “I’m told your name is Harriet and that you are a maiden. Is that right?”

“Yes, Majesty.”

 “I am a king in need of a maiden to carry sons and secure my line. As such, I declare you will marry me.”

“I will not, Sire.”


“You are unknown to me, Your Highness, and I’ve heard talk of a curse in your kingdom.”

“There is a curse,” said the king, “A vile dragon who lives above us in a mountain cave where he hoards treasure and demands a maiden to devour, lest he destroy my kingdom.”

Harriet trembled but kept her composure. “I thank Your Majesty for this audience,” she said. “Let me trouble you no longer.” She bowed to leave.

You have three days

and three nights;

each morning you

must set me a riddle.

“Young woman, you may not refuse my proposal,” said the king, “But because you are fair, I grant you a chance to save yourself. You have three days and three nights; each morning you must set me a riddle. If you outwit me, you are free to go. But if I solve your riddles, you belong to the dragon and my kingdom is free from its curse.” A whisper went among the courtiers at this pronouncement. There could be no riddle clever enough to confound their sharp-witted king.

Guards whisked Harriet back to her room and left her to consider her fate. She wept, the sparrow at her pillow, knowing nothing of riddles or any way to avoid her doom. She pondered death and railed at the sparrow whom she’d followed to this cursed kingdom. When the storm of her crying passed, she was tired, but it was time to present the king with her first riddle. She missed the lion’s tooth, once worn round her neck for courage.

In the throne room, rain spattered the leaded windowpanes. The sparrow settled itself on a finial of the throne. “What riddle do you have for me, Maid Harriet? No doubt I will solve it in an instant.”

At this, the rain spoke to Harriet, tapping the roof and walls. She repeated every word it said. “Your Majesty. A murderer condemned to death must choose from among three rooms. One is full of raging fires. One harbors traps rigged with poison darts. The last is a den of lions, starved for three years. Which room should the prisoner choose?”

The king’s eyes flashed. “You must do better than that to outsmart me, dear girl. Of course, the prisoner must choose the lions’ den, since the animals died of starvation.”

Perhaps with divine

inspiration, she might

fool the shrewd king.

The sparrow flew from the room as guards led Harriet away. Sobbing into her pillows, she despaired. If the king solved the rain’s riddle with such ease, nothing she might contrive could save her. She prayed through the night, missing her First Communion prayer book, begging guidance and mercy from God. At dawn, a miracle. A riddle came to Harriet at the washbasin, an answer to her prayers. Perhaps with divine inspiration, she might fool the shrewd king.

“What is your riddle, Maid Harriet? I hope you’ve brought something worthy of my intellect.”

Harriet stepped forward. “Your Royal Highness. I am greater than God and worse than the devil. The poor have me, the rich want me, and if you eat me, you’ll die. What am I?”

The king reclined on his throne, fingers to his beard, rings flashing in the morning light. He leaned to a golden table at his side where Harriet’s gilded prayer book lay; he took it up and thumbed its pages. “You impress me, dear girl. This is a better question. And yet you have given me the answer.” He held up the prayer book. “An apt gift for a king with perils at his doorstep. From it, I learn nothing must be the answer to your riddle. For nothing is greater than God or worse than the Devil. The poor have nothing, the rich want nothing while eating nothing leads to death.”

Guards again whisked Harriet away, the king chiding her to do a better night’s work if she hoped to live. In her room, Harriet burned candles one after another, pacing before the fireplace. A hundred ideas came and went, but nothing to save her life. The sparrow had gone and did not return while Harriet scribbled her efforts in vain. In the morning, she hadn’t slept and saw no sign of the sparrow.

“Maid Harriet, today you must save your life or go free; either way, we will be parted. Can you outwit me?”

“Your Majesty, I have no riddle.”

“No riddle? I’m disappointed. You’ve exhausted your chances.”

In a rush of air and soot, the sparrow appeared from the chimney, its feathers singed and beating as it swooped around Harriet’s head. “My Lord,” she said. “I know a riddle. Tell me, what is easy to lift but hard to throw?”

The king looked at Harriet with a furrowed brow. “A question so simple won’t do, dear Harriet.”

“Sire, what is your answer?”

The king frowned and rose to pace before his golden tapestries. First an hour, then three, then six hours, Harriet waited, the courtiers drooping as the sun shifted across the sky. At last, the king cried out. “The answer, girl! I must have the answer.”

“Does Your Majesty mean he cannot solve the riddle?”

“I have solved it. Tell me your answer and I will tell you mine.”

“Free me, Your Majesty.”

“My answer will prove correct, and you will go to the dragon.”

“You do not know the answer,” said Harriet. Guards reached for her, but Harriet felt the sparrow alight on her shoulder. Under its feet she transformed into a breeze which flowed out through the window, a feather falling to the floor in her place. The court gasped, and the king raged. He grasped the feather and threw it with all his strength, only to see it spiral and fall.

“A feather,” said the king, the answer coming too late, leaving him to search for another maiden with which to save his kingdom while Harriet found freedom and lived content for the rest of her days.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Harriet and the Sparrow appeared first in Esoterica, 4 March 2022

Posts of Interest

As I add new Posts of Interest to the home page, previously published notes and articles will appear below.

Share ideas, notes on the writing life, news of upcoming writers’ events and other writing ephemera in the comments section below or leave a message on my Contact Me page.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Not Another Book List

8 September 2022

Anyone can create a list of outstanding books to read. If you want bestsellers, promising new writers, or classics to revisit, there’s a list for that. These are not suggestions. You’ve heard enough of those. Read on if book recommendations bore you.

Read my full article.

