Prairie Hill – New Profile on BookGoodies.com

Hello everyone,

My novel, Prairie Hill, is featured on the BookGoodies.com website here: Prairie Hill Profile

Along with information about the novel, I answered a few questions about writing, including the perennial, “What advice would you give aspiring writers?” Below, find my answer, although I know that I could write (and talk) at much greater length about this topic!

Read for pleasure and read as a writer. I’ve learned so much from reading widely, discovering what I like, what I don’t like, figuring out what works, what doesn’t work. and why.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing in notebooks (and on the computer). I have a long-time diary/journal which serves many purposes, but especially as a way of learning how to write. The journal helps me capture the life around me, gives me the opportunity to think about and ponder people, play with dialogue, experiment with description, tell the story of a given day or event. I also have more topical notebooks – dreams, memories, and “people,” and I carry a pocket notebook wherever I go. That concentrated, but informal writing – not intended for publication – resembles sketches for a painter, practice for a musician, rehearsal for an actor. It all pays off by making you a much better writer. Each writer, though, must find his or her own path and best methods.

For my earlier thoughts on the writing process and more, see my “self-interview on BookGoodies.com here: BookGoodies Interview

Thank you for taking a look.

Thoughts on Writing – New “Self-interview” on BookGoodies.com

I recently filled out a “self-interview” on the BookGoodies.com website. Click on this link BookGoodies Interview to check out some of my thoughts on the writing process, writing advice, publishing, and about my novel, Prairie Hill

Here is a sample:

What inspires you to write?

I can’t really imagine not writing. When I was a little kid I adored listening to my father and grandmother tell amusing tales and I loved their reading bedtime stories to me. I began reading as soon as I could and then my teachers complained that I would get lost in books. I found diary/journal writing a wonderful way of capturing the world around me, slowing it down, allowing me to ponder and try to understand. I began to write fiction in my teens, at first autobiographically, but after a time using my imagination more and more. Editing literary magazines taught me so much about writing. My son, who constantly craved “pretend stories” on our walks together, inspired me. Now, my journal is ever more narrative and I dream stories. I feel happiest when writing. There is nothing I like better to do.

Prairie Hill – Free on Amazon 10/25-10/26 (read excerpt here)

My novel, Prairie Hill, is available for free on Amazon.com Thursday and Friday, October 25 and October 26.

Prairie Hill

Click on the cover photo or the link above to find reviews, further information, and to purchase the book. Amazon Prime members may also borrow the book for free even after the two-day promotion. Prairie Hill is also available at the UK and other Amazon sites.

The excellent website, Free Kindle Books and Tips featured Prairie Hill today: Free Kindle Books and Tips

Prairie Hill description:

In 1980, a troubled young stranger arrives in Prairie Hill, a small Wisconsin city. Jimmy Lathrop would like nothing better than to go about his business washing dishes at the popular local eatery, the Pullet Surprize. A fresh start. No questions asked. Then he begins moonlighting as the feathered mascot of the local minor league baseball team and meets someone who will change his life.

Jenny Diggles bides her time serving the locals at the Pullet Surprize, struggling to come to terms with her lonely, eccentric mother, Lila. Should she chuck it all and marry Lance Kilgore, the ambitious general manager of the Cobb Kernels baseball team? Jenny’s passion for prairies and heirloom plants as well as her deepening friendship with Jimmy Lathrop lead to self-discovery.

With its atmospheric backdrop of threatened tall grass prairie and a soon to be abandoned historic baseball stadium and through its cast of colorful, quirky characters, Prairie Hill explores themes of redemption and love.

Below is an excerpt from Prairie Hill, featuring Jimmy Lathrop and Jenny Diggles meeting with their friend the old farm woman, Hulda Bjorklund, at her home.

Jenny

Hulda ushered me and Jimmy into her ramshackle farmhouse and plopped us down on a wood bench behind the kitchen table. “I baked us two kinds of bread,” she said, “wheat and white. Try the honey on the wheat and the jam on the white.”

She plunked down a couple of sticky looking jars. The honey was thick and dark gold, almost brown, and spread on with bits of honeycomb still floating in it, reminding me of ferns in amber. I looked over at Jimmy, who’d tasted some and had a strange look on his face, like he’d seen a ghost. I turned back to Hulda. “I never had honey like this before,” I said.

“From last year,” she said, pushing the jar toward me. “Pile it on. There’s more jars. Still got me a couple beehives and them bees make me honey for the table and wax for candles. Daddy used to keep bees and he taught me how. That honey’s got a lot of clover in it of course, but the bees add in some from the Catalpa trees out back, which gives it that flavor and color. The jam’s from last year’s strawberry patch.” She poured us some lemonade.

“From last year’s lemons,” I said, catching Jimmy’s eye.

Hulda pushed Jimmy’s shoulder and pointed a finger at me. “That girl’s the dickens only most people don’t have a clue.” I was trying to figure out what was so different about Hulda today. More relaxed and not so tired from pushing a mop and making beds, I guess. But then I realized I’d never seen her out of her light blue polyester work suit. She wore a shiny blouse patterned with sunflowers, and knit pants, and she padded around in fluffy red slippers. “You all alone in this house?” I asked and at that moment heard a loud bark, which made us all laugh.

