• podcasts,  True Crime

    Podcast Unravels the Mystery Behind the Kristin Smart Disappearance

    I think I first heard about the Kristin Smart case back in the late 90s on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.” She was a 19-year-old student at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. The Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Kristin was ready to unwind and blow off some steam. She attended a party thrown by a local fraternity, and after walking back towards her dorm with a few other students, was never seen again.  

    24 years later, we still don’t know what happened to Kristin. But according to recent news reports, the mother of Kristin Smart has been told to prepare for new and breaking details about the case. When I learned that a new investigative podcast does a deep dive into Kristin’s life and the theories surrounding her disappearance, I knew I had to check it out. I was pretty surprised with what the podcast uncovered. And I’m only on Episode 3.

    I’m not going to get into too many details, because I recommend you check out the podcast “Your Own Backyard; The Disappearance of Kristin Smart” yourself, especially if you liked Payne Lindsey’s coverage of Tara Grinstead’s disappearance in the “Up and Vanished” podcast.  

    But here are a few things I didn’t know going into the podcast:

    Investigators have always had a suspect in the case, a young man who was supposedly the last person seen with her on that walk home. That young man had a black eye in the days following her disappearance, and he gave three different explanations as to how he got that bruise. When cadaver dogs were taken through the Cal Poly dorms days later (because it took campus police almost a week to report her missing), they hit on the corner of the mattress in the dorm room belonging to this young man who was the last person seen with her. Unfortunately, by that time, the rooms had already been thoroughly cleaned by college janitorial staff because students had gone home for the summer.

    There is so much more circumstantial evidence that points to this suspect, and the host of “Your Own Backyard,” California native Chris Lambert, covers it all. He was in elementary school when Kristin first went missing and has grown up driving past the billboards featuring the young girl’s smiling face. He interviews her family, her closest friends, and scores of young women who knew the suspect in the case and are not surprised that he may have taken advantage of a young intoxicated college girl leaving a party. In fact, most of the women won’t use their own names in the podcast because they fear retribution by the suspect.

    I have a feeling Lambert’s reporting may have put the final pieces of this puzzle together. I plan on finishing the rest of the episodes this week to find out more.

  • Lifestyle

    Five Days of Meals on the MyWW Purple Plan

    My weight has fluctuated ever since I graduated from college. Once I got into the routine of lunching with co-workers, eating take-out after a long day of work, and later, trying to make healthy meals for my family as an exhausted young mom, it’s not hard to see why it’s been a struggle. At the beginning of 2018 I was fed up once again. I had let myself get to a point where I was living in leggings and oversized sweaters, and reaching for every carb imaginable to combat stress and a busy schedule. Pizza and sweet treats were my biggest downfalls. I decided to join WW after I heard about their Freestyle program, and while it was hard in the beginning, once the weight started falling off me, I stayed the course logging in my foods on the app on my phone and trying not to go over my daily budget of 23 SmartPoints. I liked that I could eat foods like lean chicken, turkey, eggs, beans and non-starchy fruits and vegetables for 0 points toward my budget. Within four months, after careful tracking and a regimented workout schedule of five days a week, I reached my goal weight.

    But last year, after maintaining for about a year, I started to backslide. I would go one day without tracking what I ate, thinking it was fine if I cheated a little, and before I knew it, one day would turn into four days out of the week where I couldn’t remember what I had eaten. I told myself I would just have to pull it together and be more disciplined. When WW switched up their program last year, creating three individualized programs to meet different people’s preferences, I stuck with Blue because it was the same as the Freestyle I had been using. But over the holidays, as I cheated with all the alcohol, baked goods and cheesy foods, I realized something needed to change. I couldn’t button my pants any longer. My weight was only five or six pounds away from my heaviest weight again. And I felt miserable.

