Miko first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. She is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series; Book III – The Great War has just been released and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.


Happy New Year, everyone. A fresh year, a fresh beginning. Time to dig out that half-finished novel, or start a new one. There’s nothing better than curling up on a winter’s day and writing, which made me think….

Where do you write? For the past year my preferred spot has been a comfy chair in my bedroom, but I have a number of places that suit me, both at home and elsewhere. The reason is simple – I own a laptop computer. This has changed not only where I write, but how I write.

Like many of us in the craft, I began writing when I learned how to in first grade. I’d sharpen my yellow pencil and print words in my composition book – the ones with the black and white ‘marble’ cover – eventually switching to ballpoint pen and spiral bound notebook after I’d mastered cursive and good penmanship. That allowed me to write at home, the library, school cafeteria or a friend’s house, as long as I had a good light source. It worked well, except when story ideas erupted; I couldn’t write as fast as I thought.

I learned to type in high school and purchased a used manual typewriter when I began college. It sat on my desk, set near a window, with a swing arm desk lamp for writing at night. My typewritten work looked more professional, but the carbon copies were awful and my creative spurts still outpaced my typing. I hated making mistakes, a nightmare to fix until I discovered correction fluid in the eighties. However, typing forced me to think about my work since it was tedious to redo significant portions. I usually began with a hand-written copy and transcribed it to typing paper.

The electric typewriter worked much better; I could type faster, which allowed me to keep up with my thoughts. Mistakes were easier to correct, though major changes still required major retyping. Being electric it required a nearby outlet, and it wasn’t portable, so I had to resign myself to type at my desk. I sat with my back to the window for natural light and kept my desk lamp. Pad and pen filled in for other locations.

In the early nineties I worked in a windowless cubbyhole. That’s when I began to use my desktop computer at work for writing. The ability to not only make corrections, but to cut and paste, became a game changer for me. I could let my thoughts pour out, then go back and rearrange them, condense them, or flesh them out with ease. For the first time, I could write faster than I could think. I still had to work in one spot, but pen and pad filled in when I was away from work.

My first personal computer was ‘totable’, about seven pounds that could be moved and operate on battery power for a few hours. Suddenly I could work anywhere, with the portability of a pen and pad and the advantages of a word processor. Lighting wasn’t an issue; in fact, rather than sitting with my back to the window, I could now face it and have something other than a blank wall to stare at while waiting for inspiration to strike. Email allowed me to electronically transfer my work between home and office.

I currently write on a compact laptop that weighs about three pounds and has a battery life of at least six hours, longer if I turn off the wifi. It has its own black ‘jammies’, a padded slipover case to protect it when I travel. The portable computer fits in my larger purses, tote bags and suitcases. I can write anywhere. And I have. In just about every room in my house. On my deck. In hotel rooms, airport lounges, airplanes, boats, coffee shops and friends’ houses. I no longer have to plan out what I’m going to write before I commit it to the page – the ease of changing words, paragraphs and whole chapters means I can work freeform. Get my thoughts down and clean it up later. Of course, it’s also made it easier to constantly tinker with my pages, tweak a word, delete a comma, or cut that wonderful line that doesn’t serve the story.

Technology has changed the way I write in other ways as well. I presently do not have a desk. My handwriting, which used to be neat and easy to read, is neither without great concentration. I’m not as disciplined about organizing my thoughts as I was in the typewriter era, when changes or corrections required a major effort. I must always write a draft version of any notes or letters before committing my words to stationery. Then again, I’m also not obsessed with getting it ‘right’ on the first draft. Storing earlier drafts and critiques of my work in progress no longer requires multiple shelves of loose leaf binders and cartons filled with copies of printed pages covered with hard-to-read scribbled notes. I also love the idea of sending e-copies of my manuscripts to my publisher instead of mailing hard copies.

What about your writing journey? How has technology changed the way you write?



Miko first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from New York University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. She is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series; Book III – The Great War has just been released and is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington.


