APUSH Consolidated Resources

While writing is a hobby of mine (which one day might evolve into a full-time occupation), my primary source of income by far is through teaching. I have taught American and World History at the high school level for several years now after receiving a BA in History in 2008 and my M.Ed. in 2009. Until this year, I’ve only ever taught regular or honors classes. Now that I’m teaching AP US History, however, I realize the need to have a consolidated list of resources for students and teachers.

The content knowledge and historical thinking skills necessary for successful completion of the class and for achieving a passing score on the AP Exam in May is so broad and rigorous that students HAVE to commit to dedicating time outside of class through self-led studies or teacher-assigned homework. As such, I’ve compiled a list of resources that students and teachers should find helpful throughout the course of the school year. So whether you teach it, are learning it, or are just curious, here’s the list:

Non-Textbook Reading Materials:

  1. United States History, Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination (AMSCO) – ask any APUSH teacher around, and they’ll agree that this is the best resource for content knowledge. It consolidates information into reasonable units and also includes review questions with the same formatting used on the actual APUSH exam. It’s worth noting that earlier editions contained biased language, but my experience with the 2016 edition has been very good.
  2. 5 Steps to a 5: AP US History – I’ve used this on occasion in my class, and several of my students have purchased it. It contains an even more abbreviated content review along with corresponding questions.
  3. Strive for a 5: Preparing for the AP United States History Exam – this book works especially well if your class uses the Henretta APUSH textbook (America’s History). We have a class set, and I often distribute them to students for MCQ and SAQ practice.

 

Video Resources:

  1. Crash Course US History (content)
  2. JocZ Productions (content and writing skills)
  3. Adam Norris Videos (content)
  4. Bio Channel’s Mini Biographies (content)
  5. PBS Presidents: 60-Second Presidents (content)
  6. History Channel’s America: The Story of US (content)
  7. Hip Hughes History (content and writing skills)
  8. Tom Richey (content and writing skills)
  9. Khan Academy (content and writing skills)

General Website Resources:

  1. Gilder Lehrman (also includes videos)
  2. APUSH Review
  3. AP Study Notes
  4. Tom Richey
  5. APUSH Explained
  6. Albert.io – VERY useful for practicing MCQ’s if your district can purchase accounts for your students
  7. College Board – general information on the course and exam expectations
  8. Facebook APUSH Teachers Group – if you teach, apply to JOIN THIS GROUP!

 

Are you a student or teacher and have additional resources to share? Let me know, and I’ll add them in!

A Smoky Mountain Spring Break

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” –Henry David Thoreau

 

As most of you probably know, my husband and I are both teachers, so when Spring Break hits, we run like frantic monkeys towards the opportunity to ditch the desk, hop in a car (okay, minivan), get out of dodge, and go exploring. Teaching is stressful, as is parenting, and I am the type of person who relishes an opportunity to see something new or out of the ordinary, particularly if it’s outdoors. It seriously energizes my soul to be outside. So this year, with the knowledge that the weather was going to be cold (i.e. FRIGID) during our Alabama spring break, we decided to embrace the ice and head not to the beach but to the mountains about 4.5 hours from our house – the Smoky Mountain National Park.

Several years ago, we flew out to Jackson, WY, and visited the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. While the Grand Tetons are – hands down – the most amazingly beautiful mountainous landscape I’ve ever seen, I realized quickly that I preferred the Smoky Mountains to Yellowstone any day. There’s something about the lushly green, fog-blanketed mountains in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee and the Carolinas that are just unmatched anywhere else in the US. Of course, this time we went at the tail end of winter / beginning of spring, so the lushness wasn’t nearly as prominent, especially in the areas hit hardest by the wildfire back in December, but there was no shortage of greenery. And to our surprise, high on the mountaintops was a blanket of 3-4″ of snow. I’ve never seen snow on the Smokys before, so this absolutely delighted me.

We rented a 1-bedroom, 2-story cabin on the ridge of a mountain in Sevierville, about 20 minutes away from Pigeon Forge and the main strip that basically continues all the way into Gatlinburg. I’ll be quite honest – I am not a fan of the tourist trap that comprises the main drags in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. It makes me cringe to see such a beautiful place shoved full of souvenir shops and kitschy attractions. Even now that I have a kid and understand the appeal, those places just aren’t why I visit Gatlinburg. This is why:

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This photograph doesn’t really do it justice, either, but you can get an idea.

