Smoky Trudeau Zeidel, Author of “On the Choptank Shores”

Welcome, Smoky! What is your book, On the Choptank Shores, about?

The tragic deaths of her mother and two younger siblings have left Grace Harmon responsible for raising her sister Miriam and protecting her from their abusive father, Luther, a zealot preacher with a penchant for speaking in Biblical verse who is on a downward spiral toward insanity. Otto Singer charms Grace with his gentle courtship and devotion to his brother, Henry. But after their marriage, Otto is unable to share with Grace the terrible secret he has kept more than twenty years. Otto believes he is responsible for a tragic accident that claimed the life of a young woman and left Henry severely brain damaged.

Luther’s insane ravings and increasingly violent behavior force Grace to question and reassess the patriarchal religious beliefs of her childhood. Then tragedy strikes just when Otto’s secret is uncovered, unleashing demons that threaten to destroy the entire family. Can Grace find the strength to save her sister … her marriage … them all?

On the Choptank Shores is a love story. The love between a young wife (Grace) and her decidedly middle-aged husband (Otto), and the love of a big sister for her abused baby sister (Miriam). It’s the story of the love for an aging, grief-stricken father (Luther) who is spiraling into a dark world of insanity, and the love of a kind and benevolent God whom Grace knows must exist, despite the crazed ravings of her father, who paints a picture of a vengeful, angry God as he spouts biblical verse to defend his abuse of both Grace and little Miriam. It is a story of the land on which they live, and the power of Mother Nature. Most of all, it is a story of love conquering all.

Who is your most unusual character?

That would be Henry. Henry is Otto’s younger brother who, although a grown man, has the mind of a child ever since a childhood accident left him brain damaged. He can be violent, mostly out of frustration. But he can be very kind, too, and he becomes a great friend to little Miriam, who mentally isn’t much younger than Henry at all, despite the wide difference in their chronological years. Henry gets in deep trouble in the book, but in the end, he turns out to be … whoops! Almost put a spoiler in there! I better leave it at that!

Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it?

On the Choptank Shores is set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, at a peach orchard named Windy Hill. Windy Hill Orchard was my aunt and uncle’s home, where I spent many happy vacations as a child raiding my aunt’s garden, devouring her blue crab cakes, swimming in the river, and jumping in the sand pit—although we weren’t supposed to do the latter, because my uncle feared the sand would cave in on us. My aunt and uncle were long gone by the time I wrote the book, so most of my research entailed talking to my mother to have her remind me of details about Windy Hill that I needed but had forgotten. I also dug through old photos taken at Windy Hill to help transport my mind back to that simpler time and place.

But I also did a bit of research at the library. I do have one sex scene in the book—it isn’t gratuitous; it actually makes a point about one of the main themes of the book—and I had to research what sort of underclothing a woman in the late 1920s would be wearing. It was fun! For example, Grace did not wear a bra; she wore a bust confiner. That was a fun fact to uncover.

I also had to research what giving birth would have been like back then. They certainly didn’t allow fathers into the delivery room, of course; nor did they have epidurals. It’s a wonder to me any mother survived childbirth before the advent of epidurals.

How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?

That’s differed from book to book. My other published novel, The Cabin, I had most of the story plotted out in my head before I set a finger on the keyboard. That was easy to do, because the plot stemmed from a story in my family’s history that I found fascinating.

But for On the Choptank Shores, I had a totally different idea of what the story would be when I started out than when I finished writing it. The characters just took over and wouldn’t let me write what I thought I was going to write! And they were correct in doing so, and I was smart to let them. Their story was so much better than the one I thought I was going to tell!

Do you have specific techniques you use to develop the plot and stay on track?

While meditating, I often come up with rough ideas for scenes I need to write. The characters get in my head and tell me what to write when I’m in such a relaxed state. I also sometimes dream scenes, which is pretty wonderful when it happens.

As to staying on track: often, I don’t. But that’s because, as I said in the last question, if my characters aren’t happy with the way I’m telling the story, they tend to take over and tell the story their way instead of the way I’m telling it. Sometimes, jumping the track is better than staying on it!

How (or when) do you decide that you are finished writing a story?

