Saturday, June 29, 2019

Book Cover: Sparks

Not long ago a friend posed the question on Facebook, do you have a bucket list and what's on it. And I realized I have a book cover bucket list. By the time I die, I'd like to have had the chance to make covers for all the different kinds of books there are in the world. Well, that may be a little unrealistic. How about: as close to that as possible.

So I was very excited when, not long after, I was contacted to do a cover for a genre of book I'd never done before: a romance.

Sparks by Maren Anderson was first nutshelled to me as "a rural romance with a healthy splash of magic." Here's how we describe it on the back cover of the book:

Rosie wants to tear down the ancient cowshed on her ranch to make room for more horses, but it is unlucky to knock down a barn. Rosie thinks this is superstitious hogwash. That’s why she and her very cute new boarder, Patrick, get drunk one night and knock the shed down with the tractor, unleashing something very dark and very angry.

It was that something dark and angry that Maren was interested in capturing for the cover of the book. She shared this passage with me:

One picture stopped her. It was old and crude, but unmistakable. There was a barn. There was a man whipping a cow. There was a monster crawling out from under the barn, claws extended, heading for the man from behind.

A shiver danced down Rosie's back.

The caption beneath the picture stopped swimming and resolved itself into a word she recognized.


Maren asked if I could recreate, in imagery, the woodcut she'd created in words. I loved that challenge. I immersed myself in historical images of woodcuts and came up with this. I presented it as both a simple image that we could add color to (not to mention title, author, that kind of thing) and, mostly for fun, as a pure woodcut, on old paper, the ink worn with age.

Maren wrote back:

I LOVE THIS. You gave me exactly what I asked for. I want a big print to hang in my office.

But it's not right for the cover. :(

Sometimes you need to see what you want, to know... you don't want it.

Seeing her idea come to life made her realize she needed something different. We'd been playing with the "healthy splash of magic" part and not the "rural romance" part of the novel. She wrote:

It needs horses and pastels and romance on the cover. (But not six-packs and headless female torsos. You know what I'm talking about. I hate that.)

Which, as an aside, brought me back to my bucket list. I'd illustrated monsters before. But not romance and, come to think of it, not horses.

One other element Maren put out to me was filigree. She said what about a close-up image of a horse head but with the woodcut "sprite" worked into a filigree around it. My initial thought was, no, that won't work, because the woodcut sprite is chunky, crude, and filigree wants to be delicate. But then the challenge of making it work took over.

I played with various horses and horse heads, different types of filigree, I tried to work in various couples, to put romance front and center, but in the end, the direction Maren and her publisher, Ben of Not a Pipe Publishing, chose contained an extreme closeup of a horse face with the romance showing, not in, say, an illustration of two people embracing or holding hands, but a tiny heart worked into the shine of the eye.

They wanted to try various color schemes and to keep the text all one color, so I gave them a bunch of variations...

In the end, this is what they chose.

You can preorder the book here. Info about publisher Not a Pipe Publishing is here.

Here's an excerpt:

Patrick was due “first thing in the morning,” in his words. When he pulled up in a white pickup, Rosie — already done with morning chores — was sitting on her porch with Bobby, her hands wrapped around a mug of coffee, enjoying the warm steam as much as the hot drink. He hopped out, smiling, and strode over to her, hand extended. “Hiya! I’m Patrick!”

Rosie stood and shook his hand. “Hi, yourself,” she said. Then she handed him the other mug of coffee steaming beside her and sat down again.

He stood a moment with the mug and then sat one step below her. He rubbed Bobby, and the dog nearly died in ecstasy. Patrick took a sip. “Nice place you’ve got here.”

Rosie smiled into her drink. “Thanks.”

Patrick didn’t seem to know what to do next, so he fondled her dog. “What’s your name, buddy?”

“That’s Bobby,” Rosie said.

“Bobby’s a handsome boy.” Patrick smiled at Bobby and scrubbed him at the base of his tail.

