SHELLEY RILEY – From the Kentucky Derby to Fantasy

Shelley Riley had a deep love for horses from an early age, and this love took her from humble beginnings at the Alameda County Fairgrounds to the storied barn area of Churchill Downs.


The story of Casual Lies began on a snowy January day in Lexington, Kentucky. While attending a thoroughbred sale, Shelley glanced up and made eye contact with a tiny, fuzzy eight-month-old foal that nobody else seemed to want. And the rest is the stuff of fairytales.

That nondescript colt went on to take Shelley and her husband Jim, an accomplished horseman in his own right, on an adventure of a lifetime. They went on to compete in all three Triple Crown Races—another first at the time. By finishing second in the 118th running of the Kentucky Derby in 1992, Casual Lies rewarded Shelley with the highest finish for a horse trained by a woman in the history of the Kentucky Derby. A record that still stands thirty years later.

In Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure, Shelley gives the reader a fun look behind the scenes of what that adventure was like for her and Jim.

Why did you wait two decades to write your memoir about Casual Lies? It would have been far different if I had written the memoir right after the Triple Crown. I had a lot of material, mainly since I’d been writing a Daily Diary for both the Daily Racing Form as well as one for a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper. By waiting, the book became less a purge and more of a cathartic remembrance of a remarkable horse who electrified my world for far too short a time.

In 2012, I joined the Tri-Valley Branch of the California Writer’s Club. My thought was to go from writing special feature articles for local newspapers and get an idea of how to finish a middle-grade novel that I’d started many years before. Instead, I was encouraged to write a memoir. It was the best advice I’d received since Charlie Whittingham had encouraged me to run Casual Lies in the Kentucky Derby.

Two things happened by sitting down and rereading the daily diaries I’d written. I reconnected with the things that made my horse special. I remembered all the fantastic things that we experienced because of Casual Lies. Truthfully, it’s still hard to believe it really happened.

Using the equity in our house, I’d bought a tiny colt that nobody else wanted. I shared how he grew into a headstrong, charismatic horse that took us on a journey you couldn’t have replicated if you had all the money in the world.

Fans from all over the world have read Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure. You’ll laugh, you might cry a little, and trust me when I say I had no trouble poking fun at myself.

Although Casual Lies didn’t win the Kentucky Derby, he still holds a place in history. But for me, he was my bright-eyed and mischievous Stanley.

So how did you go from writing a memoir to penning Sword and Sorcery Fantasy novels? When I was a kid, I was an avid reader. But each book always had to have something to do with horses. As I grew older, my taste in literature became increasingly eclectic. Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Wilbur Smith, Larry McMurtry, Steven King, Dean Kootz, etc. the list would be endless. But my all-time favorite, as it turns out, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove a close second.

A perfect book doesn’t come with enough pages. A good story involves a fellowship that you can feel a part of. For me, a good story is one where you find yourself invested in the fellowship’s success, you’re a part of the team, and when the story comes to an end, you’re loath to say goodbye to your new friends.

I love writing short stories. I find that a thought or an image often triggers my inspiration. The idea for Into Madness – The Born from Stone Saga came from pictures I took of gargoyles situated atop a gothic cathedral when I was touring Europe.

It was one of these shots that brought about Mystislav, a dragon made of stone, who comes to life under a full moon. He flies across the city and lands on the donjon tower of Carolingian castle. Mystislav hears the cries of a newborn babe and . . .

It wasn’t a short story, but it was a strong beginning for a YA Fantasy. As it turned out, the beginning was the easy part. Now I had to write a story. It took over four years.

Tell us about Into Madness, your first book in the Born From Stone series. The marketing blurb goes like this; After a decade in hiding, captured, and imprisoned, Ravin Carolingian is left to question everything she thought she knew about herself.
Still, as the line between ally and enemy blurs, one thing becomes clear. If Ravin’s going to help the Carolingian people, she must first escape the evil that walks the halls of the place she once called home.

As a reader, I like strong characters, adventure, and scenes that engage the reader’s senses. So that is how I chose to write this story. It never ceases to amaze me how the characters occasionally grab the bit and runoff—going in an entirely different direction than I had first imagined.

So what is the title of the second book, and when is the release date? The second book is Hearts Divided, and the third is The Reckoning. Hearts Divided is nearing completion. I have been receiving good-natured demands for the release date. Words in bold type like; NOW! and TOMORROW? have been hitting my inbox. Those types of demands tend to light a fire. Every writer knows that you don’t want to piss off the reader.


  1. Violet Moore

    Hello Shelley, I am pleased to see you featured on George’s blog. It’s one of my favorites for meeting new writers and refreshing friendships with others.

    I enjoyed reading Casual Lies but being an advanced reader for Into Madness was an adventure into a new world.

    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Hi Vi, It’s been a minute, for sure. We need to get together on the phone and compare notes. Your comments on Into Madness were invaluable and greatly appreciated.

  2. Rhonda Lane

    Had to refresh my memory, so I watched a video of the ’92 Derby. Casual Lies almost had the Derby winner Lil E. Tee. So close.

    They both shot out in front of the rest of the pack, including the hotshot favorite Arazi.

    Here’s the video:

    I can’t wait to read the book about it.

    Both Casual Lies and Into Madness are on my Kindle.

    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Rhonda. I must confess that whenever I watch the replay of the race, I still hold my breath. So close and yet . . .

