Z is for Zarecze


Ah, the last day.  We’ve made it!  Congrats to all!

I may have been stuck on Y, but I’ve known from the very beginning what I wanted to do for Z.


Because Zarecze is a mystery, and I’m hoping someone will be able to offer some clues.

Here’s what I know:

My grandfather, Josef Urynowicz, traveled to America on the Pretoria, which sailed from Hamburg, Germany and docked at New York Harbor on November 15, 1907.

Here’s his line from the ship’s manifest (the text version, since the handwritten original is almost unreadable):

0005. Urynowicz, Josef M 24y S Russia, Polish Zarecze, Russia


Reading from left to right, it tells us he’s #5 on the manifest list; it gives us his name and tells us he was male, he was 24 years old, he was single, he was from Russia but ethnically Polish, and he was born in Zarecze, Russia.

Problem #1:  Russia’s on there twice.  According to the manifest, he was from the Russian partition.

I have no problem with that except that it’s in direct conflict with what my mom and other family members have told me, which is that Grampa was from Krakow.  The problem is that Krakow wasn’t in the Russian partition—it’s in the southern part of the country, which was the Austrian partition.

Problem #2:  There’s no town called Zarecze anywhere in the Russian partition.  Nor is there one anywhere near Krakow.  It appears, in fact, that there’s no town called Zarecze anywhere at all.

However,  Google is happy to provide me with an alternative spelling.  It’s not Zarecze, according to Google.  It’s Zarzecze, with an extra Z (perfect for today, right?).  And as it turns out, there are lots of Zarzeczes, including one near Krakow and one near Vilnius (a major city in what was the Russian partition, now the capital of Lithuania).

So now I’m stuck.  What I’ve just given you is the sum total of all the information I have about my grandfather, so when it comes to tracking down my great-grandparents or any other relatives (none of whose names I know), I’m pretty much looking at a brick wall.  Was he from a town that no longer exists, or was it just spelled wrong?   And if it was actually Zarzecze, then which one?

And there’s nobody left to ask.  My mom, who passed away in 2010, was the last of her siblings.

Incidentally, my mom always told me my grandmother was from Krakow, too, but Grandma’s ship’s manifest says she also was from the Russian partition, specifically from Kaunas (Kowno), which is also in present-day Lithuania.  I don’t know any of her parents’ or siblings or other relatives’ names, either.

Any ideas?

Y is for . . .


Y is for . . .

yabber yacht yachtsman yack yagi yah yahoo Yahweh Yahwist yak Yakima yakitori y’all yam yamen yammer yang Yangtze yank yanked Yankee yap yappy Yarborough yard yardage yardarm yardbird yardman yardmaster yardstick yarmulke

yarn yarrow yashmak yataghan yaw yawl yawn yawp yaws yclept ye yea yeah yean year

yearbook yearlies yearling yearlong yearly yearn yeast yeasty Yeats yech yegg yell yellow yellowback yellowbacks yellowbellies yellowbelly yellowcake yellowhead Yellowstone yelp yen

yenshee yenta yeoman yep Yerba Buena yerk yes yeshiva yesterday yesternight yesteryear yesteryears yestreen yet yeti yeuk yew yid yiddish yield yielding yikes yin Yinglish yip yipped yippee yippees yogurt

young youngberry younger youngest youngish youngling younglings youngly youngness youngster youngsters Youngstown younker younkers your yourn yours yourself yourselves yourt yourts youth youthful youthfully youthfulness yow yowie yowies yoga

and yurt


And I can’t think of anything to write about any of them.

Yesterday I had no trouble coming up with an X word.  Why is Y so hard?

The Youth in the Yellow Yarmulke Yawned.  He’d been Yearning for Yeast all Year.

“Yes,” she Yelled, “this is my post for Y.”

X is for Xmas


Ah, the letter everyone’s been dreading.  I was briefly torn on Saturday, deciding whether to do Weddings for W, or Wigilia.   As you know, I opted for Weddings.

That was because of the looming spectre of X.

