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Houston, We Have a Cover!

If you receive my email newsletter, this is old news to you. If you don’t, you should! Those folks all got entered in a drawing to win an Advance Reader Copy of the book months before it actually comes out. (Don’t worry. There will be more opportunities to enter giveaways. But if you’re on my newsletter list, you are automatically entered into every giveaway I do.)

ANYWAY, what I really want to tell you is that we have a cover!

AND the book is already available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Indiebound, and CBD. Pre-ordering is an excellent way to support a new author. It helps a book gain visibility in an online marketplace of millions of titles. And it shows retailers that there is an audience waiting for your book, which encourages them to take a chance on stocking a book from an unproven author.

When you pre-order, you will not be charged until the book is shipped. It may feel silly ordering a book six months before you can actually read it! But if you know you’re going to check it out anyway, it’s a simple way to lend your support.

 

Here is what the book is about:

When Detroit Free Press reporter Elizabeth Balsam meets James Rich, his strange request—that she look up a relative she didn’t know she had in order to deliver an old camera and a box of photos—seems like it isn’t worth her time. But when she loses her job after a botched investigation, she suddenly finds herself with nothing but time.

At her great-aunt’s 150-year-old farmhouse, Elizabeth uncovers a series of mysterious items, locked doors, and hidden graves. As she searches for answers to the riddles around her, the remarkable stories of two women who lived in this very house emerge as testaments to love, resilience, and courage in the face of war, racism, and misunderstanding. And as Elizabeth soon discovers, the past is never as past as we might like to think.

Take an emotional journey through time—from the volatile streets of 1960s Detroit to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War—to uncover the past, confront the seeds of hatred, and discover where love goes to hide.

 

Here’s what a couple bestselling authors have said about it:

We Hope for Better Things has it all: fabulous storytelling, an emotional impact that lingers long after you turn the last page, and a setting that immerses you. I haven’t read such a powerful, moving story since I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. This book will change how you look at the world we live in. Highly recommended!”—Colleen Coble, USA TODAY bestselling author of the Rock Harbor series and The View From Rainshadow Bay

“A timely exploration of race in America, We Hope for Better Things is an exercise of empathy that will shape many a soul. Erin Bartels navigates this sensitive topic with compassion as she shifts her readers back and forth between past and present, nudging us to examine the secrets we keep, the grudges we hold, and the prejudices we may help create even without intention.”—Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Perennials

 

Remember, you can pre-order through Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Indiebound, or CBD.

I can’t thank you enough for your support!

Shed That Skin

Some mornings, if you’re paying attention, you see something magical right outside your front door.

This little leafhopper, less than a half-inch long, still hasn’t unfurled his wings after molting. It was nice of him to let me take his picture anyway.

This little creature reminds me that when I’m feeling constricted in that old skin (or in his case, that old exoskeleton) all I have to do to feel a bit better is break out of it.

You’re not bound to the way you’ve done things in the past if they aren’t working. You’ve got a bright new you inside, waiting to get out. Make a change. Stretch your wings. And hop on forward.

Prepping for the Porkies

This week, my sister, Alison, and I are preparing to walk about 26 miles of some of the most beautiful and remote wilderness Michigan has to offer. We’re buying food and stuffing packs and gassing up cars.

Our path will take us up and down gentle mountains, along and across two rivers, past seven waterfalls, along the shore of the largest freshwater lake in the world, beneath old growth forests, and past abandoned copper mines. We will sleep the shortest nights of the year (just seven hours from twilight to twilight) to the sound of running water and waves and wind. We will be off the grid the entire time.

We will pay for this privilege with sore muscles and dirty hair.

Such a small price for utter bliss.

 

Fixing a Painting that Was Almost Right

Sometime last year I painted this picture of an August sunrise in mid-Michigan.

It was almost right. I loved the sky, the mist, the clouds.

But I hated, hated, hated how the big trees turned out. It was not what I had in mind.

That’s the trouble with learning an art. So often we can picture or imagine what the finished product — be it painting or novel or what have you — ought to be, but we lack the skills to bring our vision to fruition.

Well, I’ve been painting a lot lately, and reading books about painting. And something clicked in my brain about those trees. So I got the painting back on the easel and worked on it for about twenty minutes or so. And this is what I came away with.

I fixed the trees! I made them darker, since they are in silhouette, made the edges more defined, and added sky holes where you can see what is behind it peaking through spots with fewer leaves. Now they look so much more like what I had in mind.

While I was at it, I darkened the top of the clouds a bit and added some foreground detail.

I used to be disappointed in this painting. Now I love it. And it’s satisfying to see my technique improve as I practice.

What have you been practicing lately?

An Indulgent Weekend

I probably should have been doing all the laundry this weekend. Instead, I painted.

