When Worlds Collide... Education and Writing

As the school year approaches, I thought I would do something fun that crisscrossed my two professional worlds… teaching and writing. So, I interviewed teacher-author Sarah Thursby. Sarah and I have a lot in common. We are English educators, both writers, both mothers of young children, trying to balance the demands of life. While I am from Wisconsin, she is from Minnesota. I saw just one musical this summer (Hamilton!) and she saw FOUR, in New York no less! Today we are talking about how our education and writer lives intersect, overlap and enrich each other.

Word Nerd: Hi Sarah! Thanks for visiting my blog today and sharing your teaching and writing experiences with us. We'll start with a few easy questions! What grade levels and subjects do you teach?

ST: I teach 9-12 / Reading Foundations, English 10, American Literature, Intro to Theater and Theater Productions.

Word Nerd: What a line up! What are you most excited about for the school year?

ST: I'm most looking forward to getting involved in the extracurricular theater program and being able to make connections with my students during school by getting to know them after school. We are really going to be hitting accent work and nearly all students will have to try and understand and learn a unique accent. I'm incredibly excited to see them raise to the challenge.

Word Nerd: How do your teaching world and writing worlds overlap?

ST: In the district I’ve worked in for the past year, I have been hired to direct the high school musical and play each year! Very exciting, yet quite overwhelming.  Because I was willing to share my worries and proactively work to ensure success, my school sent my colleague and me to the Broadway Teachers Workshop in New York City! 

Word Nerd: Wow, that sounds amazing! I love the way that going to a conference or class can totally fuel my passion for teaching.

ST: Yeah, it was great! During this three-day event, I was able to attend masters classes with directors, actors, writers, musicians, stage managers, etc.  As if all of this wasn’t enough magic, I also got to attend FOUR Broadway performances: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Anastasia, Dear Evan Hansen, and Come From Away.  

Word Nerd: I’m sure you were watching with a critical eye, trying to glean anything you could later relate to your students. What did you walk away with? (Besides several songs stuck in your head!)

ST:  Well, the first show was quite disappointing. There were several mistakes in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My students are putting on this show during the upcoming school year and I was thrilled to have the chance to see it live on Broadway, but unfortunately, it was a less than stellar performance.

The actor playing Willy was an understudy, and allowed his top hat to fall off.  Several times.  Every time his hat fell off, his microphone was inaudible.  The second time his hat fell to the stage, he didn’t even go to pick it up! Awkwardly, another cast member went behind him, picked it up, and placed it on his head! Then as Augustus was getting sucked up the tube of chocolate, we could hear the Oompas singing, and yet there was not an orange faced, green haired factory worker in sight!  As the cast members stood uncomfortably on stage peering into the wings, the audience began to mumble to their neighbors about the scene.  How could this be?  

Have no fear - a voice boomed over-head stating: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE ARE EXPERIENCING TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES. WE WILL BE WITH YOU SHORTLY. Then, to make things worse, the cast began to talk to the audience…

“You guys are really lucky! You get to see that scene again.”

“Now you know the music. Wait until you see the Oompas!”

They completely broke character, chattered to the audience, and completely ruined the stage magic and illusion. It was awful.

I learned that even though Broadway is the Disney of live performances, people and technology are imperfect; it comes with these imperfections that we are given the opportunity to struggle together as one… both the actors and the audience. We are all relevant pieces to this puzzle of life.

Word Nerd: Yikes. So sorry to hear that. I'm glad you were able to pull something positive out of the poor performance. Tell us about the other shows.

ST: We saw three more shows that set our passions aflame.  Anastasia was utterly breathtaking with the dancing, costuming, acting, and singing.  If you haven’t seen it and love the SPECTACLE of a big show, this is the one for you.

Dear Evan Hansen is a fantastically modern tale of depression and loneliness where tragedy strikes.  Through tragedy and a little crude humor, these young high school students and their families find ways to bond together and heal issues that were never even spoken.

