Every Good Book is a Mystery, Even When it’s Not -By Heather Webb

I’ve been studying bestselling novels of late. I’m trying to get a feel for what is working and why; suss out the author’s special sauce that seems to be speaking to readers.

I have to admit, sometimes I’m befuddled when the quality of the prose is lacking or the story drags in too many places. Or worse, when the characters are whiney and aren’t particularly sympathetic. But after some careful comparison, I think I’ve figured out the secret.

Regardless of genre, what keeps a reader going is nothing more than a big question. A mystery.

Who among us doesn’t love to be tempted and tantalized with secrets, or burning desires, yet uncovered?


As an author of historical fiction, I enjoy weaving in sparkling details—the frothy petticoats of a princess, a lamb bone used for buffing marble, or steam cars cranked by hand. But they won’t keep a reader going for the long haul through the novel’s twists and turns. In literary fiction, the beautiful writing is what you come for, but you keep reading to see how the character changes, how they confront the big issue the author has chosen for them.

You keep reading because you don’t know what will happen, but you must find out. I mentioned historicals and literary fiction because they can be less plot-driven than some other genres. The same goes for some women’s fiction, but the end result is the same: all good fiction is riddled with mysteries.

With my first few books, I set these mysteries up without realizing they were there. As I have evolved as a writer, I’ve discovered how important it is to create these questions on purpose and to plant them strategically. As you might suspect, the most important question is the HOOK, or the mystery that is connected to the premise of the novel.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, we worry whether or not Elizabeth Bennett will fall in love, or be a spinster in want of a home after her father dies, simply because her prejudice gets in the way? This is the central mystery. Once this question is planted, the author expertly layers in others to support the premise because:


Remember we are tempting the reader to keep going so we must weave in a series of smaller questions to keep the plot moving forward. Let’s look at Pride and Prejudice again. Austen peppers the narrative expertly with mysteries.

Will Elizabeth meet an available gentleman at Mr. Bingley’s ball?

Will she make amends with the proud Mr. Darcy?

Will the family’s farm be saved?


Though there should be a litany of unanswered questions, they must be connected to the protagonist’s quest and motivations in some way, or they will clutter the narrative and confuse the reader. In these examples below, note how these questions 1.) propel the plot forward, 2.) reveal important traits or desires about the protagonist and his/her motivations, and 3) support the larger mystery or hook.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins: Will Katniss survive in a dystopian hell? Will she choose Peeta or Gale? Can she keep Prim safe? Will the revolt against the Capital be successful?

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: Will Diana accept who she is and come to terms with her powers? What exactly is her witchy family’s past? Will she fall for Matthew? Will she survive the attack from her enemies?

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly: Can Andi find some semblance of peace again after her brother’s death and parents’ divorce? How did Andi lose her brother? What secrets will she uncover in that old diary from the French Revolution? Will she allow herself to fall in love? Will she ever grasp that her brother’s death isn’t her fault and forgive herself?

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:  What does it mean to live, truly live, and what is the emotional cost when we’ll just die anyway? Will Hazel relax into being a “normal” teen and allow herself to fall in love with Augustus? To meet her idol –an author–  in person is her dream. What is he truly like in person, and will she be satisfied with his answers to the burning questions she has about his work? Can Hazel recover enough to go into remission, or will she die of cancer after all?


What is the premise, or big hook of your novel?

What’s the big unanswered question of each act?

What smaller questions have you weaved into each act to support your mc’s motivations and goals? The story’s central mystery?


Thank you Heather Webb for allowing us to republish your Every Good Book is a Mystery, Even When it’s Not blog. To read more of Heather’s blog please visit Heather Webb

Wildflower Poetry

We are always looking for members to write a blog
if you are interested please contact us at 


Laura Stone keeps her eyes and heart open while walking and finds poetry along the way.

Recently I have been trying to take my phone with me on my daily walks with my dog, in case we see something beautiful, interesting, or inspiring.

