Birthday Blues Music?

Before I turn that big corner, I’ll have to look both ways.

Twenty years ago, on the evening before my fortieth birthday, I wrote a little cathartic something for myself. Something about “anything goes,” how I might dye my hair purple, get boobs, a tattoo, spit when I want to. In these past twenty years, I did one of those things. And before you wonder too hard, I’m not a spitter. I’m not good at it and don’t have a hankering to learn now.

So, I’m at the corner. To my left is the past, my right, the future.

Obviously, unless I live to be 121 years old, there is much more to see on my left, sixty years worth.

I was very fortunate to have loving parents and a sister, five and a half years older. I often tell her it’s one of the many things I love about her. She’s been every age before me and can tell me what it’s like.

Am I being overly sensitive?

Yes. But sixty? It’s so hard to believe.

I know when that big day comes a few days from now  (not just my birthday but early voting day in Texas), I will settle peacefully into a new decade.

But what will I see? Do? How many more novels live inside of me that beg to be allowed in public?

How many empty canvases can I fill with paint and like the result?

When will I have to stop boxing? (pads and bags, not people)

Mostly, I wonder, what will I learn?

That’s the exciting part.

Sometimes, I want to return to the years when my children were young. The fun we had at parks, reading stories, making up stories, and endless other happy times. I loved watching them grow.

I smile now after typing that last sentence. They are adults and I still love watching them grow. And each of my two children have given me a grandchild. I will watch them grow too, just not for quite as long. It’s okay. Because now it’s my children and grandchildren’s turn to experience that joy.

And that thought makes me smile like the birth of a new baby.

It’s the circle of life. And it’s beautiful.  


What Author Doesn’t…

love a great review!
Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 stars You’ll really enjoy this thrilling work of historical fiction, October 17, 2016
This review is from: The Last Bordello: A Novel (Paperback)

In 1901, Meta Duecker boards a train in her hometown of Fredericksburg, Texas, bound for the big city of San Antonio. She’s looking for higher education, and finds it in ways she didn’t expect.

At Madam Fannie Porter’s Boarding House, Meta finds refuge from a storm, but is soon caught up in a maelstrom at the intersection of women’s rights, prohibition, and free enterprise.

THE LAST BORDELLO is a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Dennis-Willingham deftly constructs a page-turning whodunit from a colorful pageant of historic characters and a well-researched portrayal of a young city shaking off its frontier dust.

As Meta finds herself employed playing piano at a brothel, she finds herself in many ways. This is a spellbinding account of colorful times, but the things we learn about tolerance, loyalty, and compassion are timeless.

Without giving anything away, the book’s title is not what you think. You’ll understand it soon enough. Let’s just say the perseverance and determination of women like Meta and Madam Porter is a lesson for today.

Your First Sentence in EVERY Chapter

We all know that the first sentence or two in a novel needs to, not only grab a reader’s attention, but flip them out of bed, melt them into their recliners, or make them forget the lasagne in the oven.


Like you, I’ve written so many first lines for my novels, I could add them up and the page count would be the same as the novel itself.

They, editors, agents, writing experts say:

Make it more engaging.

Don’t start with dialogue and  (read more) 

So, let’s say, we finally think our first line of the entire novel kicks butt. We breathe. All good, right?

Yeah, but…

How are the last sentences of the first chapter, the seventh or thirty-seventh?

Let’s say the endings of your chapters follow “the rules” and beg the reader to continue on. In other words, we’ve got them hooked.


Here’s another point. Let’s say our readers close the book at the end of chapter ten, and it’s a couple of days before they can get back to the story. Will they remember what’s going on when they open to page eleven or will they have to flip back some pages to be reminded?

That in itself is not terribly important. However …

Are your beginning sentences in other chapters as good at the first?  Are they close? Ponder and consider. I think beginning sentences in all chapters are important. Think of the reader in a book store trying to decide what book to buy.  They randomly flip to the beginning of chapter three and find something like, “She got dressed and left her apartment.” Boring.

What do you want the reader to feel?



Or, this?


When I checked my WIP, The Moonshine Thicket, I was happy with the ending sentences in my chapters. I had paid more attention to them.

But when I checked beginning sentences of other chapters? I felt like this…


So I made some changes.

Old: “We eat a quiet supper in the Hutchings’ kitchen.”

Revised (for the moment): “Mama had made vegetable soup and cornbread, but we eat slow, like its been over salted. Nobody talks.”

Old: “The surging creek pulls the brute, and my best friend, downstream.”

Revised (for the moment): Four arms flail in the rushing water, their heads bobbing up and down as they disappear downstream. “No, no!” I cry. “Frank!”

As authors, we want to make every sentence perfect. I won’t ever be able to manage that task unless my novel is two pages long.

Still, we struggle for improvement and do the best we can.

Let’s be flawless in our imperfections!

Happy writing!!


The Red Bordello Door-To Enter Or Not?


If you choose to go inside…

Madam Fannie Porter will answer your knock, her  head tilted back and a hand on her protruded hip. If you are a customer, she’ll first point out her list of rules and if you don’t follow them, the ratchet of a shotgun will show you the way out.