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I grew up in 1950s Brooklyn, in an ethnically mixed neighborhood of mostly Irish-Catholic and Jewish households like mine. Living in a community where part of the population celebrated Christmas and part didn’t made the holiday challenging for Jewish families. We may have been religious enough to keep a kosher home, observe the holidays and go to Temple, but we also watched television, listened to the radio, and read the same newspapers and magazines as everyone else. Therefore we couldn’t avoid Christmas, which in this country was beginning to be celebrated less like a religious holiday and more like a national day of celebration. Jesus never drank Coca Cola, but Santa Claus did. He apparently preferred the soft drink to his traditional beverage, milk.

I don’t recall when I first became conscious of Christmas. I knew my family didn’t celebrate the holiday. I figured that was one of the reasons we lived in our apartment. It had no fireplace to hang stockings, not a problem for Jewish tenants. I remember my mother taking me to see Santa at Macy’s Herald Square – yes, the one from the movie – shortly after I turned four. She didn’t prepare me at all for the visit, but as I waited on line, another parent instructed her child, “Don’t pull on Santa’s beard.” I clearly recall sitting on Santa’s lap and seeing tiny cross stitches on the beard along his cheeks. I felt very sorry for him. I thought his beard had been sewn onto his face.

When Santa asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” the question took me aback. I blurted, “I’m Jewish.” Without missing a beat, he asked, “What do you want for Hanukah?” I recited my wish list.

Jewish parents usually fell into one of two camps: surrender or compensate. The former would succumb to buying a Christmas tree, or the more guilt-inducing Hanukah bush. The latter would remind their kids that at Hanukah, you got eight presents, one for each night of the holiday. Granted, seven of them were usually practical things like socks, or small, inexpensive items, with the big finale – the toy or game – on day eight. But it sounded better than getting only one gift.

My parents were big babies. They lacked the patience to dole out presents one day at a time, which led to an innovative way to counter some of the draw of Christmas. It began in 1957, the year I turned six and my kid brother was old enough to comprehend the joy of receiving. That’s when we learned of the existence of an amazing magical being: The Hanukah Man.

The Hanukah Man would show up every year on the first night of Hanukah, bringing gifts to my brother and me. Hanukah usually began on a school day, so when we arrived home from class we were always thrilled to learn he’d stopped by earlier in the day. Naturally, my curiosity about him grew with each year, until I longed to see him, catch him in the act. Whenever Hanukah fell on a weekend, I would stay home and wait for him to show up. I’d wait and wait. Then my parents would suggest I go downstairs to wish a happy Hanukah to my aunt, uncle and cousins, who lived in the apartment below ours. I’d rush down, not wanting to miss the Hanukah Man’s arrival. But wouldn’t you know it? No matter how little or long I waited to leave, how quickly I dashed to my aunt and uncle’s apartment and back, I’d just miss him. Sometimes by only a minute! Still, how could I stay upset for long when my home was filled with presents?

Now came the fun part. The Hanukah Man never left packages in one spot. He would hide them throughout the apartment, in places we could reach without causing any damage to us or the furnishings. Wasn’t he thoughtful? But I still wanted to see him, although part of me feared that if I ever did, he would stop coming. Maybe that’s why I don’t recall asking my parents what he looked like. Instead I made up his appearance in my imagination. Average height, with brown hair, slender body and lots of agility. He dressed in ordinary clothes so no one would suspect who he really was. Brown corduroy pants, tattersall shirt and a camel cardigan, as I recall. No hat.

As soon as we knew he’d arrived, my brother and I would tear through the house, opening drawers, looking under the bed, crawling beneath tables and chairs, and poking through closets in our search for presents. The Hanukah Man never wrapped them, but that was okay. The surprise wasn’t in the opening, but in the finding. Then we’d compare our loot. One year, months after the holiday, I looked for something in a drawer and found a previously undiscovered gift. It even surprised my mother, who had apparently lost track of what the Hanukah Man had hidden.

I once mentioned the Hanukah Man to some kids in school. Their reaction made me feel embarrassed. I wouldn’t talk about him after that except in the safety of my family.

