Fictional Fête: 15 Fantasy Guests

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Dear Fiction Readers and Writers,

Do you remember that cool TV show from the 1970s—Fantasy Island? For some of you this may be a way-before-your-time era, but for the rest of you, you might recall a Mr. Roarke and his cute little friend, Tattoo, who entertained guests in their fantasy pursuits. They would wait at the Fantasy Island dock in their matching white tuxedos at the start of every episode. “The Plane! The Plane!” I imagined in my own kid-way what my fantasy would be should I pay the million-dollar guest ticket price for my fantasy to become real. I had many fantasies (which I won’t share!), but sadly I never could afford the million-dollar fee.

I’ve grown up since then and have discovered that there are other ways to a good fantasy that are “off-island.” Here’s one of mine: I’m having a small fête this month. I’ve decided to invite only the people I like: good and bad, famous and infamous alike. The thing is that the guests are fictitious characters from a few of my favorite novels. (I have many favorites!) The venue is my imagination.

Bon Appetite!

P.S. In case you are curious, my character guest list follows:

Background Image: Jesper Larsen-Ledet/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Background Image: Jesper Larsen-Ledet/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

  1. Icy Sparks (from Icy Sparks by Gwyn Hyman Rubio)

Ten-year-old orphan Icy Sparks is from 1950s Kentucky who has an interesting trait: uncontrollable tics and some of the most outrageous cursing I have ever heard. She is someone who really says what she thinks. Icy doesn’t know it but she has Tourette Syndrome. I like her very much because she is a precocious, quirky character who changes the other characters in her story. I would vote for her if she ran for president.

  1. Mina Murray (from Dracula by Bram Stoker)

Wilhelmina ”Mina” Murray is a remarkable character and a marvel, she (I can’t recall if I’m remembering Winona Ryder from the 1990s film version) and that modern fancy-dancy typewriter that she uses to type personal letters to her fiancée, Jonathan, who’s under the impression that he’s the hero in Stoker’s horror story—when in fact it is Mina who is the real star. If you don’t believe me—ask Dracula. Mina’s character marks the rise of the modern female detective. If I go missing, please call Mina. Posthaste!

  1. Dustfinger (from Inkheart by Cornelia Funke)

Dustfinger is a supporting character that I followed in Funke’s three-volume story, Inkheart. He is a tragic and talented character who can breathe fire and curiously is also a reluctant hero. He has his own agenda but puts it aside to help the other protagonists. Still, Dustfinger can be unreliable and is sometimes a curmudgeon. Aren’t we all at some time? I enjoyed his dry wit and actor Paul Bettany’s very human portrayal of this complicated character in the film version, too. I think Dustfinger would amaze my guests with his special skills, but I won’t pay him until the show is over!

  1. Hig
  2. Bangley
  3. Jasper (from The Dog Stars by Peter Heller)

Hig is the main character in Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic story, The Dog Stars. Hig is optimistic, philosophical, and loves nature. He flies around in a small Cessna plane with his faithful dog, Jasper, looking for signs of life and renewal all the while quoting Whitman and Johnny Cash. I think I met my literary soulmate in Heller’s story, if that is possible. If I invite him to my dinner party he will probably bring Jasper and his cranky friend, Bangley, who balances Hig’s optimism with his self-righteous mistrust of everyone and everything and whom I also like very much. You can’t invite one without inviting the other. It wouldn’t be very kind with the lack of people in their lonely world and limited opportunity for socializing. There is plenty of room at my table, and besides, who doesn’t love a good argument with their dinner? Please pass the **** salt!

  1. Mary Beth Mayfair (from The Witching Hour by Ann Rice)

Remind me to warn my guests that Mary Beth is a witch. (Some people are squeamish about that kind of thing.) Not the pointed black hat kind but rather the modern-world kind of witch. She comes from a long line of witches. You could say that it is the family business. I don’t like everyone in her family, but I do like her. She is very kind to strangers and children and exceptionally talented in bilocation and managing money. (Did I mention that her family are millionaires?) In fact, if she ever gives you money, she’ll tell you to spend it quick because somehow coin or cash always return to their place of origin be it Mary Beth’s coat pocket or beaded purse. She’s the bee’s knees for sure! Wouldn’t she be fun to go shopping with?

