Two weekends ago, my husband and I celebrated 20 years of marriage with a quick getaway to St. Michaels, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It’s near the other town I love, Oxford, Maryland, where my novel, Inn Significant, is set. Both those towns have a ton of charm and are surrounded by water. They are quite special.
We stayed at the Inn at Perry Cabin by Belmond, a place we had stayed many moons ago. As St. Michaels was celebrating Midnight Madness on the evening of December 2, we thought it would be fun to be a part of the…well…madness. With shops open until midnight, festive decorations lighting up the town, people feeling merry wandering the town (including us), and specials and discounts being offered in the shops, it was the perfect evening. We ate a lovely dinner at 208 Talbot, spent time at the Inn, enjoyed our amazing room and view, and reconnected in a way that all people married for a long time should.
If you’re looking for small town that oozes with charm, you might consider putting St. Michaels on your travel list.
Luckily, for some people I know, I don’t write a lot of villains into my novels. As I do in real life, I try to not let nasty, uncaring, judgmental, ridiculously competitive and fake people seep into my world too often. However, in the short stories I write, I let them in because I don’t have to deal with them for too long, as short stories are just that—short. However, writers have to allow what we learn about people to grace the pages of our stories and illuminate our characters; these sketches of folks should glide into our stories seamlessly. As well, the same is true with the goodness and quirkiness and loveliness of people.
For example, in my recent novel Inn Significant, I texted my friend Charles and told him that Miles was based on him and my husband—kind of a conglomeration of the two. He had no idea, and was flattered by the depiction of Miles in the book. There are people in real life who can bring liveliness and charisma and charm to the characters you are writing—so let that unfold as the characters are made up of characteristics that you see in people.
As for us as writers, how much of ourselves do we let into our stories? I have a wild imagination, so I tend to consider the character and what he or she likes and what would make them that way. For example, in Inn Signficiant, the main character is Milly, and she narrates the book. How much of Milly is in me? Well, let’s see. We both love living near the water. We both are writers and like to read. We both love cruiser bikes, though hers is pink and mine is seafoam green. We both love our families. We both know what true love feels like. We both know what heartbreak feels like. We both value a pretty simple life. We both have a sense of humor.
What we don’t share is that she has felt tragedy, as she has lost her husband in a horrific accident, and goes through a bout of depression. And while I haven’t felt loss like Milly (thankfully), I can imagine its intensity, devastation, and profoundness. I also understand what feeling depressed is like, as I bumped up against that a few years ago during a trying time in my life, and one in which I learned a few lessons about good friendships vs. yucky ones.
As writers, we have to allow these things we know and understand to help develop our characters. We do allow bits of ourselves to show up in our characters, and if it’s not a bit of us, then it’s a collection of bits of others that we know, have interacted with, have been friends with, or maybe even have had a falling out with along the way.
The main point to writing character is to believe that they are real, and then make others believe that they are real. Make them so authentic that people completely understand them. That’s not to say that the characters might not drive readers crazy at times or make them shake their heads and say “what?,” but we need to put realism into our writing.
Plot is wonderful, but people have to be able to identify with the characters.
Years ago, I read the book The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbaugh. I read this book because I was writing Baseball Girl, and I wanted to read as much baseball fiction as I could before I published anything. While Harbaugh’s writing is absolutely beautiful—a true work of literary splendor—the characters were, to me, wholly unbelievable. I couldn’t relate to any of them, and truthfully, only finished the book because I was so deep in at that point, that I needed to see how it ended. But I didn’t enjoy it that much, if I’m being truthful. I desperately wanted to connect with any one of the five main characters in the story. I wanted to find some of their actions redeemable, and yet, I came up just feeling this way about it: meh.
My goal is not to have anyone say meh about my characters. I keep that in the back of my mind the entire time I’m writing.
So don’t leave yourself out of the equation when writing strong, memorable, and relatable characters. You have the potential to bring so much to the story.
I’ll be taking Inn Significant on the road for a couple of upcoming books talks and signings.
The first, to kick off the Summer Reading Program at the Broadneck Library in Annapolis, Maryland, I’ll be doing a book talk and signing on Monday, June 19 at 7 p.m. The Broadneck Library has scheduled me for all three books I’ve published–they are so dear. A special thanks to Shirley Lord for always being so kind. And Annapolis was the setting of my first book, Beneath the Mimosa Tree. We had a good turnout for Baseball Girl; hopefully, some of you will come and join the fun in Annapolis.
