Writer's Notes

A Chat with Author George Cramer

By George Cramer

The Mona Lisa Sisters is a tender journey into the making of a family. The novel is full of careful historical detail and the pleasure of European trains and cities and plenty of mystery to keep the pages turning, but the greatest delight is Lura Grisham herself.

– Ramona Ausubel, author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

An enrolled descendant of the Karuk Tribe of California, George Cramer, brings forty years’ investigative experience to crime and historical fiction. He holds an MFA-Creative Writing Program from the Institute of American Indian Arts.

George conducted and managed thousands of successful investigations throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He kept his investigative skills honed by volunteering as a Missing Person’s investigator at the San Leandro, California Police Department.

In addition to the Public Safety Writers Association, George is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the California Writers Club. He is a contributing author to several anthologies and the Veteran’s Writing Project. Other than writing, his love is long-distance motorcycle riding his 2001 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic.

George’s debut novel, The Mona Lisa Sisters, was published in 2020.

When and how did you begin your writing journey? Before my sixty-eighth birthday, I was laid off from a fantastic job when H-P bought out Palm, Inc., beginning a journey through the world of age discrimination. One day, I saw a note about a writing class at the Dublin Senior Center—whose doors I swore never to cross. I took the class and fell in love with writing. Overcoming forty-five years of report writing was difficult. One day, the instructor randomly passed out photos to the class. “Take fifteen minutes and describe the scene.” I did not do as instructed. The second I saw the image of two young girls staring up at the Mona Lisa, I knew I was going to write a novel. In fifteen minutes, I had a rough sketch of what began an eight-year ride to The Mona Lisa Sisters.

I knew I needed help and formal training. For help, I joined the Tri-Valley Branch of the California Writers Club, followed by the Public Safety Writers Association. I went to the local community college for formal training, Las Positas, and pursued an English degree. I followed by the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for an MFA.

Writing at sea

IAIA introduced me to a group of superlative authors and mentors. My cohort mentors were Ramona Ausubel, Ismet (Izzy) Prcic, and Marie-Helene Bertino. These fantastic people guided my writing throughout the program and remain in my life.

Thonie asked about projects and what book I’m reading. That’s tough. For pure enjoyment, I just reread Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. Two book clubs selected The Mona Lisa Sisters, so I’m reading eleven of the other books selected for the year. I’m reading a half-dozen other novels for a project I’m excited about.

When I began work on Mona Lisa, I set aside a thriller/police procedural spread over forty years, 1930 to mid-1970. I hope to have it published by the end of 2021. I’m also working my way through a crime trilogy. I never knew retirement would be so hectic.

The Mona Lisa Sisters is available through Amazon and the IAIA Book Store. You can reach me at and visit my blog at If you stop by, please leave a comment and follow.

Writer's Notes

June Writer’s Notes: Writers’ Clubs

By Thonie Hevron


copp rw book club
Book signing at Copperfield’s Books, Santa Rosa, May 31, 2015

I would still be wandering the authorial stratosphere if I hadn’t found Redwood Writers. I’d written a book—a thriller set in my very own backyard, Sonoma County. By Force or Fear was penned while I lived on the other side of California, missing Sonoma County so much that I set my story there. It was my way of coping with homesickness. When I moved, I lost the manuscript. Luckily, I found the outline on a thumb drive and re-wrote it. It was even better than before!


In 2004, my husband and I finally moved back to SoCo. While reading the newspaper one day, hubby found a writers group called JumpStart that met in our town. It’s leader, Pat Tyler, introduced me to reading my work in a group. She also fostered my scribblings, steering me to the local chapter of the California Writers ClubRedwood Writers. Finding a group of dedicated writers who encourage each other was a huge step forward. Under their superlative leadership, I attended club sponsored classes, workshops, and panels. Each monthly meeting has an hour-long teaching session as well—featuring different topics such as the business of writing, craft tips, promotion, marketing and social media. From all this input, I was able to formulate a plan. Roughly it looked like this: write, write, write, query, learn, write, speak, blog, learn some more. I mapped out my next novel in outline form. After all, I’m a retired law enforcement veteran and structure such as this helps me keep track of all the strands of my story. While I worked on my story, I found a critique group, Thrillerz. After joining Redwood Writers, this was the best thing I could’ve done.