“That’s Ollie wanting to be let in. He’d like to join us I expect.” She stood up. “Yeah, it’s a big rambling old place. Grandpa added on to it when his family grew. He was a tough old buzzard and every one of his kids skedaddled except Daddy, who took over the farm. He and Ma only had me and my brother Emil and that boy left home when he was in his twenties. Emil never cottoned to farming the way I did and Daddy always said I shoulda been born a boy. I worked the farm with Daddy and what help we could afford until he got too old and we just sold off parcels after the highway come through. Ma died about ten years ago and I’ve lived here alone except for Ollie who’s eleven but still thinks he’s a pup.”

Hulda’s kitchen looked homey, if a little shabby, too. She had an old white enamel refrigerator and an even older gas burning stove and she’d covered the table with a green checkered oil cloth. There was a pump painted fire engine red next to her deep kitchen sink. Hulda caught me looking at it. “Still works,” she said, “but it’s just a keepsake. We got running water from our well. The city run their lines through here when they built the industrial park, but I never hooked up.” She pulled open the back door and let in Ollie, who trotted up to us, toenails clicking on the worn linoleum, tail wagging, nose checking us out and then seeking crumbs on our plates. I noticed Jimmy was being real nice to the dog, petting him just right, scratching under his chin, like he must have known and loved a dog once. “He’s a big old mutt,” Hulda said. “One of them puppies from an unfortunate love affair between pure bred collie and something only God could love.”

I suppose like me Jimmy wondered what we were doing there. Hulda didn’t seem to have any purpose beyond being social. She took us through the house which seemed snug enough – though you could tell she only occupied a few rooms out of many. “There’s enough space, Ollie could be king of his own castle, but he likes hunkering down at the foot of the bed in my room.” Ollie padded after us, occasionally sidetracked by an interesting corner, returning with a cobweb on his nose which made him sneeze.

“When was the house built?” Jimmy asked.

“Oh, the middle part goes back nearly 150 years. My great grandfather Olav settled here and built it out of logs – you’d still see ‘em if you took off the siding. It’s one of the oldest houses still standing ‘round here. The barn’s new, though, only a century or so!”

Jimmy paused in front of a row of framed photographs and I came over for a look. The first showed a group of people in Sunday finery, standing in front of the house, a horse and buggy to the side. There was another of the barn with a wind engine next to it and a wagon with a heaped up load of hay spilling over and a couple of guys with pitchforks standing on top looking proud, and then there were two portraits, a stern-looking patriarch and a grim-faced woman in black. “Great grandpa and grandma in old age,” Hulda said, and then pointed at a sepia-toned wedding photo probably taken at the turn of the century. “Them’s my parents,” she said, “and that there is me.” She nodded at a tinted black and white photo, a slim teenager surrounded by a patch of nodding sunflowers. In it, young Hulda held a bouquet of wildflowers.

“Lupine, spiderwort, goat’s beard,” I said, loving the names.

“You could find them all round about, missy,” Hulda said.

“It’s a beautiful photograph,” said Jimmy. “The guy behind the camera knew what he was doing.”

“My brother Emil,” Hulda said. “He was always taking pictures and messing around with them chemicals that bring ‘em out.”

“You were pretty, too,” Jimmy said, musing.

Hulda shook a fist at him. “Just ‘cause I never married don’t mean I weren’t as pretty as a daisy!”

“No, I never meant that. It’s just…”

“I’m an old bat now and it’s hard to picture.” Hulda chuckled. “Never you mind. Come on you two. I want to show you the barn.”

We traipsed outside after Hulda changed into more serviceable shoes. “You never know what might leap up at you,” she said. “They used to cast nails and horse shoes in there before I was born.” We followed her across the side yard to a grassy slope leading up to the barn doors, which hung ajar. Once inside it took some time for our eyes to adjust to the dim haze. Dust motes whirled in the patchy light filtering through clouded windows and thin cracks between the boards.

“Go ahead, take a gander around,” Hulda said.

Jimmy climbed a wooden ladder up to the open loft heaped with stacks of dingy hay bales. He startled some birds which winged it out of the loft doorway. “Barn swallows,” he said. “They’re nesting.”

I heard gentle cooing coming from the far end of the barn. “Pigeons, too,” I replied. Jimmy answered with a darned good imitation and I laughed when a pigeon flapped rather dolefully over to the loft.

We explored some more, peering into abandoned stalls for cows and horses. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the scents of animals and their sounds – munching hay, snorting, neighing and mooing, feet stamping on floorboards. We glanced at countless tools I didn’t know the use for, broken machinery, and rusty buckets and lanterns hanging on walls or propped in corners. The place held a dry, musty and dusty smell that I kind of liked. I led us into a separate room and gasped when I saw stacks of seed catalogs. The newest ones on top dated back before I was born. I’d have to ask Hulda if she’d lend me some. “It’s silly, but sometimes I dream that I find an old shed or barn with a drawer full of seed packets from fifty years ago – and the seeds still germinate,” I said to Jimmy.

There was something kind in his dark eyes, like maybe he knew what the heck I was talking about. “That’s where they’d be,” he said, pointing at long rows of hand-made bins, sun-faded seed packets nailed up to show what would go where. Every bin was empty.

Birthday Special: Prairie Hill free on Amazon.com July 27-28

To celebrate my birthday, Prairie Hill, is available for free on Amazon.com and its international affiliates on Thursday and Friday, July 27 and July 28!

