The Top of the Refrigerator: A Writing Metaphor

How long has it been since you cleaned the top of your refrigerator?

Refrigerators are the least standard of modern appliances, but most are at least 70 inches tall— taller than most of us who are likely to be cleaning the tops of them.

Naturally, then, the tops of refrigerators make a great place to toss things— either decorative items, or things you know you’ll need but not right now.

Top of Fridge 2016The first thing to catch the eye on top of mine is a butter churn. Let me explain. My kitchen cabinets hold an assortment of antique and decorative items: cobalt blue canisters, wooden and pottery bowls, antique cups and a coffee pot. But the churn I used to make butter when my father bought a cow so I could learn to milk and make butter when I first moved to the ranch at nine years old is too tall for the cupboards. It’s on the refrigerator along with a basket into which my partner and I toss our receipts until one of us adds them up so we can divide our household bills evenly. Neither of us are tall enough to see the top of the refrigerator in the normal course of our daily activities. The cupboard over the refrigerator holds serving dishes I seldom use, but want to keep.

Out of sight, out of mind, runs an old saying.

However, recently I stepped up on a chair to reach a wooden bowl that was just right for serving some homemade rolls. Somehow I managed not to look too closely at the top of the refrigerator as I opened the cupboard, but I put a hand on the refrigerator top to steady myself.

Eeeuw! My hand slid in a greasy black film.

I was raised by a mother who believed a clean house superseded all other needs. I fought against her narrow views, but they affected me; once I’ve seen the top of the refrigerator, I’m doomed to clean it. I grabbed my spray bottle of the handy-dandy homemade cleaner for greasy sinks (recipe follows) and sprayed it liberally over the gunk.

As I scrubbed, it occurred to me that I had been having a hard time starting anything new the past few weeks. I’m immersed in the third or fourth or tenth draft of a book manuscript that requires daily attention as I work through its twists and turns. I need to pay attention to it, but I also need a daily lift of a new idea to inspire me.

So: how is the top of a refrigerator likely to inspire writing?

That refrigerator is in the center of our daily activities. We open it for juice and cream in the morning, for sandwich fixings at noon and to find onions for soup and limes for gin and tonics in the evening. And yet we seldom look at the top. In fact, knowing what we know, housewives may deliberately avoid looking.

Similarly, we may be searching the distance for writing ideas when we need to be focusing more closely.

The next morning, I followed my usual routine: got up, let the dogs out and back in, and settled in bed with coffee, my journal, and a book. When I opened the journal I realized that it had been days since I actually wrote anything besides the date, the weather, and what I needed to do that day, along with plans for lunch.

So on this morning I looked out the west window and noticed that the Black Hills were beginning to turn pink as the first light that would become sunrise shot up and over the house and fell on their tops. I described the almost imperceptible way the hills begin to change from black to peach-colored, a glow that seems to come from within, like a blush. As the light greCoyote 4 2015--11-26w I wrote about knowing that coyotes were working at their dawn hunts, slipping down the draws, sniffing at the rabbit holes and vole trails, and heading for their dens. I couldn’t see the coyotes, but knowing they are there reminds me that this grassland is healthy and its animals busy pursuing normal lives because I raise cattle here, rather than building Walmarts or trailer parks. And those coyotes are part of the work force that keeps the grasslands uncluttered and the air pure for the folks who are zipping up and down that highway visible out my window. Most of those folks live in one of the subdivisions popping up on former ranch land around me. They want to live in the country, but they don’t understand how dependent they are on ranchers, cows, coyotes, rattlesnakes and other prairie dwellers for the amenities that drew them out here.

Cora Corner 2016

My eyes fell on my “Grandmother Corner,” where I have framed five of my Grandma Cora Hey’s doilies, examples of her art, along with a bookmark made of needle-tatted lace from a friend and a tiny piece of Hmong embroidery that would have fascinated my grandmother. On the adjoining wall is a collage I created and framed, including photographs of Grandmother at her wedding, clowning with my mother, feeding her chickens, and reading in her favorite chair. Arranged around these photos are a handkerchief she prized, her biggest crochet hook, a buttonhook, a curling iron and a ring she treasured. Looking closely at these items, and listing them, reminded me of my grandmother’s smile, her wisdom, her hug.

LMH Coras items framed 2014--11-18 smallFifteen minutes of observation had provided me with a couple of paragraphs of writing that led me to a variety of thoughts about the world outside my bedroom, as well as reminding me of a woman I haven’t written nearly enough about.

I put down the journal and began to pet one dog while massaging the other one’s back with my feet. Before long I’d found and removed a couple of stickers, earning myself a growl, a reminder I need to check the dogs daily for stickers, parasites and good health. Though they sleep with me, it’s easy to ignore minor problems, distracted by their playfulness.

“Out of sight, out of mind.”

What is so close to you that you haven’t seen it lately?

And perhaps what have you carefully avoided looking at?

Try this tomorrow: sit down with your journal and look. Describe what you see. Tell your journal what it means to you. See where these thoughts may lead. My reflections here total slightly more than a thousand words, from fifteen minutes of paying attention.

And clean the top of your refrigerator. Here’s my homemade sink disinfectant, made from a recipe I found online; it cuts grease and kills most germs. I use it on my sink, stove, and counters too.

2 Tablespoons dish soap
1 Cup vinegar
2 Tablespoon lemon juice

Put this in an 18-ounce spray bottle and fill with water. Spray happily!


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Keeping Journals in an Electronic Age

In the same way that it’s more satisfying to eat food you’ve grown on your own ground and cooked with your own hands, writing from your own experiences can do more than create publishable words.

Writers who find material in their own experiences, beliefs and tastes learn to know themselves more thoroughly and can translate that information into knowledge of other people. Insight into others is one of the elements that makes writing universal, and thus appealing to a wide variety of readers.

Journals 2016--1-22One way to discover the evidence that leads to writing with broad appeal is to use a journal, writing in it anything and everything that interests you at the moment. Eventually, you will need to sort and winnow the collection of observations, but the more you collect, the more material you will have from which to select the best.

I’ve kept journals since I was nine years old when my mother married a rancher and we moved to the ranch. My journals included my first attempts to write, the beginning of my understanding that I might be a writer, and all the evidence of the things I learned about myself as a child and teenager and young woman.

During my first marriage, I left my husband for a couple of months to sort out my thoughts— and took my journal along. When my husband and I got back together, “to give our marriage another chance,” (that didn’t work, since his behavior didn’t change), I told him everything important that had happened while we’d been apart.

But he didn’t trust me, so he read my most recent journal.

My short-sighted response was to burn all the journals I had kept until that time, from the ages of nine until I was 24 years old.

My action was hasty and foolish, the most destructive thing I’ve ever done to my own writing in 70 years of making mistakes. For a long time I did not understand just how much harm my own action had done to me.

