Coming to a library near you? The Joy of Holds + Recommendations for eBooks

The very first library to get a copy of TROUBLE WITH PARSNIPS. Thank you Florham Park Public Library!

Today–all my friends who love libraries–I’m going to tell you a secret that will make you very happy.


If you are a library regular, you probably know you can put a “hold” on an exciting new book. You can do the same thing with ebooks.

After the ebook you requested is returned, it can be automatically be checked out to you. (Unless you have too many books checked out–then you have to return something first. So if you normally have too many books checked out, don’t take the automatic check out option.)

Screen shot of "Place a Hold" button next to Megan Whalen Turner's THE THIEF in Overdrive.
6 months wait time for Megan Whalen Turner’s THE THIEF. It’s worth it. (Not middle grade.)

In the days of paper lists, a dear friend always asked to be added to the list for whatever book everyone was waiting for. Now that’s using your library!

BTW, don’t you LOVE getting those library emails that a book is waiting for you? A major holiday!

But wait, there’s more. . . .TA DA!!!!!


You can recommend ebooks the library doesn’t own yet. This is perfect for that wonderful book on Twitter that you’ll forget the title before you can buy a copy.

How to recommend an ebook from your computer:
1. Brute force method: Login to your local libary online. Find Overdrive. Type the title into Overdrive’s search box. If the library doesn’t own it, you can click on “Recommend”. (See below for an example ;)) Your favorite authors will thank you forever!!

2. Elegant-if-it-works method: Click on the image below to go to the Overdrive site. “Find your Library” and if they don’t have the book, you can click on “show me books my library doesn’t own”. Then Overdrive should offer you the book with a “Recommend” option.

screen shot of Overdrive recommendation option

In case you’re interested, here’s a bit more information about the book:

book cover image for TROUBLE WITH PARSNIPS princess with toolbox standing on top of a burning tower

If you enjoy visiting Cochem castle as much as I do, you might like the story of this inventor princess.

It’s save-the-kingdom time. . .

Can she finally use the one tool that’s never worked. . .her quiet voice?

It’s a way to spend a little more time in the Seven Kingdoms.

Happy reading!

Click here for more about the book.

Veggie of the Week Challenge: The Colors of Italy Pizza

pizza baked on a stone with pepper and zucchini length-wise slices, mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce and an Italian flag toothpick in the center.
Red pepper and zucchini pizza. © Jan Decher, 2018.

This summer, my brand-new middle grade book, TROUBLE WITH PARSNIPS, took up the vegetable portion of my brain (I heard that) so dinner was often shoot-your-own-sandwich.

We interrupt our veggie challenge for a moment to bring you a word from our sponsor:

If you’d like to try TROUBLE WITH PARSNIPS at your local library, you can recommend it on Overdrive. (See image below.) Thanks for the veggie boost!

screenshot of Trouble With Parsnips bookcover and Recommend button and Read a Sample button

Back to our regularly scheduled veggie: To celebrate (and thank the long-suffering locals), I bring you (TA-DAAA!):


The Veggie of the Week Challenge


No recipes will appear here in their entirety.

No holds barred. If the crew orders out for pizza, you’ll get the details here.

At least one inexpensive vegetable must appear in the meal. (Honor of an epidemiologist!)

Half-way healthy. An attempt at lower fat and whole grains will be made, but cream and cheese will inevitably appear. You’ve been warned.

Without further ado, this week’s vegetable is:

Ace Pepper

We grew a variety called “Liebesäpfel” (love apple) that were very small this year because of the drought. Small green peppers are on this pizza along with the red pepper from the store (on sale this week even though it’s November!) and zucchini. “Ace” is a favorite pepper variety that we grew both in Minnesota and in Vermont.

Pizza dough: our favorite recipe is from the KitchenAid mixer cookbook with 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 cups of flour. If you have a good mixer, you can easily double the recipe. (We left our mixer behind when we changed countries and electrical systems. Even if you use a good mixer, DO let the dough take up all the flour before you add more. Stroll by the working mixer and put a little more in every once in a while. You and the dough will be happier.)

