The following is a talk I prepared for a writers’ group panel discussion I participated in a few years ago. It’s the story of how I got my first cover story for a magazine, as well as a little back story on how my freelance writing career began. Enjoy!
Hi there, my name is Renee Roberson, and I’m so excited to be here with you all this evening. It will probably come as no surprise to you, but I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I didn’t really care what I wrote when I was a child, and let me tell you, I wrote a little bit of everything. Song lyrics, poems, essays, “pretend” news stories, book reviews, short stories. You name it—I probably wrote some pretty embarrassing versions of it.
While I’ve always loved reading magazines, I didn’t really believe I could actually write for one until after I had my daughter back in 2003. At the time I was working at a public relations firm, but really wanted to figure out a way to work from home. I started by reading a few books on the topic. Then I visited writer’s forums that discussed freelance writing. I didn’t know much about how it worked, but I knew I wanted to learn more, especially if it meant I could work from home. I started out gradually by sending some story ideas (otherwise known as query letters) to local magazines, and was surprised to make a few sales pretty quickly.
I then pitched a website called iParenting, and they also hired me as a contract writer. The Walt Disney Internet Media Group eventually purchased iParenting, which resulted in an increase in my per article rate and looked great on my resume. Those clips helped me get job as a freelance correspondent for the Lake Norman bureau of The Charlotte Observer, and eventually a few regular columns.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 2004. I’ve written for newspapers, websites, magazines and blogs. Sometimes I still can’t believe people pay me to write. I’ve also spent time in the editor’s chair for two local parenting magazines, so I’ve seen my fair share of what types of query letters work and which ones don’t. But if you have ideas and you know how to execute them, magazine editors will notice you, and they are always happy to find reliable and creative freelance writers. I highly recommend giving it a try if you haven’t yet. If you dedicate the time to regularly pitching your story ideas, you can make a living as a freelance writer. It may take a few years for you to earn the income you want, but it can happen.
I have short blog post I wrote a few years I ago I would like to share with you. It gives you an idea of what kind of legwork you might do before pitching a magazine feature. Granted, not all article queries will require this much work beforehand, but you should always be willing to put a little research into whatever story it is you are pitching.
The Hunt for a Human Interest Story (WOW! Women on Writing)
A few years ago, I was working out my frustrations at the gym, trying to figure out where my writing career was going and brainstorming a few new magazine article ideas. As I was leaving through the front lobby, I noticed a flyer about an upcoming swimming fundraiser. For some reason, even though I’m not a big swimmer, I picked it up and skimmed it on my way out to the parking lot. The flyer mentioned that a local woman named Lizi was competing in a series of races in honor of her upcoming 40th birthday. The flyer had her blog address printed on it so I investigated further once I got home.
There, I discovered Lizi had Type 1 diabetes and learned more about her birthday challenge. She was signed up to compete in a variety of races, involving swimming, sprint triathlons, cycling and running, by her 40th birthday, which she called “Forty 4 Forty.” I knew I had to somehow get in touch with this woman, because I thought her story would be perfect for one of the regional magazines I had been trying to break into.
But her blog didn’t have any contact information. I figured she was local but still needed more details for a query. On a whim, I e-mailed a personal trainer I had been working with at the time and asked if she knew who the woman was. I was in luck, she did! She quickly e-mailed me back with the woman’s e-mail address. I e-mailed Lizi, who also turned out to be a nurse, to let her know I was interested in pitching a story about her, and she responded happily and graciously. We chatted on the phone so I could get some pertinent details to include in my pitch, and I let her know I’d be in touch.
Not only did the editor I contacted respond to me quickly, but she also complimented me on my story pitch. In the end, I got to meet an inspirational member of the community by contacting Lizi, and as a bonus, my article ended up as the cover story of the magazine a few months later. Lizi called me and laughed about the fact that she had become a local celebrity and all the nurses at her doctor’s office were telling her that the magazine with her cover shot was sitting in the waiting room.
These days, I work with several local magazines regularly and have tackled some tough human-interest stories, but I still get a thrill watching the story come alive and to fruition. If you come across a story that intrigues you, I say to always go for it!
Here are a few do’s and don’ts for pitching magazines:
Don’t send out scattershot query letters. Meaning, don’t write up one query letter and send out to multiple magazine editors at once. Editors are much more likely to consider you for an assignment if you are familiar with the magazine you’re pitching and make your query personalized. Spend a little time skimming through some recent issues of the publication, and get a feel for how it is laid out. Mention recent published articles that you connected with to show your familiarity.
