Detailed Character: Birdie
{Seeing Things}

Before I write one word of a novel, I get to know the characters who will populate my stories. Since Birdie, from Seeing Things, is one of my favorite characters, here she is for you to see. When creating her, I knew she would have macular degeneration (I’m not very nice). If I had low vision, I would sit home and listen to audio books. That makes me a poor choice to star in a novel. Main characters need pluck, so I created Birdie to be fearless. Being fearless is seldom an acquired skill, so I went back to her childhood to form her over time. She has a much more interesting history than I do. When I grow up, I want to be just like Birdie.

You can buy Seeing Things here.

Detailed Character Chart: Birdie

Book Title: Seeing Things

Name: Birdie Larsen Wainwright

Height: 5’10”

Weight: 145#

Birth date: March 17, 1941

Hair color: gray, boyish cut

Scars, handicaps (physical, emotional):

Scars, physical: Scar from stitches over right eye where she misjudged an opened cupboard and numerous scars on shins from walking into things. Now, she has a fresh injury near crown of head from fall down the stairs that required 11 stitches, and she will have a scar across her knee where she has had surgery for her fractured patella (kneecap). She has a scar on her chin from wrestling with a boy on the schoolyard.

Scars, emotional: Birdie’s mother died when she was 16. Her father soon remarried and had more children with his new wife, Flora, who didn’t approve of Birdie’s independent ways. Birdie felt displaced by her father’s new family. She determined her own children would always feel loved and accepted. And yet, she still needs approval from those she loves, especially her children whom, she fears, want her to move out of her home. Her oldest son, David, 46, lives in Denver with his wife, Suzanne, and their youngest son, Fletcher, 15. Two older grandchildren are married and going to graduate school. Middle daughter, Diane, 43, lives globally for her work as a structural engineer specializing in bridges. Married out of college and soon divorced, Diane has lived with a series of men over the years. No children. The youngest son, Conrad, 41, is a missionary in China. He is married to a native Chinese woman and has two children.

Sense of Humor and kind: Loves to laugh at herself and the struggles of living with low vision.

Basic nature: Likes risk, challenge, and adventure. Energetic and constantly on the go. Lives life to the fullest. Alert, confident, and persuasive. Can be outrageous, direct, and impulsive. Competent, resourceful, and responds well to crises. Realistic, pragmatic, and matter-of-fact. Skillful negotiator. She loves being with people who share her interests (travel, service, reading, art) and sense of fun and adventure is the cat’s meow for Birdie.

Ambitions: To stay active and involved with life, even with macular degeneration. She wants to matter

Philosophy of life: God is good. Don’t stop. Avoid those who want to limit you.

Hobbies: travel, knitting afghans for needy, reading, socializing, hiking, dancing

Kinds of music, art, reading preferred: loves the hymns, ballads of the fifties, reads books with strong female protagonists, missing painting, although she does sketch from memory.

Dress: Sport comfort—Columbia hiking pants and lightweight hiking shoes or clogs. Only wears heels and dresses to dance.

Favorite colors: The brighter the better, although she has trouble seeing colors that are near in hue.

If woman, what does she have in her purse; if man, what does he have in his wallet? Birdie carries an ergonomic backpack with Tiger balm, Burt’s Bees products: lip balm, hand lotion. Colorado identification card, debit card, pack of tissues, magnifying glass, cell phone with large buttons for traveling, sunglasses, large button, list of prescriptions, Medical information written in large print, an iPod, a small recorder,  

Educational background: Birdie worked her way through art school in Chicago.

Work experience: taught high school art and illustrated children’s books

Best friend: Dolly who is moving to be closer to her children and grandchildren because she had a stroke and needs rehabilitation available in a larger city.

Men/women friends: Dan McCune, her neighbor and dance partner and 10 years her junior. He wants to marry Birdie, but she is concerned about the age difference.

Enemies and why: Daughter-in-law, Suzanne. She wasn’t comfortable around Birdie and John, Birdie’s deceased husband, so it seemed she worked to separate Birdie’s son, David, and their children from their grandparents. Suzanne’s parents live in nearby Cherry Hills and play an active part in their lives. Loves the country club scene. Seems embarrassed by Birdie.

Parents: Gregor (Greg) and Annette Larson

Description of home (physical, emotional atmosphere, including floor plan): This small cottage was Birdie and John’s get-away place in the town of Chipeta in the San Juan Mountains. Birdie moved there after John’s death to withdrawal, but that didn’t last long.

Strongest character traits: Strong-willed, yet empathetic

Weakest character traits: Strong-willed and jumps into conflict

Sees self as: damaged goods, getting old but fighting it, independent, courageous, adventuresome

Seen by others as: obstinate, fun-loving, emotionally distant to some, big-hearted and generous by others

Present problem/want: Injury makes her dependent on son and family. She wants her life back. She wants to matter.

