Surviving the Deep Freeze

It’s 32 degrees and sunny this morning in my corner of Virginia. Compared to the bitter cold of late December and early January (the dreaded bomb cyclone), it feels positively balmy. In an earlier post I wrote about how I’ve been hoping for a wintery winter to provide atmosphere for my work-in-progress, The Snow Cave, so perhaps the cyclone was my doing. Sorry about that.

Like most people (but, sadly, not all), I was snug in my heated home and car, and could bundle up when I had to go out. Wild animals had no such luxury and I thought of them often. I also worried about our bees. We have two hives: Bees and More Bees.

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We did everything we could to help them through the cold. My husband had already installed a wind break and encased the hives in foam insulation. We left them with plenty of honey and gave them sugar cakes just in case. But, in the end, it was down to them.

The population is about 60,000 bees during the summer but drops to less than 30,000 in the fall, losing more numbers over the winter. The overwintering bees form a ball around the queen and vibrate to keep the core at 80 degrees. That’s a lot of buzzing! Imagine how hard it must be to keep the queen that warm when the temperature drops below freezing, even below zero, and stays there.

The bees don’t leave the hive when it’s that cold--they can’t fly below 50 degrees—so we had to wait for a warm day to know how they had fared. At long last a warm front blew in. The first afternoon the temperature reached 55, bees from Bees crawled out of the opening, one by one, and took off. Unfortunately, none emerged from More Bees. I know they are only insects but we do become attached to them. They are fascinating, important creatures and we were sad to lose the colony. (We ordered a replacement colony on-line. They arrive in the mail!)

As we watched the bees from Bees returning to the hive, we noticed their pollen sacs were full. You can see the full sacs on this girl, harvesting pollen in the garden last summer.

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But where were the bees finding flowers in the dead of winter? Something must have been blooming and those clever bees discovered it. As we pondered this mystery, we remembered our tiny lemon tree in the greenhouse was flowering and moved it outside. Within a half-hour, bees from Bees had found it. Amazing!

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The loss of one colony made it clear just how dicey the whole endeavor is and sharpened my appreciation for the endurance of the other. Isn’t that how it often goes, though? A blow to the ego, a lost love, a broken friendship, and a bomb cyclone have pretty much the same effect: the next upswing seems that much sweeter. This isn’t news and it isn’t deep but somehow it’s something I need to remind myself of again and again.

We’re heading toward spring, Bees! Hang in there.

A New Year, A New Page

Beginnings. How many times in one short life can we begin yet again? I hope the answer is “as many times as you dare” because this new year brings a very concrete new start for me: I have a new publisher! Here is the announcement in Publishers Marketplace, the rag of record for the publishing industry.

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The backdrop is the view of the Blue Ridge from my house, taken last summer when the tickweed was rioting in splendor across the fields. As the announcement says, the book is set in the Blue Ridge (and in Charlottesville) which means I wrote it while looking at the landscape to which my characters, particularly a girl named Iris, belong. And I do mean belong. TRUE PLACES is very much about our connection (and disconnection) with nature, so the setting, that glorious wilderness beyond my window, was at the center of the story’s creation.

My new publisher is very excited about this book, which is nice of them, don’t you think? And it makes me hopeful. As cynical as I can be about publishing, a shiny new book deal is a beautiful thing. All writers want, after all, is to put our stories in the hands of readers. That’s it.

Oh, and a nod from Reese or Oprah.



And a movie deal.

Just kidding! But not really. A girl can dream. A girl should dream. Even a fifty-eight-year old woman who is still a girl inside should absolutely dream and begin again and again and again as many times as she damn well pleases.

New year, new publisher, new book, new hope. New page.

A Mind of Winter

I suspect I’m an outlier but I’m hoping for lots of snow this winter. I’ve always been a fan of the stuff. Born in a snowbank in Vermont in the last days of December, I learned to ski at the same time I learned to walk. To this day my favorite sport is cross-country skiing. I even enjoy shoveling. Go ahead. Say it. Weirdo.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I was delighted at the early snow we had of a couple weeks ago.



See what a little dusting of white does to the world? I adore the way the house is brighter inside because of the reflection off the snow. My beloved garden was graced with a snowy meringue. The plants growing under the row cover don’t mind the snow, either. In fact, it’s insulation!



This winter I have even more reason to wish for snow; the book I’m working on is called The Snow Cave. Set in Squaw Valley, California, and Germany, the story is loosely based on my father’s life. Loosely. My father was a mountain climber, tennis pro and ski instructor, so it’s clear from where my love of mountains and snow derives. Here he is in his wintery element.


In addition to the snow cave in the title, themes connected to snow (cold and purity and fresh starts) are central to the story. That’s why I’d appreciate some snow around for atmosphere. I’m a visual person and there’s nothing like being immersed (not literally in this case—my poor laptop!) in what I’m writing about. When I was drafting Middle of Somewhere, a thunderstorm happened to come along as I was writing a pivotal storm scene. Talk about summoning the muse. If I can’t get Mother Nature to bend to my will, I resort to Google, of course. Google Images: the next best thing to being there.

If you’re a writer, do your surroundings help you write certain scenes? Do you use music as a muse? (I confess I need silence myself.)

Oh, about the title of this post. It’s the first line of Wallace Stevens’ poem, The Snow Man. You can read it here and see why I thought of it today. Our imaginations need springboards, or surfaces to grow on. Inspiration can be found anywhere but my favorite place to look is outside.

Wishing all you a happy, healthy, productive New Year!

Canna from Heaven

Two years ago, we bought a dozen fruit trees and a passel of berry bushes from a nursery near Charlottesville. As we were leaving, a woman I’d been chatting with (I chat with everyone—yes, I’m the one who strikes up a conversation with you at the grocery store, on the airplane, in the parking lot) handed me a root.

“Thanks.” I turned it over, hoping for a label.

“Do you like cannas?”

“Sure. I mean, what’s a canna?”

“Keep it cool now and stick in the ground in the spring. You’ll see.”