Bobby groaned, and his tongue lolled out and hung to his knees.

“You found his favorite spot,” Rosie said. “It looks like you’ve got the magic touch.”

“Maybe I do,” he said. “I like animals.”

She stood and stretched a little. “I assume you want a tour?”

“Okay. Yes.”

Rosie strode off the porch toward the horse barn, mug in hand. Patrick, Bobby close at his heels, followed, but when they passed the falling-down shed, he stopped and blinked.

“You don’t keep animals in there, do you?” he asked.

“Not on your life,” Rosie said. She stood next to him as they regarded the shed together. She noticed that they were nearly the same height, she five four, he maybe five six. His haircut made her suspicious of a military background, but it wasn’t so short that she couldn’t see that he had been blond as a child. She decided there was something both old and decidedly young about him.

He looked at her, and his gray eyes smiled. “What kind of ghosties live in there?” he asked.

Rosie smiled back. “I don’t know. I’ve been trying to bring myself to tear it down for a while. I need the space for a round pen. Something always comes up, though.” She let her gaze return to the shed. Today it looked as though it were trying to push the oak tree out of its way. She shrugged and turned.

Patrick, with Bobby trotting at his heels, followed her to the twenty-stall barn slash indoor arena that had been Rosie and Ben’s pride and joy. It had taken them years to scrape enough together to buy the materials for the barn, and then it had taken months and every favor from every friend they ever had to put it up. The ordeal never seemed like work, though, Rosie told herself.


“Come into my office,” Rosie said. He followed her into the tack room. On the back wall, nearly hidden among a wall of English and Western saddles, Rosie pushed open a door and went into her office. It was a weird setup, but she kind of liked the hidden nature of the room. It felt like a little safe, hidey-hole.

She had turned on the electric space heater before she had started chores, so it was toasty warm inside. She re-filled her mug of coffee from the coffee maker and topped off Patrick’s, too. Patrick sat in the chair in front of her desk, and Rosie noticed that Bobby ignored both the ratty sofa and his soft dog bed in front of the heater, instead flopping at Patrick's feet. Patrick smiled and rubbed the dog's back with his toe.

Rosie sat behind her desk and forced herself to smile warmly at the handsome novice on the other side of her desk.

“Now, what exactly do you think I can do for you?”

“Well, I bought this horse,” he began.

“Yes, tell me about that.”

Patrick shifted a little in his seat. “I was thinking about buying a horse for a while, you know, since I’ve been back, in fact, so I went to an auction.”

Rosie cursed in her head. An auction horse? “And?”

“And there was this guy in the parking lot.”

“Oh.” Rosie set her mug down.

“I know I shouldn’t have bought her on the spot, but she is so beautiful, and we have a real connection.”

“Did you at least ride her first?” Rosie asked, fingers crossed.

“No. I’m too new. I wouldn’t know from straight up. But I watched him ride her. She seemed sound.”

“And where is she now?”

“My Aunt Nan lives outside of town on an acre.”

“And the only shelter is a tree?”

“Yeah. It’s been kind of cold this week, too.”

Rosie picked up her long braid and began plaiting the loose hairs on the other side of the rubber band. Finally, she sighed. “Okay. You have a horse. Now what can I do for you?”

“I like your place,” Patrick said. “I like how clean it is. I like how you treat your horse. I’d like to bring Sunny here.”


“And I’d like full board, lessons for me, and training for her.”

Rosie chewed on her lip.

“What’s the problem?” Patrick said. The brightness was gone. “I can pay you for your services.”

“That’s not it,” Rosie said. “I am happy to take your money. I am happy to give you lessons and train your horse, but I need one condition from you.”


“You have to promise me that you’ll sell the horse if I tell you that she’s going to kill you.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“The only way that I’ll take you on is if you will trust me enough to sell the horse if I tell you that she’s too wild and is going to kill you. If you don’t promise, or don’t sell the horse, I’ll evict the both of you.”