I painted this…

…and this…

…and this.

Because that’s what I really wanted to do.

I also decided that one wall of my office could double as a drying rack / storage area for paintings until they found new homes.

I’m even hanging some blank canvases in spots until I fill them up.

And that gold-framed mirror over on the left wall? That’s there for when I want to start trying my hand at painting faces. I guess I’ll start with mine.

Spring Fever, Satisfied

We are reveling in spring here in Michigan.

It feels like such a blessing after a very long winter that reached its grasping, scraping fingernails into April and was reluctant to let go.

But now, our spring flowers are in bloom.

Our foliage is stretching out to greet the sun.

And our feeders are being visited by exciting birds I rarely get to see, like orioles…

…and rose-breasted grosbeaks.

Along with our more common visitors: cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, house finches, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, and goldfinches.

We even get to see quite a lot of the neighborhood turkey, who likes hanging out in our back yard and our neighbor’s in the morning.

The poor thing is rather frightened of my little chihuahua mix (all seven pounds of her) and seems utterly dumbfounded by fences.

The view out of my upstairs office window is improving day by day as the trees leaf out.

Even the rainy days are rather warm. The daffodils and scilla and crocuses are all gone now, but tulips and grape hyacinth are hanging on, and the flowering trees are just past peak. Rivers and creeks are running high with much rain. My thoughts turn outward, toward summer travel plans, as they always do this time of year.

In about five weeks or so, my sister and I will be hiking the Porcupine Mountains, one of the stops my son and I made on our epic UP Road Trip last June. Our chosen path will take us along rushing rivers, past seven waterfalls, along the shore of Lake Superior, along escarpments, and through forests that will be weeks behind in terms of new growth (which means we’ll get to experience this marvelous spring a second time). Our campsites will have us sleeping alongside the Little Carp River, on Lake Superior at the mouth of Toledo Creek, and up on the escarpment not far from the Lake of the Clouds.

Rocks and rivers, woods and waterfalls. 60,000 acres of wilderness. Time to reflect, to rest our minds and busy our feet. Alison and I look forward to our hiking trip each year. We’ve been lots of places. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Grand Sable Dunes, Tahquamenon Falls, the Manistee River, the Jordan River Valley.

The Porkies have been on our Someday List. It takes a long time to drive there (nearly 9 hours drive time from my house in the state capital, plus time for rest stops and meals) so you need two extra days built in just to get there and back. Thankfully, timing seems to have worked out in our favor this year.

I guess after this, we may have to start saving our money to fly to more trails further away!

Hear Me Bloviate on Publishing!

You may or may not know that my husband, also a writer, is a podcast fiend, both as a listener and as a podcaster himself. He is currently hosting three podcasts (The Gut Check Podcast, Clinch: A Podcast of Fiction and Not-Fiction, and These Go to Eleven) and his sermons are available online as well.

I’ve appeared here and there on the Gut Check Podcast, mostly as a bystander or an interrupter-of-proceedings, though occasionally I am asked direct questions or serve as a reader for Gut Check Literacy Month (which has lasted, oh, I’d say maybe two years). And I bet you can hear my laugh in some of those sermon recordings. But this week Zach actually interviewed me for the not-fiction portion of Clinch.

If you’re curious about what I do in publishing, how annoying I think I will be as an author to the people on my publishing team, or you just want to listen to us talk about Zach getting lost in the woods outside of Owosso, actor Kevin Sorbo, and whether or not we should have closed the drapes to keep our dog from barking during the recording, you should definitely give it a listen.

Also, you should go back to episode one and binge it, both for the fiction portion, where Zach reads his current work in serial fashion, and the not-fiction portion, which gives you an inside look into the highs and lows of publishing, both traditionally and independently, from Zach’s own rollercoaster experience and interviews with other authors. It’s one of the most honest assessments you’ll get of what it’s like to be a writer trying to make a mark in the book world today.

Who’s Afraid of Imperfection?

Yesterday I took up my journal for the first time in six weeks. Before writing anything new, I read the last entry from March 14th, which began with the question What am I building? 

The majority of that entry asked such questions — Will I ever stop yearning? For what?…Is it resolution? That stories have them but life does not?…Am I too aware of my own insignificance?…Is it simply March, that horrifying month of zero beauty?…Am I always to be utterly mediocre?

At points, it felt psalmic — Where are my friends? Who can understand?

Finally, I managed to get to the crux of the matter — I so often feel bound, stifled, tied by good manners and good decisions and doing things the right way…Can such a life ever lead to great art?

I read that yesterday and thought, Wow…I don’t remember feeling like that. In fact, things have been going pretty well this year…well, other than the weather…and the writing.