2 1/2 tsp dried yeast, 1 c water (the same temp as your hand–it should feel like nothing), 2 tsps olive oil (the freshest you can afford), 1 tsp salt.

If you mix up the first 2 cups of flour with a big spoon in a bowl, your fingers don’t get sticky. Dump it out on a floured board and add the rest, little by little, until you like the way the dough looks. German flour has more protein than American flour so the dough won’t take as much.

IMHO, the key to EASY home-made pizza dough is adding a LITTLE flour at a time.

Pour a little olive oil in the bowl, turn the dough all around in the bowl so it’s shiny. Cover it with a kitchen towel and leave it on the counter all afternoon to get nice and puffy while you do other stuff.

Treat it like a slow-cooker meal and make it in the morning. Or the day before. (If you refrigerate pizza dough overnight, it comes out even tastier. I cover it with plastic in the fridge.)

Half-way healthy: 1 cup of whole wheat flour and 2 cups of white flour keeps the half-way healthy dough from being too heavy. Or add a little toasted wheat-germ for more B-vitamins. Fresh mozzarella is inexpensive here and lets you use a bit less cheese. Tomato puree (not sauce) keeps the salt reasonable and the pizza juicy.

To anchovy or not to anchovy? A friend of mine always puts anchovy paste in the dough, but I haven’t done that for a while. Not sure if it adds more protein than salt and fat. Does anyone know?

Cheap: Red peppers were on sale, maybe because it’s still quite warm weather for November. We used to buy a bushel of each color pepper at the end of the season from the Farmer’s Market in St. Paul (Minnesota) and then they were quite reasonable. If you freeze them ready to use (washed, seeded, and sliced), dinner is half-made.

Vote: Murmurs of mutiny! Oh no! The pizza stone method is too advanced for us. We have to wait between small pizzas because our pizza peel isn’t big. Making pizza on a huge cookie sheet makes it’s sturdy enough to pile on more veggies.

As people filled up with pizza . . . questions about possible pepperoni died away. A close call, but success!

I wish I knew how to make these pesto, tomato, mozzarella boats. We ate them in the Cinque Terre and they were marvelous:

baked boats of bread filled with pesto, tomato sauce and mozzarella.


book cover image for TROUBLE WITH PARSNIPS princess with toolbox standing on top of a burning tower

If you enjoy visiting Cochem castle as much as I do, you might like the story of this inventor princess.

It’s save-the-kingdom time. . .

Can she finally use the one tool that’s never worked. . .her quiet voice?

It’s a way to spend a little more time in the Seven Kingdoms.

Happy reading!

Click here for more about the book.

Tour a German publisher: Kiepenheuer and Witsch in Cologne

office with Cologne Cathedral visible through the window.
The Cologne Cathedral is so huge, it feels like you could reach your arm out the window and touch it. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Last week, our local library visited the German publisher Kiepenheuer & Witsch in Cologne. Their offices look right out on the Cologne Cathedral. Their location next to the main Cologne rail station make it easy for their internationally renowned authors to drop by for coffee.

They have a fascinating history. I never thought about German publishers being shut down after World War II. Kiepenheuer & Witsch was one of the first to receive permission to resume publishing (because the Nazis had shut them down earlier.)

We had a tour “in publishing order” from the front desk:

bright red front desk with name of publisher in white and a row of books in a built in shelf
Welcome to Kiepenheuer & Witsch! © Laurel Decher, 2018.

to the mail room:

beautifully made old fashioned scale with dial to show weight
An heirloom scale to weigh packages of books. You can’t have more than 30 kilos of books on this scale at a time. Kiepenheuer & Witsch publishing house. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

This place values books. I enjoyed the author portraits and sideways bookcases in the hallways:

hallway with square portraits lined up in a grid 4 high by more than 10 across
Once you have your second book published with Kiepenheuer & Witsch, you can have your portrait on their walls. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Book covers are designed here. We were allowed to take pictures of these final versions, but the concepts for the next catalog are top secret. They publish 100 new books a year with about a dozen editors. People work hard here!

