How to Be Healthy in the New Year

It’s that time of year again when everyone starts thinking about goals and resolutions. I gave up on making resolutions a few years ago when I realized that, like a lot of people, I never kept them, and even forgot what they were by March. I do have goals in mind, though, that I refined throughout 2016 and will carry into 2017. One of the foremost is to finish my first book. I’ve pushed back the timeline again and again, but it seems that, given my circumstances this coming year, the timeline will need to solidify.

For my day job, I teach science to middle school students, and because I’m a teacher, I get that lovely two month break over the summer where I still get paid. Note, for those of you unfamiliar with this system, my salary is spread out over twelve months instead of just the months I’m teaching. This will give me two months where I can write and still get a paycheck. My husband and I are also planning to adopt a baby, and this could possibly happen in the second half of 2017. I imagine I’m going to be crazy busy once a baby enters our lives, so the deadline to get the book done needs to be before the baby comes.

I got a little distracted over Christmas break by going on dates with my husband and trying recipes in a new cookbook, so I didn’t get as much writing done as I had planned. I did make progress, though, and my plan is to push through the first draft to get it done by the end of May. Then I’ll edit it in June and send it to agents and/or publishers in July.

The challenge will be continuing to write once school begins next week. That always seems to be the case for any activities outside of work. How do I fit it all in, whether it’s writing fiction, or exercising, or taking my dog for a walk? Is it possible to carve out an hour a day to write? We’re told to find balance so we can maintain our mental and emotional and physical health amidst a 40+ hour work week, but it really does seem next to impossible. Still, for the next five months until summer vacation, I’ll take a deep breath and try to fit in those activities that bring balance.

If you’re feeling anxious about the new year or feel that something is missing from your daily or weekly routine, here are four areas that I believe need to be part of our lives in order to take care of ourselves.

Spiritual Health
This year, I want to focus on reading the Bible, reading reflections on the scriptures, praying, and listening to worship music.

Emotional Health
This is a big category for me because I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression. I think spending quality time with my husband and my dog help the most, although my spiritual and mental health also affect my emotional health. Spending time with friends is another positive way to take care of your emotional health. Cats may also help, but I’m not really a cat person. My cat tends to affect my emotional health negatively by getting into everything!

Mental Health
Maintaining mental health is probably very individualistic. Being an introvert, I feel the best when I can spend large quantities of time by myself, either at home or in nature. Spending that much time alone could be a negative experience for people with other personalities. Interactions with people, even positive interactions, tend to increase my stress level by draining me of energy. I think mental health is going to be a tough one for me until the school year ends because of all the job-related stress. Hopefully keeping up with my spiritual, emotional, and physical health will give me the boost I need to get through it well.

Physical Health
It’s less of a mystery to figure out how to work toward physical health, as long as an illness isn’t involved. It’s important to get enough sleep (for me, that means at least eight hours per night), eat healthy food, and exercise. Clean Food Crush and Beachbody (especially 21 Day Fix) are my favorite resources for healthy eating and exercise. Plus, I try to take my dog on a mile walk each day.

Here’s to a new year and fresh opportunities to improve our health and our lives. Happy New Year!

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Fireworks by Epic Fireworks

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The Snowflake Method Review

At one of my writing club’s meetings, I introduced the snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson. Since then, I’ve been using this method to develop my first novel, loosely titled Charcoal Sky. I had previously written a few chapters with only a vague idea of where the story was going, but I felt that the rest of the story would come to me as I wrote. However, I got stuck on plot, character, and world-building, and I couldn’t figure out a solid ending.

After learning about the snowflake method, I started the story from scratch and have since gotten through step 6. I’m much happier with the progress I’m making because my characters have come to life in my mind, and I have a good idea of how the story will end. I recommend the snowflake method to anyone who likes to follow steps and guidelines but still needs room for creativity.

Step 1 of the snowflake method is a one sentence summary, and I’m excited to use this summary sentence to introduce my upcoming novel.

Charcoal Sky
A skilled warrior risks losing her family by befriending a young man rejected by society.