The weather is out of my control, and Michiganders are allowed a certain measure of existential angst in March (and this year well into April). But the writing? That’s all me, right?

The truth is, I’ve been struggling to write since last summer. I’ve flitted from project to project, never landing solidly on one. I’ve been anxious about the “wasted” time for about six months. Six months! I should have a new book drafted by now! Instead, I have two chapters each of two novels, ten pages each of two screenplays, half of a TV pilot, and one and a half poems. Oh, and a half-finished painting.

I’m not blocked. I have plenty of new ideas. Too many. What I’ve lacked is time and discipline and follow-through.

I have to allow that October through February were crazy, hectic days in our home (see my last blog post for why). It was pretty exhausting. And when you’re doing that kind of work, you’re going to need time to just decompress with TV, movies, and books. Which I did.

But now all that’s over and, other than the spring garden clean-up, I don’t have so many demands on my time. So why am I still struggling with the art?

Perhaps it comes down to expectations. I expect a lot of myself. I always have. Now that a wider audience is going to experience my work, I expect even more. I’ve begun a new round of self-criticism, brought on by doing the edits on We Hope for Better Things. The edits themselves were not bad. But I’ve begun to second guess some of them. Should I have rearranged that chapter that way? Should I have dropped that line? 

As I ask established authors to endorse the book I wonder, Will they read it and be unimpressed but feel they have to say something nice anyway?

As we work through cover designs, trying to get it just right and trying to get everyone involved on board…So. Much. Angst.

And that uncertainty makes its way to the new projects I’m trying to focus on. Because I don’t want them to simply be good; I want them to be better than what I’ve done before. I know, intellectually, that they won’t be perfect. But that knowledge doesn’t stop me from wanting them to be perfect.

Yet, perfectionism is the enemy of art. Back to that journal entry. Can a life of good manners and good decisions and always striving to do things the “right way” lead to great art?

My husband is turning 40 next month. I just turned 38. We are prime targets for some mid-life-crisis-level self-examination. What have we done with our lives thus far? How much time is left? Where haven’t we been (most places) that we long to go? Are we letting time slip by, unnoticed, while we are busy with what must be done in the day-to-day? Is the time for this or that just…gone?

Neither of us had a wild, rebellious phase. Neither of us took a year to hike through Europe and “have experiences.” We have done the school, job, house, family thing, and neither of us would ever give that up. But, as I have since I was a happy child, I do find myself worrying every once in a while…does such a measured and comfortable life lead to great art?

This morning I read a post on The Art of Simple called When the Art You Create Disappoints You. In it, writer Shawn Smucker tells about how his daughter wanted to paint a very particular scene that she had in her head. She worked on the painting all day. And then, when it didn’t turn out how she’d wanted it to, she painted over it. I have done this. Probably we’ve all done something similar with something we were trying to create. We have a vision of what it can be. We haven’t the skill to pull it off perfectly. And so rather than let this imperfect creation live, we hide it or destroy it.

There is a book I have been planning and researching and imagining for years now that I haven’t had the courage to start because I fear I don’t know enough or will not have the skill needed to pull it off. It’s not one of the several projects I have started and then left hanging since last summer. It exists in no form at all, not even an embryonic outline. Because it doesn’t exist, it can be perfect. The moment I begin to put it to paper, it will fall short of my expectations.

Done right, it could be magnificent. Done wrong, it could be a source of deep embarrassment.

I recently watched an episode of Raiders of the Lost Art that told the story of the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and 1913, respectively. During the episode I learned something about Leonardo DaVinci I might have intuited, knowing what I know about the breadth of his creativity and the very different and innovative things he designed, from flying machines to war machines. The documentary makers mentioned how experimental DaVinci was and how that makes it difficult to identify newly found works that are purported to be his. One such recent find was La Bella Principessa, which was painted on vellum, a medium he was not known to have painted on.

They also discussed a huge fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, which may be hiding behind a later painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It was a technical disaster. DaVinci had been trying out a new technique (on an enormous scale) that simply didn’t work. His paint was not adhering to the wet plaster beneath it. He set up large urns with fires burning in them in order to dry the paint, but instead of drying it the heat caused the paint and plaster to run down the wall. This was a master, commissioned to do a large and important work, and it failed.

One might argue that DaVinci should have stuck with the techniques he knew would work. He should have done it the “right way,” especially with the stakes so high. But was apparently more interested in experimentation, in keeping things fresh and trying out new ideas, than he was in succeeding by way of routine. And actually, by some standards he failed much more than he succeeded, as these two very short films show.

Imperfection takes far more courage than perfection. If perfectionism keeps us from creating anything at all because what if it doesn’t turn out perfect, that takes no courage at all. That’s just following fear where it naturally leads — to immobility, to stasis. But to create despite knowing full well your creation will be flawed? That takes courage.

