39 Books to Place Beneath the Tree

Books make great gifts! Photo by NastyaSensei on Pexels.com

Whether you are looking for a book to read between now and then end of the year or a book to give as a gift, here are 39 books I highly recommend. I’ve culled these titles from the list of 185 books that I’ve read this year. They aren’t all new but many are.

Because much of my writing is for young readers, I’ve split the list into Books for Young Readers and Books for Adult Readers. That said, adults will enjoy many of the books on the first part of the list. I know I did.

The young readers list is further divided by age (picture book to young adult). The adult readers list is divided by genre.

Books for Young Readers

Picture Books:

Dandy by Ame Dyckman

Bruce’s Big Storm by Ryan Higgins

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan Higgins

Drawn Together by Minh Le

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom

Pies from Nowhere by Dee Romito

Leave It to Abigail by Barb Rosenstock

Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

When Jackie Saved Grand Central by Natasha Wing

Middle Grade:

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park

Young Adult:

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Books for Adult Readers


Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Echo in Onyx by Sharon Shinn

Echo in Emerald by Sharon Shinn

Echo in Amethyst by Sharon Shinn


The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Horror/Thriller (a lot more atmosphere than gore):

The Chill by Scott Carson

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

The Institute by Stephen King

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Violet by Scott Thomas

The Other People by C.J. Tudor


Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien

A Deadly Inside Scoop by Abby Collette

Flipped for Murder by Maddie Day

This Side of Murder by Anna Lee Huber

Scones and Scoundrels by Molly MacRae

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton


The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu

Hollywood Park by Mikell Jollett

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

The Splendid and the Vile by Eric Larson

The Golden Thread by Kassia St. Clair


Coffee and Crushes at the Cat Cafe by Kris Bock

Kittens and Kisses at the Cat Cafe by Kris Bock

If any of you have a book that you would like to recommend, be sure to add it in the comments below!


5 Ways to Recharge

Plague doctor

Last week I saw an article about 7 things to avoid doing when you are stressed. Honestly, I was a little surprised that people needed to be told not to drink to excess and spend days at a time in their pajamas. It seemed like it might be more beneficial to tell people what to do.

Check Something Off

It feels like a lot of 2020 has beeen pretty futile. You plan for a birthday and your area goes on lockdown. Vacations? Nope. When so much seems out of your control, check something off your to do list. We painted out patio roof supports. I’m also cleaning out various cabinets and cartons. Check, chunk, check.

Do Something Creative

Me? I like to do handwork. I made those afghan squares and the amigurumi plague doctor. Yeah, that seemed like a no-brainer in 2020. I have a friend who quilts. Another friend beads. My brother-in-law gardens.

Afghan squares

Spend Time with Friends

We may not be able to meet face-to-face but get together with your friends. This coming week, I’ve got a critique group meeting and a mystery group meeting. I’m looking forward to both. My son games online with his friends. Pick up the phone and call a friend or text them. Connect!

Consume Media

Some people like dramas or adventure movies. I like to laugh but I don’t often watch straight-up comedies. I like mysteries with humor. My husband and I have been watching Death in Paradise. My son likes animated series. Laughing really is an amazing way to recharge!

Plan Something for Someone Else

Plan something? In 2020? Yes, in 2020. But keep it do-able. I’ve been texting my cousins and ordering books for their kids for Christmas. I love helping young readers find books. I’ve introduced half a dozen kids to The Dot, Mother Bruce, and Olivia.

Whether you have an ongoing project or want to start something new, spend some time over the next couple of days recharging your creative batteries. That way you’ll be ready to write when Monday comes around.


Happy Thanksgiving

For those of you who celebrate, I’d like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  It goes without saying that 2020 will be a different kind of Thanksgiving for most of us.

That said, we still have so many reasons to give thanks.  My husband is working from home – we now share an office.  But he is working.