Prairie Hill

Click on the cover photo or the link above to find reviews, further information, and to purchase the book. Amazon Prime members may also borrow the book for free even after the two-day promotion.

Prairie Hill description:

In 1980, a troubled young stranger arrives in Prairie Hill, a small Wisconsin city. Jimmy Lathrop would like nothing better than to go about his business washing dishes at the popular local eatery, the Pullet Surprize. A fresh start. No questions asked. Then he begins moonlighting as the feathered mascot of the local minor league baseball team and meets someone who will change his life.

Jenny Diggles bides her time serving the locals at the Pullet Surprize, struggling to come to terms with her lonely, eccentric mother, Lila. Should she chuck it all and marry Lance Kilgore, the ambitious general manager of the Cobb Kernels baseball team? Jenny’s passion for prairies and heirloom plants as well as her deepening friendship with Jimmy Lathrop lead to self-discovery.

With its atmospheric backdrop of threatened tall grass prairie and a soon to be abandoned historic baseball stadium and through its cast of colorful, quirky characters, Prairie Hill explores themes of redemption and love.

Prairie Hill – a prequel short story

My novel, Prairie Hill, has its origins in a short story first published in Fan, a baseball literary magazine, in 1992. Although “Jimmy Lathrop” is not an autobiographical tale, the setting and atmosphere come from my own experiences playing high school baseball in the late 1970’s. No doubt the strangest game I ever played took place against a reform school run by monks. We wore old-fashioned flannel uniforms, but the reform school team donned tattered uniforms dating from the 1950’s. Their baseball diamond featured an outfield that no one had mowed yet and a rocky infield with ruts and pits, a non-existent pitcher’s mound and a rusty chain-link backstop.

After publishing “Jimmy Lathrop,” I kept thinking about the central character and I began to take notes about his life, sketching out a character study, meeting his family members, exploring his world. A few years later I passed through a quiet, dusty small town in Wisconsin. Looking out the window, I spotted a forlorn-looking black and white Holstein cow, waving to passersby, inviting them to stop at a local inn for the “best burgers in town.” The image stayed with me and, in time, came together with the mysterious Jimmy Lathrop, only he wore a chicken costume instead…

My brother Jeremy graciously rummaged through my mother’s meticulously kept photograph albums and scanned a few photos of me in my ball playing days, used here to illustrate “Jimmy Lathrop.” As an avid collector since the age of six, I took the opportunity to try out some of my favorite baseball card poses!

Jimmy Lathrop

Pulvey parked on a dirt lot next to a couple of baseball fields. Behind a thin line of trees and up on a hill, I saw a huge, gothic stone building with slate-shingled turrets.

“Come on guys! Get a move on!” yelled Pulvey. “Let’s warm up. The other team ain’t here yet.”

We shook out our travel-weary legs and trotted past the rusted chain link backstop and onto the lifeless ball field. I shagged some fly balls out in right, but grounders were hopeless. The grass grew above my ankles.

“This place sucks!” shouted Snitzer in center, when a grounder stopped short ten feet in front of him.

“Shut up, Bump,” came Pulvey’s voice from home plate. His words, and the next ball he swatted, died with the wind that kicked up dust and candy bar wrappers.

The sun had snuck behind clouds when the St. Boniface team filed down the hill to the filed, followed by a monk in a brown robe. We Emory Friends Schoolers crowded onto a bench, and watched them play pepper. Their ratty flannel uniforms were too big or too small, depending on the player. They seemed unfriendly…and strangely silent.

Pulvey walked over to the monk and said, “I’m Coach Pulvermacher,” and held out his hand. The monk ignored it. “We will play seven innings,” was all he said. They exchanged lineup cards.

Bump nudged me as their pitcher took the mound and fired some in. “Look at this dude. He probably shaved when he was ten.”

The St. Boniface pitcher was well over six feet and dark-faced, pockmarked. He threw one hard that got past the catcher and lodged in the backstop. “Be glad that’s not your baby face,” said Butterfield, our second baseman.

The umpire, whose blue shirt strained over his immense belly, shouted “Play ball!” I was the first batter up and stepped into the box. I felt the sweaty presence of the catcher next to me, and behind the cage, the monk. I nearly fell on my butt when he growled, “Hum it in there, Jimmy!” The first pitch was a called strike. The monk kept up a steady patter, “He’s no hitter; Swing! batter batter Swing! You got a strikeout Jimmy, hum it.” I swung hard at the next pitch, which hit the dirt in front of the catcher, and knocked him back. I dug in.

Pulvey was dancing around in front of our bench. Our players struggled to see past him. “Good eye, Kimball, good eye. This guy’s wild. Take your time.” I took the next pitch for a ball. Jimmy shrugged his shoulders up and down in a way that looked familiar to me. He kicked high and the next one came in fast and low. I swung, missed, heard the monk cheer, but not a word from the players perched on the St. Boniface bench. I gazed at the mound and saw a look of intensity on Jimmy’s face that was damn familiar.

Pulvey ignored me as I plopped down. He was already shouting at Bump. “Get your ass in there, Snitzer. He ain’t gonna knock you down!”