  1. Laura Ingalls Wilder (from The Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder)

I know what you are thinking—but how can I not invite Laura? She is one of my oldest character-friends. Laura is a protagonist in her own life story that is truly memoir. Heck, they even made a TV series about her life. There’s that, and the fact that she was a big influence on me both personally and professionally. I quite figuratively and literally grew up with her. Her stories kept me company and occupied me on many a rainy day, during the long, boring, sometimes tumultuous middle years up through my teens and beyond. I caught up with her again in my twenties and later again in the classroom. Laura was one of my icons in children’s literature and has earned her velvet chair at my table. Subject closed. Icy will be her dinner partner. Maybe I’ll seat Jasper between them just for fun. Dogs are people, too, you know.

  1. Kirby Mazrachi (from The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes)

When I think of this character, the word tenacious pops up into my head. It’s a perfect adjective for her and if you’ve met her already you will understand and perhaps agree. You see, Kirby, single-handedly went after a time-traveling serial killer who targeted his victims when they were children. It gives me chills just thinking about her adversary, a serial killer—very creepy bedtime reading—and his modus operandi of stalking little girls and then returning for them when they were older. Kirby was one of his victims, but she survived him and decided to end this creep’s career. It wasn’t easy because she had to navigate in a crime story that was also science fiction. How do you track someone through time? Kirby found a way. I’ll seat her next to Mina. They have much in common. Don’t you agree?

  1. Mr. Rochester (from Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte)

Oh my stars! Edmund Charles Fairfax Rochester is wonderful! Maybe you have met him already if you have read Jane Eyre? He is an amazing character. He is probably the best friend anyone could ever have next to Jasper, of course. He is so charming and witty and interesting and mysterious in a beguiling, romantic way, of course. He’s the quintessential Romantic Era hero. He always says what he means and even though he can be aloof and secretive, he never lies… well, except maybe once to Jane, but really who could blame him? I will have to warn my guests not to get too attached to him. He’s already taken.

  1. Scarlett O’Hara (from Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell)

Katy Scarlett O’Hara seems to have a dark cloud hanging over her all the time. But the thing about Scarlett is that no matter how bad things get—and they do get pretty bad by modern standards—she loses her baby, her husband, her friends, and her home to the Yankees. Yet despite it all, Scarlett is always so very optimistic. After all, “Tomorrow is another day.” She doesn’t stay down long. She is an also an opportunist. What I call an optimistic-opportunist because she always finds a way to get what she wants or what she needs, by default—if you can call Rhett Butler a default. I wouldn’t. Anyway, she’s coming and hopefully not dressed in the living room drapes and she will be sitting between Bangley and Dustfinger. Oh what fun!

  1. Ralph Truit (from A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick)

As you might have guessed, I’m a sucker for romance and the American West. Ralph is, too, even though he says he isn’t. He’s the worst kind of romantic—hopeless! Anyway, he placed an advertisement in a Chicago newspaper in 1907 for an “honest and reliable wife” and got more than he bargained for when a woman named Catherine Land answered his advertisement and, let’s say, stole his heart among other things. But don’t feel too badly for Ralph. He had a plan of his own and Catherine was quite surprised, as was I. Ralph will be sitting next to Hig; they are both pretty even-tempered individuals and I think would get on well.

  1. Jim Quick (from Darling Jim by Christian Moerk Holt)

Jim is a storyteller who travels around Ireland, going from pub to pub on his Harley like a bad-boy from the bygone beat generation, seducing young women, stealing from them, and maybe killing them, too. Nobody is perfect! Not even Jim. However, Jim is a wonderful antagonist who picked the wrong women to prey on: three feisty Irish sisters who I think got the better of him—or was it the other way around? I’m hoping Jim will have some stories to share. Don’t worry! I will turn out his pockets when he arrives and hide the butter and steak knives before and after dinner. He’ll be sitting with Mina and Kirby. Those two will keep him out of trouble, no doubt.

  1. Harpspeed

As for me, my story is still being written.

  1. Reader

I left an empty seat for you, dearest Toasted Cheese reader and writer. Come fraternize.

Who’s On Your Guest List?

A Pen In Each HandBy Harpspeed

Dear Fiction Readers and Writers,

It’s your turn. Imagine you could meet a favorite character from a work of fiction. Any character. Whom would you choose? A character from your own shelves? A character from your past? Or how about a character you haven’t met yet? Perhaps, someone who was once recommended to you? (For me it would be that astronaut from the book and the film, The Martian.) A stranger-character? How intriguing that would be!