Wigilia is the Polish Christmas (ahem, Xmas) Eve celebration.

So yeah.  X.

The Chris Xmas Eve celebration starts at dusk with the children going outside to watch for the first star, which of course represents the Star of Bethlehem.  Once it’s been spotted, Wigilia (the direct translation is Eve, but it means Vigil) begins.

The meal consists of a set number of courses, but the number may vary depending on the region.  It’s often set at an odd number—seven, nine, or eleven—but in my family, it was customary to have twelve, I assume for the twelve months of the year and/or the Twelve Disciples.

Twelve courses is a LOT of food.  And it’s all supposed to be meatless.  One very traditional dish is “rollmops” made of herring.

I was never able to spend a Christm Xmas with the whole family in Michigan, but I’ve been told that at those Michigan Wigilia vigils, the meals were indeed meatless, and that the children were required to have twelve different foods on their plates.  As my cousin Judy put it to me recently, “There were 9 of us cousins and we would divide one ‘glue ball’ … we felt that the gb’s were the lesser of 2 evils. The other one was herring! Raw fish just didnt make it!”

When my grandmother started spending her winters with what my mom called “the California contingent” of the family, we stuck to the twelve courses but threw the “meatless” requirement out the window.  There was always a Christmas goose, and often a turkey and a ham, and golabki for good measure.  The California contingent were rebels.

The California bunch also skipped the hay, which is traditionally placed under the white tablecloth and also in the four corners of the dining room to remind everyone that the Christ child was born in a manger.  I recall my mom telling me that when she was growing up, she always felt like Grandma was “bringing the barnyard indoors,” but I actually think it’s a pretty cool tradition.  I wish I’d known about it back then because I’m sure I would have insisted on it.

One tradition we didn’t skip was the sharing of the Christmas wafer, or oplatki, which looks like the wafer distributed during Mass but is pressed with a Christmas design, and which my aunt would take to the church to have blessed beforehand.  In California, my grandmother was always the master of this ceremony, but traditionally, it’s the man of the house who performs this rite.  He says Grace, then breaks off a piece and gives it to his wife, and from there, everyone gets a piece and shares it with everyone else, always with expressions of love and appreciation.  The oplatki ritual is among my favorite Chris Xmas memories, but unfortunately, I never continued it with my own family.  I now wish I had.

(I found a great article about the oplatki ritual, which you can read here if you’re interested.)

It’s customary to share the wafer with livestock as well, because of the belief that animals can speak with a human voice at midnight.

There’s always one more place setting at the table than there are people, so there will be room for an unexpected family member, friend, or other guest–and at the California parties, someone unexpected almost always did show up, usually one or more of my cousins’ friends.  The Poles are very welcoming to visitors and even have a saying that goes, “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom,” which means, “a guest in my house is God in my house.”

When the meal was finished, we’d clean up the kitchen (OK, everyone else would clean up the kitchen while a few of us hid) and then we’d migrate into the living room to open gifts, and then, if there was time, we’d play poker until midnight approached, at which point it was time to go to Midnight Mass.

This was another of my favorite traditions.  Just being allowed to stay up so late was an adventure, but there was something about the Mass itself, during which we all sang Christmas carols and there was a special, magical radiance cast over everything, that was different from any regular Sunday Mass.  Even though I was never baptized a Catholic (a story for another time), Midnight Mass always made me feel especially happy and warm with the glow of good tidings.

I’m sorry to say that nearly all of my family’s Polish traditions died with my grandmother, who passed in 1977.  But the more I recall them, the more I think it’s high time someone brought them back.

Do you have any special Chris Xmas traditions?

W is for Weddings


Everybody has heard of Polish weddings.  If you’re into partying, you might want to consider marrying a Polish person, because when it comes to getting married, nobody on the planet does it like the Poles.

Traditionally, the ceremonies began when a young man approached a girl’s father to ask for her hand.  He would bring an intermediary with him—usually his godfather or an older male friend—and also a bottle of vodka decorated with ribbons and flowers.