Turns out she was one of the owners, and this root was a door prize. And on the way home I realized I actually had heard of cannas but had gotten confused by her strong Southern intonation. I thought she was giving me something with a lot more than two syllables.

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I did as she suggested, pointing it pointy side up about four inches deep. In a couple months, a small blade of green poked out of the ground. By midsummer, it bloomed, a showy red that attracted hummingbirds like pigs to poop. I dug up the roots (corms, technically) in the fall, a huge tangled mass of them, brushed off the dirt, wrapped them in burlap and stored them in a box in the greenhouse.

Now, let me confess that I do not, as a rule, go to so much trouble for a flower. I don’t have the time or patience for fussy plants. My job, as I see it, is to provide the right setting, a lot of compost, and a sincere wish of good luck. True, I lavish care on my edible charges but that’s different. That’s food. But a flower? Don’t get me wrong, I adore flowers and understand well the role flowers play as companions to vegetables. But digging up and overwintering roots?

I guess I’m making an exception. The cannas were a gift and it seems wrong not to care for them. And look how beautiful they are! Georgia O’Keefe admired them, too, as you can see.

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Here is the second season haul. This winter, they are hanging out with the sweet potatoes and winter squash in the root cellar fridge, waiting for spring.

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I have enough to give some away! Maybe that’s reason enough to do the extra work, to make an exception. In fact, a canna root might just be the perfect gift: given casually and without expectation of reciprocation, full of latent beauty, and, the kicker, capable of replicating indefinitely. May all your gifts this holiday season live up to the humble corm!

We planted a new flower bed near the house and have left a space for the cannas. I’ll be sure to post a photo when they are in full bloom next summer. In the meantime, happiest of holidays to you and yours. May all the gifts of the season bloom in your hearts and in your homes.


Bloodlands and Stick Season

Writers gotta write but they also do a gaboonload of reading. We read books our friends have written because we love them. We read books for blurbs because everyone needs blurbs. We read within our genre to scope out the competition and outside of our genre for fresh ideas and for fun. And we read for research. 

I'm working on a story partially set during World War II: in Germany and on the Russian Front. My research reading has included novels (Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum is my hands-down favorite), firsthand accounts by German soldiers, on-line war history forums and straight-up history books. I can't get enough of the history. Just when it seems everything about WWII has been written, someone finds another angle.

For the last few weeks, I've been making my way through Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, written by Timothy Snyder in 2010. 


The book is brilliant and absolutely devastating. I have to ration how much I read at a sitting and I can't read it at night for fear of nightmares. But I must read it.

Snyder chronicles the policies and actions of Hitler and Stalin that led to 14 million people killed between Berlin and Moscow. Part of this was, of course, the Holocaust and it is a central piece of this history. I did not know, for instance, that most Jews and other targeted groups were not taken to camps but rather killed where they lived. And before Hitler unleashed his evil, Stalin had already killed and deliberately starved millions. The scale of the brutality and the personal stories Snyder includes are harrowing. Like I said, I can only stomach small doses.

The antidote to such reading, to such truths, is found outside. For me, a ten-minute walk in the woods reminds me of the world beyond the influence of men and war (at least for now). I find it hard to express without sounding vapid or melodramatic but nature, and particularly woods, calm me so profoundly and rapidly I suspect magic.

But I don't believe in magic. I believe in trees. Even when they have dropped their leaves to the ground, I believe in them more than I believe in goodness. 

These are my woods. It's officially stick season. 


I hope you have something akin to these, a place of respite. I hope you seek it out when, as Wordsworth said, "the world is too much with us."

As for Bloodlands, I cannot recommend it more highly: it is brave and scholarly and eloquent. If you do pick it up, remember to also put it down. Go outside. Find sun and earth and air. Stand amid fallen leaves and the stillness of bare trees. Embrace stick season.


Sowing the Blank Page

The blank page. The cursor blinking, counting seconds, heartbeats. It’s intimidating as hell to stare down that white sheet and find the word with which to begin. Then the next one and the one after that.

I’d like to tell you it gets easier once you’ve written a book, or four, but it doesn’t. If anything, it gets worse. Take the book I’m working on now. (I’m the Henny Youngman of writing. Take my book—please!) I am stalling so badly on writing it that I’ve actually created a synopsis. I hate synopses! We all do. But even a synopsis is less terrifying than that empty page.

Writing must be the one profession in which the more you do it, the less you believe that you can. We’re a strange bunch but try to love us anyway.

To get myself going on this book, I’ve tried all sorts of tactics. Watching Chef’s Table isn’t working, nor is drinking wine. Not even cleaning out the closets is resulting in words on the page. So curious.

Yesterday, I was looking for a photo on my phone and happened upon this one:

That’s my vegetable garden before it had vegetables. South-facing and gently sloped, it was, before my beloved took the rototiller to it, simply part of a field. We added truckloads of compost, creating a blank canvas, and encircled it in electric fencing, to keep deer and groundhogs and rabbits from raiding it. A few months later, it looked like this:

These photos gave me an idea. What if I considered the blank page as a freshly dug plot, empty but overflowing with potential? The earth, the unplanted earth, is not blank. It is moist and rich with nutrients and life. (And weeds, sure, but I know how to pull weeds.) Tomorrow I’m going to open that word document and take a new look at the blank page. It’s not empty. It just hasn’t been planted yet. If I set down the words and tend to them, they will grow; it is the nature of both seeds and stories. So much of what they become is already present—in the soil, in the case of the garden, and in the writer, in the case of the story. The page is not blank. It is simply waiting, like a field looking toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, patient under the sun.

Earth & Ink: A new blog post series

Gardening and writing. Writing and gardening. It’s what I do and what I have done for most of my life. I’ve had many other pastimes and a couple other careers, but the common thread has been growing things and making words fit my thoughts. 

Have you ever heard authors say they don’t understand their books until at least the first draft is complete? The same is true about understanding ourselves, I think. The first draft of my self was written a long while ago and I’ve been undertaking extensive revisions since. Looking back at the process, my attachment to gardening and writing reveals something deeper about me, as any decent theme should. I’m on a quest for two things: patience and humility. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll agree I still have a ways to go. Okay, so I’m a work-in-progress!