Do have an interesting lede (or hook) pertaining to your article topic that illustrates why it would make a good piece for a magazine. You only have a few seconds to catch an editor’s eye. Make them count.
Do pitch different types of magazines, both big and small. It’s a great experience, and over time, you’ll become more comfortable crafting your ideas and hitting the send button.
Don’t send your ideas to the wrong person. Study the masthead of the magazine you are hoping to query. Publishers typically focus on the sales side of a magazine and aren’t really connected to the editorial side. Your best bet is to address your query to a specific editor.
Do pick up a copy of the latest version of The Writer’s Market. You will find listings of magazines you never even knew existed, including editorial contact names, pay rates, and what types of articles specific markets are seeking.
Below is an example of a query letter that resulted in the sale of the article to The Writer.
Dear Ms. (Name of Editor),
As a freelance writer, I do not hide the fact that I am a magazine junkie, and I particularly enjoy reading magazines like The Writer that offer helpful, informative tips for my career in a straightforward format. In recent issues, I enjoyed Julia Tagliere’s article on how to write about friends and families without alienating them in the process (October), as well as Debbie Geiger’s advice on how to use social-networking sites more efficiently in freelance writing (August).
After I had my first child six years ago, I began reading every book I could get my hands on about freelance writing so I could learn how to develop a career that would allow me to set my own hours. Like many aspiring parent writers, I sent off a few article ideas via snail mail to the big parenting publications like Babytalk, Parents and Parenting. For the most part, I never got any responses back, except for one horribly photocopied stock rejection letter that almost crushed my dreams of writing about parenting forever.
However, I took some of those same queries and sent them out to a few local regional parenting publications, and within a few months, had made several sales. For the next few years, I wrote locally and even got a job as a stringer for the daily newspaper. Eventually, I took a job as an associate editor at the regional parenting publication that had given me my first break, where I made a startling discovery — there was a lot more opportunity for publication in regional parenting publications than I had originally thought.
I always take a special interest in the “Market Focus” of your publication, and I’ve noticed there is one market in particular that hasn’t been profiled in the past two years — regional parenting magazines. Like me, many writers think if they don’t live in a city like Atlanta, they really don’t have any business writing for Atlanta Parent. Not so, I realized. Regional parenting publications may have a much lower pay scale than the nationals, but most writers have a better shot of getting published in these magazines, and if they market themselves properly, they can generate a steady reprint income. I’d like to propose a 1,200-word article titled “Writing for the Other Parenting Magazines” for your “Market Focus” section. In the article, I will discuss the types of articles and essays regional parenting publications seek, the importance of checking editorial calendars, lead times, reprint possibilities and evergreen topics many of these publications seek each month. “Writing for the Other Parenting Magazines” will also include a sidebar titled “Five Ways to Sell a Parenting Article in a Regional Publication.”
I am a freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous regional parenting publications. I am a former associate editor of Charlotte Parent and also a contributing writer at www.iParenting.com.
My article, “Alternative Treatments for Autism,” recently took first place honors in the magazine feature article category of the 2009 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. I am including the clip in the body of this e-mail.
I look forward to hearing from you regarding this article idea.
About the Book:
What does it mean to belong? In a place? With a person? To a family? Where do our senses of security and survival lie? I Don’t Belong Here ruthlessly investigates alienation during moments of transit and dislocation and their impact on women’s identity. These twenty essays—ranging from conventional to lyrical to experimental in form and structure—delve into the root causes of personal uncertainty and the aftershock effects of being a woman in an unsafe world. Provocative, authentic, intimate, and uncompromising, Melissa Grunow casts light on the unspeakable: sexuality, death, mental illness, trauma, estrangement, and disillusionment with precision and fortitude
Memoir is not something I read a lot of, although I’ve been trying to remedy that over the past few years with books such as Wild and The Glass Castle. I even took a course with Grunow a few months ago on writing creative nonfiction so I could sharpen my own skills. I was curious to see how her teaching style related to her own work, and I wasn’t disappointed.
First of all, I love the theme of the book; after all, who here doesn’t relate to feelings of isolation and not fitting in? I Don’t Belong Here is divided into four distinct sections: “Unspoken,” “Displaced,” “Suppressed” and “Misunderstood.” She describes the death of a part of herself after a violent sexual assault by a boyfriend in the piece “Before and After.” The description of her experience is so painfully raw and honest that the reader wants to weep along with her.