      Still, first or second on the day, I was a winner for having the uncommon good fortune of having horses in my life and Casual Lies in particular.

      I’m thrilled that you’re going to read my books. I hope you enjoy them both.

  3. Vinnie Hansen

    It was fun to read this and get to know you better, Shelley. You gave your horse a great name. Who knew that it would become a book title?

    You are the third person I know who has taken inspiration from gargoyles. The other two are Gigi Pandian and Kirsten Weiss, both of whom have gargoyle characters in one of their series.

    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Vinnie. As a prolific writer yourself, whose excellent work I’ve become familiar with, you understand how important a title can be to our finished story. A superb runner tends to make for a great name in horse racing. A few come to mind; Secretariat, California Chrome, and Seattle Slew, to name just a few. But all horses have to be named before they run their first race. I dedicated an entire chapter in the memoir to naming thoroughbreds, and I gathered a few fun stories about how some of the better-known horses came by their names. Also, thanks for the heads-up; I will check out Gigi and Kirsten’s books.

  4. Marie Sutro

    Congrats on a wonderful story, and on making Derby history!

    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Marie. I wish I could say that it was a dream come true, but in reality, I never even imagined that in over two decades of racing, I would one day saddle a horse in the Kentucky Derby, let alone all three legs of the Triple Crown. And then along came a horse that wouldn’t be denied. That was a miracle.


    Your story is so fascinating, Shelley. I’ve just downloaded CASUAL LIES. I can’t wait to read it.

    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you, Cindy. I do hope you enjoy reading Stanley’s story. Around the barn, Casual Lies was called Stanley. I’ve often said I should have named the memoir The Horse With Two Names. I tried to give the reader a look at all the things you don’t get to see on the day of race telecasts. Which means I had no problem poking fun at myself.

  6. Linda

    I am among those readers patiently waiting for the release of Hearts Divided.

    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Oh, Linda, how you pile on the guilt and bless you for it, for I need both the carrot and a liberal amount of the stick.

  7. Michael A. Black

    Shelley, your personal life sounds like an adventure. It’s interesting how you gravitated to fantasy. Good luck with your writing and your horses.

    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you so much for your comment, Michael. Adventure is the perfect word to describe my life. I’ve often thought about how different it might have been if my father hadn’t bought me my first horse for $250. To go from riding a mixed breed mare near Moffatt Field in the 1960s to saddling a horse in the Kentucky Derby, even I find that hard to believe.

  8. Donnell Ann Bell

    Fascinating interview, George and Shelley! That’s some serious love for horses to use the equity in your house. Thanks for introducing us to Shelley, George! Best wishes on Casual Lies!

    • Shelley Lee Riley

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment, Donnell. And yes, buying horses with borrowed money is not something I would do now. Still, at the time, and with many years ahead of us, it didn’t seem like such a risk. When we first started training horses, many years before Casual Lies came along, we would buy horses on what was called a run-out. By way of explanation, with a run-out, a set price is set for the horse in question, and then they were paid for through their future earnings. If there were no earnings, the breeder received nothing. We only did that one time, and we didn’t make any money, nor did the breeder. Usually, the horses you could buy on a run-out weren’t very well-bred. But it was a start, and we learned a lot from that experience. I treated every horse that came into my barn the same, no matter the pedigree. A good horse can come from anywhere. Look at this year’s Kentucky Derby winner. He was claimed for $30,000 and went on to win the Run for the Roses.


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ANA MANWARING – Newspaper Columnist – Poet – Author – Educator

Ana Manwaring is a former newspaper lifestyle columnist. Her poetry, personal narratives, book reviews, and short stories have appeared in diverse publications, including the California Quarterly, KRCB Radio, Morning Haiku, and Mystery Readers Journal.


A graduate of the University of Denver (B.A.) and Sonoma State University (M.A.), Ana teaches creative writing, produces the monthly North Bay Poetics poetry event on Zoom, and operates her editing company, JAM Manuscript Consulting—“Spread Excellence.” She’s also the 2022 SinC-NorCal programs chair. In her “past life,” she has prepared taxes, taught ESL, worked for a PI, consulted brujos and out-run gun totin’ maniacs on lonely Mexican highways—the inspiration for the JadeAnne Stone Mexico Adventures.

Ana, husband David, ace gopher hunter Alison, and a host of birds, opossums, skunks, deer, fox, coyotes, and occasionally the neighboring goats co-habitat an acre of Northern California.

After earning her M.A., Ana finally answered her mother’s question, “What are you planning to do with that expensive education?” Be a paperback writer. (ebook and audiobook, too!)

The JadeAnne Stone Mexico Adventures: A missing persons case to locate an American gone missing in the resorts of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo turns investigator JadeAnne Stone’s life into a nightmare of secrets, betrayals, and pursuit as she and her dog are ensnared in a web of trafficking. Who will she trust as loyalties shift and greed rules?

JadeAnne and I are thrilled to be back on George’s blog. Since our first visit, we’ve published books two and three of the JadeAnne Stone Mexico Adventures. And now we’re unpublishing them. Why on earth? Because I’ve been picked up by Indies United Publishing House who is re-releasing second editions of all three books and publishing the 4th this year. An Ambitious publishing schedule, but penance for taking 28 years from being threatened on a lonely stretch of the Pan American Highway in Michoacán (the inspiration and inciting incident) to publication of Book 1, Set Up. I’m paying my dues now with the new covers, more revision, and editing, as well as finishing Coyote—Pursuit and Terror Across the Border (there’s going to be an exciting chase, shoot-out, and lots of suspense), which will release in November.