Now imagine you could invite a dozen or more characters to your house for a party or a backyard barbecue or what-have-you? The trick is to know your characters well, to be select with your choices: Would they like each other? Would they share similar traits or politics? Would you break out the tequila or the sherry or make a grab for Chekov’s gun on the wall?

Please share this occasion with your friends at Toasted Cheese. Tell us who you plan to invite and do tell us why. Or tell us after the fact. Was it a “screaming” success or did you lose a few guests? Did any characters run off together? Any foul play? Just a sentence or two is fine. We can read between the lines. We’re pretty good at that.

TC Reviews Editor

P.S. A few words to the wise: You may want to steer clear of the psychopaths and vampires. They can be so unpredictable! If you insist on inviting one or more, be sure to have a strong antagonist or protagonist with them to keep them in check. And be mindful: characters can change whether for good or for bad. Those are the best characters and the most interesting guests! They also stay with us long after their stories resolve.

20 Questions: An Interview with Margarita Engle

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet, award-winning novelist and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. As a reader and a writer I am doubly excited to have had such a wonderful conversation with Margarita who writes children’s stories and young adult novels, many of which echo her own family history and love of nature.

20 Questions: An Interview with Margarita Engle

Background Image:

Toasted Cheese: Margarita, what were you like as a kid?

Margarita Engle: I was a shy bookworm with glasses, a long braid, a broken tooth, and homemade mother-daughter clothes. I loved plants and animals, especially horses. I wrote poetry.

TC: From your self-description, you could be a young character in a book, yourself. Tell us what inspired you to write your first book?

ME: After a long separation from Cuba, I finally obtained permission to go back in 1991. My grown-up prose novels were inspired by family history, but after the turn of this new century, I switched to children’s and young adult verse novels. The Poet Slave of Cuba was my first verse novel, and it changed my life forever.

TC: Many of your stories such as The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Drum Dream Girl are historically set in Cuba and have characters that struggle for their freedom and independence. Are any of the characters’ experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

ME: The Wild Book is based on stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. Mountain Dog is inspired by real people and real wilderness search and rescue dogs. Enchanted Air is a memoir.

TC: Skywriting has a young character that escaped from Cuba on a raft made from inner tubes that parallels the modern world. In the last 50 years, hundreds of refugees made similar epic and perilous journeys across the dangerous 90 miles of ocean to the Florida coast. With US economic sanctions lifting, how will this new political atmosphere affect your writing?

ME: I just returned to Cuba a couple of weeks ago, and not much has changed yet, but there is hope, and that is huge. I always write about hope, but now I’ll do it with the extra excitement of knowing that more than a half of a century of mutual hostilities between my two beloved countries will finally begin to fade.

TC: Another aspect of your stories relates to gender equality. Your female characters are often main characters and are wonderfully fierce and determined to stay true to their beliefs and purpose. They have a strong sense of themselves, of who they are. They persevere and affect positive and political change for themselves and others. Is there a message for girls today in your stories?

ME: Perseverance and a belief in equality certainly are recurring themes, but I don’t invent that aspect. It already exists in the lives of real people I admire, such as Rosa la Bayamesa in The Surrender Tree, Fredrika Bremer in The Firefly Letters, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda in The Lightning Dreamer, Maria Merian in Summer Birds, and Millo Castro Zaldarriaga in Drum Dream Girl.

TC: Family is also a prevalent theme in your stories. There is separation and loss in many of them, yet love and friendship are present even when the characters disagree or are antagonists. Can you speak to that?

ME: I don’t do this consciously. It just emerges from the need for mutual understanding and forgiveness.

TC: From your writing I also detect a love of nature based on your lovely descriptive environmental prose. Setting is as prominent as the characters in many of your stories.

ME: Before I turned to full time creative writing, I studied agriculture and botany, and worked as an agronomy professor, an irrigation water conservation specialist, and a scientific writer. I have always loved nature, even though I grew up in the big city of Los Angeles.

TC: Tell us why you love dogs.