I asked this little eighth grade kid, Tony Lopello, our “manager,” to pass me the scorebook a second. I looked down their lineup. Batting fourth and pitching, Jimmy Lathrop. Jesus, the last time I saw him he was my height and sunny-faced. Sixth grade. Five years ago. “Hey Coach.” I jogged up to him.

“What?” He didn’t look at me. “Jesus Christ, Bump. Keep your eye on the g.d. ball! What do you want, Kimball?

“What are these kids in here for?” I asked.

He glanced at me quick, raising up one of his railroad track eyebrows. “Shit, I don’t know. All kinds of stuff. They mess up at school. They steal cars. They beat people up. You know. Delinquents.”

“Thanks Pulvey.” I sat down again. The Jimmy Lathrop I knew was a gentle farm kid. Apple orchards – I remembered climbing up the mountain of sweet-smelling apple crates to a tunnel that led to his hideout. We’d talk about girls and whether the Phillies would finally reach the World Series again. Baseball. He was always good at that.

We went down in our half of the first. I grabbed my glove and crossed the hard-packed infield. I passed by Lathrop. “Hey Jimmy,” I said. “Pete Kimball.” His head jerked a little, but he kept right on for their bench.

Our team made no progress against them. We misplayed grounders hopping off infield pebbles, threw to the wrong cutoff men, under threw, over threw. Once a heavy kid pounded a ball into the outfield. I was sure he was too much of a snail to get very far, so I ran it down. Snitzer had the same idea. “Outa my way you fucker!” he yelled. His blue cap flew off and his curly hair bounced around like it was trying to hold on. We nearly crashed, then watched the ball drop. We stomped around the tall grass, looking for it. The umpire was all ready to call it a ground rule double, when Snitzer (the bozo) came up with the ball and a fistful of grass. “Here it is! I found it!” The fat kid made it home, no problem.

Back at the bench again, Snitzer tapped “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his teeth – teeth tapping is one of his few talents. “Bump, next time you run for a ball, leave your ego at home,” said Pulvey.

Butterfield picked up his bat. “I wish he’d leave his teeth at home.”

Bump kicked at a dried out patch of grass. “Hey, this team is really gruesome. The pitcher’s psycho.”

“What you need Snitzer, is a muzzle,” said Pulvey walking away.

I faced Jimmy again in the top of the fourth inning. We hadn’t hit a lick off him, but he walked a couple of us. It was either a walk or a strikeout. “The bastard throws about ninety miles an hour,” said Pulvey. “I don’t know why the hell he isn’t on their varsity.”

I wanted to say something to Jimmy. Ask him how his sister Molly was. Ask him if his Dad still rigged up the tap so apple cider’d trickle out. Ask him if he still spent hours in his homemade darkroom. I still have the photo of me in a field holding up a gourd shaped like a girl’s breast…His first pitch slammed into my butt and I limped to first base. I watched those shoulders shrug up and down again.

When Jimmy hit the next two batters, Pulvey’s face turned red and he kept wiping his brow and mussing up his brillow-pad hair. He didn’t like his batters knocked down, but he wanted the run. Maybe the only one we’d get that day? The monk strolled out to the mound, and Jimmy stepped off the rubber, which was actually a wood plank with the paint rubbed off. The monk slung his arm around Jimmy, turned his head and spat, just like a big league manager. “Is he always like that?” I asked their third baseman. He ignored me and took a pinch of Skoal from the can in his back pocket.

I was positive the monk would trip over his robes as he jogged off the field, but he didn’t, and sure enough Jimmy settled down. Three strikeouts and he was out of the inning.

“Nice going,” I said to Jimmy as I passed him. He didn’t even look up.

The score was eight-zip by the top of the seventh inning. Jimmy’d walked a few, hit a few, struck twelve of us out. He had a no hitter going. Pulvey paced back and forth in front of us. “He’s tiring,” he said. “I can tell he’s getting tired. You gotta take advantage. Get in there, Kimball.”

My last time up probably. I stepped in again. Jimmy took his time out on the mound, inspecting his cap, the ball, hiking up his stirrups, scraping up some clay. We used to play something we called “Great Catch.” You’d throw the ball in a hard to get place, and the other guy would dive for it, leap or jump at a weird angle, then roll over, twisting and turning, at last coming up with the ball, smiling and filthy. We’d play past dusk. Did Jimmy remember? “Come on, Play Ball!” hollered the ump. Old fart probably wanted to get home.

Jimmy finally let one go and I tipped it back into the cage. “That’s the way, Kimball. Good eye. Good eye!” yelled Pulvey. Jimmy’s next pitch was so slow I missed it by a mile. I peered at him. No, he didn’t look tired. Just fidgety. He threw the next pitch as fast and wild as ever. “Ball!”

I heard the monk again. “Lay it in, Jimmy. He’s no batter!” Jimmy kicked up and threw another slow one. I’m positive I heard the monk mutter “Jesus Christ.” I hit a weak grounder that just got by the third baseman, who must have been in shock. I raced to first and beat out a single.

Pulvey clapped his hand on my back. “Way to go!” He stepped back away from the bag and their first baseman elbowed me. “Quaker prep shit,” he said. I looked over at Jimmy. He was smiling.