My phone has a better camera than any camera I had when growing up, and I have become somewhat attached to capturing wildflowers and then writing a poem about the flower. I also look up the flower online, which sometimes takes a while (since searching for a pink puffy flower or a small daisy brings up a lot of choices, haha), and I try and learn a bit about each one.

So without further ado, I hope you enjoy these images and words.

Erigeron strigosuss (Prairie fleabane)


Early in the morning

the ancient sons appear

whiskers gray

stretching toward the day-star

caressing the cerulean welkin of hope.




Wild Peavine (Lathyrus venosus)


flourish, charm the winds

paint promise

with miniature pink,

amid the rubble neglected

in the old trailer park.




Potentilla recta (Sulphur Cinquefoil)


Oh for the agony of titles,

I believe you deserve so significantly greater

I would call you ~ 5 Hearts of Golden Delight,

only beloved hopeless romantics

are appeased as weeds.




Pink Bachelor Button (Centaurea dealbata)


Classic blushing flowerets

swaying abreast each wing

nectar invites

a symphony

a ritornello of bees

to sing amidst your petals.




Words & Photos by Laura Stone

(admin. director of Straw Dog Writers Guild)






Becky Jones on Summer Writing Goals

Setting your summer writing goals  and our recent Roundtable Discussion

Eight of us met on Saturday, June 10th to talk about our summer writing goals. Our goals ranged from the basics of getting back to our writing to sending our work out for publication: goals within the group were varied and unique; such as brainstorm writing ideas, dip into each topic, and find a project; establish a regular writing schedule; finish a first draft of a short story or chapter of a novel; listen to one’s manuscript be read aloud by the computer and note places of repetition, bad grammar, or clunkiness; revise a short story and then submit it; incorporate research into one’s novel; write or edit five poems for submission to the Straw Dog Writers Poetry Anthology that Jane Yolen will be editing; write five children’s songs.

We enjoyed each other’s company so much that we will meet mid-summer for ice cream at Herrell’s to see how we’re doing on our goals (and possibly do a little writing together). At the annual meeting, which happens to be the next roundtable discussion on September 9th at Lilly Library in Florence, we will also check in with each other to see if we met our goals. We welcome others to check in with us too.

Becky Jones

SDWG Writing Residencies

 a new benefit for our members—
the Straw Dog Writers Guild Writing Residencies at Patchwork Farm Retreat.

Patchwork Farm Writers Retreat

A Straw Dog Writing Residency will include 6 days, 5 nights, Sunday at 3:00 pm through Friday noon, in one of the lovely, unique places at Patchwork Farm Retreat in Westhampton MA.

Patchwork Farm Writers RetreatResidencies will be self-guided and residents will provide their own meals, with access to cooking facilities. Cost of accommodations will be covered by a grant from a generous Straw Dog member.

To apply for a residency, you must reside in one of the four western counties of Massachusetts (Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin & Berkshire), be a dues-paying member of Straw Dog Writers Guild (you may join at time of application for residency), and be working on a substantial writing project.

Application by email to Straw Dog Writers Guild, (, to include:

–       a brief description (no more than two paragraphs) of your writing project in any genre: poetry, fiction, memoir, literary non-fiction, essays, dramatic writing, songwriting, journalism, etc.;

–       writing sample: 3-5 poems or 5-10 pages of prose, double-spaced;

–       how it would benefit you to receive a full scholarship residency at Patchwork Farm Retreat.

Residencies are awarded on the basis of merit and the extent to which it seems that the person will benefit from the residency.Patchwork Farm Writers Retreat

A small group of Straw Dog members, including the director of Patchwork Farm Retreat, Patricia Lee Lewis, will welcome applications beginning July 1, with residencies to be scheduled beginning September 1, no more than one per month.