ME: When I married my husband, he had a dog that went to all his college classes with him. Now, 37 years later, he has a wilderness search-and-rescue dog trained to help find lost hikers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. My role is hiding in the forest, so that various K-9 SAR teams can practice. Dogs are just part of my daily life.

TC: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

ME: I love to travel, and I especially love returning to Cuba, but I also went to Panama to research Silver People, and Borneo for Orangutanka.

TC: Why are so many of your novels are written in verse?

ME: I fell in love with the form, and especially with its suitability for historical fiction. I love the way free verse gives me room for a character’s thoughts and feelings, without requiring the clutter of every fact and figure known about a subject. Occasionally I’ll add a bit of rhyme, especially in a picture book for very young children.

TC: Your picture books also convey similar themes on a smaller scale.

ME: Drum Dream Girl and Summer Birds are about women who accomplished things only men were supposed to attempt. The Sky Painter is about Louis Fuertes, the bird artist who stopped the tradition of killing and posing birds. When You Wander is about search and rescue dogs, and how to avoid getting lost in the wilderness. Tiny Rabbit’s Big Wish is a Cuban folktale about being satisfied with what we have. Orangutanka is an introduction to a beautiful, intelligent, critically endangered species. In general, my picture books are either about people who dared to try something original, or about animals, and the things we can learn from them.

TC: When you were researching, did you discover anything interesting or cool that didn’t make it into any of your stories? Perhaps seeds for future stories?

ME: That’s an interesting question, because it really is easy to get sidetracked, and become fascinated with stories related to the one I’m researching. The Firefly Letters grew from research for The Poet Slave of Cuba, and The Sky Painter was an offshoot of research for Silver People. Many of the things that haven’t made it into a book yet really do survive as tiny seeds in the back of my mind.

TC: Here’s my burning question: You are the recipient of many prestigious awards for your stories and poetry—Is there a cost to literary fame? More responsibility? Or is it all good?

ME: It’s all good! Awards help me continue to get published.

TC: What books have most influenced your life most?

ME: Poetry from Cuba and Spain is the most influential, especially José Martí, Dulce María Loynaz, and Antonio Machado.

TC: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

ME: Tomás Rivera was my creative writing professor. He really was a mentor, simply by teaching me to write from the heart, without worrying about getting published. That comes later.

TC: Do you have a specific writing style and process?

ME: I’m a morning person. I write first drafts with a pen on paper, because I love the flow of ink. I try not to worry about corrections until a much later draft.

TC: What was the hardest part of writing your books?

ME: The hardest part is fear. Each time I start a manuscript, I have to find the courage to say what I want to say, without worrying about the approval of strangers.

TC: Do you have a favorite character from your books?

ME: My grandmother in The Wild Book.

TC: How long does it take to write a historical verse novel? How long does it take to write a picture book?

ME: A historical verse novel usually takes me around one year of research, and one year of scribbling, but The Poet Slave of Cuba took ten years of false starts in prose. A picture book can be written quickly, but then I have to wait for the editor to choose an illustrator, which can take months. Once the illustrator agrees to work on the book, it can take several years before the artwork is complete. Writers need patience. There are no shortcuts.

TC: Thank you, Margarita. And one final question: do you have any advice for Toasted Cheese writers?

ME: Listen to Tomás Rivera: Write from the heart. Don’t worry about getting published. That comes later.

A Creative Go-To

A Pen In Each Hand

By Harpspeed

I remember on one occasion back in my undergrad days in a creative writing classroom I was expected to complete a writing exercise on the spot. I felt tired from a long day already spent at my day job and overwhelmed—being at my lowest creative moment of the day. Regardless, I had to write something. So while my peers were scratching and tapping away in their notebooks and keyboards, I was zeroing on a single topic along with some describing words, and whatever literary mechanisms my tired brain could muster up.

In the end, I broke down the assignment from paragraphs and pages to consonants and syllables. I was much like that stereotypical driver driving on empty fumes and magically making it to the gas station before the engine finally conked out for good. In fact, I surprised myself with having wellspring of creativity inspired from my lack of it. Thirty minutes later, I shared a free verse poem about an evening walk with my dog. I borrowed this technique at a similar venue years later. I wrote about the juicy clementine I had consumed minutes before. Success had made free verse my official go-to for creativity-tapping.

