The First Thing I Ever Wrote–And What I Learned from It

2021-01-06 The First Thing I Ever Wrote and What I Learned from It

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Sometimes, I literally roll dice to choose blog post ideas, and this time, I just had to laugh at the results! Why?

Here was the original question: “What was the first thing you ever wrote, and what did you learn from it?”

Well. The first thing I ever wrote was a series of short stories called The Brown Bears. It was a complete and total knock-off of The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain. (Here’s one of the books I remember reading!)

Guys. I was FOUR when I started writing that fan fiction.

Yes. FOUR.

I guess the fact that I was reading and writing at such a young age is pretty impressive. But I promise you, there was absolutely no originality involved in my first stories, though I apparently had a rudimentary notion of copyright law. (Why else would I change the name of the series?)

But did I actually learn anything from that incredibly early venture into the literary world? I mean, beyond just practice holding a pencil?

Yes, actually. I think I did.

Just Follow Your Passions

When people ask me how long I’ve been writing, and I say, “Since I was four,” the reaction is always shock. Not only did I know how to read and write at an incredibly young age, I’m still doing it.

A hobby I started when I was four became “what I want to be when I grow up” by the time I was seven. And then I actually followed through on that, and now I’m the author of three published novels, a novella, six produced plays, and many published articles.

(Here’s one article I’m particularly proud of: Grant Marsh: Nautical Hero of the Plains. Also, you can shop all my available books here!)

This development of an early interest into a career choice is why I’m keenly interested in watching my nieces’ and nephews’ talents. The oldest girl buries herself in arts and crafts, her younger brother is fascinated by engineering, the next brother is our little sports hero, and their littlest sister can be found coloring all day long–inside the lines, even!

Their interests may or may not keep steady, and they may or may not choose a career based on what they liked when they were young. But regardless, they all show so much talent, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

To this day, I advocate people of all ages just following their interests. You never know where they will lead.

Know What You’re Not Good At

I was very devoted to illustrating my books when I was little. But to be honest… I’m not much better today than I was at the age of four!

At some point, I laid aside illustration. I realized I wasn’t really good at it, that my time might be better spent elsewhere, and even more importantly, that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I enjoyed writing.

Gradually, I learned that I didn’t need to draw images to create pictures. I could do it with my words. If you had known me during my teen years, you frequently would have found me in the basement of the library at the very last row, sitting on the floor and choosing out a new book to read on the craft of writing.

While I’m glad young me decided to illustrate her manuscripts, I’m also okay that older me left that interest behind to better develop what I was really good at and what I really enjoyed.

Fan Fiction Is a Great Way to Learn

I think my biggest takeaway is the understanding that my first stories–from early childhood to my mid-teens–were fan fiction. And that I’m okay with that.

Fan fiction often gets a bad rap. It’s not exactly original work. You’re maybe changing some names and details–or not–and just playing around with someone else’s story. Can you publish this kind of work? Should you? Where exactly does fan fiction belong in our literary landscape?

I’m not sure I have all the answers to those questions. But I can say this definitively: A great way to learn any art is by copying the masters.

I can look back on all the authors I emulated as a child, and I can often times tell you exactly what I learned from each one. What I write today is an amalgamation of skills learned from every writer whose shadow I walked in. And I’m proud of the things I’ve learned from them.

If nothing else, I support fan fiction for the opportunity it creates to learn.

Over to You!

Those are, I think, my three great takeaways from the first thing I ever wrote. Now here are my question for you, which you can answer in the comments below!

  • What was an early passion that you actually followed through on? Or what is one you wished you had? 


  • What did I talk about here that you’d like me to talk about more? Just ask! You could spark a future blog post idea. 

My early writing was kind of sketchy. But look where it’s lead! You can get any of my books autographed:

How I’ve Developed as a Writer: Book I Through Book IV

How I’ve Developed as a Writer: Book I Through Book IV

As I write this, it’s the last week of 2020 (thank God!) and I’m about half-way done writing Mailboat IV (coming June 5, 2021), which marks the half-way point in the Mailboat Suspense Series. (There should be seven or eight books in the series all together.)

With all that in mind, this feels like an appropriate time to look back on the path I’ve walked to get here and reflect. Today, I’m curious to ask the question, “How have I developed as a writer?”