So, if you don’t enjoy the souvenir shops, outlet malls, and attractions, what is there to do? Hiking of course, although it was too cold for me to strap on boots and commit to that this time, especially with a toddler in tow. Your other option is driving.

If you’re up for a ride in the car, Cade’s Cove offers a scenic loop through the valley that offers amazing views of the mountains and adjoining meadows. There are even some historic buildings (cabins, churches, etc) that you can stop by and check out. It’s not uncommon to see deer and black bears near the road. Just please, for the love of all, don’t be the person who gets out of their car and stops traffic in order to approach the wildlife. They don’t want to mess with you, and you shouldn’t mess with them either.

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My boys and me in Cade’s Cove

Newfound Gap is another destination that’s worth the time commitment. It’s about 15-20 minutes up the mountain to the lowest drivable pass in the Smokies. The view is stunning, and when we made the trip, the whole area was covered in snow. If you can bear the cold during the winter as the wind whips between the mountains around you, then it’s definitely worth checking out. It’d also be a great place for a break from the heat during the summer.

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Another drive-to location that’s worth the time is Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest peak in the park and the 3rd highest mountain east of the Mississippi. We didn’t get a chance to visit this particular spot this time, but it’s definitely on the list for our next trip.

Finally, if you’re a hiker, the opportunities are limitless in the park. My husband is a huge fan of the Chimney Top Trail, which leads to a panoramic view at the Chimney peaks. Unfortunately, this is where the wildfire started, and the area sustained terrible damage, so that particular trail is closed. There is no shortage of other opportunities, though, including a 71 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Another favorite of the husband is the trail up to Mount LeConte, which he tries to hike when the weather is right. As you could imagine, these trails can be pretty steep and relentless, but ask anyone who’s done it, and they’ll agree – the reward is worth the work.

Lastly, I feel the need to give a shoutout to the artist community in Gatlinburg, to which my husband has personal ties. His grandfather, Jim Gray, has been a long-standing member of the art community and still has a gallery in the area despite having moved several years ago. Many of his paintings capture the enchantment of the mountains and have found homes in houses across the world. He was even commissioned to create a now-iconic statue of Dolly Parton in Sevierville. Additionally, my mother-in-law, Laurie Gray, also left her mark as a sign-designer and artist in the area and frequently uses the Smokies as inspiration for new paintings. You can check out both of their galleries through the hyperlinks.

Regardless of how you choose to spend your time – in the mountains or in the shops – the Gatlinburg region is worthy of a few days of your time. Having seen state parks and national parks in nearly every state this side of the Mississippi, I can attest that the Smoky Mountains are at the top of the list of the most beautiful places in America. If you get a chance, pack a bag, hop in your car, and GO!

 

I got a WHAT?

I’m pretty much going to have to confess that I am literally the WORST at updating this thing. I’m sorry… mostly. But I do have a big update that I need to announce, so here I am!

Let me start at the beginning by saying that two weekends ago (February 24), I took a personal day from work, booked a sub to watch over my nutty APUSH classes, and attended the Alabama Writing Workshop in Birmingham. This was my first writers’ conference, and while I already knew a bit of what was discussed due to my previous writing/querying/publishing experience, I did learn a lot of new information. Even better, I had the opportunity to meet several literary agents and even had the opportunity to pitch one of them with some of my picture book manuscripts.

I’d always heard that pitching in person is a great way to set yourself apart from the querying masses, assuming you aren’t a total spaz… although I imagine that would also set you apart, but not in a good way. So, I researched the agents who were going to be in attendance and was very excited to see that Marisa Corvisiero, agent and founder of the Corvisiero Agency, would be there and that she was looking for picture books. I had pitched THE ELECT another agent at her agency several years ago and got some good feedback but was eventually turned down due to a glut in the market of dystopian fiction. Regardless, I was still interested in her agency and had heard that she’s an amazing agent, so my interest and excitement were piqued.