Hitting the Press

5 September 2022

The Streets of Sorrow, a short story inspired by true events, will appear in print in the coming weeks. Accepted for publication in Evening Street Review‘s fall edition, my piece tells the story of an old writer and a young writer. Not nearly as hopeless as its dire title, The Streets of Sorrow tackles the mysteries of memory, art, and shared human experience.

Print editions are for sale at eveningstreetpress.com.

How A-muse-ing; or Use an Inspiration Tape Like a Champ

13 June 2022

Though there’s not a lot of room for analysis in a little-known (but totally awesome) 90s comedy, there’s plenty to say about inspiration tapes. Artists throughout history have turned to muses.

Read my full article.

Before I Was a Writer

10 May 2022

When we’re working, we write whenever we can, between shifts, on cigarette breaks, in our heads as we navigate the days. Day jobs can be obstacles. Or, they may give unexpected raw material for memorable stories.

Read my full article.

The Complementary Arts

4 May 2022

Can you cure yourself of writer’s block? Maybe.

Read my full article.

Editing Software or Not: How Much Comes Down to Mechanics?

11 April 2022

A manuscript tarnished by typos, missed words, and formatting errors, doesn’t stack up well. It faces stiff competition from authors who have gone the extra mile polishing their pieces.

Read my full article.

A Woman of Letters

31 March 2022

For a writer, letter writing is not a lost art. In our letters, we practice our craft, learning how our words can touch, amuse, and gall our reader.

Read my full article.

Writing About Writing

22 March 2022

Every writer hears, “Write what you know.” And what every writer knows is writing, its intricacy, weight, and solitude. With so many hours spent alone at the keyboard, is anything more authentic to writers than transcribing their daily experiences and emotions?

Read my full article.

The Writer’s Game

13 March 2022

Baseball’s literary tradition is undeniable. Generations of writers take inspiration from the chalk lines and grassy diamonds of baseball fields.

Read my full article.

Don’t A-BAN-don Me

10 March 2022

Calls to ban books from school libraries and reading lists is on the rise again. Fighting censorship has never been more important.

Read my full article.

Edit, Edit, Edit.

23 February 2022

When a piece is in its fourth or fifth draft, further edits are hard to find. Kearns gives writers a quick demonstration of how to look again.

Read my full article.

What Would Mother Think?

11 February 2022

Great fiction is drawn from life, mixing writers’ lived experiences with the imagined worlds of their characters. When art co-mingles with life this way, real feelings are at stake. Read more.

Baby Steps

20 January 2022

Until last week, I’d never sold a story. Not for money. And while my first fee is modest, it required me to produce my first invoice. Read about my crash course.

Creating Lifelike Characters

19 November 2021

Characterization can be the difference between a good story and a great one. Read more about ways to look deeper into your characters as you bring them to life.

Writers’ group blues.

17 November 2021

Critique groups, writers’ clubs, style guides, webinars: they are ubiquitous for unpublished writers. Resources like these intend to aid aspiring writers in finding their voices, refining their process, and getting stories in print. Can these methods deliver on their tantalizing promise? Well, there may be one thing missing. Read my full article.

November is the time to get inspired.

1 November 2021

National Novel Writing Month begins November 1st. Join writers across the globe as they get to work on that novel. Read my full article.

More details at:


Publishing Notes

20 October 2021

Publishing… and Other Forms of Madness

Erica Verillo dishes up direct advice on approaching agents and editors while outlining common pitfalls for aspiring writers. Her comprehensive blog includes links to publishers seeking novelists, prose writers and poets, as well as up-to-date lists of paying markets.


Real Writer

Photo by Plato Terentev on Pexels.com

Meg rented office #10a where she worked most weekdays, her desk facing the door, the window raised behind her. No drapes. No blinds. Office #10, adjacent, had once connected to #10a through a door to Meg’s right long ago painted shut. On the left stood Meg’s couch, an ashtray on the floor beside it, an e-reader on the charger. Lazy afternoons, she lay there examining the water-stains on the ceiling in which she imagined faces, figures, and sometimes, mathematical equations. Meg looked up from her keyboard when the outer door opened and a smart young woman entered. The girl smiled as she hung her hat on a coat-hook Meg had never noticed. 

“He in yet?” the girl asked.

Meg returned a blank look.

The young lady giggled. “See you at lunch.”

Meg glanced at the clock.  9:45am. When she turned back, the inter-office door was closing as the girl disappeared into the adjoining room. “Morning, Mr. Linney,” the girl was saying. Meg heard a man’s deep voice rumble in reply.

Meg went to the door and ran a finger over its surface and hinges coated in layers of thick paint, applied one over another for decades. The knob held firm. The lock stuck fast. This door hasn’t opened for years. Laying her ear to the wood, she heard the clack of a typewriter. 

Meg peered at the girl’s hat. Soft and black. Smelling of lavender. A diesel engine roared in the alley beyond the open window. Meg closed the sash and sat at the desk. Any sounds from next-door lost out to the din. She stared at her screen, typed something, deleted it. She lay on the couch. Droning sounds enveloped her, and soon she dozed.

When later she woke to deep quiet, Meg sensed that someone had just left the room, that if she’d opened her eyes a moment sooner, she’d have seen someone there. On her keyboard lay a handwritten note:

Missed you at lunch, Sleepyhead. Catch ya next time!


Meg looked at the sealed door, noticed a wisp of lavender hanging in the air. “If she is real,” Meg said to herself, “She couldn’t have gone through the door. If she is a ghost, she can’t have left me this note.”Meg put the paper in a drawer and called it a day.

“I think my office is haunted,” Meg told her husband, Mark, at dinner that night.

Mark grinned. “Is the ghost going to split the rent?”

“Oh, ha-ha,” said Meg, wishing she sold enough stories to keep him from making that joke.