His reading my journals meant that he had violated not only my privacy, but the trust between us. I realized that just as I couldn’t trust him not to read my private papers, I couldn’t trust him to keep his promises. (I shouldn’t have needed to learn that lesson again; he had already violated our marriage vows several times.)

But more importantly, burning my journals meant I did not believe I deserved privacy. Burning those pages and pages of my own life meant that I thought so little of myself that I could add to his hurting me by damaging myself. I burned journals that he’d never seen and would never have read. I burned journals that were my record of my own childhood. Now, nearly 50 years later, I remind myself how foolish I was whenever I’m tempted to make harsh judgments on the actions of others.

Somehow I believed that destroying my most private self would help my marriage, a belief of such incredible stupidity that I still have a hard time admitting it, and believing that I did it.

Burning those journals was erasing much of my childhood from my mind. When I read the accounts of people who lose their memories as the result of injury, I know how they feel. I lost all the smells and sights and thoughts and emotions that I’d recorded— and I did this to myself. I can’t even blame my husband, because my action was not a logical response to his behavior. I should have left him immediately, taking my journals with me. Almost any action I might have taken at that time would have been better for my writing, and therefore for my soul, than burning my journals.

Your journals— and your letters, your photographs, and perhaps today your tweets and blogs— are your record of the experiences that will create your writing. They are the evidence from which your writing will arise and your life will find resolution. No matter who you are, or who you become, you need to be able to write fully and honestly. You can’t do that if someone may read your material without your permission.

LMHcomputer2011My journals were in paper books, so I could have put them in a locked box and kept them secure from any prying eyes.

What effect will it have on writers if they keep journals online, in a blog or other form that strangers as well as friends may read?

Many people seem to be using online writing forums the way I use my paper journal: to work out thoughts and ideas. Writing online is so easy; fire up the computer and pour those glib words out. Often one can receive positive comments, or clicks that indicate “like” within seconds.

But when I write in my journal, it’s in my hands, so it’s impossible to read without my permission. If your journal is online, anyone may read what you write, no matter how wise or foolish it may be. FaceBook, Twitter, public blogs, and other “social media” I probably haven’t even heard of make it possible for anyone to express their own views about your words.

Will someone’s anger or misunderstanding about your written words damage your faith in yourself, or cause you to drop an idea that might have taken you to another dimension?

Will the ease of writing and the joy of quickly seeing your words available to the public make you settle for facile thoughts? Will you write what you think people want to see in order to get those approving clicks of “Like”?

My first expression of an opinion is rarely my last thought on the subject. I shoot off my mouth in my journal as blithely as a drunk in a bar, without thought of the consequences. And I can do that, because no one is reading. Like the drunk in the bar, will I get punched in the snoot if I make stupid statements online?

LMHwrites2012In my journal, I can take time to carefully winnow through all the possible nuances of my opinion, considering my prejudices, my preferences, and all the other matters that lead me to express what I really think, and I need not consider the opinions of others.

The first draft of anything is highly unlikely to be the final draft. When I try to perfect my thoughts, I write and rethink and revise— that is re-vision — the piece dozens of times. If my first draft appeared in print and gained positive comments, would I bother to improve it? Or would I settle for writing, and thinking, that was inferior to my best?

Furthermore, to publish online is to publish legally. Your copyright is probably protected, but there is some uncertainty about copyright laws online. And some people don’t know that copyright is likely protected for online utterances, and believe they have the right to adopt your words as their own. Online theft may be harder to define, and harder to stop, than plagiarism.

In addition, publication online is giving your words to the public— the equivalent of putting them in print. I find it much harder to revise something that’s in black and white on a page, even if no one else has seen it. Once it’s gone out into the world and been read by others, it no longer seems like something I can change.

You cannot know what might be important in your journal. An experience you have recorded but that’s too painful to read this year might provide insight you need to survive, or material for a novel, in five years. But if you have posted that story online, and read reactions to it from others, will you lose its freshness, lose the impulse to revise and revise until you discover precisely what its meaning is to you?

And if someone compliments you on the writing, will you decide the writing is satisfactory, even if it does not say precisely what you mean?

Writing even, or perhaps especially, in the middle of terrible grief, pain, excitement or terror, can provide you with valuable information on yourself and your life at a later time. If your process of quiet contemplation over meaning is diverted or lost among the comments of others, might you miss the steps in development you need to take as a human being, and as a writer? I’m afraid writers who keep their journals online, open to the public, will lose important parts of themselves in the garbled, facile, momentary reactions of others who have access. Online, you have no control over who reads your work or what their reactions might be. By the time you have revised multiple times and your work is placed in a print medium, you’ve had time to consider possible responses to it, to protect yourself with reasoning from some of the extreme viewpoints.

Before posting online, consider writing in your own paper journal, or in a private computer file. Then refine the work either by retyping it into a computer file or by revising it. Once you have confidence in what you have written, consider carefully when and how to expose it to public comment. Does it belong on a page dedicated to a particular interest group where you might gain insights from readers’ responses? Perhaps you can learn from the experience, as some writers do when working with a group of sympathetic writers.

The key to understanding your life may lie in the thoughts you record in your journals as you live your life one day at a time. In order for those journals to be useful to you as a writer, you must own and control them. If you publish them online, you may lose that ownership in a variety of ways. “Life,” said Soren Kierkegaard, “can only be understood backward, but we must live it forward.”


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

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© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom


Rendezvous Stories: Crossing Dead Indian Pass

Rendezvous Stories: Crossing Dead Indian Pass

Humans can learn to like anything, that’s why we are such a successful species. . . . You can drop humans anywhere and they’ll thrive– only the rat does as well.
–– Jeannette Desor, Smithsonian, 1986.

The gravel road over Dead Indian Pass, northwest of Cody, Wyoming, hadn’t improved in the year since we’d driven the route. As usual, we were stuck in a cloud of dust behind a slow-moving vehicle. Ahead of us, an attractive blonde woman driving a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read, “You haven’t lived until you’ve loved a sheepherder.”

And as usual, we stopped on the top of the pass to collect a few geodes, just for the metaphor; we never tired of splitting them to see the crystals inside. We drummed into Mike’s head that life is like that: a boring old rock on the outside, full of glory. On the bare summit, wind-whipped, we peered ahead to see the Sunlight Basin Bridge and the plateau where we always camped. Joked that we couldn’t see the grizzlies, though. Then we climbed back in the van for the last leg of the trip.

Mike spotted the first crude red tipi drawn on particle board, tied to a tree where the trail left the gravel. The meadow where we’d rendezvoused for several years lay empty, but we spotted the canvas walls of several hand-dug privies among the trees. We set up our tipi as far as we could get from the parking lot. Though we were the only ones there, we hustled anyway. The rules said vehicles had to be moved out of camp within fifteen minutes, and we wanted to stay in practice. We were organized enough so that when other club members started pulling in, we were already set up. We helped pile camping gear on selected camp sites, making sure everyone observed the custom.