Set Up re-released February 16, 2022.

People ask about my writing process. Unfortunately, I’m lousy at discipline and routine. The most challenging part of the process is getting myself to sit down at the computer to write. I always find pressing things to accomplish first. Today it was weeding. But I’m really fortunate to be blessed with a large, light-filled writing studio on the second story of a barn behind my house. I look into oaks and eucalyptus and can watch the birds, the play of light and shadow through the leaves, listen to the soft susurrus of the breeze off the coast, and, when I’m not distracted, write. I’m making good use of our wonderful Sisters in Crime write-ins (I attend 1 Pm and 10 Pm currently) and my M/W/F Study Hall with my writing students. I use the social writing time for outlining, revision, poetry writing, blogging, or brainstorming character names, which often come through reading my mail. In book 4, we’re going to have two new bad guys: Denver “Zeke” Stoner and Slim Killins. I have no idea who they are or what parts they’ll play yet, but when I went to mark my mail-in Recall ballot in the California recall election, there they were. The good news, I get to my desk every day since COVID and sometimes three times, even if I’m not specifically writing, but I’m most productive with high-intensity writing stints like NaNoWriMo.

A huge help in launching my writing career (besides retiring in January) is Sisters in Crime NorCal. I can’t stress enough how beneficial professional organizations and conferences can be to your development as a writer, marketer, and speaker. I’ve met many wonderful writers and readers who’ve helped me, taught me, and encouraged me. I’m a member of several branches of SINC, MWA NorCal, California Writers Club, and a Left Coast Crime attendee and participant. I’m looking forward to our LCC after two years without a conference. I’m excited about Albuquerque, too. The big chase scene culminating in the climax of Coyote will take place between Albuquerque and Denver, and I’m going to take a few days while I’m in the “area” to scout out locations. I try to experience my settings whenever I can. However, I’ll leave the shoot-out to vicarious experience and my imagination—but I’ll know what the air feels like and how the trees smell!

I write in more than one genre. I’m currently completing a memoir of my years in Mexico, and occasionally I write book reviews and short personal essays. I have two poetry chapbooks published, and I’m working on a third of “found” poems on climate change. I’m also writing the great American dysfunctional family novel told in three voices: the dying matriarch with dementia, the elder daughter who is deceased, and the resentful second daughter. Luckily the dead sister is pretty funny.

Two events brought me to writing: I’ve always loved reading stories and wrote a short story entitled “Me and My Dinosaur” instead of writing my third-grade dinosaur report. My teacher Mrs. Clancy loved it, and I got to read it to the class. (This trick worked again in Medieval History at University—I wrote a short story instead of writing a term paper, Another A, but no public reading). The second push toward writing was when I was 11 or 12, and a palm reader predicted I’d be a bestseller by the time I was 50. Isn’t 70 the new fifty?

I’m on my way! Set Up released on 2/16, The Hydra Effect releases 5/18, Nothing Comes After Z 8/17, and Coyote 11/16.

Find me at:





  1. Madeline Gornell

    Great meeting you, Anna! You should be very proud of all your accomplishments! Continued success.

  2. Vinnie Hansen

    Slim Killins. Hah! A bit of dark humor. Love it. Reminds me of an Elmore Leonard name.

    Thanks, George, for the excellent job you do promoting and putting together these posts. Every time I learn something new about my writing buddies.


    Fun interview, Ana. Congratulations on the new editions! Can’t wait to read the latest release.

  4. JoAnn Ainsworth

    Congratulations, Ana, on the new editions from Indies United Publishing House!

  5. Vicki Weisfeld

    Love the palm reader! What a diverse set of experiences, to entertain your Muse with. Best wishes for continued success.

  6. Donnell Ann Bell

    What a charming blog, and darn it, I wish I’d come up with the title Nothing Comes After Z!!! I met the lovely Ana at Left Coast Crime a couple of weeks ago, an absolute pleasure.

    Thanks, George, best wishes, Ana!

  7. Michael A. Black

    What type of dinosaur was it? 😉 It sounds like your books ate a lot of fun. I’ll have to keep an eye out for them. Good luck.


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CINDY SAMPLE – CEO Leaves Corporate World to Write

Cindy Sample is a former corporate CEO who decided plotting murder was more entertaining than plodding through paperwork. She retired to follow her lifelong dream of becoming a mystery author. Her eight-book Laurel McKay Humorous Mystery series is primarily set in the California Gold Country unless Cindy feels like traveling. Then the characters tag along with her on trips to Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Las Vegas.

Cindy is a five-time finalist for the LEFTY Award for Best Humorous Mystery, a two-time finalist for the SILVER FALCHION Award for best traditional mystery, and a two-time finalist for the Chanticleer MURDER & MAYHEM AWARD for best cozy mystery. BIRTHDAYS ARE MURDER, the first book in her new Spindrift Cove Mystery series set in Washington state, was just released.

BIRTHDAYS ARE MURDER – After Sierra Sullivan moves to Spindrift Cove, Washington, she soon discovers gigs for middle-aged entertainers are scarcer than good hair days. She reluctantly accepts a party-princess gig. Little does Sierra know she’ll soon be upstaged by a corpse and become the leading-lady suspect.