I am so glad you asked that question! As a former writing instructor, I get concerned when writers announce they are writing a 90,000-word book, or they have 4,000 words to go before they finish writing their book. How, exactly, can you know how long your story is going to be? My opinion is, you write until the story is done. Then, you stop. That means sometimes I end up with a novel, sometimes a novella. Sometimes, it’s a short story—one of my more popular short stories (it’s been published five time!) is “Good-bye, Emily Dickinson.” I wanted badly for that story to be a novel, but it just wasn’t. It was a short story. I would have had to pad, and pad, and pad to stretch it further, and that would have diluted the story.

Of course, once you have some experience, you can judge whether your story will be a novel or not. But exact word count? I don’t think so.

So, to get off my teacher soapbox and answer your question, I write until the story is done. When it reaches the climax, when I’ve done my denouement, I call it quits. Period.

I do have a neat trick I’d like to share for knowing exactly which sentence should be your last. Remove the last sentence. Is the final paragraph still strong? Does it make sense? If it does, now remove that sentence and ask yourself the same questions. If it does, now remove that sentence. Keep doing this until you weaken your ending by removing a sentence. Add that necessary one back, and that should be the end.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

First, your characters must ring true. That means your hero or heroine can’t be perfect; they must have flaws. Similarly, your antagonist can’t be all bad. For your characters to ring true, you also have to get dialogue right. People speak in contractions, for example, yet it’s drummed into us in school not to use them!

Your plot must, of course, revolve around a central conflict. There are probably going to be other conflicts as well making up your sub-plots, but it amazes me how many manuscripts I’ve edited for people where there was no central conflict. They hadn’t written stories; they’d written “A Day in the Life of…” types of things. But that’s basic principle of fiction writing! No conflict, no story.

There are more, but those are the most important, in my opinion.

Do you prefer to write at a particular time of day?

I am definitely a morning person. I like to arise before the sun and write. By about lunchtime, my mind starts to tire. I’ll switch to any editing jobs I’ve contracted at that time.

Of course, if I’m really on a roll and still feeling fresh, I’ll continue to write. But, generally speaking, mornings are when I’m at my best.

Do you have a favorite snack food or beverage that you enjoy while you write?

Graham crackers and Coca-Cola. I have a very testy stomach, and grahams and Coke keep it soothed while I write.

Does writing come easy for you?

Yes and no. When I sit down to write, the words flow, and flow easily and well. I’ve been told I’m a natural-born writer, but I don’t know if that’s the case. I grew up in a house full of books, and was always a natural-born reader, and I think being well-read is crucial to becoming a great writer.

The problem for me is the same problem most writers have, and that’s finding the time to write. That is not always easy!

What’s been the most surprising part of being a writer?

The awe some people display when they find out I’ve not only written a book, but written several! Really, I don’t tell people I’m an author to stun them! It’s what I do, just like some people are gardeners or bank tellers or forest rangers. But there is something about being a writer that makes other people think you’re pretty cool—even if you aren’t!

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on my third novel, called The Storyteller’s Bracelet. A storyteller’s bracelet is a Navajo bracelet that has pictographs carved into it that tell the artist’s story, or another person’s story. My sister gave me one a few years back, and the inspiration for this novel came from that.

I’m also working on another project, called The Madam of Bodie. It’s loosely based on true stories from Bodie, California, which was known as “the baddest town in the West” during the California gold boom. It’s a state park now and one of my favorite places to visit when we go to the Sierras. It’s a writers dream, as far as inspiration goes.

Have you written any other books?

Yes, I have! There’s my novel, The Cabin, which I’ve already mentioned. My latest release is Short Story Collection, Vol. 1; the print edition of that was released just a few days ago. Then there’s Observations of an Earth Mage, my photo/essay book of reflections on nature.

I also have another new eBook release that will be available in print in October: Smoky’s Writers Workshop Combo Set. The book is comprised of both my books for writers: Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside You From Start to Finish; and Left Brained, Write Brained: 366 Writing Prompts and Exercises., The former title is the same fiction writer’s workshop I used to teach, so people can get an entire 10-week writing class in one book, plus a year’s worth of writing exercises in one book with the new, combined book. It’s a great way for someone who wants to write a book to learn the right way to do it, and it works! One of my former writing students, Robert Hays, learned to write fiction with my method, and he’s gone on to publish four novels!