I never had children, nieces or nephews, so I couldn’t continue the tradition of The Hanukah Man, but he lives on in spirit. I married a grandpa, and when our grandchildren were young, interfamily relations became tricky for a while. My husband and I didn’t want to make their parents’ lives more difficult, so we told them we’d come to celebrate and exchange presents whenever it was convenient, which usually meant days after Christmas. By that time, the grandkids had received gifts from their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and two other sets of grandparents. But no one except Grandma Miriam would come over and hide their presents throughout the house, sending the three youngest to search high and low for every wrapped box and gift bag. They’d bring whatever they’d found back to the living room, and then open their gifts.

I don’t know if any of them will continue that tradition, but hopefully they will at least have some good memories. It brought me joy to share this tradition with them, not as the receiver, but in the way my parents enjoyed it. Which is why the Hanukah Man will always be special to me.

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of the “A Petal In The Wind” series. Her third novel, “The Great War”, will be released next month. Miko lives in Washington (the big one).


Ah, inspiration. Creativity. The stuff that propels people like us to write.


I once took a course in creative thinking. It emphasized that creative ideas will come to you when you’re thinking about nothing. They’ll pop into your mind when you’re out for a walk, or unloading the dishwasher, or brushing your teeth. Sometimes they do, but not with assured reliability. The same is true when you’re trying to solve a problem. Creative ideas may come, but often the idea has no connection with what you’re focused on, and you rarely get struck by “problem-solved” lightning. Even if you come up with a brilliant idea, then what? Brilliant ideas are a pressure chamber. They set the bar stratospheric. How can you possibly be creative when you absolutely, positively must?


Therefore when family and friends have asked me, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, I never could answer that question. Until now. It all comes down to check and balance.


I’ve taught myself to focus on writing problems – ideas to launch a story or fix a stumbling block – and find a workable solution, not count on one spontaneously appearing. One of my tricks is to forego creativity and focus on the problem logically. Often when right brain creativity fails, left brain logic can nudge forth a wisp of an idea that you can build onto until you at least have a direction. For example, if I’m inspired to write about a young girl who wants to leave home, I could come up with dozens of scenarios of why and how she leaves. But logically, in order for this to be a story, I know one thing for sure – she has to leave home. Then it becomes a matter of when – is her leaving the inciting incident that launches the story, or will it be the climax?  That narrows the choices, and the focus, therefore maintaining the check and balance between creativity and logic.


Then there are times when logic isn’t the answer. To balance that, I switch my thinking from left brain to right, using free-form writing when I’m stumped in a scene. I select two characters and begin writing a conversation between them. I don’t bother with punctuation or tags, I just write. It usually takes between two and five minutes, but eventually my brain switches over and what comes out aren’t my words, but those of my characters’. Then I check it for any insight they may have and usually garner an idea for moving the story forward.


Sometimes the present solution lies in the past. Throughout the decades, I’ve jotted down many detached ideas that seemed worth saving. Sometimes it’s a clever line. Other times it’s a plot twist from a book or TV show that struck me as ingenious. I won’t repeat it, but I’ll take the basic premise and re-twist it. I did that in my current novel, A Petal In The Wind III, to solve a mystery in a way that will keep the middle of the book from sagging. These are one-time-only ideas, though, hence the balance. Why waste a clever idea on a project that doesn’t deserve it? That would be like breaking your diet with a graham cracker, not even a s’more.


I’m very fortunate to be at a point where life is good. While I want to enjoy it for as long as it lasts, sometimes it concerns me. I worry: What if I let it go to my head and I turn into an a-hole (hereon referred to as “that word”)? I keep myself in check and balance by thinking of the most ridiculous, outrageous “that word” examples I can, and then find the silliness in them. It isn’t hard. That’s how I get many of my humorous ideas.


These different methods share one commonality. I believe that inspiration, creativity, and ideas are all most likely to happen when you’re immersed in writing. Not just writing, working on it. If we don’t write, keep writing, work on improving our writing, we don’t leave ourselves open to ideas. It’s like searching china replacement websites to find pieces from your discontinued pattern to replace the ones you broke. There’s no guarantee they will be found, but it’s more likely to be found.