    I looked over the MyWW plans again and the Purple plan caught my eye. At first, I was nervous when I saw that I would only be allocated 16 points a day to eat. I was having trouble sticking with Blue’s 23 points at that time! Then I noticed the list of zero-point foods on the Purple plan was much larger than that of the Blue plan. I wondered if I could be savvy enough to mix the zero-point foods on the Purple plan with foods I liked in order to feel more full. On the Blue plan (which was basically low-carb) I often went to bed with my stomach rumbling, and no amount of stuffing fruits and vegetables in my face could help it. Then I would sneak into the pantry and sabotage myself with handfuls of chips or cookies to satisfy my hunger.

    The Purple plan offers zero-points for things like brown rice, potatoes, whole-wheat pasta, plain popcorn. These were all foods that I had missed on the Purple plan, and foods I knew would probably help keep me more full if I mixed them with the right things. I noted you still have to measure the amounts and use these foods sparingly, which I was willing to do. So on New Year’s Eve I officially switched to the Purple plan on my app.

    I’m happy to report that as of tracking one week on this new plan, I’ve lost three pounds and I already feel much better. I will try and stick to this plan for a few more weeks and make sure it continues to work before I make a final decision, but as of now, I’m a pretty happy camper. I’m listing five days of what I ate below to give you an example of what foods are working for me.

    Jan. 2, 2020

    Breakfast: 16 oz. black coffee, 4 tsp. Coffeemate fat-free powdered creamer, 2 tsp. sugar, an omelette with two eggs and one slice of reduced fat provolone cheese, 1/2 cup roasted sweet potatoes

    Total breakfast points: 5

    Lunch: Two Falafel “meatballs,” 3 Tbsp. black olives, one mini Persian cucumber, 2 cups lettuce, topped with a dollop of Fage nonfat greek yogurt

    Total lunch points: 3

    Dinner: 1 cup of slow-cooker minestrone soup, two slices of Food for Life Sprouted Grain Bread, 3 oz. deli turkey, one slice of reduced-fat provolone

    Total dinner points: 8

    Snacks: 1 small mandarin orange

    Total snack points: 0

    Total daily points: 16

    Jan. 3, 2020

    Breakfast: Two Falafel “meatballs,” 3 Tbsp. black olives, one mini Persian cucumber, 2 cups lettuce, 16 oz. black coffee, 4 tsp. Coffeemate fat-free powdered creamer, 2 tsp. sugar

    Total breakfast points: 5

    Lunch: 1 cup of slow-cooker minestrone soup, one slice of Food for Life Sprouted Grain Bread, 3 oz. deli turkey, one slice of reduced-fat provolone

    Total lunch points: 6

    Dinner: Flank steak fajitas (no tortilla), 1/2 cups roasted sweet potatoes, 1/4 of an avocado

    Total dinner points: 6

    Snacks: 1 apple, 1 container of Fage nonfat greek yogurt with frozen unsweetened cherries, two Honeymaid chocolate graham crackers

    Total snack points: 1

    Total daily points: 17 (I dipped into my 21 weekly extra points WW gives me)

    Jan. 4, 2020

    Breakfast: 16 oz. black coffee, 4 tsp. Coffeemate fat-free powdered creamer, 2 tsp. sugar, 1/2 cups fresh raspberries, spinach and cheddar frittata

    Total breakfast points: 5

    Lunch: 1 cup slow cooker minestrone, mixed salad greens with 1 tbsp of Kraft Zesty Italian Dressing, 1 chocolate pumpkin muffin

    Total lunch points: 5

    Dinner: 1 link of Aidell’s Italian-Style chicken sausage, 1/2 cups fresh mushrooms, 1 cup broccoli, 1/2 cup whole wheat pasta, 1/8 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

    Total dinner points: 7

    Snacks: 1 apple, 1 container of Fage nonfat greek yogurt with frozen unsweetened cherries, two Honeymaid chocolate graham crackers

    Total snack points: 1

    Total daily points: 16

    Jan. 5, 2020

    Breakfast: 16 oz. black coffee, 4 tsp. Coffeemate fat-free powdered creamer, 2 tsp. sugar, 1 container of Fage nonfat greek yogurt, 2 Honeymaid chocolate graham crackers, 3/4 cups frozen unsweetened cherries

    Total breakfast points: 4

    Lunch: 1 cup slow cooker minestrone, 1 Babybel mini cheese wedge, 1 mandarin orange