So, here’s the thing, if you are ever in creative trouble, don’t get upset or overwhelmed. Instead, think different. Think smaller. Think poetry. You might even consider trying a tanka poem. Here’s the skinny: Tanka poetry originated in Japan and is over 1200 years old. It is similar to haiku poetry but contain more syllables as well as metaphor, personification, and simile. Tanka poems contain five lines. Subjects of tankas include nature, seasons, and emotion.

These are examples I found on the web: [1] [2] [3] [4].

Recycled: Books

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)

Last spring I attended a vintage craft fair and my take-away was unexpected. The fair was a delightful mix of antiques and art but with a twist—the old and the new were fused together in a recycling theme. Familiar objects got a second life as they were transformed into something new with added parts and new purpose like the birdhouses made from broken crockery and ancient-looking license plates. Painted signs from bygone days were transformed into coffee tables. Purses and tote bags were created from recycled juice boxes, candy wrappers, and burlap sacks straight from somebody’s barn. I felt a resurgence of my own creativity happening with every step, every glance, and every touch. Some of the crafts I wanted to try out like the folk art ocean buoys and the wind chimes made from fishing wire, spoons, and glass doorknobs. Both would look pretty nifty in my front garden I thought.

I walked around for about an hour when I spied the book tent. I was almost giddy and I could hardly wait to see what treasures awaited inside. I paused a moment for a crowd of young families to exit and stepped into the small space immediately surprised at what I didn’t see—where were all the books? I expected a table of stacked books sorted by author or genre: contemporary fiction novels piled high–crime, mystery, horror, historical, romance–and another section of non fiction–biography, poetry, memoir, coffee table books on various subjects, crates of old trade journals and magazines. But there were no tables. No crates. No vintage journals.  Not even an old Playboy magazine. When the last of the crowd headed toward the door flap I saw bookcases lining the perimeter—books at last!

Photo credit: Pimthida/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Background Image: Pimthida/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I made my way over to a case that displayed classics. They were shelved with their covers facing out. There weren’t very many but I did spy some familiar old friends:  Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Dracula, Huckleberry Finn, Scrooge, and The Great Gatsby himself. They were hard cover editions and I reached for Mary Shelley’s book. It had a black leather cover with faded, etched details. I held it in my hand a moment and when I was sure no one was watching I lifted it up to my face and inhaled deeply. It smelled old and oily and reminded me of saddle leather. It was a beautiful book and would be “a first” in my collection of classic novels. I brushed its cover with the palm of my hand… so soft and worn like it belonged to Frankenstein himself. I turned the cover over to see what was on the back and that was when I noticed the spine. Someone had carefully taken it apart and added thin leather strapping like shoelaces that held its two covers in place. (The spine flipped open and shut thus hiding the strapping.) I opened the copy and found its pages had been replaced with blank ones–it was a literal absolute blank. I fanned through it and felt a little pinch in my heart. All that was left of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece was its leather façade. I replaced it and reached for Huckleberry Finn and felt another pinch.

On another shelf I spied Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and some kid’s books from the golden age of children’s literature—a Dick and Jane story from the 1950s, and other books that I didn’t recognize. They were all the same inside. They were all just the covers devoid of their printed pages, reduced to notebooks or journals. I picked over a few more when I caught the eye of the proprietor. She smiled and was about to say something when two women came in and distracted her. They went straight for the rose-colored copy of Vanity Fair, marveling at the ingenuity of the “artist” who created such a thoughtful and “useful” article.

Meanwhile, I stood there in horrified fascination watching them pull the journals from the shelves as I had done just moments before. It was like witnessing something terrible and not being able to look away. In those moments, I thought about the authors—how they would feel to see their life’s work capitalized upon in such a grotesque manner. My spell broke when one of the women asked me if I was going to buy the remains of the Jane Austin book that I was clutching to my chest. I shook my head and gave her the copy before leaving.

I thought about this encounter all the way home. I felt repulsed. Had the covers of the journals been replicated, made to “look” like the books themselves, then I would be okay with it. Some of the most revered classics and artwork have had their cover images borrowed and placed on tote bags and mugs. I own a graphic T-shirt with the imprint of a famous Japanese woodcut painting that I wear guilt-free. But the books on display at the vintage craft fair were in fact the real covers of real books, the skeletal remains of what I considered to be icons of our literary culture. I felt a small fissure forming in one my ventricles. Was I over-reacting?

I thought some more.