Finally, I want to promote one of the most noteworthy and beautiful productions I have ever seen in my life: Come From Away.  This TRUE STORY is a conglomeration of hundreds of hours of interviews with the locals in Newfoundland, Canada.  The day of 9/11, so many airplanes and passengers were routed out of the airspace immediately and directed to the small island.  With the island’s population doubling and then some, these rare and amazing Canadians bent over backwards to accommodate people from all around the world!  They literally gave the clothes off their backs, the food from their stores, and the beds and couches in their homes.  

To top all of this inspiring history, the cast (made up of only 12 members playing several roles each) contained two people from the small island of Newfoundland itself.  If you, like me, love a wonderfully told story, both effortless and seamless, as well as rarely distinctive music, this show is a must see on Broadway.

Word Nerd: Any final thoughts?

ST: All in all, I am so grateful for having been allowed this amazing trip.  I’ve learned more than I thought possible in a three day time span.  As a teacher especially, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to attend all of these shows, so I know how incredibly lucky I am. I'm really glad that I was able to combine two things I really love, theater and teaching. 

Word Nerd: I'm sure you can't wait to share your incredible experiences with your students! Some good, some, not-to-much... but either way, I’m certain it will enhance their education and only serve to make your rendition of Charlie simply scrumptious!! Thank you so much for visiting my blog today Sarah! Have a great school year!

Sarah's Bio

I have been a high school English and theater teacher all around the state of Minnesota for the past eight years, and I currently reside in Mankato with my husband and two little boys. Although I am an aspiring Young Adult novelist, my current and completed manuscript of an apocalyptic adventure is resting quietly on my hard drive. As this dream sits in wait, I am pleased to explore another dream of heading up musicals and plays, as this fall I am directing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Life is kind to those who persistently seek out their passions. You can contact Sarah via email here: sthursby@newulm.k12.mn.us.

Miles on the Road Less Traveled

And the WINNER is... Nicolle!!

Please email me your choice of story thesaurus and address and I will send it your way! Thank you all for playing! Remember, anyone interested in working on developing their characters, setting, conflict or story line, click here to join me for Story Seedlings, staring June 1st.

Some people make goals for the year.

I did that. I wanted to save 20% of my writing earnings in an envelope to prepare for a full time writing career. It is marked GO-PRO and currently has $1,390 in it! I also made a goal to drink more water… and have been less successful at that.

Some people pick a word to represent the direction they want to go for the year.

I did that too, thanks to the prompting of the leader of my writing group. My word is connections, and in another blog post, on another Writing Wednesday, I will explain the way I am living that out, literally one day at a time.

Some people make SMART goals, create charts to track progress, resolve to do A,B and/or C, get accountability partners, and the list rolls on and on. This year I did something a little different. I picked a theme song.

This isn’t something totally new for me. When I was in high school and on the gymnastics team, we would pick a song to play during the warm up for Floor Exercise. For two minutes we would tumble and leap and dance and stretch and get ready to compete. Each year a new song would be chosen to play during this time, to pump us up. The year I was a Junior we listened to “I’m in a Hurry” by Alabama. It must have worked because we hurried ourselves all the way to a second place finish at the state meet that year. Every time I hear this song, I still think of my teammates, and that season, and all of our hours together in the gym.

My former co-workers and I also used to pick a song that signified our school year… something to help us make sense of the crazy days we lived in public middle school education. One year Billy Currington was our man, and his song “God is Great, Beer is Good and People Are Crazy” seemed to sum up our year perfectly.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when this song singled itself out. I didn’t think, “Hey, I need a song, a motivating force, to remind me what I’m doing in this big crazy journey of authorprenuership.” I didn’t think, “I need something that will pick me up, fire me up and push me onward”. But the song found me and it stuck.

Take a listen.

I could wax on and off about the meaning of the lyrics and the ways they connect to my goals and dreams, my emotions and my work… but I think they are pretty obvious. No moody, read-between-the-lines-to-interpret-my-soul lyrics for this girl. (At least, not this time.)

It’s all out there. Plain and simple. I want to be a full-time writer and writing coach, and as crazy as that might seem to some people, I don’t really care. I am giving it my all and working by butt off to get there. And this song is my cheerleader.