How it will get worse: Suzanne overhears Birdie talking to Huck and pushes for full-time facility. Must be tested for Alzheimer’s. Also, she gets Fletcher into trouble by convincing him to drive her to Snappy Dragon restaurant for dim sum.

Most important thing to know about character: She mourns the loss of her relationship with David, and she wonders if her preoccupation with her art career hurt their relationship even before Suzanne arrived on the scene.

One-line characterization: If you’re in a tough situation, you want Birdie as your best friend.

Trait that will make character come alive and why: She’s willing to say the difficult things and take chances to feel alive.



Detailed Character: Mibby Gates
{Always Green}

From Always Green (Book Two of the Garden Gates series): Mibby Garrett is finding room to breathe after two years of suffocating grief from her husband’s sudden death. Still, the loss, the weight of raising a son on her own, and financial pressures seem overwhelming. Mibby longs for relief.

You can buy Always Green here.

I lay in bed remembering a car chase from a movie I’d seen as a child. The title had long since been forgotten, but the scene remained fresh in my mind. I could almost taste the Junior Mints.

Some good-looking, smart-alecky, slick-haired hero had made his break from the corrupt sheriff who sweated a lot. The hero sped toward the county line followed by a pack of light-flashing, siren-screaming state troopers, only they couldn’t out drive the hero. The troopers ended up in ditches and teetering over guardrails. The closer the hero got to the county line, the tighter I’d squeezed the Junior Mints in my hand. Once the hero had crossed the county line, a mere signpost on the side of the road, the troopers screeched to a halt, and a cloud of dust all but obscured the posse. The hero had sped on, wind in his hair and nothing but open road in front of him.

No matter how grown up I liked to believe I’d become, the scene appealed to me. I wanted to pass over that invisible line that marked the end of Pain County and the beginning of wholeness. I knew whatever respite came, it wouldn’t last forever. Even the hero was destined to face more sheriffs in another county. But still, a brief ride through the desert with the top down appealed to me.


Goodness and Mercy

Deleted Scenes
{Goodness & Mercy}

Goodness and Mercy is set on a peach ranch in western Colorado during WWII. The cool nights and the warm days are perfect in this high desert valley for creating the sweetest peaches. A danger always lurks in the spring. A night could get too cold when the blossoms are setting fruit, and that would mean disaster.

In this scene, the household is waking up. Ada watches the thermometer in the coldest hour of the day, fretting over the potential loss. This scene was cut because I felt I was giving too much detail about peach ranching. There’s a fine balance between interesting detail and too much information. The scene does show how orchardists are vulnerable to the weather and its moods.

You can buy Goodness and Mercy here.

I found Aunt Ada at the kitchen window when I came down for breakfast. “I heard you playing a sad song last night,” I said.

Aunt Ada wiped a clear spot in the glass to read the thermometer. “Quiet songs can seem sad. I was trying not to wake you. I guess I failed. I’m sorry.”

I stood by her. “Are the peaches okay?”

“It’s still too early to tell. We may have to light the smudge pots yet.” She must have seen that I didn’t know one thing about smudge pots because she got down to the business of bossing. She couldn’t help herself. “Your sister will be down soon. You better hop to. Set the table. The oatmeal is in the pan.”  

Lucy couldn’t get her hair right, so I ate breakfast with Goody and Aunt Ada, who left the table every few minutes to look at the thermometer. Finally, she scraped her perfectly good oatmeal into the scrap bucket and sipped her coffee at the window.

Outside, the peach trees looked like cotton candy, the cherry kind. Aunt Ada chewed on her cuticle, something she would never let us do. Goody shot me a glance, but I shook my head. For once, he knew better than to say anything.

Aunt Ada looked at the clock and back at the thermometer that hung just outside the window.  “We should be okay. The sun’s coming up.” She flattened a strand of Goody’s hair. “You need to see a barber, Ranger.”

“That ol’ barber puts smelly stuff in my hair.”

She slipped into her coat and buttoned it to her chin. “It’s hard to shoot straight with hair covering your eyes.”

“I guess so.” Goody pushed his oatmeal away.

“Go tell Lucy I ironed her blouse.” And Aunt Ada stepped into the morning. Before the door slammed behind her, cold air swirled around my legs and up my skirt. It sure didn’t feel like spring. I filled the dish pan with soapy water and watched Aunt Ada walk up and down the rows of trees, pulling branches close for a good look at the buds.

Lotti walked into the kitchen and swiped at the window with the cuff of her sweater to look at the orchard.  “Ada’s awfully good at worrying over those trees. As long as she’s willing to do the fretting, I’ll let her. She’ll learn soon enough that blessings come from one hand alone and no amount of worrying will change that.”