Then, she’ll point to one of her soiled doves –Chubby Greta from west Texas with her big brown eyes and no nonsense attitude; timid Lillie who grins but rarely exposes the gap where her tooth had been knocked out by a brute; Sassy Sarah with her flaming red hair and ample bosoms. Then there’s Sadie. Well, Sadie …

If you are a lost young woman steered to the wrong “boarding house,” Madam Fannie will keep you safe. She might also offer you a job as the bordello’s pianist.

But perhaps you choose not to enter.

You may be against vice, the Social Evil, the Grand Wrong. Then go to the public forum in Alamo Park. Hear Minnie Fisher (Cunningham) speak out on women’s rights. Listen to Women’s Christian Temperance Union‘s Texas president, Helen Stoddard, speak out against prohibition. But prepare yourself. Texans likes their beer.

Whichever choice you make, know this. The Last Bordello is not a novel about what goes on behind closed bedroom doors (okay, perhaps a tad), nor is it merely a whodunit. It’s about powerful women at the turn of the twentieth century who fought for their standing in life. While some found prostitution to be their only means of survival, other women fought for equal rights.

The Last Bordello depicts the struggle and determination of both sides.

Oh, and I suggest NOT entering Southwestern Insane Asylum.

It is 1901. So, would you enter or not? Are you curious about what’s inside? Appalled? There’s no wrong answer. There’s no right one, either. I’d love to hear your response and a reason or two why you chose to go in or stay out. 

All the best,



‘Righting’ Disturbing Childhood Incidents in our Novels.

Simple, really. Life experiences affect the way you write. And, as authors, you have the power to change, modify and/or right the pains you may have endured when younger.

Sometimes, when writing, you don’t even expect a terrifying childhood event to pop into your consciousness. Especially if that incident has nothing to do with the story’s plot line. But memories pop in, don’t they? When that happens, your fingers peck down on the keys and type a different scenario, a different outcome.

I won’t go into the gory details. But I’d like to share a disturbing memory.

It’s my fault. That’s what I thought as a ten-year old.

Me with Buffy


After my friend discovered our missing eighteen-year-old Cocker Spaniel dead in the creek, she gave me a new puppy for my birthday, part Lab, part Beagle.

‘Buffy,’ named after the girl in 60’s show, Family Affair, was still young–two, I believe. I let her come with me across the quiet residential street to play with neighborhood friends. She was so happy before she ran in front of a parked car. The driver didn’t see her. (To this day, I accuse him of speeding, especially when he was driving past a group of kids  playing in a front yard.)

Not disclosing the images still in my mind, my dad called me from the vet clinic. “Carolyn,” he said, his voice choking with tears. “Since she’s your dog, you have a decision to make. She can live with three legs or we can put her to sleep.”

Back then, I had never seen a dog with three legs. My young, limited brain had to make a choice. Guilty Carolyn said, “Every time I look at her, I’ll remember my mistake.” Compassion Carolyn said, “I don’t want her to suffer.”

“Put her to sleep,” I whispered into the phone, because I didn’t have the life experience to tell me otherwise.

Later in life,  when I had children, I sat in the living room in our new house, my five-year old daughter next to me on our sofa. As we  watched my baby-grand piano being set up, she said, “Mommy, why does it only have three legs.”

Spontaneously, I said, “Because, sometimes, that’s all you need.”

Then, I thought of Buffy.


Now, fifty years later, I’ve met many three-legged dogs.

In my latest WIP, THE MOONSHINE THICKET, the plot line doesn’t require a dog. Even so, eleven-year-old, Emma June has one.

Page 41: I’d asked Daddy why Choppers had the guts to forget he lost something so important as a leg. “Because, Jellybean, he got used to the change. He adapted,” Daddy said, then pointed to temple. “Choppers knew that, even with three legs, he still had plenty of life to live and enjoy.”

And there is was, a theme relevant to my novel. The new outcome put a different kind of smile on my face. Buffy (Choppers) is happy with three legs.

One way or another, aren’t we all three-legged dogs doing the best we can?

If you’ve had a memory-thumping moment while writing, I’d love to hear it! Please share!

Traveling Mercies (Anne Lamott),


Writing to heal- via @APA

How to Turn Traumatic Experiences Into Fuel For Your Writing via @sharethis


Pondering Slang in Historical Novels

Have a listen while you read!


As a Texan, I have no problem understanding southern dialect and the slang words and phrases that go with it. But what if you are writing in a different time period? What changes?

In 1928 rural Texas, eleven year old Emma June understands words like “fixin’ to” and “fair to middling”. And she knows what it means to be Cooter Browned. But does she know the terms blotto or hoary-eyed, spifficated?

So when and how does the slang of the 20’s hit her isolated town? From newspapers? The radio? City transplants?

That’s what hit me while writing my current novel.

Let’s say her father saunters into the washroom. Is he bleeding his lizard (Texas) or ironing his shoelaces (Jazz term)?

