More From The National Civil Rights Museum

When we left the National Civil Rights Museum my husband and I were deeply moved. He said, “Every American needs to visit this place.” And he’s right.

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THE LORRAINE HOTEL: MEMPHIS, TN Rich and I were deeply moved by our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. My husband is not a very sentimental guy or at least he’s not very good at expressing emotions. He was brought up in a family of nine, seven of them boys. Some of his older brothers were exposed to the problems within the Catholic church. I don’t talk about it often, it’s their story to tell and some of them have shared it with the Boston Globe. That’s Rich’s reflection in the window looking into the hotel room were Martin Luther King Jr. was staying the night before he was assassinated. From the time you enter the museum and travel through 500 years of slavery and through The Reformation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, then the hotel room where you leave the building and cross the street to the warehouse where the sniper took aim, it is impossible to not leave here without being deeply moved. As Rich said when we left, “Every American needs to visit this place.” “And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” – Martin Luther King Let’s make that happen in our lifetime, please. It’s shameful how things are moving backwards. #nationalcivilrightsmuseum #mlkquote #blacklivesmatter #messagesfromamerica #refectionsinawindow #untiltheroadends

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NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM – MEMPHIS, TN A visit to this interactive museum impresses upon the participant the power and necessity of protest and speaking up in a democracy run by We The People. From Rosa Parks to the diners that had “No Coloreds Allowed” signs on the door, acts of civil disobedience required bravery to make a difference. We need to be reminded of this every once in awhile when times of complacency and apathy set in. The Days of Trump were not an overnight occurrence. It was a decades long disaster in the making. #wethepeople #thislandisyourland #civildisobedience #teachyourchildrenwell #historymatters #blacklivesmatter #visitamuseum #blueridgeadventurevehicles #messagesfromamerica #untiltheroadends #thedaysoftrump

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If you enjoy the stories you’ll love the books. Under The Same has received wonderful reviews. I am deeply humbled and hope this book can reach more people because it’s message is so very important.

And I’m not sure what’s going on with my second novel, Take Me Home, but it’s having a resurgence of sales and picking up more reviews. So thank you to everyone who’s reading and reviewing.

bit.ly/sheilablanchetteauthor

 

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A Visit to the National Civil Rights Museum – Part One

I’m sharing Stories From the Road over on my Instagram account and will start sharing them here too. I love using pictures and words to tell a story and it’s easier to post a short story over on Instagram, hit the Facebook and Twitter buttons, and get a one stop shop for social media advertising.

Typos are a problem because my old 2002 Subaru bounces along the highways and scenic byways. Late at night in a timeshare or hotel room I find myself lying in bed editing. I am the queen of typos even without the potholes and sudden stop and go of heavy traffic.

One of the highlights of our trip has been the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Here are the pictures and words:

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FROM THE ROAD: LOVIN’ MEMPHIS We were on the road from Asheville to Memphis for 8 hours. The air conditioning wasn’t working and Rich was cranky. We were trying to make it by 3 o’ clock because the National Civil Rights Museum closes at five. I don’t know where to begin with this story of Memphis. This city stole our hearts and if you’ve read my books you know I have a hard time telling a story in a straight line. But I’ll start at the beginning when we got to the museum at 4:15 and stood outside the Lorraine Hotel. My eyes teared up. We both felt we were walking into history. What a special, sacred place this is. It tells the story from slavery to civil rights. A complicated, sad, often shameful piece of history. It broke our hearts and as Rich said, “Every American needs to visit this place.” I took so many photos and I’ll share them but I’m going to start with this little girl, Sheila Malone, who spoke to Sheila Blanchette née McGowan and gave me hope to keep my chin up and keep fighting for what is right and just. This is what little Sheila Malone said the day she started 1st grade at one of the 13 Memphis schools to integrate: “I said, ‘If he calls me a nigger again I’m going to hit him.’ And when he got ready to say it, I hit him in the mouth…An he started to holler, ‘She hit me, she hit me!’ And the policeman said, ‘Well you shouldn’t have called her a nigger.” More stories to come from Memphis but right now I’m tired and deeply moved by this amazing American city. #storiesfromtheroad #memphisblues #americancities #blacklivesmatter #speakup #bebrave #teachyourchildrenwell #civilrightsmuseum #resist #historymatters #messagesfromamerica

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I’m Still Here. I’m Still Writing.

And I’m still learning how to master social media. I’ve watched the amazing young people from Parkland, Florida speak up and harness the power of this sometimes perplexing, confusing, and occasionally harmful medium.

We use social media to share stories of hope.  With its power to reach millions of people we have the ability to inspire movements. We sell books, jewelry, fitness programs, and a growing number of people are even selling sobriety.  We keep in touch with friends, reconnect with people we’ve lost touch with, and make new friends.

And we can also fall prey to fake news that can sway elections and harm our democracy.

