Johnson’s Island

So now that Secret Promise is loose in the world, I wanted to share some interesting facts about the time period in which the book is set.

Secret Promise takes place primarily in England in 1867, just after the American Civil War. The book’s hero, Edward Mason, had left England about seven years before, to deliver a ship for his father. Unfortunately, he was thrown off course by weather and circumstance, and instead of returning quickly to his sweetheart, he spends most of the next five years in a Union prison.

We first learn about Edward in my debut novel, Stirring Up the Viscount. Edward is the brother of the heroine in Viscount, which leaves us completely in the dark about his fate. When I wrote it, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what had happened to him. Stranded on a deserted island? Amnesia? Jail? So many choices!

Jail sounded promising, so I did some research about Civil War prisons, and discovered there was actually a prison for Confederate soldiers in northern Ohio, on Lake Erie. Even though I had to take some literary license to do it, I knew I had to put Edward in it.

Johnson's Island-mapJohnson’s Island is a tiny dot of land in Lake Erie, just three miles across the bay from Sandusky (home of Cedar Point Amusement Park, for those of you who love roller coasters!). In order to cut down on traffic on the island, there’s a gate at the start of the causeway that connects the island to Marblehead, and you need to pay $2 to open it. (I know this because I dragged my son there one weekend last March. The photo at left is a screen shot from the Maps app on my phone.)

The island was initially called Bull’s Island, after its first owner, E.W. Bull. It was purchased by Leonard B. Johnson in 1852 and renamed. Its 300 acres were inhabited and farmed solely by his family. At the start of the war, the U.S. military toured locations around the Great Lakes for suitable prisoner of war camps. Johnson’s Island was selected—it made a perfect prison, as it was small and easily defended, readily accessible from the mainland by boat, and difficult to escape.


The U.S. government leased the island, built guard barracks, a prisoner stockade, hospital, and other buildings, and sent the first Confederate prisoners there in April of 1862. In the 40 months of the prison’s operation, over 9,000 prisoners were housed on the island. At the start of the war, most prisoners were exchanged for Union prisoners after about five months, and others were released into the Union Army after taking an oath of allegiance to the United States. After Gettysburg, most prisoners were held from 12 to 18 months.

The average number of prisoners held at any one time was 2,000 to Oath2,500. In January of 1865, however, about 3,200 prisoners were in residence, which was substantially more than capacity. Prisoners slept in narrow bunks, two men per bed.

Johnson’s Island wasn’t a particularly harsh place to be imprisoned, other than the weather. (In March when I visited, the wind was bitingly cold as it whipped off Lake Erie, and I was wearing a down coat. I can only imagine how miserable a Confederate soldier must have been in prison garb.) The biggest problem most of the prisoners faced, at least in the early years of the war, was boredom. The men devised ways to entertain themselves, including producing plays, writing letters, journals, and poetry, and conducting rat hunts. Other men amused themselves by trying to escape. In nearly four years, however, only four men succeeded, escaping to Canada in January 1864.

CemeteryOther than exchange or transfer, swearing allegiance, or escaping, the only way to leave the prison was death. Approximately 241 men died while confined on Johnson’s Island, most due to illness. The majority of these men are buried in the Confederate Cemetery, which is the only publicly accessible part of the island. I discovered when writing this post that Heidelberg University does archaeological digs on the island, and research suggests that there may be others buried on the island in other locations.

The last prisoners left Johnson’s Island in September 1865. The buildings were auctioned off—to Mr. Johnson, who eventually dismantled and sold most of them. Since then there have been many attempts to develop the island, but it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1990, and now serves as an exclusive residential area.

If you’re ever at Cedar Point, take an extra hour and head over to Johnson’s Island. And to learn more about Johnson’s Island and the prison there, check out these sites: (ghosts!)


The Reform of a Plantser

I’m late to post today, because I’ve been plotting. *Insert wicked cackle here*

For weeks–well, truth be told, just about the entire summer–I’ve been stuck. Every time I open up WriteWay Pro to write, absolutely nothing comes. I have two stories halfway done, but they are both a hot mess.  Weak conflict, boring characters, yadda yadda. Now this has happened with every single book. I get to the middle and wham! No idea what to write next. I know how I want it to end, but I just can’t get it there. With the first two books, I did finally break through, but these two, not so much.