I’ll have books and giveaways and I’ll be signing copies of all three of my books, including Inn Significant.
Also–BOOK CLUBS–I am happy to visit your book club should you choose any of my books as your book club book. I can also Skype in if you don’t live in the vicinity. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, check out my Amazon Author Page, or visit my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/StephanieVerni/ .
I hope to see some of you there. If you haven’t visited Oxford, St. Michaels, or Easton, Maryland, you’re in for a treat. Make a day trip out of it and see the places that inspired my novel.
I’m not saying I’m going to do this. Making a commitment to writing another book may be too much for me right now, but the other day, I could “hear” Milly’s voice in my head, so I sat down and wrote.
Maybe I’m not done with her yet. Maybe I’m not done with her story and the story of the Inn.
What follows is what came right from my head to my fingertips as I typed, and is what could potentially be the beginning of a sequel. I’ve never written a sequel before, and the notion of it scares me a little because there’s a lot of pressure to do the first book justice. Nevertheless, I’ve heard what some of you have said…that there’s still more story there…and I’m toying with it.
To those of you who have read Inn Significant, I’d love feedback. I need it.
I’m not sure if this is what’s next on my writing horizon or not…but I would appreciate any input you may have.
We shall see, my friends. We shall see.
By the way, the inspiration for how the barn looks comes from this barn, the White Sparrow Barn in Texas. It’s stunning.
T h e S e q u e l t o I n n S i g n i f i c a n t (maybe)
C h a p t e r 1
The wind whipped, bending the trees in half, as the storm began to wreak havoc on our small town. The river looked angry, as it tossed the white caps into the air and pummeled the shoreline. We had just spent the previous weekend planting vibrant crepe myrtles, miniature cypress trees, and a variety of shrubs and flowers around the perimeter of our new, bright white structure with a light grey tin roof. The long, curvy, slate walkway was completed just two days ago, and the lights that lined it were supposed to be installed today.
No such luck.
We were down to the wire with our first wedding scheduled in two weeks, and the storm was certainly going to set back our timeline—by days. All of the tables and chairs were scheduled to be delivered this week, the chandeliers needed to be installed as they had arrived late from our vendor, and the remaining final touches of paint and sinks for both the men’s and women’s bathrooms were on the docket to be finished over the next seven days.
And while all this might sound a bit desperate and chaotic at the last minute, the construction had gone swimmingly. The barn had been built in record time; its soaring, vaulted ceilings and windows allowed natural light to flow inside it—and it turned out exactly as our architect, Simone, had designed it. She was instrumental in planning a venue that suited the land, matched the feel of the existing Inn, and offered a picturesque setting for weddings and other special events. The sliding doors on the river side of the barn were crafted to open fully to a covered patio with waterfront views, and they were dreamy to say the least. We had decorated the patio with potted boxwoods and cascading flowers planted in urns, which we had moved inside last night before the storm hit to preserve them.
This behemoth of a tropical storm, as it was now being referred to by weatherpersons on every news channel, was churning up a lot of debris, and I’d never witnessed the Tred Avon looking so violent. The Chesapeake Bay was thrashing even more than the river, and pictures of flooded downtown Annapolis had made the news highlights this morning. The images of the storm reminded me of what had happened to Nana’s dear Ferio as he endured that fateful hurricane so long ago. The thought of it all sent a chill up my spine, and I couldn’t help but worry about some folks who may not have taken proper precautions and made their way to safety.
Mother Nature does not mess around. When she has something to say, she tends to say it in a big way, just to make sure we’re all paying attention, and we are quickly reminded that we must respect her authority.
I stood on the porch of Inn Significant in my rainboots and blue raincoat and watched as Oxford got pummeled. My mother was inside making a huge pot of soup for all of us in case we lost electricity, which was certainly a possibility, but hadn’t happened yet. Despite the deluge from the sky and raindrops the size of small pancakes, it was still warm out. John and I had scurried over in our SUV, crawling at about five miles per hour, but my new house—the one I bought impetuously—was only about three quarters of a mile away. We had secured that property—the one that we would soon live in together—and decided to weather the storm at the Inn. There were no guests booked, as everyone had cancelled when the latest weather report concluded that treacherous weather was indeed approaching.