After I stole second base, Jimmy struck out Snitzer and our catcher. When Butterfield popped up, the game was over. Our team huddled together, fists in the center for a desultory post-game cheer. “Hurrah Res, Hurrah Res, Hurrah Hurrah E.F.S., Yay St. Boniface!” After an incomprehensible cheer from them, we stood in line to shake hands and mumble “good game” a couple dozen times. When I got to Jimmy he looked straight at me and shook my hand hard. He held on just a little longer than he had to, but when I started to speak, he moved on to the next guys. From the bus I watched him climb the hill, the last in line.

Prairie Hill – Free on Amazon 6/21-6/22

My novel, Prairie Hill, is available for free on Amazon.com Thursday and Friday, June 21 and June 22.

Prairie Hill

Click on the cover photo or the link above to find reviews, further information, and to purchase the book. Amazon Prime members may also borrow the book for free even after the two-day promotion.

The excellent website Free Kindle Books and Tips featured this week’s promotion of Prairie Hill:

Free Kindle Books and Tips

Prairie Hill description:

In 1980, a troubled young stranger arrives in Prairie Hill, a small Wisconsin city. Jimmy Lathrop would like nothing better than to go about his business washing dishes at the popular local eatery, the Pullet Surprize. A fresh start. No questions asked. Then he begins moonlighting as the feathered mascot of the local minor league baseball team and meets someone who will change his life.

Jenny Diggles bides her time serving the locals at the Pullet Surprize, struggling to come to terms with her lonely, eccentric mother, Lila. Should she chuck it all and marry Lance Kilgore, the ambitious general manager of the Cobb Kernels baseball team? Jenny’s passion for prairies and heirloom plants as well as her deepening friendship with Jimmy Lathrop lead to self-discovery.

With its atmospheric backdrop of threatened tall grass prairie and a soon to be abandoned historic baseball stadium and through its cast of colorful, quirky characters, Prairie Hill explores themes of redemption and love.

Prairie Hill – the Prairie Blooms – novel excerpt with photos

A Prairie In Bloom

A few months ago I featured several beautiful wildflower photographs taken by naturalist Rob Baller. Now, as flowers begin to carpet the Wisconsin prairie, I thought I would share some further gems, alongside an excerpt from my novel, Prairie Hill.

Prairie Hill unfolds from multiple viewpoints, but its two main characters, Jimmy Lathrop and Jenny Diggles, relate much of the tale. Nineteen-year-old Jenny, who works as a waitress at popular local inn, the Pullet Surprize, is passionate about wildflowers and heirloom gardening. Jimmy, a loner and a stranger in town, works at the Pullet as a dishwasher, while also serving as Cock-a-doodle-do, the feathered mascot of the local minor league baseball team. The following scenes take place at the remnant prairie they’ve discovered. The undisturbed virgin prairie faces destruction as part of the expansion of the local Prairie Hill Industrial Park.

For those interested in reading more, Prairie Hill is available as an eBook at Amazon.com. See Prairie Hill tab above for further information.

Purple Coneflowers and Wisconsin Farmland

Jenny

…Where to find Jimmy? I knew he liked to walk, but there could be a hundred places he’d go. I wandered the neighborhood nearby, since I remembered he’d explored it once before. No luck. I practically galloped down the railroad tracks, every minute thinking I’d spot his tall form loping along up ahead, or maybe hear the clanging sound of a far-tossed rock nicking the rails. I walked at least two miles and saw nothing livelier than a stalking cat on the hunt. So I mulled it over, tried to calm myself down, and backtracked all the way home, where I pulled out my bike and rolled away to try some country routes. If I hadn’t been in such a darned hurry I might have enjoyed the beautiful May afternoon, with baby corn plants pushing up in the fields, red-winged blackbirds calling and swallows darting after insects. But I kept my eye peeled for pedestrians and bikers and only chanced on a lone, puffing, sweaty middle-aged jogger. I crossed the creek and realized that I was nearing Hulda’s house. I felt my pulse quicken, knowing I’d see that awful sign in a couple of minutes. Would I feel the rumble and hear the roar of big diggers churning up unplowed earth? Would the hill and sloping field still be there?

Gentian

Jimmy

I wound my way through woods and fields and found myself on the hill overlooking Jenny’s prairie, where I sat down. I call it Jenny’s prairie because when I’m there I think of her excitement and joy at finding untouched land with its rare plants and flowers. It’s a peaceful spot if you keep your eyes on the view straight ahead. Beyond the prairie and the road below, you see old farm fields cut through by lines of trees and a meandering creek. But I couldn’t avoid the constant whine and drone from the interstate a mile to my left and the noise of trucks stopping, starting, loading and unloading at one of the warehouses nearby. Nothing’s changed since workmen installed the sign way down below. The song sparrows and indigo buntings and monarch butterflies have no idea that their field of tall grass and sunflowers and milkweed is about to disappear forever. I told myself not to feel anything. Land grabs happen everywhere and the second you get emotionally involved, you’re thinking about it all the time and then it gnaws at your heart. I’ve had enough of that pushing and pulling of emotions over the last few years, maybe enough to last a lifetime. But there I sat anyway. Apparently, my feet didn’t agree with my mind. I watched the occasional truck or car zip by and finally a jogger who ran slower than he could probably walk it. Even that was more civilization than I wanted today. Just soak in a little more sun and then in a minute I’d look for an even remoter spot.