Blog by Christopher J. Sparks

Like any writer, I know how important craft can be. Straw Dog Writer’s Guild, a group of the Valley’s own writing talent, offers workshops by our, often quite accomplished, neighbors. In mid-March, I attended a lecture on crafting Magical Realism with Andrea Hairston. Andrea is a playwright, novelist, and professor of theater at Smith College. Andrea knows that writing magic must live with or within the body, that shared experience between all readers. Even the magic of metrics, while cerebral, indulges in the physicality of sound which is where its real power lies. Were it anything less, meter would be mere word math.

Magic through the body allows the reader to use their senses and experience to make it real. I have read Sci-Fi and Fantasy that often suffer getting too caught up in their own ideas rather than the interior, rather than what we all share and can relate to. Magic then becomes an increasingly hollow cerebral task like phasers, lasers or whatever. Trained as a mathematician and physicist as well as a playwright, Andrea explained, perhaps more clearly than I can recount, how authors may have an interesting invocation or spectacular spell, but that the transmission fails or becomes stagnant because the writer must convince the reader to see as they see for even a simple summoning to have any real emotional impact.

Andrea introduced the works surrealist artists Remedios Vera and Dorothea Tanning, whom fame passed over because they were women, to illustrate magic graphically framed by the body. The paintings echoed some of Andrea’s own work, some of which is still in process, that she was kind enough to share with the group. Her descriptions are as beautiful as they are visceral.

Realism is the illusion of reality, tenuously strung between points of status quo. So like any world-building, there are steps and processes to fashioning the frame, even if the intention is that those underpinnings be invisible. Andrea demonstrated how important it is to balance what is perceived as realistic without getting too caught up in details such that the flow of the narrative is broken, potentially overwhelming the reader in one’s striving to seem authentic.

Andrea brought these lessons together in her own vivid writing. The workshop demonstrated how writing magic through the body allows the reader to use their senses and forces the writer to frame invocations in our common experience. So written, the spell only grows in power as it branches out into your world, not only shifting narrative but becoming a thread of the fabric of your characters. Valuable lessons.

— Christopher J. Sparks is a local writer with a passion for poetry and history.

Meaning awaits in the desert of truth,
blue and deep as deep can be.
— Christopher J. Sparks

“What sustains you as a writer?”

Two writers tell us what they got out of participating in Straw Dog’s first Writers Roundtable -held February 11th.

The topic was “What sustains you as a writer?” -  The next Roundtable will be June 10th.

Straw Dog Writers Guild, Northampton, Northampton MA, Western MA Writing, Writers, Local Writers Pioneer Valley, Straw Dog,  Sustain – once removed, by Jess Martin

How does one dart, weave and unwind words into some semblance of beginning, middle and end? Then revise until proclaiming: “done” or “I surrender” or perhaps “I must get on with my life”… only to return to the blank page to do dance again.

Sustain solution (7% success content, percentage variable to dilution / desperation): Writer seeks same. Isn’t that part of what brought writers to a Straw Dog-led roundtable discussion on a Saturday morning: the company and commiseration of/with other writers? Sustain through group support. Levels vary from groups that meet to write, to groups that meet to critique, to groups that evolve into something under “x” (unknown) indescribably more, a network of support, reader, confidantes, muses? Some groups also might like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.

Sustain solution (38% with delicate drips of self-acceptance): Joy. Pardon me, while I summon my Texas roots: You ain’t gonna do somethin’ you don’t like to do. Not having fun? Flip the switch. Before you jump two feet into blank space like someone’s hurtling flaming rocks at your face, do this: smile. Put on your favorite shirt, those fuzzy socks, whatever to get yourself to relish words spilling out of you. Sing’em. Sling’em. 