“More wine?” the server popped in to ask.

“Not for me,” said Meg.

Mark’s phone rang, and a grimace crossed his face. “Sorry, Meg. This’ll just take a minute.”

“I’ll go for a smoke.”

“Of course.”

If Jean had come in,
she might have asked
for romance.

They left the table in opposite directions, Meg heading outside, Mark to a quiet corner on the restaurant’s dining terrace. Meg lit a cigarette and surveyed the cracked parking lot that stretched for acres, edged on three sides by retail. A furniture store here, a supermarket there, a space where the bookstore used to be. Meg had worked in a bookstore once. If Jean had come in, she might have asked for ‘Romance.’ 

Meg’s phone buzzed in her pocket: You coming back? She stubbed out the cigarette and returned to the table.

Meg worked at the office, though she could’ve stayed home if she liked. She didn’t have deadlines. No editors or agents to meet. She had no reason to write except the passion for it. She sold a story now and then, by accident, it seemed. When her eyes drooped during afternoons with no air conditioner, she read books on the couch and smoked cigarettes until the ashtray was full. She napped and dreamt of knights on The Crusades or Vikings in Canada.

Jean appeared again one day as Meg tinkered with her query letter, rewriting it, guessing what an editor might want to hear from a writer who hadn’t much to say. “Hello?” said Meg as the outer door opened and Jean entered, a paper cup of coffee in each hand.

Jean didn’t reply. As she reached the inner door, she tapped it with the toe of her simple black shoe. “It’s me, Mr. Linney,” she called out.

“It doesn’t open,” Meg said.

The door swung inward, obscuring Meg’s view. A gruff voice greeted Jean as she stepped out of sight. “Hello?” Meg said again to no one. The door closed and Meg jumped up to examine it. In a moment she was there, but thick paint sealed the door, as it always had. When she scanned the wall where Jean had hung her hat, a patched hole lay where the hook had been. She opened a desk drawer and found the note Jean had left. Catch ya later, she’d written. 

Photo by Skylar Kang on Pexels.com

Meg was dreaming, she realized, as she opened her eyes and sat up on the couch. She couldn’t remember falling asleep, but here she was waking, feeling disoriented, not discerning dream from reality. As she gathered her belongings to go home, Meg looked around for Jean’s note but couldn’t find it.

“You wouldn’t believe the dream I had this afternoon,” Meg said to Mark as he stood at the stove stirring sauce.

“Tough day at the office, eh?”

Meg sipped a diet soda. “You know how it goes.” He knew.

“So what dreams, then?” Mark asked.

“The ghost again.”

“That’s the story you should write,” he said, dipping a spoon in the pot for a cook’s taste.


“What was she up to, anyway?”

“Just ghosting around.”

Mark smiled across the kitchen, a husband who knew his wife’s ways. He’d have her telling the whole story by the time he served her dessert. He threw a handful of noodles into boiling water.

Jean’s Ghost

By Meg Lewis,

This modest office building was once a gem tucked between a dress shop and a cheerful grocery with a lunch counter at the back. The fresh suburban main street came in with the post-war boom, the upswing transforming the valley’s orange groves into just the places that downtown poets railed against, drunk and self-righteous in damp city basements and vegetarian restaurants. Now, the rent here is low, the neighborhood seedy, the building rundown. When I sell a story, I jump to take a lease; my first office. A real writer. I’m upstairs at the back.

My husband, Paul, buys me a couch to put under the window, but I move it to the side wall because I have no blinds. He offers to buy those, too, but I decline. I say, “I’ll buy them myself when I sell another story.” So, it may be awhile before I can move the couch back.

I’m a writer. I live in my imagination. The walls are blank on purpose. The water stains on the ceiling are what I need. I don’t feel guilty if I take a nap. Paul doesn’t like the teenage boys congregating in the alley at dusk. I tell him, “There’s nothing wrong with those boys.” He tells me I see the world through rose-colored glasses.

Someone strolls in as I’m working busily, typing my first 500 words of the day. I’m startled, and I turn to the door. She’s hanging her hat on a coat rack I haven’t noticed. “Hello?” I say with a frown.

“Good morning,” she says, carrying donuts in a bag as she crosses the room, her plain dress, timeless style, swishing around her hips. I’m bewildered. She smiles like a lifelong friend. “See you at lunch,” she says and opens the door, which connects us to the neighboring office. That door is out of use. A chill passes through me.

I inspect the door. They’ve applied layer after layer of thick white paint from top to bottom. When I try to open it, it’s stuck fast. I can hear the girl’s voice in the next office. “Yes, Mr. Linney.” I can’t make out Linney’s muffled reply. I cross the room to inspect the hat. Made of soft felt. Scented with lavender. I lie on the couch and listen to the voices in the next office, Linney’s voice dictating, the girl’s voice saying, “Yes, Mr. Linney.” I don’t realize I’m dropping to sleep. At 1:30, I come around and find a note on my keyboard. “Missed you at lunch, Sleepyhead. Getcha next time, Jean” And that’s how I learn her name.

…sleeping without dreams
and waking in a semi-
weightless state as if
she’d been off the planet
without realizing it

Meg held her head in her hands, rubbed her temples, and stretched. She flopped on the couch and lit a cigarette. For a few minutes she lay with her eyes closed, unwinding. As her cigarette burned, she reached for a recent collection of prize-winning stories. My stuff is so amateur, Meg thought, but read on, hoping to absorb the genius. Next, she was rubbing her eyes with the book beside her where it had slipped as she’d dozed off, this time sleeping without dreams and waking in a semi-weightless state as if she’d been off the planet without realizing it.