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Sharks on the Water

“Come back here, you hooligan!” Henry shook his fist in the air as he watched the fin slice through the water on a direct route away from the ship. “Lost another one.” He ran his fingers through his dark wavy hair and sighed.

“But you’ve got a boxful, Henry.” The Captain waved his hand toward the box of syringes.

“I suppose I do. Not much time, is all.” Henry looked toward the setting sun, where brilliant orange hues were bleeding into a muted blue sky. “We should turn back. Be dark soon.”

The Captain shook his head. “We’ve time for one more try. It’s midsummer in Cape Town, after all.”

The Captain knew these waters.  He had been sailing them since 1884, when he immigrated to Cape Colony. The shadows were lengthening, but Isabell depended on him. “All right. I’ll ready another.” He unwound several yards of rope from a thick spool and cut the length with a knife. Then he knotted it around a sturdy loop fashioned on the back end of a large syringe.

On the starboard side of the ship, the Captain dropped a bundle of freshly caught fish into the water and secured the other end of the rope to the ship. Henry walked to the rail and stood with his right hand clenching the syringe and his left hand holding on to the syringe’s rope. While he scanned the water, his thoughts drifted to his fiancée.

At the time he had left Isabell in England to travel to Cape Town, she had rarely had enough strength to leave her bed. Although the fever had left, and she no longer faced immediate danger of death, it could return at any time. Henry would never have left her side if not for the hope for a cure.

While researching Isabell’s condition, he had come across a paper describing antibodies. That same week, one of his colleagues at the University had told him about the vigorous and healthy sharks off the coast of Cape Town. Henry surmised that if he could extract the antibodies found in sharks’ blood and cause them to attack the disease in Isabell’s blood, he could cure his fiancée.

After months spent traveling down the coast and weeks spent finding a ship and a Captain, Henry had begun his pursuit of great white sharks’ blood. The task had proven difficult due to the variable weather, the scarcity of the sharks, and his limited ability in using the tools to collect the blood. In three weeks’ time, he had collected only two syringes of blood.

“There!” The Captain pointed westward, and Henry followed his line of sight. A fin sliced through the surface of the water, heading directly toward the dropped bait. As the great white shark neared the ship, Henry took aim and hurled the syringe at the shark. He watched it plunge into the thick skin. The Captain cut the bait rope, and Henry tugged on the syringe’s rope as the shark swam away with its meal.

He pulled the syringe into his hands and examined the contents. “I’ve got it.” His third sample. Seven more, and he could go home and save Isabell.

Rough hands grabbed onto Henry’s wrists and yanked his arms behind his body. The syringe clattered onto the deck. Wrenching himself free, Henry swung around and reached for his pistol.

“Too late, my English friend,” the intruder said as he held Henry’s pistol aloft. Another man held the Captain face down on the deck, and two more pointed pistols at Henry and the Captain.

While he had chased sharks, the sharks had chased him. “Pirates.”

The pirate in front of Henry raised an eyebrow. “You know who we are. Now who are you?”

The Captain moaned. Henry’s eyes flicked to him and then back to the pirate. “Dr. Henry Scott.”

The pirate took a step closer to Henry. “Well, Dr. Henry Scott, I have a dilemma that only you can solve. You see, your Captain owes me a great deal of money. Now, you have a choice. Either I shoot him, or you come with me. A doctor will fetch a pretty price for a ransom.”

Had the Captain known that the pirates were searching for him? And withheld that information from him, risking his life?

“Captain,” Henry said.

The Captain moaned again. “I’m sorry, Henry.”

As a sudden wave lifted the ship, the pirate stumbled to the side, and the pirates’ ship came into Henry’s view. He gaped at the ship. Along its entire length, great white sharks hung by their tails.

The pirate regained his balance. “So, what’ll it be, Dr. Henry?”

A trickle of blood near Henry’s boots caught his eye, and he watched the empty syringe roll across the deck. Isabell’s pale face flashed through his mind.

Henry looked up. “I’ll come.”

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Best Man

One evening, I challenged myself to write a short story by starting with a first line prompt that I found on the internet.  The version below is the unpolished first draft.