If a woman dresses to the nines, is she ritzy or wearing her best bib and tucker? (Women’s fashion stays relatively consistent)


So thirteen year old Frank moves from New Orleans to Holly Gap, Texas. He made it possible to use both- Texas and Jazz Age Slang.

Now, everything’s Jake and I’m sitting in tall cotton!

The Moonshine Thicket, coming soon.

Jazz Age slang :

More Texan-isms via @texasmonthly

Here’s a great video of how dialect changes by area:

How Research Creates Historical Novels…

… And helps with historical treatment.

I hated history in my youth. But now? I love research. It takes my mind to places that existed long before and can exist again in a historical novel.

The Library of Congress – Historical Newspapers – can take you back to the late 1800’s. I needed 1901 so I found myself in good shape (except I spent hours upon hours finding interesting articles that had nothing to do with my MS, The Last Bordello.) Once I focused, ALL these articles played a pivotal role in my plot line. (I had many more, these are just a few.)

Let’s start with the secondary, still-important, characters and work our way down to Madam Fannie Porter.


The Women’s Christian Temperance Union:







Now, for a sense of place:




The politicians, Mayor Hicks, former Mayor Bryan Callaghan, Captain James Van Riper:







The “then” never solved murder of Helen Madarasz.





The outlaws:

Screenshot 2014-11-24 13.21.45


Now, Madam Fannie Porter:






After reading this article, I found a writer’s connection to the man Madam Fannie may have married, and the location that was plausible for meeting Butch Cassidy for the first time.


If you are writing historical fiction, The Library of Congress is a great place to start!

Keep writing,



Where Do Inspirations Come From?


If Give You Give A Mouse A Cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. When you give him the milk, he’s probably going to ask for a straw….”

That’s what happened to me, but in a dream.

So, I took that morsel, ran with it, and didn’t “return” until five years later.

Hmm? How to make this brief?

We own our family homestead.

homestead 004

My great-great grandparents set their belonging on the land in the 1840’s and said, “das ist gut.” And it was. And it is.

In my dream, the essence of me stared into an old photo. In the frame, the couple turned to one another and smiled. Then, the screen door opened. The farmer stood in the doorway to greet his wife, but couldn’t enter.

And that’s what started the process of writing The Last Bordello.

As written in Chapter Two:

Most nights, I see Papa in my dreams. In a slower-than-life pulse, in a not-so-common four-count measure, he smiles as he grabs the knob of our screen door and opens it to enter. His movement repeats. He smiles and opens the door. Smiles and opens the door. Each time, he never enters. He never falls.

But Papa did fall; collapsed before crossing our threshold into the house his neighbors helped him to build. Four years ago now, all of the notes of Papa’s life faded away with his last breath. A stillness so loud that my ears still burned.

If only Papa hadn’t died.

I’m not living in 1901 anymore. I’m no longer in a bordello, in a lunatic asylum, or attending  a Women’s Christian Temperance Union or Suffrage meeting.

I’m in 1928. So far, it’s the cat’s pajamas. (The Moonshine Thicket– working title)



Dear writers, listen to your dreams!

The Time I met John Steinbeck

How, you ask, was this possible? Mr. Steinbeck’s nephew, a friend of mine, still oversees the place in Sag Harbor, New York and invited me, my husband and another couple to come for a few nights stay.

Knowing I was (and am) a writer,  my travel companions saw the spark in my eyes, felt the dizzing euphoria welling up inside me as we pulled up to the house built in the 1960’s.




He was there, all around me.  

To my right, sat this bench.


I patted the grand Oak and entered.



At first, what made things “real”for me were the original photos lining the hallway like vintage wallpaper.

But here’s the best part. Next to the bay is a gazebo. It’s where Mr. Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charlie, his poodle and  best friend, who is buried steps away, his leash inside the gazebo.


AROYNT, roughly meaning, go away. Steinbeck hammered the nails into the cement in front of the gazebo.
His wife understood his need for solitude. So, at happy  hour or suppertime, she would light up the plastic goose to let him know it was time to come in.


Mr. Steinbeck’s nephew never gives away the gazebo’s combination. But he gave it to me. And, I wrote. There. Where HE wrote…





… and his timeless objects still remain inside.



Wow! Just wow!

At the risk of being offensive, I opened a box containing pencils. I asked Mr. Steinbeck’s nephew if I could have one (there were many). He said, “Well, that were my aunt’s. Let me give you one that I know Uncle John wrote with.”


In the gazebo, he opened an old box. Inside were pencils without erasers. “Uncle John never erased,” he said. “Each day, before he started writing, he made sure his pencils were sharpened. He wrote on a Big Chief tablet.”

He handed me the pencil. Do I need to explain how I felt?


It was two years ago last May that I inhaled greatness. Why am I finally posting this? Perhaps because, when I wrote in John Steinbeck’s gazebo facing Sag Harbor Bay, I was working on The Last Bordello. Now, it’s published.

Thank you for the inspiration, Mr. Steinbeck. And for the pencil.