InspireMe: Where You Find Your Story

The house settled by the Ogle family in the Great Smokey Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tenn.

How will you create your place?

Where is it located?

How often have you traveled there or visited this place in your imagination?

Do you miss it when you go?

A downtown view of Gatlinburg, Tenn.

The truth is that the place does not belong to you. The place you write houses your characters.

Who are they?

Do they fall in love?

Do they face prejudice because they are from different ethnic or religious backgrounds?

Does one character enjoy science fiction and the other art?

You write their ending, but they do not belong to you.

Whenever I have thought of place, I look at art. There is a lot a writer can learn from photographers and painters. Since being a writer is about perfecting your craft, I think the education extends outside the boundaries of literature. As you might have noticed, I am a visual learner.

Just as I enjoy authors who write visually; for example, Joshilyn Jackson and Pat Conroy, I also look for artwork that moves and teaches me about place and character.

Where do you find inspiration?

Photos and Words by Rebecca T. Dickinson


Painted Blue: Beyond the Walmart Aisles

Painting by Brendan O’Connell. Courtesy of

I spent the night in a horse barn.

Years ago, I dated a guy who worked with horses. He  built an apartment within a barn of six stallions.

“Most of the girls where you come from would never spend the night out here,” he told me.

Most of the girls I knew – and I – grew up privileged. Going to Walmart was something to do on a late night when we were not ready to return home.

But, as artist Brendan O’Connell said on CBS’ Sunday Morning, the large shopping center is a place where you cross paths with people of all ethnicities and backgrounds.

According to Sunday Morning, O’Connell said he was attracted to the different colors you see when you walk through the aisles. He called it abstract expressionism or contemporary art.

The reporter asked why he was interested in painting the “mundane?”

The answer to the question is simple: the mundane, or everyday life, is not simple at all. Often, stories in people’s lives are – pardon the cliché — stranger than fiction.

O’Connell’s paintings do more than show vivid colors. It shows real people on an artscape.

“Everyday Vegas” painted by Brendan O’Connell.

On the nights I spent in my ex-boyfriend’s apartment within the horse barn, I did not look down on him. Instead I admired the work he did.

In my history, I was often disgusted by rich boys and admired the blue-collar boys who rolled up their sleeves, went to work and showed that off-color smile. Beyond personal experience, I saw people doing work a way in which I’d never experienced.

When I sat down to write a story entitled Mismatch in Apple Valley, it became my first look in contemporary writing about blue-collar people.

“You’re not blue-collar,” my mother argues. “You have a college degree, and by definition, you are white-collar.”

“You’re not quite blue-collar yet,” my husband adds.

Whether or not I am blue-collar does not matter. I am inspired by those ravaged by the economy, those people who pull up their sleeves and work in the rain and those who are still shoveling snow off the roads in the Midwest U.S.

I wanted, like O’Connell, to pick up a camera and zoom in on the everyday stories. There is plenty of drama and action for the pages:

Jo was laid off and thought about going to Tech. When they accepted his application, he found out he could not receive scholarships.


You create the reason.

Mary worked in the school district for sixteen years. The district closed three schools to meet its budget, and because those three schools did not meet testing standards.


Susie and Robert had a baby when they were seventeen. Six years later, she almost completes a two-year degree for administrative assistant work, and he begs her to drop out.


At first, the above situations sound mundane.

What does it all mean?

Dig beneath the surface and find out what the teaching job meant to Mary. What if she could not find a job anywhere else? What if the bank foreclosed on her house?

Who will come to put her furniture and pictures in the yard as if they never mattered at all?

O’Connell began taking pictures in a Walmart eight years ago when a member on staff “asked him to leave.”

Now he is a successful American artist from a town in Georgia.

Some writers and artists want to escape into another world while others want to take a closer look at a world painted blue.

Words by Rebecca T. Dickinson

For more information about Brendan O’Connell, visit:

Friday Night Writes: When the Stadium Lights Go Out

Josh Harnett thinks about leaving Kirsten Dunst on the football field in The Virgin Suicides. Thanks to Jake-Weird,

One man switches off the lights in the football stadium.

No one is left that he sees, but sometimes someone or something stays hidden out of the spotlight. He, she or it is not ready to leave.

But, as soon as Josh Harnett got it in The Virgin Suicides he left Kirsten Dunst alone on the football field.

As writers, artists, professionals, students or parents; everyone believes they are left on a cold, gray metal seat in a stadium lost to watching birds and bugs pick at leftover hamburger and hotdog buns.

The challenge we face only grows more difficult whether it is writing a query letter, making a character real or trying to figure out how you will mold your career, family and art together.

Yesterday, the lights turned off. The stadium, dark.

The hardest thing a person must do is to make a choice.

If you’ve read before, you know I am a mother, teacher, author/ writer and beginning my graduate work.

Last year, I was offered a job with which I fell in love, and my bosses have offered as many opportunities as they could. When I talk about the job, you would think I was talking about the love of my life. If you’ve been unemployed or someone in your family has been unemployed and worried about your child’s future, you discover a good job brings gratitude. Finding a job you love is a miracle.