Some days, Meg worked, some days not. Some days, she walked up to a nearby row of antique shops to pick through old times. She noticed a rhinestone brooch and imagined Jean wearing it. On the next shelf was a saint carved in black soapstone.

“Something catch your eye, Miss?” asked a man in flannel and denim.

Meg picked up the figure.

“Little St. Columba,” said the man, “Whose prayers converted the Picts of ancient Scotland.”

Meg was charmed and bought the figure.

Back at the office, Meg made tea and sat in her chair to drink it. She tapped the keyboard for an hour in a meandering way, feeling in the dark. Again and again, she considered what had happened with Jean, if it had happened. She expected to write it and make sense of it. Instead, it felt banal and derivative. 

A bang came from Linney’s office. Someone cried out. A door slammed. Meg froze. Is this another dream? The sealed door opened. For a moment, she could see nothing; then someone stepped out. A rush of air through the room blew open the outer door as Meg raised her arm to shield her eyes. When she recovered, she flew to the hall where a woman with a cleaning cart stood stricken. Clutching her apron, she crossed herself and fled. Meg ducked back inside and sank onto the couch, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. When she opened them again, several hours had passed, and the sun was sinking over the alley. Call 911, came the frantic thought.

But what, Meg asked herself, could she report to the authorities? I was working; a gun fired. This sealed door opened. Someone came through, but a wind came up from somewhere and I couldn’t see who it was. There was a woman in the hall; maybe she knows more? Meg decided a sane person could not call emergency services to say that. Another dream, that’s it. But they were getting worse.

Meg took breaks from the office at the coffee shop on street level. When she’d first considered renting upstairs, the landlord had used the shop as a selling point for an otherwise tired building.

               “Harry’s has been here for decades,” he assured her, “A neighborhood place. Great coffee; not the overpriced swill from Starbuck’s.”

Meg soon befriended the servers and stopped in whenever, walking past the window on her way upstairs, she noticed her favorite table was free. These past few weeks, she’d been too busy to visit much. Jean’s story had unlocked something. Everywhere Meg went, she imagined Jean there looking demure, her plain skirt sophisticated and understated. She could sit at Harry’s with a mug of coffee and a jelly donut. Maybe browsing dresses in the second-hand store. Or raising a polite hand to the cars waiting for her at the crosswalk. When Meg hurried upstairs to write, Jean was there to give inspiration. She came in every morning at 9:45am, often bringing something for Mr. Linney: a paper cup of coffee from Harry’s, a donut in a bag.

               “He in yet?”

               “Never a peep until you arrive.”

               She giggled. “See you at lunch.”

               “See you.”

               The mornings passed in a whirl. The rewrites were not a chore. A rhythm she’d lost months ago resurfaced. The pages increased. Jean’s Ghost revealed a noir tragedy set in the building’s glory days.  

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Jean and Linney, a down-on-his-luck attorney, are the ghosts of a couple who worked together in this office in the 1930s and carried on a torrid affair. Their passion ignites in the close confines of the office but is thwarted by his conventional wife and stifling middle class life. He pulls Jean into a dark corner. She resists but is overcome. In Act Two, Linney is forced to take on a gang of disreputable clients to shore up his failing practice and divorce his wife. Jean’s angst keeps her at home nights waiting for him to call while intimidating office visits from the new clients leave her shaken. 

One night, Jean can’t stand it any longer. She knows Linney is at the office for an after-hours meeting. She goes there intending to wait unnoticed and catch Linney after the thugs have left, before he can disappear home to his wife. Listening at the inter-office door, she overhears a terrifying exchange, Linney pleading for more time, the gang leader threatening him with a gun. In a moment of fright, Jean gasps and gives herself away. They drag her into Linney’s office, where she kneels before the aggressors. “We’re in love,” she cries, “Won’t you give us a chance?”

“Love won’t pay the bills, lady,” says the killer.

Meg sat back. She stretched her shoulders and reached for her cigarettes. In a haze of smoke and afternoon sunlight, she reclined on the couch, studying the water-marked ceiling. She saw a killer’s face with a scar and the long shadow lines cast by half-closed blinds. Her eyes drooped. A fly buzzed in the window casement.

The next moment, Meg was being shaken awake by a rough hand. “Get up, Sister,” growled a harsh voice. Meg rubbed her eyes in astonishment. A man in a fedora hat and trench coat stood before her, a pistol in his hand. “I said, GET UP.”

Meg rose, this dream world suddenly black and white, shadows lurking just beyond the light. She knew, this time, that it couldn’t be real. “You got something of mine, don’t ya?”


“Hand over what belongs to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, lady, you think I’m an idiot? I know what you’re up to in here.” He turned to Meg’s desk. “Search the place, Boys,” he said as the shadows in the background took on form and mass. 

A henchman silhouetted in the window spoke up. “It ain’t here, Boss.”

The man turned hard eyes on Meg. “That so?”

“What are you looking for?” asked Meg. She marvelled at her office, now lit like a movie set, her own story unfolding around her, the dream writing the next chapter.

“I’m looking for them stories you’ve been writing, the ones you expect to sell to the papers.”


“Don’t play dumb.”

Meg stood stunned. “I don’t write for the paper.”

The man sneered. “You think I’m going to let you take me down? You think I’m going to let you put the cops on me? I’ve been watching you. My guys have heard you from Linney’s office, typing every morning, bragging to the waitresses downstairs how this is the story that’ll get you noticed by The Times.”

“I haven’t written
about you. I’ve barely
published. I don’t even
have an agent!”

“I’ve said nothing to anyone.” The man was close. Unlike her earlier dreams, this one didn’t come with a rush of air and a sense of not quite seeing. Instead, it pressed in from everywhere.

“Ain’t ya?’”

Meg stood frozen as he raised his pistol.