What brought you to writing? I discovered Nancy Drew in the first grade, and by the time I turned eight, I’d read all the books in the series. One night, I decided to use my spelling words and dashed off a sixteen-page sequel. It would have been longer, but my mother made me go to bed at 8:30. I received an A+ and was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a mystery author. Although it took a half-century for me to realize that dream.

What are you currently working on? I just released BIRTHDAYS ARE MURDER, the first book in my new Spindrift Cove Mystery series set on the Olympic Peninsula. I’m currently plotting the sequel while also writing DYING FOR A DECORATION, a holiday novella that will be the ninth book in my Laurel McKay Humorous Mystery series. Laurel manages to get in trouble without much prompting from me.

We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? In the first two Laurel McKay Mysteries, my characters behaved and aligned with my original plot concept. When I began writing DYING FOR A DAIQUIRI, the third book in the series, the victim absolutely refused to let me knock her off. So she was upgraded to a suspect. At the time, I was vacationing in Hawaii, the book’s setting. The next day, while dining at my favorite oceanfront restaurant, I visualized the new victim, a hula dancer who worked at Laurel’s brother’s Daiquiri bar. More suspects than I could ever have imagined walked into that story. At first, I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure out who the killer was. But I also discovered how much fun it is to play detective while writing a book. The murderer was finally revealed to me around page 170. Since then, I have let my characters evolve on their own.

Do you have subplots? I have a very fertile imagination and so do my characters. I never experience writer’s block, but I dream up so many plots that sometimes it’s difficult to choose. I try to weave in subplots about my protagonist’s family that are relatable to readers. Domestic issues can range from her eight-year-old son and teenage daughter to her bossy mother and feisty octogenarian grandmother. I also added a 150-pound Bernese Mountain dog in book seven who provides plenty of humor all by himself.

What kind of research do you do? I love my research, whether riding an ATV, performing at a ballroom dance competition, sampling daiquiris in Hawaii, or donuts in the Gold Country. My Laurel McKay series is known for its comic chase scenes. I’ve ridden backhoes (slowest chase scene ever), snowmobiles, wave runners, gondolas, stagecoaches, and tandem bicycles to make sure the details were just right. And I watch a ton of YouTube videos, too as well. Since Laurel and I are equally klutzy, the humor comes naturally to both of us.

Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? I live in the California Gold Country, a beautiful area with historic gold mines, wineries, and apple orchards, close to the Sierra Nevada mountains. I wanted to profile the town and some of my favorite places. The series has become so popular locally that business owners frequently request that I “stuff a stiff” in their venue. The Spindrift Cove series is set in a fictional town which gives me more latitude in certain respects, such as the size of the local police force. But I also refer to real places on the Olympic Peninsula that people are familiar with. It’s an incredibly beautiful area, and I love showcasing it.

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  1. Madeline Gornell

    You continue to be inspirational, Cindy! great catching up on what you’re working on now, and continued success!


      Hi Madeline. How nice to see you here. It’s been so long! Thanks for reading the post.

  2. Marilyn Meredith

    This was a great interview–and wow, you’ve come a long way since that festival in Elkgrove where I met you–and I think you just had your first book out. I’ve been following your career and congratulations on how far you’ve come. You books are such fun reads.


      Thanks, Marilyn. You were so helpful to me that day. You continue to inspire me with your wonderful books!

  3. Linda Lovely

    I’m a long-time Cindy Sample fan. With all the current real-world mayhem, it’s a delight to have your mystery book mayhem mixed with mirth. And Cindy’s a master at it!


      Thanks so much, Linda. We can all use more humor these days!

  4. Mary Hirsig Hagen

    Enjoyed getting to know about you and your writing. Thank you.


      Thanks, Mary. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


      Thanks for reading the post, JoAnn.

  5. Glenda Carroll

    Love your comments about finding the killer on page 170. I never know who did it until somewhere late in the book. I’m so glad other people do that, too. Best of luck with Birthdays are Murder.


      Thanks, Glenda. It sure makes it exciting when you don’t know whodunit until the end!


    Thanks, Jana. That’s the magic of writing. Just let the characters do it for you!! Although sometimes they are a little slow and I have to help them out.

  7. Jana Rossi

    Love finding out all the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into writing a mystery. It sounds like research can be a lot of fun if you do it right! I never knew how you come up with all the plots and scenarios that your characters find themselves in and now I know… they come up with them themselves! Too funny! Love all your books, Cindy. Can’t wait for the new ones down the road.

  8. Pamela S DuMond

    Nice interview! I’m glad you have a new series. Very fun.


      Thanks, Pamela. It’s been fun creating a whole new set of characters in a different environment.

  9. Donnell Ann Bell

    Cindy and George, lovely interview! Don’t you hate it when your characters refuse to cooperate? And one that refuses to die as required? That’s beyond the pale if you ask me. Did you tie him/her up? Bribe him to come back as a spirit in the next series? Your problem is you don’t know how to negotiate with your characters. See me for valuable character tips when this happens next time! 🙂

    So fun seeing you shine!


      Donnell, you’re so funny. The character that refused to let me “off” her was smarter than me because it made for a much better plot. I now let my characters “guide” me for the most part. If they don’t behave, they could be the next victim!