    Total lunch points: 4

    Dinner: 2 homemade italian meatballs with marinara sauce, 1 cup whole-wheat pasta

    Total dinner points: 6

    Snacks: 1 apple, 3 pieces of Oh Snap Pickling Co. carrot sticks, 1 slice of Food for Life Whole Grain Sprouted Bread

    Total snack points: 2

    Total daily points: 16 points

    Jan. 6, 2020

    Breakfast: Omelette with two eggs, cooked spinach, olive oil and reduced fat provolone cheese, 16 oz. black coffee, 4 tsp. Coffeemate fat-free powdered creamer, 2 tsp. sugar

    Total breakfast points: 6

    Lunch: 1 Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Burger with pickle chips and two slices of lettuce, one chocolate pumpkin muffin

    Total lunch points: 6

    Dinner: Slow cooker Southwest Chicken, 1/2 cup brown rice, 10 Blue Diamond lightly-salted almonds, two Hot Cocoa Hershey’s Kisses

    Total dinner points: 5

    Snacks: 2 mandarin oranges, 1 container of Fage nonfat greek yogurt with unsweetened frozen cherries

    Total snack points: 0

    Total points: 17

    As you can see, I like to make large batches of things like slow cooker meals, salads and soups and eat them repeatedly for easy meal planning. I also gravitate towards the same snacks. Having eggs in the morning usually keeps me pretty full right off the bat. I also had a lot of FitPoints I accumulated during these days that I didn’t really dip into. During this time period, I exercised all five days with elliptical training, walking and jogging.

    I hope to continue to follow this plan. So far, it is working well for me and I’m loving being able to rotate in the whole grain pastas, rice and even oatmeal, which I haven’t tried to eat again yet. I’m also not drinking any alcohol during this initial period which helps keeps extra calories at bay.

    Let me know if you have any questions!

    -Renee

  • Creative Writing,  podcasts,  True Crime,  writing inspiration

    My Top Five True Crime Posts

    Round-ups are some of my favorite posts to read, and hopefully this one will be no exception. In this post, I’ve gathered up my top five posts all about true crime–whether it’s discussing theories behind the addiction to missing people or specific cases that have stuck with me over the years.

    Situational awareness. A glimpse into the dark side of humanity. The adrenaline rush. In this post, I take a deep dive into Three Reasons Female Writers are Addicted to True Crime.

    The Case of Mike Williams. This story out of Florida intrigued me from the moment I learned about it, from the shifty wife to the “best friend” who sold him a hefty life insurance policy before he went missing, to the theory that Williams fell into a lake during a fishing trip and was eaten by alligators. Nope and nope. The update post shed light on recent developments.

    Why I find the Parcast podcast Unsolved Murders is so intriguing.

    As a mother, this case haunts me. Hopefully the loved ones of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman can find closure soon.

    Who was in the Polaroid? This case fascinated me so much that I wrote an award-winning suspense short story based on the events.

  • Creative Writing,  freelance writing,  writing advice,  writing inspiration

    My 2019 EOY Writing Wrap-Up

    It’s Dec. 31, and a lot has happened with my writing this year. Because I’m such a fanatic about listening to EOY wrap-ups from other entrepreneurs I follow, I thought it might be a good time to go over some of the accomplishments and setbacks I’ve experienced this year. Let’s get right to it.

    2019 started with a bit of a quandary. To be honest, I was working in a job that made me question my skills and talents on a regular basis. I think a lot of it was that it was a structure (the company was a nonprofit organization) that didn’t have a lot of built-in support for my position, in addition to converging project management timelines, which have never been a strong skill set for me. By spring of this year, I was feeling unaccomplished, unappreciated and my self-esteem was so low that I was having a hard time writing creatively, despite the fact that I had a lot of projects in the pipeline.

    In May I was approached by a local magazine I’ve freelanced for frequently in the last 10 years, and when I had the opportunity to interview for the editor position, I jumped. Even though the job would bring its own set of challenges, I knew most of the people that worked there already and knew the tone and style of the publication like the back of my hand.