I finally decided to put them aside and work on something else for awhile, inspired by two things: one, the agent I pitched at RWA Nationals, who told me that the story I pitched (one of the hot messes above) would never sell; and two, the story idea I mentioned to her would be of interest, assuming I actually started to write it.

But I knew that this time my hybrid plantser style would never work. If I was going to sit down and write a book straight through, past “the dreaded middles,” I was going to have to learn to plot. *shudder* So I bought and read Blake Snyder‘s Save the Cat. I had halfheartedly browsed it before, even had a partially-finished beat sheet for my third book. But I didn’t really take it to heart until I read it all the way through, and finally understood what his beats actually meant. (Insert “duh” here.) So I roughed out a beat sheet for the new book, and it started to take shape, until I got to–yes, you guessed it–the middle.

Another week went by while I puzzled over this. I started to do some historical research, and as I hoped, it got the juices flowing, but I still had the middles problem. What was going to happen to these two people? For the past two days I have been digging through story tropes and story generators, and randomly Googling words that had to do with plots and story structures. Finally, today I found Jami Gold’s website, where she has tons of incredibly helpful posts for writers. Reading them, and then re-reading a few things in Save the Cat, was the final push I needed to figure out the middle, and voila, I now have a completed beat sheet for the next book. I wish I could thank Blake Snyder, but fortunately I can thank Jami. Thanks, Jami!  🙂

And now, I’m off to get some words on the page, but if you’re a writer, I hope you’ll feel free to share your thoughts on getting past those middles. What resources do you find helpful?


Author Interview: Lily Vega

Today’s guest is my good friend, Lily Vega. Lily writes *very* steamy paranormal & contemporary romance. Her latest, Devil in a Blue Dress, was released in May by Changeling Press. Welcome, Lily!

Tell us a bit about you. Where do you live, and how long have you been writing? I live in the Midwest. I’ve shuffled around several different states. I’ve been writing consistently for about 5 years.

LV_DevilBlueDress_largeWhat inspired you to write Devil in A Blue Dress? (I adore the cover!) I enjoy creating characters with a dark side. When I pitched the Devil May Care series, I didn’t know much more than the third installment would wrap up the series and either the hero or heroine would first appear in the second story. After book two, I had the heroine, heroes, and the theme – when you get what you want, things don’t always turn out like you’d expect. While I wrote the book, Ray’s struggle with addiction became key to the story.

What does your writing process look like? I write my short steamy books by the seat of my pants. At some point, I stop and determine which key events need to happen to complete the storyline and get to happy ever after. I note these and any other thoughts I want to incorporate into the story. I also keep a loose series bible to keep track of character attributes.

What do you do when you’re not writing? Drink.  Actually, I sometimes drink while I write. I love trying new craft beers, beer cocktails, and Guinness mixes (e.g. Guinness and Strongbow).

I’ve been known to drink wine while I write–keeps the creative juices flowing! What are you working on now? The Devil May Care series was planned as a trilogy. While the story was wrapped up at the end of book three, one of the minor characters, a fallen angel, needs his happy ever after, so I am working on his story, Falling for Her.

How many books do you have under the proverbial bed? Will they ever see the light of day? Too many to count! The triage process can be gut wrenching, but I plan to resurrect as many as possible. Going All In (1Night Stand), which was published in May by Decadent Publishing, was one of those under the bed books and I was thrilled with the end result. I’ve begun CPR on several other stories.

I tend to work through story ideas when I’m driving or in the shower, both of which are, of course, places I can’t write anything down. Do you have any strange writing habits? Post-It Notes. My workspace looks like an office supply store exploded. Cryptic notes like “Guy from set up = Guy #1” are scrawled on them. When the cats steal them, I usually find them under the couch or stuffed inside a shoe.

How do you come up with character names? First names just seem to come to me. Last names are harder. I’ve had to change names before too, Natalie was originally Anita, but the name was too similar to Arianna.

Name one thing about you that most people don’t know. I am crazy addicted to Plants versus Zombies. The main reason I bought an iPad was to play the game.

If you had a superpower, what would it be? I am in awe of exceptionally productive authors. My dream would be to consistently crank out large quantities of publishable prose. Heck, I’d be happy just to win NaNoWriMo.