“You’ve got it wrong,” she said, “I swear.”

He pulled back the hammer. The mechanism, as it clicked, tripped her mind into a panic.

“Please!” she cried, “I haven’t written about you. I’ve barely published. I don’t even have an agent!”

“Too bad,” said the man with a sinister laugh. “I guess now you never will.”

“Oh, don’t,” said Meg, “There’s no need. I’m not a real writer. I’m not a writer!”

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Real Writer appeared first on East of the Web, September 2021

Mr. Harris

Photo by Matt Hardy on Pexels.com

I close all the windows.  The wind is picking up & the dust will blow in.  In the streaming sunshine, a man walks alone on the dirt road.  From the kitchen, Mother calls, “Opal, have you got those windows closed up?” 

“Yes, Ma,” I call back. 

“Go tell the boys to get washed for dinner,” she says, coming in & drawing the curtain aside.  Seeing the stranger in the road, Mother leans forward for a closer look.  Could it be? she’s thinking.  But no, she realizes. It isn’t him.  Her eyes are gentle when she says, “Another one blowing in hopeless & hungry.  Set an extra place before you fetch the boys.”

Everybody jostles around the long kitchen table, getting seated, keeping their hands in their laps with Mother’s pork stew & dumplings before them.  Father is on the back porch with the stranger who holds his cap in his hands.  Mother & my oldest sister, Nessa, bring the food.  I sit on a bench between the little girls, Martha & Clara.  Our brothers, George & Merle, are across the table ribbing each other.  There’s Baby sitting up in his cradle.  He holds his hands out & cries as Nessa goes by with a bowl of potatoes but he’s okay.  I try to hear what Father is saying to the stranger, but there’s too much noise.  I see their mouths moving.  Hate to ask you, the man is saying.  Welcome, Stranger, say Father’s lips.

Father leads us in prayer.  Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest.  Let these, thy gifts to us, be blest.  “Amen,” replies the table.  We wait until Father has taken a ladleful & served the stranger before we move.  As the plates go around, I help the little girls.  Baby is on Mother’s lap while Nessa spoons out their stew. 

Mother speaks first.  “Tell us your name, Stranger,” she says with a smile. 

“Name’s Harris, Ma’am,” he says, “And I’m pleased to meet you all.  Thank you for the meal.  Been a long time since I’ve seen a spread like this.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Harris,” says Mother, “Where do you hail from?” 

“I guess you’d say I come & go as I please.”  As the stranger heaps his plate with seconds & then thirds, George & Merle throw him resentful gazes.  Nessa never looks his way at all.  She helps Mother with Baby, brings more bread, & fills our glasses with creamy fresh milk.

She crosses the room

to close our window

which faces the barn,

lamplight glowing

in the hayloft.

Harris sleeps in the hayloft on a sprung mattress under an old quilt.  It’s clean if worn.  Mother gives him a towel to wash his face & a pillow for his head.  Father gives him an oil lamp & a Bible to read.  “Hayloft’s near empty this time of the year or I couldn’t let you take a light up there.  Even so, you’ll be careful with this.”  The boys scowl after Harris as he disappears into the dark.  I am nestled in bed between Martha & Clara, both asleep, when Nessa looks in. 

“Time to put out your light,” she says & I obey.  She crosses the room to close our window which faces the barn, lamplight glowing in the hayloft. 

“Leave the curtains,” I say, “I like to watch the moon go by.” 

“There’s no moon tonight,” says Nessa leaving a gap in the curtains anyway.  “Good night, Opal,” she says. 

“Good night.” 

In the barnyard next morning collecting eggs, I know right away that something is wrong.  The dogs are nowhere in sight.  Approaching the chicken coop, I find blood & feathers around the little doorway.  “Get in here with those eggs, Opal,” Mother shouts from the kitchen window but I don’t move. 

Father passes with a pail of fresh milk.  “What is it, Opal?” 

“There’s a dead chicken,” I say, pointing to the mess. 

Father looks stricken.  “Where are the dogs?” he asks. 


He groans.  “Don’t touch it,” he says, “Get the eggs; the boys & I will clean up after breakfast.”  I nod & make my way in.  My stomach heaves as I step around the gore.  I swallow hard hearing Mother’s voice in my head, Don’t be a ninny, Opal.  You’ll cut the heads off dozens of chickens when you’re a farmer’s wife.  I get the eggs fast & go back to the house.

Harris sits beside Father at the head of the table.  Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest.  Let these, thy gifts to us, be blest.  “Amen.”  We pass platters of eggs, bread & sausage. 

When they come his way, Harris says, “Not so much for me this morning.” 

George & Merle exchange satisfied glances hearing that the newcomer is learning his place.  Meanwhile they heap their plates until Mother says, “Leave some for the rest of us.”  

“Well, Harris,” says Father, wiping his chin, “We got a fence needs mending down by the creek.  Could use an extra hand if you’ll be around a while.  Can’t pay you, of course, but you’re welcome to stay & board with us if you like.” 

“Thank you,” says Harris, “I believe I will.”

At night, I lay in bed between the girls & watch the moon.  Night by night, it grows from a sliver rising over the barn until it reaches full bloom, a great yellow circle glowing behind the corn silo, lighting up the barnyard.  In the black dark barn, the oil lamp flickers in the hayloft.  It’s late when I hear something in the yard.  I get up to close the window.  In the bright moonlight, nothing moves.  The animals are restless in the barn.  The dogs are whining, penned up to keep them out of the henhouse.  I hurry back to bed.  For a long time, nothing happens.  It’s a struggle to stay awake but I keep watch, shadows changing shape as the moon drifts overhead.  The flame flickers in the hayloft.  In the morning, there’s another dead chicken.