Best Man

This wasn’t where he wanted to be.  How had it ended up like this?  All those years he had dreamed of being first, and somehow, incredulously, he had ended up in second place.  All eyes were on the winner, on his tall form, his pale skin, his dark, glinting eyes; his teeth gleaming in the bright sunlight whenever he chanced to spread that false smile across his face.  Ryan was shocked that in the presence of this prize winner, the sky remained a deep Southern blue instead of turning to black from rolling thunderclouds.  Like the thundercloud in his heart.

He shoved his hands in the front pockets of his pants and stabbed the toe of his dress shoe against the soft red dirt.  When would this day be over?  What if everyone else knew the truth?  Ryan lifted his head to examine the party assembling before him.  Women in pastel suits and hats, flowers and sequins, white gloves.  Men in their best office attire.  Children squirming on the white wooden folding chairs before their mothers admonished them to sit still.  After a glance at his watch, Ryan knew that only ten minutes remained until the unthinkable would take place.

Derek turned his dark eyes on Ryan and gave him a smile, though his eyes did not follow suit.  “Do you have the ring?” Derek asked, keeping the level of his voice below the murmur of the crowd.

Ryan flicked his eyes away from Derek as a flash of annoyance passed through them.  Then looking at Derek steadily, he patted the pocket next to the lapel of his tuxedo jacket.  “It’s right here.”

“Good.”  Derek nodded his approval and turned away.

Ryan pressed his lips into a thin line and sighed.  Right here.  Resting on his heart.  Right where Savannah should be.  Instead she would be walking down the aisle toward a scoundrel.  He shifted his weight, trying to escape from the wool fabric scratching his skin and the stifling heat of mid-day.  But there was no relief.  The hot, thick air squeezed the breath from his lungs as surely as the impending ceremony would squeeze the life from his heart.

Savannah.  Ryan’s stance became motionless, and his eyes took on a glassy appearance, as an image of the young women floated in his mind.  Wavy, sandy-colored hair.  The lightest, clearest green eyes.  A laugh like birdsong.  He heard their laughter mingle as a memory came to him.  He had been pushing her on an old tire swing by the river.  She rose higher and higher into the air with each push, and the final push he gave caused her to lose her balance.  Fortunately, she managed to cling to a tree branch before the tire swung back down.  However, she was too scared either to climb down or to let go and fall into the river.  Savannah held like glue to the branch as Ryan climbed twenty feet up the leaning trunk to fetch her.  He coaxed her inch by inch, while holding onto her waist, until she made her way to safe ground.  When he knew she had found her balance, he began to let go, but Savannah had another idea.  She spun around, wrapped her hands around the back of his neck, and kissed him with the sweetest kiss known to man.

Ryan’s attention was jolted to the present when the violin trio began to play a slow melody.  His blood began to pulse like a fever through his veins.  He clenched his fists at his sides and tried to control his breathing.  The minister took his place next to Derek.  No!  Ryan wanted to shout, to rage, to fling chairs.  A few weeks after the kiss by the river, Ryan had found out that Savannah was dating Derek.  He’d never seen the man, much less heard of him, but rumors flew quickly of their growing relationship.  A few months later, Savannah introduced Derek to Ryan at her parents’ annual Christmas party.  It was there that Ryan learned the truth.

Derek did not love Savannah.  Savannah’s parents held serious political clout in the state, and Derek was eager to take advantage of her for his own political gain.  He’d confided as much to Ryan during a conversation at the party.  Derek did not want Savannah to know that he had any interest in pursuing a political career lest she discover his scheme.  Ryan, in turn, had made a point of letting Derek know that he and Savannah had been close friends for years.  He also alluded to a relationship that extended beyond friendship.  Now that Ryan was standing as Derek’s best man, it was clear that Derek followed the old principle of “keep your enemies closer.”