I use it to keep in touch with friends and family and to sell books. And sometimes I sell them at Hometown Book Pop-ups that are held in pubs and restaurants that have cozy nooks in the bar where I meet readers, sell books, sign copies of my books, answer questions, and share glasses of wine or mugs of locally brewed beer. I find Facebook helps me reach more people who show up at these Pop-Ups and become new friends.

I used to blog here a lot but I began to question whether or not blogs sold books.  I also struggled with how to get people to comment and join the dialogue. I have very lively conversations on my Facebook pages. Yes, I have more than one, there’s my personal page and my author page.  But more on that later.

I’d love to hear from other bloggers about their experience selling books and blogging. Do you think blogs are passé’? Have you cut back on your blogging? Does a blog sell books? How do you know if it’s working?

In September, I  published my fourth novel, Under The Same Sun. I blogged a bit in the beginning but felt Facebook and Instagram were far more effective tools. I am also currently using Ereader News Today – advertising all four of my books with a monthly email promo. Life Is All This will be on sale this month. I haven’t received a date yet but I’ll let you know when I do.

Some of you mentioned you had been enjoying my blogs for quite some time – I started blogging five years ago – but you hadn’t bought any of the books and thought it was high time you checked them out. I’m looking forward to your feedback.

Being an Indie author is lonely sometimes. You don’t have a literary agent to cheer you on. You don’t have a publisher promoting your books. But I don’t mind doing all the work and  I love hearing directly from readers. I’d just like to know what it is that is actually working.

How did you find me? What made you buy the book?

As you can see I use Instagram a lot. It’s a one stop shop. I post short stories or excerpts from my books that include photos from my travels that inspired various scenes in the books. I have received so much advice regarding the American attention span. “Your blogs are too long.” “People only read 1000 words, if that.” I don’t know what the truth is. When I do sit down to write a blog it’s still too long.

Pictures and short stories do seem to grab people’s attention but my favorite feature on Instagram are the share buttons. I can click on Facebook and Twitter and hit up three social media sites with one post, then get back to writing the next novel.

Of course I don’t know if these Instagram posts sell books either, unless I hear from readers. I’d love it if Amazon shared data the way WordPress does. Where do my buyers come from? What links brought them to my Amazon page? If WordPress can do this, you know Amazon can. Why don’t they? If I can effectively sell more books isn’t that to Amazon’s benefit?

If you know a way to get this information, please let know.

A fifth novel is percolating. I intentionally spent less time writing and a lot of time promoting Under The Same Sun this winter. It has paid off and also increased interest in the three previous books. Things are happening, slow but steady.  Sales are up for all four books and they’re all getting good reviews. Under The Same Sun, a timely novel, is being well received and the reviews give me hope that America is a place that cares.

 

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Trains are always nearby out West, crossing the plains, hugging the mountainside, boxcars filled with tales of new places, adventure, hobos, and romantic trysts. From The Reverse Commute: “We were on a train with a couple from Ireland, a young boy and his girlfriend. The boy was quite a storyteller. In Spain somewhere, the Pyrenees I think, the train traveled through a series of tunnels carved into the mountains. The lights would flicker and leave us in total darkness. The boy was a chain smoker and used his hands when he told his stories. The light at the tip of his cigarette swirled and made mesmerizing circles in the dark. His stories were tales of his everyday life, but they were fascinating. It was the first time I realized anyone’s life could be interesting if they told the story right, even the boring parts.” bit.ly/buythereversecommute #traintracks #thereversecommute #writinginspiration #lonesomewhistle #everydaylife

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Rich and I are heading out on another road trip soon to visit our daughters who live in Colorado and Montana. The road is calling. It’s where the inspiration comes from and it is where I am happiest. I will be posting stories on IG and when a really good story comes my way – a story of a thousand words or more – I’ll share it here.

I do miss blogging but I have bills to pay and books to write. I’ve spent the winter cleaning ski condos, painting with Rich, and editing The Reverse Commute, my first novel. There are only so many hours in a day and I put a lot of time and effort into these blogs.

I’ll be traveling to Asheville, Memphis, Arkansas, Wichita, Colorado, Park City, Montana, South Dakota and back to Vermont. If you’re somewhere along the route and would like to host a Hometown Book Pop-Up or belong to a book club that would like to have the author join them, message me. I could try to arrange something. And most of the time I am always available throughout New England and  New York.

In the meantime, I invite you to follow me on Instagram where there are Stories From Higley Hill at least once a day.

P.S. I managed to keep this  blog to just under a thousand words. 979 to be exact.

On Writing Take Me Home

Take Me Home is a straightforward love story of finding love late in life. It travels from Rhode Island to Florida then across the country to Idaho and back east to the North Fork of Long Island – all in chronological order. It is a knee jerk reaction to some of the reviews of The Reverse Commute. I didn’t want to confuse the linear readers.