“Why do you let him stay,” I ask Mother as we’re kneading bread dough at the floured work table.  We’ve rolled up our sleeves, our dresses covered by long aprons. 

“Why shouldn’t he stay?” Mother asks, “Father says he’s a good hand.  He does the chores Bill used to do.  Before he went away.” 


Nessa is knitting new

sweaters for winter

while eavesdropping

on the party-line phone

out in the hall.

We put the bread dough in loaf pans & cover them with flour sacks to rise.  I fetch a pail of water.  Mother is feeding Baby when I return.  Nessa is knitting new sweaters for winter while eavesdropping on the party-line phone out in the hall.  “You shouldn’t listen in,” I exclaim.  She shushes me & waves me away.  I wander out to the barn & give a dish of cream to the cats.  I visit the dairy cows whose milk Father sells to the grocer in town.  I look up to the hayloft & wonder.

From the top of the ladder, I can see Mother’s quilt folded on the mattress, the oil lamp on an upturned milk crate under the window.  I note the Bible with a red satin marker tucked into its pages.  His knapsack lies in the corner near an old pitchfork.  I wonder if I’m brave enough to open it.  I step forward looking around, searching for signs.  There’s nothing.  I pick up the Bible & read from the marked page.  …a generation that curseth their father, and doth not bless their mother.  There is a generation, O how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up.  There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour…

“Opal, I’m surprised to find you here,” says Harris.  My heart leaps as I turn to find him standing at the top of the ladder, his face obscure in the dim light.

“Mr. Harris,” I say stammering, “I’m sorry to intrude. I don’t know why I came up here.” 

“In search of something to read?” he suggests motioning to the Bible in my hands. 

“No, no,” I say & put the book down, “I’m so sorry.” 

“Please don’t apologize,” says Harris, “Will you be going?” 

“Yes, yes,” I say aware now that I’m frozen in place.  I’m clumsy getting to the ladder. 

“Careful now,” says Harris.  He watches me all the way down, sees me disappear around the cow stalls.  His eyes are on me from the hayloft as I cross the yard but when I reach the kitchen door & turn to face him, there’s only an empty window.

Baby has come down with a fever & Nessa is tending him when it’s time to put the light out.  “The Baumbach twins are down, too,” she says when she comes in to check on us, “I heard Lyddie call the doctor this afternoon.” 

“Mother says it’s wrong to use the party-line to snoop on people.” 

“It’s not snooping,” says Nessa going back to Baby. 

Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

A breeze comes through the open window.  There’s no moon.  The lamp lights the hayloft as always but tonight Harris is there, too, reading beside the window with his back to me.  His eyeglasses glint in the light from the lamp.  He never stretches, never turns, never moves at all.  What are you? I think to myself.  Baby cries out from his fever & I’m startled awake.  The window in the hayloft is light but empty.  Harris is gone.  The animals stir & a wind picks up in the yard.  I rush to close the window & see Harris there in the dark, disappearing around the back of the chicken coop.  He turns & looks up at me as I slam down the sash.

At breakfast, Nessa does all the cooking.  Mother is upstairs with Baby, swabbing his brow as he sweats & fusses.  I steal glances at Harris sitting next to Father.  Each time I do, he turns to meet my gaze.  I look away.  Still, I notice that his plate is full & at the next glimpse, empty though he seems to have eaten nothing.  Then Clara spills her milk & before we finish mopping up Father, Harris & the boys have all left for morning chores. 

“What do you think of Mr. Harris?” I ask Nessa as we clear the table. 

“Why should I think anything about him?” she asks, “He’s nobody to me.” 


“I don’t care for the way he looks at me,” Nessa says, “As if he would eat me up.” 

“He seems to know my thoughts.” 

“Men always act that way,” says Nessa.

Mother is watching over Baby while he tries to sleep, mending a pair of Harris’ work pants.  “Men never mind their clothes,” she says.  I’m putting a button back on Father’s Sunday shirt.  Nessa is working the foot pedal on the Singer sewing machine, taking in one of my old dresses for Martha.  “Maybe some of Bill’s old work clothes would fit Mr. Harris,” says Mother reflectively, “Bill wouldn’t mind.  He’d be glad to help.  Of course, he would.”  I finish the button & pick up a sock to darn.  “Maybe Mr. Harris will stay through haymaking this fall,” says Mother, “Of course, he can’t sleep out in the barn when winter sets in.  By then, he’ll have to go.”  Through with her mending, she looks up & says, “Do you suppose some family is looking after Bill like we take care of Mr. Harris?  I hope so.  Wherever he is, I pray someone is feeding him & giving him work.  Do you think so, Girls?  I think so.” 


By the end of the summer, we’ve lost Baby.  His fever never breaks.  Mother neither sleeps nor eats, keeping watch night after night.  After weeks of nursing him, Baby slips away in her arms.  Nessa stands in the doorway her eyes soaked with tears.  There’s a graveyard outside the country church.  We lay Baby in the ground next to an infant brother & the stillborn who came between me & Martha.  We mourn with solemn faces while the pastor says the words.  Wind sweeps over the ripe fields.  Harris comes down from the hayloft as we rumble into the yard in Father’s pickup truck.  “My condolences,” he says, joining us in the kitchen where we find that our neighbors have been round to drop off casseroles & stews, salads & desserts.  We collapse onto the benches.  Baby’s cradle is empty by the window.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Pexels.com

After a day of quiet mourning, Father & Harris take their axes out to the back acreage to clear tree stumps.  George & Merle go along planning mischief & hoping for a chance to sneak away.  Mother is resting in bed with the door closed.  Nessa won’t come away from the party-line phone.  I climb up to the hayloft & thumb the pages of the old Bible to mark the page which begins, We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.  When the men come in, I’m at the worktable under the window cleaning the oil lamp.