Prairie Grasses, including Big Bluestem

Jenny

I forced myself to pass the thin stand of trees and looked left at the prairie, up the slope to the hill. There was a man up there sitting in the grass and I could tell it was Jimmy by his red checkered flannel shirt. It didn’t take him long to spot me. He stood up and turned as if he was about to head away, but he changed his mind and stood his ground. I dumped my bike and followed an animal trail up the hill. I couldn’t help noticing the long-stemmed blooming Shooting Stars and felt a quick flash of delight when I spied coneflowers and sunflowers and Black-eyed Susans coming up, though it would be awhile before they’d bloom. I wish I knew the names of the grasses – those at the prairie don’t look like anything you’d see on your standard lawn or baseball field, not even crabgrass.

Purple Coneflower

When I reached Jimmy he stood with his hands in his pockets, looking tight and uncomfortable and with an unreadable expression on his face. “You’re a hard man to find,” I said. “I’ve searched all over town, every spot I think a Jimmy Lathrop might hang out.”

“You thought wrong about a lot of places, then,” he said, voice low and thick.

“I should have realized you’d be here.”

“Why?”

“It’s where I’d want to be.”

I sat down and he joined me, sitting about two feet away. “Jimmy, you said you’d found something out about the Extru-ThermaTec Corporation.”

It took him a long minute to say anything. “I was concerned for Hulda,” he said and I only half believed him. “She’s lived near here for a long time and it seems as if one by one the surrounding fields are going and she’ll have prefab on all sides.”

“Hemmed in,” I said. “She doesn’t want to sell her land, but the offers keep getting more and more attractive.”

“At some point, she may have no choice. Somebody might persuade the city to try eminent domain.” His hands tore at a stem of grass. “Anyway, I looked through about six months worth of papers at the public library, searching for anything to do with this property. All I found was a lot of hype about the industrial park and how pleased the city fathers are that the park’s stimulated new growth, including sale of property to the extrusion company. They gave them a whole lot of incentives to build here, too. Tax breaks, that kind of stuff. Buried way deep in the article they announce plans to break ground by mid summer with their facility opening by early December. Other than that, not a word. The paper obviously boosts this sort of thing – growth and expansion is necessary, they say. I thought there might at least be a letter to the editor from some concerned resident or other.”

“Not too surprising. Most of the farms are gone and the few country people around here are old.”

Shooting Star

We sat in silence for awhile. I kept expecting him to say more but he didn’t or wouldn’t. I blocked out the man-made sounds and tried to concentrate on the sounds of a prairie in May, imagining myself back in time to when there were fields and fields for miles, no sounds from cars or airplanes or lawn mowers, no industrial hum or roar. A flash of blue startled me, and a bird settled on a bit of brush off to our left. Jimmy swore softly. “Bluebird,” he said. “See that reddish orange on its breast, a little bit like a robin. Same family. My father said he used to see them all the time when he was a kid and then they became incredibly rare. Supposedly they’re on their way back now.”

“I’ve never seen one. I guess they don’t visit backyards.”

“No, they’re field birds. They like open spaces. They used to nest in old wooden fence poles as well as tree hollows.”

“But now the fences are metal and everyone cuts down trees that aren’t perfectly healthy.”

“You got it.”

“So how come they’re reviving?”

“Well, they may not be coming back everywhere. I don’t know. But a lot of birders have set up bluebird houses, mostly wooden boxes, along fences out in the country. My dad liked to build them and I liked helping him set them up. We had boxes all around the perimeter of our property. Tree swallows liked nesting in them, too, but we’d see one or two bluebirds every year when I was younger.”

“You lived in the country?”

“Yeah.”

I waited, but he didn’t say anything else.

Spiderwort

A few more cars had passed below. Now a brown car with county sheriff insignia on its door crept by, pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A man in uniform stepped out and peered up at us. He must not have had anything pressing to do because he hitched up his pants and began to trudge up the trail toward us. I stood up and after a moment Jimmy did too. “We could make a run for it,” I joked, but glancing at him, I was surprised by how serious Jimmy looked, concerned and troubled. He took a few steps toward the officer and I followed.

He was middle-aged and pudgy around the middle and the climb had broken him out in a sweat and he was breathing heavily. “Folks,” he said, though he addressed Jimmy. “Are you aware this is private property?”

“We’re just admiring the view,” said Jimmy.

“Well, we’ve got parks for that, you know. You don’t have permission to be here, you got to go. Sorry.”

“Isn’t it a lovely place, though?” I said.

The officer looked back down the hill and across the flowering and grassy field and nodded. “My wife would call this one big hellacious patch of weeds, but I see what you mean.” He pulled out a pad from his pocket, stared at it a moment and then put it back. “I should take down your ID’s, but we’ll let it ride for now. Just scram and don’t let me catch you up here again. There’s been vandalism in the industrial park, graffiti and so on.” He eyed Jimmy again. You wouldn’t know anything about that would you?”

“No sir,” he replied. “Alright, we’re out of here.”

We followed the officer down to the road. I picked up my bike and we headed back to town…

Common Milkweed Seeding – make a wish

Prairie Hill – pondering the sources of fiction

Prairie Hill cover

Now and again people ask me whether my novel, Prairie Hill, is autobiographical. I answer “no” but it’s not strictly true. Looking over the novel I find all sorts of odds and ends of details which come from my life – a dingy, cobwebby basement I once explored, pigeons flapping from rafter to rafter inside an abandoned building, a ruby-crowned kinglet taking me for a walk along the railroad tracks, and a man dressed in an oversized rooster costume waving to passersby, advertising the best chicken in town.