paper printouts of final bookcover designs, put up with fat round magnets
Kiepenheuer & Witsch don’t all look the same. Each book’s design is based on what the author put in it. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Finished books in the marketing department are ready to entice bookstore owners:

white bookcase with square cubbies to hold stacks and display standing up copies of new books, some shrink-wrapped
Posters and finished books, like a giant box of brand-new chocolates. The Kiepenheuer & Witsch sales department is ready to go out to bookstores. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

White t-shirt with Kiwi logo pinned to wall.
KiWi is a hip abbreviation for Kiepenheuer & Witsch and the name of a paperback imprint begun in 1982. Team shirts for bygone days when each publishing house had a soccer team to play in a tournament. Happy the house with athlete authors! © Laurel Decher, 2018.

World Championship-Level Book Formatting

This book, titled simply S, by Doug Dorst and J.J. Adams, is the designer’s ultimate formatting dream. *cough* There are guides about how to read this book with notes and accessories but there was no guide for putting it together.

This book might seem like the ultimate argument for a print book, but there are ebook versions. (My head hurts thinking about it!)

If the German translation is 10 to 35% longer than the English original, that must have made the hand-lettered notes challenging:

Printed book with marginal notes in two ink colors and formatted handwritten lists, postcards and other papers tucked in strategically.
Your mission should you accept it: Make the German translation, probably longer, fit into exactly the same space on every page. Include two colors of hand-written notes in the margins and all kinds of crazily formatted postcards, shopping lists, and dials. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

The book I want to read next: Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod.

The subtitle sums it up: First Aid for German Problems. This book calls to me. For years, my relatives and friends have been using German in ways I never learned in class. This book promises to make everything clear–in a light-hearted way.

My city library lists an edition with over 700 pages. Yikes! That’s a lotta German grammar. But I’d really love to understand why my German relatives say things the way they do.

The title means: the dative case is the death of the genitive case. A grammar murder mystery? I know–it sounds deadly–oops!

[If you’re wondering: English sort of has these “cases” but we’re not as serious about them. Dativ is somewhat like what we call indirect objects: I gave it to him. Genitiv is somewhat like using apostrophes. The author’s book.]

author and book cover photo with a bright green list of German grammar tips in entertaining language
This book is the one I want to read first after the tour. I saw it on the author photo wall–book covers are up in the hallways too. © Laurel Decher, 2018.

Kiepenheuer & Witsch’s decisions shaped the kind of publisher they have become. The tour made me think about the role of a publisher in society.

  • What books do you publish?
  • What is a “book?”
  • What will make readers want your books?
  • How will you show authors you value them?
  • What public conversations will you start or take part in?
  • Who’s going to try and shut you down?

Hope you enjoyed the tour as much as I did!


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A Behind-the-Scenes Tour of Public Libraries in Germany


Glass case with small plastic toys with signs showing the number of reading points to buy them.
Prizes for reading at the Cologne city library.

Gumball machine with foam earplugs in clear plastic bubbles.
Too noisy at the library? Get some foam earplugs. Librarians think of everything.

The city library of Cologne is a magical place! I got to go on a behind-the-scenes tour with volunteer librarians from my local library.

Six floors of books, music, DVD’s to make any library fan happy. There’s even a special support office that supplies books and support for blind readers.

Author Heinrich Böll’s archive is here (including his desk and bookshelves!)

The library also has a “Maker Space” that includes 3D printers, sewing machines, and recording studios. You can even borrow a guitar.

Here are a few findings from the German Library Statistics (DBS Deutsche Bibliotheksstatistik) to give you an overview of the German library system.

In 2015, just over 7600 public libraries participated in the survey that produces the German Library Statistics.

5,600 of the libraries were run solely by volunteers. The other 2,000 had full-time staff.

German libraries buy a lot of books. Collectively, the libraries had an acquisitions budget of 105 Million Euro.

