#1 Fuel for Writing Great Stories

French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac is said to have drunk 50 cups of coffee a day. He stated:

“As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move…similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.”


For a wonderful tongue-in-cheek article on the man and his brew, click here:



quote posted by Jean Foster Akin

Photo by Jean Foster Akin:  Trees in Reflection

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These People Walk Among Us, Too

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“Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”

by Jean Foster Akin

It lifted my heart to see the wonder expressed by my fellow hominids over the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017. Of course, there were way too many panicky bipeds who threw up frantic warnings on YouTube of the Coming of the End, quoting scriptures and devising intricate numerological theories, all zinging with the negative energy of primordial anxiety as they hid in their modern day “caves,”  warning the rest of us that this eclipse was a sign of the END. It was the same with our early ancestors at the dawn of time when they saw lightning or heard thunder and believed that their little tribe had ticked off some god or other. But even today, when a person is living in that kind of a bubble, he thinks everyone outside it is the enemy, is ignorant of the truth, or is trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. He will not listen to anyone who tries to speak reason to him.


It’s nothing new. Clay cuneiform tablets from 2300 and 1800 B.C. found in Mesopotamia document the trepidation of solar eclipses that the people of that  time suffered.* The poet Archilochus (c. 680-645 BC), following the total solar eclipse over the Greek isle of Paros, wrote, “Nothing in the world can surprise me now. For Zeus, the Father of the Olympian, has turned midday into black night by shielding light from the blossoming Sun, and now dark terror hangs over mankind. Anything can happen.”


CBN founder Pat Robertson is famous for teaming up with his late pal, Jerry Falwell Sr., to declare that the catastrophe of 9/11 was a direct result of America allowing homosexuals, feminists, and the ACLU to walk freely among us. Robertson, who has made his fortune pretending to hear directly from the Almighty, predicted the world would end in October or November of 1982, then September 2007, and then, when the Earth continued to spin, stated in 2015, “I think things are getting ready to wrap up…the earth is hurtling towards some final conclusion, we all feel that.” At 86 years old, Robertson himself is hurtling towards a final conclusion of his own; maybe that’s what he’s been feeling. Anyway, in 2016, he decided that an asteroid will destroy the Earth and the Sun’s light will be blotted out for three days. He didn’t say when.


Do you recall that scene from the original Ghost Busters film when Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, and Harold Ramis tell the Mayor of New York that the end of the world might be near: “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes and volcanoes…the dead rising from the grave!” Bill Murray’s character, who believed none of this nonsense, got caught up in the excitement anyway: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!” It was a great scene.

Sadly, there are actually some people today, in the 21st Century, who do not believe that earthquakes are the unhappy result of shifting tectonic plates. These people hear of an earthquake in Papua New Guinea or a tsunami in Indonesia, and they say that the catastrophe occurred due to their god’s righteous anger against the people who live in those lands and who embrace “false religions.” Nice god you have there. I think I’ll pass on you telling me more about him.

You see, in 2017, we know that the number of Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Atheists, Protestants, or Confucians in a culture have no bearing on the number or intensity of tsunamis, earthquakes, or tornados which ravage their communities. No bearing at all. Also, the number of feminists in our world do not predict hurricanes,  typhoons, or the outbreak of  malaria, and we’re pretty sure that feminists had nothing to do with the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001–my apologies to Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell for contradicting their diety on that one. Principles of geology and cosmology are not informed by our opinions, prejudices, or religious beliefs.


The Virgo Supercluster, just ONE OF 10 MILLION SUPERCLUSTERS in our observable universe, houses a mass concentration of galaxies. One of those galaxies is the Milky Way Galaxy. But there are a “few” more: so far, our astronomers have counted 47,000 galaxies in the Virgo Supercluster alone.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope capture the most comprehensive picture ever assembled of the observable Universe.

