Category Archives: Writing

I love Edgar Allan Poe

Whenever I am asked, as all authors are, who the writers were who influenced me, Edgar Allan Poe is always the first to come to mind.

I was an odd child, and in the year between seventh and eighth grade, I spent all summer wearing my swimming suit and living in my bed, reading. I read the collected works of Poe, of course, and everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Pelucidar and more), Ian Fleming, Rod Serling, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury… I read voraciously. The only time I got out of bed was to load the books in the basket of my bicycle and head to the library for another load. This immersion in literature was the most valuable use of time (though my mother never understood) for a fledgling writer.

I’ve since read most of those authors many times, none more than Mr. Poe: the author, the poet, the enigma, the influence. I glean new appreciation every time I read something of his.

Several years ago I was invited to contribute to an anthology entitled Poe’s Lighthouse, a collection of stories about the most mysterious story of all: an unfinished one by Poe. Chris Conlon did a nice job of putting the anthology together, and I was delighted to contribute. Now that story is available as a $.99 stand-alone short story for the Kindle.



I hope all Poe fans enjoy it. As always now and forever: if you read something you like, post a review.

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Something Happened To Grandma

My new true-crime book, Something Happened to Grandma,  has just been released in e-book form from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and all electronic formats. Rosetta Books did a fine job, as did Marilyn and Elliott Bardsley from Crimescape.

The Foreword by Marilyn Bardsley:

Gabriel Morris was a rambunctious but adorable child who was probably sexually abused by his father while his mother tried to win back custody of him. He grew into an intelligent and gifted adult, but there was something very wrong. As he grew older, serious character flaws and emotional problems emerged which caused made it impossible for him to hold a job for any length of time. Eventually his deceptions and deep-seated anger caught up with him, precipitating a tragic family crisis.

Elizabeth Engstrom is uniquely positioned to write this story. She lives in Oregon and attended Gabriel Morris’ recent trial, observing both Morris’ behavior and the impact that his crimes had upon his family. Known primarily as a novelist of mystery books with dark psychological landscapes, the chilling story of Gabriel Morris is one that dovetails with both Engstrom’s fiction and nonfiction accomplishments.

As the author of 13 books and more than 250 published short stories, articles and essays. Her most recent novels are York’s Moon, a critically acclaimed mystery, and The Northwoods Chronicles, a wonderful tale of dark fantasy. An author, teacher, editor and former publisher, she is a sought-after panelist, keynote speaker and instructor at writing conferences and conventions around the world. Since she completed her master’s degree in applied theology, she has begun a small interfaith ministry called Love and Mercy Ministries. She is on faculty at the University of Phoenix.  www.elizabethengstrom.com

“Something Happened to Grandma” Cover

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The Legend of El Gringo Grande

While in Zihuatanejo, Mexico last January on a writing retreat, my husband Al and I walked over a beautiful stone bridge that spanned a canal. This was a flood water control canal, and as this wasn’t the rainy season, there were only about 3″ of water in it, flowing across the beach to the bay.

During the day, this canal was filled with birds: ibis, snowy egrets, greater egrets, pink spoonbills, all feasting on the minnows that were silvery thick. Beautiful. At sundown on our first night there, we saw a snowy egret try to fly away with the rest, but his leg was caught in something and he couldn’t get loose.

Al had a restless night, thinking about that egret. Named him Edgar. In the morning, we borrowed a pair of scissors from the front desk of our hotel, and went to rescue Edgar.

The canal had 8′ concrete walls and a concrete floor, except for the south side by the beach, which had broken away. Al couldn’t see that the floor was broken from his vantage point, so he endeavored to wade into the canal from that side. Soon the water was up to his hips and it was clear that he couldn’t go any further. From my vantage point on the bridge, I could see the deep hole and encouraged him to go back out to the beach and come in on the north side, where the concrete floor was intact. This is what he did.

A Mexican man came up to me all in a panic and said, “What is he doing?” I pointed at poor Edgar, still sitting there about thirty yards up the canal, and told him what Al was about. “There’s a CROCODILE in that hole!” the man said.

“Al! Al!” I yelled. “Crocodile!”

Al looked around. “I don’t see any crocodile,” he said, and continued on his way.

Soon, a crowd gathered. The gentleman who had warned me about the crocodile now became the emcee of the event, giving everyone who gathered in the morning light a blow-by-blow description in both English and Spanish, of what they could certainly see with their own eyes.