I wished Aunt Ada had been a champion baker instead of a piano player. We all would have slept better and had something besides oatmeal for breakfast. Still, I hated seeing her fret about the peaches, so I asked Jesus to protect the blossoms.

“Amen,” Lotti said.

Upstairs, Lucy groaned and stomped her foot.

Lotti called up to her. “If you want breakfast before school, you better give up being Greta Garbo this one day.” She winked at me.



Deleted Scenes
{The Queen of Sleepy Eye}

I loved writing The Queen of Sleepy Eye. The research taught me what I already knew about life and culture in the summer of 1978. In this scene, seventeen-year-old Amy is grounded but wanting very much to attend an event where she’ll see the intriguing young man, Falcon. She’ll have to sneak out to do so. Here’s how she makes her escape.

You can buy The Queen of Sleepy Eye here.

A shaft of light fell across the bed when Mom opened the bedroom door. I rose to one elbow. “Is everything all right?” I asked to sound compliant and cooperative.

She walked past me to tug at the window. The latch Charles had installed on the outside of the window held fast. “That should keep you where you belong.”

To plant a seed of worry, I said, “I hope there isn’t a fire.”

Mom frowned, and I resisted the urge to smile.

“This house has stood for over fifty years,” she said. “I suppose it will stand for another eight nights.”

I sat up. “Eight? What happened to a week?”

“I added a day for your snotty attitude.”

“Mom,” I pleaded, “I promised Mrs. Masterson I would visit her this week. She’s so lonely.” Mom feared loneliness like children feared the bogeyman. “I’m practically the only one who visits her.”

“Perhaps we could visit her together.”

“It’s quite a walk, mostly uphill. She lives next to the cemetery.”

“Charles can give us a lift.”

I shot one more salvo across her bow. “That would be nice. I could use your help cleaning her house. Poor Mrs. Masterson dedicated every waking moment to attending her dying husband. She hasn’t dusted in years, and the house smells funny, you know, like a hospital.”

“A hospital?”

“Yes, but you would never see cobwebs or humungous spiders in a hospital.” I shivered. “And you know how old people like to keep toasty. The house is as tight as a drum. Stink? Woo-ee! The stench makes my eyes water. Maybe there are still bedpans upstairs.”

“Amy! Now, you’re just being nasty.”

I’d gone too far. I tried the truth. “I’m sorry, Mom. I have been a snot lately. I’m nervous is all. Starting a quarter behind the other freshmen worries me. Will a required class be repeated in the winter, or will I have to wait another whole year? Will I graduate on time? Will my scholarship expire? Maybe they’ll give my dorm room to someone else. By the time I get there, everyone will have made their friends. I’ll be an outsider. There’s so much to think about, but I shouldn’t take my frustration out on you. Honestly, I’ll try to be better.”

Mom’s features, backlit from the hall, were indiscernible, but I heard the sigh I’d heard a million times before. She was weakening. “I don’t see why you can’t visit Mrs. Masterson.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Goodnight, querida,” she said, closing the door.



Nothing squeaked louder than the hinges of my bedroom door. “It’s really hot in here with the window closed. Would you mind leaving the door open? I can hardly breathe.”

Mom chewed on her bottom lip. “I guess that would be okay.”

“Thanks, Mom, really. I appreciate it.”

To stay awake, I dove under the covers with a book and a flashlight. Austen’s verbosity irritated me, so I listened to Mom’s nightly ritual, ticking off each step. Remove makeup. Brush teeth. Gargle. Brushed hair one hundred times. Slather feet and hands with petroleum jelly and slide into cotton gloves and socks. Mumble a few hail Marys. Punch the pillow. Thrash about. Punch the pillow again. Settle into the pillow and fall to sleep immediately. Snore.

I dressed with the clothes I’d stashed under the bed and wrapped my guitar case in a blanket. All that day, I’d walked the house, noting where the floor creaked and groaned. I lifted the trapdoor created years ago to slough bodies to the basement. Charles’ padded bumper provided the guitar with a soundless landing. I waited, listened for stirring from Mom’s room. I used a rolled towel as a doorstop to keep the trapdoor from slamming shut. I felt my way down the sloping chute with my feet. With my toes pressed against the bumper, I supported the door with one hand while I removed the towel with the other. My arm quivered under the weight of the door. I left the towel and the blanket on the chute where I could find them on my return.

Once outside, I strapped my guitar to my back and jogged the whole way to New Morning farm. I stopped only once to catch my breath. My shadow walked before me, but I didn’t turn my face to welcome the moon’s light. I pressed on to the farm.



Bonus Material
{Arrivals & Departures}

Chapter One

It’s best not to think about what can eat me, not out here in the open ocean.

