...for readers who love animals, and animal lovers who read!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Maintaining Balance in a Creative Life

by Sheila Webster Boneham

She is in her place and moves with perfect balance.
Walt Whitman                     

Balance. I've long been a great believer in balance in life. Not necessarily moderation, mind you, but balance. Hard work balanced against hard play, or hard rest. Think very long nap on a rainy afternoon. 

Indian Paintbrush looks to me like creative inspiration feels.
©2010 Sheila Boneham. Evans Canyon, Reno, Nevada

For creative people – writers, painters, musicians, whatever – balance can be hard to achieve. The siren that is creative work is seductive. It can sing its way into our brains and make us attend to its needs until our joints lock. That same siren, though, can be painfully shy, hiding itself at the first hint of distraction. Good movie on TV? You can write that poem later! Friends want you to come play parcheesi? The painting can wait. The socks in your sock drawer are rebelling? Clearly more important to organize them than to write that novel.

There's always some seductive path calling, "Follow me!"
©2011 Sheila Boneham, Wrightsville Beach, NC

I jest. Sort of. The truth is that there’s always something else to do. Some distractions even look from the outside very much like actual work. You’re a writer, you’re on the computer – checking what’s happened on Facebook in the last ten minutes, and reading the latest writers’ group digest post, and checking the five hundred blogs you frequent because HOLY COW! You might miss something that will make or break your career!

I confess. I do all those things. Sometimes. But in the past fifteen years I’ve also written twenty three and a half books, sixteen tons of articles (more or less), several poems (very recently!), and the various related documents – query letters, proposals, blurbs, bios, bull..., er, marketing materials. So, rumors to the contrary aside, I do maintain some degree of balance.

My animals have helped balance my life.
This is Lily - UCDX Diamonds Perennial
Waterlily, AKC CD, TD, RN, CGC, ASCA CD,
TDI - earning the first leg of her ASCA CD. 
How? A surprising (to me, anyway) number of people ask me that. It’s no mystery, really. I compartmentalize my time, and have done so for so many years that my "time habits" are part of me. I write in a local cafĂ© every morning, beginning around 7:30, ending around noon, with a half hour or so off for breakfast with my husband. I go home, have lunch, have tea. I read for a couple of hours. Take a short nap most afternoons. Go for a long walk, sometimes with my dog Lily, sometimes with my camera, sometimes just with my eyes and my ears and my thoughts. I often write again in the evening, or go to readings or other events, or meet with friends, or paint and listen to music, or watch a movie at home. And ok, maybe an hour of Frasier reruns. We all have our vices. I read some more late at night, when everything is quiet. I sleep. And things get done, because I know I have those four or five hours of dedicated writing time, and I use them to....write!

Sometimes balance requires that we move forward; sometimes it
requires that we find stillness. 
©2012 Sheila Boneham, Wrightsville Beach, NC

Balance, of course, should extend to all of life, not just work. Because creative work is so personal, it can be very difficult to separate the artifacts of our creativity – the books, the paintings, the beaded book covers – from our Selves. But the truth is that our creativity comes from without as well as from within. We need experience of the world to feed the fire inside. The precise experience each of us needs varies, but we all need something. A few days without my writing time make me crave my keyboard, but I know from experience that if I lock myself away to do nothing but write for more than a day or two, my siren stops singing. I need time in nature, travel, long walks, cuddles with my dogs, talks with my husband, flowers, music, my friends, good books, photography, art. 

What do you need to balance your creative work?

Sheila Webster Boneham is an award-winning writer who writes across genres and interacts across species. She is the author of the best-selling Animals in Focus mystery series from Midnight Ink and of seventeen nonfiction books, including Rescue Matters: How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine Publications, 2009, updated 2013). Sheila also writes creative nonfiction, literary fiction, and poems, and she teaches writing classes and offers individual mentoring for aspiring writers. Find her online at www.sheilaboneham.com, on Facebook, or by e-mailSheila runs the Writers & Other Animals blog and the companion Facebook group. Sheila holds a PhD in folklore from Indiana University and MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast Program, University of Southern Maine. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Finding Inspiration Across the Arts

by Sheila Webster Boneham

Creative people tend to be creative in multiple ways. Most of my writer friends, for instance, pursue other creative activities when they’re not writing. Several of them make jewelry. Others paint or draw or sculpt. Many writers also garden. Some sing or play instruments, compose music, act, sew, decorate their homes.... If you’re creative, there are really no limits (other than time) to the possibilities.

Wading In -by Sheila Boneham
(watercolor, 11 x14, in private collection)
Unfortunately, our culture tends to treat creative pursuits as frivolous. For most people, giving expression to creative drives comes after the “real” job, and friends and family too often consider painting, writing, and other “artsy fartsy” activities to be secondary, unnecessary, even a waste of time. What a sad attitude. And counterproductive, because creativity feeds on itself, and people who cultivate artistic pursuits become better problem solvers in areas not conventionally thought of as “creative.” (This is one of many reasons to keep art and music in our schools, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Which raises an essential question: what is a “creative” pursuit? (I won’t even touch “art”!) I believe that nearly anything can be done creatively. My husband, Roger, is an extremely creative cook. He modifies recipes with abandon, deleting an ingredient here, adding one there, adjusting proportions, and revising the next time around. Tom Saunders, the “main squeeze” in my mysteries, does the same when he has time.

Pretty in Pink by Sheila Boneham
(watercolor, 16 x 20, in private collection)

Janet MacPhail, the protagonist of my Animals in Focus mystery series, is a professional photographer, and getting good shots of the animals who are her subjects certainly takes some creativity. She also trains and competes with her dog and cat (yes, her CAT!). After decades of competing in equine and canine sports, I can tell you that good animal trainers are very creative. The best trainers find ways to engage an animal mentally, physically, and emotionally so that learning is a game. Oh wait! That goes for teaching people, too! I hope that everyone reading this has had at least one teacher who brought joy and innovation to the lessons. If you have had such teachers, you know how much more readily we learn when lessons are wrapped in Creative Spirit.

We human beings are, deep down, creative beings. Have you ever known a child who didn’t want to make things of her own design? Have you ever heard of a human society that had no art of any kind? To be healthy and balanced–to be fully alive–we must allow our creative instincts room to play. (In fact, I do not believe that creativity is strictly human, but that too is a topic for another time.)

Cock of the Walk by Sheila Boneham
(oil, 10 x 12, in private collection)
Writers, painters, gardeners...people! We are all on journeys not only to make new things, but to learn as we go. Like the student with the creative, inspiring teacher, we all benefit from trying new things from time to time, and (I believe) from feeding more than one passion. My primary creative activity has long been writing, and I write across genres -- fiction, nonfiction, essays, poetry. But I also enjoy painting, photography, dog training, and gardening. One of these days I’ll take a pot-throwing class (good excuse to get dirty!). Occasionally I make myself some earrings. And here’s what I’ve learned:

No matter which of my interests I pursue at a given time, my subconscious is playing around with one or two of the others. An answer to a question about a character’s motivations in a piece of writing may surface when I’m painting or drawing. A problem in the composition of a painting sometimes pops into my head while I’m choosing flowers for a hanging pot. Birds whose behaviors I capture with my camera suggest a line of poetry.

Burning Bright by Sheila Boneham
(watercolor & India ink, 16 x 20,
in private collection)
So make a play date with yourself one day soon. Do something creative, something outside your usual art form or genre or medium. If you’re a painter, write a poem! If you’re a novelist, draw something. If you get really ambitious, look around for a class in something completely new. You don’t have to show anyone else what you made, and you don’t have to stick with everything you try, but moving creatively beyond our comfort zones creates (there’s that word!) new energy in the more familiar pursuits. And besides, it’s fun!

Maybe I’ll sign up for that pot-throwing class.


Sheila Webster Boneham is an award-winning writer who writes across genres and interacts across species. She is the author of the best-selling Animals in Focus mystery series from Midnight Ink and of seventeen nonfiction books, including Rescue Matters: How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine Publications, 2009, updated 2013). Sheila also writes creative nonfiction, literary fiction, and poems, and she teaches writing classes and offers individual mentoring for aspiring writers. Find her online at www.sheilaboneham.com, on Facebook, or by e-mailSheila runs the Writers & Other Animals blog and the companion Facebook group

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Striking a Balance - Serious Issues in Entertaining Books

by Sheila Webster Boneham

If you have read my Animals in Focus mysteries published by Midnight Ink, you know that dogs and cats and other critters are vital characters. After all, the series isn't called Animals in Focus for nothing. In fact, each book in the series spotlights a different "animal activity" and each mystery hinges on an animal-related issue. Just as they do in real life, serious issues can create major problems for writers.
In the first book, Drop Dead on Recall (2012), we meet 50-something animal photographer Janet MacPhail and her Australian Shepherd Jay at an obedience trial, where a top-level competitor keels over. Soon Janet, Jay, and their very important feline family member Leo find themselves embroiled in a series of murders that seem to be linked to breeder ethics (or lack thereof) and cut-throat competitiveness. That infant puppy is my real-life Jay at one week old.

In The Money Bird (2013), Janet has her lens focused on retrievers training for AKC retrieving tests, especially the handsome Drake and his almost-as-handsome person, Tom Saunders. Drake, too, is inspired by the Labs I've owned and rescued over the years, especially my first Lab, Raja, a big chocolate field-bred goofball. Here he is with my beautiful Malcolm, who was one of the real-life models for Leo. Wildlife trafficking is the larger issue woven into the plot. It's an ugly business, and I've tried to present it in a way that will encourage people to learn more without overdoing it. 

In Catwalk (2014), Janet enters her first feline agility (yes! you read that correctly) competition with her orange tabby, Leo. She also competes with Jay in dog agility, and becomes embroiled in the politics of feral cat community care and TNR) trap, neuter, release) programs. Leo, Janet's brilliant little cat, is modeled after a number of cats who have shared my life, especially Malcolm, Leo, George, Kitty, and Mary. And yes, feline agility is a real sport - but Leo runs like a dog!

A number of challenges presented themselves as soon as I began writing. First, this series falls under the "cozy" umbrella, meaning that readers expect a few things:
  1. Murder and sex are fine; graphic details are not.
  2. Adult humans may be killed; children and animals may be threatened, but shouldn't be harmed. 
  3. Serious issues may be presented, but soap-boxes should be kept mostly tucked under the writer's desk, not plunked down on the page.
Knowing these "rules" is helpful in some ways, restrictive in others. After all, I'm writing about creatures and issues that stir intense feelings in me as well as in my readers, and it isn't always easy to stifle myself. Many authors face this problem in fiction, where characters and story (plot, if you prefer) are the real focus. So how do we strike a balance? Not all of us do - I'm sure we've all read books in which the author's passion for some cause overshadowed everything else. If you're like me, you may have quit reading. I don't like to be bludgeoned when I'm reading mostly to be entertained.

On the other hand, I do like to learn new things, and I have often read fiction that teased me into looking for more information about something. 

I hope I'm striking that balance in my own fiction.Happily, I have heard from readers who say they went on to do more research because they learned "just enough" in my books. I'm currently wrapping up Shepherd's Crook (scheduled for release fall 2015). Janet and Jay will be herding sheep, fending off anti-pet extremists, managing matters of the heart, and -- oh, yes! -- looking for a killer!

Sheila Webster Boneham is an award-winning writer who writes across genres and interacts across species. She is the author of the best-selling Animals in Focus mystery series from Midnight Ink and of seventeen nonfiction books, including Rescue Matters: How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine Publications, 2009, updated 2013). Sheila also writes creative nonfiction, literary fiction, and poems, and she teaches writing classes and offers individual mentoring for aspiring writers. Find her online at www.sheilaboneham.com, on Facebook, or by e-mail. Sheila runs the Writers & Other Animals blog and the companion Facebook group


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Excerpt from A Killer Retreat by Tracy Weber

In this excerpt from A Killer Retreat, Kate, Michael, and German shepherd Bella explore the grounds of Elysian Springs Resort and stumble across an area that will later prove to be more important than they could ever imagine….

When I caught up with them, I grabbed Bella’s leash in one hand and held Michael’s fingers in the other. The three of us crunched along the center’s network of interconnecting trails as we explored our new territory in the daylight. Bella weaved happily back and forth at the end of her leash, sniffing for hidden treasures, while I took deep breaths of pine-scented air, which was still redolent with ozone from the prior night’s storm. Golden oak leaves waved from the branches above and peppered the permanent carpet of pine needles covering the ground.

Last night the grounds seemed desolate; this morning, they bustled. Fellow vacationers sipped mugs of coffee and smiled friendly hellos. Maintenance staff scurried by on electric golf carts. Gardeners harvested, fertilized, and planted cover crops in a huge, fenced-in garden. A sign at the gate read, “Welcome to the Garden of Eden. Visitors are welcome, but please keep pets outside.” I smiled at the word play. Eden was the name of Elysian Springs’ organic vegan restaurant. The garden must supply at least some of the restaurant’s produce.

We wandered along the fence past beds of dark green kale, deep purple cabbage, and beige, peanut-shaped butternut squash. A few feet from the end of the garden, we discovered the free range enclosures of several of the center’s happy-looking animal residents. A dozen clucking hens seemed to smile as they pecked at the earth around their whitewashed henhouse. Next door, several ducks splashed happily in a bright blue wading pool, near a pair of fluffy white rabbits who sunned themselves in the corner of a huge fenced-in hutch. We even found a half-dozen floppy eared goats eating their way through a wall of blackberry bushes in an otherwise vacant field.

We hiked on the center’s property for over forty-five minutes, discovering quaint wooden cabins, hidden camp sites, even an old, rusted-out boat that had been abandoned on one of the property’s two private beaches. At the end of the beach, we turned left and continued walking—uphill now—away from the water. The trail ended at the edge of a cliff and a campsite labeled “Suicide Bluff.” Obviously someone’s idea of a joke. A squirrel chirped angrily from above, as if warning us away from his favorite hiding place.

I stood near the bluff’s jagged rock outcroppings, entranced by the view. Greenish-blue water extended for miles and birthed powerful waves that crashed over fifty feet below. The smooth, crescendoing sound was both calming and awe-inspiring at the same time. I moved closer to the edge, as if hypnotized.

“Kate, what are you doing? Get away from there.” Michael pointed to a sign several feet behind me.

“Danger. Cliffs are unstable. Walking prohibited less than three feet from edge.”
As if on cue, a rock broke free and clattered over the edge. I took several large steps back. “Suicide Bluff” suddenly felt more like a warning than a quip. The steep, dark cliffs dared me to come closer. Goaded me. Urged me to jump. An inexplicable chill burned the back of my neck. I couldn’t explain it, but the cliffs felt malevolent—evil somehow. Like they hungered for human sacrifice.

I looped Bella’s leash handle around my wrist and pulled her in closer. Gorgeous view or not, I wouldn’t come back here again. I didn’t trust this place.

“Michael, let’s go.”

The wary look on his face mirrored my own. He laced his fingers through mine and we hurried away, back toward our cozy little cabin, where the three of us would presumably be safe.


Tracy Weber is the author of the award-winning Downward Dog Mysteries series featuring yoga teacher Kate and her feisty German shepherd, Bella. Tracy loves sharing her passion for yoga and animals in any form possible. The second book in her series, A Killer Retreat, will be published January 8, 2015, by Midnight Ink.
Tracy and her husband live in Seattle with their challenging yet amazing German shepherd Tasha. When she’s not writing, Tracy spends her time teaching yoga, walking Tasha, and sipping Blackthorn cider at her favorite ale house. 
Visit her at TracyWeberAuthor.com

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Ten Ways to Help the Authors You Love

"Authors are a needy bunch. We need time without distractions for our work. We need stimulation of various kinds (not necessarily ingested) to keep our creative juices flowing. We need readers, and that means we need a way to help readers find our books, articles, poems, plays." (p.s. You can find my Animals in Focus mysteries & nonfiction about dogs, cats, & animal rescue in all the usual places in paperback, ebook, Audible, and large-print formats.)

Click the link above for an instant replay ~ and please help authors. We need you!