Then someone called the fire department. I can only assume that having a tourist eaten in the canal is not good PR.

A Bombero (fireman) conferred with Al over the wall , then two of them went to the beach side of the canal where they saw the croc and they trained their M-16s on it until Al was safe.

Al calmly picked up the bird and while it pecked at his hands, he cut it free from the entanglement of fishing line.  

Big applause by everyone crowding the bridge.

Then he picked up the rest of the yards of old fishing line and one of the firemen told him a better way to get back out of the canal. The Emcee said to me: “Your husband, he’s”–he flexed his bicep–“grande!”

“Si,” I said.

Then he turned to the crowd, puffed out his chest and made an announcement. “Mr. and Mrs. Al,” he said. “You Americans come to Mexico and RESCUE OUR BIRDS!” Wild applause.

Al knew nothing of any of this. He just came onto the bridge, pockets full of old fishing line, and wanted to go have breakfast.

For the rest of the trip we called him El Gringo Grande. He liked it until he found out that it didn’t mean “great man,” it meant “big man”.

I say it takes a big man to brave crocodile-infested waters to rescue a bird.

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The Hometown Book Signing

I’ve written before about the very few golden moments in an author’s life. Mostly it’s just bloody hard work, disappointment and aggravation. Writing, rewriting, editing, marketing, traveling, speaking engagements, working with editors and agents, rewriting again, more editing, more marketing, schlepping books, trying to get paid, shuffling money while the check is “in the mail”…

I know. I shouldn’t whine.

But Sunday afternoon was one of those times when it became crystal clear that it’s all worth it. I held my hometown booksigning and launch party for York’s Moon. Lots of people came. New friends, old friends, people I hadn’t seen since… since my last booksigning.

I felt the love.

What’s important to me about this event is not that I threw myself a party and a bunch of people came, it’s that people are still reading, still buying books, still supporting the local independent bookstore. We held this event at Tsunami Books, where Scott works 70 hours a week to maintain the local new/used bookstore. It’s an institution and worthy of all the support we can give it.

It always amazes me that I’m fortunate enough to continue to be published in this economy. Apparently, I’m writing what people want to read, and that is enormously gratifying. We sold all the books that Scott brought in, along with a few of my out of print titles. As we were packing up the last of the food (just enough for Al’s dinner), Scott came over to me and said, “You have fans!” I know. I’m humbled by that.

It was a great party, a successful booksigning and a fine launch of what I hope people will find to be a good read. Thanks, everyone, for reminding me about how grateful I am to be doing the only thing I was really invented to do.

P.S. How can you not love a bookstore that has a section like this?

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Some of My Latest News

A quick update on what’s been happening.

First, my newest book, York’s Moon is available at Amazon.com and on my website. The launch party will be at Tsunami Books, 2585 Willamette St., Eugene, OR, April 17, 3-5pm. Come celebrate!

The trailer is up on the Candyland website! It’s very dark and creepy.

“Honing Sebastian”, a short story, is available as a podcast at PodCastle.

“Music Ascending”, a short story, is available as a stand-alone.

When Darkness Loves Us is in audio production.

I just got back from a great vacation and am now back at work.

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Lighting the Creative Fire

Today a student of mine called to say that she just sold her novel to a major New York publishing house. She was having a celebration and would I please come.

Ah, the rewards of teaching.

As a published novelist, I know, like perhaps nobody else in her immediate universe, what it means to get a book contract. I know the heartache and the angst and the Himalayan-size obstacles to overcome to get a good story down in 120,000 words, find agency representation and get a publishing contract. I can celebrate with her on a sub-atomic level. And I will.

The interesting thing to me is that to her, my novel writing classes are all about her story. She focuses on her story, she works on her story, she does the homework using her book as her class project. And so it is with all of my students. To them, the class is all about them.

But I know the truth. I am the teacher, and as much as they think they learn in my classes, nobody learns as much as I do. My goal is to light their fire, to give them a taste, to prod them to learn more on their own. But they each challenge me every single day to new insights about my own craft.

I’m sure they think that after many books and short stories and more than a decade of teaching the basic elements, I know everything there is to know about the craft. But writing fiction is more than craft; it is engaging in fearless, relentless introspection, and there are always more layers to peel back, more depths to plumb, more insights to be had. And always, new techniques to try. 