  10. Vicki Weisfeld

    Her joie de vivre really comes through! So glad she found her niche.


      Thanks so much, Vicki. I believe I have!

  11. Michael A. Black

    It sounds like you’re having as much fun writing your books as the readers are reading them. Congratulations on your success and best of luck to you. I loved the “slowest chase scene ever.” Which book was that in?


      Thanks, Michael. The backhoe chase scene was in my first Laurel McKay mystery, DYING FOR A DATE. I was determined to have an original chase scene!

  12. Karen Phillips

    Cindy Sample is as witty on the page as off. I love “I’ve ridden backhoes (slowest chase scene ever)”! She certainly does her homework when writing her books. The Laurel McKay series is a fun read and “Birthdays Are Murder,” Book One in the new series featuring Laurel’s slightly older cousin, Sierra, does not disappoint.


      Thanks so much, Karen. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying Laurel and Sierra’s adventures.


    Thanks for hosting me on your blog, George.


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ROBERT DUGONI – Award Winning Author Shares His Thoughts

Robert Dugoni,  New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Internationally Best-Selling Author of 20 novels in The Tracy Crosswhite police detective series, the David Sloane legal thriller series, and the Charles Jenkins espionage series, as well as several standalone novels including #1 Amazon Kindle download, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.

I’ve written in the past about the secret of writing, how I found it and how I define it when it comes to my own writing. This is a secret I first read about in Steven King’s book On Writing and later had confirmed at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference on a panel with Diana Gabaldon.

I didn’t understand the secret right away, but with time to reflect, I came to terms with it. Years ago, after having written five critically acclaimed novels, I had been let go by one of the big five publishers. I had time to read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, a book given to me many years before by my God-daughter at Christmas, 2004.

On the inside cover, she wrote.

Dear Uncle Bob.

I hope someday you become a rich, famous

millionaire like Stephen King.

Love Amanda.

It didn’t exactly happen that way, as it doesn’t for most writers.

But as I read King’s book, I came to a passage in which he revealed his secret of great storytelling. It was very simple, really. First, King posed a question. How does a writer sitting at her desk touch the heart and soul of a person she’s never met and never will, living in a small town she’s never visited and never will?

The secret Stephen King wrote is Telepathy.

All you have to do is find that place in your mind and telepathically touch the minds of your readers. Simple right?


About a year later, I was on a conference panel with Diana Gabaldon – the uber successful author of the Outlander series. At the end of our panel, we had time for questions, and this gentleman stood and said, “Diana. Can you explain the magic?”

Diana responded that she would go into her office, close the door, light a candle, and wait until her characters felt comfortable speaking to her. And whatever they said, she wrote. She talked about being in a place where she was not so much creating the story as she was transcribing a story being told to her.




I sat back and ruminated on those words and eventually recalled a time in my writing life when I had experienced something similar. My own bit of telepathy. My own magic… though I really didn’t recognize it at the time.

I was in the seventh grade. My class assignment was to write and deliver a speech from the perspective of a slave, a slave owner, or an abolitionist. I chose an abolitionist. I don’t recall writing my speech. What I do recall, quite vividly, is the feeling that overcame me when I stood at the front of my class and delivered that speech.

When I had finished – it was probably all of four minutes – not one of my classmates clapped. They sat at their desks and stared at me in silence. I remember thinking I’d failed. My story had failed. After a moment that felt like an eternity, Sister Kathleen cleared her throat and gave me the parochial school finger, beckoning me to follow her into the next classroom. She marched me in front of the class and said, “Give your speech.”

When finished, I looked to Sister Kathleen, and she gave me a smile and a nod. What I had done and, more importantly, how I had done it, would remain a mystery to me for many years, despite many more writing assignments in high school, newspaper articles, and novels, none of which would have the same emotional impact as that simple speech on slavery had on my seventh-grade class and on my teacher.

As I pondered King’s and Diana’s words, I realized that back in the seventh grade, I didn’t know the first thing about storytelling or story structure. I didn’t know what makes a good character. I wasn’t even writing from my head. I had written that speech from my heart.

I gasped.

Was that the answer? Was that what King and Gabaldon meant by telepathy and magic?

I went into my office, and I closed the door. I put on classical music. I put my hands on the keyboard. Then I waited.

Nothing happened.

The next day I tried again. Nothing.

I kept going back until finally, I heard this character in my head. He was telling me a story. His story. This boy had ocular albinism – red eyes. Kids had picked on him and bullied him and called him Sam Hell and Devil Boy. I didn’t know him. We had never met.

And yet…

He would wake me at four o’clock in the morning and say, “I have more to tell you.”

So I’d go in my office and I’d sit at my desk, and I would transcribe what this boy told me. And when I was done, I had written The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell

More importantly, I truly understood what Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King were talking about. What King called Telepathy. And Diana called Magic.

What I call Faith.

A writer has to have faith in his or herself in order to have faith in our stories. We have to have faith that the story we are writing is uniquely our own and that we are telling it raw and unfiltered, and honest. We have to give up control and stop trying to write stories from inside our heads and instead write stories from inside our hearts. Because that is the place where we can truly touch our readers.

We appeal to their minds, but we touch their hearts.

It’s a scary proposition when someone says write a story from your heart because it first requires that we have one and that we are willing to share it with readers, knowing that there will be some who stomp on it and inflict pain.