German libraries get e-books from distributors. More than 1,000 German libraries contract for electronic media with distributors such as

German residents visit their libraries in person and online. 7 Million active library patrons visited 119 Million times. The survey warns that direct comparisons between states can’t be made, but the highest number of physical library visits per person seems to be in Hamburg (2.69), Bavaria (1.95), Bremen (1.86), Berlin (1.83), and Baden Württemberg (1.78). There were also 99 Million “virtual” library visits in 2015.

There’s a reason Germany is called the land of poets and thinkers. German libraries loaned 375,000 items (7,000 electronic). That’s an average of 4 and a half check-outs per German citizen.

E-books are growing, but print books still make up 76% of public library media. But the number of electronic loans has risen from 1.9% in 2013 to 4.5% in 2015.

It’s interesting that 2015 was the first year German university and scientific libraries loaned more electronic (53%) than physical media.

Virtual check-outs are even more important when you realize that 40% of public libraries are open for fewer than 20 hours per week.

German public libraries have lots of events. Public libraries threw more than 370,000 events in 2015. Almost half (47%) were for children and youth.

L-shaped low chairs made of soft foam that let you lean back to read. Can also tip chair over sideways to make an L-shaped table or bench.
These funky recliner chairs in the children’s section double as tables or benches.

If you’d like to know more about the Germany library system, you can download this brief data overview (English version). Or see the whole infographic-style poster here (Deutsch).

Did you find this interesting? Have a library anecdote or data tidbit to share? Feel free to comment.







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Writing Gratitude Countdown (2) The Gift of Permission

A stone face with a water spout mouth. Pink flowers behind.
Give yourself permission to spout off. Get writing! Rhöndorf, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

This is the second post in my Writing Gratitude Countdown. It’s my way of re-discovering the richness of the creative life. You can find the first post here: The Gift of Attention.

2. The Gift of Permission: the value of allowing yourself to create

Giving yourself permission to write is a way to counteract the doubts that come when we face a blank page:

Is it good? Am I a writer? Should I write more? Have I got a story here?

Permission is a cycle. It starts and ends with you, the writer, and in the middle are all kinds of readers.

a. You: Giving yourself permission to take time to learn, create, and revise.

The people who helped me most with permission are the ones closest to me. My husband takes on childcare so I can go to writing conferences or local writing groups. My children patiently traipse through research museums with me, take photos of settings, listen to garbled explanations, and put up with slapdash meals because the creativity was all used up by the time we got to food.

When other people make sacrifices for your dream, it’s the most tangible kind of permission there is. Thank you darling family!

b. Readers: Friends who read books agree that what you’ve written sounds like a “real” story.

At the beginning of the writing life, it’s hard to find other writers. The closest you can come are people who read a lot of books. They have taste and experience.

Sometimes the most encouraging people won’t be your “target audience” that is, they don’t read the kinds of books you’re trying to write. Don’t forget to value them.

Our dear neighbor Rebecca told me once that she didn’t like novels because she didn’t enjoy reading about the conflict between good and evil. But because she was a reader and valued books of all kinds, she still encouraged me to write. I still miss her.

Other friends have promised me that they will read or buy my book when it comes out even though their personal and professional interests are in totally different areas. It’s a special vote of confidence.

Librarians and teachers are a special category of experienced readers. I hope you have many special ones in your writing life!

c. Writers: Other people who write make it all seem normal.

My husband’s cousin is a talented furniture maker. He knows all kinds of people who makes things with their hands. (He put in our kitchen–Thanks, Matthias! We enjoy it!)

I’ve been writing for a while and I have so many writer friends I can’t list you all! It’s natural and wonderful. Thank you writer friends!

It’s fun to “talk shop” when you’re learning a new skill. Comparing tools, asking for opinions, and practicing getting the words down together can be a blast. An afternoon of writing prompts at a local coffee-shop, a day-long local workshop, or book festival can re-charge the writer batteries.