More on critique groups in July.


Over the course of these meetings, I realized that I needed to build a platform. I knew I had to expand my audience, but the term marketing struck terror in my heart. After all, I was a writer—solitary, shy, withdrawn from the general population. But wait, NO, I wasn’t solitary. I had Redwood Writers, then the Public Safety Writers Association, then, Sisters in Crime. Redwood Writers (RW) hosted (still does) bi-monthly salons for authors to read their work to each other. The intent was to dip writers’ toes in the swamp of public speaking. There also were Open Mics held at several different venues (all of which I participated) and an annual member book launch for 10-12 RW authors to debut their books. Above you can see a few of the events RW sponsored. I volunteered to emcee a few of these gatherings and polished my public speaking as well as met some terrific people.


Conference pic
Thonie- during the Pen to Published Conference 2014 


I did those but felt I needed more. So, I volunteered to co-chair a Redwood Writers’ Conference in 2014. The lead up to the event was where the rubber met the road: I attended every monthly club meeting to publicize the conference. Yes, I got up in front of a crowd of 75 or so people and made announcements. I’m by no means OVER my stage fright but I can certainly manage it. I’ve even tackled some other, unrelated fears such as driving over bridges.

Who knew what doors Redwood Writers would open?

How important is your writers club to you? What unique feature does it offer? Check in to Writer’s Notes on Fridays in June to see what other authors have to say. June 8th features Camille Minichino’s penchant for joining clubs. Natasha Yim talks about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators on June 15th, on June 22, Leeann Betts gives 6 reasons to join a writers’ club, and on June 29th Paty Jager will offer her thoughts on the subject.

Writer's Notes

Writers’ Contests Count

By Thonie Hevron

PSWA-stickerEntering contests are a no-brainer for me. I can directly attribute my entry into the realm of traditional publishing (albeit a small press) to winning a contest. I’ll bet many authors could say the same.

In 2012, I entered my unpublished manuscript, working title Probable Cause, in the Public Safety Writers Contest (PSWA). I won third place in my category-unpublished novel. Now re-named, By Force or Fear, I soon self-published it on Smashwords as an eBook, in the hopes of getting enough money together to do a print version. Meanwhile, I worked on mapping out the second book of the Nick and Meredith Mysteries (I’m a compulsive plotter).

After months of writing, querying, submitting and all-around frustration, I entered my novel, in a contest at Oak Tree Publishing (OTP). Oak Tree had recently published an anthology for the PSWA, so I thought it would be worth a chance. I was stunned when I won. First prize was publication of the winning book. I’d entered my second Nick and Meredith Mystery, Intent to Hold. It had just won second place in unpublished novel category the PSWA’s 2014 Writers’ Contest. After a polishing up, my new publisher agreed to publish the first novel, now renamed By Force or Fear.

aklogo-web_origAs events progressed, both novels with Oak Tree Press went to press with the third, With Malice Aforethought, in contract. Sadly, Oak Tree’s production has fallen into limbo with the ongoing health issues of its publisher, Billie Johnson. Johnson offered many OTP authors their rights, so I took mine. The short version of this story is I now have another publisher, Aakenbaaken & Kent, with whom I’m very pleased. I’m currently working on another Nick and Meredith Mystery, working title, Felon with a Firearm. I’m hustling to get it finished for the next PSWA writing contest that opens in May.

East Texas Writers Guild Book Award 3rd place 2015I’m also looking into other places to submit my work for competition. In 2015, the East Texas Writers Guild awarded Malice third place in “Best First Chapter” category. There are many more contests in which to submit your work. Start with a Google search: I use “mystery contests.” It helps to search within your genre.