While the renovation on our new place was being done, John had remained living on the grounds in his cottage on my parents’ property. Truthfully, we were enjoying a little bit of courtship before our own wedding, which was set for later in the year.
I looked down and touched the diamond he had given me after we had fully committed to each other and our relationship. Sometimes it felt surreal.
The ring was stunning—and much bigger than the one Gil had given me during our humble beginnings when we were very young and didn’t have any money. John had a lot of money saved up over the years, and he prided himself on being able to give me a ring that, as he said, “was as beautiful as I was, inside and out.”
Those are the kinds of words you can get used to hearing for the rest of your life.
A bolt of lightening flashed in the distance, and seconds later, the boom of thunder sounded and echoed across the river. I felt the porch tremble, and I must admit, I did as well. It also must have startled the seagull that was perched under a tree, for he took off flying against the torrential rain, battling the wind that offered tremendous resistance. And yet, the seagull somehow prevailed and made it safely to another perch.
I stood on the porch and watched as the river sang a much different tune today than it did most days in our town; I wanted it all to be over.
There was something ominous about it, and I didn’t care for it at all.
–Copyright 2017/Stephanie Verni/All Rights Reserved
Yesterday on Instagram, a fellow writer I follow who follows me back asked for input from other writers. Her question was this: How do you write authentic characters, and then how do you make them sound convincing in dialogue?
As someone who has written three fiction books and teaches the subject of writing, I have some advice I can offer. I may not be perfect, and I may be an indie author, but I think I have some ideas to share that may be helpful. I enjoy offering tips to beginning writers because we’ve all been there. These tips are from experience and encompass the best advice I can give from my own perspective.
First, let’s tackle making characters authentic and believable. To begin, you have to have a pretty good sketch of your character. To illustrate my points, I’m going to use John, a main character from my newest book, Inn Significant. Milly, the other main character, is the narrator, so it’s up to me as the writer to showcase John as Milly sees him throughout the book through her eyes. Let’s begin.
John’s Character Sketch
John is 38 years old. He was in the military and had a couple of heartbreaking and powerfully disturbing experiences when he was overseas flying military aircraft. These experiences haunt John, and while I never come out and say he has PTSD, he has PTSD. As the writer, I know this about him. This is the makeup of John that leads him to want to live a simple life on the Eastern Shore of Maryland working at an Inn in a small town (where he is from). He wants nothing complicated. He works for Milly’s parents at the Inn and has his own cottage on the grounds. From this point, I made a list of other things John likes in order to “see” him as a character—and to keep me on track as I wrote him. What are some other characteristics about John? He’s kind. He’s helpful. He likes doing things to please others. He likes to sneak into the Inn’s kitchen at night and whip up his grandmother’s muffins for the guests. He is an artist, which is how he relieves his stress. He runs every day. He’s in shape. He has high cheekbones and is tanned from working outside in the gardens. He drinks Gatorade. He listens to James Taylor. He’s close with his family, and he adores his grandmother. He’s respectful. He’s loyal. And he’s always been incredibly fond of Milly, even when she was married (before her husband suddenly passed away). He likes to read, but isn’t a writer. He owns a boat and likes to kayak.
That’s my basic character sketch of John. These were the things I knew about him as I began to write.
Knowing all these things about him helped me write dialogue that works. So how can you write dialogue that works? To me, you know the characters so well that you can picture exchanges happening as if you are watching a movie. You almost have to pretend they are real. How would you like to see things unfold? How would the characters relate to one another? What would a realistic scene sound like?
Keeping these questions in mind will help you write your dialogue scenes in a way that you should write them. And my other big tip on writing dialogue that works is to read it out loud many times to yourself, and if possible, read it aloud to someone you trust to get feedback.
As an example of this, I will share an exchange between John and Milly from my book; this exchange takes place the first night John asks Milly to hang out with him in the Inn’s kitchen and only her second day working at the Inn (she’s filling in for her parents who have gone away for a year). Milly has not been alone with a man since her husband’s death two and a half years prior, so she’s a little awkward and nervous, but trying to relax as he’s baking.