While the young man asked the girl to go get a glass for the vodka, the intermediary would discreetly and euphemistically ask the parents if they were interested in selling a particular cow or goose.  If the girl went to get a glass and didn’t come back (or declined to get one at all), or if the parents denied that they had anything for sale, then the young man and the intermediary would leave, and that would be the end of it.  A denial of any kind meant no.

But if the parents expressed polite interest in selling a cow or goose, and the girl returned with a glass, then the intermediary would fill the glass with vodka and give it to the father, who then gave it to his daughter.  She would drink a little and then give it to the young man, who drank down the rest, which signified that a binding agreement had been made.

This binding agreement didn’t mean they were officially engaged yet, though.  The official engagement involved the whole family.  In the presence of all of the relatives, the couple’s hands would be tied together with a scarf over a loaf of bread while the family was asked three times if they approved.

Other interesting details:

  • The night before the wedding, the girl would literally let down her hair. The “unbraiding” was also a very important family affair.
  • Even today, the bride’s veil is often trimmed with rosemary leaves, or she wears a crown of rosemary, which (as Ophelia so famously tells us) is for remembrance. The rosemary is a promise that she will never forget her friends.
  • The placing of the veil is another important ritual; the mother of the bride places the veil on her daughter’s head as her final duty before her daughter becomes a married woman.
  • The unveiling occurs after the wedding ceremony, representing the new wife’s entry into womanhood. It’s also roughly equivalent to throwing the bouquet (which they also do), since it promises good luck and future marriage to the members of the wedding party. The bride’s mother removes the veil and gives it to the maid/matron of honor, who dances with the best man and then passes the veil to each bridesmaid in turn, until all the bridesmaids have danced with all of the groomsmen.
  • The parents of the bride and groom also present the newlywed couple with bread, salt, and wine. The bread ensures that they never go hungry; the salt reminds them that there will be difficult times and they must learn to weather them; the wine ensures that they have plenty of friends, prosperity, and joy in their lives.
  • Food. Lots of it. This is because of–
  • Polka. All night. In fact, a Polish wedding can last for two whole days (but don’t worry—everyone goes home, gets a good night’s sleep, and then comes back for the second round).
  • Liquor. Free-flowing and often free. The first time (and actually one of the only times in my life) I ever got drunk was at a Polish wedding. I was fourteen.
  • A Polish married couple wears their wedding rings on their right hands. (This practice is actually very common throughout the world. It’s not them who’s different—it’s us!)

Did you do (or do you plan/hope to do) anything “different” or “traditional” at your wedding?

V is for Victuals


You might or might not know that victuals is pronounced vittles.  I didn’t; I just learned it a couple of weeks ago.  When I think of vittles, I think of Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies.  Victuals, on the other hand, always makes me think of the poem “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” by A.E. Housman:

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:

You eat your victuals fast enough;

There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,

To see the rate you drink your beer.’[1]

I’ve always pronounced victuals with both the C and the U, like actual.  It’s one of those words I’d only seen, but never heard.  Or anyway, I didn’t know I’d heard it.  I thought what I’d heard was vittles.

In any event, this post isn’t about etymology or pronunciation or anything like that.

It’s about food.  Polish food.

I really wasn’t exposed to a great many Polish dishes as I was growing up.  We made chrusti with some frequency, and also my grandmother’s traditional Christmas bread (which I have never found an even remotely equivalent recipe for anywhere, so I have no idea what its Polish name might be).  We occasionally had golabki (which is pronounced “galumpki,” and that’s also how I’ve always spelled it), and I heard many stories about “glue balls” but never had the (dis)pleasure of actually trying them, though my cousins did.

We made potato pancakes often (they’re one of my own kids’ favorite foods), and we frequently made chicken soup with my grandmother’s fat, fabulous dumplings, but though I knew both of these had Polish origins, I never knew their Polish names.  (For the dumplings, I still don’t, but the pancakes are placki ziemniaczane.)

And of course there were my mom’s pork chops, which I never knew were Polish at all.

But that’s it.  The sum total of my exposure to Polish food.