I feel that way before each new book. February 22, 2022, Thomas & Mercer will release The Silent Sister, the third in the Charles Jenkins espionage series. I think it is the best of the three books and I hope it touches readers’ hearts. It’s a story of selflessness, heroism, and dogged determination. It’s a story of brutality but also kindness. It’s a story of fulfilling one’s destiny, in spite of tremendous odds to the contrary.

I hope it’s a book that will touch readers’ hearts because that is the magic of writing.

How do our readers contact you? 

How do we purchase The Silent Sisters? It’s available  on Amazon The Silent Sisters (Charles Jenkins): 9781542008341: Dugoni, Robert: Books


  1. Kathleen Donnelly

    Thank you for a wonderful post! I will go back and read this whenever I feel stuck. “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell…” was one of the best books I’ve ever read. Now I know why. Thanks for another fantastic blog post, George! And thanks Robert for being a guest and writing from the heart!

  2. John G. Bluck

    We all are very much alike in many ways, so that it’s possible for us to “inhabit” another person’s personality, just as good stage actors do. So, though people differ in significant ways, we can become them, or hear them when we write. Or at least they will become real enough to control our keyboards or our pens.

    That’s the magic of the human mind. I like how you describe your process of getting your characters to speak to you.

  3. Linda Todd

    What a pleasure to read advice from you, Robert Dugoni. Your magic truly touched my heart when I read “The World Played Chess” (I think it was your best). I look forward to reading more of your stories. And thanks, George, for inviting Robert to your blog.

  4. Joseph HAGGERTY

    My problem is my characters talk too much and I have trouble keeping up. Other characters interrupt and I want to tell their stories also. Please don’t think that I am mocking you, because I’m not. So far I haven’t written about one person. My stories have multiple characters. They are people I have experienced and they have their own magic, Sometimes joyful sometimes tragic. I have actually cried with their pain as well as their love. Unfortunately, I am not the best conduit to write their magic and to express it their true feelings. I can only write what I observe and what I hear. Too many of my characters are not truly fictional. I recognize them and try my best to interpret their lives. I loved this blog. Thank you Robert and thank you George.

  5. Christopher S. Collopy

    …and this is from my heart: Thank you for sharing your gift with the world. You have an innate ability to put forth characters that live and breathe vividly through your writing. These are characters to whom we can all relate on some level and following their journey is enriching.
    With much appreciation…

  6. Virgil Alexander

    Interesting and thought provoking post. I too listen to my characters and the story flows easily when I do.

  7. Peg Roche

    Thanks to both George and Robert!

  8. Cindy Sample

    This is such a motivating post. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  9. Vicki Weisfeld

    This reminds me of how two-time Booker Award winner Hilary Mantel, says she sits down, imagines her character (Henry VIII, say) sitting in front of her, and she interviews them. It’s really getting into the head of the character and out of the writer’s own head, and Dugoni describes it beautifully!

  10. Debra Bokur

    Thank you for this, Robert and George. Robert – as a reader, I’m grateful that parting with your Big Five publisher didn’t slow you down. As a novelist, I’m grateful for your insight on fortitude and your thoughts on opening the door to magic. Truly, it’s the path to crafting a tale that resonates and rewards.

  11. J. Woollcott

    A wonderful and thought-provoking post. Thanks so much for sharing it.

  12. Jim Hasse

    This is the second author interview I’ve read this week that referred to Stephen King’s “On Writing.” That’s my problem. I never finished it. Dugoni gives away some great “secrets” that can be challenging to practice.
    Nice to get this author, George.

  13. Marilyn Levinson

    I think this is the most beautiful blog I’ve ever read.

    • George Cramer

      Marilynn, That is exactly what I thought when Robert sent it to me.

  14. Frank Rankin

    This was a wonderful idea, be it magic or telepathy. I know my last story seemed to write it’s own words.

    Thank you George and Robert

  15. Marilyn J. Dykstra

    Thanks for the interview! Great advice: Write from the heart.

  16. Michael A. Black

    Sounds like you’ve found a great system that works for you. Thanks for sharing it with us. Best of luck to you in your writing.

  17. Victoria Kazarian

    Writing a story from your heart – risking that – truly forges a connection with other human beings. Thank you, Robert and George!

  18. Glenda Carroll

    I’m afraid if I wait for the magic I may be into the next century. Wonderful post. Thanks George as always for bringing us great content. And thanks Robert for sharing your hard-fought view of writing.

  19. Margaret Mizushima

    Love this very inspiring post! Thank you, Robert Dugoni! And thanks to you, George, for make this post available to us!

  20. Nanci Rathbun

    Mr. Dugoni’s insights into his writing process and the writing processes of others whom he admires really touched my heart. I’ve had those moments of flow in my own writing, but they are definitely few and far between. I’m going to try ‘waiting for the magic’ more often, rather than starting with technique or outline, neither of which really work for me. Thank you, George Kramer and Robert Dugoni.

  21. Vicki Batman

    Thank you so much for explaining magic and telepathy.


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MARILYN LEVINSON – Teacher – Author – Agatha Nominee

A former Spanish teacher, Marilyn Levinson, writes mysteries, romantic suspense, and novels for kids. Her books have received many accolades. As Allison Brook, she writes the Haunted Library series. The first in the series, DEATH OVERDUE, was an Agatha nominee for Best Contemporary Novel in 2018. Other mysteries include the Golden Age of Mystery Book Club series and the Twin Lakes series.