When I finally had the chance to sit down and speak with Marisa, everything clicked. With a smile on her face, she read my first pb manuscript – a STEM-based nonfiction book – and then offered me representation on the spot. It actually took a few minutes for it to set in, because this never happens. At most, I was expecting to be invited to submit her more work through the traditional query process. She told me I could think about it, but I knew my mind was already made up. Within a week, she agreed to represent all three stories I pitched her, emailed me a contract, and I signed. It’s sort of a dream come true and still doesn’t actually feel real. This opens up so many more doors for publication than if I were to submit my manuscripts myself to publishers, especially since large publishing houses do not accept un-agented manuscripts.

So anyways, after literally YEARS of submitting and querying and trying to find an agent, I am beyond excited to say that I am officially represented by Marisa Corvisiero!

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Twitter Hashtags for Writers

Hey, guys. I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated this site. I’ve been busy teaching and have FINALLY been writing again on several different projects. Lately, I seem to be really in the mood to write picture books of various ilk – from non-fiction STEM topics to cute little dancing animals. It’s been a welcome reprieve from everything else that’s going on, and I’ve decided to start querying some of my stronger manuscripts, because I’d really like to have an agent on my side for my long-term writing career.

Having learned a lot from the last round of queries that I sent out for my now-published novel, The Elect, I immediately went straight to Twitter to see what agents are looking for. What’s so great about twitter? Well, the hashtags. I touched on this in a previous post, but I want to go a bit more in detail. So, I’ll explain my favorite five below.

 

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  1. #MSWL (manuscript wishlist) is your best friend while querying. It allows you to see an enormous amount of agent wishlists as they dump them on twitter. You can filter through them with an additional hashtag (#ya for young adult, #pb for picture books, etc)
    • If you want to just skip Twitter and still get this info, there are 2 websites that already filter it and categorize it for you: www.manuscriptwishlist.com and www.mswishlist.com; both are super valuable.
    • On that same topic, if you’re querying and aren’t already on www.querytracker.net, stop now and go register. You’ll thank me later.
  2. #amquerying – Want to see how many other people are in the query trenches with you? Use this hashtag, and you can all weep together as you await that fateful *ding* in your inbox signaling an agent reply. People can be really funny on this thread or really, really morose. Throw in something to make everyone laugh, and you’ll be a hero.
  3. #querytip – Exactly what it sounds like… agents and editors place their best query advice in 140 characters or less for your benefit. If you’re new, this is a great place to start.
  4. #tenqueries or #10queries – These go right in hand with #querytip. Agents filter through their slush pile and list ten responses to ten random queries on Twitter. You can see what makes them accept a query and what makes them say no thanks.
  5. #pubtip – Self publishing or wondering how publication works? Use this hashtag to get insight from editors in particular about what works and what doesn’t.

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I also can’t talk about Twitter without mentioning my favorite contests. After all, I was published after submitting to a small press (shout out to Clean Reads!) who “liked” my pitch.

  1. #pitmad – Organized by Brenda Drake, #pitmad is an opportunity for writers to pitch their 140 character tweets to dozens of agents and editors who swing by. If they favorite your tweet, congratulations! It’s an invitation to submit an official query to them. It can turn into a bit of a frenzy, and you’re now only allowed to pitch three times per project during the day. The next #pitmad is scheduled for March 8. See here for more information: http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitmad/
  2. #pbpitch – this is like PitMad but is specifically for picture book writers. The next round is on February 23. Find out more information here: http://www.pbpitch.com/picture-book-agents.html 
  3. #adpit – Another pitch party, but this one is geared towards writers of adult and new adult novels. The next round is on April 5. https://heidinorrod.wordpress.com/adpit-and-kidpit/ 
  4. #kidpit – Yet another pitch part, especially targeting writers of all kidlit from board books to young adult fiction. The next round is on April 5, at the same time as #adpit, which makes sense considering they’re hosted by the same person. Learn about #kidpit here: https://heidinorrod.wordpress.com/kidpit/ 
  5. #pitch2pub – This is where I found my publisher, and it’s specifically geared towards finding a publisher, not an agent. If you feel like you can wade the waters of publication (or jump straight into the deep end) without an agent, go for it! I owe my success to this party. I’m not sure when the next round is, but when I find out, I’ll update this page.

 

So there you have it: 10 hashtags that will hopefully make your editing and querying life a little bit easier. Good luck querying! I’ll see you in the trenches!