That’s the scaffolding for these new posts. In truth, I will be light on philosophy and heavy on news from my vegetable garden, orchard and berry patch and how I’m using the bounty in my kitchen. We will talk FOOD. Beautiful food. 

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And miracles. I know, that’s a big word. But tell me something, what else would you call it when you start with this…

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(The seed. The object in the middle. I would like to grow money, but alas, I’m not that clever. If you are wondering about the rubber chicken, well, it’s the world’s smallest rubber chicken! It speaks for itself. Well, not literally. That would be a teensy bit worrisome. Even as the world’s smallest mute rubber chicken, it blows my mind every time I see it. Just to be clear, I am also not growing rubber chickens.)

…becomes this?

That’s a kohrabi, by the way. Normally green, I grow the purple variety. I’m all about eating all the purple things but perhaps we’ll talk about that more another time. I know you are still wondering about the world’s smallest rubber chicken and quite possibly are overwhelmed. I know I am and I’ve had it for years.

Until next time, then. Grow yourself. Eat well. Use your words and use them like the miracles they are.

CLEVER AS A FOX now on Kindle!

Remember that scene in The Jerk when Steve Martin runs around screaming his head off, saying "The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!" That's how I feel today.

In 2001, a very long time ago, I published my first book, an intellectual history of the study of animal intelligence, CLEVER AS A FOX. It went out of print a while ago but today it has new life as a digital book. It even got a new cover to celebrate the occasion.

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Here is the preface to the new edition:

"Seventeen years have passed since this book was first published during which my daughters became adults and I became a novelist. The former event was predictable but nevertheless stupefying; the latter so unlikely I would have laughed aloud had anyone suggested it. I was tempted to revise this book with a novelist’s ear but resisted. I considered updating it but resisted that, too. As an intellectual history, the reasoning should hold. For recent books on animal intelligence, I recommend Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise."

And the description, so you can see if it might be up your alley:

"A lively, insightful look at the world of animal intelligence.
Recent evidence has dismissed the belief that animals are simply reflex machines, acting without thought or real consciousness. In response, there has been a rush to examine animal intelligence. Yet what, precisely, is intelligence? Is it the ability to learn, the ability to remember, or the ability to survive? What separates instinct from intelligence? Why are dolphins smarter than eagles and bees smarter than worms? Are cats smarter than dogs? 
Clever as a Fox explores the often-misconstrued world of animal intelligence. From B.F. Skinner's behaviorism to evolutionary biology, Sonja Yoerg examines the ways we have come to view motivation and intelligence in animals. By evaluating our complex relationships to animals-why we eat some animals while pampering others is often predicated on a commensurate belief in intelligence, Yoerg offers us a better understanding of our own way of thinking. Entertaining, and scrupulously researched, Clever as a Fox will challenge your previously held notions about animals and the measure of intelligence, both theirs and ours."

The book has its own page on this website, as well, to show off the nice things people have said about it. Take a look!

If you have friends who love to read about animals and psychology, be sure to spread the word, okay? Thank you! 

Stars upon Thars

That's from Dr. Suess's The Sneetches. "Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars." In case you don't know the story, a few Sneetches had stars, making them special, and the rest of the Sneetches coveted them. Along came a machine that slapped stars on bellies and soon all the Sneetches were sporting stars. Not so special anymore. In fact, not having a star became the next rage, sending all the Sneetches to queue in front of the star-removal machine. Once no one had stars, they soon became the rage again. The poor Sneetches went crazy getting stars removed and attached in their desperation to be unique. 

Although I'm not desperate to be unique, I do agree with the Sneetches that it's nice to be singled out, especially if, unlike the Sneetches, you've actually done something to earn it. I'm here to tell you a received a star recently. A couple of them, in fact. And although I am not a Sneetch, I do feel a bit special. As an author, receiving praise and a modicum of acclaim is such a crap shoot but also, I admit, a great deal of fun. Will you forgive me for telling you about my stars? 

ALL THE BEST PEOPLE was reviewed by the Historical Novel Society and chosen as an editor's pick! These folks are serious historians so it's like getting an A on the history part of my novel. They praised the characters, too, and lots of other things. Yay! 

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If you'd like to read the full review, it's here

That review made my week and I'd have been happy to leave it at that, but then I was struck by lightning! 

Not really, although this was possibly less likely. Travel and Leisure magazine did a round-up of the best book in every state. Not the best book written this year in every state, but the BEST BOOK EVER. Picks included previously unknown titles such as Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Oklahoma), King's THE SHINING (Colorado), Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (New York), Twain's HUCK FINN (Missouri), and Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER. These books are so famous I feel silly including the author and the state. Now you can readily see why I'm incredulous that Travel and Leisure chose my book for my home state of Vermont! 

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The full list is here. Amazing, isn't it?

Those are my stars. For a little while, I'm going to be wearing them both on my belly. I hope you have done  something to be proud of recently, regardless of whether you get the recognition you deserve. And if you do get a star, I hope you wear it proudly! Life can be tough, and far from fair, so let's celebrate when we get lucky, as I have.  Cheers!

Summer Sale: HOUSE BROKEN e-book is $1.99!

Here's the first chapter. See how you like it. 

Chapter One


Dr. Geneva Novak stared at the x-ray clipped to the light box on the wall. She tilted her head sideways and squinted at the contents of the dog’s stomach. The iPod was obvious—it faced her—but the object protruding from the large blurry mass stumped her. Rectangular, with two bright white bars. Only metal lit up like that.

She clenched her jaw. This would be the third time she would have to operate on Zeke to remove things he’d swallowed, things his owner shouldn’t have left lying around. After the second incident, she had talked to the owner at length about how to protect his dog. She recommended he walk Zeke daily, so the dog wouldn’t turn to mischief out of boredom, and suggested he either keep his apartment orderly or confine the dog when he left the house. Nearly all dogs come to love their crates, she reassured him. Geneva had written down the instructions and told him he could call her anytime for help. But when Zeke’s owner brought him in this morning, he confessed he hadn’t followed through on anything. And the outcome was illuminated in black and white on the wall.