My Fans Changed Everything

I’m not sure my writing style has changed much over the course of four books. (Maybe my readers can tell me different!) And I don’t really think that my writing methods have changed much, either. Furthermore, even though I published the first book back in 2016, my plans for the overall series haven’t changed either. I’m still following the overall plot that I imagined years ago when the inspiration first struck.

But what has changed is the fact that I now have fans–something I barely had when The End of the Pier (Book I) released! I also have a very close connection with those fans. We love to talk! My readers love to tell me what they think of the series and what they want next. I, in turn, often shift course in response to what they say, even while staying true to my original vision.

Here are some examples:

The Tone of the Entire Series

The first thing I ever shifted in response to fan feedback happened before I published Book I. I was running a blog at the time, chronicling my adventures as I worked on The End of the Pier. A high school teacher from the Lake Geneva area ran across my project and expressed her enthusiasm. “I can’t wait to share this book with my students!” she said.

And that’s when I decided there would be no bedroom scenes, and I’d keep the language to a PG13 level.

As you can see, my tiny group of early fans had massive influence on the series. I was still feeling out who my audience was, and so the feedback from my earliest readers really shaped the direction I took with the tone of my books.

Aaaagh! It Can’t End There!

Now that I have thousands of fans, there are two comments I received very frequently. The first is, “Those cliffhangers! They’re killing me!”

As I’ve explained many times, I didn’t realize at first just how broad the scope of this story was. The Mailboat Suspense Series is one, overarching story that touches on the lives of dozens of people, and by and large they all get a turn to share their voice.

Thanks to that, there was just no way the story was going to fit into one book. And so I made the decision to split the story up into multiple volumes. And yes, that resulted in cliffhangers.

But after the first two books–which end very dramatically–and the third book–which has a little bit more of a landing place where the reader can breathe– I’ve changed my approach to those cliffhanger endings. My readers like to feel like they’ve arrived somewhere. They liked the ending of Book III better than Books I and II. And so I’m leaning more and more towards giving each book something that feels more like an ending, even while the overall story continues.

When’s Your Next Book Coming?

The other feedback I get literally all the time? “When is your next book coming out?!” A book that I spent one or two years crafting, my readers can finish in a day. As soon as it’s done, they want the next!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not that great at time management, especially when it comes to big projects! That’s why I finally hired Jacque, my book coach. (She has an entire article over here.) With her keeping me on track, I think I’ll finally be better at fulfilling my release date promises to my readers. That’s a huge sigh of relief for both you and me!

Whodunnit and What Happens Next

But finally, I’ve shifted my books based on what my readers say about the plot and the characters. Whenever I release a book, I ask my readers lots of questions–most importantly, “Who do you think The Man Upstairs is?” Based on your guesses, I’ll shift the plot a little this way or a little that way. It’s my goal to keep you guessing as long as possible!

But I’ll even respond to ideas you suggest. One reader asked about a character who appeared for only one chapter in Mailboat I: The End of the Pier. I never meant for that character to appear again. But that one reader wanted to know more. And so… Mailboat IV sees that obscure character return. And boy, do things get turned upside down because of it!

So for me, the biggest change from Book I to Book IV has simply been writing while my fans watch and wait. It’s very different writing all by oneself, when there’s no one to please but me. Writing can become intimidating once you have a following! But it can also be reassuring. I can simply ask my readers what they want next and what they expect next. In that way, these books are almost literally tailor made.

Let’s Talk!

That’s my look back on five years and almost four books. (Five, if you count The Girl on the Boat.) And like many people, I can’t wait for 2021! (It’s gotta be better than this year, right?)

Here are my questions for you, which you can answer in the comments below:

1.) How do you feel you’ve changed in 2020? How do you feel you’ve changed over the past four years?

2.) Do you think my books have changed from Mailboat I: The End of the Pier to Mailboat III: The Captain’s Tale? If so, how?

See you in 2021!

You can see for yourself whether my writing has changed! Here are the first three books:

My Holiday Playlist

I have bad news: I am that person who starts playing Christmas music as soon as Halloween is over.

Actually, I lied. I start playing Christmas music in September.