Instead, I think of things that are blue and how to make a bowl of rice and beans that doesn’t taste like every other bowl of rice and beans I’ve ever eaten. I also recite poems, usually “Paul Revere’s Ride,” because it’s long, and I must concentrate to remember the last two stanzas—and because it’s the only poem I know by heart. I replay the speech I wish I’d delivered to my husband when he announced he no longer loved me. I sing “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” switching to a new beverage each time I subtract a bottle.

Have I sung about guava juice?

While I don’t overly think the danger of sharks, I don’t leave safety entirely to chance. I try very hard not to look like a seal, one of their favorite foods. That means no flippers. I wear a wetsuit with akimbo stripes of white tape to disturb the outline of my decidedly seal-shaped body. This wasn’t my idea. I stole it from a nice Australian man on a TED Talk.

I don’t wear sparkly jewelry, either. Glitter increases my chances of looking like a silvery fish, and, honestly, silvery fish are the Doritos of the sea. I must especially avoid splashing, which only attracts the wrong kind of attention. I thought about buying a gun, but the probability of shooting myself outpaces running into a shark, even in his natural habitat.

The sun is deceptively intense out here, so it’s important to be prepared for that, too. I keep a tube of zinc oxide clipped to my life vest along with a bottle of water. Lip balm is imperative, something with a strong SPF. And I always wear a diver’s watch. I like knowing how much time I have left in the water. I wish Dad had told me to keep my mouth shut while floating. I nearly pickled my tongue the first few times in.

This is, happily, a planned float, not long at all. I’m bobbing over gently rolling swells off the coast of Baja California at Puertecito. The water is warm enough, so there’s no fear of hypothermia, and it’s reassuring to be surrounded on three sides by land. I’ll only be here for a total of 5.5476 minutes. I have 3.329 minutes left.

I saw my father depart and arrive many times. He never complained upon arrival about losing his shoes, but I have lost a dozen good pairs to the bottom of the sea, some in the Northern Hemisphere, but I suspect most to be in the Southern Hemisphere, although I can never be absolutely certain. I suppose I should learn to read the position of the sun, if I want to make such distinctions.

I believed the traveler gene had skipped my generation or stopped altogether, which I would have preferred. My father started traveling soon after my twin brother and I were born. Dad was twenty-four. My grandfather, however, didn’t travel until his thirties, somewhat older than my father but much younger than me.

No record remains of who traveled in the generation of my great-grandparents. Plenty of faded mementos from high school graduations and seasonal dances fill my cedar chest and my daydreams with starched white dresses and polite boys who signed dance cards. There were five children eligible to be travelers in that generation, three girls and two boys. None of them from their photographs looked more travel-worn than the next.  

Great-great-grandmother Annabelle did leave a record. She wrote about her first trip in her diary. She was a teenager, a proper young lady and an accomplished student. She departed from the Crystal Falls Municipal Library, where she had been tracing a map from an encyclopedia for a school report. She arrived in a Peruvian churchyard just as mourners stepped from the church, blinking against the intense afternoon light. The landing broke her leg. She did not go to teacher college, as she had planned. In fact, she never traveled again, anywhere, by any method. Before Annabelle, I just don’t know. The family lore is that someone from each generation is a traveler.

And now me.

I do seem on the ancient side for starting something like this. I’m a grandmother, for goodness’ sake. I explode with heat at the slightest hint of emotion, and my eyebrows are coming in as stout as fire hoses. I’m much better off staying home, in my cabin, with my boxes and the mice family living in the kitchen wall.

But fighting genetics is futile, so I try to be prepared. Since I never know when I might depart, I only wear shoes from the sale rack at Target. My feet kill me, but I don’t cry over lost shoes anymore. If I open the map shop, The Traveling Man, I wear latex gloves to avoid an unplanned departure and a life vest for the inevitability of an unplanned departure. I can’t risk ending up in the middle of the Indian Ocean with nothing but my heightened survival instincts to keep me afloat.

I’m a complete failure at treading water.

The only thing more painful than a departure is an arrival, as I always land on the deck of the Zella Francine, Dad’s fishing boat. The deck is made of red cedar—boards shaped, sanded, and varnished by me and Dad. Since the boat is parked in my ex-husband’s garage, I can’t pad the planks for my arrivals. The wetsuit and the life vest cushion the parts of me that are already padded, but do little to protect my few boney spots. Bruises are the price I’m willing to pay for a brief visit to Doug’s garage. Yes, I travel to my ex-husband’s garage via the Sea of Cortez on purpose.

That is as pathetic as it sounds.

What I wish is that I could surrender to the movement of the water as I float, to let the pull and push of the waves massage the tiredness that clogs my muscles clean away. I’m not made that way, so I start “Paul Revere’s Ride” again.

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…

My peripheral vision fogs and I feel as if my bones are being pulled from my body.