One of the things a fiction writer must study in depth is the motivation of their characters, and while the characters I devise are not me, they are of me. Their motivations come from thoughts, feelings, attitudes, longings and imaginings I’ve had. So then, one must ask now and then, what is my motivation for doing what I do on a daily basis? Why do I teach fiction?

First, and most obvious, I enjoy hanging out with other writers. Many of those who take my classes don’t even consider themselves writers because they’re either not published or they’re not accomplished, but being a writer is more than that. It’s a state of mind, a curiosity of being. I can be my socially-inappropriate self with a bunch of other social inappropriates. It’s fun.

Second, it’s their job to challenge me, and they’re very good at it. When I stand in front of a class, I set the tone. If I’m enthusiastic and animated, asking questions and giving meaty information, they’re taking notes like mad, having insights about their own books and their own selves, and the questions start to come. Many times I can see they’re surprised by their own questions. Many times they begin by saying, “I’m not sure how to phrase this,” or “I don’t even know what it is I’m trying to ask,” and then they go on to ask a question that gives me pause and makes me search the mental databank. Many times I’ll alter whole areas of my syllabus because of one student’s question. Many times I’ll go home and try out what they were asking about, to see if it works, to see if it’s valid, to see if I can do it, to see if it makes sense.

Invariably, it does. And when that happens, I give a hoot and scare the dog, and my craft has just taken a monumental leap forward, out of my practiced tedium and into new unexplored areas.

So I’m going to go have coffee and cake with the Woman of the Hour, the new author, and I will hear her give me some kind of credit—but I know the truth.

The credit all goes to her, because she is the one who made it happen.

I just let her teach me about it on her way.

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Filed under Discipline, dreams, Learning, Possibilities, Writing

Adventures in Fiction–Mexico Style!

It was an honor and a privilege to teach the fine art of fiction along side my pal John Reed for his first annual Adventures in Fiction–Mexico Style! writing retreat last week in Zihuatanejo, Mexico.

The week began Sunday afternoon in the third floor open-air classroom in the Hotel Casa Celeste with an exquisite catered reception, then all of us, including spouses, went to dine on the fine Mexican cuisine on the beach, under the stars.

Monday, we got to work, writing hard and fast, having sessions on structure, character, marketing and fielding all manner of questions. The participants each wrote two complete short stories and we critiqued them all in a marathon session on Friday.

It’s always my hope and intention that with every class I teach, each participant picks up a golden nugget or two to carry with them throughout their writing career. This time, I picked up more than one, both from Mr. Reed and from the articulate and probing questions from the participants.

After a hard week of work (amidst all that is wonderful about Zihua), we ended with a celebratory dinner. Then we went our separate ways with fresh  knowledge and new friends.

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2011: The Year of Living Simply

I’ve been naming my years now for a while. It’s more than a resolution, it’s a reminder to bring more lovingkindness, more awareness, more sweetness to life. In naming my years, and in holding those thoughts in my head and in my heart, my outlook changes.

In 2011, I vow to live more simply.

What does that mean? To travel less for business. Maybe just travel less.  To only go where my dog can come along. She’s not getting any younger, either, and every day in a boarding facility is just that. To make fewer commitments. To acquire less stuff and to give more stuff away. To appreciate what I have rather than spend time and energy thinking about what I want. To not busy my schedule out a year in advance. To do more of the things I really enjoy and fewer things I dread. To not please people, but to please God instead. Pleasing people is exhausting. Pleasing God is simple.

To do more art. Both in writing and knitting and living. I heard not too long ago that if we, by our countless tiny decisions, make each day a work of art, by the time we’re finished, we’ll have created a masterpiece.

That’s for me. That’s what I want for 2011 and beyond. To build a simple masterpiece, day by day.

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Filed under Aging, goals, Joy, knitting, Possibilities, Prayer, Reading, Spirituality, time, Writing

A New Discussion Forum

Apex Book Company, publisher of the recent reprint of my first book When Darkness Loves Us, has initiated a new online forum.

There’s a place there to discuss WDLU or any of my other books with me or with other readers, as well as the other Apex authors.

Stop by and say hello. Click here.

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Candyland will be a movie!

With an amazing script by Rusty Nixon, Candyland, a dark, deeply disturbing novel of mine is currently in development. Funds are being raised, and you can participate! W. Scott Peake is directing; his latest film, Permanent Vacation did very well.

I couldn’t be more excited.

Candyland is available in the collaborative collection of stories and art in the volume The Alchemy of Love, and is available as a stand-alone on the Kindle.

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