RDV LaVeta CO camp

For several years, we’d belonged to this Wyoming muzzle-loading club, mostly so we could attend the annual rendezvous. The muzzle-loaders brought together widely divergent people who enjoyed pretending they were living in 1840.

We were early, but the Forest Service was ready for us. Next to the parking area was a stack of bottoms from blue fifty-gallon drums. The whole plateau is a potential archaeological site, so the boys in green don’t want us digging there; we build our fires on the metal shields on top of the ground. The rangers would visit us in a day or two to be sure we were obeying the rules, and to remind us that the grizzlies in the area might be more aggressive than usual, because this is where rogue bears that rip up property or tourists in Yellowstone Park are released.

By the time the rangers dropped by, we’d have the ugly blue tin camouflaged by piles of rocks made into elaborate fire pits. And they knew from experience we’d leave the camp site cleaner than we found it, removing every trace of our camps, even scattering rocks and leftover firewood among the surrounding trees.

When buckskinners–- the preferred term for those of us who shoot the old front-stuffer rifles and enjoy sleeping in tipis–- began asking for permits to camp in wilderness, forest officials were uncooperative. After all, they’d just civilized the wilderness, kicked out all the Indians, the backwoods trappers and squatters who actually dared to cut down trees and kill wildlife. Why should they admit a bunch of modern folks who think it’s fun to create an imitation of the old days by camping as far as possible from highways and towns? Several generations of mountain men, and some hefty damage deposits, convinced them that we were among the best of the “multiple users” of the woods.

The original rendezvous occurred during the autumn days of the 1840s and 1850s in the West, when mountain men, who had spent the winter trapping beaver, mink, and other animals with valuable pelts, brought their hides to a meeting with merchants, somewhere in the Western mountains. The trappers rarely saw cash, but they could sell or trade their winter’s catch for supplies for the coming year. Many of the rules and customs of rendezvous come directly from the culture of the mountain man, and the cultures preceding it, that of the American Indians. However, the originals, after months alone in deep snow, drank and partied and probably left their camps a mess. We modern folks behave better– usually.

RDV tipi interior
[Storage chests inside the tipi.]
In camp, we set up canvas tipis, moving in our bedrolls, wooden chests containing (and concealing) our food and clothing, and our muzzle-loading weapons, knives, and tomahawks. We cook in iron pots over open fires, dressing and living as much as possible as we would have in the mountains in the last century. Every tipi is furnished with various comforts, depending on the inclination and budget of the family who owns it. We generally use our storage chests to sit on, padding them with old blankets or animal hides.

The first rule of buckskinning is to prohibit anything that couldn’t have existed in an original mountain man camp, including vehicles, back-packing tents, ice chests and cold beer, tennis shoes, denim clothing and electronic gadgets. The second rule of buckskinning is to resist authority and disobey rules.

A few fanatics–- and George and I were often among them– actually adhere to this rule, designating their rendezvous as “primitive” to make their intentions clear. Still, even the primitive buckskinners cheat on the rules. White women, for example, were not part of the original buckskinning experience, but most modern practitioners are married. And most enjoy beer. So a primitive camp almost guarantees a challenging camping experience along with a few good arguments.

Meanwhile, most people who call themselves buckskinners observe more practical customs. Gadgets that didn’t exist in 1840, or wouldn’t have gotten to the Western prairie rendezvous, are kept covered in camp. So most of us have a flashlight for midnight trips to the privy, keep it hidden in a sleeping bag until it’s needed, and then carry it inconspicuously. Cameras, are usually covered with a piece of leather or carried in a cloth bag. People who want beer hide a cooler under a blanket, and pour the beer into a large tin cup to carry it around camp.

Residence in buckskinning camps is usually limited to members of a particular club, or is by invitation only. That way the group can enforce rules that make the camp more comfortable and safer, or rules that apply to a specific region or group of people.

Still, the general public is often fascinated by the idea of fur-trapping and rendezvous, and because the camps are so authentic and photogenic, people want to see us. Some rendezvous organizers allow properly-dressed visitors to gawk on specific days during the gathering. This club had never permitted such tourists, because so many folks who wanted to see what we were doing had no idea how to behave politely in camp.

Since tipis have canvas doors, for example, one can’t knock for admittance. Polite behavior requires that a visitor scratch on the canvas, and wait for an invitation to come in. Folks who walk through an open door risk being shot, disemboweled, or tossed clear over the campfire by large and irate buckskinners who may be doing something for which he prefers seclusion in what is, after all, the privacy of their own home–- even if it is canvas. We especially enjoyed our rendezvous with this group because we never had to worry about people walking into our tipi as if it were a public place or coming home to find someone inside snooping through our trunks and supplies–- events we recalled from more open camps.

Because we are a long way from medical help and law enforcement, modern buckskinners have devised methods for dealing with emergencies. Doctors and nurses discreetly identify themselves to camp leaders, so they can be summoned in an emergency. But self-sufficiency is encouraged; if you haven’t sliced an artery, you’re expected to bandage the wound yourself.

RDV thieves warning
[Booshway warning to thieves.]
Each camp has a “booshway,” buckskinner slang for the original French word for the guy in charge, the bourgeois. He is as much of a leader as these independent cusses will allow; he’s usually forceful and organized, but smart enough to lead by example and discussion. He appoints dog soldiers, residents who act as an informal police force, and whose job is to keep order, as we understand and interpret it, for the length of the rendezvous.

One general rule is that what you do in the privacy of your own lodge is no one else’s business, even if it’s against the law of the communities outside ours. Conversely, if your actions will harm the temporary community, it becomes the business of all of us. Action is taken by consensus, and the dog soldiers act as a police force. This standard allows for more liberty in behavior than one finds in the outer society, but because most buckskinners bring their families, the temporary village is still a lot quieter and safer than the average city street.

Though the people who come together in camp for a few days or weeks may know little of each other, we share a love of this serious game of dressing-up. Late at night, as the central fire dims to coals, while a whiskey jug slowly moves from hand to hand, we talk about what we would do if the rest of civilization vanished while we were here. Most of us declare that we would remain in the woods, because we’re considerably better prepared to do so than the majority of people who visit any wilderness area. And we already are a community.

I vividly remember my first experience in a buckskinning camp, when we camped with the Yellowstone Mountain Men for the first time.

Near dusk, George drove his old blue van into a circle of tipis near Cody, Wyoming. As he backed up to a level spot where we could erect our lodge, we realized the entire camp population– men, women and children– were sitting in a half-circle by a campfire. They’d been visiting until we drove up. Now they were watching us.

Even before George and I were married, I’d entered enthusiastically into his idea of a vacation. After burning down his first lodge on a winter trapping expedition with his friend Jerry, George had just bought a new tipi. He had never set it up, and we had never set up a tipi together. We’d camped together a couple of times in a leanto, but this was a new experience.

George set up the central tripod of pine poles and started pulling the rest of the thirty-foot lodge poles off the van’s carrier while I unloaded sleeping bags and clothing trunks.