The Milky Way Galaxy is where the Earth’s solar system is located. We Earthlings live on a planet located on one of the four spiral arms of the Milky Way. The Milky Way Galaxy contains at least 200 billion stars, and NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has confirmed that there are 3300 exoplanets orbiting stars other than our own Sun. Thousands more are awaiting confirmation.

This is an amazing Universe. There are people who believe God created it for our enjoyment and delight, and they aren’t the ones stumbling along on city sidewalks, wild-eyed and wearing sandwich boards, warning of the coming of the end. Those are the ones you want to avoid.

Then there are people who do not believe in any god at all, and they’re jazzed by the natural world.

I’m happy to stick with enjoyment and delight, happy to be jazzed by it all.


Strickland, Ashley. “Why eclipses have inspired terror and awe.” CNN Health. Sunday, August 20, 2017.

Photo Credits: (Solar Eclipse NASA/Aubrey Gemignani);  Ghostbusters, 1984; Hubble Space Telescope, Ultra Deep Field Project.

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If you can tell stories…

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.

– Somerset Maugham




posted by Jean Foster Akin

Photo by JFA, 2007

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1 Sure Thing a Writer Can Know

Fiona’s little dog, Myrna

*by Jean Foster Akin*

I had always written for adults and never had any desire to write for middle readers. It never even occurred to me to write for middle readers until I took a course in college wherein I read and reviewed five children-to-young-adult books a week, and developed an enrichment plan for teachers using those books in their classes. And now my own book has been read in classrooms, and I’ve received letters from parents who’ve said they had to read my book “just one more time to the kids before bed last night.” I’ve met the most delightful young people due to that book, children not much older than toddlers whose parents read to them, kids in grammar school, teen girls, and adults who’ve stopped by my signing tables to say they loved the book too.

When I first began writing The Filigree Slippers, it wasn’t The Filigree Slippers. It wasn’t about silver or about slippers at all. It was something very different. It was a fantasy for middle readers about a man who created a magical toy rabbit that healed broken things: such as broken hearts, strained friendships, and people enduring illness. I recall that the main character, the creator of the rabbit, had no idea what the rabbit was capable of until he began carrying it on his travels. It’s kind of fuzzy now.

Hubert Minkle

What isn’t fuzzy is that I put aside (for a bit) the novel-length manuscript for adults that I’d written and which I had yet to edit for the umpteenth and final time. I pulled back from the two other manuscripts I was writing for adults, and started writing a story for middle readers about a man who’d created a magical toy rabbit. It was good to take a rest from the other writing so I could approach those manuscripts “fresh” a little later. Plus I was excited about writing something for an audience for whom I’d never considered writing.

What I ended up writing was the story of a shy young man named Hubert who was a master at his craft (designing exquisite jewelry from silver filigree; jewelry that people from far away places would come to see and to own), who falls in love with a young violinist named Fiona. Fiona doesn’t notice Hubert at all. Fiona’s basically a starving artist, a violinist who plays in the park where townspeople toss coins into her hat, and she is focused–solely–on being discovered. She wants to travel the world, playing her music for wealthy, perfumed audiences in great halls, and when a talent agent agrees to represent her, she’s on her way.

Hubert’s cat, Pinkerton

Hubert finds out quite by accident that Fiona is leaving town to travel the globe with her little dog, and he devotes himself to making for her an extraordinary gift. A gift she could never afford to give herself. He doesn’t try to stop her, he doesn’t screw up the courage to tell her he loves her, he doesn’t beg her to stay. He offers her no reason to question her leaving. He, instead, pours all his longing and pain and adoration into this gift, and in the darkness before dawn, he carries his boxed gift to her tiny apartment and leaves it at her door. An anonymous token of his love, with no indication of the anguish he feels at losing her. Because when you love deeply, you’ll sacrifice beyond the point of pain.

The story began as a story about Hubert. Hubert’s sacrifice. Hubert’s pain. And yet, it was a story for middle-readers, so while there could be pain, there also had to be something purchased with that pain, something glorious.