Watch your local newspaper and library bulletin boards to see what writers in your neighborhood are up to. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

If you’re still looking for your own set of writers, you might enjoy: Six Tips to Find Your Online Writing Community and my round-up of middle grade writing communities: Writers Working Together: 8 Things We Can Do Better Together.

(More about my current critique partners is coming in a later post, so stay tuned!)

d. Authors: Published writers (or any writers ahead of us on the path) share insight into the whole writing and publishing path. Secret handshakes are also a kind of permission.

It’s always an honor when someone who does something well treats your early attempts with respect. Susan Gilbert-Collins is a published novelist (Starting from Scratch) and much more experienced writer than I am. I’m so very grateful for her generosity. She read my “trunk novel” graciously and I’ve lost count of the number of times she has read and praised my middle grade work-in-progress. Thanks a million, Susan! I’m looking forward to your next novel!!

Tracy Barrett is the author of 22 books, including Anna of Byzantium. and a brand-new The Song of Orpheus: the Greatest Greek Myths You’ve Never Heard. She’s also an active and generous member of SCBWI. (If you write children’s books and want to find like-minded people, visit the SCBWI website and extensive discussion forums.) Tracy gave me a personal critique at an SCBWI Germany & Austria workshop and I’m still referring to her notes. Thanks, Tracy!

PitchWars is a classic example of authors giving back to the writing community. Author mentors coach mentees through an extensive 3-month revision and then help them connect to a stunning list of literary agents. The generous Brenda Drake (Thief of Lies) has been organizing this amazing growth opportunity for writers since 2012. Thank you Brenda Drake!

Author Michelle Hauck (Grudging) runs several contests, including the New Agent Contest. I won the chance for a mentor to get my query and first 250 words in good shape. My mentor was the wickedly smart and amazingly tactful author, Wade Albert White (The Adventurer’s Guide to Successful Escapes). Thanks Michelle Hauck! Thanks Wade White!

e. Agents and Editors: People who can assess writing for its qualities and marketability.

The first time a real live agent or editor seriously listens to your pitch or reads your query while you’re sitting there is amazing. I’ll never forget watching the classy Meredith Bernstein consider my written pitch at a conference years ago or her hand-written comment on my manuscript: “You deserve time and attention.” Now maybe she writes that on other people’s manuscripts–I have no idea. She gave me written permission to write and to persevere. Thank you Meredith Bernstein!

f. Reviewers: People who assess published work for its qualities and marketability.

Here we’re back to experienced readers. I don’t have any reviewers (Yet ;)) but I review books I enjoy and try to nudge them towards friends who’ll also enjoy them.

g. Readers: People who want to read the next thing we write.

Seth Godin coined the term permission marketing and explains it better than I can. People who voluntarily give their e-mail addresses in exchange for finding out when your next book is coming out give you the ultimate permission.

They want to read things you haven’t even written yet. They are inviting you to write something new. Thank you so much to all my e-mail subscribers! It’s an honor to have each and every one of you!

h. You: Giving yourself permission to try something new.

And that brings you back to the blank page where you need to give yourself permission all over again.

Happy writing!

So that’s my second installment of gratitude for my writing journey. (You can find the first post here: The Gift of Attention.) More to come! If you’d like to share about people who gave you permission to write, please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your story!


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What do gardens, libraries and exploring have in common?

Tree like a cathedral, with flying buttress sort of trunks. Huge canopy of leaves and the trunks more than twice the height of a person.
Fantastic tree in the botanical garden. Orto Botanico, Palermo, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Planting a tree in Palermo a few hundred years ago means a gigantic tree is still living today. A botanical garden is a living library and so is a zoo, an art museum, or a national park.

These storehouses of genetic variability are important because today’s shortcoming may be the key to success in another era. A library works the same way: the ideas and stories in books are passed on to the next generation and they make new stories of their own.

A book is a kind of seed that grows into someone’s life and becomes what they make and do in their lives. Each library leads to the next and reading in one library might mean writing a book for another. In the same way, planting one garden makes seeds for the next.

