Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Look Around You

Kathryn Page Camp

Story ideas can pop up anytime, anywhere. You just have to look around you.

I took this photo when visiting the Grand Canyon in 2014. The situation it portrays could be the foundation for anything from a sweet story about a man and his pet raven to a tale of horror centered around a rabid raven loose in a popular tourist spot.

Or maybe you are at a restaurant for a Conference Committee meeting when a drama unfolds outside, which happened on Saturday. I had my back to the window but the reactions of the Committee members sitting across from me told me that something interesting was going on. Later, one of the Committee members described the events occurring in the parking lot—events that started as a pet drama and escalated into a family one. I’ll let her or other Committee members write that story, but it could well be the prompt for a funny or tragic or heart-wrenching one. (No, nobody got shot or injured. Other than that, I’ll let you use your own imagination.)

Then there was the time when my mother and I were returning from a writers’ conference in New Mexico. We had boarded the plane and were waiting for the doors to close when a flight attendant put out a plea for someone to give up his or her seat. My mother and I just wanted to get home, so neither of us was interested, and the airline was only looking for one seat, anyway. The flight attendant kept increasing the incentives as she got more and more desperate. Finally, an older woman jumped up and said, “I’ll take it.” But it was what happened next that made the situation interesting. Apparently she was traveling with two younger women (presumably her daughters), and they argued with her all the way to the door. In the end, she left and they stayed. I went home and wrote a story about a self-sufficient woman who stood up to her over-protective daughters and got to finish the vacation she hadn’t been able to fully enjoy while they were along.

So if you need an idea for a story, just look around you.


The photo at the head of this post is © 2014 by Kathryn Page Camp.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer who writes adult non-fiction as Kathryn Page Camp and middle-grade fiction as Kaye Page. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014, and her first middle-grade historical novel, Desert Jewels, was released in August 2017. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mixing Creativity and Formula

Kathryn Page Camp

I’m tired of hearing people run down so-called genre fiction because it follows a formula, as if that means it lacks creativity.  Yes, some genre fiction is only minimally creative, but that’s the fault of the author, not the genre.

Take romance, which is often cited as the archetype of formula fiction. I don’t write romance and rarely read it because I have limited time and generally prefer other types of novels. But I do read it occasionally, and one of my favorite authors fits perfectly into the romance “formula.” More about her later.

Here is the definition of the “Romance Genre” found on the Romance Writers of America’s website at

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

This “formula” leaves a lot of room for creativity. As the RWA website goes on to say, “Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot.” Setting, characterization, plot twists, word choice, and many other elements of romance writing provide as much opportunity for creativity as literary and experimental fiction do.

For illustration, here are summaries of three stories written by my favorite romance novelist. All three books have (1) a central love story developed through a main plot that centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work and (2) an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending where the lovers’ struggles result in emotional justice and unconditional love. See if you can identify the books and/or the author.

  1. The two protagonists love each other even before the novel begins, but a well-meaning friend causes her to reject his marriage proposal. When they meet again years later, events, misunderstandings, and the romantic intentions of other parties conspire to keep them from renewing their relationship. Eventually, however, the protagonists realize that they are meant for each other and find happiness together.
  2. The female protagonist is brought up by her aunt and uncle but is treated as a poor relation. When she falls in love with one of her cousins, she keeps her attraction secret because she knows his family would never consent to a marriage between them. But when the consequences of the family’s shaky values threaten to ruin their social position, the protagonist’s inner worth shines through and the lovers are united at last.
  3. When the protagonists first meet, neither likes the other. They are continually thrown together, and the male protagonist falls in love in spite of himself. He grudgingly proposes, is rejected, and leaves. Soon after, the female protagonist’s sister elopes and threatens to bring disgrace to her family. After the male protagonist spends time and money to secure the marriage, the female protagonist realizes that she loves him after all. But it is too late! No, it isn’t. This is formula romance, and the two lovers end up together after all.
By now, you will have guessed that I’m talking about Jane Austin. Here are the titles that go with the summaries: (1) Persuasion, (2) Mansfield Park, and (3) Pride and Prejudice. I could have used many more examples, since Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey all follow the same formula.

I’m not saying that everyone should write to a formula. On the contrary, the world would be a barren place without any love stories that end in tragedy or authors who dare to try something new.
But I am saying this: don’t condemn genre novels that write to a formula, because creativity and formula CAN mix.

Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer who writes adult non-fiction as Kathryn Page Camp and middle-grade fiction as Kaye Page. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014, and her first middle-grade historical novel, Desert Jewels, was released in August 2017. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Painting Winter with Words

Northwest Indiana had well over a foot of snow this past weekend, turning the Calumet Region into a true winter wonderland. But that description has become cliché by now. Over the years, writers have found many other ways to describe the winter landscape. Here are a few examples.1

Henry David Thoreau

We start with one of the most famous naturalists, Henry David Thoreau. Both of the following passages come from Walden. The first is from a chapter titled “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors,” and the second comes from one called “The Pond in Winter.”

I weathered some merry snow-storms, and spent some cheerful winter evenings by my fireside, while the snow whirled wildly without, and even the hooting of the owl was hushed. For many weeks I met no one in my walks but those who came occasionally to cut wood and sled it to the village. The elements, however, abetted me in making a path through the deepest snow in the woods, for when I had once gone through the wind blew the oak leaves into my tracks, where they lodged, and by absorbing the rays of the sun melted the snow, and so not only made a bed for my feet, but in the night their dark line was my guide.


Then to my morning work. First I take an axe and pail and go in search of water, if that be not a dream. After a cold and snowy night it needed a divining-rod to find it. Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was so sensitive to every breath, and reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest teams, and perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field. Like the marmots in the surrounding hills, it closes its eyelids and becomes dormant for three months or more. Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

William Hamilton Gibson

Here is a very different description from another naturalist. Gibson was also an author and illustrator, as you will discover from the words he chooses.

Silently, like thoughts that come and go, the snow-flakes fall, each one a gem. The whitened air conceals all earthly trace, and leaves to memory the space to fill. I look upon a blank, whereon my fancy paints, as could no hand of mine, the pictures and the poems of a boyhood life; and even as the undertone of a painting, be it warm or cool, shall modify or change the color laid upon it, so this cold and frosty background through the window transfigures all my thoughts, and forms them into winter memories legion like the snow. Oh that I could translate for other eyes the winter idyl painted there! I see a living past whose counterpart I well could wish might be a common fortune. I see in all its joyous phases the gladsome winter in New England, the snow-clad hills with bare and shivering trees, the homestead dear, the old gray barn hemmed in with peaked drifts. I see the skating-pond, and hear the ringing, intermingled shouts of the noisy, shuffling game, the black ice written full with testimony of the winter’s brisk hilarity. (From the section titled “Winter” in Pastoral Days or Memories of a New England Year by William Hamilton Gibson)

Thomas Mann

Thoreau and Gibson were describing winter in the U.S., but what about other countries? Here is German author Thomas Mann’s description of the Swiss Alps. The book is The Magic Mountain, and this particular translation is by John E. Woods.

Yet there was a momentary hint of blue sky, and even this bit of light was enough to release a flash of diamonds across the wide landscape, so oddly disfigured by its snowy adventure. Usually the snow stopped at that hour of the day, as if for a quick survey of what had been achieved thus far; the rare days of sunshine seemed to serve much the same purpose—the flurries died down and the sun’s direct glare attempted to melt the luscious, pure surface of drifted new snow. It was a fairy-tale world, child-like and funny. Boughs of trees adorned with thick pillows, so fluffy someone must have plumped them up; the ground a series of humps and mounds, beneath which slinking underbrush or outcrops of rock lay hidden; a landscape of crouching, cowering gnomes in droll disguises—it was comic to behold, straight out of a book of fairy tales. But if there was something roguish and fantastic about the immediate vicinity through which you laboriously made your way, the towering statues of snow-clad Alps, gazing down from the distance, awakened in you feelings of the sublime and holy.

Lewis Carroll

Mann described the Alps as a fairy-tale world, but Lewis Carroll’s description appears in a real fairy tale. It also crosses the English Channel for its setting. This selection is found near the beginning of Through the Looking-Glass.

“Do you hear the snow against the window panes, Kitty? How nice and soft it sounds! Just as if someone was kissing the window all over outside. I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, as it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, ‘Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.’”

Now go out and create your own description.


1 This post is limited to prose. For poetry, read the IWC blog posts from December 13, 2017 (Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and December 20, 2017 (Emily Dickinson’s “It sifts from Leaden Sleeves”).


The photo at the head of this page is © 2011 by Kathryn Page Camp.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Echoes of a Poet's Voice--My Memory of Tom Spencer

When Tom Spencer died on June 30, 2015, IWC lost a dedicated member. More importantly, Northwest Indiana lost a great poet, mentor, and patron and a strong advocate for the written arts. But why do we bring it up now? It has come to our attention that there is a current campaign to extend his legacy, and readers of this blog might want to know about it.