DEATH ON THE SHELF: Clover Ridge librarian Carrie Singleton is thrilled to attend her best friend Angela’s wedding, but Angela’s family can be a bit…much. Angela’s wealthy cousin Donna hosts an extravagant bridal shower at her resplendent home, but the celebrations turn to gossip as the guests notice Donna’s surgeon husband, Aiden, spending a bit too much time with Donna’s cousin Roxy. At the wedding reception, the sweet occasion turns darkly bitter when Aiden topples into the chocolate fountain–dead.

Her juvenile novel, RUFUS AND MAGIC RUN AMOK, was an International Reading Association-Children’s Book Council Children’s Choice. AND DON’T BRING JEREMY was a nominee for six state awards.

Marilyn lives on Long Island, where many of her books take place. She loves traveling, reading, doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku, and chatting with her grandkids on FaceTime.

Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I outline, usually following two storylines in each book. But I find myself more of a pantser with each book that I write in this series.

Do you write in more than one genre? My first published books were novels for kids. Now I mainly write mysteries and the occasional romantic suspense.

What brought you to writing? I wrote stories when I was in elementary school then stopped. I took up writing again when my two sons were very young.

Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I often have two storylines that I bring together at the end of the novel. I also have subplots that weave in and out of the novel. This is easy to do because I write a series, and many of the characters travel from one book to the other.

What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Would you believe, sitting down and starting to write each day? Once I get going, I’m fine.

What is the best book you have ever read? I don’t know if I could name the best book I’ve ever read, but I will give the titles of my two favorite books: THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton and A SUITABLE BOY by Vikram Seth.

Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? DEWEY DECIMATED, the sixth book in the Haunted Library series, will be published in September, 2022. I just signed a contract to write the seventh book.

Where can our readers buy your books and contact you?

Buy link:

Website where you can sign up for my newsletter:

Amazon page:





  1. Pat Hernandez

    Great interview. I can understand that the most challenging part of your writing is just sitting down and doing it. But thank goodness, you do it.

  2. Michael A, Black

    Saludos. Escrita suyas novelas en espanol tambien? Buena suerte, senora.

  3. Marilyn Levinson

    Thank you for having me as your guest today.


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ROSE OWENS – Author and Professional Storyteller

Rose Owens writes middle-grade fiction, short story, essay, and memoir.

As a professional storyteller, she often tells stories that she has written. The name of her blog site is Rose the Storylady: Making a Difference through Storytelling and Writing That title explains her motivation for blogging. She is a past vice-president for the Tri-Valley Branch of California Writers. She currently serves as the Newsletter Editor. She edits the Toolbox column in that newsletter, which provides other members a place to ask questions and share information. Rose has become somewhat of an amateur Zoom expert. She hosts storytelling, family chats, a cooking club and art club for her family, and online meetings. Zoom links for her two storytelling programs (Storytelling for All Ages and an Interactive Storytelling Program for preschool and lower elementary students) are posted on her website. Http://

Rose is the author of the Maryalise Trilogy (middle-grade fantasy novels) that are available on Amazon. She has also authored a picture book: Who Was There: A Nativity Story for Children. She has been published in the Las Positas and Tri-Valley Writers’ Anthologies. Rose’s essay, “We Live in a Mobile Home,” contains family stories about the process of recovering from a fire that destroyed the interior of her home. It was published in the BYU Alumni Magazine. A BYU Family Recovers from a House Fire with Humor and Help 

The Poemsmiths of the Mojave High Desert branch of California Writers have selected two of Rose’s poems, “How Far to Bethlehem” and “They Pity Me in the Village,” for inclusion in the anthology, From Silence to Speech: Women of the Bible Speak Out. Rose recently attended the online Surrey International Writing Conference, where she participated in an Author Showcase and had the opportunity to talk about her books.

Rose lives in Livermore, California. She arrived fifty-five years ago and has settled in nicely. She is the mother of seven children and the grandmother of twenty-five. She finds inspiration for her writing as she crafts, cooks, gardens, walks, and participates in other activities.

Tell us about your recent release and other books. Maryalise and the Snatched Fairy (published 2020) is the third book of my Maryalise trilogy. Maryalise is a fairy child hidden in the mortal world with no memory of her previous life. In Maryalise and the Singing Flowers (2019), she discovers her identity, learns to use magic, and ultimately goes down into an underground cavern without magic to rescue her father, who the evil fairy, Villiana, has imprisoned. In Maryalise and the Stolen Years (2019), she must discover how Villiana has stolen years of magic from the people who are buried in an old forgotten cemetery. William (another fairy) and Cuthelburt (a ghost) help her in this quest. In Maryalise and the Snatched Fairy (2020), she goes into the Fairytale Dimension to rescue William, who has been stolen by Villiana. She interacts with the Cheshire Cat, Snow White’s stepmother, the Hansel and Gretel Witch, the Chicken House, and Baba Yaga. Blackie (who is actually a dragon in disguise) helps her. All three books have been self-published on Amazon. She has also published a picture book: Who Was There: A Nativity Story for Children, available on Amazon.