Indian Tipi by LaubinWhen we bumped into each other behind the van, he whispered, “Where’s the book? Can’t remember which pole comes next.”

He meant the buckskinner’s bible, The Indian Tipi: Its History, Construction, and Use, published in 1971 by Reginald and Gladys Laubin, still the primary source for anyone who wants to live correctly in a Plains Indian lodge. I scrambled inside to look for it as a voice boomed from the campfire, “Hey pilgrim! Next pole is number four. Page 45.”

“Oh God,” George whispered, “Don’t embarrass me.”

“Watch your language, dear; we’re still on our honeymoon. I haven’t embarrassed you yet.”

I was exaggerating; in that September of 1979 we’d been married seven months, after five years of loving, splitting up, and getting together again. I was enthusiastically learning how to be a real buckskinner, a person who sincerely longs to have been an adult when the most elite profession in the West was trapping beaver to be made into hats for Englishmen. Since we can’t travel back in time, “skinners” gather in camps where we pretend it’s 1840. George often wondered if, transported to the past with all his gear, he’d have survived. Maybe, but most modern buckskinners wouldn’t.

Laughing and talking, the group called out advice while we raised the poles and leaned them into the central tripod. When George picked up the eighteen-foot canvas lodge and carried it to the lift pole, I heard someone mutter, “That pilgrim’s a big boy, bigger than Snort.” Unrolling the lodge, George whispered, “I think I hurt myself.”

“Shall we tell them now?” a child yelled.

“Not yet,” a man yelled back.

“Tell us what?” I yelled.

“Stand on the bottom,” George snapped, “while I lift it.”

A man yelled, “Hey pilgrim! Don’t forget to tie those poles first!” while several people tried to shush him.

Another called, “Way the wind blows down this cut you’d be back in South Dakota before morning.”

RDV tipi rope

“Sumbitch,” George mumbled, “I’ve never forgot that before.” He grabbed the rope dangling from the tripod and began to walk around the outside of the leaning poles.

“Run, pilgrim!” everybody bellowed. “Bad medicine to walk!” Somebody banged a drum and the group clapped in rhythm as George lumbered in a circle, breathing hard. His trachea narrowed by radiation treatments for Hodgkins’ disease, he had trouble sucking enough thin mountain air to move very fast.

A tall man with a black beard took the rope and tied it off, saying, “I’m Snort,” as he helped George hoist the lift pole. By the time I located the bag of lacing pins, strangers swarmed around us, carrying gear inside. Men pounded stakes, while women showed me how to fasten the liner inside.

A hawk-nosed man with brown eyes said, “I’m Fred. We do that to everybody the first time they come to camp. If they can’t take a little hoorawin’, they shouldn’t stay here. You shoulda heard my wife, Mimi. ‘Fred! Where’s the god-damn book?’ A nice Catholic girl like her!” He shook my hand. “I used to be a cop in Philadelphia.”

An imposing woman with a friendly grin hugged him, “Fred broke me of being nice long before I met this crew.”

That night, we sat by the campfire for hours, singing and passing everyone’s personal jug. I accidentally passed my bottle of good Scotch and it came back empty. After that, I took peach brandy to rendezvous; no one else would drink the stuff. Teenagers giggled as they sampled jugs, but I noticed that after they’d had one or two illicit sips, all the jugs began to detour around their group. That may have been the first time I witnessed unspoken cooperation among buckskinners.

The moon had gone down and I was thinking of my warm sleeping bag by the time I heard brush crackle just outside the fire’s light. A heavy man with a bushy beard towered at the edge of the woods like a tired grizzly. A broad-brimmed hat shadowed his face. His buckskin shirt was grimy, and his knees showed through holes in his leather pants; his belt suspended a huge skinning knife.

“Charley’s here!” someone yelled, handing him a gallon jug of whiskey. Several voices called, “Ashley’s Men!”

“Can’t a man at least wet his whistle?” he boomed, raising the crock to his lips and swallowing twice. He wiped his mustache on the back of his hand and grinned, showing a black gap two teeth wide. “That’s better.”

He sipped once more and his back straightened. In a clear tenor voice, brandishing the jug in rhythm with the trembling of the fringe on his shirt, he began to sing. Song after song pealed like clear flame into the trees. He took a swig from the jug at every pause. In the middle of a line, he folded and rolled into the center of the circle. One leg landed across a smoldering log.

“George,” I whispered. “Do something.”

“That’s Charley; they won’t let him burn.” When his leather pants started to smoke, Fred and Snort rolled him out of the fire and arranged him face down under a tree. They were playing cards on his back, broader than the average card table, when George and I stood up to leave.

Fred walked us to our lodge. “Don’t worry about Charley,” he said. “Sober, he’s fine and he sings like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When he’s drunk, he’s a gentleman.” He tilted his head, thinking. “But don’t mention hippies or ask him to sing peace songs.”


This was my introduction to rendezvous, and our first camp with the Yellowstone Mountain Men, a muzzle-loading rifle club whose membership was by invitation only. George hadn’t told me much about what to expect, but he had mentioned the unique fellowships which develop in a week-long rendezvous. Crazy Dog and Iron Woman, for example, may have camped near one another for years, sharing fires and passing a whiskey jug back and forth as they told stories in the shelter of darkness. They overhear family feuds through the tipi walls. Yet they may never know each other’s full name, or the job each holds in the outside world, or see each other anywhere but at rendezvous.

“None of that outside stuff matters.” George said. “I only care what people do in camp. I don’t want to sleep next to people who dump gasoline on a slow fire.”

Having lived through the era of free love and seen several pitiable attempts at communal living, I was skeptical of everything involved in buckskinning, starting with the macho attitude of most of the men involved. But I enjoyed the quiet so much, the freedom from telephones, television and other noisy interruptions, that I swore to adapt.

During those years, club members often drove over Dead Indian Pass to camp in a level meadow in Sunlight Basin on the shoulder of a mountain in the Shoshone National Forest northwest of Cody, Wyoming. Scattered boulders furnished materials for seats and fire pits, but newcomers were warned about the steep cliff that circled half the camp. On many nights, someone who had hunted these mountains would tell tales at the campfire about hunters who blundered over the precipice, insisting the corpses were found the next spring gnawed by grizzlies.

RDV Linda washing Mikes face
[Linda washing Mike’s face.]
In camp, I began each morning by walking through sunflowers to the cliff’s edge. Eyes closed, I’d inhale the scents soaring up from the valley bottom, feeling the abyss vibrate sound and color. My skin felt the texture of the wind pushing me back even while the void before me beckoned. A little shaky, I’d sit down to consider that seduction. After finding me there several times, Michael began calling me Sunflower, and I adopted it as my camp name. I like to think I recall each moment of the time we spent in that place, not only because of its serene beauty but because those camps reinforced what I’d learned about the way an ideal community functions.

