Win a copy of The Crystal Lair

From April 18 until April 25, I'll be giving away three copies of The Crystal Lair, Book 2 in the Inventor-in-Training series. If you haven't yet read the second installment of Angus's and Ivy's adventures, or if you'd like to give a copy to your favorite science-loving teen, here's your chance to get it for free.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Crystal Lair by D.M. Darroch

The Crystal Lair

by D.M. Darroch

Giveaway ends April 25, 2017.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

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Hammock Days

We in the Pacific Northwest have been enjoying an early summer. It’s late May, and children are wearing shorts, pools are being uncovered, and June blooms are erupting in gardens. My nose tells me that mine is not the only husband who has begun grilling dinner nightly. This is fairly noteworthy because in the Seattle area it is understood that you cannot count on sunshine and warmth until Independence Day at the earliest.But the sun is out, the temperature is pleasant, so why wait to hang the hammock?

See the boy in the hammock?

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See the book the boy is reading?

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Oh, did I forget to mention that Cyborgia was published today?

That’s right: The third book in the Inventor-in-Training series is now available for your reading and lounging pleasure in paperback format. So stoke that barbecue, dip your toes in the pool, hang out in the hammock, and find out what Angus and Ivy have gotten up to lately.

That’s what I intend to do, as soon as that boy gets out of my seat.

The Fourth Set of Ears

In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes about the importance of having one ideal reader. It’s my favorite passage in a book full of hundreds of compelling passages about the craft, because I’m fortunate to have one such ideal reader.

My son.

His are the fourth set of ears to hear the rough draft of my work. I first time I read the draft aloud—to catch glaring errors my eyes don’t see, to listen to the cadence of the language, and to ensure that the dialogue rings true—three sets of ears hear it: my own and those of my cats, General and Olivia.

The cats’ critiques are useless, though.

Not my son’s. His fourth set of ears listens to my second draft. My son has no problem telling me straight that a chapter is boring, hilarious, or creepy. He is as honest and unflinching a critic as you’d be lucky to meet. If his eyes glaze over, my next few days are spent in rewrites. When he begs me for “Just one more chapter”, I know I’m on to something.

And when my book is finally ready for the eyes of my editor, the boy who owns those fourth set of ears gives me celebratory presents.

The fourth set of ears gave me this skull after I’d finished The Pirate’s Booty.

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The fourth set of ears gave me this tiger after I’d finished The Crystal Lair.

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The fourth set of ears has been listening to readings of the third book in the Inventor-in-Training series. A few rewrites are in order, but he’s been asking for “one more chapter of your creepy book”, so perhaps it’s nearly time to send it to the editor.

I’m hoping for another present soon.

The Loneliness of the Spider

spiderSpring has finally arrived, and I’ve had the windows open to welcome the air into my winter-stuffy home. So I wasn’t surprised to see the tiny spider scrambling across my bathroom floor this morning. I reached out to squish it and was struck with sympathy. Yes, you read that right.

Sympathy.

One spider. A truly small one. Certainly not long hatched from its egg. All alone.

Ants are always leaving the safety of their anthills to search their environs for food. They help each other drag large morsels back to their hills. They work together to care for their young. They join together to battle other ant colonies and predators who would decimate their communal home. I wonder if they mourn the ants that don’t return from a day of foraging. The ants who were stepped on, eaten by a larger bug, drowned in a sprinkler’s spray.

Bees live in colonies, too. Do the homebodies miss the drones that are caught in spider webs or lost forever inside windows? Scientists tell us that swatted hornets send out help-me pheromones to their friends and family. Bluebottle flies buzz around together. Gnats and mosquitoes annoy us in swarms. Everyone knows that if you find one cockroach, there are at least a hundred more hiding close by.

But what about the lonely spider? She lives entirely alone. She is feared and loathed in equal measure. She is the monster of the bug world: hunting, luring, and gobbling those that cross her path. She doesn’t know her family, she has no BFF, and she lives to kill and kills to live. After her lifetime of murder, she eats her mate, lays her hundreds of eggs, and dies. Her babies hatch and begin their lonely lives. And everyone hates them. Is there any creature besides the bird that is happy to see a spider? And let’s face it, the bird would be just as happy to see a beetle or an earthworm.

Even gardeners like me who are glad to see the spider eating pests in the vegetable garden are disgusted by them when they appear inside the house.

I considered the lonely little spider racing frantically across my bathroom floor. She was searching desperately for a dark corner in which to hide. Nobody loved her. Her mother and father were already dead. She would live alone. My heart was moved with pity.

And then I squished her.

Letter to Santa

Santa-Claus-Pics-0316 (300x225)Dear Santa, Thank you for your continued generosity. However, you needn't bring any presents for me this year.