In “Fire and Water” Grunow dives into the differences between the destruction fire and floods can cause to a home, and an analysis of the impact each one leaves behind. “A flood is worse than a fire,” a co-worker tells her. “After a flood, you’ll worry whenever it rains.” She describes the damage a heavy rain and flood caused to her home in Michigan, and the effect of storms and tornados in her childhood years living in a mobile home. Grunow reminisces about riding her bike with her childhood friends, picking up the metal skirting from mobile homes that was blown about, balancing the pieces on her handlebars and cutting her knees as she pedaled. Anything, everything, can cut something else, she remembers.
Grunow’s writing is rich, lyrical, and draws parallels the one would never even think of, making for a savory reading experience. She digs deep into her own psyche while exploring her decision to get multiple tattoos during her college years.
I give workshops, presentations, trainings, all as a professional who appears professional. Underneath those layers, though, my skin sings a different song, a ballad of many verses comprised of love, pain, mistakes, imprinted memories. I could especially relate to the piece titled “We’re All Mad Here: A Field Guide to Feigning Sanity,” where she writes about doctors, You will burn through doctors the way a middle school girl burns through crushes.
I highly recommend “I Don’t Belong Here,” whether you’re looking to dive deeper into the world of memoirs and creative nonfiction, or seeking ideas for how to expand your own writing. There is much to dissect here, and I promise you by the last page, you will be ready to take a good, hard look at your own imprinted memories and how they have shaped your world.
About Melissa Grunow:
Melissa Grunow is the author of I Don’t Belong Here: Essays (New Meridian Arts Press, 2018) and Realizing River City: A Memoir(Tumbleweed Books, 2016) which won the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Memoir, the 2017 Silver Medal in Nonfiction-Memoir from Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest, and Second Place-Nonfiction in the 2016 Independent Author Network Book of the Year Awards. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Nervous Breakdown, Two Hawks Quarterly, New Plains Review, and Blue Lyra Review, among many others. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and listed in the Best American Essays 2016 notables. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction with distinction from National University. Visit her website at www.melissagrunow.com or follow her on Twitter @melgrunow.
A few months ago, I got the opportunity to attend the writing conference of a lifetime. I had heard about Writers Police Academy, which allows writers to learn about police procedure and investigations from law enforcement experts. But when I learned this year’s academy would focus all on the crime of murder, and that it was only three hours away from where I live, I hopped on registration the second it opened. The conference lasted four days and was crammed full of keynotes, networking events and classes that took place both at our hotel and at the Sirchie Training Facilities in Youngsville, N.C.
I took classes on things like “Murder Mayhem,” “Buried Bodies,” “Glorious Shoes: Footwear Evidence,” “Prints on the Page,” “The Art of Interrogation” and more. I also was fortunate enough to land an assignment detailing my experience in WOW! Women on Writing’s Fall e-zine, which explores the dark and twisty side of writing. Read my article here and then check out the other articles chock full of useful information on writing about mystery, thriller, crime and suspense. You won’t regret it.
These days, I listen to podcasts more than I listen to music while I’m working out, doing chores around the house or driving. I find my podcasts through word of mouth from friends, social media ads and from other podcasts. If you’re looking for new podcasts to binge, here are a few of my recommendations!
For the Person Looking to Pivot.
Second Life. Hosted by Hillary Kerr, this podcast features weekly interviews with women “who’ve made major career changes and fearlessly mastered the pivot.” The first episode I listened to featured musician/actress Mandy Moore, and after that, I was hooked. I love hearing all these stories of how women paved their own way and found the ultimate joy and happiness in their careers. From nutritionist and celebrity health coach Kelly LeVeque to journalist and former CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jessica Yellin, these interviews are full of inspiration and encouragement.
For the True Crime Junkie
Cold. If you’re obsessed with true crime, chances are you’ve heard of the Susan Cox Powell story. Unfortunately, you also know her body has never been found, and all of the key players in the case are no longer with us. This in-depth look at the case, from the beginning of Susan’s relationship with her eccentric husband Josh Powell to the day she disappeared, takes the listener all the way to present day. I binged all 18 episodes in about a week, if that tells you anything about how addictive it is. This podcast features never-before heard audio with both Josh and Susan Powell and Josh’s father, Steve, who had an unhealthy obsession with Susan. This podcast is stunning and riveting all at once.