The Excerpt from Inn Significant
I watched John move around with ease, almost ambidextrous in nature, gliding around effortlessly, pulling items and food from cabinets and pantries. He opened the oven to check the temperature. He mixed up a gooey batter in a sturdy, red mixing bowl with a matching red Williams-Sonoma spatula.
“I’m sorry. I already started the process when I decided to knock on your door,” he said. “This batch is mixed.”
He filled the muffin cups with the batter, letting it pour into each cup, and when they were all filled, he slid the entire tin of what looked like perfection into the oven.
“Would you care for a cup of tea?” he asked, attempting to conjure up a British accent. It didn’t go too well, and we both smiled.
“Yes. Decaf, please,” I said, attempting to produce a similar accent in response, but failing miserably at it.
“Got it,” he said as he began making it.
“I feel silly just sitting here not helping.”
“Don’t. It’s my grandma’s recipe, and because a little birdie told me you didn’t try one this morning, I’m going to make you try one as it comes out of the oven. Your mother told me that your writing career began with food reviews. I’m looking forward to your verdict.”
“That was a long time ago, when I actually was a writer and it meant something.”
“I understand,” he said. “But I’d still like to hear your review of Grandma’s muffins.”
“I’m feeling extraordinary pressure to like them,” I said.
“The word ‘like’ shouldn’t be a part of your vocabulary when you’re describing treats you will salivate over,” he said with a wink. “That’s something you do on Facebook. As a writer and former food critic, I expect a far more elaborate and eloquent dissection and analysis of the food from you.”
“I’m better on paper,” I teased.
When the timer went off, he pulled the first batch out of the oven, steam rising off the tops ever so slightly, and then sat across from me at the table.
“Have one of these,” he said, and he placed a hearty, substantial treat onto my delicate plate adorned with roses.
“A crunchy muffin?” I asked. It appeared to be hard on the bottom with some sort of loose, sugary topping that resembled a crumb bun on top.
“Grandma will want to know if you like her recipe.”
I remember distinctly when I wrote my first novel, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and I read a passage back to my husband. I was writing from a 32-year-old man’s point of view, and I needed to know if Michael would say what I had written. I read the passage aloud to my husband, and when I was done, I stopped.
“Is that what Michael would say?” I asked my husband.
“No,” he said. “Michael would not say that.”
“What would he say, then?” I asked my husband, seeking help with the paragraph, especially because my husband happens to be A MAN.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but he wouldn’t say that.”
I reworked that paragraph at least ten times until finally, I read it aloud once more, and my husband said, “That’s it. That’s what Michael would say.”
And that, my friends, is why you seek input from others and why it takes time to write something vivid, meaningful, and realistic.
I suppose I’ve always had a fascination for living near the water, and it shows up in my writing. Inn Significant, my latest novel, is set in an Inn on the Tred Avon River in Oxford, Maryland, and features a love story within a love story. There’s something wholly romantic about living near the water, the peacefulness of it all, and the sentimental feelings I have about it come out in my storytelling.
Today, I thought I’d feature the first poem I ever had published a few years ago. I’ve been writing poetry for ages (I think my earliest poem dates back to 6th grade), but I don’t often share my poetry with people, as it can be incredibly intimate and make me feel a little uncomfortable, because it often comes from a place deep down within your soul. However, I’m going to brave it this summer and include some of my poetry in my upcoming book that features short stories and poems called The Postcard and Other Short Stories & Poetry. Wish me luck. I am not entirely comfortable putting these personal thoughts out there, but I guess I have to get over that (which is why I prefer writing fiction–you can hide behind the make believe).
The poem I’m sharing today was featured on The Whistling Fire, which is no longer in existence, so I feel that I can post it now on this blog. It’s one of many poems that will be featured in The Postcard.
Let me know what you think. It’s a sestina poem , and this type of poem is tough to write because the words at the end of each line must remain the words at the end of each line throughout the poem, but in a different order for each stanza as you build the poem. As you will see, my repetitive words are as follows: sea, garden, children, direct, cherish, and beauty. There’s an order to it, and if you like to challenge yourself, I suggest you attempt a sestina.