Growing up, that was fine, but as an adult, and especially since I’ve been writing this book, I’ve wanted more.

I’ve bought cookbooks, and of course I’ve browsed the Internet, so I’ve learned a little about Polish cuisine, but I’ve never really had the courage to try any of the recipes I found because I had no way of knowing how correctly (or incorrectly) I might be following them.  My one attempt at golabki several years ago was an unmitigated disaster (a story for another time, perhaps), so I was leery of trying anything completely new.

And then—

My husband and I were walking down the main drag in Wisconsin Dells last summer, just doing the tourist thing, when a little sign caught my eye.  Polish Food, it said, with a little arrow pointing down an alley.

Really?  I chugged down that alley with Tom’s futile words drifting on the wind behind me:  “But we’ve already had lunch!”

I didn’t care.  It’s no trouble at all to order food to go.

I don’t remember the name of the place.  I’m not sure I ever even saw the name of the place.  It was just a teeny little storefront with two café tables inside:

polish restaurant dells 8-31-13

What’s gofry?  I wondered.  I didn’t know.

Turns out gofry is waffles.  These people seriously know how to do waffles.  The menu offered a wealth of other possibilities, as well.  I wasn’t sure where to start.

polish menu left dells 8-31-13

Sorry that picture’s blurry.  I was literally shaking with excitement.  Here’s the other half:

polish menu right dells 8-31-13

It took me awhile, but I finally narrowed it down.  I’d heard of bigos, a hunter’s stew that’s considered pretty much the Polish national food, but had never had it.  I’d also, believe it or not, never had pierogi.  And I had to try the golabki to see what I’d done wrong with them the one time I’d tried to make them myself.

polish food dells 8-31-13

Left, bigos; center, potato & cheese pierogi; right, golabki.

It was all fabulous.  Of course it was.

But the very best thing about this unexpected pit stop was talking to the women behind the counter, who spoke with Polish accents.  They sounded just like my grandmother.

I could have listened to them all day long.

But neither of them used the word vittles.


[1] http://www.bartleby.com/123/62.html

U is for Urynowicz


My grandfather, when he arrived in America in 1907, was Josef Urynowicz, but his headstone reads Joseph Urenowicz.  You may have noticed that I use the two spellings interchangeably, and that’s why.

Josef and his friend Jan Chmiclewski sailed out of Hamburg, Germany and docked at New York Harbor on November 15, 1907.  This is the Pretoria, the ship they traveled on:

the pretoria from ellis island dot org[1]

I can only begin to imagine how foul it must have been below decks, which is where the 2382 steerage customers endured some pretty horrific living conditions for the duration of the voyage.

Josef and Jan were coming to stay with Josef’s brother Alex, who lived in Jersey City, New Jersey.  This was where my grandfather would soon meet my grandmother (Apolonie / Apolonia / Pauline).  They married there in June, 1909, and had their first two children there—my Aunt Joan and my Uncle Joe—before the New York Central Railroad, for which my grandfather was a boilermaker, transferred him to Jackson, Michigan in 1913.

This is their wedding picture:

grandma grampa wedding pic scanned 4-24-14

In Jackson, my grandparents bought a small bungalow on Loomis Street, where seven more children were born (including my mom); and in 1926 they sold the Loomis house and moved to a farm just north of town, where one more child, my Uncle Ray, was born.  I have many, many fond memories of the farm.  This is me at about age four:

me feeding the chickens, michigan

My grandfather (known as Grampa to his many grandchildren) had been drafted into the Russian army as a young man and sustained a leg injury in a fall from a horse that left him with a limp throughout the rest of his life.  In 1964, he developed gangrene and was told that the leg must be amputated.  His response to this news:  “I came into this world with two legs, and I’m going to go out with two legs.”

And so he did.  In November it will be fifty years.  I’d sure give a lot to be able to go back and speak with him now.

My grandparents’ 50th anniversary photo, taken in 1959:

grandma grampa 50th anniv june 1959 scanned 4-24-14

May they both rest in peace.


Are you interested in discovering your own family history? 


[1]   http://www.ellisisland.org/search/shipImage.asp?MID=13541073640892562880&LNM=URYNOWICZ&PLNM=URYNOWICZ&first_kind=1&last_kind=0&RF=13&pID=102135050365&

T is for Total Disaster


I had a lot of T ideas for today and hadn’t settled on one yet, though I had narrowed it down to Theme or Tradition.  My youngest son and his family are here tonight and I wanted to keep it short so I could visit with them, so I decided to write on Theme, which wouldn’t require any research.

I opened my famous flash drive, which is already in the computer, to get started.

But instead of opening it, my computer gave me a pretty blue pop-up containing an error message:

Location is not available.  E:/ is not accessible.  The file or directory is corrupted and unreadable.


I sat there staring at the words and felt like Woody in Toy Story.  You know, that part where he goes, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no” in utter despair.  I’m not sure why he does that—I don’t remember—but I know it can’t have been over anything as bad as this.

Tried again.  Same result.

And again.  Same.

Tried removing the flash drive.  The computer says it’s in use.  It’s not, but I’m going to get this posted before I mess around with it any further.

The good news:  I did back up my Novel folder last week.

The bad news:  I did not back up the Blog folder.  All of my blog stuff—all of it—is gone.  All my plans and ideas, not just for my A-Z blogs but all blog posts past present and future, are in that folder.

I also did not back up the Research folder, the Journal folder, the Old Drafts folder, or any other folders.

So yeah.  Today’s post is T is for Total Disaster.  I can’t believe something like this could happen twice in one month.  I can’t believe I was foolish enough not to back everything up.


(Does anyone know how to recover a corrupt flash drive?  That’s a trick I don’t know.)

S is for “Show, Don’t Tell”


My biggest bugaboo as a fiction writer is having to go back and rewrite whole paragraphs, and even whole scenes, because they too often tell, rather than show.  The notes I write to myself in the margins of almost every page of a first draft are the same, over and over:  Show don’t tell?  Show don’t tell?

I understand the concept, of course.  A reader needs to see a character living such-and-such experience rather than merely be told about it.  Long paragraphs of telling are tedious.  Those are the bits readers skip.

I guess that’s why, as I’m getting the first draft fleshed out, my inner editor hollers, Hey, what does this look like?  You’re not showing!

She reminds me almost constantly that I need to remember to show.

Don’t say, “Bub was angry.”   Show him throwing things, slamming doors, shouting with red face and bulging eyes, and maybe a tic.  Leave out the weak verbs.  Get rid of the passive voice.  Write actively.

I have to remind myself to look for all five senses.  It’s not just about what something looks like.  What does it smell like?  What about taste, touch, and sound?

But I also have to remind myself that too much description can be as bad or worse than not enough.  It’s all about balance.

Sometimes I wonder, Do I need to show this? It’s really a matter of judgment, isn’t it?  It seems to me that I have to trust my reader to be able to imagine certain details.  If s/he doesn’t see something exactly the way I’m envisioning it, as long as it’s not vital to the plot, then it really doesn’t matter.

Or does it?

R is for Recursive


It’s time to come clean:  I’m not nuts about one of the bits of writing advice I keep hearing everywhere.

Just write.  It doesn’t matter if it stinks.  Just get it written.

Even a couple of the quotes I posted yesterday offer this advice, or something like it.

I just can’t buy into that philosophy.  I wish I could.  But I’m a recursive writer, and in fact I think many of us are recursive writers and it just goes against our nature to do it any other way.  I think that for recursive people, it’s not possible to do it any other way.

I regularly ask my students to list the steps in their writing processes, from the day they receive a writing assignment to the day they turn in a completed paper.  As it turns out, very few of them seem to incorporate any steps into their process that are very different from anyone else’s steps.  I’m pretty sure these steps are universal, whether one is writing a freshman paper in college or the Great American Novel.

As the students call out their steps, I write them all on the board:

Read.  Think.  Procrastinate.  Brainstorm.  Generate ideas.  Outline.  Write.  Read out loud.  Revise.  Proofread.  Spell-check.  Edit.  Check formatting.  Submit.

Sound familiar?  I’m going to guess yes.  If you’re a writer, yes.

These steps all invariably fall into three categories:

  1. Invention (aka prewriting)
  2. Drafting (aka writing)
  3. Revision (aka rewriting)

So here’s the zillion-dollar question:  Do you do these in order when you write?  What I mean by this is, do you do all of your brainstorming and invention, get all your ideas together, do all of your research, and then start writing?  Do you write a whole draft from beginning to end without getting writer’s block, without doing any further research, without stopping to come up with new ideas, without changing a single word?  Do you wait until you have a whole complete draft before you launch into the dreaded revision and editing process?

I’m going to guess that unless you’re Jack Kerouac, the answer to that is a big fat NO.

Nobody does that.

That’s because writing itself is a recursive process.

You get an idea (invention).  You jot it down (writing).  You get a few more ideas and jot those down (invention and writing).  These jottings are starting to look like a story, but man, that third paragraph needs to come sooner.  So you move it (revision).  Now there’s a gap where it used to be, so you sit and think about how to fill the gap (invention).  You write another paragraph (writing), but the opening sentence is off, so you go back and reword it (revision).  Meanwhile you realize that you really don’t know anything about X, and you’re going to have to do some googling before you can move the story forward (invention).  Then, as you’re chugging along (writing), you develop a terrible case of writer’s block.  And back to idea generation you go (invention).

Sound familiar?

That’s the recursive nature of writing.  It bounces back and forth between those three stages.

And it’s NORMAL.  Almost nobody writes in a completely linear fashion.

Yet the writerly advice persists:  Just get it written.  You can go back and fix it later.

It’s true—you can go back and fix it later.  In fact, you’ll have to.  The recursivity of writing is not a substitute for good, solid revision once a draft is complete.  But the fact is, nothing I’ve ever written using the “no matter how bad it is, at least you’ve written something” theory is worth a crap.  It always results in my making more work for myself, not less.

Good writing takes time, no matter where you spend that time—but I know that no matter how much research and planning I do ahead of time, I’m not going to get to the complete draft stage without engaging in a lot of recursiveness in between here and there.  And I’ve found that beating myself up for doing it that way—for breaking someone else’s “rules”—is a mistake.  I’m sure that method works well for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

So here’s my theory:  There is no “right” way to get a draft done.

The “right” way to do it is your way.

So be bold.  Embrace your recursive self.


Q is for Quotes


As a writer, I quite often find myself bogged down.  Stuck.  Ready to sail off to Quitsville.  One of the things I do to buck up when the dark closes in is to read inspirational quotes by other writers.*  It always helps to know that even the most famous, the most revered, the most successful writers go through all the same tough moments I do.

Here are eighteen of my favorites (eighteen for Eighteen Crossroads, you know):

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.  (Margaret Atwood)

­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.  (Margaret Atwood)

Why do writers write? Because it isn’t there.  (Thomas Berger)

The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.  (John Campbell)

I firmly believe every book was meant to be written.  (Marchette Chute)

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining–researching–talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.  (E. L. Doctorow)

The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.  (William Faulkner)

There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.  (Ernest Hemingway)

I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged…I had poems which were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.  (Erica Jong)

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.  (Stephen King)

The secret of good writing is telling the truth.  (Gordon Lish) 

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary — it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.  (Somerset Maugham)

If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.  (Toni Morrison)

Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.   (Salman Rushdie)

Pretend to be writing to an aunt.  (John Steinbeck)

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else. (Gloria Steinem)

Don’t get it right, just get it written. (James Thurber)

The long-lived books of tomorrow are concealed somewhere amongst the so-far unpublished MSS of today.  (Philip Unwin)


Which is your favorite?  Or do you have a favorite that doesn’t appear here?  What keeps you going when the dark closes in?


*I’ve collected these over several years from all over the internet–they’re all google-able, but I don’t have sources for each one.  No copyright infringement is intended.

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