Favorite Toddler Halloween Books

If you have a small child in your life, chances are that you’ve read your fair share of children’s books. Our 2.5 year old son LOVES to read, so our collection is pretty big and includes everything from board books to early-grade readers. Many of these were gifts from our baby shower (attendees brought a book instead of a card), but most of them were purchased by myself at discount stores (TJ Maxx and thrift stores) or on sale at Books a Million or Barnes and Noble.

With the changing of the seasons, I recently busted out our Halloween themed books, and Little Man has gotten a kick out of them. As such, and because I know SO many people who have tiny tots around the same age as mine, I thought I would share our top 5 favorite Halloween books.

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#1

Llama Llama Trick or Treat

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We’ve had this book for a couple of years now, and no matter how many times we read it, Dylan always wants more. I don’t know what it is about this particular book, but he goes nuts for it. It’s fairly short – less than 30 words long – but something about it enchants him.  Anna Dewdney, the author of the Llama Llama collection, recently passed away, and I’m glad that her legacy continues on inside of our little library.

#2

Spooky Wheels on the Bus

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Dylan loves the “Wheels on the Bus” song, so this was a natural YES for him. It’s just a reimagined version of the classic children’s songs that not only counts to ten but also incorporates some silly Halloween lyrics, like “ten goofy ghosts go boo-oo-oo.” We sing through this book at least once each night.

#3

Little Blue Truck’s Halloween

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Written by Alice Shertle, Little Blue Truck’s Halloween is an adorable addition to the Little Blue Truck collection. It stars each of Little Blue’s favorite animal friends, dressed up in costumes, and is a “call and response” style of narration that prompts little readers to guess what animal hides beneath each flap. It’s interactive not only on the physical page but also in the storyline, which makes this another favorite for our toddler.

#4

Five Little Pumpkins

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If you ever want to buy a book that your toddler will want to read over and over, buy Five Little Pumpkins. As counting book with a sweet rhyme scheme and natural rhythm, this one is a keeper, especially with its vibrant illustrations. This book gets read 3 or 4 times a day in our house.

#5

Mickey’s Spooky Night

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Simply put, you can’t get more toddler-friendly than Mickey Mouse. This book is no exception. Although it’s a little wordy, it draws our little man in every single time. It does have a little bit more suspense than some of the other books, but he seems to like it as much if not more than the rest. If you have a Mickey fan in the house, definitely consider this one for your library.

What about you? Does your little guy or gal have some favorite Halloween books to add to the list? Let me know in the comments!

Goodreads Ads: Worth the Price?

You probably know by now that my debut novel, The Elect, was recently published through a small press – Clean Reads.

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After the initial excitement simmered down, I realized that my biggest challenge was not going to be actually writing the book. It was/is going to be marketing my book.

I have the standard Facebook and Twitter accounts, but on Twitter especially, I feel like my posts get lost in an onslaught of tweets. I try to tailor them using hashtags, but they often get minimal response. Additionally, I don’t want to be one of those authors who just spams Twitter with her book cover and pitches. How many times have I been tempted to buy a book due to an author’s twitter post? Zero. I assume that  most people are like me in this regard.

So how should I market my novel? Having gone through a small press, the vast majority of this responsibility falls back on me. I majored in history, and I teach high school. Marketing is a bit beyond my scope, especially when considering my introverted personality.

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Last week, I decided to cough up $25 and create an ad through Goodreads. I figured that this website, which I’ve used as a reader for several years, was as good of a starting place as any. I set my price per click at $.50 with an initial daily cap of $5. Several days passed, and despite being seen by almost 2,000 users, nobody clicked. Zip. Nada.

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So a couple of days ago, I decided to up the ante. I changed my price per click to $1 and set a daily cap at $10 (not to exceed my initial $25 purchase). I figured that the more money I was willing to pay Goodreads per click, the more they might show it to a larger audience. Guess what happened.

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Nothing. Still no clicks, despite reaching over 3,000 people. So my $25 is still floating around Goodreads purgatory, waiting for the right people to come along and click away. It’s been 8 days already. We’ll see how long it takes to use up that $25.