On an even more basic level, this big dream of mine has taken me, quite literally on the road. Since January 1st I have participated, facilitated, taught or presented at 13 author events (and have 4 more scheduled for June). In the past 5 months I have driven 2, 124 miles to be where my work takes me.

Here’s what that looks like.

Each trip, each location, each event, each presentation, each business card I handed out, connection I made, each and every mile on the road this year has brought me closer to my overall destination. So far the road of 2017 has brought me pretty far. I’m excited to see where it leads to next.

1: Rainy day road trip to Ontario, WI for Brookwood Family Literacy Night, 2: Along the shores of Lake Winnebago after an event for the Wisconsin Geocaching Association in Fond Du Lac, WI, 3: Author badge at WEMTA (Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association) Conference, 4: Hitting the road to Chippewa Falls, WI for a Gifted and Talented Workshop in my fabulous heart shaped aviators. 5: Driving past the paper mills that produce my favorite consumer product on the east side of the state, 6: The earliest time I ever stopped at the Kwik Trip near by home (5:25am) before hitting the road for Eau Claire, WI. 7: All fueld up with my life blood (Diet Pepsi - not sure where I was traveling here… to be honest, I wouldn’t even have to be traveling to take this picture), 8: Placard outside of the Charmant Hotel in La Crosse, WI for my reading/speaking event about Champion Chocolatier, 9: Untitled Town website (where I spoke for Green Bay’s first annual book and author festival), 10: Showcasing the new ride (I am super proud of this picture because I now make enough money as a writer to make the monthly payments on this vehicle. It feels good that my passion project can contribute to my family financially), 11: Windmills on the way to the east side of the state (for those of you who know me, you know these gargantuan pieces of machinery freak me out. I had to document the occasion.)

Secrets to Character Creation...and a FREE BOOK!

A fellow writer (Hi Alex!) asked me an interesting question. What would make a character exceptionally loyal? I mean, loyal past the point of logic. Loyal even when they probably shouldn’t be.

Hmmm. Good question. Good, because it would require some thought, and thought is a great activity for the creative brain. Good, because the answer to this question would make her story so much better. Even if this information doesn’t make it into Alex’s final manuscript in an extensively detailed backstory moment, the knowledge of why her character acts the way he or she does will positively impact this character’s creation as a whole. Good, because knowing why your character is the way they are will help you make crystal clear and specific choices about the decisions the character makes. Clear as mud? Great, let me explain.

A character is loyal. Why?


He never had a solid parental figure. Never had any boundaries. So once he encounters anyone who gives him attention, a place to belong with a role to play, rules to follow if he wants to stay “in”, he’s willing to do just about anything not to lose it.


He was stabbed in the back by a best friend in high school and vows to himself he will never, ever betray anyone. EVER. No matter the cost he will always be loyal, because he is a man of moral fiber. It doesn’t matter that his boss asks him to do questionable activities because his loyalty discounts all of those bad deeds.

Maybe, maybe, maybe… I list as many maybes as I can think of. Listing one option simply won’t do. The first option isn’t the right one because you thought of it first. It’s simply the first one you thought of. Often, the first explanation or solution to any question is the easiest, the most cliche. I challenge you to go further, push farther. If you can’t think of any GOOD options, make a list of bad ones. Priming the pump of thought might push you in the right direction… eventually.

When I run out of maybes for Alex I turn to one of my favorite resources: The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book deeply examines almost 100 positive character traits. For each character trait Angela and Becca list: similar attributes, possible causes, associated behaviors, associated thoughts, associated emotions, positive aspects, negative aspects, examples from literature/film, traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict and challenging scenarios for the character. Holy hotbed of helpfulness!

For example, here is what the authors have to say about being LOYAL.

I asked Alex to look through these pages and she identified coming from a strict military background, and a fear of retribution as probable explanations to her character's loyalty. She also identified that the following behaviors would be a good match for her character: talking incessantly about the object of their loyalty, striving to make oneself more visible to the object of loyalty, putting the object’s needs and desires over their own, believing the best of the object of their loyalty, and dismissing negative things others say about the object of their loyalty. Match these choices up with one of our aforementioned “maybes” and we have a realistic character backstory and personality.