Tom’s family have donated the proceeds from his last book to build a gazebo at Freedom Park in Lowell, Indiana, where he was a leading citizen. They are looking for donations to complete the funding and have established a GoGetFunding account at That avenue for donations will be open through February 15 or 18, depending on where you look for the information. That doesn’t mean you can’t donate after that date, but the donation path will change.

To be clear: This is not a solicitation. We are merely notifying you of the opportunity, and whether you donate has no effect on IWC. But this is a good time to remind all of our readers about Tom’s contribution to the writing community, and we do so by reprinting a blog post written by Helena Qi and originally posted on October 17, 2015. Here it is.


Echoes of a Poet’s Voice—My Memory of Tom Spencer

Helena Qi

he last time Tom and I met, we were surrounded by coffee grinder uproars, conversations, and laughter inside the Grindhouse CafĂ©. It was May 2, 2015 and members of Highland Writers’ Group gathered for our biweekly meeting. Tom Spencer sat to my immediate right. His oxygen tube indicated that all was not well with him, but his sharp mind and high spirits told me otherwise.  

After my turn to read, Tom made encouraging comments about my manuscript. Then he leaned toward me.

“Why haven’t you signed up for the poetry class?” Tom asked quietly against a cacophony of background noises.  

“I’d like to, but my schedule is too full right now,” I heard myself muttering feebly. I’d learned a few weeks earlier that Tom was offering free poetry lectures. Upon consideration, I had decided against adding more to my plate.

“But writing poems will help you build your vocabulary,” Tom said persuasively. 

  ~                      ~                      ~

For the next few days, Tom’s words kept ringing on my head. On May 11, the morning of the first class, I sent Tom an email saying that I had found my son a ride to and from his orchestra concert that evening and asking if it was too late to register. When no response came by midafternoon, I mustered my courage and dialed Tom’s phone number. Doris, Tom’s companion, answered and told me that Tom was ill. But yes, I was welcome to go to the class that evening.

I attended the class. Toward the end, each of us got to speak with Tom on a cell phone. To me, Tom’s mind was as astute as I’d ever known, his voice strong and enthusiastic. There wasn’t even a thread of doubt in my mind that he’d soon recover.

 ~                      ~                      ~

The next day I received Tom’s email (below).


On May 12, 2015, at 3:11 PM, tom spencer <> wrote:

Forgive my lack of response Helena, This is the first I could get to my e-mail since Sunday. I am pleased that you attended and hope that you were pleased also. Let me know if you have any questions on last evening's presentation. You have good writing skills and I would be happy to help you expand them. What instrument does your son play? Your family will always come first in my book of rules so there is never a need to apologize for your devotion to them.

Sincerely, Tom


Tom’s message filled my heart with warmth and energy. I wanted to thank him and tell him what I thought about the class. Yet I was too busy spinning around my hectic activities to write my reply until June 2, when I was 31,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean on my way to Shanghai. 

On my return flight from China on July 1, I let my thoughts roam in pleasant anticipation. One of the events I longed for was to attend the July poetry class. I was sure I’d see Tom and have a chance to express my gratitude.

Nothing prepared me for the shocking news that Tom Spencer had left the world just two days before I came back home.

~                      ~                      ~

The last time I saw Tom was at Sheets Funeral Home in Lowell on Sunday, July 5, 2015. Gazing at the tranquil face of the 71-year old poet, I felt a few poetry lines bubbling out of my blurred memory.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song” resonated with my emotions.

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I know not where,
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

I could not remember exactly when and where our first meeting took place. But each time I saw Tom was at a writing-related event. And on nearly every occasion we had a private conversation. Tom would prompt me to do more, such as attending a workshop or a poetry reading, so that I could learn to write proficiently in English, which is not my mother tongue. 

Emily Dickinson’s lines then came rushing to me as my thoughts roved along memory lane.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

I was a mere acquaintance of Tom, or else I’d have known about his serious ailments, as all of his friends did. To me, Tom the man and poet made a difference for the better. In my eyes, therefore, his life was definitely not in vain but of great value.

When I looked at Tom for the last time, Henry David Thoreau’s words rang in my ears.

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

I thought that Tom Spencer, now lying peacefully in a coffin surrounded by visitors and flower baskets, ought to be proud of his life as a poetic masterpiece, for its echoes have reached far and deep.


Helena Qi lives in Munster, Indiana. She is a member of IWC, has attended Highland Writers’ Group meetings since 2011, and aspires to become a skilled writer.