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The takeaway: in the end, Goodreads ads – for me – are a bust (at least for now). Perhaps if I was willing to pay more ($100 or $200 instead of $25), it might work. The good thing is that your money has no expiration date. The bad thing is that it might just float around for an undetermined amount of time before actually getting used. For now, I’ll play around with my click prices and daily caps and hope that it gets seen by the right eyes in time.

So how about you? Are there any marketing methods that have worked for you and that you would recommend to other authors? Let me know in the comments!

Top 5 Things I’ve Learned About Publishing a Novel

I don’t consider myself to be an expert writer. I doubt I’ll ever feel truly confident in my writing. But, I have achieved the major goal of publication thanks to the awesome staff at Clean Reads who decided to give my manuscript a chance. It took 4 years – 4 long, feast-or-famine, submission-after-submission years – to write and edit my novel and only 6 whirlwind months to publish it in its initial ebook format. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. Let’s start with the most obvious (with a little help from Kimmy Schmidt).

#5

Your First Draft Isn’t Ready

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Unless you are some sort of magical word wizard with perfect delivery, grammar, spelling, dialogue, etc., your first draft is just that – a draft. It’s a starting point for your story. I, like many other novice writers, fell under the temptation to believe that once I’d typed that final period at the end of my last sentence, I had completed a full novel. I scanned it a couple of times for typos and then submitted it to literary agents. While I did get a few nibbles, no one was interested. Only after a month or two break from actually writing my novel did I realize how much work it still needed. It was actually pretty depressing, but it made sense. My book just wasn’t ready. It took 4 more re-writes and a lot of tweaking in between to get my novel to its current form.

So what’s the lesson? If you’ve just finished your manuscript or are close to finishing and are thinking about jumping straight into the query trenches, as tempting as it may be, set your novel aside for a few weeks (or months) and go back with fresh eyes. Better yet, let a couple of beta readers read it during those rest weeks. They’ll have much better feedback and can help you fix major plot holes or other problems in your story.

#4

You Don’t NEED an Agent

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While major publishing houses still dominate the mass market, we live in an era of independent publishing, either through small presses like Clean Reads or through self-publication venues like Amazon, which means having an agent may not be necessary for you. Throughout the last couple of years, I submitted to dozens of agents who, while complimenting my writing, declined representation due to a glut in the market for dystopian novels. I understood this reasoning in the midst of Divergent and Hunger Games fandom/hysteria, but I also was very frustrated. Thankfully for me, it turns out that I didn’t ultimately need one. I was offered a contract after I submitted to my publisher through a traditional query letter. While this was exhilarating, it was also a little terrifying. I alone had to wade through contract legalese, which meant I spent hours researching publication contracts to make sure that I knew what I was getting into.

Now, do I wish I had an agent? ABSOLUTELY. Agents are there to serve as a liaison between you and potential publishers and to make sure that your work is getting the best deal possible. They also assist in marketing your book, although the majority of that work still falls on individual authors. I will definitely submit any subsequent novel to agents, but for now, everything is negotiated and discussed straight between me and my publisher. In the meantime, I’ll continue to follow agent blogs (almost every large agency has one) and Querytracker.net, and I’ll glean as much advice and information through those venues as possible to prepare me for the next round.

 

#3

Twitter is an Author’s Goldmine

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No, seriously. If you’re a writer, and you aren’t on twitter, go now and create an account. Despite general networking potential (which is amazing – but only if you actively put yourself out there), it is a mecca for advice and submission opportunities. Twitter is full of hungry agents and editors, and they are VERY active users, willing to speak directly to you (as long as you aren’t harassing them with unsolicited pitches). Best of all, Twitter is actually how I found my publisher after she favorited a pitch of mine during a contest. Pitch Wars and Pit2Pub are two contests that come to mind right off the bat. They only take place occasionally, but they’re great for submission opportunities and camaraderie among fellow writers.

As for hashtags, here are a few of the most popular:

#MSWL stands for manuscript wishlist and is useful for finding out what types of stories agents are looking for. Pair it with a genre (#mswl #scifi), and you could narrow down your search to agents who might be interested in your genre.

#AskAgent is another fantastic hashtag. Agents will occasionally open themselves up for a few hours to questions from writers. As long as you include #askagent, you have a good chance of receiving a response. However, this is not a frequently patrolled hashtag, so unless there’s an active session taking place, you may find your question goes unanswered. Oh, and one more thing – don’t use this to pitch your material. It’s just not good form.