Sustain solution (72.6314% effective but do not operate farm machinery when under the influence): You are the writer of your own story. I learned last week that my first short story will be published. I took a ~20 year hiatus from narrative writing. In November, I deliberated: why am I making this so hard? Whose mold am I trying to fit? I scrapped it (it’s a daily practice to fight the temptation to dredge it up). I want to write lesbian stories, and oh, that other problem I have of never finishing a story? I will write short stories. I found an anthology call with a queer publisher, and I spent December in a mad dash to meet the deadline. Last week, the publisher says “we’re including it,” and I take my news to my social media enclave, and there, I found it: the mold waiting: “Now if you write sci-fi for young adults, you can be a real success!”

It reminds me of what I would avoid in a writer’s group when critique veers off the story I’m trying to tell and the one the critic wants me to tell.

I’m going back to my baseline: what do I expect of myself? Turn off the noise. What story is mine? Edit the well-meaning but cutting congrats. I must hold to the kind of writer I want to be. Because we all know this so well it could be written on our bodies: when you sit down to write again, there you sit and write: alone.

Sustain solution (100% with a grain of salt): Finding perfectly inspired moments captured in lyrical prose is like stealing a bit of manna from the muse’s table. It feels so good when the words are right on target and kick-ass gorgeous to boot. As hard as it is, though, cast a long glance at those imperfections too. The music falters, breaks, and pauses – imperfection must be there for us to aspire to the B-side of it. It still has the word ‘perfect’ in it, so it can’t be all bad. Get cozy with it. 

There are some thoughts. The only bit I would add is, as you continue to write, revise and read, you should be sure to keep some elemental part of you inspired, intrigued, blind-folded (maybe?), and open.

If we are channeling words, plots, and inevitable endings, maybe we should also remember to keep our writing radar flipped on, receiving, broadcasting and sometimes converging.

-- Jess Martin 

Jess Martin is a playwright by training and co-founded and co-created with Queer Soup Theater for ten years in Boston. Her plays have been produced around the New England area with a jaunt occasionally to the New York International Fringe Festival or a festival in South Dakota. After living overseas in Denmark for the past four years, she returns to writing once more with an eye towards story-telling in the narrative form.

Straw Dog Writers Guild, Northampton, Northampton MA, Western MA Writing, Writers, Local Writers Pioneer Valley, Straw Dog, Here’s what I took away from the roundtable discussion of what sustains writers, by Emily Nagoski

Writers are sustained by writing, other writers, and other writers’ writing.

 There are sources of sustenance that are universal to all humans – physical activity, affection, mindfulness, sleep, maybe music, maybe groups of people, maybe silence. Get those. And then there are source of sustenance unique to the specialized (weirdo) human known as “writer.”  Writing, writers, and other writers’ writing. Get those – and stay alive.

But suppose you sit down to write, and you find yourself lost in the question, “Why am I doing this? Why does this poem/novel/memoir/sentence matter, given the state of the world?” Answer: You write because you are a writer. “Why” is answered by “who.”

 The next question is, “what.” What will you write, given the state of the world?

There are actions anyone can contribute, to make the world a better place – be kind, resist autocracy, step forward when you notice injustice, step back when you can create space for someone who has had less opportunity than you. Do those things. And then there are the unique contributions made by the specialized human known as “writer.” Say something new, say something old in a new way, tell us what’s true. Do that – and help make life worth living.

You’re going to write anyway; you’re a writer.

What did I take away from the roundtable discussion of what sustains writers?

Read and write and talk to other writers, like your life depends on it. Because if you’re a writer, it probably does.

-- Emily Nagoski

Emily Nagoski, based in Easthampton, Massachusetts, is a health educator and New York Times best-selling author of "Come As You Are." - more info:


New Member Benefits! Newly Redesigned Website!

Please check out our newly redesigned website!

Over the past month, I have had the pleasure of redesigning the Straw Dog Writers Guild website. It has been inspiring to design new pages and formats to celebrate and promote the excellent work you are all doing in the community. There are many new additions and exciting plans coming from the website too. Please take a look around at, visit the updated 'Bulletin Board', the new 'About Us' and 'Our Story' pages.

We are thrilled/excited about new ways for members to promote your work, on our ‘'Meet our Members' page! (see below for more info). We also have a new resource, our new 'Literary Community Calendar', in which all local literary organizations are invited to submit upcoming events.

Below are our new guidelines for submissions for

Straw Dog Writers Guild members:


To have your book cover part of the Straw Dog Bookshelf moving banner on the website

Send image (jpeg/png) of your books (or literary magazines, anthologies in which your work appears)

To be added to the Straw Dog Members Page

Send one image, and a link to your work (Website, Facebook, Twitter, etc… )

Include your name & up to 30 words describing your work.

A great example to see what we are envisioning for our member's page, please visit

Members Book Launch Page

We want to spotlight your new publications and make it easy to promote each other’s books on social media. Please send two months before book publication:

Title and image of book

Brief description (100 words)

Book blurbs 1 or 2

Link to your website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, (social media hashtags #yourbook)

Date and location of 3-5 local readings

Member News

We want to celebrate your publication successes. Please send”

Title of poem or story or essay and name/date of publication

Link to the magazine or website

Please send all submissions to -

We look forward to connecting with you soon, and promoting your work!

Thank You,

Laura Stone 

Straw Dog Writers Guild

Admin. Director

To learn more about non-member submissions, please check out our new

Straw Dog Writers Submission page.


Patricia Lee Lewis upon reflection …

Patricia Lee Lewis upon reflection …

By Patrica Lee Lewis

In the year that opens before us, I will turn 80, and recently in a writing circle of workshop leaders in training, I wrote a piece in the voice of a woman facing the mysteries and gifts of going forward in a well-worn life. Onward through the fog, as they say.  However young or old you are, as you reflect on your life and your world, I encourage you to write down your (or your character’s) thoughts and share them with someone. . . .

Here is what my character had in her heart that December afternoon –

            “Every day on the road she gets closer. It’s not clear to what, or from what she travels, but there is a road and there are trees alongside and there is a sun that arcs overhead and every day it is in a different place. She believes the sun, that it knows its business, she believes the trees, that they lean far, that their minds are enormous, that they can hear the life as it thunders ahead. She sets out every day when the sun shows itself to the trees and along the way she learns the lessons of the road, how family and friends and strangers create the world, how stones hold stories, how waters enter and leave the earth, how the night sky sends pricks of light onto grasses as they curve and rustle in the fields between trees. Some days it does not matter how long she walks or if she lies down in the crooks of fallen trees to rest. Other days she frets to think the end will be invisible; she may not know it when it comes, she may not awaken. But mostly, she is content to move along, to mosey, to skip, to run, to hobble, depending on the day, the year, the weather. Mostly, she is on the road and it is a place that suits her.”

Welcoming Big Changes for SDWG in 2017


Welcoming Big Changes for SDWG in 2017

By Elli Meeropol

2017 looms, and seven years after Straw Dog Writers Guild was conceived in Patricia Lee Lewis’ living room, we are poised for big changes. Two original members of the group, Jacqueline Sheehan and Patricia Lee Lewis, are stepping off the Steering Committee and moving to the SDWG Advisory Board. We are so grateful for their leadership and dedication, and do not plan to let them entirely off the hook.

Two big changes have already begun. Most exciting is our hiring first staff person for SDWG. After an exhaustive reviewing and interviewing process, we hired Laura Stone as the part-time Administrative Director. Laura started work on December 1. She has been getting acquainted with our mission, our members and committees, our website, and our plans for the future.

Laura Stone

Laura has worked in the arts and nonprofit community for over 10 years, as a Program Coordinator and Youth Arts Program Manager. She is an experienced writing group facilitator, fundraiser, social media marketer, web designer, events planner.  She has a strong passion for community building through the arts. She also writes and plays nature-inspired songs for children on her ukulele.

She recently received a certificate in Nonprofit Management from Marlboro College Graduate School. Laura is looking forward to meeting and working with SDWG members and is inspired and very thankful to be on board. She will be attending most Straw Dog events; please introduce yourself to her.