“Opal, that’s Mr. Harris’ lamp,” says Father.

“Yes,” I say, my voice level, my eyes on Harris “And it was kind of you to bring it down, Mr. Harris, with all your things now you’ve decided to leave.” 

“Are you leaving, Harris?” Father asks surprised.  I take Father’s arm saying, “He’s brought all his things here to the kitchen & the hayloft is swept clean.” 

“Hope it’s nothing we’ve done,” says Father.  Harris’ dark eyes follow me. 

“Don’t worry, Father,” I say, “I’m sure Mr. Harris knows how we’re missing Baby & feels it’s time to move on.”  Harris’ gaze hardens.  I lift his knapsack from the table & offer it up.  Harris takes the bag with Father looking on. 

“Hate to see you go,” says Father, reaching out to shake his hand. 

“Perhaps Mr. Harris will find his way back sometime,” I say, “Isn’t that so, Mr. Harris?” 

“I come & go as I please,” says Harris. 

Yes.  “You’ll be wanting to take this with you, too, won’t you,” I say, handing him the old Bible with the newly placed page marker.  As he takes it, his eyes grow wide & he shrinks from me. 

“Yes, yes,” he says hurriedly, “I wouldn’t like to go without it.” 

“Wise words,” says Father.

In a moment, Harris is gone.  Father & the boys are settling down around the table.  I serve them cold meats & brown bread.  I pour out glasses of our own good milk cool from the icebox.  Nessa comes in listlessly & sits in her place beside Mother’s empty chair.  She is pale, but she eats.  I help the little girls with their meals & bring out more food to fill my brothers’ plates.  I clear the table & wash the dishes while Nessa dries.  “Are you glad he’s gone?” I ask. 

“Opal,” cries Nessa, “How could I be glad?  Baby’s dead.  How can you even ask me?” 

“Not Baby,” I say, “Harris.” 

“Oh, him,” says Nessa with disdain, “Well, if he wouldn’t take me with him, he may just as well be gone.”  She sighs & looks disgusted.  With the dishes done, I go around & close all the windows.  When the wind picks up, the dust blows in.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Mr. Harris appeared first in Deracine, Summer 2020

A Place to Get Away

Photo credit: Nick Kenrick.. on Visualhunt

Before the wildfire some years back, Grandpa George’s summer place was an ageing cabin, a relic from a time when the mountain resort was a novelty to city dwellers, a picturesque place to get away an hour’s drive from downtown.  The cabin could sleep only 4, had no air conditioning & no washing machine.  There was 1 tiny shower stall, 1 lonely electrical socket in the whole place.  When the fire ripped through the valley, its savage winds taking down power lines, sparks bursting into flames, the little cabin was devoured along with all the rest on Red Rose Drive, a gravel road overlooking a vast pine forest believed until modern times to be sacred.  The forest has renewed itself since the fire.  Red Rose Drive has been improved & rebuilt.  

Deciding whether to sell Grandpa’s land after the fire & divide the profits or use the insurance payout to put things back together, Anne’s family had been split.  

“Grandpa would have wanted us to keep the old place,” Uncle John had pointed out.

“Grandpa is dead,” Anne’s mother, Carol, had said, “What does it matter to him?”  After a family vote that could have gone either way, a contractor & architect had been hired.  The house had been remade, not as a rustic cabin but as a proper summer home with 3 bedrooms, a modern kitchen & several bathrooms.  Neighboring plots were similarly improved; nobody wanted a cabin anymore.  It had taken considerably more than the insurance money for Anne’s family to finish the project.  

“I told you,” Carol had said, bills & bank statements in hand.  

Scaffolding surrounds the place rising on the neighboring plot.  Mrs. Taylor, a resident on Red Rose Drive for 35 years & the 1st to rebuild, has met the new residents out with their building firm, blueprints rustling in the breeze.  

“That place will have 5 bedrooms,” Mrs. Taylor tells Carol when they arrive for 4th of July weekend, “Can you believe that?  It was Bob Graham’s fishing cabin.  It had an outhouse!”  

“I know,” says Carol, holding her nose.  

Many of the closest neighbors, most of them family friends for decades, haven’t kept their places.  “It’s not the same without the Harrisons up here,” Uncle John remarks, coming in with his 2 boys, “No one made a better cherry pie than Mrs. Harrison.”  

“We should have sold

the place before we sank

so much money into it,”

Carol gripes from the kitchen

table which she is dusting.

“We should have sold the place before we sank so much money into it,” Carol gripes from the kitchen table which she is dusting.  

Anne winces as she sweeps cobwebs down from the light fixtures, dust falling in her eyes.  “Come on, Mom,” she says.  

“It sits empty all year,” Carol answers, “And it takes 3 hours to get up here these days.  It’s not worth it anymore.”  Uncle John shakes his head & takes the suitcases downstairs.

By dinner time, Uncle John’s wife, Molly, has called to say she will not drive up after all; a problem with the car, it seems.  That means Anne’s brother, Jake, & his girlfriend will also be absent, having planned to carpool.  Carol has made a fresh green salad.  Uncle John has grilled burgers & hot dogs.  His teenage sons, Will & Joshua, devour a mountain of food then disappear to play video games in their bedroom downstairs.  

“Sure is different up here than it used to be,” Carol remarks as she loads the dishwasher.  Anne takes a pack of cigarettes from her purse & opens the sliding glass doors onto the deck.  “You still smoking?” Carol says with a reproving look.  Anne stops & turns to her mother.  “You smoked when you were my age,” she says.  

“But I quit,” says Carol, “And you should, too.”  

“Yeah,” says Anne & goes out.  