My son is once again employed.  He’s been out of work for several months but is not tutoring.  It is online but it is for the college.  So he gets paid to hold office hours and to make tutorial videos.  He’s pretty jazzed and I know it is something he does well.

Me?  I interviewed for an exciting opportunity yesterday.  I’ve got two nonfiction pieces to finish up this weekend for High Five.  I’m also working up a new class and working on that middle grade science fiction novel.

2020 has been tough but my family is still blessed.  I hope you, my writing friends, are well and have many reasons to give thanks.


Celebrate Thanksgiving with Joy Harjo: Poet Laureate

Good news! Joy Harjo, the US poet laureate, has been given a third year to serve in this position. This was just announced by the librarian of congress. The hope is that at some point next year she will be able to once again hold readings at various points throughout the US. Her main duty is to champion poetry.

The project through which she’s chosen to do this is “Living Nations, Living Words,” in which indigenous poets and their work create a map of the US. Says Harjo about this project, “I want this map to counter damaging false assumptions—that indigenous peoples of our country are often invisible or are not seen as human. You will not find us fairly represented, if at all, in the cultural storytelling of America, and nearly nonexistent in the American book of poetry.”

Click through here to see the map. Select a highlighted location and click through to hear the poet from that area read and discuss their work. My favorite? Laura Tohe reading “Within Dinétah the People’s Spirit Remains Strong.” I have to admit that part of what I love about it is that it isn’t written exclusively in English. When we traveled through New Mexico, I loved flipping through the radio stations and catching stations broadcasting in, in addition to English, Spanish, Dine, and other indigenous languages. It was a powerful reminder of our national reality.

I also really liked Layli Long Soldier reading “Resolution 2.” With this piece, it was the cadence that drew me in. It is completely different from Tohe’s piece which is appropriate. The similarities come in that each poem in the collection tells about the realities of indigenous life. The poems come together to form a tapestry of indigenous US peoples.

Take some time to explore.


3 Things to Remember about Backstory

Give us backstory, but avoid the info dump.
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Unless your story starts the moment your character is born, they have backstory. Backstory is their background, what happened to them before the start of your story. Anything that is in your character’s past is part of their backstory. Keep these 3 things in mind as you work this backstory into your work-in-progress.

Need to Know

Feed this information out bit by bit. When your reader needs to know why the character hates Christmas or won’t blow out birthday candles, give just a little bit of information. Since the year Mario waited for his mother for four hours beside the Christmas tree at the mall, he has wanted nothing to do with tinsel or egg nog.

Don’t give the reader the whole massive story at once. When you give a large amount of backstory at one time, this is called an info dump. Info dumps stop the forward momentum of the story. Once this momentum comes to a halt, it is hard to get things moving again. Readers wander off.

If you don’t want a massive tell all, what information do you give?

Shapes Behavior

Share information that shapes behavior. This could mean information that causes your character to hate something or love it beyond all reason. There is a reason that the only acceptable birthday cake in my mind is chocolate with chocolate icing. And not a bakery cake. I don’t care if it is a mix, but you need to bake it.

Why? That would be a bit of backstory to slip into my story. But as you add backstory, beware.

Avoid the Maudlin

Maudlin backstory is anything that is tearfully sentimental. Things that are over the top or just keep piling on “all that is awful” may come across as maudlin. This is especially likely when you tell the reader about your character’s horrible childhood before they care about the character. Let us love him before we see his tendency to be pompous. Then you can let us know that his parents cut him down every chance they got. His tendency to brag will make sense.

Backstory is essential if your reader is really going to get to know your character. But remember that it is like salt. A little bit goes a long way.


3 Things You Need to Know about Inner Dialogue

The things your character says are dialogue. The things she thinks are inner dialogue. If inner dialogue isn’t part of your fiction toolbox, you need to find out why inner dialogue matters and when to use it. The why is fairly easy.