Eyes still on the x-ray, she pulled a hair band from the pocket of her lab coat and secured her dark hair into a tidy bun that would fit under her scrubs cap. Her cell phone, abandoned on the desk behind her, warbled. She touched the icon. A message from Dublin. It’s Mom, it read. Call me.

Geneva sighed. “It’s always Mom.”

Holding it by the edges as if it were rigged to explode, she placed the phone on the corner of her desk, and took a step back. Her mother, represented by three letters on a tiny screen, had intruded the sanctity of her workplace and unbalanced her. Exhaling completely, she pulled her broad shoulders down and back, a habit from her yoga days that helped her focus.

She didn’t have to call Dublin, not right away. For all he knew she could be in surgery or have back-to-back appointments all afternoon. She might have left her phone on the kitchen counter this morning, or the battery might have died. Whatever had happened—whatever her mother, Helen, had done this time—could wait, ideally forever. Geneva had Zeke to take care of and another surgery after that. Helen was better off in Dublin’s hands in any case. Hadn’t he been dealing with her for years? And what could Geneva do from 500 miles away?

Down the hall in the treatment room, a dog barked, setting off several others. Rosa, an intern from Marin High School, appeared in the office doorway, clutching a stack of files to her chest. She rocked on the toes of her red sneakers and grinned at Geneva.

“Zeke’s almost done with his fluids, Dr. Novak. He’ll be ready for surgery in about ten minutes.”

“That’s great. Thanks.” She turned toward the image of the mysterious object imprisoned in Zeke’s ribcage. “Hold on a minute, Rosa. If Zeke’s owner is still here, can you ask him if he’s also missing a charger?”

“Are you serious?”

“Bull Terriers are notorious for their dietary indiscretion.” She noted Rosa’s blank expression. “They’ll eat anything. Still, Zeke’s taste for electronics has less to do with genetics than boredom. Zeke was made a geek, not born one.”

Rosa laughed, tossed her braid off her shoulder and disappeared.

The call to her brother would have to wait. She took a last look at the x-ray, flicked off the light box and went to change into scrubs.


At three o’clock Geneva finally unpacked her lunch. Her cell phone vibrated under the paper bag. Dublin again. She couldn’t avoid this any longer.

“Hi. I was going to call you.”

“Yeah? You got my message? Good. Listen, I know you’re slammed at work. When aren’t you, right? But I just need a minute, okay?” Dublin’s tone sounded more frenetic than usual. She sat up straighter. “Here’s the story, Ginny. Act One. Lights come up. The set’s deserted but there’s an empty vodka bottle on a side table. You can’t miss it.”

“Dublin, just tell me what’s going on. You can write the scene later.”

“I am telling you. Welcome to Act Two. Mom crashed her car. One leg is pretty mashed up for starters. God knows what else. She wasn’t too drunk to remember her seatbelt, so we can expect an Act Three.”

The blood rushed from her head. She lowered the phone from her ear and stared at it with a mix of disbelief and anger. The seconds ticked by on the call timer. She listened to Dublin’s voice, now small in the palm of her hand. How easy it would be to quiet him, to hear nothing more about her mother. She could simply slide her finger an inch to the right. What was technology for if not such a convenience?

She raised the phone to her ear. “Sorry.”

“You okay, Ginny? Didn’t you hear me shouting? I was about to call reception and have them check on you. Don’t scare me like that.”

“I’m really sorry.” A car accident. How often had she asked her mother to get in the habit of taking taxis when sober, so she would automatically call one when she had been drinking? Helen’s opportunities to train herself were diminishing. Was it even noon when she had the accident? Geneva pictured the buckled hood of her mother’s blue Mustang, shattered glass on concrete, the rear doors of an ambulance. “Was anyone else hurt? Please tell me she didn’t kill anyone.”

“She didn’t kill anyone, but the cop at the hospital said she took out a few parked cars along Wilshire. The last one was an armored truck in front of a bank. The drivers thought she rammed them on purpose, so one of them drew his gun on her. That brought the cops pretty quickly. Everyone kept their heads, though. The only thing that went off was the airbag.”

“My God.” She dropped her forehead onto the heel of her hand.

“I know. Even I can’t write stuff this good.”

“Are you still at the hospital? Which one?”

“The Good Samaritan. And no. I was there but didn’t get to see her. I had to pick up Jack.”

When Dublin’s son, Jack, was diagnosed with autism four years ago, Dublin’s life had gone from rosy to harried. He and his wife, Talia, had a complex tag team schedule already subject to the mercy of L.A. traffic. A trip to the emergency room wouldn’t have been easy. Geneva felt a stab of guilt for Dublin’s burdens, then immediate gratitude for her two healthy children. Then a bit more guilt for that.

“What can I do, Dub?”

“Stay tuned.” He gave her the phone number of the hospital, and said he’d a leave message when he heard from the doctor.


Geneva called Zeke’s owner after the surgery and told the young man it had gone well. She gave him general directions for post-operative care and promised to leave a detailed instruction sheet at reception.

She was about to say goodbye when he asked, “Any chance the iPod still works? The way these vet bills keep piling up, I can’t afford another one.”

She suppressed the urge to hang up. “I didn’t test it,” she said evenly. “And I didn’t match up the socks I found in there either. There were three this time. And two pairs of women’s underwear.”

“For real? That dog is nuts.”

“Nuts? Hardly. Are you waiting for Zeke to reform himself? He needs you to take charge. Do the things I suggested before. Exercise him every day. A tired dog is a good dog. Don’t give him the run of the house when you can’t monitor what he’s doing. And, at the risk of sounding like your mother, pick up your socks.”


Geneva sent off the last urgent email of the day and noticed Constantine Corso leaning against the doorframe. Burly and square-jawed, “Stan” looked less like a veterinarian than a retired hit man.

“Zeke vacuuming his house again?”

“Yes. And he’ll be back. I’m not sure it was ethical to have sewn him up. Perhaps a Ziploc closure next time.”