In the end, lovely Fiona steals the book’s front cover: onstage, raising her violin to her shoulder, wearing her ruby gown and her exquisite filigree slippers. There’s a lot more, but that’s all I’m gonna say about that.


We don’t always know where a story’s going until we begin writing it. What we thought would be a good plot twist ends up changing the story into something unrecognizable to the original vision. Suddenly the hero shares the stage with a heroine and her little dog, and a magic rabbit becomes glittering filigree slippers.

There’s one sure thing every writer knows: you never know what your story will become… until you start writing it.


The Filigree Slippers, by Jean Foster Akin

Images above are copyrighted. From the book, The Filigree Slippers. Artist: Rebecca Riffey. Sorry, permission to copy images in any form NOT granted.

Posted in Book Reviews, Encouragement, Juvenile Fiction--Middle Readers (ages 7-12), Life After Publication | Leave a comment

…to Power, to Enthusiasm…

I invite you not to cheap joys,

to the flutter of gratified vanity,

to a sleek and rosy comfort;

no, but to bareness, to power, to enthusiasm,

to the mountain of vision,

to true and natural supremacy,

to the society of the great,

and to love.


Ralph Waldo Emerson


[posted by Jean Foster Akin; photo by Jean Foster Akin, 2014: Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest Retreat, Lynchburg, VA]

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Are You Afraid to Write That Story?

*by Jean Foster Akin*

“We all love a good story. We all love a tantalizing mystery. We all love the underdog pressing onward against seemingly insurmountable odds. We all, in one form or another, are trying to make sense of the world around us. And all of these elements lie at the core of modern physics.”

[Brian Greene, THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory]

Yeah. Physics. Did you think for a moment the guy was talking about physics? I picked up this book because of my interest in String Theory, or: the study of vibrating ultramicroscopic loops of energy—from which Professor Greene believes all matter comes. And there he was, in the Preface, page X, explaining the magnetism of a good story, the importance and love of words, the pleasure in the telling, that so beguiles the human race.

This struck me: that no matter what story it is that you are writing, no matter what story  you are imagining writing, there are probably people out there who will want to read it.

Even a professor of physics and mathematics gets it, as my opening author’s quote proves. Brian Greene deals with numbers, symbols, and mind-bending theories related to quantum mechanics, supersymmetric quantum field theory, and particle physics. Yet, he gets the sublimity of stories, of words, written or spoken.

And he didn’t think he’d ever see his work published for a general audience because his proposal was rejected by his first agent due to the subject matter being “too specialized to attract a mainstream publisher.” But the audiences that gathered to listen to his general lectures on relativity and superstring theory were enthusiastic, so Professor Greene soldiered on.

As should you.

Everyone enjoys stories, some even enjoy crummy stories told poorly. Think of those people who live for the latest bit of gossip: they’ll squeeze the last drop from a juicy story. I’ve known people who don’t even like to read but who still love stories. They’re usually the type who rarely turn off their television sets, and who you don’t want to sit next to at parties if you have a secret.

But you get my point. You can get wrapped up in all the ways this story you’re writing won’t be something anyone will want to read.

dsc05434But everyone has different tastes.

So write your story. Whatever your plot for fiction, whatever your subject for non-fiction, take your time and write it well. Don’t be cynical about this, thinking that whatever you vomit onto a page is valuable and will be read. Instead, write your very best for the people who love stories worth reading.

Whatever story you’re incubating inside you, just write it and see what happens. You may be surprised by how many people want to read it, whether it’s the story of cosmology, your forebears’ Atlantic passage, or a fun summer beach-read. You’ll never know unless you try.


[Jean Foster Akin]

PHOTOS: #1. Pleiades. Fienberg, 2016.

#2. True color mosaic of Jupiter, constructed from images taken by the narrow angle camera onboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on December 29, 2000.

#3. Photo I took a few years ago in Manhattan of one of many lovely patisseries in that city.

THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene, Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, 2003.

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