I thought about the physical life cycle of a book. A book is created inside a publishing house and is born in the bookstores and in the big warehouses waiting for its first owner. After purchase it may linger on a shelf for weeks or months or even years before being read and then perhaps given away or re-sold. The lucky ones might make their way to a secondhand book shop or onto Craigslist or tragically and most likely end up in the carton at the end of someone’s driveway after a yard sale, homeless and at the mercy of the elements.

The story is not over. Perhaps a book dealer comes along and pulls the weathered volume out of the box and recognizes that it is a first edition collector’s item. It is sold at auction. That is a fortunate book, indeed, and it will spend its days in a glass library to be revered, but sadly again, never read. Better still, maybe the yard-salers will donate their unwanted collection to local charities that will distribute them to public institutions or maybe send them abroad as ambassador books to those who have a dire need for books. Books that don’t make the cut I presume would be put in the recycled paper bin or worse burned as kindling. My heart feels heavy from this thought. So what do we do with books that have outlived our need for them? Books that are beyond repair?

In my ideal world, we would send them to my figurative friend, Mortimer “Mo” Folchart, a character‬ from Cornelia Funke’s YA novel, Inkheart. Mo is a craftsman who makes his living repairing books and has the added talent of breathing life into characters that he reads aloud. A true book doctor he is. But there are no more Mos in the real world. At least none that I can think of outside of museums and monasteries…

Still, some people might argue that that we should be saving trees and reading books and other print on electronic devices. In fact, many readers I know are moving away from hard copies and are doing just that. When they are finished they have the option to save their book electronically, or click the delete button and be done with it. Nothing wasted or left behind. Yet, what of the rest of us whose books inhabit a shelf or more?  Should we have a funeral for them and bury them in the backyard? Rip out their pages and make paper wallets and cute origami animals?

In late November I returned to the fairgrounds, this time to visit the vintage holiday bazaar, some of whose artists and crafters I had seen earlier. Many of their wares were recreated art on a holiday theme. Not surprising, I also found more recycled books. This time carved into the shapes of pine trees and candy canes and letters that made words like: JOY and CHEER and MERRY. I admit that I wasn’t feeling very joyful or cheerful or merry as I picked through them. I found their pages intact but impossible to read due to their re-shaping and re-sizing. Once again, people found them to be clever and charming and bought them for $10 a piece. I suppose that the world won’t miss a 1972 copy of Reader’s Digest or an Encyclopedia Britannica that predates the Internet.


In fact, I received a monogram book as a gift. Ironic it is and even more so now that it is displayed in a place of honor facing out on the shelf alongside some of my favorite volumes. The book is in the shape of my first initial letter and was given to me by a very-special-somebody who recognizes me truly as a lover of books, a purveyor of novels and stories, a life-long reader. The recycled book may have indeed reached its final use and in its last life, it shall remain on my shelf indefinitely despite its appearance because it still resonates meaning.

A Book in Two Hands

A Pen In Each Hand

By Harpspeed

When I was ten or eleven years old I had a doctor’s appointment at Children’s Hospital in Boston and while waiting in the big lobby inside the main entrance to the building, I spied several of my Little Golden Books on a shelf. I knew they were mine because when I opened their covers, I found my name in my mother’s beautiful looping script with the date of receipt and the occasion for the gift. I remember looking around at the other children and seeing what I believed to be my copy of Goldilocks in the hands of a little girl and feeling a little awed of my mother and happy at the same time to see something that I had loved bring joy to someone else.

Why not give such a book that no longer has a shelf life in your home to someone who will appreciate it? The life of a book will increase if every reader considers the next reader. Early spring, I sort through my own books that are ready for their second or third or fourth life and keep them ready-to-go at a moment’s notice.

Photo credit: henry.../Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo credit: henry…/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Here are some general places in frequent need:

  1. Shelters
  2. Hospitals
  3. Schools and child care facilities
  4. Library book sales
  5. Senior centers
  6. Armed services (soldiers home & abroad)
  7. Prisons
  8. Charities—big and small—that will use or re-sell or re-distribute books abroad to those who have lost their books or have none.

Places to sell them:

  1. Your local used bookstore (if you can find one!)
  2. Over the Internet to specific buyers looking for your copy in places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble used book markets, eBay, and Craigslist.