My journal entry from March 14th may have been affected by the weather. Heck, it may have been hormonal. But at its core, I think it was voicing my frustration with myself for my own stasis when it comes to writing. Before there was the prospect of publication and reviews (and bad reviews) I could write anything without fear. Because if it didn’t work, who would know but me? But now I think I have subconsciously been letting concerns about audience and reception stifle my experimental streak.

Maybe I need a little less caution in my life. Maybe I need to reach back in time to an Erin that existed before responsibility, an Erin who never worried and never counted the cost when it came to creative expression. An Erin who dove in headfirst and figured things out as she went.

You may be wondering about the odd collection of pictures in this post. These are that Erin’s art, when she didn’t know what the hell she was doing. They’re technically immature, often derivative, and parts of them may even have been traced. But that Erin was happy with them in a way today’s Erin is never happy with her own work, whether it be drawings, paintings, poems, or stories. That Erin was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

And somewhere inside Erin Version 38, that fearless Erin still lives.

 

Don’t Move–Improve!

When we moved into our little brick house in late 2005, we repainted every room and ceiling, brought in our furniture, and generally left well enough alone apart from adding or replacing furniture. Sure, we did some home improvement projects–the ceiling in the basement family room, the main floor bathroom, the roof, and the landscaping being the ones that come to mind. But other than that, for the most part, nothing’s changed really significantly in the last ten years.

Then somehow, we ended up changing five rooms rather dramatically in the course of about a year and a half. Some of those changes have been highlighted in earlier posts on this blog, but I’ve been wanting to get them all up in one, with before and after side by side.

So here goes…

Sun Room to Cigar Room

I’ve a feeling a great many people (especially women perhaps) might be of the opinion that these pictures surely must be backwards. But no, and in fact transforming the very feminine sun room into the very masculine cigar room was my idea, not my husband’s. The result is that we both spend a lot of time in this room now where before he almost never did. Those wicker chairs were not terribly comfortable. And now he has a place to smoke cigars all year long without being exiled to the freezing or mosquito-y outdoors. We spend a good deal of time writing out here, as well as entertaining friends while children roam the rest of the house unsupervised. It’s great. We finished more of the work by the summer of 2016. To see more of this room, click here.

 

Warm Kitchen to Cool Kitchen

So. Much. Painting. This project was six weeks of pretty concentrated work, most of it painting all those cupboards and all that woodwork a bright, washable white (they were just painted with primer before that and got so filthy). This project took up much of October and November 2017. To see more of this room, click here.

 

Office to Master Bedroom

This was part of our big room switcheroo starting in January 2018. With our master bedroom on the first floor, there’s more privacy for everyone and our wandering about well after our son has gone to bed doesn’t disturb his sleep as it once did. I like waking up in a room with an east facing window, even if the blinds are drawn because little fingers of sunlight get through the bamboo blinds and nudge me awake. Well, they do when there are no clouds, which hasn’t been often of late.

 

Master Bedroom to Kid’s Bedroom

Somehow, we got almost all of my son’s possessions into one room rather than having them scattered throughout the house. He has far more room and storage space than he ever did before and the door can just be closed on the mess. It’s a beautiful thing.

 

Kid’s Bedroom to Office

And of course, the reason behind the room switcheroo was to give me an office that was 100% mine, with no one else’s desks or stuff in it. I’ve worked from home for thirteen years, so it was about time. It has really helped my mood and my peace of mind. More pictures of this room can be found here.

All of these improvements have made our house function better and have made it more livable. We have fallen in love with it all over again and have stopped considering a move to someplace bigger. Sometimes you already have what you need–you just haven’t figured out the best way to use it. Now I think we have. And as we were moving all that furniture around in the ice and snow and rain we decided that to move an entire house just seems like too much work anyway.

Now we’re entering the season when most people are thinking of spring cleaning and big home improvement projects and we find that our big projects are mostly done. So what will we do with ourselves if spring ever comes? I suppose we’ll just have to sleep soundly, work without interruption, eat a great dinner, and sit back and enjoy a cigar.

We May Be Done with Winter…but Winter Is Not Done with Us

Yesterday after church, the Rev. and the boy and I watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe again.

It seemed somehow appropriate to our current situation.

Stuck in what feels like an unending winter.

Encased in ice.

Under a flat gray sky.

We’re halfway through April, if you can believe it.

These poor quince buds have been waiting and waiting to bloom.

The trees have been waiting to sprout new growth.

Even the evergreens seem tired of it all.

We wait eagerly for the next season.

And comfort ourselves with what we hope is one last fire.