Make sure your character’s inner dialogue is more than just chatter. Photo by Sandy Torchon on Pexels.com

Inner dialogue is a great way to tell your reader how your character feels about something. Becca couldn’t believe she had wrecked her brother’s brand new car. He had worked for months to make the downpayment. All that work gone in a matter of minutes. Yet again she had let him down and this time she’d done it in a big way.

But the key to making it work is to dwell on her more important thoughts. In yoga, a mind that wanders is called a monkey mind. Jon, in my class, says I have a barrel of monkeys mind. He is not wrong. In a matter of seconds I can note the sound of rain, wonder if we have any more of the good coffee at home, and remember that I need to put the laundry in the dryer. But really? Who wants to know about the inane chatter of my monkeys? No one.

Instead, stick with things that matter to the story and that your reader can find out only by being told. This can include what the character wants (goals), why she wants it (motivation), and the stakes. Use the inner dialogue to give your reader important information about the character. Don’t just tally a higher word count. Make it matter!

For a really good list of types of information you can share through character thoughts, see Mary Kole’s Writing Character Thoughts. This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought because my critique group is always asking me “How does your character feel about this?” Clearly, I need to make sure that the inner dialogue I include is meaningful and not just chatter.


3 Reasons Not to Rewrite as soon as You Finish a Draft

Feeling like a champion!

I just finished the first draft of my cozy mystery. Monday, I finished the last chapter. Then I wrote a new first chapter because by then I had a pretty good idea where I should have started my story.

Maybe that’s why it was so tempting to immediately begin my rewrite. Fortunately I know better. Sure sometimes I have a deadline and I don’t have a choice but it is better if I can let the manuscript sit for a while before I rework it. There are three reasons why I do this.


When I finish a manuscript, what I planned to write is still very clear in my mind. I have to spend some time away from the piece so that I gain some distance. With this distance, I can see my writing with…

Fresh Eyes

These freshe eyes enable me to see mistakes in my work. I meant for my character to be uncertain about herself, but she is absolutely wishy washy. That’s going to make it hard for readers the sympathize with her. My setting? I can picture it in my mind but I haven’t provided the details that will bring it to life for my readers. More often than not, if I’m being honest with myself the list of things that need to be fixed is LONG. Fortunately, distance also means that I am …

More Willing to Fix What Needs to Be Fixed

If I start rewriting right away, I find that I am more likely to ignore some of the things that need to be fixed. They just don’t seem that bad. Or maybe the problem is that I’m just not in the right frame of mind to tally up that list. I just finished it!

That’s why it is important to celebrate these small victories and move on to something else. In a few weeks I can come back to this and be ready to do what needs to be done. But tonight – I’m a champion doing something else!


3 Ways Your First Chapter/Scene Sets Up Your Story

Character, setting, sense of the story. Does your opening have it all?

I have to admit that this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. How do you set up your story in the opening scene or chapter without giving it all away? In essence, you are making promises to your reader, promises that you have to keep. But how do you do this if the magic, in a fantasy, or the murder, in a mystery, doesn’t come until much later?

Then I saw Chris Eboch’s article on Fiction University – The Promise of the First Chapter. In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to your story. This means that they get to know three things:

The Main Character

Who is the story about? This is where the reader meets your main characters and gets to know a little bit about them.

This part works well enough in my story. The point-of-view is third person close so the story is from Clara’s point of view. But you also see what type of person she is. Yes, she is getting new tires on her car (boring) but she’s also trying to juggle giving a neighbor who can’t drive a ride to the hair salon and picking up her husband’s tux.

Why did I start it here? Clara is someone who does a lot for other people. Maybe a bit too much and she needs to focus on herself.

The Setting

Where and when does your story take place? Even if you don’t name your city, state and year, your reader should know if this is contemporary and a gritty urban setting or the suburbs. I name the city where the story opens (Nashville) and it is obvious the story is contemporary because of the cell phone usage.

Problems? The story quickly moves to another city. That change is set into motion by the end of the chapter so I’m comfortable that it works. I just hope my Beta readers agree!