We went alone the first year, but after that, usually took George’s son Mike with us. As soon as we arrived in camp, we’d unload the gear, and send him to collect firewood while George took the van back to the parking lot. An unwritten rule required getting vehicles out of camp in a half hour and he obeyed it even if no one else was present.

While George staked the tipi cover, I turned our pile of supplies into a temporary home. I hid our modern sleeping bags under the buffalo robe so our feet pointed to the door, and placed food and clothing trunks around the edges of the circle for seats. I always left space by the door for dry kindling, and placed Mike’s tall trunk as a divider between his bed and ours. The lodge’s medicine bag hung on the rope at the lodge’s center, and I hummed as I hung the liner.

RDV tipi back sun
[The back of the tipi.]
A traditionalist, George decorated our lodge according to his vision, painting the bottom third deep blue for the sky, interrupted by a line of yellow circles representing the sun, moon and stars. The conical top was plain yellow. When we married, I added red dragonflies copied from petroglyphs near my grandmother’s ranch.

On our first evening in camp, we were sometimes too tired to dig a firepit and build a fire, so we ate sandwiches and went to bed early, sleeping past dawn the next day. Then George would dig the firepit outside, build a fire, and set coffee to boil. Then he’d come inside, and I’d wake to see him digging a smaller pit in the center of the lodge, so we could cook even during the usual afternoon thunderstorm.

By the time the coffee had boiled and we’d filled our cups, the camp was buzzing with kids playing and adults cooking breakfast. I kept making fresh coffee, knowing folks would be strolling past with empty cups, an established rite among ‘skinners who know each other, or want to.

About sixty of us usually settled around the central fire at night for the annual meeting to pay camp fees, explain the rules to newcomers, and catch up on the year’s news. Since most of us were seasoned buckskinners, the business meeting was short.

RDV tipi smoke flaps dragonflies
[The front of the tipi showing the dragonfly decorations.]
Then someone would snatch a blanket off a case of cheap fruit wine. “We soaked the labels off, so it’s potluck,” someone always announced, tossing the caps in the fire and passing the bottles into the circle. Jugs sloshing and winking in firelight, conversations surged and ebbed around children dozing in the shadows.

Despite the presence of the cheap wine, despite the fox hats and leaping firelight, the knives and tomahawks at every belt, the scene always reminded me of the way my neighbors visited around the long tables at annual community dinners during the county fair. They were armed too, but that fact only made the fellowship stronger; we knew we could count on one another.

#   #   #

Copyright 2008 Linda M. Hasselstrom


Rendezvous Stories: Afterword

Note that many of these rendezvous essays have quotations at the beginning, indicating that at one time I had the essay slated for inclusion in a particular collection of essays. I’d decided that a unifying factor for the essays would be succinct quotations at the beginning of each one, an epigraph directing the reader’s attention to some element of the story they might have missed. I had great fun finding terrific quotations from intelligent folks.

I still consider epigraphs a great way to introduce an essay, and they give the writer a chance to look at the broader implications of her work and try to match it with a pithy quote.

An explanation of Rendezvous Re-enactment from Land Circle

Rendezvous was the annual trappers’ meeting during the fur trade days [1824 – 1840]; a few days in summer when trappers brought in their pelts, were paid, and bought their year’s supplies. . . . The muzzle-loading weapons of that age, either cap and ball or flintlock, are still intriguing . . . In modern times, people interested in the weapons have extended that interest to the way of life of the mountain man, and instituted dozens of such rendezvous in the United States, Canada, Germany, and other countries. . . . Everyone’s objective is to reproduce, as nearly as possible, the look and feeling of a rendezvous camp of the period. A place is set aside for the primitive camp, with running water and firewood. Those who have authentic clothing but modern camping gear must camp in a spot reserved for modern tents and tin tipis: campers. “Pilgrims,” inexperienced participants or visitors, are sometimes allowed in camp if they make a serious attempt at dressing in period style.

The insistence on authentic attire and accouterments is not mere whim; the camp’s primitive look enhances photographs, paintings, and research, and adds to the enjoyment of people who truly live the period. The mood would be ruined by seeing someone in blue jeans, scorned by modern mountain men because Levi Strauss didn’t start making them until 1851. The rule keeps away folks who aren’t seriously interested; those who are will be treated with friendliness, and almost any buckskinner will take time to help a newcomer learn how to participate. When you put on buckskins or a long dress, you put on a different mood; . . . The whole tempo of the world changes.

— from Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
(Fulcrum Publishing, Golden CO; 1991; Anniversary Edition 2008)
excerpts taken from the chapter called “Rendezvous!”
pages 35 through 37 (Anniversary Edition)

For more information:
see the rendezvous page on


RDV colorful camp 1984


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota


© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

Cleaning the Stove

On that March day, I was in the kitchen of our old house in Cheyenne, Wyoming, starting lunch for myself and Jerry. He’d need to eat promptly when he got home so he could get back to work. I’d chopped and sautéed pieces of chicken and vegetables and added them to the soup pot. Every time I stepped to the stove to stir the soup, I tripped over Mac, our Westie, who liked to be at the center of the action.

I was having a second cup of coffee while I planned my day, and listening to the radio to find out the morning’s news. Once I got the soup mixed, I’d go back to my office and begin my day’s writing, letting it simmer and scent the house until noon.

Pouring coffee, I hear the news:
another shooting at another high school.

The Columbine shootings had already changed the way we see the world.

Isn’t it tragic, and significant, that the simple words “Columbine shootings” arouse in most readers some memory of that incident?

You might not recall details, but on April 20, 1999, two senior students entered Columbine High School in Colorado with bombs, explosive devices and weapons. They murdered 12 students and a teacher, and injured 21 others before committing suicide. Cheyenne is only two hours away from Columbine, Colorado, so many of our acquaintances with friends or relatives there were frantic for hours, worried for their safety.

Listening to the radio as I added carrots to the soup, I was too agitated to go to my work, or to sit down to listen.

Instead of sitting down to listen.
I fill a bowl with water that’s too hot.
At the stove, I wet the rag,
force myself not to flinch,
begin to wipe up grease.

The excited voices of the newscasters reminded me of being invited to a local high school to work with students on their writing not long after the Columbine shootings. Walking up the sidewalk toward the school’s main entrance. I noticed a tall, skinny boy slouching toward me. His head was bowed, his hands invisible inside the pockets of an ankle-length duster.

Half the high school boys in the town, which is home to Cheyenne Frontier Days, stalked along the streets looking like old-time gunfighters even on hot fall days. Still, as the youth turned toward the steps, one flap of the duster fell back, and I thought the edge of the coat looked extremely straight, as though a long rifle might be concealed inside it.

More than once in this Old West town
I’ve seen high school boys in dusters.
I’ve imagined how the coat swings
as he turns and fires, heard the screams,
could almost see the blood.