Malcolm Gladwell’s THE TIPPING POINT applies epidemiology to the transmission of ideas. A epidemiologic causal chain describes the path of an outbreak: a reservoir to a portal of exit to a mode of transmission to a portal of entry to a susceptible host.

You break the chain in as many places as possible to prevent disease. Or connect as many links as possible to spread ideas.

Libraries, gardens, art museums, and forests are all idea reservoirs. When we explore the world around us in these places, we are susceptible hosts.

What matters to me is the way both libraries and gardens illustrate God’s generosity and the abundance in our lives. Scarcity has no place in a garden or in a library. Tragedies may destroy them–drought, fire, water damage, flooding, war–but gardens and libraries are a kind of sharing that can always be started again. Once they begin, they multiply.

In an unfamiliar place, I orient myself by sticking to the main path. I gradually extend my boundaries so I see new things, but still know where I am.

I make forays. My husband tends to surround a new place by going all around the edge.

I explore books in a causal chain, finding the ones connected to the ones I’ve already enjoyed. I’m not sure it matters how we explore. Only that we do.

Why do reservoirs matter so much? We need them to grow. To become someone better than the old you? Maybe. I’ve always valued the ability to surprise people with unexpected skills because they didn’t see how long it took you to learn them. Rising out of obscurity can be so entertaining.

But for me, Patrick O’Brian’s famous line from his Aubrey–Maturin series: “There’s not a moment to be lost” expresses the value of our lives. Our explorations of the huge, amazing, varied world bring us more than self-improvement. Our discoveries, the seeds we plant, the books we read and write, as well as the people we love, make a difference for the future.

What will you explore today?

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7 Reasons Why “There’s not a moment to be lost”

Patrick O’Brian’s sea adventure novel, MASTER AND COMMANDER, is an action-packed story about the friendship between two very different men.

Jack Aubrey is an ambitious Captain in the Royal Navy and Stephen Maturin is the ship’s physician and a devoted naturalist.

Stephen’s nirvana is anteaters, platypuses, or a rare liana. He’s always longing for a few days to explore an exotic shore.

But, the tide turns, the wind comes up, and Jack tells him: “There is not a moment to be lost.” Stephen looks longingly at shore, but he’s swept away to the opposite side of the ocean. Another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity disappears over the horizon.

Sometimes the wind fails. The two friends retreat to Jack’s cabin and play duets on their violin and cello until the doldrums are over.

A few years ago, I crossed the ocean—by plane—to visit the British Library. The many floors of the open stacks are filled with books, white like Oreo filling, and just as delicious.

The Sir John Ritbalt Gallery houses the Treasures of the British Library.

I saw Jane Austen’s lap desk and her steady, even handwriting; Shakespeare’s scripts, written without any flourishes; Thomas Hardy’s revisions, and Handel’s closely-written music scores. You can scroll through some of them here.

What did all of these writers and composers have in common? Their handwriting was small, even, and consistent, as if they were sawing wood, driving across Nebraska, or crossing the ocean in a 19th century frigate.

  1. The creative journey is long. You can’t dawdle or rush. You have to pace yourself.

But all this industry, this dedicated effort, makes you wonder why anyone would work this hard to make something no one wanted, yet. Sheer stubbornness?

Back to the library for answers.

Jane Austen folded her manuscripts in quarters so she could tuck away her work if disturbed while working. I don’t think it was shyness or insecurity, because the Gallery’s folded manuscript is PERSUASION: Austen’s last novel, not her first. Outside help is dangerous until the story finds its shape.

2. Before an imagined story is fixed on the page, it is indescribably fragile.

But that still doesn’t answer why people do these things. What makes the pursuit worth it?

Jason Fried’s REWORK says inspiration is perishable. If we don’t capture what we see, embark on the adventure, plant the garden, or record the music, it will disappear behind the horizon.

Snowflake Bentley explains why he kept making photographs of snowflakes: “I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.”