Josie Wolcott has lived a different life than I have. She was an unwed mother, a single mom, a divorcée. However, Josie and I do share a common profession and a restless need to wander. We also both possess a not always rational belief that life might be better somewhere else. Josie puts it this way:

“Oh, I’m very familiar with that struggle. When things go wrong, I tend to run, as if life will be better in a new place. The problem is, the place may be new, but I brought myself along on the journey. I still have to deal with her, the restless eternal wanderer.”

After I wrote Take Me Home I didn’t spend a lot of time promoting it. Two months later, Life Is All This came knocking on the door. Florida had a fertile sense of place. The sights, the sounds, the lifestyle.

Recently reading this book and re-editing a bit, I have once again fallen in love with the story I wrote. Josie is an extremely thoughtful character. She has a lot of insights I still find to be true.

After Rich and I sold the house in New Hampshire, I left for Florida and he stayed behind for two months to finish a job he was working on. He was offered a housesitting opportunity at a large old farmhouse with an apartment above the barn. It was directly across the Squamscott River from our old house. A very good friend of mine from Rhode Island joined me on my road trip to the Sunshine State.

When I arrived in Florida, I stayed with another friend for almost a month. She had offered me lodging until Rich arrived but it didn’t work out as expected. There were numerous complications I won’t get into. By the first of March, I found myself alone in an apartment that was not quite what I had imagined my Florida life to be like.

I had started a new novel shortly after I arrived in Florida but I was constantly being offered advice on writing a sequel to The Reverse Commute. I wasn’t sure how that story would lend itself to a sequel. It made no sense to me. I was just beginning to live my real life sequel to the story. I had no idea how the Florida experiment would work out. Should I write about Ray and Sophie running a B&B? Rich and Sheila would run a B&B but that was two years off in the future.

So I started a story about the young girl and the Best Boy living in Los Angeles. It was a mess. My sister basically told me to trash it. “You’re not in the right environment. This story makes no sense,” she told me.

Alone in my apartment, some random stand alone scenes came to me.

The apartment was dark and stuffy. She stroked her hand along the kitchen wall until she felt the light switch. The room looked empty and forlorn. Who lives in a place like this, she asked herself, looking at the two folding chairs and the bare walls with no pictures.

sports chairs

Who was this woman? What was she doing in Florida? I had no idea, but I kept writing. I was experiencing single life for the first time in years. I was far from home, alone, thinking about what it would be like to be divorced or widowed.

I wrote down the story of the scary mammogram I had back in New Hampshire.

There was an insomniac living above me, opening and closing the deck door all night long. I wrote that down, too. At the time it was just She. Josie hadn’t fully formed yet. Her son, Luke, did not exist.

  Despite being exhausted, Josie had a hard time falling asleep. The apartment didn’t feel like home. Luke’s presence didn’t change the feeling of dislocation she often felt. She closed her eyes, listening to the peepers.

  The sound of the sliding door opening to the deck above jolted her out of an uneasy sleep. Rolling along the track, the sound rumbled through the apartment as the door slid shut with a thud. Every few minutes it happened again, and again, and again. She mumbled, “Goddamn it.” The door slid shut, punctuating her thought. They must be crack addicts, cokeheads, neurotic chain smokers. Some nights it went on until three, starting up again at five in the morning. She turned on the light, stacked her pillows, and picked up a book by the side of her bed.

I took more notes on observations I made and people I met. The exchange between Josie and the Middle Eastern woman, regarding Josie’s parking skills, did happen to me one morning when I was leaving for work.

When Rich arrived, we did enjoy the Florida bar scene at first, but it quickly became old and expensive. We started to take day trips, sightseeing and walking the beach or the Great Florida Birding Trails. Wakadatchatchie became a favorite bird watching excursion several nights a week. I spent a year blogging about my Florida walks. The pleasure of walking made its way into the book. So did the bar scene with its two-for-one happy hours.

Josie’s boss in Florida was based on a man I worked for in Exeter, NH when I was temping during a fourteen month lay-off. I have had so many temp jobs and worked with so many clients when I ran my own bookkeeping business I have been able to accumulate an entire library of characters.

The idea to make Andy Radcliffe an optometrist came to me when I talked to an old friend at a funeral we attended back in New England. His optical shop was struggling due to competition from Walmart and Lenscrafters. When his son thought he might like to take over the business, our friend advised against it. It was a side of the changing economy I had often thought about. A friend of mine’s first husband owned a local hardware store and he too had to sell his business because of the competition from Home Depot and Lowe’s. I’m always aware of the zeitgeist and these observations make their way into my stories. I’m writing about the times I live in and how ordinary lives are effected by circumstances beyond our control. It relates to a topic I’ve been posting about on Facebook; a topic you never hear politicians talk about. One of the many reasons why so many Americans don’t have sufficient retirement savings.

While I was still alone in Florida, I watched the Delray Beach St. Patrick’s Day parade from a bar stool on Atlantic Avenue. Bar stools are fertile ground for collecting stories. A man from Chicago who once played the saxophone for a living and belonged to the musician’s union told me his story and it ended up in the chapter when Josie goes boating on the Intracoastal.