My personal favorite part of this guidebook is the examples from literature and film. For example, loyal characters from books/movies include: Forrest Gump, Rubeus Hagrid (Harry Potter), and Sam Gamgee (Lord of the Rings). I can take these suggestions to YouTube and watch quick clips of the characters they mention and analyze their behaviors, facial expressions, and grounding actions for myself, and then mix up an interesting cocktail of those attributes for my own character.

The Positive Trait Thesaurus is one book in a series of three that help you delve into character motivations. The Negative Trait Thesaurus and The Emotion Thesaurus round out the character resource trio. It is amazing how you can pair up two books to really get an interesting cross section of a character’s personality. For example, I looked up EAGERNESS in the emotion thesaurus and discovered a slew of physical signals and internal sensations that would be excellent additions to Alex’s obsessively loyal character.

The authors of these fine resources also recently created The Urban and Rural Setting Thesauruses. According to the description on Amazon, these beautiful books give us:

  • A list of the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds for over 100 urban/rural settings.

  • Possible sources of conflict for each location to help you brainstorm ways to naturally complicate matters for your characters

  • Advice on the many effective ways to build mood, helping you steer both the character’s and readers’ emotions in every scene

  • Information on how the setting directly influences the plot by acting as a tuning fork for what a character needs most and by testing his dedication to his goals

  • A tutorial on figurative language and how different descriptive techniques can bring settings alive for readers while conveying a symbolic message or deeper meaning

  • A review of the challenges that arise when writing description, as well as special considerations that apply specifically to rural and personal settings

Let me tell you, they are already sitting and waiting patiently in my Amazon cart. Wouldn’t you love one? Tell you what, I’ll buy. :) For real. For each time you share this post on social media, I’ll enter you into a drawing. Then, next week Wednesday, I’ll announce the winner, back here on my blog. When you respond to this email with your screenshotted social media share, let me know which of the 5 thesauruses you want.

Final thoughts. Did you find this post helpful? Because I’m going to be doing this each and every day in the month of June. Story Seedlings (aka: 30 Scenes in 30 Days 2.0) is a closed online community of writers working through the beginning stages of novel writing. We will take the seed of an idea and through writing prompts, group critique, inspiration and encouragement grow it into something solid and strong. We will specifically cover the story elements of character, setting, conflict and dialogue. If you are interested… you can learn more about it here.

Alright, That’s enough for one Writing Wednesday by word nerds.

Until next time, happy writing!

Your Northwoods Writer’s Paradise Awaits!


Today I have BJ Hollars visiting the blog to tell us all about the Cirenaica Residencies sponsored by the Chippewa Valley Writer's Guild. Man do I wish I had looked at these offerings before my summer filled up. Believe me when I say I will DEFINITELY be applying for a spot next year. If you are needing a writer's escape, a push on a project, or some expert advice, settle in and read on... because BJ is about to hook you up with some knowledge on an four amazing opportunities. 

Love writing? Fellowship? Nature? And some pretty incredible food? Then Cirenaica’s the place for you!

Nestled on 43 acres of hills, farmland, and forest near the quaint village of Fall Creek, Wisconsin, our summer writing residencies promise participants an intensive yet rejuvenating experience amidst an inspiring natural backdrop. Complete with guest writers and editors, an on-site chef, and even a waterfall right up the road, we strive to provide the perfect summer writing experience for writers of all levels and genres. If your life’s filled with a thousand little distraction, there’s no better fix that three wondrous days in the wilds of Wisconsin.

During last year’s inaugural summer, our jam-packed residencies provided incredible opportunities to 60 lucky writers from across the nation. And by summer’s end, over 15 of our participants had published their work in an array of literary magazines, journals and even on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life! Upon reflecting on the residency, one participant, wrote,

“I am unable to overstate the value of Cirenaica. The natural beauty of the region, combined with exquisite tutelage and talent [and the] exceptional facilities yielded the perfect storm for creativity.”

Another added:

“I used to think writing was a solitary experience, but after the residency I realized the importance of community and the energy derived from a community of writers. I entered this residency not knowing anyone and left with friends and wisdom that I will never forget.”