I sat across from my graduate advisor for the first time yesterday. He said in my last semester I would have to quit my job to do the internship in the public school system.

I sank in the chair. I thought You’ve got to be kidding me. A long time ago I was a kid who highlighted her hair every other month, wore boat shoes and played sorority dress up until I discovered it meant nothing.

Those days of playing dress up are done.

I know outside of the current job I have now, my intended career requires certification and high standards in the world of teaching. During childhood, I played with two prominent items: my imagination to create stories and an art easel from which I taught my stuffed animals and cats.

Nothing has changed my dreams now.

The professor, in his wisdom, said my place of work may be willing to work with me and I should not have a problem receiving loans and scholarships to pay for school.

That’s not my first concern, believe it or not. I have to pay bills, too.

I sucked it up, went home and got my son. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, I decided.

Perhaps I’m being to bold. Maybe too honest. But I know many other writers are struggling to work and find time for their writing. I know other artists have children and think about time set aside for their work. They want to know, even after two-years or more of sweating, painting and of rejections, that they’re not the only ones fumbling around to turn on the spotlight.

Rebecca T. Dickinson

Sorry Friday Night Writes is a little late.

Friday Night Writes is an every other week column or article in which I share views or writing samples.

In the Coming Weeks

I am back.

You: Back from what? I didn’t know you were gone.

Me: What do you mean you didn’t know I was gone?

You: You’re not the center of the blogosphere.

Me: Yes, you’re right, but I am back.

My husband, John, and I spent the weekend in Gatlinburg, Tenn. We took a break, planned and looked into the mountains.

Gatlinburg is a twin sister to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina except it is in the Great Smoky Mountains. From our window, we looked at peaks disappearing into blue-gray clouds. It made me think of a quote from Forrest Gump.

You couldn’t tell where heaven ended and the earth began.”

John said, “A lot of people want to look out their window and see water brushing the sand. How could the beach compare to this view?”

Raised in S.C., Mom and Dad took my brother and me to Myrtle Beach.

When I lived one hour from the Blue Ridge Mountains, I fell in love. Maybe it was something new and different. Maybe I needed a close look at how the red ravines carved out gray trees kissed by a light blue to realize just how nature inspires.

That said, last week When We Write Letters series ended. No worries. Writing also changes. Here is the schedule in the upcoming weeks.

Sunday: Living the Reading Life or Meet the Writer

Every other Thursday: The Thurspiration will feature either The Write to Cook or InspireMe photos.

Every other Friday: Friday Night Writes will continue this coming Friday.

I hope you will come back and share your own word or more.

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

The Write to Cook: Two Men and the Little Chef

The Write to Cook: Two Men and the Little Chef

Mom and Dad both worked hard.

Mom was a high school teacher, and Dad worked as an insurance claims adjuster. Most childhood meals were eaten at a restaurant or brought home.

I believed Mom could cook if she put her mind to it, but she never showed interest. Daughter of the feminist movement, she chose to shape her knowledge of the world.

Dad tried to cook. Through the years, he has improved from making starch-filled meals full of potatoes and rice to providing a variety.

My Grandmother Dickinson’s apple cake, which I made at Christmas.

Since I began cooking in college, I attempted to reconnect to the time spent with both of my grandmothers in their kitchens. One worked as a teacher and came home to cook. The other was a homemaker.

Although ambition drove me to chase a writing and teaching career, I also yearned for tradition. I found the kitchen was the place I went when I needed a break from writing and editing, and it also inspired me.

In the old days, some women bonded in the kitchen. I ended up with two and a half men in mine.

Many families affected by the economy live in a multigenerational household. My family is one of them. We share a small kitchen in which we wash dishes by hand.

y husband and I cooked breakfast together.

This space – a place that was once my sacred room when I was a partial stay-at-home mother – is shared by my father, husband, son and sometimes my brother.

Dad, John and I work as much as we can, and we know work awaits us at home. We prepare meals for a family of six and our kitchen space shrinks.

“Don’t you want to let people flavor that to their taste?” my husband asked before one breakfast.

“That’s the way my grandmother made them,” I replied.

“Things can change, can’t they?”


“You know how your dad likes to put random spices on things?”

“Yes, and he doesn’t look at what goes in like I do.”

One, two, three and then four of us will end up in the kitchen on any given night. The little one, our son, wants to bring his little bike in the kitchen. All of us chase the little chef out.

For the most part, the boys’ club lets me decide what we’re doing. But they are also strong-minded men with their own opinions about the kitchen.

“Mother and Thomas are tired of chicken,” Dad says at least two weeks out of the month.

“I would make a vegetarian meal, but I’m the only one who would eat it,” I say. “I go with what we have in the freezer or in the fridge. If one of them wants to go to the market, great.”

I admit I have a little bit of an attitude sometimes. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and the desire to keep everything organized does not always work in my family or the kitchen.

