Building new habits

That’s what we do in the new year, right? We start fresh with a new calendar. We try to make this year “count” in some way that previous years haven’t.

I’ve always tried to give some of my time to volunteer pursuits, mainly by taking positions on various non-profit boards. And, thinking back, I’ve always taken the same kinds of roles — the ones that help with publicity or communication. These days, that tends to involve social media.

But since I’m mostly retired, I’m up to six groups. I counted the other day. (Stop me before I volunteer again!) Their demands vary, and one only needs attention from now until the end of April. But it needs a lot of attention.

Another needs a record of the hours its volunteers serve. In order to be eligible to vote at the annual meeting, volunteers must have provided at least 10 hours of service during the previous year. And the organization needs records of that service, not just to keep track of its voting members, but also to include in grant applications.

So, my new habit involves a timesheet — my new habit. I made a spreadsheet to help me keep track of the hours I’m spending for each group. I didn’t make it until Jan. 8, so I missed whatever I put in on the first week. That’s ok, because I didn’t do anything for the group that wants records until the day I started it. (And I need to give them a bit of time today.).

Since it’s all on the honor system, I’m rounding to the nearest quarter hour for all the groups. I hear that works for lawyers.

And I’ve been diligent since that first day.

I added it up yesterday and I’ve put in 51.75 hours of volunteer service to five of my six groups in the past two weeks. (The other one won’t meet until next week.)

But I also added a column for writing and revising. So I also learned that, until yesterday, I’d only put in 3 hours towards my novel. That’s no way to get revisions done.

I doubled the time yesterday. I focused on my revisions and spent 6 hours on them. That has to improve.

So, my new habit — my timekeeping — is already teaching me things about the balance in my life. And led me to my next goal, which is to make sure I get some writing and revising time in at least five days a week.

Wish me luck.

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What social media can teach writers

plate of noodles and roasted cherry tomatoes
(Photo by Sharon)

You might wonder what food has to do with social media. And writers. I’ll get to that.

Debbie Johansson posted some suggestions — 3 Things Social Media Can Teach Writers — a few years ago. Her advice actually stands the test of time. I especially like number three, do what feels comfortable.

I’ve been thinking about social media a lot lately, mostly because I’ve just taken on the job of social media officer for Sisters in Crime Chicagoland. And I’ve become website “updater” for a local theater group. But these are hardly my first forays into the online world. This post marks the end of my tenth anniversary as a blogger. In fact, my experience goes back to AOL and The Well, both accounts I’ve long since given up. But I learned a lot during the pre-web, internet bulletin board days of screechy dial-up connections.

For one thing, I learned being online is a great way to be in touch with people who are nowhere near my pretty rural outpost where getting out of my snow-drifted driveway has always been a challenge this time of year. The best change to come from covid, as far as I’m concerned, was the proliferation of work-from-home options. But when you are at home most of the time, social media is a substitute for the coffee klatch, the water cooler conversation, the quick lunch with friends.

That, I think, is the key to Johansson’s advice to “keep it personal.” I know some people whose real lives are reflected almost completely in their posts. And as an occasional food writer, I’ve probably shared more meal photos than are strictly necessary. (I told you I’d get back to food.) But I enjoy good eats, at home or away, and I don’t mind sharing those with my friends. I even shared recipes at work. Maybe I’ll share a recipe or two here sometime.

I also had a column about travel, which led to my last couple of Midwest travel posts.

And that’s the other key to being real in social media — regardless of the platform. Share what you like and your readers may actually become your friends.

Happy New Year to you! I hope you have wonderful 2023!

À bientôt.

Mississippi stops

No, this isn’t about the state. It’s about the river.

(Photo by Sharon)

On my way home from Bouchercon, the world mystery conference, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, earlier this month, I took a diverting drive along the Mississippi River. I started, obviously enough, in Minnesota on state Highway 26, south from La Crescent, a beautiful little bluffy town across from LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

(Photo by Sharon)

That led me into Iowa, and the little town of Lansing with its steel bridge across the river. You can see from Iowa to Wisconsin on the bridge that sits high across the river, its metal frame ringing under tires warned to go a mere 25 miles an hour while crossing. More about that in a minute.