3. The payoff is when beauty takes us out of ourselves.

This is why using your imagination is so addictive. It’s restful and exhausting. It uses everything we have and immerses us completely in the other.

The common question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” is really asking

“How do you get beauty to visit you?”

There are two answers:

4. Inspiration is everywhere. Those things you recognize, that give you shocks or thrills or chills, that’s your beauty.

In CROSSING UNMARKED SNOW, William Stafford writes:
And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are
why you are in the world.

5. I have no idea–but be ready. Always carry a pen and paper.

Inspiration isn’t under our control. Ringo Starr must have been struck unexpectedly, because he wrote the lyrics to “It’s been a hard day’s night” on the back of his son’s 1st birthday card.

6. We bear witness by our continued efforts that there is something worth seeing.

Handel’s manuscript book is full from edge to edge. He worked steadily until he created THE MESSIAH. Snowflake Bentley went out in every snowstorm. Jane Austen’s quartos must have been convenient for whipping out work when she had unexpected moments to write.

If we want treasures collected in the Sir John Ritbalt Gallery, we have to DO THE WORK.

Persistence and steady labor work well. Until the day comes when the muse gives you something much better than you are capable of. Just because the muse visits you once, doesn’t mean she’s coming back.

As Elizabeth Gilbert points out, the muse isn’t under your control and you’re not to blame if it goes away again.

7. Sometimes the wind fails. Once you do your best work, you have a choice: stop working or start as a beginner all over again.

We make art and seek discoveries in the world around us out of a desire to be moved out of ourselves and a desire to share what we are with others. A story about a friendship between very different people, like Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey, can be the seed of many friendships. A story is a created experience, but it’s also a question: “Can you see it?”

Beauty is as ephemeral as life. We need our whole lives to find our way through or around the obstacles that separate us.

What we make is imperfect, but we have a chance at butterflies and lightning bolts. Keep your nets open. Keep your pen moving. Capture the snowflakes.

As Captain Aubrey says: “There is not a moment to be lost.”

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Check it out: more evidence for the power of libraries

Vending machine for mystery novels from the city library in Cologne. Big red box with computer screen and door with window to get book.
A mystery novel “vending” machine for the city library of Cologne in an underground station. © Jan Decher, 2016.

On a recent trip to Cologne, I was surprised by this machine in the Neumarkt underground station. It lets library patrons check out and return mysteries and thrillers on their daily commute, 24 hours a day.

You gotta love librarians. They’re always thinking up some new way to share books.


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Noblesse oblige, libraries, trees, and cyberbullying prevention

Castle with towers and moat and red and white patterned shutters. Burg Satzvey, Germany.
What can you do with your heritage? Noblesse oblige for the modern age. Burg Satzvey, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Yesterday, I visited a nearby village and strolled through the public part of the castle grounds of the lovely Burg Satzvey. It was built in the early 1300’s and now hosts jousting and other medieval-sounding shows for the entertainment of the populace. Half-timbered houses cluster around the castle and a large church stands just up the hill.

How do you decide what to do with a castle, if you inherit one? In medieval times, the castle protected the village folk and probably provided a secure marketplace for trading. The size of the modern parking lot and the shops (now closed for the winter) inside the castle say that some things don’t change. Using your inheritance in this way probably has pros and cons. We also saw a bench securely chained down in front of a village house. The tourists around here must be eager for souvenirs.

But the noble family could have made a different choice: they could have left the castle to fall down into a romantic ruin. For example, the abandoned vineyards on the Mosel are called “Brazils” because so many vintners left the area for warmer climes.

One person’s decision can influence a whole village.

My own experience is that people move around much more in the United States. Many people volunteer and serve their communities in all kinds of ways. Some give to their communities in large-scale ways. Andrew Carnegie gave us libraries. I just found a new book I want to read about him.

Wangari Maathai of Kenya planted a tree, and another and another, and eventually won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Read about her story in the picture book PLANTING THE TREES OF KENYA.

Or what about teen Trisha Prabhu’s app to prevent cyberbullying? Listen to her TED talk here.