What Type of Story Is It?

The first story also lets your reader know if this is fantasy, historical, or a mystery. And this is where I might have a problem. The murder doesn’t happen for several chapters – something that I’ve seen in many cozies. But that means I need to set the scene early on.

This is a big problem because I don’t feel like I’ve done that in chapter 1. I’m going to try to reshape the chapter so that Clara feels threatened.

What about your work in progress? If you’re writing a novel you have one chapter to get this done. If you are writing a short story, accomplish it in a scene. A picture book? The first two spreads. In that lenght of time, readers need to know what they are getting into.


Book Chat: Casual Conversations with New Mexico Authors

Readers and writers alike are welcome to attend Casual Conversations with New Mexico Authors this Saturday (11/21) at 3 pm Mountain Time. I don’t know Pamela Nowak, author of Never Let Go, or Barb Simmons, author of The War Within. But Kris Bock, author of Christmas Cookes at the Cat Cafe, and Sarah H. Baker, author of The Prisoner, are both in my mystery writers group. I may be working on my first, but they are both accomplished mystery writers.

If you’ve yet to attend a book related Zoom meeting, plan to stop by if you have the time. They will be sharing their writing experiences and also open to questions which you can share through the chat function.

I’ve read all of Kris’s Cat Cafe books. Think romantic fiction with lots of cats. When I’ve talked with her personally, Kris has had some interesting things to say about books that feature cat vs books that feature dogs. No, it isn’t a competition but it is easy to work certain features into one group vs the other. Romance? Not so easy with cats. If you want to know why, tune in Saturday and ask Kris.

If you can’t make it but have a question you’d like to ask, let me know. I’d be happy to ask it for you. Hope to see some of you there. Stop on by and you may just come away with a list of books that you want Santa to bring you for Christmas!

If you’ve never used Zoom before, take the time to visit the Zoom site ahead of time and download the app on your phone or the program on your computer. It is free and easy to do. Then all you will need Saturday are the meeting ID and passcode in the graphic above.

9 Steps to Outline Your Story

Check out this graphic by Jono Hey that explains the Story Spine

Although I sometimes write fiction, I loathe outlining a fictional story. Unless we are talking picture books. I get picture book structure. When the time comes to outline a picture book, I get out fourteen post-it notes and my story board and get to work.

But a novel? It just feels so big.

Today while watching a Pixar in a Box video from their Story Structure series, I learned about creating a story spine, an outline form created by Kenn Adams, a professional in improv theater. Here are the 9 elements needed to create a story spine.

Once Upon a Time . . .

This is the beginning of your story. “Once upon a time there were three little pigs.”

Everyday . . .

Mark the routine in your world. “The three little pigs each built a home, one of straw, one of sticks and, the most industrious pig, built a brick house.”

But One Day . . .

Think of this as your inciting incident. What happened that brought about change? “But one day along came the big, bad wolf and said ‘Little Pig, Little Pig, let me in.”

Because of That . . .

The inciting incident leads your characters to take action which leads to the next action. “Pig One runs inside, the wolf blows down the house of straw, and Pig One runs to Pig Two’s house.”

Because of That . . .

Your characters are led to another action. “The wolf blows down the house of sticks. Pig One and Pig Two run to Pig Three’s house.”

Because of That . . .

This is the last step leading to another big change. “The wolf tries and tries to blow down the brick house.”

Until Finally . . .

This is your climax. “Until finally he realizes this house is too strong and climbs onto the roof. But Pig Three had built a fire and the wolf fails to climb down the chimney.”

Ever Since Then . . .

This is the ending or denouement. “The Three Little Pigs live happy ever after having learned their lesson that . . .”

The Moral of the Story Is . . .

“. . . hard work pays off.”

I like this idea a lot. Now that I’ve managed to see how it works ala The Three Pigs, it is time to try it out with Air Stream. That’s the working title for my middle grade science fiction novel. Wish me luck!