Ryan saw a fluttering of lilac at the back of the crowd.  The bridesmaids were descending.  The mind-searing madness was in full swing.  This can’t be.  I didn’t want it to be like this.  Savannah, you don’t know what you’re doing.  I should have told you –

There she was.  Ryan could barely breathe, this time not from the heat, but from the appearance of pure, sweet beauty.  On the arm of her father, Savannah smiled and slowly walked toward Derek.  Ryan narrowed his eyes to see her more clearly in the blinding sunlight.  As she drew closer, her eyes faltered from Derek and landed on Ryan.  The sadness in her eyes was unmistakable, the regret so clear.  His heart surged; his breath came swifter.  Savannah, I’m coming.  Savannah, I’ll help you.  “Savannah, I love you!”  The words tore from his throat.  Then he froze.

A collective gasp filled the assembly.  Savannah’s eyes widened as she stopped mid-aisle.  Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Derek turned to face Ryan.  He let out a hiss.  “What.  Did.  You.  Say?”

Ryan came to life.  He had started it, and he would finish it.  He returned Derek’s glare.  “You’re through!  Savannah!”  He snapped his head to the side to look at her.  “This man – this scoundrel – you’re walking down the aisle to marry is only here for one reason.  Your political connections.”

Savannah gaped at Derek.  “Is that true?”  She let go of her father’s arm and walked swiftly to the front of the assembly.  Her voice rose.  “Is that true, Derek?”

Derek looked at Savannah.  “Well, I…. Of course it isn’t true!”

“It isn’t!”  Savannah’s cheeks glowed a fiery red.  “Ryan isn’t the only one who knows what you’re after.  I read your blog last night.  The one you thought I didn’t know about.”

Derek’s features turned to stone.  Ryan grabbed Derek’s shoulder and turned him so he could look him in the eyes.  “Like I said.  You’re through.  Now go.”

“Quite the best man you turned out to be.  However, you can go, because I’m getting married.”  Derek turned away from him.  “Savannah, darling, you’re in your wedding dress, and you look lovely.  All of the guests are here.  We’re ready.  Let’s get married and sort through all of this later.  It’s really not the big deal it’s being made out to be.”  He inclined his head.  “Savannah?”

Ryan scowled at Derek, and then turned a softer look toward the bride.  Savannah lifted her chin and fixed her eyes on Derek.  “You heard Ryan.  You can leave.  Now.”

Derek filled his chest with air as if preparing for a fight, but his chest deflated just as quickly in defeat.  He strode down the aisle without another word.

Savannah turned her level gaze on Ryan.  “I didn’t know how to stop the wedding once it was all in motion, even after what I learned from Derek’s blog last night.  You’ve always helped me whenever I’ve been in trouble.”  She stepped closer to Ryan and lowered her voice to a whisper.  “Did you mean what you said?  About – loving – me?”

“I meant everything I said.”

“Then kiss me.”

And the best man kissed the bride.

Copyright © 2012 Jennifer Howell

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Story Prompts: The First Line

This wasn’t where he wanted to be.

This wasn’t where who wanted to be? What is this place? And why didn’t he want to be there?

A first line story prompt can open up endless possibilities for a creative piece. From this example, you could identify a protagonist, or perhaps an antagonist, and begin to explore the major conflict.

Maybe a scientist who’s happy in his lab finds himself on a research vessel in the middle of the ocean being chased by pirates.  Or a businessman who’s just been promoted to president of a major corporation suddenly remembers his childhood dream of being a race car driver.  What if a teen’s parents make him wear a costume and go trick-or-treating with his younger brother?

When my husband and I renewed our interest in writing fiction, I remembered learning about first line story prompts.  One evening, I suggested that we search the internet for a prompt and then each spend time writing a story. You can read my unpolished first draft of that story here.

Writing Challenge

It’s your turn! Search the internet for a first line story prompt that interests you. Then write a short story using the prompt as your first line. Don’t worry about editing right now. The purpose of this challenge is to brainstorm the major characters and conflict and to write a first draft. Once you’re finished, leave a comment on this post with the first line story prompt that you used. If you post it online, leave the link for it, too!

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A Secret in the River

While writing this story, I listened to a song for inspiration.  The longing and desperation in the lyrics influenced the main character’s emotions and the imagery of the scenes.