They regarded each other a moment before Patrick nodded and said, “Yes, Ma’am,” without a hint of sarcasm.

That was the first time Rosie thought that they might be able to work together.

Bobby interrupted the moment by thrusting his head under Patrick’s hand. He laughed and rubbed the happy dog’s ears. Rosie sat back with her mug and smiled.

“You’re one of the chosen,” she said. “Bobby is wary of new people.”

“Oh, I have a way with animals,” Patrick said. “Always have.”

Rosie watched him rub Bobby into a drooling coma, and she didn’t doubt it. It reminded her of other men and different dogs. She swallowed the lump in her throat and said the first thing that flew into her head.

“Where did you come back from?”

“Huh? Oh, Iraq. The first one and the second.” He was scratching Bobby’s chest and the dog was orgasmic, but Patrick was perceptively more tense. “Retired Army. As a civilian I’m working as an analyst at HP in Corvallis.” He sighed, then half-smiled which made his eyes crinkle. “I’m looking to forget the Middle East, you know?”

As Patrick signed the boarding agreement, Rosie wondered where the idiot who had bought a horse in a parking lot had gone. Who was this man? Patrick was suddenly interesting.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

a moment in the day: dark

It's late, and the dark of the tiny house where I'm having my writing retreat is broken by the glows of tea candles placed in the centers of plates, and one Coleman lantern sitting on the kitchen counter.

The power's been off since sevenish all over the neighborhood because of one big whoop-up of a storm that happened to hit just as Stephen was arriving to take me out on a date night for dinner. Now, after salade and champignons and wine and crème brûlée and pot au chocolat, after the promise from PGE that the power will be back on by 9:30, by 11:15, by 3:00, and with Stephen heading home to Nicholas, I lie back on the little padded bench where I've been doing my work. Not sure what to do now. I'm a little too awake to go to sleep.

I quick get up and blow out the tea candles, leaving the lantern on to light the room. Back at the little bench, I lie back and open the book I took from the tiny house's library. The Mercy of the Tide by Keith Rosson.

What if they don't get the power back on? What if lightning hit something important and they can't get it up and running again and I have to leave my lovely retreat early, I mean, I didn't even get to make my pizza.

I get back to reading. His language is dense and rich. It's interesting to read someone else's book when you've been immersed in your own language for a long, concentrated time. I read aloud:

"But for now it was winter and the beach was mostly empty. The dogs, like the tourists, were mostly gone, though unlike the tourists, they still made the occasional appearance on the off-season, these half-starved revenants seen trotting down along the surf at night or in the mist of a brushed-steel dawn, snouts pressed to the ground in search of some elusive scent, the ghost of old gustatory riches."

As I read aloud in the lanternlit shadows, where I've been poring and poring over my own writing, my brain thinks, but could I ever write something as real and beautiful as that?

"Toad stood nearby absently drawing gigantic penises—"

And, yes, that's when the power comes on.

I see it in the snap of a red light under the desk where the wifi lives. I don't want to believe it without proof. Maybe that thing runs on battery or something and I just didn't notice it until now. So I put down the book, step forward into the tiny bathroom—the first thing I think to do—and press a button. Whoosh! The electric toilet is working! Huzzah, we're back in business.

Friday, June 21, 2019

a moment in the day: chase

It’s ten o’clock. I’m letting Nicholas out one last time. I stand just beyond the open doorway as he trots out into the backyard and sniffs at the grass under the white glow of paper lanterns hanging from the studio roof.

Now, something catches his eye. Nicholas takes off, running. His furious high-pitched barking chases something across the shadowy yard. It’s a small, white spot, bright in the reflected glow of the security lamp, and it flies just above Nicholas’ head.

My automatic “Hey-hey-hey!” (which I’m sure the neighbors appreciate as much as the barking) cuts off as the bright little spot Nicholas is chasing bobs up, sweeps in an arc overhead, and comes tracing back toward me, before it—blink—disappears altogether.