    However, because I’m always so concerned about not burning bridges in the publishing industry, I gave a long notice to my job and had the first magazine deadline overlap with my last two weeks at the job I was leaving. My editorial job is remote, but juggling e-mails, phone calls and planning meetings while trying to introduce myself to the writers and photographers and work on transitional documents proved to be quite challenging. The first deadline of the magazine also coincided with our annual family vacation (which we had booked with some family friends at a beach house in Florida) so I felt like I was editing stories and proofreading pages almost the entire time I was on vacation. That was a tough time and I still feel like I never got a proper vacation, although I did get an extra paycheck out of the overlapping job duties I did for two weeks. I’m not sure it was worth it, though.

    Here is a breakdown of everything related to writing/publishing I worked on this year:

    Since August, I’ve produced six issues of the magazine I work for, Lake Norman CURRENTS, and one newcomer’s guide that the company also produces for that magazine. I’ve personally written two advertorial articles, six Editor’s Letters and 23 feature articles ranging from 250-650 words and 11 business profiles, in addition to various calendar of events sections and product spreads.

    For WOW! Women on Writing, I wrote 26 blog posts, interviewed 13 writing contest winners and finalists, helped judge two flash fiction contests, and wrote one e-zine article in October about my experience attending MurderCon.

    For Writer’s Digest, I helped judge one of their self-published book contests, which required me to read and review 22 books.

    Writing Contests: I didn’t have any luck with writing contests, but I entered six short story contests and two creative non-fiction contests. I also entered two pieces in literary journals, where I received one rejection and am still waiting to hear back from the other. I also published my young adult novel, Between, on Wattpad back in August, and it has received almost 500 reads at this point.

    I’m also in the process of developing a true-crime podcast, and have purchased some of the equipment already and have my first episode’s script written. I hope to get that off the ground by the end of January, so stay tuned!

    I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged, because I had wanted to accomplish more with my creative writing last year, but considering I’ve made slightly more money in my actual career this year, and produced a heck of a lot of valuable and helpful content and human-interest stories, I think I can settle back and give myself a much-needed pat on the back. I’ll do a future post soon on some of my goals for this coming year.

    How did you do with your writing projects this year? I’d love to hear some of your accomplishments, goals, and “never doing that again!” stories!

  • Creative Writing,  freelance writing,  Lifestyle,  writing advice

    A New Decade of Writing

    It’s hard to believe we’re about to conclude another decade. I’ve been reflecting on this a bit, and marveling about how far I’ve come since I graduated from college, with a stack of credit card bills and student loans to pay off, and working two jobs so I could support myself. And even then there were plenty of days where I was eating pasta with plain tomato sauce for almost every dinner. If I wanted to get fancy I would throw some feta cheese on top.

    Back then, I never dreamed I could make money writing from home, and that research for a million different topics would be right at my fingertips. I took any and every job that came my way, even when it had nothing to do with my communications degree that had a concentration in print journalism. Slowly, I worked my way into the industry, starting with a job cranking out press releases and editing a university alumni magazine for a small public relations firm to freelancing for websites and regional print magazines. I’ve now been writing professionally for almost 20 years, and have my dream job of being a magazine editor while still writing creatively on the side.

    The last few years have been good to me–by keeping me employed while opening up different paths that are better suited to my skills. I’ve been able to develop long-standing relationships with other writers and editors, and we all help keep other encouraged (and employed) at the very times we need it most. (I encourage you to check out my latest post over at WOW! Women on Writing on why you should be networking over on LinkedIn.)

    I’m also ready to fulfill a dream I’ve had since I was a child dreaming of a being a DJ on a radio station. I will be venturing into the podcasting world, combining my love of missing persons cases with a journalistic approach. I’ve purchased the equipment and am preparing the content as we speak. I’m blessed to be able to follow my passions, wherever they may lead me.

    I’m happy to be a part of this community and feel many more great things ahead in 2020. Cheers to you, my friends, and thank you for continuing to read and support my work.