I like to think about the sources of fiction. These tidbits from “reality,” close observations of friends and family and strangers, overheard conversations and glimpses through the windows of daily life, combine with an author’s perceptions and imagination to create setting, characters and story. None of the characters in Prairie Hill are exact replicas of people I know or have known. However, even when a writer describes a real person as accurately as possible, the filter of his or her own sensibilities moves the writing a step or two toward fiction.

I’ve kept a journal since the summer I turned ten. It evolved from an account of my activities from breakfast to bedtime, to seemingly endless declarations of teenage angst, to a more conscious attempt at capturing life around me – people I encountered, places I spent time in, daily life lived through. The many thousands of pages made me a more thoughtful observer and a better writer. The journals also provided me with a huge amount of useful material. Have I used any of it in my fiction? Not directly, but I have a good example of how what I absorbed long ago proved useful when writing a novel many years later.

In my 20’s I knew an old woman named Franny who spent much of her day pushing a mop across what seemed like acres of linoleum floor. Her feet hurt her and she’d need to rest and so she often came by where I was working and talked with me, or “chewed the fat” as she liked to call it. She was bitter and given to scowling, but the lines would soften on her face when she reminisced. We became friends and she’d bring me little presents such as apples from a local orchard. I liked her colorful way of speaking and I began to write down what I recalled. Her voice stayed with me for many years and it is Franny’s voice and a touch of her appearance and personality that I gave to Hulda Bjorklund, the old farm woman who becomes friends with and even a mentor of young Jenny Diggles and Jimmy Lathrop in Prairie Hill.

Here, for comparison, is some of Franny’s dialogue, taken from my journal, followed by an excerpt from Prairie Hill told from the perspective of Hulda Bjorklund.

A journal from the late 1980’s

11/21/88

“I still miss that of my mom, her bread. Every Sunday at noon she’d fry some bread dough before puttin’ the bread in. My girlfriends, they all knew when she’d be makin’ bread. They could smell it outside the house.

“My dad gave me a licking I’ll never forget. They gave me a brand new snow suit, and we went to the hill for sleighing. I tore a hole in that snow suit and my sister went and told my dad before I ever got home. He was waitin’ at that back door for me with a razor strop. He took my snow pants off and whipped me till my mom told him to stop. They said ‘money don’t grow on bushes around here,’ that’s what they says back then. It was the Depression. I was young then, maybe that’s why I didn’t like him. My mom said he and me we’re too much alike.

“One time up at our cabin he showed us where he went huntin’, way down in what they called a hog’s head. We girls got bored and walked back and got lost in the marsh, and we had to call him when it was dark to find us.”

“He had enough guns ta buy a house. He wouldn’t clean them guns once a year. He’d just take ‘em out of them three gun cabinets and rub ‘em down with a rag. There weren’t ever no fingerprints on them guns. That son of a bitch up at Taco John’s, he got most of my dad’s guns. My nephew chased him home once and told him never to come to his door again. He wasn’t gonna get no more guns.

“Before he passed away I had to drive him around. He liked to drive fast, too. But the doctor said he couldn’t drive no more. He had cataracts in both eyes. But did he like the way I drove?

“He was stubborn, and I ain’t saying I’m not.”

From Prairie Hill:

Hulda Bjorklund

I’ve lived a long time in this house, seventy-three years from the day I was born. In them days there weren’t too many farmer kids born in the hospital and I was no exception. I had a real good childhood, better than them kids today. Daddy was tough on me, no doubt about that. I weren’t good enough to suit him, he said, but I could tell deep down I was. They said I wasn’t that all fired good looking, but I coulda married. There were a couple fellers hanging around, even after Daddy gave them the third degree, but they didn’t hang around long enough to catch me. I grew older and lost what looks I had and the folks needed me more and I just stayed on, working the place until I was the only one left. Every now and again I wonder what will happen to this old house and barn and what’s left of the acreage. My brother’s family don’t want nothing to do with it. They’ll just sell it. “Hulda,” they say, “nobody vacations in Prairie Hill. Nothin’ there.” But that just makes me mad. You don’t hear the whippoorwills like you did when I was a little girl and the foxes are gone – good riddance if you ask me – but I still feel awful good on a spring morning listening to them birds, eyeing them pretty flowers and knowing I got food on the table I grew on my own land. It hits me sometimes that they’ll tear my home place down and pave it over like all the rest. You know, I couldn’t believe it when they put up that shopping center, Fox Hollow (ain’t been no foxes there for thirty years!) on the edge of town where the Nilsson farm used to be and they kept the silo right there sticking up like a big corncob at the end of the parking lot, with a bed of petunias planted all around it. Looked damn silly. I asked Norman Cobb about that silo and he said the shopping center people wanted it for atmosphere. I craned my neck to look way up at that silo and remembered how tickled the Nilsson’s were when they got it ‘cause it stored a sight more corn than the old cement kind. I wondered if there was a single kernel left in that big old thing. The pigeons found the silo before the shopping center came and they never left.

Jimmy rapped on my door and I opened up, old Ollie bursting past me and jumping up on the poor fellow. “Get back you crazy fool,” I says, “get back.”