In the meantime, here’s The Things He Cherished.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
T H E T H I N G S H E C H E R I S H E D, A S E S T I N A
by Stephanie Verni
In my cottage by the sea,
hours spent admiring the garden,
I wait patiently for my children
to return home, direct
from the city to cherish
this place. Its specialness and beauty.
Flowers, surf, majestic beauty—
sharp, blue sky against the sea,
it reflects in my children’s eyes; I cherish
watching them work in the garden
my husband’s eyes in theirs, a direct
melding of our souls into those of our children.
My son, my daughter, walk the lane. My children
still seem so young, their beauty,
their clear sense of life’s direction,
wanting to pay homage to their father, ashes in the sea.
My tears water the garden—
this garden that he cherished.
And oh! He cherished
this home, his dream, and his children,
his handprints still fresh in the garden
his loving touches made it beautiful.
The wind, the water. How he loved the sea–
echoes of his voice saying they provided him direction.
Now heaven’s offering him direction
from above—a new view to cherish–
this diminutive cottage dwarfed by the sea.
Will he see our children?
Will he remember the beauty
he created, lovingly, tenderly in the garden?
My hands are not those of a gardener,
his passion for it—teaching the children
his tricks. How to tend to nature’s beauty,
wanting something to cherish.
Grateful for them, knowing my children
will comfort me in his cottage by the sea.
Memories alive in the vibrant garden.
We’re here. Direct sun sparkles off the sea.
He, at peace. The things he cherished.
Students ask me this often; then they ask what it was like to work in baseball, in sports, for a Major League baseball team.
I have often blogged about how working in baseball changed my life in so many ways. I became a serious student when I got my job with the Orioles as a sophomore in college. I learned how to budget my time and work long hours. I loved every minute of it. I even roped my best friend and college roommate into working there during my second year when I supervised a small staff and someone quit before Opening Day. She was supposed to be a fill-in and ended up staying the entire season…and then some. I grew up there and stayed for 13 total seasons. My best friends are from there. I met my husband there. I learned valuable skills that I now teach my students. I learned about the game, its history, and its pomp and circumstance—all of which I treasure.
Then I wrote a fictional novel about working in baseball entitled Baseball Girl, summoning my recollections and stories about working in the game.
On Friday night, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with my mentor and dear friend, Dr. Charles Steinberg, in Boston. Our students and faculty were in town for a communication convention, and Charles, who now works for the Red Sox and Pawtucket Paw Sox, took us out to dinner. It’s funny how things come around full circle—I learned so much of what I know from Charles and Julie Wagner, and both are still my dear friends and mentors. Both Charles and Julie also wrote a case study for a textbook my colleagues and I wrote about event planning. Sitting at that table with Charles made me realize a couple of things: (1) how thankful I am that I had the job I had for all those years and that it helps me in my current job today, and (2) that strong friendships sustain themselves even when you don’t see each other as often as you would like.
Today is Opening Day, and I will not be there at Camden Yards to celebrate its 25th season at the ballpark. I have to teach my classes.
I was there on Opening Day 1992 when Camden Yards took center stage, and I helped coordinate the opening ceremonies. I value all of my time there—first as assistant director of community relations and then as director of publishing. For fun, and at Charles’s request, I even spent time as the ballpark deejay for a while, spinning tunes and getting the crowd fired up.
So the question remains: “Do you miss working in baseball?”
On days like today, with a fresh season upon us, a new team, and a clean slate with 162 games to go and a chance to win a World Series ring as a member of the front office, the answer is simply…
Week one of book promotion for Inn Significant has come to an end, and I wanted to thank all 594 people who entered to win on Amazon for doing so! We had three winners this week–Thelma, Kendra, and Jessica. I hope you all enjoy Inn Significant…I really do.
I’ll be giving away some signed copies this week on my author Facebook page thanks to some good ideas from my savvy students in public relations class. So stay tuned…
I also wanted to thank the Star-Democrat newspaper on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for featuring the story about the book this week. Hopefully, some folks who either live on the Eastern Shore or love visiting Oxford, St. Michaels, and Easton (like I do) will enjoy the story of Milly Foster and her life at the Inn.
With only a couple of weeks remaining before the return to school and classes, do you have time to squeeze in one more book this summer?