Contests count. They give the author credibility. Winning a contest means someone other than your mother likes your work. Agents and publishers look at winners differently. It’s a terrific marketing tactic to use, “Winner of the Agatha Award” on the book cover. But for me, it’s a wonderful confidence booster to win a writing contest. Winning motivates me to work harder for the next entry. It also helps me to set goals. Having a first draft by May 1st, the usual deadline for PSWA’s contest, is a typical goal. I’ll make Felon the fourth try to come in better than Malice’s second place in 2016.

This month, Romance author Donna Schlachter will weigh in on Do’s and Don’ts in Contests. J.L. Greger, author of several science-based mysteries asks, “Do You Feel Lucky?” February will end with thoughts from a prolific children’s author, Natasha Yim, the chair of the Redwood Writers Club (California Writers Club branch in Sonoma County) Contests. Posts are up every Friday at 6 A.M. on Just the Facts, Ma’am, Writer’s Notes.

Think about entering a contest. You can’t lose anything more than a few bucks–some are even free. A contest might jump-start flagging progress on your WIP, you could set and meet realistic goals, or even better yet, you could win!

Writer's Notes

Conferences: Writers Conference Confidential! Gil Mansergh


by Gil Mansergh

G Mansergh Pettingill coverBefore you sign up for a writer’s conference, there are a few “trade secrets” that conference organizers don’t want you to know. I directed the prestigious California Writers Club Writers Conference at Asilomar for five years, and have been on the faculty of conferences in San Francisco, LA, Fresno, Marin, Stanford University and Santa Rosa, but I never signed a non-disclosure agreement—so here is the nitty gritty.

First off, a writer’s conference can change your life. I went to my first conference as a “Program Consultant” for nonprofit agencies, and left that same weekend as a “Writer.” This resulted in over three decades working as a syndicated newspaper columnist, a writer for hire (over 70 books and counting), a novelist, and the host/producer of the NPR radio show, Word By Word: Conversations With Writers.

But (and this is a very important but), I am the exception. 95% of conference attendees never become professional writers. They may, after dozens of rejections, self-publish their own book(s) or have some pieces appear in literary journals, but earning mega-bucks from having a best-seller remains as elusive as having Publishers Clearinghouse arrive at your door with a big check.

Writers conferences are, first and foremost, business ventures based on selling wannabe writers a dream. I was (and still am) part of this marketing scheme. I made sure that every conference I directed included the all-important, money-maker, Agents and Editors—numerous opportunities (including manuscript critiques, Q&A panels, and pitch sessions) for attendees to interact with professionals who (ostensibly) hold the keys to success. I also included “name brand” keynoters (Pulitzer Prize winners, NY Times Bestsellers, Disney Writer/Directors, etc.) for advertising and publicity purposes and offered practical, hands-on workshops in diverse genres (presented by teachers I had personally seen in action). As an added bonus, we had entertainment: comedians, singers, dancers, musicians, and a California Park Ranger portraying Jack London. And free wine—great Sonoma County wines were served from vineyards eager to have their product appreciated by “influential” writers. The trick is to have the pouring staff keep full bottles behind the table, and place only empty bottles on display.

Despite all this careful planning, it turned out the most important part of the weekend was something I did not control. Since the conference grounds at Asilomar State Park in Pacific Grove include meals with the cost of the rooms, everyone (attendees and faculty alike) ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together around large circular tables. Voila! Instant opportunities to interact with other writers.

I shared this phenomenon in a piece for Writers Digest Magazine I called “The Nudist and Lana Turner’s Shoes.” Named after information two other conference attendees shared about themselves, I wrote the following:
“The secret for getting the most out of a writer’s conference is simple. You don’t have to study and annotate the conference schedule or take notes at the workshops and think up insightful questions for the panelists. All you have to do is go to meals and ask the people on either side of you ‘What do you write?’ You’ll quickly learn that writers are interesting people with fascinating stories to tell. What’s more, they will freely share their successes and failures with fellow writers.”