These sentiments are echoed again and again, confirming— for me, at least— the value of writers coming together for the benefit of their craft.

This summer, we invite you to apply! And as a special thank you, for every referred application, receive $10 off your own accepted application. Bring 5 friends and save $50! Space is limited, the deadline is May 1, so we encourage you to apply today!

This summer we will be hosting five, 3-day residencies:

 Stranger than Fiction

On Writing Narrative Nonfiction and Memoir featuring writer-in-residence Allyson Goldin Loomis (June 8-11)

 Theory and Practice of Fiction

Featuring writer-in- residence Nickolas Butler (June 22-25)

 The Art of Memoir

Keep it Honest, But Keep it Interesting with writer-in- residence June Melby (July 6-9)

 Poetry in the Shadow of Walden

Featuring writer-in- residence and former Wisconsin poet laureate Max Garland (July 13-16)

 Writing Young Adult Fiction

The Magic Formula featuring writer-in- residence Marsha Qualey (July 21-24) 

Click here for an overview of the program, here for details on this summer’s offerings and here for testimonials.

As we like to say here at Cirenaica: be inspired, inspire others.

Split Personality aka: Writing With a Pen Name

Today's guest post comes from a fellow word nerd, Donna Schlachter, who has a new book out entitled: Echoes of the Heart. Donna and I both write for Forget Me Not Romance (Champion Chocolatier's Indie Press) and I told her I'd be more than happy to spread the word about her most recent project. Echoes of the Heart is part of The Pony Express Romance Collection. All 9 stories in the collection are available in paperback now on Amazon for only $7.90. 

Donna is talking with us today (actually talking with herself) about the task of writing under two different names... her own and a pen name. It is an interesting concept that many authors consider and I found this conversation both helpful and amusing. I'll let you listen in for yourself...

Leeann, my alter ego, and I were chatting the other day.

She wanted to know why I created her.

“I was writing and hoping to publish in two different genres: historical suspense and contemporary suspense. I didn’t want to confuse my readers by writing in different genres,” I answered.

“How did you pick my name?” She wondered aloud.

“My husband’s middle name is Lee, his mother’s middle name is Ann, and my mother’s nickname in nursing school was Betts.”

“Isn’t making up a name illegal?”

“Not unless I’m trying to avoid a legal claim or defraud somebody.”

She chewed on her bottom lip, a funny habit she has. “How do you keep us straight?”

I smiled at her. “First of all, you’re cute and perky and all the things I’m not. Second, you write different stories than I write.”

“Such as?”

“Most of my historical suspense are stories about women who have made some bad choices, and now they want to straighten out their lives. Your stories are about stronger, quirkier women who are driven to excel.”

“Sounds like you,” she complimented.

Now it was my turn to chew my bottom lip. Maybe she inherited that trait from me. “But the women you write about don’t know they are strong. Or quirky. And the women I write about are just like me. Hoping it’s true that God is a God of second chances. And finding out He is.”

“So we’re different but the same?”

I patted her on the head like she was an obedient puppy. “Exactly.”

So what do you think? Are you interested in playing the pen name game? Just for fun, write your would-be-pen-name in the comments below! For extra fun, tell us what genre this new persona would tackle. 

Until next Wednesday, Happy writing, 


Author bio:

Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick, her first-line editor and biggest fan. She writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts. She is a hybrid publisher who has published a number of books under her pen name and under her own name. Her current release, Echoes of the Heart, a 9-in-1 novella collection titled "Pony Express Romance Collection" released April 1. Donna is also a ghostwriter and editor of fiction and non-fiction, and judges in a number of writing contests. She will be teaching an online course for American Christian Fiction Writers in June 2017, “Don’t let your subplots sink your story”. Donna loves history and research, and travels extensively for both.

Get in touch with Donna via any of the following social media platforms.



Facebook: www.Facebook.com/DonnaschlachterAuthor

Twitter: www.Twitter.com/DonnaSchlachter

Books: http://amzn.to/2ci5Xqq

Echoes of the Heart: http://amzn.to/2lBaqcW