Consequently the best answer I have to, “Where do you get your ideas from”, is: “From writing.” As Linda O. Johnston pointed out in her recent post, writing is writing. Even something as specific as novel writing is “writing”, whether you’re trying to summarize a 400-page manuscript into three paragraphs for a query letter, distilling the story into a single logline, or expressing the proper gratitude in your Acknowledgements page. Then there’s everyday life writing – from letters of condolence and congratulations to reviews and critiques, emails, thank you notes, journaling, and more. All writing challenges us to form a series of words that unite into paragraphs and pages, sentences and stories. Words that will elucidate, or entertain, or maybe both. For those of us who call ourselves writers, writing is a part of who we are, and each type of writing expresses different parts of us. It keeps us in balance, and if we’re lucky, in checks.

The Art Of The Sequel – Part 2 by Miko Johnston


Previously, we looked at some of the challenges of writing a multi-part series. Now a few tips on how to incorporate them.


1 – Study the masters

By that I mean writers whose series you read and love. Movies and TV series fall into this category, but since authors can’t rely on visuals, book series are particularly helpful in demonstrating how to update readers in each new volume. How does the author handle the reintroduction of characters, for example? Carry over events from the previous book? Deal with the passage of time? Regardless of the genre, you can learn a lot by analyzing other writers’ works, not to copy their ideas, but to emulate their techniques. I can’t overemphasize this.


2 – Review your synopsis

Do you write a synopsis for every book? You should, even if you don’t follow it exactly. It can even be written after you’ve finished the novel and kept as a summary of the story.

A good synopsis will feature the protagonist and the primary characters. It should cover the key plot points and steer readers toward the climax. Use this as a guide for what information should be updated or repeated in your next book. Also consider what will transpire in the newest novel. Anything relevant to the plot should be included. You can plant the seeds for a plot line that will develop in a future volume as well.


3 – Create a folder for organizational charts/files

Creating a place to store character bios, floor plans, timelines, synopses and other details is helpful when writing a book, but it’s essential when working on a sequel. Lots of interrelationships between characters? Chart it. Need to know what the town you invented looks like? Map it. Your character’s office? Diagram it.

You don’t want to describe morning sun streaming through the bedroom window in book one and watching the sunset from that same window in book three. You also need to remember how old your protagonist is, whether Joan is his first or fourth ex-wife, and if Harry is his uncle or his barber.  You can create an electronic folder, or file hard copies instead.


4 – Build on what you already have

If you get stuck when writing a sequel, reread your earlier book(s) to see if something there can be used to launch a new plot point. A scene in my first book inspired a mystery subplot that I introduce in book three and will complete in its sequel. I realized what happened could be interpreted in more than one way and was amazed by how well that scene pointed to the culprit. The unexpected turn surprised my beta readers – they didn’t see it until the final reveal, but it made sense to them because I’d laid the groundwork.

If you’ve ever had a reader come up with a fascinating interpretation of something you’d written, something that you never saw that way, then you understand how this could happen. For that matter, some writers have gotten inspiration from readers who’ve had questions about a plot point in an earlier book. If one of your readers asks or suggests something useful, run with it and see where it leads.


5 – Move the story forward

You don’t want to rehash the same old business in each new installment. Characters have to develop – marry, divorce, give birth or lose loved ones. They’ll have personal and professional triumphs and setbacks. People will enter and leave their lives. These elements can be integrated as backstory or put up-front and center, but they must be there.

Those organizational files/charts that I mentioned earlier will become invaluable in keeping your overall journey on point, intact and moving along. If you don’t have a good idea of where the saga will eventually end, then you should sit down and think about it. You don’t have to have a precise path for the character’s journey, but you ought to have a destination. Then, with every installment, check to see how far along that path your protagonist has traveled.



Writing a good series is challenging, but rewarding for readers who love them. I know I do. Part of the pleasure of reading each sequel is following the characters’ lives along with them in each new book. It’s like a reunion with old friends, for that’s what they’ve become.


What challenges have you found in writing sequels? Do you have any tips to share?

THE ART OF THE SEQUEL by Miko Johnston

As you are reading this, the third novel in my A Petal In The Wind series is about to be published and I’m starting to write book four. I’m in good company. Since the founding of The Writers In Residence, I’m proud to say that seven of our eight members have published at least one book. Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of us have written or are working on sequels.