My immediate thought: Nicholas was chasing a fairy.

Across the lawn, Nicholas has done what he’s going to do and he’s running to me, now, and I know that probably what really happened is that he saw a squirrel on the fence, took off after it, and the glowing spot of magic was just a bug flying in the air in the middle of the yard in a way that, at my angle, at my distance, made it look like Nicholas was chasing it.

I'm still going with fairy.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Guest post: Nancy Townsley

For my birthday this year, my writer friend Nancy Townsley composed me a moment piece like the ones I write for my blog. I was so honored, I asked if I could share it here. 

With big thanks to a great writer and lovely woman.


Up and over the bridge, green-gray spires reaching for the sky, that funny color I remember from the waste cans in elementary school.

Right on Syracuse, right on Burlington, left on Willamette, right on Greeley. Then I’m home free until I get to the freeway.

I’m driving through St. Johns on my way to writing group, on a day that will be hot, 95 degrees. Sweet quaint St. Johns, situated on a bluff above Portland’s industrial district. An academic community. Home to the University of Portland.

And I spy with my little eye so many interesting things.

A tall water tower-reservoir, about the same dull, light green-gray shade as the bridge.

An elderly man (elderly as in 80 or better) out watering his lawn with an old-fashioned hose. He does not look happy about this.

Right next door, underground sprinklers erupting with sprays of water like much smaller versions of the fountains on the strip in Las Vegas.

Home after eclectic home boasting framed stained glass in windows and the arches of breezeways. The best one is a bird of paradise bursting with oranges and reds and yellows.

A road worker waving a stop sign in full sun-protection regalia—bandana, hard hat, mirrored shades—at 9:30 in the morning.

Near the place where you could actually fall into the river there is a sign saying “Danger, keep back from edge.” Check. OK. Got it.

The most beautiful thing, too: A stately old Victorian manse, fallen into disrepair, is being renovated by someone, I imagine, who has a love for old things. Also, a whole lot of money. The home is all white wooden curlicues and sash windows and peeling lavender paint. It is up on blocks, ready for its facelift.

There is a large pink paper heart in the biggest window at the front.

And I think, we all need a little help like that, a friend or even a benefactor who will raise us up when we fall, when we creak, when we start to show cracks.

Second chances, and thirds.



If you'd like to read more of Nancy's work, check out her page on Role Reboot here

Sunday, June 16, 2019

a moment in the day: short story

I'm up before six, sitting at the computer. In a few minutes I'll have to run down to wake Stephen up and then in about forty-five minutes, we'll leave to pick my parents up at the hotel and take them to the airport after a glorious three-day birthday visit of eating and talking and eating and talking.

I'm reading a random short story in an online literary journal. This strikes me as strange, suddenly. That my mind is on something other than their impending departure. That I'm not sitting here pining in advance of the leaving.

I've been known to pine in advance to crazy degrees. Like for the weeks leading up to the visit. Every night, dreaming that I'm in California visiting them, or they're in Portland visiting me, and it's the last night, and tomorrow they'll be gone.

Sometimes I have the goodbye dream when no trip is even on the horizon. Sometimes night after night for a ridiculous number of nights. I get why I was so obsessed in my early adulthood, when I really didn't love my life on the road, and coming home to visit family was the big bright spot in my year, but it's weird to finally have a life I really like and still pine so hard for that other home.

This short story is organized into bite-sized pieces jumping forward and backward through time. The family is like mine: a mom, a dad, two sisters and a brother. Except that they fight all the time.

Weirdly, I didn't even have the dream last night, on the last night. Is that what being fifty is like? Have I finally, finally grown up?

I realize it's after six, so I run down quick to go into the bedroom and turn off the sound machine and stop Stephen's soft snoring. Forty-five minutes, and we'll leave to take them to the airport. I go back upstairs and sit back down in front of the computer. I finish the short story. I don't know why the ending makes me cry.