  • Creative Writing,  Lifestyle,  writing advice,  writing inspiration

    Setting My Intentions Each Day by Journaling

    A few months ago, I heard a podcast episode that pitched the product, the “Start Today Journal.” I started to shrug it off at first, because as much as I love writing, I haven’t had too much luck with journaling over the years. But as motivational speaker and entrepreneur Rachel Hollis began explaining the methodology behind this journal, I grew more interested.

    What a lot of us fail at is having too many goals at one time, which can lead to overwhelm, causing us to beat ourselves up time and again when we don’t achieve any of them. Hollis developed a practice that focuses on writing down ten goals over and over. And here’s the kicker—you write down those goals as if they have already happened.

    This practice starts you out by doing an exercise where you envision what you want your life to be like in ten years, down from the kind of home you live in to what kinds of vacations you take. Then you envision what types of dreams you need to achieve in order to accomplish that type of lifestyle.

    I’ve been journaling with this method for almost three months, and my goals are starting to become so ingrained in my mind that I do things to work toward them without even putting much thought into it. I start out each day by writing down five things I’m grateful for, and these vary depending on the day. Then I write down the same ten goals, in the exact same order, and at the end, I write which one I’m going to achieve first. I do this with my first cup of coffee, so you can see that it isn’t a process that takes very much time out of your day. But it helps set the day on the right path.

    I’ve written things like what my annual income is (again, as if this has already happened), how much money my podcast is generating per month, that my kids went to college debt free, etc. At the very end of the page you write down which goal you achieved first. This changed for me after the first week, when I thought realistically about what goal I have the most probability of achieving first. My podcast is still in development, for example. So every day on that line, I write, “I’m an award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer.”

    I didn’t realize it when I first ordered the journal, but each one has enough pages for 90 days worth of goal-setting and dreaming. This helps you flip back pretty easily and see what kind of progress you’ve made in a short amount of time. My husband was so encouraged by watching me use my journal that he already bought me a thick, lined blank journal with a cute cover that I can use for my next 90 days worth of goals. I’m ready to start 2020 off with a bang!

  • Creative Writing,  Lifestyle

    The Realities of Seasonal Affective Disorder

    This is a time of year I dread–when the days are shorter, colder and there is less sunlight to go around. I never really realized how much it affected me until the last few years. Before, I would acknowledge that yes, I tended to stay indoors more November through March and reach for the carbs, and it became more of a chore to take my dogs on our daily walks.

    Now, there’s no denying it. Being in my early 40s, I’ve also struggled with insomnia the past two years. I will be perfectly fine, and then once in bed, I can’t shut my mind off. I start thinking of social situations where I said the wrong thing, friendships I’ve lost, mistakes I’ve made with my kids, arguments with family members, work deadlines that never seem to end . . .

    Symptoms of Seasonal affective disorder include difficulty concentrating (yes), having problems with sleeping (yes), low energy (yes), feeling hopeless or guilty (yes) and changes in appetite.

    I’m at that point in the season now where I’ve gained a few pounds because of all the starches and sweets I’ve been craving, and the weather has prevented me from participating in my preferred forms of exercise, walking and running outdoors. Last night I had another night of no sleep, and I’m at my wits end. I found a therapist about six months ago so at least I’m able to discuss my worries, exhaustion and general anxiety once a week, and I’m determined to get back on track with logging in all my food on my WW app and get back to exercising. (I have a gym membership. I just have to make the commitment to make the ten-minute drive over there on the days when the wind is bitterly cold outside). Struggling with Seasonal affective disorder is also not conducive to creating, so I’m hoping once I battle this out I’ll be able to get back to my writing projects that also bring me joy. I keep joking that I need to plan a tropical vacation in the middle of the winter to combat the SAD, and one of these days I’m going to finally follow through with that plan.

    I’m wondering who else here gets a hefty dose of the wintertime blues. How do you get through it?

  • Creative Writing,  Music,  writing inspiration

    Review of “Stranger Songs” – A Musical Tribute to the Show “Stranger Things”

    Check out all merchandise related to “Stranger Songs” at https://shop.ingridmichaelson.com/

    Few things make me happier than writing about pop culture. I just completed a post for WOW! Women on Writing about why I loved the Netflix Original Series “Stranger Things.” One of the things I couldn’t get to in my post was Ingrid Michaelson’s tribute album to the show, so I decided to continue with the theme and write about the collection of songs here.