#querytip and #pubtip are FULL of advice from agents and editors alike. They’re exactly what they sound like – little tidbits of advice in 140 characters or less. Don’t underestimate the help you can get here, especially if you’re in the query trenches.

#tenqueries or #10queries are really useful as well. As agents filter through the slush submissions in their inbox, they will occasionally post to this hashtag and detail (as much as you can in 140 characters) why they have either rejected the query or asked for sample material, such as a full manuscript. This is a great sneak-peek into agents’ minds.

#2

Publication Means Lots of Edits and Lots of Marketing

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Chances are, if your work gets accepted by an agent or a publisher, you’re going to have to make some revisions and edits. No matter how many beta readers you’ve used or how many times you’ve read through your manuscript, there are inevitably going to be typos. You’ll go through several rounds of edits, from content to formatting to grammar. Don’t be offended by this process. Your editors only want to make your book as good as possible. Heed their advice and don’t take it personally. If, by chance, they suggest something that you just do not agree with, communicate about it in a rational manner. Don’t be a diva, but also don’t be a mouse.

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Speaking of communication, marketing is hard work, especially if you’re an introvert like me. People aren’t just going to stumble upon your book when it’s one in a market of millions. Selling books means putting yourself out there. Unfortunately, I don’t just enjoy asking people to buy my book. It feels prideful, even though I know it isn’t. I have a product, just like any artist or tradesman, and part of my job now is to encourage people to buy it. Start with a Twitter account (@MrsCarterWrites) and Facebook page (https://facebook.com/laurawadsworthcarter), maybe even a website or blog, and go from there. For now, this is still a struggle for me, but if I find any great resources, I’ll be sure to share them!

 

#1

Publication Will Not Fulfill You*

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For years, I told myself (lied to myself) that I would be satisfied once I was published. “Let me just get this book published, and I’ll be content.” The truth? I’m not. Don’t get me wrong – being published is a dream come true. But it’s not a stopping point. Even though I danced and got butterflies and yelled it to the world (or to my friends and family, rather), I did not have some grand epiphany or sigh of relief when I saw my book on Amazon. My journey didn’t end once the link went live. It’s like crossing a finish line only to keep running. There’s more writing to do, more stories to be told, more marketing to execute, more networking to be done, and there’s no “finish line” in sight. This is a lifestyle, not an ending point, and it’s a juggling act to say the least.

On a similar note, I want to address one more realization. Once the initial excitement dissipated, I was still me in the same house with the same teaching career and the same family, and it was GOOD. I quickly realized that publication in and of itself, while an accomplishment, does not define me nor fulfill me. I am more than an author, more than a book. I am defined by and fulfilled by my faith and my Father. My family is still the most important part of my life, and life carries on as it has for the last several years.

But I won’t dare lie and say it isn’t fun to tell people, “I published a book!”

 

 

Now it’s your turn! Are there any other lessons or advice from the query trenches or from behind the laptops that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments!

Top 5 Vacation Spots

It’s no secret that my husband and I love to travel. Since we’re both teachers, we are a bit limited in how much we can spend on a trip, but we exchange that for the benefit of having 7-8 weeks of freedom during the summer (when we aren’t prepping for next year). We were married in 2009 and have tried to take a trip every year since then and have covered almost every state east of the Mississippi River and a few out west. So, without any further ado, here are my top five favorite spots.

5. Charleston, South Carolina

We swung through Charleston back in October 2009 on a quasi 2nd honeymoon roadtrip. I’d always heard about how nice Charleston was, but it actually surprised me. We stayed on the coast at Wild Dunes Resort, which I got a pretty great Priceline deal on. Having grown up in Alabama, I’m used to the powdery white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, so I was in for a big shock when we hit the Atlantic. The sand was flat (and not sticky!), the sunrises were amazing, and the people were friendly.

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We spent the next day in Charleston itself. Our typical method of exploration is to find a parking spot for the car and then walk as far and as aimlessly as possible. Before long, we found ourselves at the Charleston Market commons. Set in open-air brick buildings that are hundreds of years old, the market is the premier shopping location for pretty much anything. From food to clothing to trinkets to art, you can find almost anything you’d want in one of the loveliest shopping spots in the southeast.