For the Budding Entrepreneur
Goal Digger Podcast. I started listening to Jenna Kutcher’s podcast as a way to get tips on personal development in my marketing day job. What I got was so much more. From interviews with movers and shakers in the business world (again, mostly women), to tangible podcasts like “Launch Your Dream Biz in Just 90 Minutes Per Day,” I come back to this one again and again while I’m exercising because it’s so full of motivation and enthusiasm.
For the Person Obsessed with Eating Healthy
I love, love, love The Hungry Girl, and her podcast “Chew the Right Thing,” is just as practical and delightful as Lisa Lillian, the woman behind the brand. Each week she and her team members Jamie and Mike tackle topics like “The Top 8 Ways to Overcome a Weight-Loss Plateau” and “The Breakfast Awards Episode,” which are full of great product reviews and tips. Warning though, they have a taste-testing section in each episode that might make you ready to head to the grocery store and have a snack after you listen.
For the Seeker of Great Storytelling
Imagined Life. This is storytelling at its finest. Co-hosted by Robbie Daymond and Virginia Madsen, each episode walks you through an immersive journey of a world-famous person. The hook? You don’t get to find out who the person is until the very end—unless of course, you guess the person first! So many of these episodes surprised me and even had me shedding a tear or two! My personal favorite: “The Handler.”
I’m always on the hunt for a great podcast. What are some of your favorites?
The keychain was bright red and made of plastic, probably purchased at one of the gift stores in the mall. I customized it with different colored letters spelling out my first name and added a plastic music note for fun, because I had always loved to sing. My mom had put our single house key on it, for the days I had to walk home by myself from the bus stop.
Even though I couldn’t have been any older than 8 or 9 years old, there were days my mom had to work and I used the key to let myself into our house on a rural country road in central Texas after getting off the bus. I would make myself a snack, and curl up on the couch with a book and our fox terrier PeeWee while I waited for my parents. An only child, I was used to time alone when my parents had to work and I didn’t mind it. The only thing I minded was that one house on my route had two large dogs that often barked at me aggressively from behind a large metal gate, making me quicken my pace. Occasionally my grandmother would pop in from her home a few miles away to check on me.
On this particular morning, my mom was still home when I tucked the key into the pocket of my pink shorts and made my way down the road about ¼ of a mile to the bus stop. I could see the other neighbor kids in the distance, standing on the corner and chatting. I was so focused on watching them that I didn’t notice the gate in front of the house with the two barking dogs was wide open. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the two dogs stand up from their spots in the yard, low growls reverberating in their throats.
My heart was in my throat. My skinny arms and legs trembled, as I tried to gauge the distance from the house and the bus stop, and back again to my house. Did I have time to make it to either place? A voice in my head told me to stay calm. I weakly said, “Hey doggies. Hey good doggies. It’s okay.”
That’s the last thing I remember before being toppled to the ground in the dirt driveway. I was too frightened to scream. I could feel their teeth pulling at my clothes, grabbing at the pocket of my shorts that held the keychain. As I struggled for breath I could see the flashing lights of the bus stop down the road, and the kids at the bus stop piling into it.
Then it was gone.
After feeling a sharp, searing pain in my leg, the dogs stopped their attack as quickly as they had started it. I stumbled home, sobbing, and was so shaken when I made it to the front door I didn’t even reach
for my key to open the lock. I repeatedly rang the doorbell until my mom opened the door with surprise.
The rest of the morning was a blur. My mom loaded me into her pickup truck and drove straight into the yard of the house with the two dogs, laying on the horn as the dogs circled the vehicle, barking. She honked the horn until a sleepy-looking young man came into the yard, and she rolled down her window.
“Your dogs attacked my daughter!”
He shook his head. “They wouldn’t do that,” he said, yawning.
“Look at her leg!” my mom continued, her voice shaking with anger. “It’s got a huge bite mark in it!”
I don’t know how the rest of the conversation went. The next thing I knew, we were arriving at an Urgent Care, where a kind nurse cleaned my wounds and asked me questions. I seem to remember getting some type of shot, but I don’t know what it was for. That night, my step-dad took photographs of my leg, which was black and blue with one clearly visible set of teeth marks in the middle of it. I reached my hand into the ripped pocket of my shorts, pulling out my plastic keychain. It had visible teeth marks in it from the attack.