“So what do you do, Josie?”
  “I’m an office manager for a builder. How about you?”
  “I manage a golf course, but in my heart I am still a saxophonist. I used to work in a band, playing nightclubs, weddings, bar mitzvahs, all over Chicago. We marched in parades, too. I did that until I was in my early thirties, back when the musicians’ union had a lock on the jobs. You couldn’t march in the St. Paddy’s Day Parade unless you were a union band. But that all ended, they busted the unions, so I moved on to golf course management. I got a job as a superintendent at a country club outside Chicago then the recession came along and hit the golf industry hard. I lost that job, too. So, Florida’s the place to be if you work on a golf course, right? I moved down here five years ago and I love it.”

Jacob may be entirely fictional but his dialogue comes from stories Rich shared with me after his long days working construction in the hot Florida sun. My husband is the one who taught me about cracking foundations and rebar. He also told me a second-hand story of a plumber who pissed in the kitchen sink of a mansion on the beach.

From a drywall contractor in Pompano Beach to another temp job during my year of unemployment during the Great Recession, I myself have done bookkeeping for many guys in the building industry. In Hampton, NH there was a wonderful guy who kept beers in his fridge for his crew to drink at the end of the day.  Jacob is a compilation of many men I have known.

  “Hey.” He pointed to a guy at a table to the left of them. “Doesn’t that guy look like Alec Baldwin?”
  “No way. Alec Baldwin is much better looking. That guy’s nose is hideous.” Josie laughed.
  The bartender walked by. Jacob swirled his hand over their drinks, indicating they wanted another round.
  “You really think he looks like Alec Baldwin? He’s not even wearing a toupée, he’s wearing a wig. He’s gross.”
  The guy in question, the supposed Alec Baldwin look alike, had a bulbous red, bumpy nose.
  “Maybe one of his younger brothers?” Jacob asked.
  “No, not at all,” she said.
  “Okay.” Jacob pushed the second margarita toward her. “But after a couple of these, Hollywood will come to you, too.”

I write simply what I hear, what I see. I keep these stories in journals. They are stories I feel need to be shared, like the demise of unions and the changing economy of big box stores putting the sole proprietor out of business. These are things that happen to the very real people I meet along my journey through life. Like this line from the man from Chicago I met at the St. Patrick’s Day parade. I wrote it down on a cocktail napkin after he left the bar to join the St. Paddy’s day revelers out on the street.

“There used to be a time when a guy could support a family playing the saxophone. I still see myself as a musician. It’s a part of my self-image, even when I’m researching fertilizer options and arguing at town meetings over run-off.”

In Take Me Home the reader is left to make of this what they will.

Josie’s stories of traveling through Europe are one of the few things that are actually my stories. When I was alone in Florida I read my travel journals. Mrs. Erna Sommers at the B&B in Rothenberg and Mrs. Penock and the train ride to Amsterdam are both true stories.

“Among the invisible tools of creative individuals is their ability to hold on to the specific texture of their past. Their skill is akin to that of a rural family who lives through the winter on food stored in their root cellar.” ~ Vera John-Steiner

I have been to Edinburgh but Josie’s story of her time there is pure fiction.

Other than the backpacking tales, the story of  Josie’s Aunt Maddie is the only other literal truth plucked from my own life. I had a great aunt who lived with my paternal grandparents in Providence. She never married but she did have an engagement ring in a shoebox in her bedroom closet. Aunt Maddie’s story is my Great Aunt Josie’s story (and that is how Josie, my character, got her name).

James Salter once said: “There comes a time in life, when you realize that everything is a dream; only those things which are written down have any possibility of being real.”

What would happen to my Great Aunt Josie’s story if I didn’t share it?

So I got to a point where I had these random chapters and no idea where they were going. Then we took a vacation out west to drive our daughter from her college campus in Denver to Yellowstone National Park where she was working that summer. We stayed at a fishing lodge along the Snake River in Idaho.

Upper Mesa Falls Ashton, ID

“Good evening,” he said. “Beautiful country, isn’t it?”
She looked up, smiling. “Yes, it’s lovely.”
“I think I’m going to have to try my hand at that.”
He pointed to the river where a fisherman was casting his fly. It was a lovely sight with the late day sun scintillating across the water’s surface.
“Are you visiting from Australia?” she asked.
He scoffed. “No, no. I’m a Kiwi. Home’s Dunedin, New Zealand.”
“Sorry, I thought your accent was Australian,” she said.
There it was again, her chronic apologies.
“Well, I’ll let you get back to whatever you’re doing. Time to shower up. Did you enjoy the falls?” he asked.
“Yes, I did.”
She turned the laptop toward him to show him a shot of the trailhead to the falls. It was taken from an old inn, the photo framed by the posts on the front porch.
“Nice eye,” he said, abruptly turning to go back in his room.