I went on to describe some of the writers I talked with: the kayaking wine expert who reviews computer hardware for MacWorld, the travel writer recently returned from Western Australia, the woman in the lunch line who commented how it reminded her of waiting for a crust of bread in a Ugandan prison camp, the nurse who crusades against female circumcision, the mystery novelist who tries out her new characters in short stories, and, of course, the naturist fireman writing about his photo safari to Africa, and the woman searching for someone to write about her make-up artist husband’s collection of movie stars’ shoes and clothing.

What I wrote all those years ago still holds today: “When you go to a writer’s conference, you can learn at least as much from your fellow writers as you will from the formal program.”


Gil Mansergh

Author Bio:
Gilbert Mansergh is the psychological educator internationally acclaimed for utilizing Hollywood movie clips as teaching tools. Author of over sixty non-fiction books, two syndicated film columns, and movie blog, Gil is also the producer/host of the Word By Word: Conversations With Writers radio show on Sonoma County’s NPR station, KRCB-FM. Gil’s first novel, The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill is fictionalized from true stories told by his mother about her childhood in Gloucester, Massachusetts after WW1, and has received glowing reviews from critics and readers.

Amazon Buy link: The Marvelous Journals of Miss Virginia Pettingill


Writer's Notes

It Takes a Village


By Thonie Hevron

You’ve all heard the African proverb (a cliché these days), “It takes a village to…” fill in your blank. My answer is “write a book.” Writers are solitary creatures—shy by nature. But if you think a writer completes their work alone, let me educate you.

Granted, most of the hard work is done solo. Charlotte Bronte hardly had a critique group to whip her text into shape. While “taking a village” may be a stretch, the support systems we have now weren’t around in their day. I refer to critique groups, beta readers, editors, and experts.

Here are a few words on my support systems:

  • I owe my growth as a writer to the members (current and past) of my critique group. They’re honest enough to say, “This just doesn’t work,” and tell me why. If I want compliments, I’d ask my mother. If I want the truth (and constructive suggestions), I ask my critique partners. To be clear, I’ve written these pages in solitude. But their review and input are part of the process. Their criticism can only improve my work—and it has.
  • Another writer notion is that writers prefer aloneness. We do. I cannot deny it. But having a group of people behind you, cheerleading, challenging, and empathetic, soothes the ouch of an agent’s rejection letter. When I joined Redwood Writers (RW—a branch of the California Writers Club) in 2006, I had two books completed and I needed to figure the next step. Between monthly speakers and workshops, I realized I had more work to do before the manuscripts were polished enough to submit to a literary professional. Through the club, I found my critique group, mentors, learned how to set and achieve goals, and many other lessons. I learned the value of networking. As my genre is mystery/thriller/police procedurals, I joined the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). I applied RW lessons here. This group was comprised of active and retired law enforcement, fire, emergency medical, and military personnel. Several publishers also belong. It was through PSWA that I found my publisher.
  • While I could write a post on each of these support systems (I think I will!), here I need to stress how important it is to put another pair of eyes on my work. I wouldn’t think of letting an agent look at a manuscript without review from two or three Beta Readers (readers who check for general critiques-flow, plotting, etc.).
  • An editor is critical. A submission should be as error-free as possible. More on that later, too.
  • I can’t live without my “experts.” I had my third novel almost half done when I found Mike Brown, a retired lieutenant from Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. I’d worked with Mike years before and re-connected on Facebook. After he looked at my outline, he said, “It couldn’t happen like that.” Sheesh. As I market heavily to law enforcement, I knew my story had to be authentic. Back to the drawing board. The result was, “With Malice Aforethought.” Yet to be published, it won PSWA’s Writers Contest second place award in the 2016 unpublished novel category.

All this before the book is even published! In the weeks that follow, two of my esteemed colleagues will present their ideas on the same topic. Be sure to check in every Friday, or better yet, subscribe to my blog post, Just the Facts, Ma’am.




