Friday, August 19, 2016

Reindeer Farm

When you're at home, do you visit the local tourist attractions or does everyday life get in the way? I never seem to get around to enjoying all the things people come all the way to Alaska to see, but I'm trying to do better. Which is part of the reason why, after living in Anchorage for twenty-five years, I finally made a visit to the Reindeer Farm in Palmer, in the shadow of Pioneer Peak. The other reason is that I'm writing a Christmas story set at an Alaska reindeer farm, and I wanted to get a firsthand impression.

Yes, that's a buffalo in the photo. There are more than just reindeer at the farm. Dolly, a plains bison, has lived her whole life there with reindeer, and probably doesn't even know she's a bison. She was born late and only grew to half the size of a normal bison, but she's had a good life on the farm.

When we arrived, we were greeted by this lovely fellow who gave us a sniff and went back to chasing sunbeams. While we waited for our tour, we were allowed to wander over and meet a few of the other residents of the farm, including an exceedingly friendly pig who loved petting, some rather exotic-looking hens, and quite possibly the cutest animal of all time - a one-and a half month old reindeer calf. She was a surprise, born three months after all the other calves to a mother who hadn't breed during the regular rutting season, but somehow caught up later. These photos don't do her justice.

Once our guide arrived, we got to the fun part, feeding the four-month old reindeer calves alfalfa pellets. That big guy on the left is the babysitter, in the pen with the calves to teach them how to behave. Letting the tourists feed the calves is not only entertaining for the us, but helps teach the young reindeer to be comfortable around people as part of their training so that someday, they'll learn to pull sleighs. 

You may have noticed that the calves are already growing antlers. They're still in the velvet stage now. Reindeer are unusual in that both males and females grow antlers. The bulls shed theirs after the rut in the fall. The cows keep theirs until spring. That may be a clue about the sex of Santa's reindeer. Here I am holding one of the antlers after it's been shed and dried. It's heavy! It must take a huge amount of energy to lug these around. I'll bet when they shed them, the reindeer feel like they can fly. 

Reindeer, like caribou, seem to grow antlers in erratic patterns. Look at this guy. One goes straight up, but the other has a little dip, and the front parts don't match either. I saw another with a horn that dipped low over her eye, Veronica Lake style. I say like caribou, but actually reindeer and caribou are the same species. Reindeer are simply the domesticated version of caribou. We have lots of wild caribou in Alaska, but they're further north, starting around Denali National Park. These reindeer descend from European reindeer imported to Canada more than a century ago.  They're smaller than Alaskan caribou.  
Speaking of antlers, the farm also has a resident herd of elk. Unlike reindeer, the cow elk have no antlers, but the ones on this bull are magnificent, don't you think? 
It was a beautiful day to be out and about in Palmer, and if you're ever this way and would like the chance to pet a reindeer, I'd highly recommend a visit to the reindeer farm. 
So how about you? What local attractions have you been meaning to visit and haven't? Or is it just me?

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Ah, the dog days of summer. 

Time to chill out,

take it easy,  

and enjoy the season while it lasts.

Hope your summer (or winter if you're Down Under) 
has been spectacular. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Flying High

A roar in the sounds in the distance. At first I don’t notice, but the dog barks frantically, convinced she’s the only thing standing between us and total destruction. I suspect the UPS truck, but the roar gets louder and with a smile, I recognize the familiar sound just the Blue Angels tear a hole in the sky above my house. It’s air show time again.

I’m not a huge fan of crowds, loud noises, or giant machines so air shows aren’t a major draw for me. Luckily, I only live a mile or so from the base, so I get to watch the Blue Angels from the comfort of my deck as they practice their maneuvers. The only downside is they’re going so fast, I hardly have time to grab a camera before they’re gone. It’s a beautiful thing to watch those planes fly in perfect formation, like water ballet at 700 mph.

As someone who could never learn to follow a dance partner, I’m in awe of pilots who are able to fly with such precision. I’m sure they have a natural talent for flying, but it’s the hours and hours of study, training, and practice that make them able to do what they do. That’s the lesson I need to take. Talent is good, but practice makes you great. 

Now, back to work.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Character Writing Lessons from a Dog

As I’ve practiced the craft of writing, I’ve read a lot about creating characters. They say your main characters should be compelling. They should have positive traits, but also flaws. They should be well-rounded, with individual quirks and personality traits. They should make the reader care.  

Many years ago, I had a dog named Barney. I learned about him from a newspaper ad. Someone had found him running loose but couldn’t keep him, so she took him to a shelter, paid to sponsor him, and ran an ad to find him a home. The fact that he was running loose when she found him should have been a clue, but I missed it. I adopted him. 

He wasn’t a beautiful dog. That blurry snapshot above flatters him. He generally looked as though someone had crossed Toto from The Wizard of Oz with Stripe from Gremlins. Barney had wiry hair that tended to stick up randomly and didn’t encourage the petting he loved. He was smart and affectionate, but he wasn't trouble-free. He lived to roam. Houdini could have taken lessons. Barney could climb a six-foot welded-wire fence as though it were a ladder. He could scale an eight-foot stockade fence by finding a corner, jumping against one side of the fence and using that as a toehold to ricochet off to the other side. After six or eight bounces, he was over. He could slip any collar, and more than once squeezed out of a harness. People were always finding him, reading his tag, and returning him to me with a lecture about taking better care of my dog. Because that was the thing about Barney – he made people care.

I’m not sure what it was about him. Maybe it was those bright eyes that seemed to look into your soul and approve of what he saw there. Maybe it was his enthusiasm. He would greet people by lashing his tail and leaping wildly into the air.  I think it mostly it was the way he loved life that made people happy to be around him.

Barney had quirks. Once, he managed to get himself stuck between the window and the storm window in our bedroom. Another time, he purloined two dozen dinner rolls. A neighbor in Wyoming used to give him antelope bones, and Barney would bury them halfway out of the ground. We were never sure if he was trying to grow an antelope or just creating a Georgia O’Keeffe-inspired landscaping project.

And at the end of our story, he created suspense. One July 4th he escaped again. This time he’d slipped out of his collar and didn’t come home. I think it was the fireworks that made him run further than usual. I put up signs and visited the animal shelter twice a week for months, just in case he showed up, but he never did. There was no such thing as internet then, much less microchips. Eventually, I gave up. And then, a year later, I was driving down an unfamiliar street, and there he was, tied up in someone’s front yard. He was fatter, but it was definitely Barney. He was glad to see me.

I stopped to talk to the homeowner. It was his daughter’s dog; he was just keeping him for the day. She’d had the dog for a couple of months. It seemed there was another private shelter on the other side of the city I didn’t know about. Barney had been a resident there, and charmed all the volunteers into giving him too many treats. Now once again, he’d found someone to care about him. I hope they lived happily ever after, but with Barney, you never know.

When I think about characters, I always think of Barney. Because if an ugly little terrier can inspire devotion from so many people, surely I can create quirky, interesting, and lovable characters that inspire readers to stick with the story until the last page. At least that’s the goal.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Working on a Cover

Thanks to everyone who voted and commented on possible covers for After the Fireweed. The mountains were the overwhelming favorite. (Sorry moose.) I know a lot of romance readers prefer people on a cover. I tend to lean the other way. I like to imagine the characters based on the description in the book, rather than the cover. 

So I've been playing with the mountain scene a little, trying to make it a little dreamier and more romantic. What do you think? Does darkening the background make it more romantic? Or just fog up the view? 

16% of vote
75% of vote

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Green-eyed Monster

Have you ever noticed what a huge role jealousy plays in fairy tales? In Cinderella, our heroine has to stay home and clean out fireplaces because her stepsisters and their mother are jealous of her. In Snow White, we have an evil queen, jealous of her stepdaughter’s youth, beauty, and sweet disposition. Even Sleeping Beauty begins at the baby’s christening, at which fairies are invited to be her godmothers, but another fairy who was left out is jealous and curses the baby instead.*
Jealousy is a classic motivation in stories, especially murder mysteries and thrillers. Shakespeare called it "the green-eyed monster." It also pops up a lot in the romance genre, but I sometimes find it troubling. It’s often used as a signal to alert the main characters they’re starting to think of the other as more than a friend, but it can easily cross the line into creepy. Have you ever read about a heroine who interprets the hero's jealous behavior as proof of love, while your inner voice screams “control freak” or even “potential abuser?”  I have. And I don't like it.

On the other hand, jealousy is a very real human emotion, and it does play out in real relationships. We can’t just ignore it, even if we wanted to. But how far is too far? I personally can’t get behind a hero that tries to control the heroine’s actions out of jealousy. Or visa versa. Nor can I support a heroine manipulating the situation in order to make the hero jealous. It’s not only immature, it shows her willingness to use other people for her own ends. But people make mistakes and I’m a big believer in redemption. If they've seen the error of their ways by the end of the book, I can usually forgive them. Just how far wrong the characters can go and still be redeemable depends a lot on the writer’s skill.

What do you think? When it comes to jealous behavior, how far is too far?

*In one version of Sleeping Beauty, the king and queen only have twelve special fairy dishes, and don’t invite the thirteenth fairy for that reason. There’s a hospitality lesson in there somewhere, but that’s a discussion for another day. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Choosing a Cover

I need your help. I'm trying to decide on a cover for After the Fireweed, and I've narrowed it down to two, but I can't make the final choice. Take a look. If you were browsing through Amazon, would either of these catch your eye? Here's the pitch:

Laura’s Alaskan summer almost comes to an abrupt end in a berry patch over a territorial dispute with a bear, but a fellow hiker intercedes. Tally at day’s end: a dozen stitches, a cup of blueberries, and a lunch date with a fascinating high-school science teacher.  She returns the favor when Clay is accused of murdering his ex-wife. Laura risks her job to stay and prove his innocence. Failure may cost Clay his freedom. Flushing the real killer may cost Laura her life. 

A sweet romance with a chewy mystery center, AFTER THE FIREWEED is a story of adventure, murder, and the thrill of an unexpected love.

Which cover do you like best?