“A lot of dogs eat things they shouldn’t, Geneva. Their owners can’t always stop them.”

“But they should try, Stan. That poor dog.”

Her cell phone buzzed from inside her lab coat. She pulled it out. Her brother again.

“You want me to show you how to answer that?” Stan teased.

“I’m not a Luddite.” she replied, more sharply than she meant to. “I just think connectivity is oversold. Case in point. Here we were, having a nice little chat about the moral quandaries surrounding sock-eating dogs, when this electronic buttinski interrupts with a message I know I don’t want.” She held the phone aloft. “I’m tempted to feed this to Zeke.” She slapped the phone onto the desk.

Stan lifted his eyebrows. She bit her lower lip and turned to the window. Outside, a woman in a blue coat holding a cat carrier walked down the path. A small girl skipped ahead of her. Geneva let out a long breath. Stan stepped into the room and sat in the chair across from her.

“Care to share with the class?” he said quietly.

In the three hours since she had talked to her brother, she hadn’t paused to think about her mother. In fact, she made a point of not thinking about her, and not only because of the demands of her job. The “It’s Mom” message gave her a familiar wrench-in-the-works feeling because each incident involving her mother upended her life. Last time Helen left a pan unattended, and while she was out cold on the couch, the kitchen curtains caught fire. Taking a nap, she had said. The repairs and insurance claim took weeks to sort out. A year before that, her mother was stranded in Vegas, having reached the cash limits on her accounts, hawked her jewelry and burned through the proceeds. As in the past, there would be consequences. Legalities. Arguments. Reparations. And, eventually, promises to do better. Those were the worst.

She considered what to tell Stan. A few years ago, he had met her mother during a rare visit. Helen had embarrassed everyone by flirting ostentatiously with Stan in front of his wife. But Stan knew no more about Helen than Geneva revealed—not a great deal.


She leaned back in her chair. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. My mother’s had a car accident.”

 “Oh, no. How bad is it?”

“Serious but not life threatening, as far as I know. My brother was updating me.” She tapped the phone on her desk.

“Can I do anything?”

It’s my life and I can’t even control it, she thought. What could anyone else do? “I’ve kept someone waiting in Room Two for twenty minutes. It’s my last appointment. You free?”

“You bet,” he said, getting up. “And let me know if you’ll need time off.”

Dublin’s message was a list: fractured knee and leg, broken nose (from the airbag, she presumed), dislocated shoulder, possible concussion, monitoring for internal injuries, stable. He had placed the word “stable” in quotes. She smiled thinly at the quip, then winced as she imagined her mother in a hospital bed, in a hip cast, her nose taped across the bridge and bruises blooming under her closed eyes.


Geneva lifted the leash off the hook behind the door and hung up her lab coat. She left her office and stopped by reception to remind the assistant to check on Zeke later that evening.

Outside the treatment room, she peeked through the window in the door. Rosa bent over a computer next to Diesel, Geneva’s Great Dane mix. The dog had recognized her footfall in the corridor and sat up expectantly, his ears like twin sails in a stiff breeze. She pushed open the door and called to him. He trotted across the room and sat in front of her, his nose at her waist, and lifted a paw. She held it and inspected the strip of adhesive tape on his forelimb. Tom, her husband, had brought Diesel to the clinic that morning to donate blood for a dog that had been hit by a car.

She stroked Diesel’s ears flat. “How’s my brave boy? Ready for that steak I promised you?”


The marsh wasn’t on her way home. By the time she stood on the path that ran along Pickleweed Inlet, the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais had turned the water midnight blue. A pair of kayaks, pointed toward Sausalito, slipped along the eelgrass at the marsh edge. She walked Diesel only a short distance, not wanting to tire him after the transfusion. Raising her binoculars, she scanned for unusual shorebirds. A dowitcher probed the sand and a handful of sandpipers huddled close before scattering like children at recess. The head of a harbor seal surfaced twenty feet from shore. It regarded her briefly, then vanished, leaving the merest ripple.

The binoculars were a ninth birthday present from her father, Eustace, who died less than two years later. The weight of them on the strap around her neck calmed her as she looked across water at the reeds on the distant bank, Diesel’s shoulder against her thigh. Her father had no particular love for birds, but Geneva tagged along when he hunted turkey or small game in the lush Carolina wood. He said searching for songbirds would keep her occupied during the long quiet mornings in the woods. Walking behind him on the narrow paths in the pre-dawn glow, his back as broad as the trunks of the ancient cottonwoods around them, she felt safe, and because of that, happy. They only spoke occasionally, when he would drop to one knee and show her some animal sign—a new opening in the bramble or a print in the dewy moss—his voice so low it sank into the damp mulch at their feet. He never minded when there was nothing to shoot, and she never minded when there was. The harsh crack of the rifle and the limp rabbits and doves represented the practical cost of the joy of those mornings.

That marked the beginning of her interest in animals, and the beginning of who she was to become. When her father died, she felt forsaken. A few years passed before she also felt cheated. Her eldest sister, Paris, was nearly an adult when he died, and his love for her was blinding, uncommon. Geneva, by comparison, was a child in the shadows. He had missed out on her entirely.

She turned toward the car. Tom would be wondering where she was. She would have to explain why she hadn’t called him about Helen. He would nod with understanding. And when he asked if she wanted him to go with her to L.A., she would watch for the measured disappointment on his face as she admitted she hadn’t decided whether to go.

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me

Note: I wrote this years ago, before I was lucky enough to land an agent and become a published author. In a few days, my third novel will be released and yesterday I handed in the revisions for my fourth. I'm all out of words for now and my garden needs me, so you'll have to forgive this somewhat dated story. I hope it makes you laugh.

My youngest daughter is leaving for college in the fall. At least I hope so. Despite dire warnings issued by my friends about Empty Nest Syndrome, I figure that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’ve done my job: she has all of her digits and no outstanding warrants. How can I be mourning her childhood when I haven’t figured out how to turn her room into a small-batch brewery? Besides, from what I understand I’ll be lucky if she and her sister don’t graduate from college and then try to crawl back into my womb.