What brought you to writing? I have always enjoyed writing. As an elementary school student, I wrote poetry and an impossible fairytale story. When I was in junior high school, I wrote very mushy, sentimental love stories. Fortunately, none of these early writings have survived. I wrote poetry and essays during my child-rearing years. In 2007 I registered for a creative writing class. Since that time, I have written essays, poetry, stories, and novels. The idea for my Maryalise trilogy happened because my teacher gave her students a prompt to write on in class. Maryalise emerged from my imagination, and her adventures have been chronicled in three books.

Tell us about your writing process I have learned that when I get an idea, I should write it down—even if I don’t have time to develop it fully. Otherwise, that idea disappears into the void. The Idea for Maryalise and the Snatched Fairy came in a dream. The sensation of being snatched and carried away into the void woke me in the middle of the night. I wrote the details down and went back to sleep. When I looked at my notes in the morning, I realized that I had the idea for my third Maryalise book. When I am working on a book, I start my writing time by reviewing the previous chapter and making minor edits. Then, I am ready to begin the next chapter. After I finish writing, I think about what needs to come next. I process that information during the day and before I go to sleep at night. When I am writing shorter pieces, I usually wait several days before I edit them.

What are you currently working on? I am writing a non-fiction piece about the Bank of Vernal. The 80,000 bricks for this bank were mailed from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Vernal, Utah via the US Postal System. I am using the same research to write The Outlaw Trail, a middle-grade historical fiction novel about the son of William Coltharp (the man who built the Bank of Vernal). Butch Cassidy and Josie Bassett are two of the historical characters who appear in this novel.

There have been a lot of versions of The Three Little Pigs published. But one day, I thought, What About Mama? I am working on telling her story.

How long did it take you to write your first book? It was about three years from the time I created the character of Maryalise until I finished the book. However, it took about ten years to write the Maryalise trilogy. I waited until I had finished all three books before I published them. This turned out to be a good decision because I was able to make minor changes in the first books based on what happened in the third book in the trilogy.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

  • Keep a notebook or computer file of ideas.
  • Write regularly.
  • Edit and edit again.
  • Save the pieces that don’t fit into your current project. They may be useful later.
  • Find a compatible critique group, listen to the other members. But don’t change your work just because someone else has a different idea.
  • Organize your computer files. (I’m still working on this)
  • Save backups of your work in 2-3 different places. Save a hard copy. Email a copy to yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid to try a new genre.
  • Search with your planned title on Amazon or Google it. You want to know what other books have similar titles.

Where do you write? Distractions? I usually write on my computer. Sometimes I am sequestered in my storytelling room, and sometimes I write in the family room. I’m able to tune out the distraction of the television noise and just write. Having a regular schedule for writing keeps me from procrastinating my writing to a time later in the day that never seems to arrive.

How do your readers contact you?

My readers can contact me through my blog

Book links on Amazon:

Maryalise and the Singing Flowers Maryalise and the Singing Flowers (Maryalise Trilogy Book 1) – Kindle edition by Owens, Rose. Children Kindle eBooks @

Maryalise and the Stolen Years Maryalise and the Stolen Years (Maryalise Trilogy Book 2) – Kindle edition by Owens, Rose. Children Kindle eBooks @

Maryalise and the Snatched Fairy Maryalise and the Snatched Fairy (Maryalise Trilogy Book 3) – Kindle edition by Owens, Rose. Children Kindle eBooks @

Who Was There: A Nativity Story for Children Who Was There?: A Nativity Story for Children – Kindle edition by Owens, Rose. Religion & Spirituality Kindle eBooks @


  1. Peggy Schimmelman

    I’ve long admired Rose’s writing and storytelling, as well as her work ethic. The above tips for writers are worth noting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Larry Pope

    If anyone is considering becoming an author of any type of book, this information would be helpful as a guide. One must be genuine in their interactions with others, particularly with children, and Rose does this very well. Her voice changes can be very subtle, but catching.

    I have followed Rose’s storytelling for many years and sincerely believe that she gets better as time goes on.

    I wish her the very best.

  3. Ruby Regnier

    It’s been very rewarding following Rose’s development as a professional storyteller and writer.

    I’ve known Rose all my life and she has shown amazing dedication in all her research in the quest to be authentic.

    Not mentioned in the interview is her ability to do healing storytelling to help students process their thoughts after a traumatic public occurrence.

    Onward ho, Rose!

  4. David

    This is Rose’s son, I have heard my mom tell many stories on zoom. Some she has adapted and some she tells with permission. She has told me a good story needs a teller and a listener for the experience to be complete. I remember in schools she would sometimes get permission to come into my classes and tell stories. She had a skirt with bunches of pockets and in each pocket would be something which would mean something to a story. She would let us kids pick a pocket and she would tell the story. It was fun. I did not choose much, but my class mates did (And I still got to listen 🙂 ) My class mates had a good time listening to the stories that were told. I think this is enough for now.

  5. Sharlett Durfee

    We love all of Rose,s stories
    And her talent of telling stories to the public

  6. Julie Orvis

    Great article about Rose. My grandkids love her storytelling, but are still too young to read her books. I know they’ll love them when they are old enough to read them. I’m glad you included her advice for writers (good advice for all writers, not just new ones). Thanks for the article.

  7. Sandra Tayler

    So fun to see you featured!

  8. Michael A. Black

    Wow, Ms. Owens, your story and your work ethic are enviable. I particularly liked the advice you listed for new writers. Those comments were excellent. Best of luck to you on your new book.


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