I had seen this man earlier in the day when we hiked to Mesa Falls. He did shout out to me to use the men’s room. Coincidentally, he ended up in the room next to us. He and I had this conversation while Rich and Michelle napped in our room. The rest is pure fiction.

Josie was becoming a living, breathing character. She was constantly on my mind; she was traveling with me on this western road trip.  So naturally I thought, “What if  Josie ran into this man? What if she was moving to Idaho to manage a fishing lodge?”

At the time, I thought the Kiwi would be a major character until I got to the end of the chapter and the story took a different turn. I was on the road, traveling through the West and my imagination ran wild.

To quote James Salter once again: “There is no situation like the open road, and seeing things completely afresh. I’m used to traveling. It’s not a question of meeting or seeing new faces particularly, or hearing new stories, but of looking at life in a different way. It’s the curtain coming up on another act. I’m not the first person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel. In a certain sense, a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move.”

The story took off.  Jacob, the good ole Florida guy, evolved. The character of Andy Radcliffe developed. He and Josie had quirky families. Josie’s son Luke was easy. Sense of place has always been effortless for me.

Then along came Andy’s dog, Fergus, who I constantly had to worry about. I only had dogs when I was growing up. I never owned them in my adult life. I had to figure out what to do about Fergus when Andy was traveling around. While writing this book I realized this is why I had cats. Dogs are a pain in the ass.

Luke had an evening class so he left a key under the doormat. A lack of feminine upkeep was apparent upon entering the apartment. Dirty dishes were in the sink, the fridge empty except for a carton of ice cream and a twelve pack of Avalanche beer. Crushed beer cans and glasses were strewn around the living room. All signs pointing to the absence of Melanie.
  “Oh no, I think Luke broke up with his girlfriend. Do you want a beer?” she asked.
  “Sure,” Andy said. “Except for living in a college dorm, I never did get much of this bachelor pad experience at a young age,” he said, wistfully glancing around the room.
  “From the looks of it, you weren’t missing much,” she said.
  The spare bedroom appeared to be occupied. She lifted the cushions on the sofa, it wasn’t a pull out.
  “I think we may have to find a hotel room. I can’t believe Luke didn’t tell me what was going on.”
  “He’s a twenty-two-year-old guy, how much does he tell his mother? It’s okay,” he said, searching through his phone for hotels and finding a room right in town that allowed dogs.

  It’s hard looking back and trying to remember how the story took shape. How did I write these sentences? How did I create these people?

The landscape of the west spoke to her spirit, which she had neglected for so long. The grandeur of the mountains and the waterfalls, contrasting with the intimacy of a delicate columbine growing at the base of an aspen tree. Small tableaus set amidst the large dramatic scenery, waiting to be found on her daily walks. The big meaning of life explained within the story of a daily ritual. A hike in the woods to a waterfall with a man who was changing her outlook on life.

Columbine

And of course there was always music.

  “Is this your song?” Josie asked. “Because I was expecting some disco.”
  “No, my song should be next. Listen, I have to tell you something. I think you may be shocked by this.”
  “What?” she asked, concerned.
  “I know how to dance,” he said. “I realize this may come as a surprise to you, but I’ve been told I’m actually quite good.”
  “Did I say you couldn’t dance?”
  “I’m pretty sure you were assuming that, as you haven’t asked me to dance all night.”
  She smiled, guilty as charged. The Stones were wrapping up their song. Mick was crooning, “You make a dead man cry.” Andy took her hand and led her to the dance floor.
  “This song’s for us. Now remember, the guy leads.”
  “I know that,” she said.
  “Yeah, well I’m thinking sometimes you might forget.”
  His laugh was sweet, his eyes crinkled with a smile.
  The opening notes from a steel guitar set the beat. He tapped his foot to the music, reached around her waist and took her right hand in his left as she reached for his shoulder. Lyle Lovett started singing Private Conversation as they moved across the dance floor. He wasn’t kidding, he really could dance. And he meant it when he said he would lead. With his right hand firmly on her back, he got her to spin around, facing the opposite direction while somehow turning himself so he was facing her, the two of them changing positions without a hitch.

 

***Take Me Home is available on Amazon in Kindle and book editions. If you’ve already read the book, reviews are always kindly appreciated***

http://bit.ly/buytakemehome

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We Are America: Stories From the Women’s March on Washington

It’s coming up, ladies. on January 20th, Women’s Marches are planned all over the country, from Montpellier, Vermont to Bozeman, MT. It’s impossible not to find a march somewhere near you, even if you live in a red state.

Last year I flew to DC and marched with my cousin, Ann Marie Mehlert, who is my friend Kathy’s sister. We tried to meet up with a group of friends of mine but the march was so much larger than anyone expected.

I arrived the day before by plane, train, and subway. I saw with my very own eyes that the crowd that showed up was so much larger than the one the day before. Inauguration Day.

Months later women showed up in the suburbs of Virginia and Alabama and learned we can change politics as usual.