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Speaking of food, one of the best restaurants we’ve ever eaten at was in Charleston. Called SNOB by locals, Slightly North of Broad offers southern cuisine with a bistro flair. Eat there. Seriously. Go do it.

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4. Skyline Drive in Virginia

I’m a sucker for a good view. You’ll find that many of my favorite spots involve the mountains. Shenandoah National Park is no exception. On our way to Washington DC (another favorite but not top 5), we went off the commercial, beaten path and took Skyline Drive. Filled with tons of pull-off spots with amazing views, Skyline Drive puts you eye-level with the clouds so that you can see miles and miles of American landscape beneath you. There are only a few entrances and exits, so only commit if you’re not on a time schedule and don’t have any immediate potty needs (unless you want to go… ahem… natural). We plan on taking this route again when we return to Washington DC this summer, and I’m already anticipating the scenery.

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3. New York State

Part 1: The City
I was admittedly very nervous about going to NYC. The media does a pretty great job of making the city seem dirty, overcrowded, and full of rude people. While it was definitely extremely crowded, I was very pleasantly surprised to find it clean and friendly. Not only that, but it was just plain exciting and really fun. We stayed in Newark, New Jersey, which I highly recommend, and took the subway into the city.

For two days, we walked and ate our way from one side of the island to the other and tried to hit all of the high points – Central Park, Times Square, the southern pier, the World Trade Center Memorial. We had some kick-butt pizza and cheesecake at Joe’s Pizza and even – get this – ran into a college buddy at a random street corner. How unlikely! Turns out that I love NYC and want to go back when we have some more time (and money).

Part 2: Upstate
Upstate New York is by far one of the prettiest areas I’ve seen in the country. We drove straight across the state, heading from Camden, Maine, to Niagara Falls, New York, and stopped at a few state parks along the way. These parks have now become some of my favorite places in the US.

The first one we went to was Watkins Glen State Park. I don’t know how else to describe it other than saying that it’s like visiting Tolkein’s Rivendell (minus the elves, of course). It’s essentially a narrow canyon canopied by trees and filled with waterfalls and vegetation. Steps have been carved into the canyon itself, which is amazingly cool. You HAVE to see this place.

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The next was Letchworth State Park. Called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth has some of the biggest, most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. There are two falls – the Upper and Lower falls, and they are just amazing and powerful. We spent a long time just walking along the edge of the canyon and even had lunch at a restaurant that (if I remember correctly) overlooked the Upper Falls. I’d love, love, love to get back to New York sometime in the future and to show our son the beauty of these state parks.

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2. Maine

When we married in 2009, we were given a very generous wedding gift by one of Evan’s uncles and his wife – plane tickets to Maine. It’s not exactly where I thought I would honeymoon, but I am SO glad we went. In fact, we loved it so much that went back in 2013 during our epic road trip.

So what’s so great about Maine? For starters, we went in July, which is when the temperature in Alabama averages 95 degrees and the air is so humid that you might as well breathe in hot pea soup. Maine in July? Perfect. We stayed along the coast, not far from Camden, which is a really cute harbor town full of shops and restaurants that overlook the water.

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In 2009, we stayed in a cabin at Point Lookout Resort (which was absolutely beautiful), but we mostly camped when we returned a few years later. To be honest, I actually preferred camping, because the views (and prices) were hard to beat, especially if you had a hammock you could string up between some trees, and we did. We also stayed a night in Bar Harbor, which is home to Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the East Coast. This was another one of my favorite places – the view is incredible, and it isn’t (or wasn’t for us) terribly overcrowded so you can actually feel the peace that comes with the environment.

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One more thing – if you go to Maine, you have to eat lobster. Drive until you find a restaurant that’s right on the water, preferably one with a dock, and then order pretty much anything on the menu. Maine is why Seafood Newburg is one of my favorite dishes EVER (as found at The Lobster Pound in Lincolnville). And one more thing – the locals will try to get you to taste a Moxie Soda… do it at your own peril.

1. Jackson, Wyoming

Jackson is definitely the outlier of the bunch and was somewhat spontaneous on our part. While snowed in off and on for nearly two weeks in February 2015, my husband and I were getting stir-crazy. We had an almost-one-year-old son by this point and, having missed our big trip opportunity the previous summer due to having a newborn, we decided to book a trip to somewhere we both had on our bucket lists – Jackson.