Friday, June 7, 2019

a moment in the day: crow

Dusk is falling, early June dusk, which means it's late, maybe nine o'clock. I'm taking Nicholas out for a walk.

He's eager to get going down the sidewalk, pulling against the leash, but just over my head a crow swoops, landing on the low electrical wire a few feet away. The crow cackles and cackles like an angry witch. Caw, caw, caw! What is she so upset about?

I follow her gaze, and there on the next-door driveway is Kittan, the incredibly friendly neighbor cat who likes to try to get in my car in the mornings and sneak into our house at night.

The cat is yelling back at the crow, her little mouth opening, closing, opening, closing so it looks like the insistent bursts of caw caw caw are coming out of the cat.

Another crow story is that last weekend, Stephen was at his mom's house where the neighbor had these three baby crows who had lost their nest when a tree was cut down. Stephen's mom's neighbor was taking care of the crows. At one point in the visit, pictures were being taken of Stephen with a lovely, docile juvenile crow perched right on his shoulder. I was very jealous.

Another crow story is that my mom has this hummingbird nest in her backyard, and a few weeks ago, two tiny baby hummingbirds were in that nest. And a crow landed in a tree not far away. My mom saw it through the window. She said she saw that crow assess the situation, get into position, dive at the nest, and in seconds, the babies were gone.

Another crow story is that years ago when I lived in Wisconsin, I was out taking a walk, and across the street, jetting through the air was this... duh, crow. But it was making the most uncrow sound I'd ever heard. A high pitched keening. Like when you pinch the blowy part of a balloon and let the air out. I didn't think a crow could make that sound. Maybe it wasn't the crow.

And I looked down and the crow was being chased, on the ground, by a rabbit.

And I looked up, and in one of the crow's claws, it had a small, squirming gray animal.

Logic started to piece itself together. The rabbit was chasing a crow that was carrying off her baby.

The baby was screaming.

I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to do.

Animals need to hunt. Babies need to survive.

As the crow landed on a wire, the mother rabbit went running off. I didn't know how far away. I stood on one side of the street and the crow perched on the wire just on the other side, the baby bunny in one clawed foot.

The crow used the one foot to pin the bunny against the wire and lowered its beak down toward the bunny's neck.

I started walking across the street.

I couldn't think to yell or wave my arms. Just my legs were working.

I stepped toward the curb almost below the crow. The crow jerked its head down at me.

And dropped the bunny.

The little gray shape fell and landed in the grass, and the crow flew away.

They say you shouldn't move someone when they might be hurt, but on impulse, I bent and picked up the bunny, examining it. Silk in my hands, its little bunny ears. Its little bunny legs were already trying to hop out of my hands. It... he... she... wasn't hurt at all.

I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to do. My then-husband would balk if I tried to take a bunny home. My then-dog would probably try to attack it. If I took it, the mother rabbit would never see it again.

When I think about it now, I believe I did wrong on every possible account. Yes, I left the bunny there. I hoped that, if I cleared out, the mom would come back and take the bunny home. But I'd picked it up - and sometimes I think about how animals will reject their young if they're touched too early by humans. I don't know if the rabbit came back. I don't know if the crow came back. The next day, I went out and walked and looked and didn't see the bunny.

And here's the thing. Crows gotta eat too.

Now, standing on the sidewalk in Portland, I look back and forth between the crow on the wire and Kittan, the cat in the driveway. The crow cackles and cackles like an angry witch. Caw, caw, caw! What is she so upset about?

I wonder if there's a crow nest somewhere close by, and the crow is cackling her head off in order to keep the cat away.

Mothers and babies.

But I'll never know. Because my baby, the impatient Chihuahua, Nicholas, is pulling against his leash. He doesn't care about the crow and he apparently hasn't noticed the cat. He wants to go and sniff and pee. And the mom thing in me lets go of my curiosity and allows him to lead me down the street.