Ah, wouldn’t that be nice? I won NaNoWriMo once–with a book that will probably never see the light of day–but never again. I do wish I could write faster! Other than “butt in chair,” what piece of advice would you give to an aspiring author? Share your knowledge with your writer friends. Find a great craft book, tool, or submission call? Let them know. They’ll reciprocate.

What book are you reading now? Open All Hours by Eden Royce. I’m a big fan of her Carnival Magic series. The heroine shifts into a black cat. How cool is that?

To find out more about Lily and her books, visit:
Facebook: Lily Vega
Twitter: @LV_Writer
Amazon Author Page: Lily Vega
Goodreads: LilyVegaWriter

Devil in a Blue Dress (Devil May Care #3) by Lily Vega

What’s a lust demon to do?

All of Xanthe’s heart’s desires are coming true. She’s a bridesmaid in her cousin’s wedding and in charge of the bachelorette party. Her boyfriend, True, is extra limber and up for sex whenever and wherever she wants. Everything is just too perfect — on the surface, anyway.

She suspects her sexual appetites are taking their toll on True. And the wedding festivities just aren’t as festive as she imagined. Enter Ray Perry, a bad boy with a dark past. He’s every bit as dominant as True is submissive, but an evil imp with a penchant for porn has a contract out on him.

When she discovers a vile plot to sabotage the wedding, Xanthe fights to save the day and her sexy men — one of whom holds her heart and the other her soul.


True’s name suited his easygoing personality. Xanthe ran her gaze over his lithe body, starting with his long, shaggy, sun-highlighted blond hair to his sandals. Natalie referred to him as a crunchy-granola guy with a chocolate-candy heart. Xanthe couldn’t tell if it was a compliment or an insult.

He looked up then, seeming to feel Xanthe’s gaze, and his face lit up with a smile that made his light blue eyes sparkle. His warm touch ignited her libido. If she wasn’t hell bent on winning a damned bingo prize, she’d drag him under the table for a quick romp.

Available on Amazon.


Grumpish about Grammar

This post is very late. I was in a super bad mood last Sunday and couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write, and I was too busy reading contest entries anyway.

Back in the spring I volunteered to serve as a first round judge in several contests. I actually love judging contests, but when I volunteered I stupidly failed to realize that all of the entries were due back in the same week. Nevertheless, I was happy to do it–it is great fun to read the entries and to help a writer (often a brand-new writer) learn a bit more about craft, and I never fail to learn something myself. Sometimes the entries are absolutely wonderful and truly a joy to read. Other times, not so much. This year, I had far more not-so-much entries than wonderful ones. Most of the entries I read had a great plot–original, interesting, and fun. Unfortunately, many of them were also riddled with errors in grammar and punctuation. Some had clearly not even been proofread, and were full of typographical errors and spelling mistakes.

As a result of this experience, I have spent the last few days wondering why writers would enter a contest without dealing with at least some of these problems. It is important to realize that a contest is, in some ways, a trial query. Most contests have agents and/or editors serving as final round judges. If you final, you get your work in front of one of them. If she likes it, she may request a partial manuscript, or even a full. And sometimes–as I can gratefully attest–an editor buys your book or an agent agrees to represent you. Why, then, would you not make your manuscript the very best it can be before submitting it? Especially because contests cost money?

Now, I will admit that the first time I entered a contest I had no idea what I was doing, and it is certainly possible that some of the writers I judged were in a similar place in their writing careers. My entry had many, many craft errors, but it had been carefully proofread. I learned a lot from the judges in that contest, and in my critiques of the entries I reviewed in the last couple of weeks, I tried to do the same for those writers.

My point here is two-fold: First, if you are an author, especially a published author, consider donating your time and expertise to juIMG_3137dge a contest. You will make a huge difference in a writer’s life, and you will learn something too.

Second, if you are a writer wishing to enter a contest, polish that manuscript! Proofread it–do not rely on spell check alone. Check your grammar. If you need to brush up on grammar rules, do so. Pick up a copy of Strunk and White. Go online–there are a lot of sites which offer help on grammar issues. For example, I like the Grammar Girl for short and sweet tips. There’s Grammarly, which scans your text for grammar and punctuation. (I’ve never used it, but it gets good reviews.) From the Write Angle has blog posts about grammar, craft, querying, and a bunch of other good stuff. Or just Google “grammar” and see what you get. Once you have these basics down, it’s much easier to focus on the craft–all those things that make you a better writer.