Dad wants to work like an octopus, and my husband sits down at the table after my parents and brother have already finished their meals.

As exasperated as I become with no dishwasher, three working burners, someone taking up my counter space or one of the beloved men in my life directing me in the kitchen; I realized we have created a new tradition.

We also laugh in the kitchen.

John throws ice down my shirt.

Dad plays, sings and imitates family members. He is one of the few people who shares my sarcasm.

Then there’s the little boy who stops in and asks if one of us will put on his helmet so he can ride his bike through the kitchen.

Last night, as I made Shepherd’s Pie, I discovered a red toy car in a drawer with the blender. I smiled and called for my little chef.

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

When We Write Letters, Part VII

Cell phone alarm rings again.

You wake up slowly and grab your clothes in the dark.

Maybe you forget to check whether clothes match.

Going outside, you realize it’s raining. You’re already behind the time it takes to get to work or to school. You race to the car.

Just before you turn into the parking lot at work, a drink falls and rolls beneath your break.

A writer’s feelings about the query letter are like that.

Instead of, “Do I really have to write this,” we must come up with a new approach or attitude.

It is simple.

Know your book and know your agents.

Other great blog posts tell you how to format and write the letter. They know more than me.

In my four years of research about agents and how to write query letters, I’ve learned a lot.

For me, sending letters to literary journals and anthologies was good training ground for the query. I learned how to handle rejection and how to improve my cover letters.

A query letter is all about education:

  • Know your agent:

    What is he or she interested in? What books have they represented? What do they detest?

    Good hint: on Twitter, use hashtags like #querytips and #agenttips or check out Ayesha Schroeder’s blog

  • Know your story:

    If you do not know your story, you will not know how to select prospective agents.

    That’s right. I said you select. You have the power to pick agents and decide whether they might be a fit for your book.

    For example, my book, Sons of the Edisto, is an older YA historical fiction book written from the perspective of two boys. It is set in a realistic 1920s time period during which a hateful organization influenced state and national government.

    A lot of agents will not touch it. Why? It deals with two boys coming face-to-face with the evil Ku Klux Klan. I know I need to write a query to agents interested in history, politics or fiction for boys.

    You decide what potential agent might suit your work.

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

This concludes the When We Write Letters Series.

Friday Night Writes: Reasons Why We Write

Write what you know.

Write what inspires you.

Write about what you’re interested in.

Write about what you’re willing to research.

Write what you fear.

Courtesy of

Some bloggers write to share knowledge of publishing and share how-to query. Others blog to write.

I have heard the above advice and reasons at different points in my writing life.

What each artist shares in common is that they write what they want.

Use all the advice you want. In fact, I implore you.

Make a choice.

In 2006, I chose fear, inspiration and research when I began Sons of the Edisto. I thought: How did the U.S. tolerate a racist organization to influence national politics and parade through the streets of Washington, D.C. in 1925? What inspired my grandfather to stand up to injustice?

Could I find the courage to write about a controversial subject?

I have written two manuscripts, short stories and some nonfiction. Three important themes play roles in my contemporary and historical fiction:

  • Family and Friendship

    So much is written about love and relationships, especially paranormal. I have attempted to write about real relationships between families and friends. What makes those bonds so special?

  • The Economy

    I write about a time set before the Great Depression and in stories set in today’s time. As a staff writer, I saw the recession kick in before the national news acknowledged it. Businesses closed and people began to lose hope; and yet, many friends and families pulled together in the generation of the iPad and iPod.

  • When my cousin was 4-years-old, he called me mommy-in-training. I babysat, tutored and cared for little ones for about as long as I have written. No one says funnier or wiser things than the children whom I teach.

    My fear is someone will forget a child’s voice. It will not be heard.

All of these themes and reasons to write make me grateful that six publications thus far have given me great opportunities.

On this Friday Night Writes, I am proud to announce the beautiful Black Fox Literary Magazine’s publication of Adventures of Elliot McSwean: The Question in its Number 7 edition. If you wish to check it out, the story is on page 40.

(Please also check out the many other wonderful stories and poems.)

Fifth grader Elliot McSwean is a skinny blonde boy with glasses who is pushed around by two older teen sisters, followed by a four-year-old sister and raised by a father who still believes Russians will attack. He will try to answer and solve the unknown problems in his small town outside Charlotte, N.C. The Question is the first story of the series.

After snack, Mom sent Jillian and I to play outside instead. I needed to make it to the computer before my tormentors arrived home from school. Mom’s eyes scanned the backyard from the kitchen window like a hawk circling above its nest. Jillian followed me everywhere with her pink sparkle wand. I thought of ways to get past Mom and Jillian. Once I figured out what politically correct meant I could focus on the scientific potion with Davie. He was the brains of that plan. We had a formula drink for pregnant moms to turn their babies into boys, so guys like me were not stuck with too many sisters.

~Elliot McSwean

By Rebecca T. Dickinson