And why not? As Jackie Vick confirmed with her post last week, sequels are a great way to win readers. Like the best movie or TV series, book series attract audiences with interesting characters we get to know over time. Series offer engaging stories as well, that make us laugh, or cry, or worry, or all of the above.


You may think it’s easier to write a sequel than a completely new novel. After all, you have your characters developed, your tone set, and your readers hungry for more. Maybe, but if you’ve ever remodeled a house, you know that sometimes it’s easier to start from scratch. Like remodels, sequels have their own set of challenges. Here are some to think about:


1   How much of the story bears repeating?

All books, whether sequels or not, should read as a stand-alone – anyone who hasn’t read the previous book or books in the series should be able to figure out what’s going on. Characters and situations have to be reintroduced. However, you don’t want to bog down a sequel with too much repetition from the earlier books. Finding the balance between too little and too much is tricky. A good rule of thumb: include only what relates to the sequel’s plot and avoid frontloading your first chapter with backstory. Throughout the early chapters, recap with a paragraph or a few sentences to reintroduce, or update, the reader to the characters – who they are, what they look like, and what they’re doing.

An excellent example of this technique is Daniel Silva’s description of one of his recurring characters, Eli Lavon. A tracker, a.k.a. street surveillance artist, Silva reminds us that Lavon “could disappear while shaking your hand”.


2   How will your characters grow throughout the series?

Comic strip characters rarely change or age over decades, but most writers of successful series account for how much time, if any, has elapsed between books. Each sequel will show characters aging and all that it entails – coupling and break-ups, promotions and job changes, births and deaths. In the Miss Marple series, Agatha Christie describes one minor character as a teenager in her first book. In her eighth, the same character is mentioned as being grown up and in a successful career.


3   Are you staying in the same realm?

Whatever you write, you should maintain a consistent genre throughout the series. Readers will be thrown if in later installments your cozy mystery suddenly turns gritty, your political thriller morphs into satire, or spacemen appear in your Regency romance. If you want to write something significantly different from your previous novel, make it a stand-alone.

It’s fine to tweak sub-genres; sometimes you must. For example, my historical fiction series, A Petal In The Wind, begins with my protagonist as a child. In the second book she’s twenty-two, so I added a romance element. However, every book in the series is a love story, only it’s not romantic love in book one.


4   Is there more to the story?

Some stories can be told in under 400 pages. Others require more time to develop. Series abound in genres like thriller, mystery, and sci-fi, where the characters continue to save the world from evil, solve another murder, or explore a new planet. Historical fiction series follow a group of characters through an era or period of history, while characters in contemporary fiction series deal with the challenges of our modern age. Romance often appears as a sub-genre in sequels, like Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series.

Often publishers will not accept manuscripts that exceed a set word count, citing higher printing costs. Many readers and book clubs won’t touch a book that’s too long. If your manuscript is over 100,000 words, consider splitting it into two books. If it’s well over 100,000 words, you’ve got the beginning of a saga.


5   How do you connect the books?

If you plan to serialize your novels, is it going to be a limited series, such as a trilogy, or open-ended? Limited series are appropriate when you’re tracing characters over a period of time, such as a family saga, a finite era like a war or political reign, or, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries, you have a pre-set number of books in mind. Action/adventure, mysteries, covert ops, and political thrillers can be open ended, for there’s always another bad guy (or gal) to catch, or another adventure to be had.

Aside from the continuing characters, sequels should leave some story threads untied, to be picked up in a later installment. Other characters may disappear for a while, only to reappear a book or two later.  Or a clue in book two may not come to roost until book four. Little nuggets like that give pleasure to the faithful reader.



Once you know what to do, the next step is figuring out how to do it successfully. We’ll look at that in the next installment, which will post next Monday.