To avoid being banished universally by everyone around me, I use a sneaky trick: I play music that no one knows is Christmas music. Such as “The Boar’s Head Carol,” “The Wren in the Furze,” and the unpronounceable “Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil.” (Other fun fact: Not only do I know how to pronounce that title in Irish Gaelic, I can actually sing the whole song.)

You see, I’ve always had a big thing for history. And so some of my Christmas music tastes go way back. I mean way back. “The Boar’s Head Carol” was written in the middle ages when a young Oxford student rammed his book down a boar’s throat when it charged him in the woods. The college then served the boar up for Christmas dinner, and wrote this song in the young scholar’s honor.

But I also listen to many of the oldies and goodies–which I carefully keep to myself until well in November.

Today, I thought I’d serve up a selection of my favorite Christmas albums–and to pay homage to my historical bent, I arranged them from “albums with everyone’s favorite” and worked my way backwards to “albums with the most ancient/unknown songs.” I hope you enjoy!

Note: The rest of this article contains affiliate links. If you click then buy, I’ll get a little kickback. Thanks for supporting a small business! 

Home For Christmas

by Amy Grant

Home for Christmas by Amy Grant

I’m hopeful a lot of you already know this one. I hear tracks from this album in stores and malls during Christmas all the time! Originally released in 1992, this collection of holiday music has already stood the test of time–and I think it will for many years to come. Amy’s soulful singing combines with amazing acoustics, orchestra, and choir to create an experience that takes you everywhere from a playful stroll through the woods, to a reverent moment in church, to sipping coco by the fire. This album never fails to transport me.

My favorite track? That’s so hard! I love them all! But if I were forced to choose, I might say “The Night Before Christmas.”

Stream or buy now


Christmas Album

by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass

Christmas Album by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass

Hello, retro! I’m hoping some of you recognize this album, too! Brass player Herb Alpert released it in 1968, and I listened to it the old-fashioned way when I was a kid–vinyl on a good, old-fashioned turn table! (Is there any better way to get sound?!) The upbeat brass band music on this album will have you dancing in your kitchen all day while the pies and cookies are in the oven.

My favorite track? Definitely “The Bell That Couldn’t Jingle.”

Stream or Buy Now!

Dickens Christmas

by Ed Sweeney

Dickens Christmas by Ed Sweeney

I promise you’ve never heard of this one! But if you like really old-fashioned acoustic instrumentals, this is definitely the album for you. We’re talking banjos, hammered dulcimer, bones, and even a hand bell choir! I’ve done a lot of historical re-enacting in the past, and this album really puts me back in the 19th century.

My favorite track? Another hard choice! But I’m going to go with “Good King Wenceslas.”

Stream or Buy Now!


The Bells of Dublin

by The Chieftains

The Bells of Dublin by The Chieftains

You fans of Irish music–you’ll know what band I’m talking about! The Chieftains are probably the most famous (and almost certainly the longest-running) Irish band ever. They’ve been active since 1962! This album was released in 1991 and contains some of the most ancient and unheard-of holiday music I know, including many traditional pieces with forgotten origins. This album is boisterous and full of Celtic spirit. It’s also a little hard to get ahold of these days! Amazon streaming isn’t an option, and as I write this, Amazon advises that the CD usually ships within one to two months.

But it’s worth it.

My favorite track? “The Wren in the Furze.”

And since I can’t link you to the track, I’ll instead provide you the fascinating history on this song. This was a kind of wassailing song–wassailing being the tradition of singers going house-to-house begging for food and money. Think Christmas caroling combined with modern-day Halloween.

In Ireland specifically, an ancient tradition took place on St. Stephen’s Day–the day after Christmas. Boys and young men would go out in the woods to kill a wren, then put it in a little box and sing from house to house, asking for food and money to give the wren a wake. “The Wren in the Furze” is one of the songs they would sing.

There are layers up on layers of historical tales I could tell related to this one song–such as why the boys kill a wren and why the wren is called “the king of all birds” in the song. But doing so would seriously bunny trail this blog post! Instead, I’m going to recommend that you simply shop for this rare album and enjoy it’s incredibly vast array of holiday favorites and little-known tunes!

Buy the CD Now!

And that’s it! Four of my all-time favorite holiday albums. I hope you check them out, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Need some reading while you listen? Here are today’s best-sellers!