I’ve decided to stop whining and do something to help (hopefully). Once a month, starting next week, I’ll do a post on issues I’ve spotted in manuscripts, or things I’ve been curious about. If any of you have a grammar or craft question you’d like me to discuss, or if you’re interested in doing a guest post about your grammar pet peeve, or if you are better than I am at coming up with catchy names for my grammar posts (because honestly, who isn’t better at that than I am?), leave a comment here or drop me a line at


My First RWA Nationals

I’m a day late with this post because I spent the last week in New York at the RWA National Conference. My very first RWA National Conference. I have been to at least a dozen national lawyer conferences, even a national librarian conference or two, and none of them quite prepared me for RWA. Here are a few thinPCers RWA15 with AMgs I took away:


1. Romance writers are some of the nicest, most supportive people on the planet.



2. By the end of the week your feet will hurt no matter how comfortable your shoes are, especially if you spend your down time walking all over New York City. 016bcbfc0c5ca9db72e0dc49fc8c6595e46ebb50fe


3. Pitching to an agent is terrifying, a bit discouraging when said agent hates the book you’re pitching, but exciting when she likes the idea of a book you haven’t written yet.

4. Publishing is a crazy business. (See #3.)

5. Free books are good. And heavy.

6. Shaking hands with (or getting hugs from) your favorite authors is amazing.

7. Having 2,000 romance writers in a single room is really loud.



8. I never tire of hanging out with my peeps from NEORWA.


9. There will always be writers who are more successful than you (unless you’re Nora Roberts). Suck it up and keep writing.

10. I would list more but I’m too tired.

Did you go to Nationals? What did you think?


Inspiration, Italian Style

So I spent the last two weeks in Italy. It was one of those trip-of-a-lifetime sorts of vacations, where we packed in just about every major tourist site, and quite a few minor ones. My husband is a classicist, so there was a heavy emphasis on Roman ruins–Colosseum, Forum, Villa Adriana, Pompeii, Herculaneum, etc.–but we also spent some time in Venice and Florence.

I visited Italy once before, in college. I had an unpleasant experience there and so cut my trip short. Perhaps as a result, I have never had any particular interest in Italy, other than the food, anyway. In getting ready for this trip, though, an idea for a story stuck itself into my head, and so while I was there I spent a lot of time taking crazy pictures that might at some point be inspiring,

Mt. Vesuvius

or useful,

Scale model of ancient Rome

or just amusing.

I have no idea what this is, but there were about a dozen of them in a row, holding up display cases at the Naples Museum.

I have written about inspiration before–for some reason I find the topic endlessly fascinating. I think the interesting thing about this trip, is that I didn’t find it particularly inspiring, although I expected to. Instead my sojourn in Italy was more about taking it all in–soaking up atmosphere, smelling the particular odors of each place we visited (for as Eleanor Lavish said, every city does indeed have its own smell), tasting the food, feeling the unrelenting heat of the Italian sun, and washing off the dust of ruins built nearly 2,000 years before.  I spent more time than I ever have looking at things through a writer’s eyes.

Perhaps that is a kind of inspiration too.

Germinating the idea seed

 Photo flowers_pics_2067.jpg

When I first started writing one of the many things that made me nervous was that I would run out of things to write about. The fear that I had only one story in me made me hang on for far too long to a manuscript that should have been stuffed under the bed.

I recently committed myself to finishing one manuscript before I can work on the next. Perversely, I now have tons of ideas gathering in my brain, each rather desperate to be turned into the next book. Or the one after that. Almost everywhere I go I find a new idea to plant in my head, and I have to rush home and open a new book in WriteWay to get it down before I forget it. At the same time, I have to stop myself from jumping on the Internet to do research. It’s very distracting.

Famous authors are always asked in interviews where they get their ideas.  I used to think that was an interesting question, but now I know it doesn’t really matter. Ideas are everywhere. It’s how a writer nurtures them that counts.

So I am not going to ask how you get your ideas. Instead I’ll ask: what is the first thing you do to make that idea seed grow?

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