I saw the bridge initially late in the afternoon on my way to a little motel in Ferryville, Wisconsin. I’d never heard of the town or the motel, but I asked family for suggestions for places to stay on my trip. Turns out the mother of the wife of one my cousins lives in the area and, from her, I learned about the Grandview Motel. (The owners are about ready to retire, in case you want a second career,) It’s the only place I’ve ever stayed where the room instructions include the rules for using the game cleaning station. The place was immaculate, so even if you aren’t hunting ducks or fishing, you might enjoy a sojourn in a place where the vista is 20 miles up and down the Mississippi.

(Photo by Sharon)

I arrived in time to appreciate sunset and outdoor seating, to meet my hostess, Donna, and settle in for a quiet, relaxing evening. Be warned, the steps in and out of the rooms are a bit steep, so this place might not work for people with limited mobility. But I loved my stay and plan to go back for a mini-writing retreat.

Though you can’t see it in the photo, the motel sits up on a little bluff with the highway and railroad tracks lying between the parking lot and the Mississippi. Only the occasional rumbling of a train on the tracks below broke the silence of the night. But I grew up in a town with two rail lines crossing it, so it was a comforting sound.

I’d planned ahead and packed breakfast foods for the morning. — this is also one of the rare motels that doesn’t include a buffet. But, hey, hunters. — I cleaned up and headed back across the river to Lansing, Iowa, where I’d discovered the Allamakee County Conservation Board’s Driftless Area Education and Visitor Center. There, I found another spectacular view of the Mississippi on its front porches — there are two levels. And I learned about the history of settlement in the area from the first Native Americans through more recent history. There were also some wonderful exhibits — including some snakes and frogs — about wildlife in the area. Look for hands-on learning options you — or kids — will enjoy.

(Photo by Sharon)

And there were several exhibits about industry after European settlement, including logging, fishing and button making. A wire basket of “button holes” held the remains of mollusk shells after workers — mostly women — had punched shiny buttons from them. Did you know the buttons were called “mother of pearl” because the shell linings are made of nacre, the same thing that coats the outer layer of pearls? That little museum is another place I plan to revisit.

In the meantime, my list of places to go keeps growing.

À bientôt.

History and mystery

(Sharon’s photo)

My sister has been really getting into genealogy now that she’s retired. She had the bug already, but little time to spend on it.

A few weeks ago, she asked me to take a day trip to our parents’ hometown. That was an easy yes. We grew up about an hour away — serious planning on our father’s part — and spent at least a couple of weekends there every month while we were kids. I estimated once that I spent five years of my first eighteen there on the weekend- and occasional-summer-week-installment plan.

My sister wanted to have lunch with some relatives, stop in a few downtown shops, and — the main event — find the graves of our mother’s great-grandparents.

I didn’t even remember the name of mom’s great-grandparents, although I read a family genealogy once that may have included it. (The focus was on our grandfather’s family.) And I really didn’t have it firmly in my mind that parts of the family had been in Ottawa since the 19th century.

But my sister used an online resource to find their graves. And it turned out they’re in a cemetery neither of us knew we had relatives in.

She had a description of the location and I managed to find a map of the cemetery. Between us, we “orienteered” our way to three, mostly grass-covered slabs over our grandparents and a great-great uncle we’d never heard of.

(Sharon’s graphic)

But that’s just one journey into history I’ve been on lately. The other is a journey through the history of the mystery. A book club I belong to — founded more than 100 years ago to study Shakespeare — is spending several months on the mystery. I offered to do our “opening presentation,” a talk to set the context for our studies.

I mean, I’m writing mysteries. Shouldn’t I know a little about whence they came?

Of course, I knew about Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I’d even heard of Wilkie Collins and Anna Katherine Green and Gaston Leroux. But in the last month, I’ve also met a number of early — and some not-so-early — contributors to what today we call crime fiction.

I find myself doing what I always did when I’ve had to write a paper. I’m getting lost in the research.

I hear my thesis advisor’s voice in my head. “Get out of the library and write!”

I’m on a deadline. I have to be done by Labor Day.

But I just need a little more time in the library.

So it’s back to the past for me.