The second big change is that Straw Dog has joined Click Workspace in Northampton with a Community Membership for the organization and an individual membership for Laura. This gives us a home. We can use the meeting room for our second Saturday craft programs, the big downstairs space for larger gatherings, and conference rooms for smaller meetings, as necessary. Click is an exciting co-op working venue. Check it out at

Change can be unsettling but it offers huge opportunity for growth. Please join me in welcoming Laura, exploring Click (you can sign up for their community newsletter to hear about the wonderful programs offered there), and adding your talents and energy to our local literary arts organization.


Perugia Press Turns Twenty

Perugia Press Turns Twenty:
Celebrating Milestones with our Local Community

Susan Kan

By Susan Kan and Rebecca Hart Olander

For 20 years, Perugia Press has published the best new woman poet each year—the winner of our annual, national contest that draws more than 500 yearly submissions. Our aim is to produce beautiful books that interest long-time readers of poetry and welcome those new to poetry, and to give a leg-up to women at the beginning of their publishing careers.

The press began as a one-book experiment, and we have gone on to produce books that earned nationwide acclaim. Many Perugia Press poets have published additional books, won poetry prizes, and been hired to teach college-level creative writing. Excellence comes this way: one book at a time. Read more of our story here.

On November 12th, Perugia Press will celebrate its 20th anniversary with an afternoon of free, drop-in, poet-led workshops and conversations, and a reunion reading in the evening. At that time, founding director Susan Kan will step down, and the new director, Rebecca Hart Olander, will formally take over. This year, 2016, is momentous for Perugia Press.

Why is the anniversary of Perugia Press important to our local writing community? Why is it important that Perugia Press is based here?

As Chase Twichell says in her blurb for our commemorative anthology, Brilliance, Spilling (to be released at our anniversary events), “In the last few decades, the publishing of poetry has gone through a seismic shift. Although the big commercial houses still publish a few volumes, it’s small presses like Perugia Press that are doing the essential work of scouting out the best new poetry and bringing it into the world. The future of American poetry literally depends on this kind of dedication and effort.”

For a small press to survive and thrive is what we’re celebrating. For the local community of writers and readers of poetry, this means access to an established, mature resource, a bank of knowledge about publishing. Although Perugia Press doesn’t specialize in publishing local writers, we are firmly rooted in this community, and benefit greatly from it. Likewise, the community benefits from having us here. We bring our award-winning poets to the area for readings, and the valley shows up to listen. With our poets comes a network; they serve as ambassadors for the press, taking news of this amazing community back home with them. We invite local poets to participate in this sisterhood.

When Nikky Finney lived in Northampton—as the poet-in-residence at Smith College—she became a friend of the press, participating in the judging day for our contest and reading twice with our poets, once with Lynne Thompson, another time with Nancy Pearson. At the reading with Nancy, she noted that the audience was lining the staircase leading to the full room. She said we needed to take this in, that most towns and cities across the country don’t have our appetite for poetry, don’t spill out of rooms to listen to it.

We thank our community by offering, on November 12th, an opportunity to sit down with us and our poets to find out how a small press works, what our poets are thinking about, and have questions answered about submitting manuscripts to poetry contests and book publishing.


Susan Kan is the director of Perugia Press. She founded the press in 1997 and is proud of the work she has done to bring women’s writing to the forefront year after year. She looks forward to continuing to serve on the board of Perugia Press.

Rebecca Hart Olander is the incoming director of Perugia Press, as well as an instructor of writing at Westfield State University. After serving on the board of Perugia Press, and as a judge and screener of manuscripts, she is thrilled to be taking the helm of the press as it moves into its next phase.

Note: See the Straw Dog Bulletin Board for details about the Perugia Press anniversary celebration on November 12th, along with area readings on the 10th and 15th of November featuring Perugia Press poets.