She looks out at the black, black mountainsides, the sky above with its field of stars.  It’s just us, she thinks.  She imagines her dad as he was in her childhood, long before the divorce, out on the back-porch smoking with Grandpa George before he died.  Now they’re both dead, she thinks.  She remembers Dad & Grandpa talking baseball through the afternoon & into the night.  

“You think your boys from Chicago can beat the Home Team this year?” Dad asks.  “Home Team, my foot,” Grandpa answers back, “I don’t know how you can root for those bums.  I’m a Chicagoan ‘til the day I die.”  They lament the surrounding mountains which block out the radio broadcast.  “But it’s paradise up here,” Grandpa says, “Simply paradise.  

“Yeah,” Anne’s dad agrees.  They fall silent.  Anne is alone again on the deck, her cigarette burning.  Before it’s quite finished, she uses it to light another.

Is that a million trees?

she thinks gazing through

a plate-glass window,

Does anybody count trees?

Uncle John takes the boys down to the lake for a day of fishing off the boat.  They invite Anne to join but she declines.  Carol says she wants to spend the day reading.  She has an inspirational guide to spirituality waiting on the coffee table.  Anne sits on a barstool at the counter which divides the open-plan kitchen from the living room.  Is that a million trees? she thinks gazing through a plate-glass window, Does anybody count trees?  

“You planning to sit there the rest of the day staring out the window?” asks Carol, bustling in, “I’m taking my book out to the deck.”  

“I’ll come out,” says Anne.  She smokes a cigarette using Grandpa George’s favorite ashtray.  It’s one of the few things to survive the fire.  

“We are not keeping that,” Carol had said with disgust.

“But everything else burned up,” John had insisted, “How can we throw out the only thing that’s left?”  

“Fine,” Carol had grudgingly conceded, “Have it your way.”


“Why don’t you take a walk up the trail behind the Thompson’s place,” Carol suggests with a sideways look, “It’s beautiful.  I went up before breakfast.  If you’d been awake, you could’ve come with me.”  

I hate walks, Anne thinks not knowing what to say, Just the word ‘walk’ & already I’m tired.  

“It’s better than sitting here smoking ½ a pack of cigarettes,” her mother says, turning back to her book, “I came up here for the fresh air, you know.”    

“I’ll go,” Anne says.  

“Good,” says Carol, “And if you’re not too worn out, you can come with me after dinner tonight, too.  Gotta’ get my steps in.”  Anne nods & goes inside to put on walking shoes.

Photo by Anand Dandekar on Pexels.com

Anne comes into the meadow at the top of the trail.  There’s a stream that comes down along the far side with shade trees.  Who was the 1st human to walk in this meadow, she wonders, 10,000 years ago?  Longer?  Anne knows which tree she likes.  She finds it waiting for her.  The dirt is hard & dry; the tree roots decide what shape the ground will be.  Anne settles herself in. The branches above are in full leaf.  The birds & insects go about their business.  Anne leans her head back & hears a nearby radio playing.  She looks around but sees nothing.  The wind blows & she thinks, They must be playing music down at the Thompson place.  Her eyelids are heavy.  The mountain air is fresh & cool.

“I thought you’d never wake up,” says a voice.  

Anne finds she’s opening her eyes & turning to look.  Dad? she thinks.  

“You must’ve been asleep awhile,” he says.  

It’s not Dad, she thinks though she’s not sure.  He’s sitting in a folding chair with a cooler & a portable radio playing static beside him.  He smokes a cigarette casually.  She notices a pile of butts on the bare ground stacked as neatly as firewood.  He’ll take those with him when he goes, Anne thinks,  just like Dad.  

“You okay?” the man asks.  

“I didn’t realize I’d gone to sleep,” Anne says, rubbing her eyes. “You look like my dad,” she says wonderingly.  “But, of course, he’s dead.” 

The man gives her a wry grin.  “I’m not your dad,” he says, “And I’m not dead.”

The breeze changes, the radio static clears & Anne can hear it’s tuned to a ballgame.  “My dad used to listen to games up here sometimes,” Anne says, “He claimed you could get a signal if you tuned in the AM radio just right.”  

“It gets patchy,” says the man, shrugging his shoulders, “Some days, I can’t hear a thing.  But look at the view.”  

“Yeah,” says Anne.  She feels dizzy.  “Did you buy the old Thompson place?”  

“Who’s your team?” she

asks idly. “I always root

for the Home Team,” he says.  

Of course, she thinks,

her mind drifting.

“No,” says the man, reaching toward the cooler, “Can I offer a lady an ice-cold beer?”

“No, thanks,” says Anne.  

“Suit yourself,” he says.  

“You up here for the 4th?” Anne asks.  

“Looks like it,” he says.  She waits for him to say more but he’s listening for the baseball scores.  Anne hears the woods & the meadow, a mix static & baseball commentary coming through on the radio.  

“Who’s your team?” she asks idly.  

“I always root for the Home Team,” he says.  

Of course, she thinks, her mind drifting.

“I have a daughter,” the man says after a while.  

Anne nods, feigning interest.  “That’s nice,” she says.  

“My daughter is something else,” the man says.  

“Yeah?” says Anne.  

“Yeah,” he says, nodding, “Just like me when I was young.”  He’s the spitting image of Dad, biting his lip & looking far into the distance.  “It all goes by so fast,” he says.  

A loud bang comes from the somewhere beyond the meadow in the direction of Red Rose Drive.  Anne wakes, her heart racing as the popping of firecrackers & smell of BBQ take her by surprise.  She’s alone on the bank of the stream, the rippling of leaves above her sounding like quiet static on a small radio.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

First published in Backchannels, Issue 4 March 2020