Jimmy don’t care none. He gives Ollie a big ole hug and pats him all over and I can’t remember the last time I saw Ollie’s tail tick so fast, back and forth, back and forth. Anybody Ollie likes is alright by me. “You know dogs, Jimmy, dontya.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I had a Labrador retriever named Shadow, the sweetest-tempered dog you could ever meet. She was alive last I knew, but old. Her muzzle was turning gray, but she still couldn’t wait to go out for long walks.”

“You ain’t been home in awhile,” I said, knowing it was true.

He nodded.

“Your folks must miss you.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, Hulda.”

“Ain’t you in touch with them?”

“No.”

“Ain’t they in touch with you?”

Again he said no.

I gave him my best scowl. The Lord’s blessed me with a face that’s good at ‘em.

Prairie Hill – Find me on Goodreads, Librarything, Facebook and more


Hello everyone,

I’ve set up author pages at a few popular book oriented sites. Please feel free to connect with me at your favorite sites and help spread the word about Prairie Hill – and future books! I look forward to sharing books and talking about writing and reading with you. Thank you!

Here is a link to my author page at Goodreads:

Fred Burwell at Goodreads

At Librarything:

Fred Burwell at Librarything

At Facebook:

Fred Burwell at Facebook

At Shelfari:

Fred Burwell at Shelfari

Amazon’s author page:

Fred Burwell’s author page at Amazon.com

Prairie Hill – Disturbed Ground

Along the Tracks - Turtle Creek in Autumn

My novel Prairie Hill takes place in 1980. A plot thread deals with the threat to one of the few remaining remnants of tallgrass prairie. I wish I could say we’re all enlightened now, thirty-two years later.

The other day I took one of my favorite walks. I slipped down the hill behind our house, crossed the flood plain and then climbed the short rise to the railroad tracks which follow the meandering course of Turtle Creek. A few warm days had melted the heavy blanket of snow and the sun tickled the old cap on my head and warmed the tiny insects out for a stroll on their version of a superhighway – the rust-tinged rails of a seldom used freight track. I heard a cardinal singing, the caw of a crow high up in a cottonwood across the creek, and the scolding quacks of mallards fighting their way upstream in a creek churning with snow melt. The gravel crunched as I ambled alongside the tracks. I looked to my right and then noticed something different. Someone or some thing had rudely hacked down the tree where the cedar waxwings like to congregate, calling out there ethereal whistling notes, socializing. It looked as if a giant had reached its hand down and snapped the tree in two.

Goodbye Cedar Waxwings

I glanced down the track and saw further destruction – brush, grasses, small trees, all mowed down, discarded on the creek bank or half in, half out of the water. Worse, nearly every larger tree displayed hack marks or great gouges meant to kill. At first, as I walked along, I wondered if we’d somehow had an invasion of beavers – I could forgive the beavers – but it had been years since I’d seen evidence of beaver and even longer since I’d seen the industrious animals swimming in the creek.

Damaged Trees

I remember when I first walked the rails, thick clusters of prairie plants on either side, a variety of golden sunflowers, the startling deep, rich, blue of spiderwort, pale pink-petal coneflowers bobbing in a stiff breeze. Best of all, there was a great variety of birds. In early spring you’d hear song sparrows and goldfinches, thrushes and thrashers, and a catbird trying out his best cardinal. One year, as I followed the creek, I suddenly felt as if I had a companion alongside me. I looked over and spotted a ruby crowned kinglet, flitting in the brush. It seemed as curious about me as I was of it and I felt that I’d made a friend. There were also the water birds, shy, skittish wood ducks I could never quite get close enough to before they exploded from the water in a mix of spray and beating wings, and the kingfishers speeding along the creek as if it was a raceway, making their clattering raucous call. Within a few years, I noticed this seemingly forgotten habitat under threat. The railroad people came through and sprayed chemicals on the vegetation, turning it into a wasteland which grew up again until further spraying. The wilder plants disappeared, replaced by opportunistic invasive species such as garlic mustard. Now they’re hacking it all down. I haven’t seen a kinglet in years.

I finished my creek walk and headed down Colley Road where I turned onto a fire lane/access path, headed for Leeson Park. This once peaceful, tranquil haven is another favorite walk under threat. So far the privately owned woods to the left remain undisturbed, a refuge for deer, fox, wild turkey and owl. Five years ago you could look to the right and enjoy mixed pasture and remnant prairie. Then the bulldozers tore up the ground, followed by the builders. What appeared? Not a country estate, not an “attractive” subdivision, but prefab warehouses. More than half the field survived initial construction, though its disturbed ground housed rough grasses and the beautiful but diabolical bull thistle. The new retention pond grew smelly, vividly hued algae but also attracted mallards, Canada geese, killdeer and singing frogs I can hear from my house. Now they’re building another round of prefabs and the field is down to a tenth of its former size.

Prefab with Wisconsin Clouds

Off in one corner someone had a bright idea. Why not plant a few evergreens on top of an artificial berm to hide unsightly cement pipes? As Hulda would say in Prairie Hill, “It looks downright silly.” Sadly, there’s nothing they could plant to hide the bigger mess they made.

Happy Concrete Pipes Taking a Dip

The Path to Leeson Park, 1993

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