My existence changed from that day on, even though I don’t know what ever happened in the squabble between my parents and the owners of the dogs. I have a vague recollection that my parents brandished the photos and were able to get the medical bill taken care of, but I could be making that up. I do know that my mom drove me to the bus stop in the mornings for a while after that. And that in the afternoons, I dragged my feet slowly down the road, breaking out into a cold sweat whenever I approached that house, praying the gate was shut, and closing my eyes as the dogs barked at me.
The keychain remained in my pocket, teeth marks and all, reminding me that although I had thought I was growing up in my independent time after school, I was still just a little girl after all.
It’s like a match made in heaven. A podcast that features a look at unsolved murders (some are so obscure that even a true crime buff like myself has never heard of them), but this podcast has a twist. Hosted by actor Carter Roy and voice artist and coach Wenndy Mackenzie, this podcast features reenactments of the stories that are much like the radio dramas of centuries past. Instead of sitting around a radio in the living room, I can pop in my earbuds and listen to tales that will make the hair stand up on the back of my neck while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house.
I was especially creeped out when I listened to the two-part episode of The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders.
And the case of Dorothy Jane Scott, who received months of creepy phone calls before finally disappearing from a hospital parking garage one night. And then the creepy calls continued–except they were then directed at members of her family.
I’ll admit the very first time I heard an episode of Unsolved Murders (E103 The Skeleton Under the House-James Gilmore) I wasn’t sure how I felt about the voice actors’ portrayals. I thought it was a little cheesy, but after awhile, it grew on me. After all, it is more interesting that listening to 45 minutes of a podcaster reading a script about a missing person in monotone voice. (True story–I won’t name names, though.)
What may be frustrating for some is that these cases are, for the most, unsolved. But the co-hosts do a good job of presenting pretty viable suspects in most cases, along with their own theories, and I haven’t found them to be too far-fetched. The good news is that I’ve only recently discovered this podcast and I have a whole stockpile of episodes to catch up on!
I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon the powerhouse that is Rachel Hollis. It may have been on Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love podcast. Lately, I’ve been finding so many interesting people on podcasts! Anyway, I was inspired by Rachel’s story. She graduated early from high school, decided not to attend college, and instead headed to Los Angeles to conquer her dreams and marry Matt Damon! The last part didn’t really work out but she did find a man of her dreams (David Hollis) and kicked off a successful career in event planning, wedding planning, and is now an entrepreneur, author, motivational speaker, and creator of Chic Media.
After following Rachel on social media, I kept hearing about her latest book, Girl, Wash Your Face. The title intrigued me. When I heard that it was a motivational book geared towards women I was also intrigued. I was going through a slump in my life at the time where I felt like I sucked as a writer, in my professional career in marketing, and generally in life.
So I picked up the book one day while in Target. And I’m glad I did. Rachel’s writing voice is just like the voice you hear on her blog, Instagram feed, and in clips from her conferences and speaking engagements. She is authentic. She is blunt. She is encouraging. She made me feel like I am worthy of my dreams, and anyone else’s opinion of me isn’t my business. Wow.
The book basically follows 20 different lies she tells herself and why they aren’t true. Most of these related to me (although instead of wanting to marry Matt Damon, I may have had my eye more on his buddy Ben Affleck). These lies include things like “I’ll Start Tomorrow” or “I Am Defined by My Weight” or “I Need a Hero.” I think I especially loved the chapter titled “I Need to Make Myself Smaller.” It actually inspired this blog post over at WOW! Women on Writing.
When I got to the chapter on “I’m a Terrible Writer,” these words struck me the most:
When you’re creating something from your heart, you do it because you can’t NOT do it. You produce it because you believe your creation deserves to be out in the world. . . But you can’t MAKE people like or understand it.
I feel like this a lot. Sometimes I feel like people think I’m strange because I’m obsessed with true crime and missing persons cases. But that’s where my passion lies, along with writing literature for teens. Since I read Girl, Wash Your Face, I have been so productive it’s not even funny. I’ve written a new short story and submitted it to a contest. I dragged an old YA manuscript out and have been line editing it so I can start querying agents. I picked myself up after an abysmal critique from a freelance editor on a second YA manuscript and am trying to figure out to make the opening sing and not bore people. I’m seeking out opportunities in professional development to help me succeed in my day job in theatre marketing. I’m ON FIRE!
So if you need a good dose of motivation, I recommend you check out this book. It worked for me, and I’m passing it along to a friend I’m seeing tomorrow night. I hope she enjoys it as much as I did.