               Bother: to disturb; cause physical pain to somebody

               Offend: to upset; cause somebody anger, resentment, or hurt


Twenty years on I can still recall my reaction after reading Kathleen Woodiwiss’s first book, “The Flame and The Flower” – a romance novel in which Heather Simmons falls in love with Brandon Birmingham. Lest you think they ‘meet cute’, during their first encounter he rapes her. Then they fall in love. Sorry. I can’t get into a novel where the heroine falls in love with her rapist or an equally despicable person. Of course, no one is forcing me to read anything like that.


Unless it’s presented in one of my critique groups.


One of the challenges in writing groups is dealing with material that individuals may feel unable to fairly critique. Sometimes it’s a matter of not understanding what has been written or having an aversion to a particular genre. If I don’t ‘get’ your poetry, I can’t tell if the problem lies with what you’ve written, or me. I’ll always begin my critique of anything paranormal with the caveat that those storylines don’t appeal to me because they strain credibility. I’ve known others who take issue with profanity, graphic violence or sexuality, religious affronts, child endangerment, and most often violence against animals. When critiquing sensitive material we should express our bias and move on. But on a few – mercifully few – occasions I’ve found myself subjected to unacceptable material in substance or presentation.


My first experience with this involved an ‘author’ who kept bringing in pieces that read like letters to Penthouse Forum, wild sexual encounters that defied believability. Our group had no policy in place for dealing with such material, so after a few weeks of explaining that, shall we say, he misunderstood what was meant by a story’s climax, we finally told him to seek out another group. I should note that the graphic content didn’t offend me as much as the intent of the writer to shock and titillate his audience, like a flasher who inflicts anatomical words instead of parts.


Once I’d been exposed to this issue (yes, that pun was intended) it made me wary of it happening again, so in my next group I suggested creating a policy for a comparable situation. The members laughed it off as unnecessary. Less than a year later, I received pages to critique via email that glorified pedophilia. I wanted to scrub my computer clean in every sense. Since no policy was in place it took a village to expel that writer; angered at our group’s united refusal to read his pages, he dropped out.


I included the definitions for Bother and Offend to make a point. I’ve always thought of offend as being much stronger than bother, so I found it interesting that bother relates to a physical discomfort while offend describes an emotional uneasiness. It makes sense, though. Being bothered is more concrete; you know what’s causing it and how it’s affecting you. But offence is harder to pin down; like Potter Stuart’s legendary Supreme Court determination that hard-core pornography was hard to define, but “I know it when I see it”.


Having gone through this experience more than once, I’ve come to believe that having a written policy best addresses the problem. Individual wording will vary depending on the group, but in general no one should have to read material that is ‘unacceptable’, a more concrete and less emotional term than objectionable. I define unacceptable to include any material that presents what is generally considered heinous – ethnic cleansing, nonconsensual sex, child rape, enslavement – in an agreeable or glorified manner. Simply put, the hero should fight evil, not be evil.


My writers group recently updated its by-laws, so I brought up the idea of including a clause on unacceptable material. Some members agreed that a written policy in place would be wise while others felt that common sense should prevail, otherwise we might be perceived as practicing censorship. The subject initiated more debate than all the other sections put together. Ironically, one member of our group submitted chapters from a religious philosophy book he’s writing and complained about the personal nature of the feedback. Apparently members found his reasoning ‘unacceptable’ and commented not on the writing, but the philosophical ideas behind it.


So am I wrong in thinking issues like this should be headed off at the pass, or left to a case-by-case basis. And where should the line be drawn? What would you advise?

We continue our series of animal posts. Today’s contributor is Miko Johnston

I grew up in New York City, where outdoor wildlife was limited, particularly in winter. Pigeons, sparrows and the occasional squirrel coexisted with alley cats and leashed dogs until the robins and blue jays returned in spring.

The reverse was true in Los Angeles, where many bird species wintered in my backyard, at the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains. Some birds left by March, but not all. Red tailed hawks circled the hills, crows commandeered the scrub oaks, blue jays screeched from fences, and the largest hummingbirds I’d ever seen buzzed from yard to yard in search of nectar.

Other critters visited our neighborhood. The ever-present lizards scrambled across walkways and along fences, or lazed in the sun, doing push-ups to attract a mate. Squirrels, chipmunks, and skunks vied with deer for their share of fruit from garden trees. Less welcome were rattlesnakes, coyotes, bobcats, and the occasional mountain lion or bear.