Three days before Christmas, and this writer's present has already arrived.

Ever since a little book called The Pirate's Booty made its debut to the world via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and any indie bookstore willing to take a chance on it, the writer known to you as D.M. Darroch has suffered bouts of stomach pain, nervous insomnia, and hair-whitening anxiety. Truth be told, much of that was due to my battle with this Word Press blogging technology, but a very substantial portion was typical of newly published writers everywhere.

These are the words that go through my head on any given day:

1) Who do I think I am, forcing this drivel on the world? 2) He/She only said he/she liked it because he/she is my friend. 3) Darn it! Found another typo! 4) No one cares, because my story is simply not that interesting.

My husband often tells me he can't imagine what it must be like, living inside my neurotic head. It's a busy place, I tell him. A Grand Central Station of ever-changing emotions and self-doubt run rampant.

But tonight the happy train has arrived, dropping off a wonderful present in the form of a glowing review from Irene F. Starkehaus at the Illinois Review. Seriously, read this:

"The Pirate's Booty – Inventor in Training is kind of a refreshing change of pace...demands a slightly higher reading comprehension level and introduces scientifically challenging vocabulary so that the average seventh grader will need to keep a dictionary handy for quick reference – this is what good Young Adult books should demand of our children...

Angus's parents are my favorite part of this book because they are the complete reverse of that contemporary stereotype of parenting readers too often encounter in American pop culture. The Clarks utterly lack the dysfunctional skill set that we see is a requirement in modern YA literature. The first thing the reader will notice is that Angus's parents aren't bumbling, fumbling idiots and that will hit like a breath of fresh air for any adult who has grown weary of the literary eye roll that lives in the heart of most über cool YA."

So you see, Santa, I don't need anything else. But feel free to drop by for some cookies. The gingerbread is especially delicious this year.

Growing Up Snowy

When you grow up snowy in a place where it’s cold and blowy outside for months, you learn a few things.

You learn the signs of frostbite. When you grow up snowy, you learn how to remove the white stuff from a driveway in the quickest way possible. You learn how to make hot cocoa and maybe, if you have a patient, knowledgeable adult by your side, you learn how to knit sweaters, wool socks, and mittens.

One of the most important skills my siblings and I learned growing up snowy in western New York was how to coexist peacefully in a home that grew smaller with each passing snow day.

People who grow up snowy instinctively begin squirrelling away essentials as the leaves turn. Every autumn, my mother stocked her pantry with nonperishable dried and canned goods. She knew winter would bring blizzards, and, sooner or later, our family would be housebound. My father stacked a large woodpile every fall and kept a store of batteries, candles, and oil for lanterns. My parents were nothing if not prepared for the inevitable bad weather.

Wise woman that she is, my mother also gathered a supply of crayons, paper, clay, puzzles, and board games. And books. A lot of books. Library books, hand-me-down books, thrift shop books, Weekly Reader books, store-bought books.

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Mom knew that an engaged, reading child is a quiet, happy child. She had three children. Better to be stuck inside four shrinking walls with three quiet, happy children than with three bickering hellions. When we got tired of making crafts and assembling puzzles, and when the mere sight of one another’s faces raised our hackles, we clamored for books.

My brother pored over the Guinness Book of World Records and books about automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles. He read books that diagrammed the inner workings of toilets, engines, and light bulbs. He flipped through cookbooks and attempted several recipes in my mother’s spotless kitchen.

My sister enjoyed historical fiction and nonfiction as well as Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. As she grew older, she reached for Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. The longer the book, the better she liked it.

My literary tastes were varied. I would read anything that found its way into my hands, but in the winter I was partial to fantasy, adventure, and science fiction. Fantastical worlds made easier my escape from the family togetherness forced upon us by the cold.

The winter that the boxed sets of both J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were deposited beneath our Christmas tree is the sparkliest in my memory. The anticipation of a book not yet read, the smell of the freshly printed page, the excitement of being the first reader to crease the binding—multiplied by eleven (the Tolkien set included The Hobbit)—returns to me whenever I look at the sets, now on my son’s bookshelf decades later.

Children who grow up snowy, who must shovel sidewalks and driveways every winter day, who survive long stretches of time cooped up with their siblings, and who have parents who surround them with stories and words and books, are among the luckiest kids in the world. I know. I was one of them.

Obligation 4: Daydream

Do you daydream? I do. I admit it. I was that kid with her head in the clouds, too wrapped up in her own imagination to see the giant mud puddle she was about to land face first in. I was able to focus in school—I always loved learning new things—but I lived for weekends and summers when I could read, write, and draw to my heart’s content.