I don’t know what happened during the passage of the tax bill but it was a lesson that we need to be ever vigilant.

This is the year we take back the Congress. This is the year we let the world know We Are America.

This year I’m meeting that group of friends I couldn’t find on the streets of DC last year. We are rendezvousing in New York City. Mothers, sister, college friends, daughters, friends who met while we raised those daughters. We’re cramming into a couple of hotel rooms and we’re taking to the streets. We’re angry and we’re heartbroken.

Share your Women’s March stories in the comments below. Where were you last year and where will you be this year?

“Women are the true architects of society.” ~ Harriett Beecher Stowe

Sheila Blanchette

Loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it” ~ Mark Twain

we-the-people We The People

January 21, 2017. We started the day with bagels and coffee and a stop at CVS for poster board and magic markers. The shelves were almost empty. It was another sign the media was underestimating this march. All that was left was a package of ten small multi-colored poster boards and medium size red and black Sharpie pens. Our signs were pretty weak compared to the other signs we would see throughout the day. We decided at our next protest we will plan ahead and make better signs.

my-bad-sign My very lame sign This is What Democracy Look Like

At the Metro the lines to purchase tickets were long. Yesterday I took the subway from Union Station to Tenleytown but only filled my card with enough money for the trip…

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THE STORY BEHIND THE REVERSE COMMUTE

I thought if I wrote the story readers would understand and empathize with the struggle of the American middle class.

Five years later, Trump was elected and so many people were shocked.

“I didn’t see this coming. How could this have happened?” they asked.

I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Sophie?

Sophie is one of the main characters in my first novel, The Reverse Commute. Her husband is a blue collar worker. She wears a pink collar. They live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to keep their heads above water. Sophie would have seen Trump coming years ago, back when Ronald Reagan was President and busted the air traffic controllers’ union, among other things.

Sophie would not have voted for Trump. She would be a Bernie supporter who then reluctantly voted for Hillary.

How do I know this?

I am Sophie.

I wrote The Reverse Commute for myself. It was an act of self-preservation. I, like Sophie, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Truthfully, I was standing before the abyss.

I lived in an old house built in 1728 along the Squamscott River just outside of Exeter, New Hampshire. Three squirrels frolicked along the rafters of my unfinished addition. The boiler blew up, the septic system crapped out, a tree fell on my van, and a year later another tree hit Rich’s truck. I had been laid off twice in my career. Rich’s work declined after the housing bubble burst. There was never enough money.

I drove a dented Hyundai with bumper stickers: New Hampshire for Obama and the Dave Matthews headless fire dancer. And yes, I did drive that car over a beach chair in the garage. My nephew saw this as a perfect metaphor for Sophie’s crushed dreams.

It is possible my entire life could be a metaphor.

I do wish on stars and I did have an erotic dream after watching the movie Blue Valentine starring Ryan Gosling.

My husband, Rich, is an easily distracted self-employed house painter and I worked as an Accounts Payable Royalty Specialist in a cubicle in a large old mill building in Ipswich, Massachusetts, forty-five minutes from my home in New Hampshire. I found the job after fourteen months of unemployment and $1200 a month Cobra payments.

Have I piqued your interest? Are you thinking about buying the book? Or do you need more?

I was friendly with the young man who sat in the cubicle next to me. His mother read The Reverse Commute and emailed to say, “The character Dan reminds me of my son.” Well yes, he should. When I moved to Florida she and I became good friends. We met at happy hours and Tuesday Trivia nights.

My books have continued to lead me to good friends.

My Dad did drive himself to a walk-in clinic while having a heart attack because he thought it was the flu. He told the ambulance driver to take him to Miriam Hospital instead of Rhode Island because they don’t charge for parking.

My friends and I did have weekly wine emergencies.

My dearest friend and cousin, Kathy, died of breast cancer at the age of fifty-one. We were roommates in Boston, we backpacked through Europe, and then the both of us ended up in the same small town of Stratham, New Hampshire.

John Irving once wrote about Stratham in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed:

“He (Piggy) lived in Stratham – on a road out of our town that ran to the ocean, about eight miles away….Now there was a town, Stratham! In small-town life is there anything more provincial than the tendency to sneer at smaller towns? Stratham was not Exeter (not that Exeter was much).”

John Irving also wrote:

“This is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false. A fiction writer’s memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly, what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have. Half my life is an act of revision; more than half the act is performed with small changes. Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven’t had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with the language…”

The Reverse Commute is not a memoir. It is a roman à clef, which is French for a novel with a key. A novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the “key” is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction. This serves to keep the author from incurring potentially expensive libel charges.

Some famous roman à clefs are: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tender Is The Night, Heart of Darkness, The Sun Also Rises, and The Devil Wears Prada.

I also gave the young girl in the novel some of my stories.

When I lived in Boston, my roommates and I hosted a Dead Celebrities Halloween party.