Wyoming did not disappoint. We stayed in a cabin on the Snake River about 20 minutes north of Jackson and spent an entire week exploring the Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was very beautiful (and HUGE), but it wasn’t necessarily my favorite. Why? I couldn’t tell you. Between Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic and the mountains, I should have loved it, but it just didn’t strike too much of a chord for me. My only guess is that it’s because I’m used to the lush forests of the Smokey Mountains, and Yellowstone is quite different.

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So if Yellowstone wasn’t my favorite, then why is Wyoming #1? Because of this:

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The Grand Teton National Park is absolutely breathtaking. Snow-covered mountains; beautiful, green forests; and winding rivers make this park my favorite thus far. The town of Jackson was pretty neat (especially the square), but what really won me over was just the beauty of the scenery. I told you – I’m a sucker for a good view – and the best views come from nature in my experience.

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I really don’t have anything else that I can add to my description of Jackson Hole – it’s a place unlike anywhere you’ll find east of the Mississippi River. Even the airport is incredible. Wildlife is abundant, the air is clean, and the mountains are gorgeous. If you ever get to go, rent some bikes and pedal through the park – it’s worth the energy expenditure. And if you have been, you know what I’m talking about. The Grand Tetons are unfiltered, untouched beauty that cannot be replicated or faked. Take my advice and GO!

Purple Flowers

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” – Henri Matisse

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I love working in the garden. I do. I suppose I get it from my mom’s mother, Bernice – my Grandmommy. She passed away last year, but as a child, I remember going up to visit my grandparents at the top of the mountain in Fort Payne, Alabama, and spending hours playing in her gardens, which were always immaculate. She grew vegetables, yes, and lots of them, but the thing I remember most from her gardens (besides the old tire swing beside the barn) were her irises. She had dozens of them along the fence that separated her yard from Grandaddy’s terrain – the cow pasture. She’d often send my mother home with bags of them to plant at our house. My mother never turned them down.

Now as an adult living close to the downtown area of Huntsville, Alabama, I don’t have room for much in my yard, but I do have irises. I also have hydrangeas, azaleas, gardenias, gladiolus, butterfly bush, and lantana. I also have my share of vegetables. That is, when the chipmunks aren’t sabotaging my raised beds. I love our little piece of property.

But the part of my yard that has frustrated me for all 4 years that we’ve lived here is the lawn itself, probably because actual grass is hard to come by. It’s a sea of clover and violets and dandelions and who knows what else. I guess it’s because I live in suburbia, where everyone is supposed to have a perfect grassy lawn, and the fact that many of my neighbors put in quite a bit of time to get theirs pristine, but I always think that my lawn just looks… bad.

Well, we have a two-year-old boy who also loves to play outside. He could spend hours on end chasing the dogs through the yard or playing with bubbles or pushing his little toy mower through the *ahem* weeds. A couple of weeks ago, he and I were outside while some of our wild hyacinth and violets were blooming – the back of the yard was a sea of purple. I looked out over it and thought about how much I needed to mow the yard to get rid of those weeds.  My son, however, saw it through different eyes.

“Purple flowers,” he said, over and over as he picked them one at a time with gentle fingers, smiling at each little bloom as he made his tiny bouquet. I just watched, and with each added bloom, my own smile began to grow. He didn’t know that those flowers weren’t supposed to be there, and he certainly didn’t care that they were. In fact, it was the opposite – it was unadulterated joy for my child to have access to all the little flowers he could want. And then he took it one step further.

All on his own initiative, this little boy ran as fast as he could across the yard, reached up his little fistful of flowers, and gave them to me. “Mama’s flowers,” he said, and he was so, so proud. I don’t think I need to explain how my heart melted in that moment, but it did. And in that moment, my toddler son taught me a lesson. I don’t think I’ll ever want to get rid of those little purple flowers now. Our yard doesn’t need to conform to suburban standards. It’s safe, toddler-friendly, and colorful. How could I want anything different? And besides, what good is a lawn?

So, should you in ever find yourself at our house, please don’t expect a manicured yard. Instead, expect laughter, flowers, and a lot of love.