Where can people learn more about your books?

Here’s the list of all my links. I hope people will look me up in these places, friend and/or follow me, and say hello!

Website and “Smoky Talks” Blog:
Facebook Fan Page:                  
Amazon Author Page:               
Goodreads Author Page:          
Smashwords Author Page:       
All Romance Author Page:       

Click here to read an excerpt from: On the Choptank Shores

Click here for an interview with: Grace Harmon Singer, Hero of On the Choptank Shores by Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

Grace Harmon Singer, Hero of “On the Choptank Shores” by Smoky Trudeau Zeidel

Welcome, Grace. What is your story?

I was born on April 12, 1909, in Pennsylvania. I had a sister, Emily, who was only ten months older than me. We were very close. But then, Emily died, and my grief-stricken father moved us to a small farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

I was content to be an only child, although I missed Emily terribly. I spent my days helping Mama in the garden, doing the mending, singing in the church choir.

But then, God gave us quite a surprise gift: Mama gave birth to twins, Matthew and Miriam. But that gift was not for us to share for very long. Matthew died of typhoid fever, and Mama, too broken by the loss of yet another child, died a year later. That left me to care for little Miriam and our father.

But Papa was changed. The loving man who had been our father became angry, bitter. He became abusive, especially toward Miriam, and he spouted Biblical verse to justify his behavior.

Lucky for me, I fell in love with a wonderful man, Otto Singer. When we married, I moved to his home on Windy Hill, and took Miriam with me. I thought things would at last be stable for my sister, and that I could raise her to have a normal life. But Papa would not let that happen. The rest of the story is beautifully told by my author, Smoky Trudeau Zeidel, in the book On the Choptank Shores.

What is your problem in the story?

My father, and his descent into madness. Understand, my father was a kind and loving man when I was a child. But the deaths of Emily, Matthew, and my mother were too much for him to handle. He went increasingly insane, and as he did so, he tried harder and harder to control me and to take Miriam away from me. I could not let that happen: he abused Miriam terribly, and spouted verses from the Bible to justify his abuse. Of course, he was taking them terribly out of context, but he would not listen to me, or to my husband Otto, or anyone else who tried to help him.

Unfortunately, Otto was struggling with demons of his own, demons I was not aware of when we wed. He believed he was responsible for the death of a young woman named Lily more than two decades earlier, in a tragic accident that left his brother, Henry, brain damaged. I don’t know why he felt he couldn’t tell me about what happened. Maybe his guilt was too strong; maybe it was his pride. But his story came to a head just as my father became totally deranged, and there I was, stuck in the middle, wanting to help my husband, help my father, and protect my sister, all at once.

So, did you embrace this conflict, or did you run from it?

Neither, really. No one likes conflict; we all want our lives to run smoothly, and we want to be happy, content. But neither could I run from the conflict in my life. It involved the people I hold most dear to my heart. I had to do what I could to save them, or I could not live with myself. As it is, there is a deep ache in my heart about how the conflict resolved itself in the end. I’m not ready to talk about that now, though. I think Smoky, my author, was able to sum up my feelings pretty well in the book, though.

How does your author, Smoky Trudeau Zeidel, see you? Do you think she portrayed you accurately?

I’m very pleased Smoky recognized me as a woman of quiet strength. Yes, I am young. I had my twentieth birthday only recently. But I mothered my sister for several years before marrying Otto, and of course, I continue to mother her now. I cared for my father as well as he would allow for as long as I could; I would have continued to care for him after my marriage if he had allowed it. Otto would gladly have built a room on our house for Papa, just as he did for Miriam. But it was not to be …

Yes, I believe Smoky portrayed me accurately. I put my family first in all things, but I also have the good sense to know I must keep my own strength up and take time to care for myself, Grace, in order to be able to be the wife and mother I need to be. She captured that in the book. I’m very proud of her for doing that.

You said your father spouts Biblical verse to justify his abuses. What do you believe, Grace?

I don’t believe in the violent, vengeful God my father espouses, the one found in so much of the Old Testament. I also don’t believe God meant for man to dominate woman, or for parent to abuse child. I believe in a kinder, gently God, a God with a feminine face. I believe in the God of Naamah, Noah’s wife, a story that is not in the Bible but which has been handed down from generation to generation through the women in my family, and other families as well. My mother told me the story of Naamah often as a child. Smoky relates it in On the Choptank Shores. It is a beautiful tale of a woman’s strength and the important role she plays here on earth.