It’s a story I’ve heard about in the past few years and it’s like something out of a horror film. A group of innocent young girls say goodbye to their parents at Camp Scott in Oklahoma in 1977, and three of them are murdered in the night before the adventure even begins.
A camp counselor found three sleeping bags containing the bodies of Lori Farmer (age 8), Michelle Guse (age 9) and Denise Milner (age 10) on the morning of June 14, 1977. The girls had been sexually assaulted and murdered, and then left on a trail not far from the tent they had been sleeping in during a thunderstorm the night before.
I heard about this case in more detail in a two-part episode the Unsolved Murders: True Crime podcast ran called “The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders.” The case made my heart break on a number of levels. For one, these three girls were sleeping in a tent all by themselves on the night of the murders. During a storm, which had to have been scary. They were writing letters home, the contents which were later published. During the investigation, officials discovered a counselor had heard odd sounds in the middle of the night coming from the direction of the girls’ tent, including a guttural moaning. She got up with a flashlight and investigated the noise, but couldn’t find anything. Another scout reported hearing a scream coming from the direction of where the three girls’ were sleeping in their tent. Another counselor remembered hearing a girl cry, “Mama! Mama!” I know the 1970s was a different era, but there sure didn’t seem to be much in the way of security for a place responsible for caring for such young girls. (The families of the victims did eventually sue the organization that owned the camp, but they lost).
Camp Scott was evacuated and shut down the day after the murders. A local farmer called police and told them he had seen a man hiding out in a cave near his property, which made them suspicious. A convicted rapist, Gene Leroy Hart, had escaped from police custody in 1973 and had never been captured. Law enforcement wondered if he could have been involved in the Girl Scout murders. When they checked out the cave, the found evidence from the camp, including a roll of tape (like tape used on the girls’ hands) and a pair of sunglasses that had belonged to one of the camp counselors. They caught up to Hart in an abandoned cabin 10 months later, and he went on trial for the murders.
Many in the community rallied behind Hart, a former high school football star, including members of the Native American population who felt he was being railroaded because of his ethnicity. DNA testing was not as sophisticated as it is today, so the samples taken from the murder scene could not be definitively tied to Hart. The case was purely circumstantial, and he was eventually acquitted. He did have to return to prison for the 1973 rapes of two pregnant women. In 1979, only two months after his trial, he died in prison of a heart attack.
There are people in Oklahoma who think he got away with murder, but that karma worked its magic in the end with Hart dying so quickly in prison. Others wonder if there could have been another killer, or killers. A boot print was found at the crime scene that wasn’t linked to hart. A re-test of DNA in 2008 was inconclusive, as too much time had passed with a degraded semen sample. The current sheriff in Mayes County has raised more than $30,000 for a new round of DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene that still remains.
Hopefully, with a renewed sense of interest on the case and advances in technology, the families of these three young girls will find some closure soon.
Normally I try to reserve Mondays for book reviews and I’ve read a lot of great ones in recent months! Of course I snatched up The Perfect Couple from one of my favorite authors Elin Hilderbrand when it became available in June. I read it over vacation and it was the perfect escape. I also finally finished Wild by Cheryl Strayed (it had been on my Kindle forever) and checked out the motivational book Girl, Wash Your Face by one of my new favorite motivational speakers/entrepreneurs, Rachel Hollis. I’ll try to get some of these reviews put up in the next few weeks.
But for today, I’ll try to provide an overview of what I’ve been writing about the past several months. I’m working on revising my contemporary young adult manuscript, Under My Skin, and am putting the final tweaks on another manuscript, Between, before I finally start shopping it around to agents! A few months ago I entered a short story I wrote, “The Name You’re Not Supposed to Call Women,” in the 2018 Women’s National Book Association Writing Contest in the Young Adult Category. Imagine my surprise when I received notification that it won an Honorable Mention (fourth place). I am so proud of this story, as I wrote it to help process an experience I went through in my late teens. You can read the final version here.
I had a wonderful family vacation in July on the gorgeous Anna Maria Island off the Gulf Coast of Florida.