I’ve got a bigger problem. After I had my teeth cleaned yesterday I chatted with the nice ladies at the desk. One asked if she could buy my novel yet. I told her I was still trying to land an agent, and that in the current publishing market that was like trying to become a supermodel. (I could have said that my book might suck, but she wants to believe in me, so I didn’t.)

“Don’t you have an agent from your last book?” I published a book about animal intelligence ten years ago. You can buy it on Amazon today for four cents. That’s right. You give them a nickel and they’ll give you my book, plus change. Still star struck? Anyway, like I said, these ladies are nice. I’m not just teeth to them.

So I explain that I sold the book directly to the publisher and that my editor now only sells health books (how annoying) and my junior editor founded some multimedia enterprise and…The dental ladies’ eyes are glazing over. Then I remember something about the junior editor.

“He married, um, that actress, you know, the one from, um…” They are looking more hopeful. Their good manners might earn them a tidbit. If only I could remember the name of the actress, or even the movie.

“The Breakfast Club!”

“Oh, her!”

“I know her!”

Of course we all know her. Everyone knows her. And it goes without saying that you know her, that you’re shouting her name in your head, or even out loud. And you’re wondering how someone as stupid as me even manages to find the letters on the keyboard to get this down. You are thinking that because you don’t have what I have, at least not yet. You don’t have Empty Brain Syndrome.

But the dental ladies do.

“I can see her face.”

“Me, too. She’s got red hair.”

“I’m going to google it.”

“No!” They stare at me. “I mean, let’s try to remember.”

I do this a lot. I’m not going down easily or quietly. I’ve discovered that most of the time I can retrieve the information I’m looking for. Eventually. As long as I can hear it breathing in the foggy swamp that is my memory, I will not rest. Yesterday I was on my game and hunted that sucker down.

“Molly Ringwald. That’s the one, right?”

“That’s her!” the dental ladies cheered.

Other days I feel like I’m on Jeopardy, playing against that guy that set the all-time record. You know the one. Ken What’s-his-face. I keep pushing my buzzer, standing there like an idiot with my mouth open until Alex Trebek (didn’t even have to pause for that one—hah!) gives me that supercilious little smirk and I step over to the podium and smack him.

The one person who admires my retrieval efforts is my husband. Days after we both fail to recall a name, or a place, I will tell him what it is and he will be amazed. Or pretend to be amazed, which is just as good.

“Well done!” Delivered in his BBC English, as if I had made an improbable whatever-you-call-it in cricket.

I left the dental ladies and stopped at the nursery to get a tomatillo plant. A thirty-something showed me where they were and pointed out a purple variety. Last year I made purple pesto from purple basil but this seemed wrong.

“It wouldn’t be salsa verde anymore, would it?” I mused.

“No,” she said. “What’s Spanish for ‘purple’?”

Hmmm. My poor brain. Barely had time to dust off from the last mission.

 “Is it marrón?” she offered.

“I don’t think so. But that’s close.” I liked that we were puzzling it out together, me and someone with a functioning hippocampus.

“I’m going to google it later,” she said.

“I’m going to think about it,” I said.

A guy walked by carrying a large plant.

“Hector, what’s ‘purple’ in Spanish?”

No! Don’t tell me! My hands flew to my ears and I hit myself in the head with the tomatillo plant.


“It’s morado,” she said to me, rubbing it in.

Empty Brain Syndrome be damned. I would have had that before I got to the car.



The View from Here

I'm not sold on astrology but I'll cop to one thing: I'm a Capricorn and I'm truly a goat. 

I'm stubborn and will eat almost anything and, most of all, I like to be on top of things. Yes, "on top of things" as in organized and up-to-date, but also literally.

Beachy Head, East Sussex, England

Beachy Head, East Sussex, England

I know exactly where I got this proclivity: My father. He was a mountaineer with first ascents in the Alps. I haven't taken up technical climbing (although my daughter has), but I do like summits.

My father defying gravity.

My father defying gravity.

His idea of courtship was dragging my mother up a mountain. It worked.

His idea of courtship was dragging my mother up a mountain. It worked.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a peak-bagger--someone who collects summits. I don't keep track of the mountains I climb; I just love being on them. 

Luckily, my best friend feels the  same way.

He doesn't like venturing as close to the edge as I do, though, which means I'm the one in charge of cleaning out the gutters. 

It's funny, isn't it? We inherit so much from our parents, through nature and through nurture, but it can be a funny little quirk that ends up meaning so much. Mountains speak to me, as they did to my father, and living in Virginia, where I can see the Blue Ridge Mountains every day, is paradise.

Wherever you are, I hope you enjoy the view. And don't worry about the edge. That's where you can see the best.


How Not to Crash-land an Ending

Endings are my nemesis. The first indication came during The Call. After my agent-to-be went on at length about how much she loved my debut—hey, I wasn’t going to stop her—she asked if I might reconsider the ending.

“Of course.” At that moment I would’ve changed my gender, if she’d asked.

“It needs to be a little less tidy.”

“Rookie mistake. I’m embarrassed.”

“Don’t be.”

I rewrote the ending and she was happy. A year later, we spoke on the phone after she’d read my second novel.

“It’s wonderful,” she said, “but I’m wondering if you’ll reconsider the ending.”

“Too neat?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Sigh. Why did I make the same mistake again? In both instances, I’d created an ending reminiscent of the closing scene in a Hollywood film where the ensemble cast gathers around a table. Everyone is smiling, but there is a hint of sadness, because unfortunate things did happen. Perhaps someone died. The person known for joking tells a joke, the couple you wanted to be together is together. It’s a Heartwarming Moment. That’s the ending I wrote. Twice. With an actual table.


Here’s another thing: overly tidy endings are a pet peeve of mine.

I know why I fell into the trap. I’d spent 300 pages putting my characters through all the trouble I could dream up, one cartload of unmitigated misery and misfortune after another. My poor characters. I love them so. By the end of the book I had to make it up to them. I’d been cruel for so long and now it was time to say goodbye. I got soft.