Writer's Notes

Thinking About a Critique Group?


By Thonie Hevron

RW logoBack in 2007, I joined Redwood Writers, a local branch (pardon the pun) of California Writers Club. At my first meeting, author Christi Phillips appeared to read from her new book, The Rossetti Letter. After her reading, she took questions. Someone asked her, if she had it to do over again, what she would change about the writing process. Her answer was quick and obviously well-considered. “Join a critique group.”CWC logo

In those days, I was a fledgling author. I scribbled mostly with no sense of purpose. I’d written two novels, one of which I’d brought to an “open” critique group. It was a horrible experience. Poets and literary writers listened to my work—a suspense police procedural—and panned it. With little tact, they dismembered my chapter, eviscerated my characters, and dismissed my plot.

Well, I’m Norwegian and I don’t know any better, so I kept writing. The thing is every one of their comments was on target. When I calmed down enough to be objective about the novel, I realized they were right: my structure was haphazard, my characters were one dimensional with hidden agendas and the plot, well, let’s just say, the plot was a story I needed to tell, then package up and shove it on the top shelf of my closet. Which is what I did.

While the result (a critique) was why I attended, the experience lacked the positive solutions that I so desperately needed.

In the intervening years, I joined Redwood Writer, heard Phillips talk, and decided to give crit groups another try. A senior member of the writers club matched writers by genre. About 2008, I attended the inaugural meeting of the “Thrillerz” group. Of the five attendees, three are still active, committed members. We meet every two weeks with ten pages (hardcopy or later emailed pages) of our work. We exchange the pages to be read and critiqued by the next group night. Our ground rules are simple: make a commitment to be there (as reasonable as possible), present your pages, and respect others work.

I’m a firm believer in critique groups, but they have to be the right one for you. The wrong readers can present even bigger problems than dangling participles.

  • Members who are defensive in this setting will not learn, nor will they be able to contribute to the betterment of the group.
  • The same goes for writers who have agendas or are competitive.
  • Overworking the work in progress (WIP) can be an excuse for writers who are afraid to move forward.
  • By their nature, crit groups have trouble seeing overall work structure, pacing, turning points, and story and character arcs. (Here is an argument for closed groups)
  • Not all opinions are equal. My schoolteacher friend has more clout when it comes to punctuation. We’ve had members in the past who I consider less credible than others yet I always take something away from their corrections. I have to remind myself that everyone has value.

With all these drawbacks, why would one want to join a group of people who tear your work apart? Simple, to improve your writing. Here are some of the reasons I keep coming back to my group, year after year and have two books published to show for it:

  • The need to clean up prose for punctuation, grammar, and context.
  • It forces me to make a commitment to other people that I will write and turn in 10 pages every two weeks.
  • Other readers can spot weaknesses like passive voice phrasing, excessive adverbs, and poor sentence structure
  • We share info on contests, publishers, our experience and much more. Most of our time is critiquing but when someone has something to share, it is welcomed. Three out of five of our current members have published.

A few more thoughts on choosing a critique group:

  • Decide whether you need an open or closed structure. Open means drop-ins are welcome (think poetry, short story and flash fiction); closed have only committed members (much better for novel-length works).
  • Does your work need to be exclusive to genre? My group has a tough time with different genres like romance (even with a mystery sub-plot) but we did fine with an author who wrote speculative fiction that was suspenseful. Go figure.

Deciding whether to do an online or in person group may be dictated by geography and/or time. Both have value; you can decide which will suit you better.

To find “in person” critique groups, I suggest you join a local writing club, attend a writing class or network with other writers. Online resources include,, Critique Circle and Scribophile. Just be sure your site is reputable and doesn’t charge. Some of these are open critique circles who trade reviews/critiques with other writers. Be willing to check into the rules before you sign up.

I hope your experience is as productive as mine is. Thank you Billie, Susan, Andy, Fred, Julie, Ron, and Robin!

%d bloggers like this: