Monday, December 30, 2013

Walking! My Treadmill Desk

My Christmas present this year was something I’ve been thinking about ever since Jessica Dils, a fellow alum of Vermont College of Fine Arts, presented her graduate lecture in January 2010, and talked about treadmill desks.

I’d never heard of such a thing, but it sounded like a great idea. A writer’s sedentary lifestyle? Check. Difficulty getting to the gym some days? Check. Recipe for weight gain and other health issues? You got it. The idea of being able to move and write at the same time was very appealing.

Shortly following Jess’ lecture I was surprised to sense a movement afoot (!), with the appearance of articles on treadmill desks in both SCBWI (January 2011) and Romance Writers’ (April 2013) magazines.

All during that time friends began to blog about their tread-desks and report weight loss and increasing productivity. The final swing vote came from a persuasive article in The New Yorker in May 2013, and I decided that I’d save my pennies for the purchase of a tread-desk.

While I’m relatively new to the experiment, I couldn’t be happier. I'm writing this article on the treadmill now. Here are a few thoughts and tips in case you are curious.

After research and reading I decided to buy a complete adjustable desk/treadmill combination made for this purpose by LifeSpan. This is not an exercise treadmill; it can’t go faster than 4 miles an hour. It’s smaller and lighter weight than the one you find at the gym, and has fewer bells and whistles, although it’s pretty slick. And it doesn’t have arms, which would get in the way of the desk.
close-up of the desk and controls - very simple!

I chose the LifeSpan because they had great customer reviews, excellent warranty, and a decent price: $1500 including shipping for both desk and treadmill, plus the floor mat underneath. I could have purchased the treadmill alone for under $1000, but then I would have had to find or build a suitable high desk for my computer, and I’m not clever enough for that, and I’m not convinced it would have been much cheaper. I couldn’t convert my existing desk for a number of reasons.

I’m really pleased with this product that appears both well-made and is attractive enough to fit into our home, and requires only the occasional application of silicone.

However, if you are handy, you can probably purchase a second-hand treadmill and configure a desk and have the whole package for less than $500. Just make sure that the treadmill can go as slow as 1 mile per hour, and that you can adjust your desktop height because it won’t be perfect the first time out.

Here are a few other things I’m learning as I go:

  • -     The first hour I walked I wore my usual shoes – leather slip-ons. I quickly discovered that I need to wear a better-cushioned walking shoe, so I keep a pair of supportive workout shoes next to the tread-desk for that purpose.
  • -     Don’t try to work and walk at more than 1.5 miles per hour. I’m typing this at 1 mile per hour and that seems about right.
  • -     I was so enthusiastic that I just jumped right on and walked for an hour. Although I get to the gym 5 times a week and am relatively fit, I was stiff and sore. This was different. Ease into it, and take breaks.
  • -     I’m getting better at typing fast as I walk but it has taken me a few hours of practice. I need to keep my fingers closer to the keyboard to avoid constant errors.
  • -     The rocking motion of walking/working is odd at first, but as I got back into my story I forgot where I was and pretty soon had written a couple of thousand words while walking 2 miles.
  • -     My LifeSpan comes equipped with a Bluetooth-enabled fitness sensor, but the reviews on that software were poor and I’m a Mac user, so I haven’t bothered. Besides, my goal is just to get out of the chair more.
  • -     I’m lucky with space but be sure to factor in that the treadmill must be plugged directly into a grounded wall socket – not a GFI nor an extension nor a surge protector – and comes with only a six foot cord.
  • -     The same company produces a bike desk, so if for any reason you can pedal but walking is difficult, that is another option.

the entire treadmill-desk, right behind my sitting desk

I would say this is one heck of a great Christmas present. I’ll update on my experiences, especially if I lose those five pounds I seem to gain at this time of year!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ring Out The Old

Some thoughts on the year just passing…

…for the first time in three years I did not launch a book…

…my first little non-fiction GET ORGANIZED is now in six languages and at least as many countries and still sells at an amazing rate…

…my second novel – my middle child, FORGIVEN – has gone out of print…

…but her sisters are selling well, with FAITHFUL in its third, maybe fourth, printing…

…I’ve parted company with my wonderful agent of eight years, amicably, but with great sadness…

…I have steadfast fans who write me beautiful notes, and I treasure them and their words…

…I have a critique circle of people gifted with keen insight and brutal honesty…

…I’m lucky to have the freedom to write every day in a place of perilous beauty…

…I’m writing projects that bring me such joy that there are days when it’s hard to stop working.

The writing life is refuge and terror, both. It is euphoria and heartbreak. I would not trade it for anything, though some years may be more euphoric, or more heartbreaking, than others.

I wish for you a rich and rewarding 2014 with as much euphoria as you can stand.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Big River's Daughter: Historical Fantasy by Bobbi Miller

Today on the blog I'm delighted to welcome Bobbi Miller, talking about her acclaimed historical fantasy, BIG RIVER'S DAUGHTER. I'm a total sucker for historical fantasy, so take a look at this wonderful tale...

Raised by her pirate father on a Mississippi keeler, River is a half-feral river rat and proud of it. When her powerful father disappears in the great earthquake of 1811, she is on the run from buccaneers, including Jean Laffite, who hope to claim her father's territory and his buried treasure. But the ruthless rivals do not count on getting a run for their money from a plucky slip of a girl determined to find her place in the new order.

Hi Bobbi! First, can you tell us about how you came to write this particular tale?

“This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.”  

So says River Fillian as she begins to tell her story in my book, Big River’s Daughter. River’s story is an historical American fantasy, a blend of the tall tale tradition that captures so much of the American identity, and a unique form of fantasy. I have long been a student of  tall tales, epitomized in the exploits of Annie Christmas and Mike Fink -- two important characters in River’s life. In true rough and tumble fashion, the heroes and heroines of tall tales mocked and defied convention. Even their language was as wild and unabashed as the circumstance and landscape that created these characters. And that describes my character, River.

I’m also an avid student of American history. David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate…We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed…If you don’t care about it –if you’ve inherited some great fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it – you’re going to lose it…”  History is literature, McCullough says. And our history is full of amazing stories.

The setting of my book was an extraordinary time in American history. We were embroiled in the War of 1812. While the War of Independence set us free of British rule, the War of 1812 ultimately defined us as a force in world power. My story is  also grounded in many historical personalities, such as the Pirates Laffites, as well as events. In December 1811, a series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi  River basin. Three of these earthquakes would have measured at magnitude of 8.0 on the modern-day Richter scale. Six others would have measured between 7.0 and 7.5. The quakes were felt as far away as Canada. It shook so hard, it forced the Mississippi River to run backwards, changing the very landscape. It also sets into motion River’s story.

Congratulations on being nominated for the Amelia Bloomer list. FAITHFUL was a nominee as well. Please talk about what that means for you, and for your novel.

What an honor this is! The Amelia Bloomer Project is an annual annotated book list in association with American Library Association, and features “well-written and well-illustrated books that empower girls by providing role models of strong, capable, creative women.”  These personalities and characters were my inspirations when I was a young reader.  Isn’t that the goal of every writer to inspire a young reader to become more than they imagined themselves possible? The characters in these books, both real and imagined, defied the social convention of their day –past and present – to become fully realized, astonishing individuals doing great things.
Another honor is being listed at the site, A Mighty Girl, with its tag line, “The world's largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girl.” And you can see this at:

I know that you believe that historically accurate language use is especially important to you (as it is to me) so please tell readers how you went about researching and using language.

With my studies in folklore, I have long studied the rhythms and patterns in speech and how they influence the storytelling process.  I also listened to storytellers tell their stories, too,  and the best ones – like Eric Kimmel, Rafe Martin and Ashley Bryan – enrapture the audience.  Theirs is the process of storytelling as old as human communication. We are homo narratus, story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.
To capture the language in River’s story, I also studied many readings, like Davy
Crockett’s Almanacs (1835 – 1856), which included much of the language used by storytellers of that day.  Of course, these were the days before the dictionary and so people spelled words according to how they pronounced the. And deferent pronouncements produced different spellings.  And one cannot write about the Mississippi River without reading Mark Twain. I read most, if not all, of his books, annotating, deciphering, pulling apart words and sentences. Of course, whenever river men, like the western mountain men, gathered, they told their tall tales. They used songs and signals to call to each other. One of my favorites was from Mark Twain, which goes, “Who-op!” It mean’s, “I’m here! Look at me!” 

What are you working on now?

My next book is Girls of Gettysburg, due from Holiday House in Fall 2014.  This book tells of the battle of Gettysburg using three different perspectives: a young woman disguised as a Confederate soldier; the young daughter of a free man and farmer; and the daughter of the town butcher, and the harrowing three days in which Gettysburg explodes and the lives of these three young girls intersect in unexpected ways.  The inspiration came from finding an old newspaper clip dating from that time, in which a union general noted the presence of a fallen Confederate soldier, a girl, at the bottom of his report. His words “one female (private) in rebel uniform” became her epitaph.  Her story remained a mystery. And to get the feel of the landscape, I not only walked the length of the Gettysburg  battle several times over three trips to the area, I visited the reenactors, and made a pest of myself in the bookstores.

But that's what it means to me to write historical fiction: doing everything I can to bring that historical moment alive.

For more information about the historical American Fantasy and tall tale characters in my book, please see my article, Big River’s Daughter, at:

For more information about why historical fiction is important, and how teachers might use them in their classrooms, see A Conversation of Many: Why is Historical Fiction Important?

For a wonderful educator’s guide on how to use Big River’s Daughter in the classroom, see:

Monday, December 2, 2013

Plotting Along: A Diagram of Key Plot Points

I have always had trouble with plotting, so I’m a big fan of collecting working solutions to planning the plot. Today I’m posting the latest in my personal collection of plot diagrams, something I’ve put together based on the best plot diagrams I’ve found and used. Here it is with some explanation…

The black line at the top is, of course, the classic Aristotelian 3-act structure, where Act 2 is twice as long as Acts 1 and 3, and the form is set-up, confrontation, and resolution.

Below that in green are the stages of the Hero’s Journey as outlined by Christopher Vogler in his now-classic writer’s guide The Writer’s Journey, based upon the research of Joseph Campbell.

In brown are the turning points defined for screenplays by the late Syd Field; they also apply perfectly to novels. You can find out more about these points in his books and DVDs here.

In blue, I’ve placed the plot line defined by Martha Alderson in her Plot Whisperer books and workbooks. What I particularly like about this plot line is that it shows how tension increases to two high points, the Crisis and the Climax.

And in red, I’ve added the 14 “Signpost Scenes” defined by James Scott Bell; check out his Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure. I like the way that these signpost scene definitions are more colloquial than Vogler’s and add a few nuances, like “care package” and “pet the dog.”

I hope this diagram and these links are useful to you!