I now live on an island in Washington, by an inland sound teeming with wildlife. Cormorants love to perch on the buoys, their wings outstretched to dry. Herons stand patiently on the beach at low tide, searching for fish. The sight of the birds hunched on tree branches reminds me of Gru from “Despicable Me”, and when they fly their prehistoric ancestry is evident. Seagulls and crows use our driveway to crack open mussels and cockleshells. As fall winds down, white-crown sparrows, golden nuthatches, robins and finches go into a feeding frenzy, devouring every blackberry left on the vines and then, as a last resort, the tiny red berries of our hawthorn tree. (Yuck. They taste like petroleum jelly.) In winter, when daytime tides are high, packs of mallards and scoters peacefully cohabit in the calm water near the shore.

I’ve watched deer eat the fallen apples from our trees and had the rare privilege of seeing a stark white fawn. I’ve observed families of river otters sprinting along the beach, and seals hunting in the eelgrass a hundred yards away. Rabbits nibble on our lawn (and tomatoes). In spring, when our hawthorn tree erupts in white flowers, it attracts so many bees it hums louder than a generator.

Several bald eagles nest in nearby trees. One of my great pleasures is watching them soar effortlessly across the sky, circling overhead and diving into the water as they hunt, hearing their distinctive twitter. It takes a few years for the birds to grow into their good looks. Eaglets, with their mottled feathers and ungraceful stance, remind me of awkward teenagers with acne. That was reinforced when I saw one youngster standing on the beach in front of my house, his parents observing from farther away. Crows began to pester him and he finally flew to his parent’s side as if to say, ‘Mom, they won’t leave me alone!’ Later, mom caught a fish and dropped it back in the water for Junior. He went for it, but couldn’t lift it out, so he extended his wings and swam back to shore. I once observed two cormorants fighting over a fish too large for either to swallow whole, when an eagle swooped down and stole it from their mouths. Priceless.

Don’t you agree that animals give an instant sense of place, time and mood? It’s a great technique for setting a scene, which can go beyond the visual:

By midnight, fog had rolled in from the coast, blurring visibility outside and misting the windshields of cars parked on the street. Around three a.m., a howling pack of coyotes in the foothills set off a chain reaction of yelps and barking from a chorus of neighborhood dogs, gradually settling down to a few whimpers as a dark car cruised slowly past the houses on Stargazer Circle.

Animals also make great similes: slippery as an eel, gentle as a lamb. And metaphors: black sheep, lone wolf. In my short story, “By Anonymous”, animals symbolize the disparity between my protagonist and his wealthy client. She lives in a luxury gated and guarded SoCal enclave carved out of coyote wilderness. He, an auto body mechanic working in a downscale industrial zone a few miles away, observes:

Here the gates are chain link topped with barbwire; the guards have four legs and the coyotes, two.

Birds make instant scene setters because they’re both universal and unique to their place – penguins and Polar regions, macaws and rainforests. I used avian references to show a different time and mood in one novel. The first time my protagonist walks through the forest, she hears songbirds and calls it, “God’s music”. Later, after a horrific incident, she’s back in the forest, but she experiences it differently:

Shrill cries pierced the sky and she jumped, sending her ball of laundry tumbling out of her hands. A hawk circled above the treetops, hunting for prey.

She maintains her fear of the forest for years. As an adult, she once again steps back into the woods and finds it peaceful:

Her feet sank into the mulch as she treaded deeper into the forest, her senses alert to danger. Birds rooting for food rustled the dead leaves, intruding on the silence. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye; turning, she watched a hare scoot away.

It’s no exaggeration to say animals are all around us. Many of us enjoy their companionship. Historically we’ve depended on them for food and labor. They provide adventure and entertainment, whether it’s hiking in the woods or going on safari. For some that means hunting, though I prefer to shoot them with cameras instead of guns.

When animals appear on the page, we see them as recognizable characters whether they’re there to comfort, amuse, or terrify us. Without their presence, the real world would be diminished. So would the worlds created on the page.