In another apartment I lived in on Commonwealth Avenue, one of the guys downstairs played the oboe in the Boston Symphony. He and his partner did convert their living room into a Japanese tearoom and invited us to formal tea ceremonies.

I spent a summer during college working on an assembly line at a Bic pen factory. I also called the labor board from a pay phone in the employee cafeteria. It was my Norma Rae moment.

There was some confusion, among some readers, about the alternating chapters. The book begins with a nameless girl on a train. She meets a handsome young man who is referred to as the Best Boy. He is an electrician and has ambitions of moving to Hollywood and working on movies.

The second chapter introduces the reader to Sophie and Ray, a middle aged couple struggling with middle class life during the Great Recession.

After four chapters or so, most readers quickly picked up on the fact that the following chapter would be back to the young girl’s story, then the next chapter would belong to Sophie, and so on.

I don’t know what to say about this other than I have changed the synopsis on Amazon and now introduce the book as two stories in one with alternating chapters. I didn’t want to change the concept of the nameless young girl and the Best Boy.  By the end of the novel, a majority of readers understood why I wrote it that way, and they didn’t have a problem following the story once they adapted to the rhythm of it.

The tricky thing with editing after the fact is that once you’ve seen the bad reviews you tend to overcompensate.

A few reviewers wrote that the ending was too perfect. The last chapter is titled Happily Ever After? The ending is meant to be ambivalent. I contemplated changing the chapter to Happily Ever After?????  Maybe some readers missed the question mark??? But the fact of the matter is, by the end of the book the reader knows what’s going on here, or should know after reading the chapter titled A Day Just Like Today. So the two endings – the young girl’s and Sophie’s with a question mark – again I don’t know what to say.

Maybe the book is meant for dreamers and magical thinkers. Read the book and then you tell me what you think about happy endings.

There were reviews that left me feeling sucker punched and ambushed.

“Throughout the story the liberal viewpoint is continually espoused. It sends the mistaken message that if only the government would take more action in the lives of the citizens, then everyone could live happily ever after. I kept waiting for the plot to show how their political ideology would actually help them attain their goals but never saw it.”

Of course, this woman also wrote:

“I guess one could say the book had happy endings but it seemed almost contrived.”

She was apparently another one who missed the question mark. I think she also missed the true spirit of the young girl’s story.

She wasn’t the only one to say the ending was contrived and I believe these reviewers were referring to a tragic event that takes place at a company picnic. Unfortunately, the company picnic that is a turning point for both women in the story was not contrived. It was real and if you link to this news article you will see yellow police tape in the photo. I was picnicking just beyond that cordoned off area when the accident happened. Like Sophie and the young girl, it was a turning point in my life, too.

I’ve thought a lot about why I wrote The Reverse Commute. I was after verisimilitude. The life I was living, and still am living in so many ways, is similar to a majority of unheralded American lives. Much of the dialogue and many of the scenes are based on real events. In all my novels I am writing about the world as I experience it in real time.

Flash forward five years. Trump is president. And here we are rolling back financial  regulations again. 57% of divorced couples cite money problems as the primary reason for the demise of their marriage. Do I really have to come right out and say a society that doesn’t take actions to improve people’s lives has dire consequences on said lives? Can’t the day to day struggle of the characters speak for itself? If the reader doesn’t understand the effect a nation’s politics has on its citizens’ lives, is it my fault?

I believe it is the job of the novelist to not just entertain but to observe the world and share the truth. The truth was always there in The Reverse Commute. After many blogs, pieces for the Huffington Post, and three more novels I felt I could do better by this little book. The love story with a message.

Over the past two months I have gone back to the original manuscript and the journals I kept that were also filled with sticky notes on which I scribbled things down in my cubicle. I wrote and I edited. The sentences are brighter and cleaner. The politics are back. The story is the same but closer to my original intent before the first edit I made after the nasty reviews. At that time I corrected the typos and removed some of the politics. I hate to admit it but I was intimidated by the bad reviews and the personal attacks. I am a much more confident writer now and I see this story for what it was, a middle class American shouting, “Hey, I’m out here struggling. Pay attention.

I learned to write in public, on my own. It’s not easy to speak up in a very divided nation. As one reviewer noted, “The other reviews were like republicans and democrats voting on a bill, “love it”, “hate it”. Wow, I had to see if this book sucks or is great. It’s great.”

I have no publisher to defend me, to prop me up when I get shit kicked. I don’t have a New York Times book reviewer to interpret and explain my positions. All I have is a passion, a drive, and a belief that for the reader there is a lot to be learned by imagining how another person lives when walking in their shoes for 300 pages.

I wanted to write a story about a woman who was trying to hold onto her marriage during difficult financial and political times, because that is what I was trying to do and I knew I wasn’t alone.

Let me be clear on something. This is not a book about politics. It is a real life love story with characters who have opinions and sometimes express those opinions.

I have reconciled myself with the fact that I may not sell a lot of books in my lifetime. I have never really understood the zeitgeist of the times I live in. I’ve always felt like an outsider standing in the snow looking through a window into a well-lit McMansion in the suburbs.