We’re sometimes quick to dismiss our own experiences and education. Burg Satzvey gave me two questions for myself that I pass on to you:

  1. What is our heritage and how will we choose to build on it?
  2. What moves us enough to take a first small step?


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Half a Library: 6 Libraries That Changed My Life

Librarian with hand on bookcase full of books in a new library room with table.
A new library is born. Hard-working librarian who made a half a library into a whole.

In 1775, James Boswell wrote, “A man will turn over half a library to make one book.” I’ve turned over half a dozen libraries in the service of my current work-in-progress, but library fever started much earlier. After all, where does anyone get the idea to write a book in the first place?

It all starts when you get a library card. I got mine as soon as I could write my first and last name in shaky capital letters. My family name had 9 letters, so it required some study.

The first library I remember vividly was in my elementary school. If I close my eyes, I see the tables and chairs, the built-in bookcases, the expanse of carpet and the steel knob you had to touch, after crossing the carpet, to get out of the library. I learned that the price of reading was shocking, but I paid it willingly, again and again.

The second library was in my Junior High School. Alphabetical fiction covered three walls and branched out into freestanding bookcases. I started with Joan Aiken’s MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE, Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON, Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING. . . and worked my way around. The school was overcrowded, troubled with drugs, and plagued by mashed potato shortages. Some days, we ate gravy for lunch. I didn’t mind the gravy, but the other things made me search for, and find, refuge in the library.

The third important library in my life was at the University of Utah. A friend had gotten a job, that paid money, to shelve books.

This was for me.

I filled the job application with volunteer orchestra ‘experience,’ hoping to suggest reliability. The gentle interviewer hired me because I’d rescued cassettes from our family tape recorder on long car trips. In the Audio-Visual Department, I played records and videotapes for people ten hours a week. A side effect came in the form of a dozen roses from a mysterious admirer at carrel #6. The only thing I knew about him—judging from the orange hair on his records—he had a cat. Libraries are full of people to meet.

In my fourth library, the Charles Babbage Institute, I met the inventor of the first hand-held calculator. The Institute needed a graduate student to transcribe an oral history (basically a recorded interview with the questions taken out) for Curt Herzstark. His name describes him perfectly: Herz and stark mean heart + strong.

Imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, he somehow got permission to invent things “after hours.” In his Austrian accent, he described the invention of his calculator. He talked about a calculator in the shape of a glorified pepper mill, ten hours a week, for a trimester or more. His voice stopped when I took the headphones off, but I felt the Buchenwald atmosphere for hours afterwards.

The fifth library to capture my imagination is the one belonging to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. They have 900 illuminated manuscripts from 300 B.C. to the 19th century. That’s a library. I washed my hands, checked my book bag at the door and promised to use nothing but pencil while I was in the room.

In return, I touched five books that were 1000 years old or more. The corners were soft and wrinkled—like a piece of leather that has been bent back and forth too many times—where the thumbs of the monks must have fit. They probably dripped tallow on them.

In exchange for writing my whole name and enduring the shock of a library door, I found a refuge, got a dozen roses, visited a concentration camp and the 11th century. That library card really paid off.

The sixth library is where it gets interesting. My husband researches bats and other small mammals in West Africa. A few years ago, his work took him to an isolated village in Sierra Leone with no school or library.

Friends have been generous with books of all kinds. In my husband’s office, there was—literally–half a library. The other half has grown over the years. The local field-biologist-turned-librarian built shelves to hold the books and put up a roof to shelter the readers.

Now the village has a little library. How long before some reader turns half of it over and writes a brand-new book?

I can’t wait to check it out.

Young people reading books at a library table in a one-room library in Sierra Leone.
What will come out of this library?


Boswell, James. LIFE OF JOHNSON. New York:Oxford University Press, Inc. (Oxford World’s Classic Paperback). 1998, pg. 613.

This essay originally appeared in the January 2, 2009 issue of catapult magazine under the title “Half a Library.” The archives don’t seem to work.