What makes you happy?

My husband makes me happy. Seeing Miriam growing and thriving, despite all she has been through, makes me happy. Working in my garden, getting dirt and sand beneath my fingernails, watching my plants grow, knowing they will nourish my family, makes me happy. Reading a good book while sitting on the riverbank makes me happy. And the two gifts I receive at the end of Smoky’s book make me happy, although I’m not at liberty to say exactly what those gifts were.

Life makes me happy. I am a content person by nature, despite all that has transpired.

What is your greatest disappointment?

I believe there are two that are equally disappointing to me. One is that my siblings, Emily and Matthew, did not survive, and are not here with me today. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t miss Emily; she was my best friend as well as my sister. And Matthew was such a sweet little boy. When he died, he took a part of Miriam with him. They were twins, after all.

My second disappointment was that things could not have ended differently in On the Choptank Shores. Yes, in the end, Otto, Miriam, and I were all safe and happy. But things ended differently for other people we loved. And while I know it could not have ended any other way, I still have regrets.

Do you consider yourself lucky?

I consider myself blessed; I don’t know if luck has anything to do with it. I am blessed to have found this wonderful man, Otto, to love, and to be loved by him. I am blessed that Miriam is thriving. I am blessed to live here, in this special place on the shores of the Choptank River, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. There is much that is good in my life, and for which I am thankful.

What are you afraid of?

Goodness, I never really thought of it! Afraid of, afraid of … I’m not really afraid of anything that I can think of, although I detest earwigs! Earwigs in the garden give me the shivers, but when they get in the house, well, yes, I am afraid of them! Isn’t that the silliest fear on earth? To be afraid of a little bug like an earwig? Oh, and I’m not to crazy about centipedes, either. That’s very odd, being afraid of those two things. Usually, I really like insects. They play such a valuable role in nature, pollinating plants, doing what they do. But earwigs and centipedes? What was God thinking?

What is your most prized possession?

I don’t really have a lot of possessions. We live a pretty simple life. But I guess if I had to name one thing, it would be this pearl, here, in my wedding ring. We found it in an oyster we bought at the Oyster Shack when we stopped there to eat, the day we were married. It’s a beautiful pearl, isn’t it? We married so quickly, Otto hadn’t had time to buy me a ring, so he had it set in one for me. I never take it off, I treasure it so.

What are the last three books you read?

I love to read! Often, I can read a book a day; I guess if I was born with one God-given talent, it was my ability to read very quickly. The last three books I read were A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; which was a very sad book with a wonderful, heroic ending; Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, which is a perennial favorite of mine; and Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley, a delightful tale if there ever was one!

Can you name five items that are in your purse?

Good heavens, what a question! Let me think! Hmmm, I have my handkerchief, my wallet, my change purse, my house key … the thing weighs ten pounds; there must be more in there than that! Oh! I know why it’s so heavy—I put a book in there, in case I had to wait a while to meet with you. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. No wonder it’s so heavy! That’s five!

Thank you for your patience, Grace. I just have one final question: If you had the power to change one thing in the world that didn’t affect you personally, what would it be?

We are all connected. What affects one, affects all, although we may not see it at the time. But if I did have the power to change one thing in the world, I would eliminate hate. Hatred is the root cause of evil; hatred causes war. If hatred were eliminated, if love was the predominant emotion on earth, the world would be a better place for all of us to live.



Smoky Trudeau Zeidel is the author of two novels, On the Choptank Shores and The Cabin. She is also author of Observations of an Earth Mage, a photo/essay collection; and two books about writing. Smoky lives her life honoring Mother Earth through her writing, visual art, and spiritual practice. She lives in California with her husband Scott (a college music professor and classical guitarist), her daughter (a college student and actress), and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods overlooking the San Gabriel Valley and Mountains beyond. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time hiking in the mountains and deserts, splashing in tidepools, and resisting the urge to speak in haiku.

You can find Smoky and her three blogs at

Click here to read an excerpt from: On the Choptank Shores

Click here for an interview with: Smoky Trudeau Zeidel