How to Write a Book Review (and How to Request One)

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (Harpspeed)


I think one of the important components in writing a book review is mindset. One needs to be open minded to reading books that they may not typically read. Professional editors and writers may have the option of choosing the books they review with the added perk of a salary. At Toasted Cheese and many other literary journals the editors and writers review books for the joy of it and to support fellow writers. It is a labor of love.

Revving Up before Reading:

Another practice I follow is to learn about the author before reading his/her book. I visit blogs, social media, and websites. Knowing something about the author makes the reading a more personal experience and may help later when it is time to write the review and the short biography that follows. I also look in the Toasted Cheese archives to see if there are submissions and links to other writing. It is like taking a test drive before driving cross-country.


The task also requires mindfulness. Before I open a book that is slotted for review, I always ask: What makes this a good book? This is a great question particularly if one is reviewing a book that is outside of their writing or reading genre(s). Giving myself an assigned question truly helps to focus on the task. Within the context of the question there are three sub-parts that I consider: What is this book about? This relates to genre, character and plot, the general information that most reviews contain. What do I notice within the text? This refers to style, language, theme, vocabulary, etc. a.k.a. the writer’s toolbox. Lastly, what do I notice beyond the story? Does it relate to the real world in any way? Are there comparisons or contrasts that can be drawn?

Another name for this practice is active reading. Meanwhile, I’m annotating the copy—I’m circling, underlining, highlighting, and writing notes in the margins. I also attach sticky notes on the pages that answer my question(s). By the time I finish reading, there are usually a dozen or more colored notes sticking out of the copy.

I take my time with every book and collection of poetry and stories and when I’ve finished reading and annotating, I let the words simmer in my mind for days before my fingers touch the keyboard. This is how I begin.

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan/Flickr (CC-by)

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Tips for Writing a Review for Toasted Cheese:

  • Keep in mind Candle-Ends is our way of connecting the TC community with the literary journal. We’re looking for positive/neutral reviews that support the writers in our community.
  • We’re ok with fluffy, but not with false praise. Be honest, but kind.
  • We know one of the reasons writers hesitate to write reviews is they’re unsure how to handle reviewing a book they didn’t love unequivocally. Here are some suggestions:
    • Describe the book. For a novel, tell readers about the key characters, the gist of the plot, the setting. For short stories or poetry, give readers an overview of the types of stories or poems they can anticipate. Write about the overall theme of the book. Describe the writer’s style.
    • Let the book speak for itself. Include representative quotes in your review so readers can see what to expect and judge for themselves.
    • Highlight the the book’s strengths.
    • Sandwich criticism between praise. If there is a weakness you think is important to mention, put it in the middle. Start with a positive and end with a positive.
  • A brief mention of why you personally related to the book is fine, but don’t digress too much. Keep the focus on the content of the book.
  • Provide a brief biography of the author as well as links to their website and/or social media accounts.
  • Please mention if you have a personal connection to the author.

Tips for Requesting a Review from Toasted Cheese:

  • Requests for reviews should be sent to our reviews editor at
  • Be sure to mention the author’s connection to Toasted Cheese (please note: we only review books by writers with a pre-existing connection to TC).
  • Author or publisher must be able to provide a digital and/or print copy of the book to the reviewer.
  • Indicate your willingness to write a review. Not only is it good karma to reciprocate, but requesting authors who write a review will be moved to the front of the queue.

The Summer Writing Bucket List

Absolute BlankBy Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Summer is my favorite time of year. For many of us it is a change-up in the daily patterns of our lives. Because there are fewer vehicles on the roads due to school breaks and vacation rotations in the office, the commute to work isn’t as long, so many of us can sleep in a little longer and arrive home a little sooner. Home life changes, too. The sandals and flip-flops come out of the closet. Summer food is back. It’s a time to BBQ and to enjoy an icy cold one while dinner cooks on the grill or at your favorite restaurant now that the patio and umbrellas are open for dining al fresco. Don’t forget to stop at the ice cream stand on the way home.

The Summer Writing Bucket List

Indeed, the day-to-day demands don’t seem so demanding when the sun is still shining at eight o’clock, leaving plenty of time in the day to squeeze in those extra activities that were not possible during the long winter months. It is so easy to drop off the radar and slip away because no one is looking. And there is no requirement or a sunny sign-up sheet in order to take part in the summer change-up. It’s a given. A gift.