I’m still dreaming about that place, and grateful that a visit to the The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla. inspired yet another short story, “The First and Last Time I Ever Saw a Clown Cry.” I entered it in a flash fiction contest and anxiously await the results. Here is a snippet from it:
I don’t remember exactly when the first hints of smoke hit us, or when Mother and Father realized we were in trouble. Father scanned the crowd until he spotted the grotesque orange and red flames shooting up one wall of the tent. Soon, screams of “FIRE” were reverberating throughout the crowd. The band stopped playing. Throngs of people began thundering up and down the rows of metal bleachers while trying to figure out the quickest exit. I clutched Mother’s arm as she tried to talk to Father over the mayhem. We couldn’t get down the stairs of the bleachers fast enough and were crushed from behind by the people trying to force their way through the crowd.
Tomorrow, I’ll be at WOW! Women on Writing blogging about the importance of seeking out professional development in your career. Be sure to stop by and check it out!
When I first heard about the disappearance of Florida resident Mike Williams on “Disappeared” a few years ago, I couldn’t help but hear the alarm bells go off in my head. Nothing in the story felt right with me.
Williams, a 31-year-old real estate appraiser, went missing on Dec. 16, 2000 after his wife told police he had failed to return from an early-morning duck hunting trip on Lake Seminole. It was his wedding anniversary, and he and wife Denise were supposed to have dinner plans that night. His truck was found at the lake, and his fishing boat was found in the water, but there was no sign of Mike. Upon an initial search, authorities believe Williams fell into the water and drowned, and was possibly eaten by an alligator.
Here’s the thing that made me pause. His wife didn’t seem to be sad that he went missing. In fact, even though Mike was her high-school sweetheart, after the birth of their daughter a rift grew between Mike and Denise and Mike’s family. They reported that Denise didn’t seem to be interested in maintaining a relationship with them. Mike tried to keep the peace by taking their toddler to visit his family, often without Denise. After Mike’s boat and truck were found, Denise seemed ready to move on with her life and presume Mike dead. Mike’s best friend Brian Winchester was often by Denise’s side, consoling her and trying to explain to the police his theory about how Mike died.
Mike’s mother Cheryl, however, was not so quick to presume her son was gone. She consulted with experts at Florida State University who theorized alligators would have been hibernating in the cold December weather–they wouldn’t have been out in the waters while Mike was duck hunting. But she was warned by Denise’s family that it was time for Denise “to move on.” In fact, six months after Mike went missing, Denise put together a memorial service for Mike and petitioned the courts to pronounce him legally dead. This usually takes at least five years. She won her case, and received more than $2 million in Mike’s life insurance. But guess who had sold Mike the hefty policy? That’s right. Brian Winchester. He sold it to Mike about six months before the disappearance. Cheryl also never saw her granddaughter again–she was told if she kept looking into Mike’s disappearance that would happen, and Denise followed through on the threat.
In the episode of “Disappeared” that I watched, I found it interesting that Denise and Brian chose not to participate in the episode. They declined to answer any questions from producers. They also got married a few years after Mike’s disappearance, once Brian was divorced from his wife. The mystery of what happened to Mike may have remained unsolved if Denise and Brian’s marriage hadn’t eventually fallen apart. (I mean, what do you expect though? Look at the circumstances that led to their marriage!) They separated in 2012. In 2016, Brian got desperate and held Denise hostage in her car at gunpoint for several hours, trying to talk her into a reconciliation. Upon her release, she pressed charges and Brian was arrested. In October 2017, he was sentenced to 20 years for the kidnapping. The day after he was sentenced, investigators finally found Mike Williams’ body buried in about six feet of mud near a boat landing not far from his mother’s home. He had been murdered. And on his wedding anniversary. It doesn’t get much colder than that.
He had probably never been at Lake Seminole in the first place.
At the beginning of this month, I was shocked to come across a news article that Denise had been arrested for conspiring to have Mike murdered. This was the first I had heard about the divorce, the charges against Brian, and the discovery of Mike’s body. In a way I can’t help feel like it’s karma that finally caught up with Denise Williams. It makes me sick to think about the three childhood friends (they had all gone to high school together–and Brian and Denise may have even known each other since preschool) and the plot to kill a man who seemed like a hard worker, dutiful husband and doting father. When he signed that insurance policy he thought he was probably just doing the right thing and having a plan for his wife and daughter in case anything ever happened to him. I’m glad the truth finally surfaced, although it won’t surprise me one bit if it comes out that Denise told Brian she or her daughter were being abused. And Brian decided to be the hero. I can only hope his conscience led him to tell investigators where Mike’s body was, and not just the temptation of a plea deal.
I hope the Williams family can finally find some peace now.