When it’s time to wrap things up, you strive to let the air out of the balloon slowly and it comes out all at once. Pfffttt. The characters go flat. You want to get the reader out of the story, push them out of the airplane, and the ending is the parachute. It’s easy to make a mistake. Let them drift down too slowly and they’ll hang slack in their straps, napping. Or if the parachute fails, or you neglected to supply one, and the reader is in freefall to stony ground. I recently read a book that ended like this:

Endings, by their nature, are let-downs. A few chapters left, 85% on an e-reader, and if the writer has done a good job so far, the reader is wishing it weren’t so. But it has to end. It’s time to leave the playground and go home, where there are chores, where life is waiting. A successful ending eases this transition, but if it eases too successfully, the end of the book is as ordinary as life itself, and that’s not right either. The beginning of a book should feel like leaping onto a moving train; the ending is the opposite. Off is harder than on and it’s going to hurt. Some choices are better than others, but no one is going to approve of everything you have to do to get out of your story.

When I’m stuck for how to finish the damn thing, I look to the first chapters. I’m not suggesting you loop the story back to the beginning, rather that you might find a moment, a symbol, a snippet of dialogue that picks up a central theme, and that you can use as the final note.

If you’ve built conflict through the entire narrative, with luck there’s bit left as you near the end. Leave it there. Allow a secret to remain hidden. Let the door slam on someone’s ass. If you don’t, if you round off all the corners, the reader will turn the last page and eagerly rejoin the real world instead of lingering in her chair, wondering what has transpired and what might happen next. Even squirrels like to linger a bit.

That last line isn’t perfect but, like I said, endings are my nemesis.




Spring in November

Something strange has been happening in my garden and it's got me thinking.  Not surprising, really, because the garden is a beautiful place to have a ponder, and lately, when beauty and grace have seemed in short supply, I'll take it wherever I can find it, even if it means weeding. 

Like much of the East Coast, our unusually warm summer has segued into an unusually warm autumn. Our first frost is four weeks behind schedule and counting. Raised in a Vermont snowbank, I'm one of those freaks who loves the cold, but even so you won't catch me complaining about this weather. Because instead of succumbing to brittle brown dormancy, my garden thinks it's spring.

Seedlings are popping up everywhere, fooled by the warmth into putting down roots and reaching for the sun.

Cosmo seedling

Cosmo seedling





A veritable forest of baby dill!

A veritable forest of baby dill!


I belong to the Tall Poppies Writers, a collective of smart, energetic, talented women authors, and grew poppies from seed packet the members received at last fall's conference. In early summer, they bloomed magnificently and when the winds blew and the rain lashed down, the tall slender stem leaned on each other, just as they were meant to. Every time I saw the flowers, I thought of my Tall Poppy sisters, and was heartened. These seedlings won't have time to bloom but I know I will see them in a few months time. 

The weather has not only been warm, but also extremely dry. Every few days I water the fall vegetables I planted and take a few extra minutes to include the brave, misguided seedlings. I can't help it. 

And that's what got me thinking. A little extra warmth was all it took to make November feel like May. Most of it happened without my intervention, but sprinkling some water now and then has made a difference. Not everything will bloom again; most will need the patience to wait for spring. But the seedlings themselves give me hope and remind me it won't be brown and dry in the garden forever.

Just look at the bouquet from my November garden.

Like you, I've been appalled, dismayed, angered, and disheartened by acts of hatred, stories of abuse and crimes against decency over the last several months. On this Election Day, I'm taking a lesson from my garden. The days may still be getting longer, but with a little warmth and a sprinkling of generosity, we can't help but grow, lean on each other, and reach toward the sun.

It's spring in November. Go high.  #ImWithHer

Giveaways Galore!

Popping out of First Draft Prison to let you know about two giveaways. The first one ends tomorrow, so don't delay!

On Goodreads, I'm offering FIVE SIGNED ARCs (advance review copies) of ALL THE BEST PEOPLE, which will be published May 2017. Enter here for a chance to win!

And on my Facebook page, I'm giving away two books:  THE VANISHING YEAR, by New York Times bestselling author, Kate Moretti, and my second novel, MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE. Kate's is an homage to Du Maurier's Rebecca--nail-biting psychological suspense--and mine, well, you can read about it here. Giveaway ends 8 November. Both giveaways are US only. (Sorry!) 

Did you enter both? Good! We'll be having lots of giveaways for ALL THE BEST PEOPLE in the coming months, so if you add it to your To-Read shelf you will receive notification.

Back to prison for me, at least until I make my daily word count goal. Meanwhile, I will leave you with this, the view from my prison. :) 


Show Me the Honey

The two hives of bees we installed in April are doing so well we decided to steal some honey from More Bees. (Want to start at the bee-ginning? Go here.) When we visit the hives for inspections, we use smoke to calm the bees. That's not appropriate for honey harvesting because the first thing the bees do when the fire alarm goes off is poke open the capped honeycombs and fill their honey stomachs. Don't you do that when you smell smoke?

Instead, we spray a felt-lined fume board with an almond oil concoction which drives the bees off that layer further into the hive. Worked like a stinky charm! Here is a single frame completely full of capped honey.

Capped honeycomb is not always pale; it depends on what the bees were feeding on. This frame has lighter honey at the top and darker at the bottom, showing how as the flowering plants change, so does the honey color.

Here's a close-up where you can see the color variation. Pollen is every color you can imagine and it does not necessarily correspond to the flower color. For instance, the borage flower is a gorgeous periwinkle blue and the pollen is grey.

We stole six frames, gave More Bees six fresh ones and high-tailed it to the garage. That medieval tool you see my husband employing below punctures the waxy caps of the honey cells. The extractor is a centrifuge; two frames go in at a time. 

It's meant to be hand-cranked but my husband got the brilliant idea of using a hand drill to speed things up. The honey gets thrown out of the cells, hits the wall of the extractor and runs to the bottom.

Bits of comb inevitably get mixed up with the honey and need to be strained out. 

Ta-da! Isn't it gorgeous? We extracted a quart of honey from each of the six frames and will keep a couple of the larger jars in reserve in case our bees need some over the winter. We hope they will have stockpiled the fifty pounds they need themselves, but we want to be sure.