I gasped and hesitated, then hurried to follow him through the double doors. He walked past a gray-haired security guard who didn’t glance his way. But the man stepped forward, using his bulk to block my path, asked me my business and told me I had to check in at the office.

“Er—ah—did that kid look at all suspicious to you?” I asked.

The man glanced down the hall where the kid was just opening the door of a classroom.

“Oh, he’s OK. He’s always late. Attitude problem.”

I didn’t mention that perhaps the Columbine shooters had an attitude problem, too.


Stirring the soup, I inhaled its fresh homey scent as I listened to the radio blurt out the story of the Red Lake shootings. Outside the window, the dog was bouncing through the piles of snow in the back yard.

That morning’s shooting came to be known as the Red Lake massacre after the Indian Reservation in Minnesota on which it occurred. No doubt snow lay on the ground in Red Lake as well.

In Red Lake, a 16-year-old boy killed his grandfather, a tribal police officer, and the man’s girlfriend at the home they all shared. Then he took his grandfather’s police weapons and vest and drove the police vehicle to the senior high school where he had once been a student. There he shot and killed seven people including an unarmed security guard, a teacher and five students, and wounded five others. He was wounded when he exchanged gunfire with the police. He then committed suicide in an empty classroom.

Wiping the stove top beside
simmering chicken soup, I hear
more details: he’s killed ten people,
including his own grandfather,
a tribal cop.

I thought it likely that the boy’s parents had already abdicated their responsibilities in some way, and his grandfather was raising him. The facts about the shooting emerged slowly during the hour or so that I listened to the radio, imagining the scene, making mental notes.

His father killed himself
years ago.

Perhaps his grandfather was strict, and unhappy because the boy had dropped out of school.

Some commentator
mentions Prozac, already explaining
how this boy’s story
was seared with trouble,
burning into darkness.

Jerry and I no doubt discussed the news over lunch. After he went back to work, I turned the radio on again, thinking of the Indian people I’d known, the way families often expand to take in the troubled young. In some families, a whole generation was lost to alcohol, so grandparents are raising their children’s children. Often the grandparents seem younger, and the children more mature, than is typical. I pictured the grandfather as a patient man, but stern, hoping that his grandson’s life would be better than the life of the son who had killed himself. I’ve known several children of troubled families to go into social work, or police work, hoping to help others like themselves.

                                    Until today,
it might have gone another way.
Faced one day with some angry,
frightened kid, he might
have paused, remembering.
.                                    Until today.

But for this boy there would be no future. As the commentators chattered about the boy, interviewed survivors, and tried to explain the shootings, they cited alcoholism, drugs, poverty, gun laws; they talked about responsibility and blame and fear.

I had known that boy in a dozen different incarnations in schools where I’d worked. Thousands of sincere people work with students in a concerted effort to guide them into adulthood. Millions, possibly trillions, of dollars have been dumped into various schemes to prevent this kind of bloodshed. The best minds of the nation have talked, thought, written and pontificated about preventing school shootings.

In the immortal words of Chief Dan George in the movie Little Big Man, “Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Grease floats in the sink. I run
more hot water, squirt more soap.
A thousand miles away, I hold my hand
in water hotter than I can bear,
and clean
this stove.

I’m unlikely to be able to stop a particular slaughter. I hoped as I wrote the poem that it might inspire someone to keep trying to help those who are difficult to help.

Now, nearly eleven years after the Red Lake shootings, almost seventeen years after Columbine, about 70 percent of schools across the U.S. conduct drills designed to help students respond to shootings, a number that has risen from 53 percent in 2008. According to The Week, September 18, 2015, these training sessions are now almost as common as those conducted in most schools for natural disasters, which are practiced at 83 percent of schools. These distractions from a school’s normal function are part of the grim legacy of the boys I will not name, refusing them some small part of the fame they wanted.

We always hear the reports of such shootings, reported breathlessly and with on-the-spot enthusiasm from people who believe they are news. But we are unlikely to know how many people think of committing such actions and been stopped by the kindness or understanding of a teacher, a social worker, a police officer, a friend, a minister. We must not give up.


Cleaning the Stove

Pouring coffee, I hear the news:
another shooting at another high school.
Instead of sitting down to listen.
I fill a bowl with water that’s too hot.
At the stove, I wet the rag,
force myself not to flinch,
begin to wipe up grease.

More than once in this Old West town
I’ve seen high school boys in dusters.
I’ve imagined how the coat swings
as he turns and fires, heard the screams,
could almost see the blood.
Wiping the stove top beside
simmering chicken soup, I hear
more details: he’s killed ten people,
including his own grandfather,
a tribal cop. His father killed himself
years ago. Some commentator
mentions Prozac, already explaining
how this boy’s story
was seared with trouble,
burning into darkness.

                                    Until today,
it might have gone another way.
Faced one day with some angry,
frightened kid, he might
have paused, remembering.
.                                    Until today.

Grease floats in the sink. I run
more hot water, squirt more soap.
A thousand miles away, I hold my hand
in water hotter than I can bear,
and clean
this stove.

Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen, The Backwaters Press, 2011.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota


© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom


Writers Be Wary: Publishers and their Contracts       

Most writers, even if we begin writing primarily for ourselves, begin to dream of publication. So when someone finally offers us a book contract, we may be so excited we forget to be careful.

Be wise; plan ahead. Prepare yourself for that happy day by collecting information about the complexities of publishing before you see that first contract.

The first step should be to remind yourself that publishers are in business to make money; that aim does not always mean they are looking out for your interests.

Traditional publishing has changed greatly in the past decade, and many established publishers won’t risk publishing work by an untried writer. Your best chances of seeing your work in print are to work with an independent — “indie”– publisher or consider self-publishing. Both avenues can be very satisfying if you are careful to make informed choices, but both have particular dangers.

Publishing contracts vary so widely that it’s impossible in this short commentary to warn you against every possible infringement of your rights. Read carefully. Most importantly, if you don’t understand a contract provision, ask your prospective publisher– and seek independent information about that clause from a knowledgeable source, like a writers’ organization. If you prefer to consult an attorney, be careful to find one who specializes in copyright and publishing problems. Most attorneys do not study such matters, and you don’t want to pay their hourly fee while they research your problem.

Don’t sign anything you don’t understand. Remember: the publisher will always protect its interests, and that might not mean the same as protecting yours.


Questions to ask before signing a contract:

1. Does the publisher copyright for the author?

If the publisher copyrights the book in the publisher’s name, then it owns the copyright to your work. A legitimate publisher copyrights publications in the name of the author. Ask for samples of several recent books.

According to the most reliable source, the U.S. Copyright Office, ( the copyright notice should appear within the first few pages of the book and should contain all three of the following elements close together:

(1) The symbol © (letter C in a circle); the word “Copyright”; or the abbreviation “Copr.”

All forms of this word are acceptable, but some form of it must appear.

(2) The year of first publication.