I personally get very excited beginning in June when I see my favorite indie bookstores and my local library have their summer reading lists posted on their doors and display boards. How many new novels can I squeeze in before September? Yet reading is not the only change-up in my summer lifestyle—my writing changes too. It seems to be a natural occurrence as it happens like clockwork every year. Maybe it’s the boost in serotonin levels in my brain from all the added sunshine or maybe it is an evocative reaction to the sights, the sounds, the summery smells resonating deep in my writer-being that I credit from spending extravagant amounts of time outside as opposed to the ocean of time spent inside last winter. Perhaps it is all of the above.

Whichever the reason, along with it comes one extra perk and that is a sense of freedom that can be exhilarating. During July and August I give myself express permission to break away from any existing writing projects. I tuck them in on my hard drive and I step away to try something new. Something that perhaps I’ve always wanted to try but haven’t had the chance. I break out my summer writing bucket list. bucket1My bucket is blue with a picture of SpongeBob SquarePants on its side. If ideas were stones, my bucket would nearly topple over from the weight of all the ideas it holds. I reach inside and pick…

Last summer, I was possessed with writing personal essays. I made a list and managed to get three nearly finished before September first. The summer before that I spent some time playing with narrative points of view. This summer, I’ve decided to change up my writing bucket list. The last three bucket numbers are now re-ordered to Numbers 1, 2, and 3. My plans are to spend some time writing blog posts on a particular non-fiction subject, writing an old story in a different point of view, and perhaps writing one or two fresh pieces of flash fiction. Yes. I’m ambitious.

And even though I may abandon my laptop to literally go fly a kite on the beach or go see a ball game, and may not return to my writing until the next day or the day after that, it is perfectly A-okay to do so. It is okay because if indeed the summer months take over my writing schedule, I know that anything I don’t finish will become fodder for the winter months—my winter writing bucket list.

So writers, while the sun is shining consider a change-up in your writing. Write a list for your summer writing bucket and make it happen.

And tell us about it, too. Share your thoughts and experiences with the TC editors in a comment or a tweet or drop by TC’s weekly writing thread in the Chasms and Crags forum hosted by TC editor, Beaver. Tell ’em Harpspeed invited you. 😉

Make Your Own Summer Writing Bucket List

A Pen In Each Hand

By harpspeed

What will you put in your bucket? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Post a suggestion or a comment here. 🙂
  • Take out an old story and write back stories for your main and supporting characters.
  • Write a short story.
  • Write a story entirely in dialogue.
  • Write a story in backward chronology.
  • Write a story that happens in a 24-hour span.
  • Rewrite a story in a different point-of-view: first, second, or third.
  • Rewrite a story with a different narrator, style, or structure: Give an inanimate object or concept such as “joy” a voice. Try writing in stream-of-consciousness style or in epistolary format to tell your story. It worked for Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Charles Frazier and a host of writers.
  • Write a flash story.
  • Give an old story a fresh coat of words: Rewrite it in a different verb tense. Try a present, past or future voice: I write all summer long. I wrote all summer long. I will write all summer long. I promise!
  • Write in a different genre.
  • Interview someone of interest in your community and pitch the interview to your local newspaper editor or local magazine editor. Hint: Retired veterans and school bus drivers have great stories to share and know a lot about the community.
  • Create a cookbook anthology using your personal favorite recipes.
  • Pitch an event to your local newspaper editor, attend, and write about it. (I touched the real Titanic and wrote about the artifacts on exhibit when I toured a local museum with third-graders. There wasn’t much news that day so my little story and accompanying photograph made the front page.)
  • Write a friendly letter.
  • Write a query letter.
  • Write a personal essay about something you feel strong about that has a universal audience and pitch it to your local newspaper editor. (I once wrote about Beanie Babies and compared them to other collectables of the past. Approximately 30,000 people read it in the editorial section of my local newspaper.)
  • Write a poem.
  • Write about something you are an expert on. A how-to essay or what a particular activity means to you. If you have hobbies start there. Maybe you know how to build the perfect chicken coop or know some gardening secrets you can share. Visit the newsstands and see where your piece best fits.
  • Write an article or book review for Toasted Cheese!

Ready.  Set.  Write!

What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

Background Image: Glen Zazove/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”


Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”