Thank you, More Bees! And thanks also for pollinating our garden in the process. What a miraculous creature is the bee!



I've clawed my way out from under an avalanche of summer squash to give a progress report on the garden. We've come a long way from the plotting and planning stage two months ago. Here's the overview.

The sunflowers (Velvet Queen) are over seven feet high.That's borage below. The bees love and so do we; it's edible.

The sunflowers (Velvet Queen) are over seven feet high.That's borage below. The bees love and so do we; it's edible.

We're growing three kinds of beans: Kentucky Blue pole beans, Romano bush beans and French dwarf purple velour beans. Intermixed are Limelight Four-o'clocks which help keep pests away from the beans. Japanese beetles are attracted to them in particular. If they nibble, they die! These flowers are not hardy so I will dig them up in the fall and store the roots.

We're growing three kinds of beans: Kentucky Blue pole beans, Romano bush beans and French dwarf purple velour beans. Intermixed are Limelight Four-o'clocks which help keep pests away from the beans. Japanese beetles are attracted to them in particular. If they nibble, they die! These flowers are not hardy so I will dig them up in the fall and store the roots.

So pretty!

So pretty!

The ten tomato plants are testing the limits of their cages and you can see the fruit near the bottom. Those two are Hillbillies, one of our favorites from the last two years. 

The ten tomato plants are testing the limits of their cages and you can see the fruit near the bottom. Those two are Hillbillies, one of our favorites from the last two years. 

The red onions are bulbing nicely.

The red onions are bulbing nicely.

Melon (French Chanterais) and summer squash (Delta crookneck) taking over the world, per usual. We're also growing Delicata squash, Early Butternut and Lambkin melon.

Melon (French Chanterais) and summer squash (Delta crookneck) taking over the world, per usual. We're also growing Delicata squash, Early Butternut and Lambkin melon.

Delta squash blossom with a bee inside. 

Delta squash blossom with a bee inside. 

My husband built this attractive ladder for the Eureka cucumbers. They are interplanted with nasturium and dill (BFFs). I made my first batch of bread-and-butter pickles yesterday.

As wonderful as the vegetables are, it's the flowers that make me smile, especially these poppies, a daily reminder of my friends at Tall Poppy Writers. 

As wonderful as the vegetables are, it's the flowers that make me smile, especially these poppies, a daily reminder of my friends at Tall Poppy Writers

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge my 50,000 little friends who helped make the garden such a success. Thanks, Bees and More Bees!

I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge my 50,000 little friends who helped make the garden such a success. Thanks, Bees and More Bees!

One final shot so you can see why working in this garden is hardly work. 

One final shot so you can see why working in this garden is hardly work. 

How's your garden faring? If you don't garden, what are you enjoying most right now from the farmer's market? 

Have a lovely day, everyone! 

Oh, Happy Day!

Look what I have--a new cover! And under that cover, that is, inside the book, will be lots of words that I went to a lot of trouble of arranging in a particular order. When the time comes (May 2017, or sooner, if you win a copy in one of the many giveaways we'll be having), I hope you will like how I arranged the words.

For now, let's just stare at the cover.

What do you think? Don't go telling me my baby is ugly because I won't hear you. I love this baby.

If you'd like to win a rough galley (no pretty baby cover--sorry), I'm hosting a giveaway on my Facebook page until 9 July. Just comment and share the post to enter. Go on, I'll wait.

Want to read what other authors had to say about ALL THE BEST PEOPLE? The full quotes are here, but I'll give you a sample platter.

“Not just the best people, but real people: authentic, quirky and troubled. I cared for them all."           Chris Bohjalian, author of The Sleepwalker and The Guest Room

“All The Best People unfurls the truth of three generations caught in a grandmother’s mysterious madness. Sonja Yoerg spins the story of a family on the brink of collapse—writing with tenderness, grace, and truth.”
           Randy Susan Meyers, bestselling author of Accidents of Marriage

“All the Best People is powerful and haunting, a novel about betrayal and shame, acceptance and unconditional love. Book clubs will devour it.”
           Barbara Claypole White, bestselling author of The Perfect Son and Echoes of Family

"Deftly and with the delicate brush of a master, Yoerg draws us into this brilliant, multi-generational saga of love, madness, mysticism and the markings they leave on a family. Beautifully rendered and aching in its portrayal of a mother’s slide into mental illness, All the Best People is destined to be a book club favorite."                 
           Christopher Scotton, author of The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

"This ambitious tale will enthrall readers with its lyrical prose and unforgettable characters. All the Best People is a mesmerizing read that will challenge, delight and redefine our notions of both weakness and resilience." 
           Lynda Cohen Loigman, author of The Two-Family House

“All the Best People is gorgeously written and chock-full of captivating and colorful characters. Unforgettable, your heart will break and swell in equal measure.”
          Kate Moretti, New York Times bestselling author of The Vanishing Year

"Yoerg has crafted a suspenseful and poignant tale of three generations of a Vermont family whose long-held secrets threaten to devour them whole. The novel is paced so perfectly and so dense with truly unique psychological drama, readers will need to be reminded to exhale.”             Amy Impellizzeri, award-winning author of Lemongrass Hope

"All the Best People is a powerful story of a family whose legacy of mental illness and betrayals nearly destroys them. Yoerg's writing keeps us on a high wire of tension as we seek salvation and hope alongside her characters. The lessons in this novel resonate long after the book is finished."                                                                                                                                                       Holly Robinson, author of Chance Harbor and Folly Cove

"With Yoerg’s lush and moving prose, the characters are realistic and bold, yet so compassionately portrayed that I fell in love with even the most unlikable ones. This book will stay with you long after you read the last page.”
           Amy Sue Nathan, author of The Good Neighbor and The Glass Wives

I'm grateful for the generosity of all these authors. They're busy people and reading a book is not a small task. I feel very lucky indeed.

I'm a pretty excitable person but I am VERY excited to share this book with you. In the meantime, Happy Fourth of July to you and yours!