A Secret in the River

It’s been three years since Kyle drowned in the river.  Every year since, the newspaper reminds us of the tragedy, warns us to stay away from the rising torrent of water that can rush us to our death.

In the year that he drowned, he was 15 years old.  I was 12.  It was the rainiest July I’d ever seen.  We used to camp out in a hidden spot by the river from sunup to sundown, making fishing poles from sticks and strings, digging up worms, and catching trout.  With pole in hand, he’d hopscotch along the moss-covered rocks toward the middle of the river until he couldn’t go any farther, and I’d hold my breath until he cast the line.  From his scouting days, Kyle knew how to build a fire, and we roasted the trout on stones pulled from the river bed.

Storms come up fast in these parts, and they say Kyle was swimming when bucketfuls of water poured down from the clouds.  They say he couldn’t get out of the water in time and that the current was too strong for someone his size.  I went to his funeral three days later, but there was no casket to bury or any ashes to spread.

After that, I stayed away from the river, but it thronged in the recesses of my mind.  One afternoon I went back, to the secret spot where Kyle and I had fished, and watched the bubbles and froth make detours around the rocks in the river.  When my chest began to tighten, I took off the way I’d come until I reached my room.  That was two years ago.

It’s the middle of the night when I wake to a thunderstorm that rattles my bedroom windows with each passing rumble.  Lightning flashes against the windowpane, and I see Kyle crouched on a river rock with tears streaming down his face, shouting as he hurled stones into the water.  I remember the sorrow on his face the day before he died, and how he wouldn’t smile, even for me.  I pull the bedcovers over my head.

Hours later, an eerie calm replaces the receding thunderheads.  Steam rises from the earth, and misty tendrils curl around objects unrecognizable in the fog.  The scene reminds me of the frothy river traveling around the rocks, and then I remember something else I had seen that day.  As I had turned to leave, a pile of ashes and stones from a recent fire had caught my eye.  I only now recall the thin curls of smoke that rose from the ashes.

It’s been three years since Kyle drowned in the river.  Or so they say.

Within minutes, I’m out of the house and tearing full speed into the woods that border the river.  I shout his name over and over as I run toward our fishing spot, dodging branches and tripping over roots.  In front of the river, I fall to my knees, breathless.

When my breathing eases, I raise my head.  Kyle, taller and stronger than I remember, is watching me from the other side of the river.  He gives me a sheepish smile and puts a finger over his lips.  Don’t tell.  I nod, and he slowly backs into the woods.  If I did tell, they’d probably say the woods are haunted or that the fog was too thick to see across the river.

A few days later, I go back to our secret fishing spot.  I don’t see Kyle, but propped against a tree along the riverbank, I find a new handmade fishing pole with my initials carved into it.

Copyright © 2012 Jennifer Howell

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Story Prompts: Music

Music can take our hearts places we’d never go on our own. If you find songs that you connect with emotionally, you can take advantage of the inspiration and pour those emotions into characters and plots.

Several of my story ideas have come from songs.  During one of the first times I listened to “When the World Stops Spinning” by Kyler England, a picture flashed through my mind of a girl wearing fur boots and crouching in a dark forest.  To pursue this idea and turn it into a story, I listened to all of the songs on Kyler’s Electric Hum album several times. The deep emotions and stories within the songs fed into my book idea and helped shape the relationship between my two main characters.

Recently, I listened to this song for inspiration again when I sat down to write a short story.  Without characters, plot, or theme, I hit the play button.  Then I typed the first line, and the next, and the story unfolded.  After going back and forth between song and story for three hours, I finished “A Secret in the River“.

Writing Challenge

Find a song that you connect with emotionally or that puts images in your mind of a character, theme, plot, or setting.  Then just start writing!  Once you’ve written your short story, leave a comment on this post with the name and artist of the song that inspired you. If you post your story online, leave the link for it, too!

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Hello world!

Hello, readers, and welcome to my fiction site! On this blog, you can read fiction stories that I’ve written. You can also take part in writing challenges to practice your own fiction writing. Click on the categories to start your adventure in fiction.

Thanks for visiting!



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