I grew up, went to college and graduate school, landed one job and then another. To the naked eye, I look like your standard, no-nonsense, serious-minded adult. But that’s all a front. I’m really not. I’m a dreamer.

Dreamers get lost inside their own heads. We boil water on the stove, and then step outside for just one minute to look at a flower we want to paint, and return to the stench of melting Teflon. We file records or enter information into databases, then nearly die of fright when a coworker says, “Hello”, because we are secretly far away in an adventure story of our own creation. We miss due dates of assignments while we contemplate the Lego structure we are going to build after school.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, lecturer, and poet

Don’t get me wrong. We need to attend to today’s business. We must get the job done, complete our homework, meet the project deadline, and fulfill our commitments. And we will. But we dreamers need some quiet time tucked into our rush-rush lives. We don’t want to have every waking hour scheduled. We need time for our dreams to fill our heads with ideas, solutions, and characters. We need time to practice our knitting, guitar riffs, and paint strokes. We need time to try something new, fall on our faces, and then try something different.

Today’s dreamer may be tomorrow’s great inventor, sculptor, musician, painter, civil rights activist, or teacher. Do you think Thomas Edison, Alexander Calder, Scott Joplin, Grandma Moses, Susan B. Anthony, and Anne Sullivan dreamed? We all know Martin Luther King, Jr. did. The distracted child you are frustrated with today might be dreaming of a vaccine for cancer. She might be solving environmental problems that will save our Earth. He could be our next Ralph Lauren or Ralph Waldo Emerson.

We need to play hard, explore freely, and dream hugely. And we must encourage our kids to do so also.

Do you daydream? Feel free to admit it.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)

Obligation 3: Use The Language

I’m a writer. It goes without saying that I love words. In fact, I’m a bit of a word geek. On a tough writing day, when the words simply won’t come, I lose time flipping through my dog-eared copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. It’s been with me since my freshman year of college. I scroll through my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and learn about the etymology of words. Sometimes one silly-sounding word can spark inspiration and save me from the dreaded writer’s block. At the very least, I’ve taken the opportunity to build up my vocabulary. My husband is not a writer, but he loves words too. He is the king of ridiculous puns. You know the type: the ones that produce groans from adults and eye rolls from children.

He has instituted a game our family often plays when we’re on a boring road trip or waiting in an insufferably long line. You’ve probably got some version of it in your household, too. We call it “A Book Never Written.” We try to outdo each other by pairing a fictitious book title with a descriptive author name. When it’s your turn you say something along the lines of, “A book never written. My Life of Crime, by Rob Berry.”  (That was my son’s.) At first, we take turns. As the game gets going, my husband and son simply shout out their book titles and author names while I sit silently, searching my brain for something clever to add. I’m not very good at this game.

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Another word game our family enjoys is that timeless classic, Scrabble®. My husband and I used to bribe our son to play it with us, well, most board games actually. He prefers computer games. But that’s fodder for a different post. Back to Scrabble. My son entered his inappropriate potty talk phase, which I’m eagerly awaiting the end of, and nothing was more hilarious to him than watching me react to the word “fart”. Like the manipulative mother I am, I have found a way to turn this disgusting stage in my son’s development to my own advantage. We now play a version of the game I call “Inappropriate Scrabble”. I know the title needs some work. Feel free to send me your suggestions.

The rules of the game are quite similar to the original Scrabble, with a few exceptions. You get points for inappropriate words if they are listed in the dictionary. (No swear words or offensive names are ever allowed.) You get points for normal words, but lose a bit of respect from your fellow players. If you use a polite version of an inappropriate word, you get double points. Playing the word “fart”, for example, will earn you 7 points. Play the word “flatulence” though, and you earn 15 points times 2. And that’s not even accounting for specially marked spaces. Instead of “puke”, why not try “vomitus” or “retch”? Playing the polite word “toilet” will earn you a grand total of 18 points, but with a little extra effort and different letters, “commode” will earn you 28 points.

If our children are going to torment us with potty talk anyway, let’s take the opportunity to build up their vocabularies.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)

Obligation 2: Read For Pleasure

I am a glutton. I’ve never had much of a problem with my weight. I enjoy food, cookies especially, but I mostly know when to stop.

My great weakness, the thing I must have, the thing I sometimes sacrifice my family, my sleep, my sanity for, is a good book.

I’ve been known to burn dinner because I couldn’t put a book down long enough to pay attention. The timer is beeping away in the kitchen, but I can’t pull myself out of Narnia, Middle Earth, or Alagaesia. Potatoes boiling all over the stove, biscotti turning black, the smoke alarm wailing.

I am a glutton.