I’m currently reading In Defense of the Princess, a nonfiction account of one woman’s affinity and respect for the princess culture. As a fan as well, I wanted to read something that wasn’t fiction since that’s my typical go-to type of book. I wanted to go out of my normal genre. So far, I’m really enjoying it.
But my favorite quote about summer reading is the following:
“Summer is a great time to expand our horizons as readers and to try something new, either a new genre, or a new author, or a new topic, or a new place to read.” -Pam Allyn
So, if you haven’t picked up something different this summer, why not do it before it ends?
Yesterday, I popped onto my Instagram feed to take a peek at what was going on when I came across this:
The Instagram post was written by a former student who was also one of the co-presidents of our public relations club that I advise and someone I mentored during her college years. During that time and afterwards, we became friends.
I am always so touched when someone takes the time to write something heartwarming like this. It’s the best reward one can get from being a teacher.
I am full of gratitude, and it brought a tear to my eye. It means the world to me.
Thank you so much, Rachel, for your very kind words, and for allowing me to share this on my blog. And I’m so proud of the journey you’ve taken into the world of higher education where you are now making a big difference in the lives of students, too.
This morning I took a ride to Camden Yards. It was surreal—like going back in time to the commute I did for many years from 1992 through 1998 when I was a full-time employee of the ballclub. (Prior to that, beginning in 1985, I commuted to old Memorial Stadium). I had to pick up something from our friend Mark at the Orioles offices for my son’s birthday. On my drive in, as I am often capable of doing, I became nostalgic remembering old times. I also got to thinking about how that job of working for the Orioles completely transformed my life. And I don’t write that lightly. It seriously did transform my life as I’ve written about several times before here on the blog.
What it also did was to inform my current job—that of professor of business communication at Stevenson University. Being able to talk about my experiences working in several different departments, including public relations, community relations, publishing, and Orioles productions gave me such a foundation of knowledge, that today, when I am in the classroom, I still use work experiences to illustrate points we learn in the textbooks we read. That added working knowledge I bring to the table helps me be a better teacher. Additionally, since I love to tell stories, it also gives me a lot of fodder; and trust me, I don’t hold back. Sharing the good experiences along with the bad helps my students understand concepts and theories they are studying. And finally, that job working in baseball also helped inform my writing of Baseball Girl, the fictional novel I published last year about life working in professional baseball, which of course, was loosely based on my own life and experiences working in the sport.
My year working for The Baltimore Sun was not an easy one, but I certainly learned a lot from it. The two years following that when I owned and operated my own consulting business taught me even more about responsibility and ownership and making the client happy. And many of those clients I worked with because I had connections to them from my days at the Orioles.
I don’t know if it’s because there’s been a lot of turmoil in the world and country lately or because I see a lot of vitriolic hate and vehement opinions on world and political events on Facebook (of which I will take no part in; you will never see me talk politics either here on the blog or on my Facebook page, because, truthfully, no one wants my opinion, and likewise, I don’t care to hear anyone else’s either), but I woke up feeling nothing but thankful this morning. I’ve been very fortunate in my life. I’ve worked hard to make a difference in each career in which I’ve had the opportunity to engage. My work experiences have helped inform my teaching, and I’ll forever be grateful for those teachable moments that help me provide my own teachable moments to our wonderful students.
And that’s today’s bit of Monday Morning Nostalgia, brought to you by a sentimental, sappy fool. 🙂
Stephanie Verni is the author of Baseball Girl, Beneath the Mimosa Tree, and the co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice.
My summer break is finally here. As a college professor, we love our teaching, but sometimes a little down time is important. For months, people have been asking me what I’ll be doing this summer.
My answer? Reading, writing, relaxing.
There you have it in a nutshell.
And yes, I have some things to accomplish, but they will get done on my schedule.
I’m still editing “Postcards and Other Short Stories,” and I’m writing my third novel. But the beauty is, I feel no pressure. I’m on my own timetable.
Our porch at home is my little sanctuary. I love my office, its space, and the new chandelier, but in the summertime, I like to be outside as much as possible, and so my little laptop and I venture to the table on the porch where I listen to the birds chirping, the airplanes fly overhead, and the sounds of silence while I write. It’s a great time to collect my thoughts, get creative, and let things unfold as they may.