My younger sister and I discussed this. I told her I would leave the books to my daughters and maybe decades from now they could find a wider audience of receptive readers.

She replied, “In a different environment they will be found.”

I will admit it was not easy when I finally let the new edition go to the formatter. I must have read it twenty times then hesitated and checked it for the twenty-first time.

After I hit Send, I read an article in the New York Times that reminded me of a scene in The Reverse Commute. It’s in the chapter titled Tilting At Windmills. The young girl has just returned to work after being on vacation. Her co-worker tells her a sixty year old woman named Joan, who has worked at the company for sixteen years, has been let go.

For the record, I worked with this woman during my time in the cubicle. Joan’s story is truth. Months later she read my book. She is one of the readers who got it. She is also not the only ’employee at will’ who lost their job during my time in the cubicle.

“What? How can he do that?”

“He just can. It’s called an employee at will. She called Mandy at home later that night and told her all about it. She went in his office and one of the women from HR was there. That’s never a good sign. He had a list of his complaints against her, a review of her work so to speak. They went over COBRA and unemployment, which apparently she will be able to collect. At least he gave her that. Called it a layoff instead of a firing.”

“Oh, gee, that’s nice of him. She’s been here sixteen years. Suddenly she’s too slow?”

“When they were done dropping the bomb, Lou and the HR lady walked Joan to her desk. They gave her a box and watched her pack her belongings, the pictures of the grandkids and other personal items like those bobbing dashboard ornaments she collects. Then they had her hand over her door pass and escorted her out of the building….
Needless to say, morale is low right now and everyone’s scared. No one knows who’s next. We better get back to our desks, our fifteen minute break is almost up.”

When she got back to her cubicle she wasn’t scared, she was angry. She googled employee at will and discovered that it was a part of American law that stated either party could break the relationship for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all, as long as the company had not recognized a collective bargaining group or union.

Five years after writing that scene, the article I read in the New York Times addressed this very issue:

Bosses hold all the power in the at-will employment system that most American workers are subject to, under which they can be fired for “good cause, bad cause or no cause.” Employees who speak up risk everything — their jobs, their reputations, their livelihoods — while facing the unfair legal burden of having to prove their boss’s intentions. Until workers have the freedom from unfair firing, too many workplace rights will remain unfulfilled.

The alternative to at-will employment is “just cause,” which is the principle that an employee can be fired only for a legitimate, serious, work-performance reason.

The “just cause” system is typically part of union contracts. However, today only about 6 percent of private-sector employees are covered by a union contract. And there is a concerted effort to strip public-sector employees of many of their traditional rights and protections.

Similarly, workers may have a right to organize a union and collectively bargain, but in reality workers are often fired for organizing, and the laws against such practices — like all protections against unfair terminations — place the burden on employees to prove illegitimate intent.”

It took the election of Trump and the #metoo movement to get the Times to write this article.

I actually had another Amazon reviewer write this: “Don’t get her started on at-will employment.

I’d like to reply: “Oh no, please do get me started. I’d love to educate you.”

My oldest daughter called last night to tell me she road her bike ten miles to work at a country club where she waitresses. It was a slow night and after an hour they sent her home. I googled the minimum show up law in Colorado and discovered they don’t have one in the Rocky Mountain state.

Workers’ rights aren’t on the agenda in most places; only eight blue states have minimum show up laws.

My daughter biked the ten miles back to Fort Collins on a cold, snowy January night after making $9.30, the minimum wage in Colorado. If you want to know what this real life story’s connection is to The Reverse Commute,  Buy the Book. It’s in the chapter titled, A Backyard Wedding, that includes my story of the assembly line and the phone call to the Labor Board.

As one character in The Reverse Commute says, Let’s not forget, politics do affect our everyday lives.”

Or as Sophie wonders, “Was there a word for the way news events collide with your personal life? When she watched the news, it all seemed so removed. But she knew it wasn’t. The next day you could lose your job, your health insurance, your house, or all of the above. Your local school budget could be cut, bridges might collapse, your drinking water could be contaminated. Why do so many people say they don’t care about politics? Don’t they know they have to care? For their own good?”

All of my books are slice of life stories that contain characters with opinions. They are middle class Americans who have been affected by the politics of America since Ronald Reagan began to dismantle the New Deal. My entire adult life I have been a witness to this era of American history.

My writing is my small contribution at getting people to sit up, pay attention, and to care about politics and the lives of their fellow Americans. There is a new notebook. My daughter’s snowy bike ride has been recorded. Young people from Boston to San Francisco are struggling with college loans, exorbitant rents, and stagnant wages.

I’m here. I’m paying attention. I’m writing it all down. Stay tuned.

 

***The newly edited version of The Reverse Commute is available now on Amazon. Please buy it and if you enjoy it PLEASE write a review.  This little book needs some TLC.***

NEW Cover TRC