I remember discovering Diana Gabaldon’s Scottish time-travel saga. I began devouring her words with Outlander, continued on to Dragonfly in Amber, and became very nasty for several weeks until my library finally had Voyager in stock. Don’t even get me started about having to wait until she wrote the next installment.

I have sacrificed my sleep more often than I care to recall. Dragging myself through a day, trying not to be cranky with my family, waiting for the night so I can do it all over again.

I am a glutton.

When my son was a wee one, completely dependent on me, requiring my constant attention every moment of the day and much of the night as well, I looked forward to the weekends. My husband was at home, on duty with baby, and I could disappear mentally for a few hours to read. The first four books of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire were my constant companions for one long, rainy winter. Monday through Friday: doting, completely aware mother. Saturday and Sunday: book glutton.

Mea culpa family. This is the true confession of a glutton.

As my son grew older, we’d share afternoons full of books. We’d curl up on the same sofa and read a book together, or sit on neighboring chairs and read our separate books. We’d share funny or exciting passages from the books we were enjoying. We’d replenish our supply before it got too low. When you’re a glutton, you prepare for famine.

Now, my son is seldom without a book. He drops them in the bathtub, forgets them in the backyard, litters the floor of our family car with them. He reads them over, and over, and over again.

Parents, be careful what you model. Your children may become book gluttons too.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)

Obligation 1: Read Aloud To Your Kids

My son is growing up, and I don’t always handle it well. I look back on his early years with rose-colored glasses, I’m sure. Time has a marvelous way of erasing memories of tantrums and replacing them with images of familial perfection.

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One of my perfect, rosy memories is the quiet time I spent reading to my son. In the beginning I’d read to him before settling him down for a nap or bedtime. He was always a busy, physical, moving boy, and reading books together calmed his active muscles. He would stop moving to focus on the sound of my voice, the words I was reading, the story I was telling. Often I’d read aloud a book I was enjoying, not a children’s book, and his eyes would drop closed as I softly crooned the writer’s prose.

As he grew older, we began reading in the late morning after my chores were done. We would read in the late afternoon when he’d just woken from a nap. We’d read after a warm bath, right before bedtime. He munched his way through board books, and I rejoiced when he graduated to ripping the pages of only every third picture book. Gifts of books from family and friends were essential in those days, as were large quantities of scotch tape.

He began requesting personal favorites. We memorized Golden Books about bulldozers and backhoes. His favorites were different from mine. I never got tired of Ox-Cart Man, Make Way for Ducklings, or The Big Snow. He wanted to hear all about the latest exploits of Rosemary Wells’s McDuff and laughed uncontrollably at the antics of Alexandra Day’s Carl. We shared affection for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

I owe Ms. Wells and Ms. Day, Virginia Lee Burton, Donald Hall, Robert McCloskey, Berta and Elmer Hader, and so many other children’s book authors such gratitude. They brought laughter and excitement to my son’s eyes. They were his first excursion into the vast, exciting world of words. They sparked his imagination and instilled in him a love of reading. And they gave me such wonderful, rosy memories of quiet mornings, afternoons, and evenings cuddled together with my son and a pile of books.

(This post was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s lecture at The Reading Agency.)

The Obligations

Author Neil Gaiman recently gave a lecture at The Reading Agency. He spoke about the importance of libraries and reading, and specifically how essential to our human society it is to foster the love of reading in our children. You can read his lecture here. As often happens to me when I read something powerful, Mr. Gaiman’s lecture got me to thinking about my own experience. I agree wholeheartedly with him that we need to preserve and support our public libraries.

I visit my local library several times a month to prevent withdrawal symptoms. They have what I need and a steady supply of it: books.

During the years I homeschooled my son, our favorite excursion was our weekly trip to the library. It beat out park days, museum visits, even a day at the zoo. Our book bag was never large enough to carry all the treasures we discovered. At first all of our books were borrowed on my library card. But at the tender age of six, my son insisted he have his own card. From then on, he had no difficulty approaching the librarian with a request for a specific book.

These days he mostly asks his school librarian for suggestions, but on the occasional lazy Saturday he’ll ask me to take him to our local public library. He browses the stacks for books his school doesn’t have and considers himself a renegade if he borrows a (gasp) book for adults.

Back to Mr. Gaiman’s lecture. He spoke about the “obligations all of us—as readers, as writers, as citizens” have. He says we are obligated to read for pleasure, in both public and private places. He says we must read aloud to our kids and use our language. He says we have an obligation to use our imaginations. And here’s me again, thinking about my own experience. Do I agree that these are meaningful responsibilities? Yes, I do. And I’ll reflect on them in upcoming posts.