If the work is a derivative work or a compilation incorporating previously published material, the year date of first publication of the derivative work or compilation is sufficient. Examples of derivative works are translations or dramatizations; an example of a compilation is an anthology.

(3) The name of the copyright owner, an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative designation of owner.

An example of the full copyright notice might read: © 2012 Jane Doe.

The name following the year date should be the author’s name, not the publisher’s name. If the publisher’s name appears here, the publisher owns the copyright in perpetuity and the author has lost the right to his or her own work. Some publishers either don’t know this, or want to hijack copyright. In addition, some organizations which provide grant funding for authors consider any work produced during the grant period as a “work for hire” and do not copyright for the author but for the organization. When applying for or accepting grant funds, be sure to determine whether you will own the copyright to any material written during the granting period.


2. Does the publisher register the copyright in the author’s name with the U.S. Copyright Office?

In the past, when a publisher accepted the author’s assignment of rights in a publishing contract, the publisher assumed responsibility for performing all the tasks associated with copyright, including preparing an appropriate copyright notice and including it in the published work. Then the publisher forwarded the required number of copies of the book to the Copyright Office, and with the appropriate paperwork to register the copyright. Later, the publisher might assist the author or the author’s heirs to renew copyright. All this was considered part of the publisher’s job because it protected both the author and the publisher against copyright infringement.

This is no longer the case, but registration remains important to the author. If your publisher does not register copyright for you with the U.S. Copyright Office, it’s essential that you do it yourself.

Chicago Manual of StyleThe most recent edition (16th) of The Chicago Manual of Style includes this passage:

4.49 Benefits of registration

Registration is not necessary to obtain a copyright (which exists in the work from the moment it is fixed in tangible form; see 4.3) or to ensure its validity. However, the prudent course is to register copyright because of the added protection registration affords. In cases of infringement, registration is a prerequisite to bringing suit unless the work was written by a non-US author and first published abroad. Registering at the time of publication avoids a scramble to register later if infringement is discovered. Moreover, if registration has been made within three months of publication, or before an infringement begins, the copyright owner, instead of going through the difficulties of proving actual damages, can sue for “statutory damages” (in effect, an award of damages based on equity rather than on proof of loss) and, most significantly, is eligible to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees. Publishers fearing prepublication piracy of books in development should also consider the “preregistration” procedure at the website of the United States Copyright Office.

To summarize: if your published work isn’t registered, you might have to spend considerably more money to defend your legal copyright if it is infringed, as well as paying all the attorney fees yourself.


Who’d want to steal poetry? you ask. In several instances, a candidate for an advanced degree in Creative Writing presented an entire work written by someone else as original, received the appropriate degree and was hired to teach on the basis of it. With printing so accessible now, it would be easy to put a new cover on someone’s book, add your name, and sell it yourself.

For more information, search online for “Plagiarism Cases” and be amazed.


3. Does the publisher place ISBN numbers on its books?

The ISBN, International Standard Book Number, is a 13-digit number that uniquely identifies books and book-like products published internationally. The purpose of the ISBN is to establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors. Each ISBN also identifies a specific publisher, and helps to identify and circulate books properly in the industry supply chain.

Beware unauthorized re-sellers of ISBNs, who may offer to purchase single ISBNs at special offer prices. This activity is a violation of the ISBN standard and of industry practice. A publisher with one of these re-assigned ISBNs will not be correctly identified as the publisher of record in Books In Print or any of the industry databases such as Barnes and Noble or Amazon or those of wholesalers such as Ingram. If you have questions, contact the US ISBN Agency for further advice.

The ISBN Agency assigns ISBNs at the direct request of publishers, e-book publishers, audio cassette and video producers, software producers and museums and associations with publishing programs. For more information, see


4. Does the publisher place bar codes on its books?

ISBN trioLook for a bar code on the back of the book. A bar code is a binary coding system consisting of varying widths of vertical black lines (called bars) and white spaces that when read by an optical scanner can be converted into machine language. Bars and spaces are just one of many “elements” that make up a bar code. Without a bar code, many wholesalers and distributors such as Amazon will not stock the book. Some wholesalers may put one on and charge the author for doing so. If this step has been omitted accidentally, it may be possible to apply labels with barcodes.


5. Has the publisher been accepted into the Cataloging in Publication (CIP) Program by the Library of Congress?

A Cataloging in Publication record (aka CIP data) is a bibliographic record prepared by the Library of Congress for a book that has not yet been published. When the book is published, the publisher includes the CIP data on the copyright page thereby facilitating book processing for libraries and book dealers. Every publisher/imprint must have already published a minimum of three titles by three different authors.  There is no charge for CIP processing. For more information, see


If an independent publisher does not have ISBNs, does not have CIP data, or has no bar code on the backs of the books, consider why not. The publisher may have published too few books to have explored these important steps. Or the publisher may be ignorant of the legal requirements and benefits of publishing your work, or perhaps does not take responsibility for selling the books published. Each of these steps makes it easier for libraries and bookstores to acquire the book, so your best interests will be served by a publisher who can provide these services.

If your book is a chapbook, or small volume and you expect to handle sales yourself, perhaps within a small regional area, you may not need an ISBN, CIP data or a bar code. But if you expect your book to sell to bookstores, libraries and a wider audience, consider your alternatives carefully before signing with a publisher who is ignorant of these benefits or unqualified for them.


6. How does the publisher distribute the books published?

ISBN numbers, CIP data and bar codes all contribute to better distribution, but the publisher should also have access to numerous major distributors, particularly Ingram, and others who sell online as well as market to bookstores and libraries. Ask for your publisher’s list and look for information on those distributors. Virtually all books can now be sold on Amazon, so check for the other possibilities.


How can you tell if your publisher is able to produce a quality book?

A major change in the publishing industry is that self-published books can now be listed on sites like Amazon, as well as sold in bookstores. Small and independent publishers have a long history of doing a good job of publishing books that larger publishers might not consider, but which are important in our history. However, some publishers may be new to the business and may know very little more than the author does about it. Anyone can learn to self-publish, and many sites exist that will walk you through the process attentively. You may not need a publisher.

Before deciding to publish with a small or independent publisher, consider some of the following and try to draw conclusions from the evidence offered by the publisher’s work.


— Is the publisher stable?

SFWA screen shotEven publishers with plenty of capital go broke fairly often. How long has your proposed publisher been in business? How many books has it published?

For an extended discussion of risks of signing up with a brand-new publisher, see this post from the Writer Beware blog, New Publishers: To Query or Not to Query.


— Is the publisher capable of producing high-quality books?

A publisher is responsible for overseeing the selection, production, marketing and distribution of new books. Many larger publishing companies require at least a BA in a related field, such as communication, English literature, or journalism, along with relevant work experience. Various colleges offer certificate programs in publishing that can range from two intensive weeks to 15-credit-hour courses, as students learn about editing, production, design and marketing. Emerson College offers a course that includes working on a business plan for their press or magazine.