    I hadn’t yet watched the show when I heard about the release of Michaelson’s “Stranger Songs,” and I waited until I was familiar with the show before downloading the album. There were a few songs that immediately drew me right in, starting with “Hey Kid,” a song about the sweet relationship between the papa bear Hopper and the tender-hearted but badass character “Eleven.” From there I had the song “Hate You” on replay. It made me feel so much empathy for Steve, who was portrayed as such a jerk in Season 1 but who became one of my favorite people in the world by Season 3. The song describes his relationship with Nancy and how he knew he couldn’t hold on to her, as much as he wanted to, but he still couldn’t bring himself to hate her. “Bad Things” and “Pretty” also focus a lot on things “Eleven” goes through during the course of the first three seasons. “Christmas Lights” is another one of my favorites, because as a mother of a teenage son, I could totally relate to the wild devotion Joyce has in the search for her son Will in Season 1. “Take Me Home” is the quintessential coming-of-age ballad that will whisk us all immediately back into our childhood and teenage years.

    I think though, that even if you haven’t seen the Netflix series, you won’t be disappointed by this album. Ingrid Michaelson fans who appreciate good songwriting layered with the musical stylings of some of our favorites from the 1980s (“Christmas Lights” features chords reminiscent of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” will find plenty to put on repeat here.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Update on the Mike Williams Murder Case

    Photo courtesy of Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

    It took 18 years, but justice seems to have finally been served in the Mike Williams case. I first wrote about the story in this post, “The Absurd Alligator Story: An Update on the Disappearance of Mike Williams.” As I stated in that post, it was pretty clear from the get-go who was responsible for the disappearance of Mike, a 31-year-old doting father and husband to wife Denise.

    I never believed the theory that Mike disappeared while duck hunting on Lake Seminole in the early morning hours before he and Denise were to set out on an anniversary trip, nor did I believe that he had been eaten by alligators. All the evidence pointing to foul play was circumstantial, however, and when his wife decided to have him declared dead so she could “move on with her life,” that didn’t make a whole lot of sense either. She could have at least pretended that she missed her husband.

    It was pretty obvious that Denise probably conspired to have her husband “disappear,” especially it was revealed that her husband’s best friend, Brian Winchester,” had sold Mike a hefty life insurance policy not long before his disappearance. It also didn’t help optics when Denise married Brian a few years later. It wasn’t until she most likely turned on him during their divorce proceedings that he decided to finally admit to murdering Mike and lead investigators to the body, which was nowhere near Lake Seminole.

    In February of this year, Denise was sentenced to life in prison, plus thirty years for helping plot his murder. After years of manipulating Brian Winchester and engaging in an extramarital affair with him, he finally lured Mike out duck hunting and then shot him and buried his body a few miles from the home of Mike’s mother in December 2000. According to Brian, the whole thing was supposed to be staged as an accident, with Brian shoving Mike out of the boat and into the water, where he would likely drown due to wearing a pair of rubber waders. When Mike didn’t drown, and struggled to stay afloat, Brian panicked and shot him from the boat, later removing Mike’s body and burying it elsewhere.

    That part I found most chilling about Winchester’s testimony is how Denise told him she would rather be a “rich widow than a poor divorcee.” How he could go on and marry someone who would actually say that out loud is beyond my comprehension. Brian told the jury that he and Denise never discussed what exactly had happened to Mike, and she pretended like the event had never happened. I imagine all that pretending caught up to them and took a toll on their marriage, especially since Brian had to live with the knowledge of what he had done to his unsuspecting best friend all those years earlier.

    In exchange for testifying against Denise, Brian received immunity in Mike’s murder case but received 20 years for kidnapping Denise and holding her hostage one evening during the time when they were separated.

    I’m glad both responsible parties are now behind bars where they belong, and Mike’s family was finally able to lay their son to rest.