Try to assess your publisher’s abilities. An independent publisher may not have an extensive educational background but still may be well informed about the responsibilities of the job. But all that’s necessary to become a publisher is to put up a website and call for submissions. The amateur publisher may have a great desire to publish good books, but lack the knowledge to do the job well. For an example of what this might mean to you, read “The Short Life and Strange Death of Entranced Publishing.”


— Does the publisher really intend to publish or is the supposed business a scam?

Traditional publishers, real publishers, invest in books. They are selective in their purchase of manuscripts, accepting books designed to enhance the reputation of the press. They pay for specific rights; larger publishers pay advances and royalties, and they promote their authors. Of course they hope to make a profit, but they take the risk that they will not, because they believe in the process.

A vanity publisher is one that requires the author to pay for some or all publishing costs. Sometimes the resulting book is so poorly produced as to be unsaleable. A little research can produce horror stories: a supposed publisher may take the author’s money but disappear without publishing. Some publishers have delivered unbound galley proofs, and when the authors read the contract, they discovered no specific language promising binding. Vanity publishers may pretend to be legitimate until the author has signed the contract and the payment is due. Read the fine print: the vanity publisher may offer “one-stop shopping,” promising to edit the book, design the cover, and publish the book– but in some cases the editing, the design, and even the ISBN number belong to the publisher, so that all profits accrue to the publisher instead of the author. The vanity publisher’s primary purpose is profit, so its services are usually priced far higher than those offered on the open market.

At every newspaper and publication for which I’ve worked, the official policy was to throw away books produced by vanity publishers without looking at them. Because the newspaper knew the press would publish anything for money, it would not review any of the books from the known vanity publishers.

Though vanity and subsidy publishers are often lumped together, some publishers operating on a subsidy basis negotiate costs with the author, accepting some of the costs but not all. A subsidy publisher may offer a package deal, wherein the author pays for some services, while the publisher pays for others. Thus a subsidy publisher may be legitimate, and may turn out decent quality work at a fair price.

Self-publishers do all the work themselves, pay all the expenses, and get 100% of the profits. They edit their own work, or hire an editor; design the book or hire a designer; hire a printer, and do every other step connected with turning a manuscript into a book.

Unfortunately, a writer’s eagerness to be published may make him or her gullible to publishing schemes. Writer Beware provides a distressingly long list of case studies of such scams; reading it can make you more aware of the language that can signal a scam. For the best discussion of the differences, see the Writer Beware site, which includes a list of the best-known vanity scammers.


— Can the publisher promote and sell the book as you expect?

Even if your publisher is legitimate and has good intentions, the limitations of a small budget may mean books don’t get promoted enough to reach buyers. How does your publisher promote your book?


— Does the publisher only sell online, but you want to see your book in stores? Does your publisher promote the books only on a website and social media? Bookstores have specific requirements for the books they accept for display and sale. They require a 40% discount on the retail price, and must be able to return unsold books, so costs of shipping or delivery must be factored into your arrangements. Some stores only accept books on consignment, paying only if the books sell; you might get all your books back in a month, slightly worn from being handled. Some publishers consider this all too much trouble; you might do better to handle local bookstore sales yourself.

Ask for samples of the publisher’s books. Then compare those books to those published by large and reputable publishers. Which book would you choose based on the book’s appearance?

Sometimes independent publishers set the books’ text with narrow margins to save paper, making the type look crowded. Some small publishers use odd types, difficult to read. Does the font chosen for the page numbers differ from the font used for the text? Does each book have an individual look or are they all similar? Both these situations may signal a book created online, not designed individually in a way that enhances your subject.


— Look at the covers of the publisher’s books. Are they readable and well-designed? Does the publisher have a cover artist or will you be required to furnish a cover? Does the cover fit the book’s mood and content? The cover is your first, and often your only, opportunity to impress a customer; it should be easy to read and informative as well as attractive.


— How much will your book cost the customer? Compare the price with that of similar titles. If your book is more expensive than books on similar topics, it may not sell.


— Ask for a clear accounting of what costs you will pay. (Look for information on Vanity publishing and Cooperative publishing to see if this publisher fits one of these profiles.)


— How much are royalties and when are they paid? Royalties can be confusing so seek information. Some print on net receipts or net margin, meaning that print and distribution costs are paid before your royalties. Royalties may be paid quarterly or yearly, but specifics should be included in your contract.


— Does the publisher answer your questions clearly without losing patience? Does he or she return phone calls and messages promptly and coherently? Does the publisher say he or she has made calls or sent emails that you did not get? How large is the publisher’s staff? When you telephone or email the publisher, who answers? Is the response professional? Is this a business or a weekend hobby?

You may not automatically decide to decline offers from a part-time publisher, or one with a small staff, but if publishing is not the primary business, or if the staff is small or inexperienced, you might encounter delays you did not expect.


— Look at the publisher’s website and other social media sites like Facebook. Are they easy to navigate? Is information clearly organized? When was the last update? What is the most recent publication?


— Study the comments from readers, book buyers and authors. Are they positive? Ask for contact information for several authors and ask privately how the publisher has treated them during the publishing experience. The publisher should be eager to provide you with this information.


— Does the potential publisher make extravagant claims for how many copies your books will sell and how much money you will make?

No matter who publishes your book, you will need to work hard at marketing to sell a substantial number of copies. The more visible you are– doing workshops, giving talks, appearing on media outlets– the more copies you are likely to sell.


— What is your author discount? Since you will have to work to sell your book anyway, you should not pay retail price for copies of your book that you purchase for resale.


— How long will it take to publish your book? Three to six months is usual and acceptable. Be sure delivery time is stated in the contract and that penalties exist for the publisher if the contract deadline is not met.


If you are happy with the answers to these questions, you may have found a publisher you can trust and with whom you can work. If not, keep looking, or consider self-publishing– and that means you must do more research.


Here are some reliable resources for learning more about publishing:


WritersLegalCompanionThe Writer’s Legal Companion by Brad Bunnin and Peter Beren: get the latest edition; this may be the best money you ever spend as a writer.


The Poets & Writers Guide to the Book Deal: again, get the latest edition; a download may be available. P&W is especially good on the definition of your rights as an author.


One of the best sites for general information about writers is the Science Fiction Writers’ Association’s  Writer Beware, which lists alerts for writers, names publishing scammers, provides information about provides information including case studies, editorial services, small and vanity presses, contracts, contests, agents and other relevant matters.


The website Keep Your Copyrights is written by Columbia Law School, and is packed with specific information. For example, the site provides copies of various kinds of contracts– literary, academic and so on– and rates them according to the advisability of signing them.


The Authors Guild:
If you are eligible to join, you can get information packets, legal services and other perks including dental insurance. Eligibility criteria include income of $5000 from writing during the past 18 months, publication by an “established U.S. book publisher,” or other requirements. The Authors Guild also offers associate membership with requirements that are less stringent. See this link for more information:


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota


© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom