Six Ways We Prepared for Panama

Our trip to Panama was a success, though there were some things that could have been better. Some of those things were entirely out of our control, for example, the traffic in Panama City. There is not much to do about that other than plan to avoid it. Planning is what it is all about, though we are not the type to plan out every aspect of a trip. Still, we did some things right and here they are.

Brushed Up on Our Spanish

Okay, maybe “brushed up” is a bit of an embellishment because we didn’t have much to start. I didn’t want to spend any money on a language course, so I chose to learn via podcast and settled on “Coffee Break Spanish” from the Radio Lingua Network. My approach was to utilize their podcast via iTunes, but they do have course materials to complement the audio. If you really want to attain a good level of fluency, I’m sure the course materials would be of great help.

One thing about “Coffee Break Spanish” to note, however, is that it teaches Castilian Spanish. In other words, it’s the Spanish you’d hear in Spain. This makes perfect sense when you factor that the course instructor, Mark Pentleton, is Scottish and the nearest place to speak Spanish is actually Spain. By and large, if you cut out the Castilian lisp, nearly everything else is the same when it comes to Latin American Spanish, and Mark points out some differences during the podcast. It was a great resource.

Michael and Amy enjoying the sandbar in the San Blas Islands.

We traveled to Puerto Rico last summer and it is easy to get by using only English. Still, we had a situation there where I needed to communicate with two Spanish-only speakers. We ended up using Google Translate to talk. I did this once in Panama as well, so don’t forget your phone!

It was rare in Panama to encounter someone with English fluency and, contrasting it with Puerto Rico, that makes sense. Personally, getting through the language barrier was one of the most fulfilling aspects of the trip and I am going to make every effort to keep practicing my Spanish skills. I’m still fairly limited to “Español Practical” as one store clerk put it, but got into some pretty good conversations with a guide and others. It was fun.

That leads to an important second piece of preparation. It’s closely related and no less important.

Found an Easy-to-Use Phrasebook

We happened upon Lonely Planet’s “Fast Talk Latin American Spanish” at the book store. It is not a Spanish-English dictionary, that won’t be near as useful. Lonely Planet organized the book according to expected activities, such as “Airport & Transport” and “Sightseeing.” This makes it easy to find what you need. It is also easy to prepare for a conversation where you know what things you need to ask about.

But you have to understand the answers given as well. The verbiage is often similar between questions and answers, and the phrasebook is helpful that way as well. With the podcasts and this book in tow, I felt more than comfortable saying, “Habla un poco Español.

Did Our Homework

There are many ways to research a trip. In this case, we spent considerable time examining the guidebook. We purchased a guide from Moon Handbooks. It had plenty of good information, but was slightly dated. In several instances, the book talked about how inexpensive everything is, particularly food. I’m certain that was true when it was published in 2011, but not anymore. Despite this one drawback, the guide was an excellent source of information on all of the sites we visited.

On the Panama Canal.

Amy contacted some existing companies through the guidebook’s information and recommendations. She did this all via e-mail. She organized our day trip to the San Blas Islands, and, later, while in Panama, managed our adventure to the Gamboa Forest and boat trip on the Panama Canal.

While she worked on those things, I rented a car and arranged accommodations. We stayed on both coasts and the owner of the house we rented on the Caribbean side was also an excellent source of information. He gave us detailed expectations of what we encountered, though we still found a surprise or two.

The short of it is we largely knew what to expect and that’s important, particularly when faced with conditions that may be outside of your life experience.

Involved the Family

Our daughter Molly takes horseback riding lessons and more than anything wanted to go riding in Panama. We found a place that seemed to be ideal: El Valle de Anton, or the Anton Valley. We probably wouldn’t have driven up there without Molly’s input and it was one of the richest experiences we had.

Molly blends with the scenery at the Nispero Zoo, Valle de Anton.

Molly and Amy rode the horses, we visited a butterfly sanctuary, a zoo with a stunning amount of animal life, went to an open air market, and ate what Amy said was “the best pizza I’ve ever had.” All this in a small town set within an ancient, extinct volcano. It is a beautiful setting and I thought it was a similar feeling to being in the Alps.

The point is we made a good choice because Molly was involved. She got more out of it as well, proudly repeating something we had said, “I’m pretty much the horse-riding expert of the family.” If anything draws us back to Panama, it will be the chance to visit El Valle de Anton again.

Learned the Lay of the Land

Depending on your mobile carrier, you may find it prohibitive to pay the costs of operating your phone in international territory. Our journey to Puerto Rico was within the domestic service area of our provider, so this was our first time dealing with this issue.

We were pleased with the arrangement our carrier had for international travel, which essentially amounted to billing in 24-hour increments when the phone was used. Still, we didn’t want to go overboard on costs and tried to keep the phone on airplane mode as much as possible.

This is where knowing a bit of the geography helped. Prior to leaving for Panama, we looked at the maps and saw where we were going, what roads we’d take to get there, and had a rough idea of the time it would take. As it turned out, our guesses on time were very rough.

When we did use the phone, Waze was the best navigation app to use. It had more reliable information on usable roads than Google Maps, which had particular trouble with accuracy in Panama City. Our Caribbean host also clued us in to this and it was important. We put a lot of kilometers on our rental car.

Prepared to Document Our Adventure

Finally, one other way I prepared was a course in basic photography. My big gift this past Christmas was a YI M1 mirrorless camera, capable of taking high-quality digital photos. Well, I didn’t want to have this great camera and not be able to get the most out of it, so I took a course through a local camera store chain.

A Geoffory’s Tamarin eats a banana we provided.

This paid off in many ways. First, the main reason for the trip was research for our book series, Molly and the Magic Suitcase. Improving my photography skills meant I could help Amy find interesting visuals for eventual illustrations. We wouldn’t have to rely on the photos of others to form our impressions.

More important was to recognize the unique visuals a place presents. Panama has wildlife we never encounter here, a terrain that somewhat resembles the California coast, and that oh-so-beautiful turquoise water in areas on the Caribbean coast. There are many, many wonderful photographic opportunities no matter where you go and a little preparation provides richer memories long after your return home. In all, I took more than 1,200 photos.


Those are a few things that made our trip better. We couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out. Wherever you decide to go, apply these ideas generally. It can be the difference between sightseeing and getting to know a place.

Magic Kingdom Methodology

There are blogs everywhere telling travelers how to get the most out of Disney. I’ve read more than a few and always come away with something. We returned from our Walt Disney World Resort trip just a couple of weeks ago and it was a wonderful first visit for our kids. Our method may not be unique, but I wanted to share what made our trip a success.

We’re a family of four with our six year-old daughter Molly and five year-old Michael. Their stamina (and our own) were key calculations in our decisions.

Disclaimer: I received no promotional fees or benefits from the Walt Disney World Resort. I’m a children’s book author, after all, not a full-time travel blogger.

Break Time

We didn’t stay on the property, but our condominium was very close. From our front door to the gate of the Magic Kingdom, it took about 30 minutes, including riding the Monorail (which, by the way, Molly and Michael loved!). With the short distance in mind, we purposely chose days the park was open late so we could return to the condo in the afternoon for a couple of hours.

Our kids never napped during this time, but the break from the sensory input was important. They were able to relax and recharge. Each of the two days we visited the Magic Kingdom, our schedule went something like this:

  • Arrival at park opening (8:00 am).
  • Leave park around 2:00 pm.
  • Return to park at 5:30 pm.
  • Stay to 10:00 pm.

The last hour or so was always a bit hairy. Molly spent much of that time riding piggy-back, while Michael was in a stroller. Still, we figured out that with our two days in the park there were only five attractions we didn’t experience and one of those was not available to our kids because of height requirements.

Preferred Parking

We approached the parking gate not knowing anything about Disney’s Preferred Parking. It is something that never came up in the blog posts I read over the years, and I may know why: most well-known travel bloggers stay at a Disney resort property. They utilize the on site transportation rather than driving in as we did.

Our well-used keys to the kingdom.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision and one that was key to making our visit a great one. Preferred Parking puts you a relatively short walk away from the Monorail and ferry stations that take you to the Magic Kingdom. What’s more, in classic Disney fashion, we received complimentary bottles of water. It may not seem a big deal, but that very minor bit of “swag” made us feel good about the decision.

The close-proximity parking also meant we didn’t have to wait on a tram to get us to and from our car. I imagine that saved us at least an hour each day. There are all sorts of ways to save time in (and out of) the park.

Get the Most from FastPass+

Maybe few bloggers write about Preferred Parking, but almost all of them write about FastPass+. We weren’t terribly smart about it on our first day. I reserved a few rides only about 24 hours in advance, and I spread the times throughout the day. Well, we learn by making mistakes, right? It was probably around 8:00 in the evening before I was able to schedule a FastPass+ beyond the initial three alotted.

Crowd navigation skills are a plus.

A key to using the system as we did was having the Disney World “My Disney Experience” app on my phone. There are also the FastPass+ Kiosks located throughout the park, but we didn’t need to locate them thanks to the app (which, incidentally, will locate them for you). Instead, we arranged FastPass+ rides according to what was available utilizing the app.

Make your reservations early. If you stay at a Disney resort, you can make your first three FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days prior to your visit. If you stay off property, you can do it 30 days ahead of time. FastPass+ is a great feature, but you can get more out of it with a bit of planning…which brings us to the next thing.

Have a “Planner”

My wife Amy is a planner and always thinking about the next step. This is great in many ways, and it was a particular boon to our visit. We didn’t spend time stopped in walkways figuring out what to do next. This was always decided while in line or while grabbing a snack.

Nighttime in the Magic Kingdom.

The My Disney Experience app was a big part of this as well. Sometimes what was available via FastPass+ steered our decision, and other times it was the app’s Wait Times feature. Looking at Wait Times as I write makes me a little jealous. It’s a good day to be at the park!

You don’t realize how much time this planning saves until you’re maneuvering a stroller around people looking at a map or pointing in one direction or another. We were constantly in motion, and that brings up another useful quality.\

Have a “Guide”

You can hire a guide at some expense for your visit. The guides Disney provides get you to the front of lines and all sorts of perks. That isn’t what I mean here.

Amy has a nose for planning and I have a nose for direction. Granted, I occasionally open the Magic Kingdom map up at home just to do a mental tour (yes, I’m a big Disney fan), so I knew the park pretty well before our visit. Whatever our decision for the next thing was, I could get us there efficiently.

My wife and I make a good team in many ways, and her as Planner with me as the Guide made the day much, much easier. I think, too, it kept us from getting too caught up in the rush of things. Knowing where you’re going and about how quickly you can get there puts things at ease.


There are probably a few more things to talk about with our experience and I’ll save them for another post. These were the basic things that made our experience at the Magic Kingdom in the Walt Disney World Resort a special time. I’m ready to go back.

Puerto Rico and How to Help

The situation in Puerto Rico remains bad, however, an aid package passed through Congress today. The Washington Post reports an estimated 80% of the Puerto Rico power grid remains offline. Federal aid agencies are operating effectively according to personal acquaintances.

We are doing what we can to help. When our six year-old daughter learned about the hurricane, she decided to have a lemonade stand in support of hurricane victims. She raised well over $100, and many people donated sums beyond the cost of what was sold. Our thanks to everyone who stopped by for their generosity.

Amy and I also made the decision to donate all of our book earnings for October to hurricane relief. Please join us in this effort, whether through buying books or donating directly to an aid effort of your choice. The organization we chose is GlobalGiving, mainly because of the the transparency in the way they do things.

It all goes to hurricane relief this month.

We met many, many kind and generous people in Puerto Rico. When we ran into trouble, there were several offers of help that went beyond what anyone would expect. As I said elsewhere, after just a short time, you feel as if your among old friends. That is our enduring memory of the people of Puerto Rico, and it is our turn to help.

Thanks to all who choose to donate or simply help by spreading the word.

Colossal Understatement – Adventuring in Old San Juan

It was already Day Three of our Puerto Rico adventure and the beach, unsurprisingly, featured prominently. Our plan for the day was to walk around Old San Juan and see the fortresses. We knew there was a time limit to the activity because our children Molly and Michael are age six and five, respectively. Fortunately, one of the items in the condominium we rented was a stroller.

We hit the beach for about an hour in the morning, repeating a pattern from our trip to Florida earlier in the year. While there, we went to the beach pretty much first thing in the morning and, as it turned out, the habit saved the day a couple of times.

As the Day Goes – Planning

Amy and I pretty much let the kids establish the schedule. Because the sun set so much earlier in Puerto Rico than at home, the kids were generally in bed early and up at dawn. This schedule was key to the success of our trip, particularly when we moved on to Luquillo. That’s a story I’ll share in the coming weeks.

Molly and Michael (and Bear) at the Parque del Indio.

Our early days meant opportunities for more activity. After the beach we had a meal and headed out. We caught a special “tourism bus” near Parque del Indio. The bus seemed to operate exclusively between the beach areas and Old San Juan. It was a hot day and we were thankful for the comfortable, cool bus. I’ll underscore here that buses are the best way to get into Old San Juan. There is a long lane (Calle del Tren, “The Train Street”) running through San Juan that seemed for bus use only, and possibly only the public-run system.

The tourism bus did not make use of the lane, but delivered us directly to Castillo de San Cristobal with little delay, and perhaps a little quicker than the public system because it wasn’t obliged to stop in the convention district.

Largest Spanish Fort Outside of Spain: Castillo de San Cristobal

No description does justice to Castillo de San Cristobal. Considered for its original purpose, it intimidates, though in its modern context it’s simply a wonder. It towers above both the Atlantic Ocean and the old city, and in fact marks the border between the San Juan Historic District and the rest of the city.

A friendly iguana greeted us at the gate for some light fun. “Friendly” might be stretching it; I don’t think it really cared we were there, but it was a cool moment and we enjoyed watching it forage for a couple of minutes.

We took an elevator up and came out facing the east side of the fort that faces the modern parts of San Juan. I was excited about it because one of Amy’s illustrations for Molly Goes to Puerto Rico depicted our characters there. I took several photos of Amy, Molly, and Michael checking the particular garita that was a prominent feature in the illustration.

Scale view from the top of San Cristobal. Note my position in relation to the beach and street level.

The fort was modified during World War II to be a lookout station for U-Boats. As you might imagine, these areas provide stunning views, especially turning west (photo) to take in the colorful architecture of Old San Juan, with another fortress, El Morro, providing the backdrop. It was a unique experience. Amy said over and over how the photos simply cannot show the majesty of it all.

The Importance of Puerto Rico

Look at a chart or map that shows the wind currents of the Atlantic Ocean. The “Trade Winds,” you will see, blow directly from Europe to Puerto Rico. It was simply the first stop in coming to the New World. You begin to understand the importance of Puerto Rico to Spain, and why these fortifications were built.

Old San Juan is actually an island, one that sits astride the entrance to a natural harbor. It’s not difficult to imagine this as a key port not only for trade, but for repair and outfitting ships headed further west or south. As steam replaced sail, this first outpost became a little less visited, but for roughly 400 years, Puerto Rico was the gateway to the Americas.

Next up: El Morro.

The view of the greater San Juan area from Castillo de San Cristobal. Molly and Amy are inside the garrita, the small turrets that are today a symbol of Old San Juan.

Puerto Rico Adventure: Arrival

Wow! We had an absolute wonderful time in Puerto Rico and for many reasons. There is much to share and we’ll do it over the course of three, maybe four posts. I first wanted to share our arrival and first day and a half or so. This provides a few travel tips and can help you get settled if you opt for an experience similar to ours. We loved Puerto Rico and highly recommend a visit.

First Flight for the Kids

We booked an early flight. Our flight plans for the day included one connection with a fairly brief layover. Our children, Molly (age six) and Michael (age five) were great. The only squeals came from their delight and were brief. Several people napped around us (phew!).

One thing that helped Michael was his car seat. We drove to Florida last spring and it is a comfortable, familiar space to him. One thing to note: our airline required the car seat to be placed in the window seat. Check your airline’s policies on this if you choose to bring one along. Anyway, the familiarity of the seat seemed to make it a better experience for him and us.

We also had a booster for Molly and checked it with the other baggage. The booster did not count

Molly also gets a window for the first leg. This is her trying-to-smile-big smile.

as a checked bag in terms of fees. We knew we had to have both to be safe on the road, so there was never a question of bringing them with us.

Another thing that helped with our flight was a series of surprises for the kids. This isn’t original thinking, many family travel blogs recommend this. We were also successful using this tried and true method.

First Day in San Juan

The eventual arrival in San Juan was mid-afternoon. We thought having a bit of time to leisurely settle would be nice. We didn’t stay at a resort, but booked a three-bedroom unit via HomeAway. I want to share more about our accommodations in another post, but will say were thrilled with the place.

We chose to simply get a taxi after conferring with the condo owner. It was easier than we expected because the man running the taxi lane at the airport prioritized us because we had kids. Nice! On the way to the Condado area of San Juan, our driver gave us a tip on where to eat. That is yet another post, but it pays to listen!

Near sunset and it’s so bright the camera barely registered any color here.

The leisurely settling in would have to wait because the beach wouldn’t. We didn’t bother to unpack, but changed and hit the sand shortly after arrival. There are many details to share here, but I want to stay focused on a bigger picture.

Our second day was largely the same. We spent time on the beach and made it to the local grocery. Tip for the grocery: the supermarket delivered both the groceries and us back to the condo. We just had to meet a certain threshold of spending, and, actually, we tripled it.

Yes, we cooked while there, even after having some wonderful mofango our first evening. We did, however, decide to dine out again our second evening. This was our first adventure into Old San Juan.

The Charm of Old San Juan

We had no rental car at this stage. I didn’t think we’d need one in San Juan and it turned out to be

the right call. Instead, we made use of the local buses and had no problem. There is a public bus terminus in the south-east part of Old San Juan, just about a six-block walk from Castillo San Cristobal. All bus lines that go to Old San Juan end here and it’s as good a place as any to start exploring. Bus Tip 1: they take exact

Antiguo Casino, with part of Castillo San Cristobal visible behind it.

change only ($.75 per rider).

We didn’t explore much that evening, but found an excellent restaurant. Molly wanted a milkshake, but was more than satisfied with the fruit smoothies on offer. We finished dinner and to our surprise, it was dark out. Another travel note here: we live in the Midwest and the sun sets around 9:30 or later during the summer. In Puerto Rico, the sun set around 7:30. I never thought to check on this detail.


Waiting on a bus at the Old San Juan terminus.

We took a brief stroll on the darkened streets and saw the Antiguo Casino before heading home, again on the bus. Bus Tip 2: the lines seem to run about every thirty minutes. This is a potentially difficult situation with small children. Wherever you are in San Juan, I suggest finding a stop that serves more than one bus line.

It was a successful trip so far, and the kids were having a great time at the beach. Our third day would be a test: touring Old San Juan. Can’t wait to tell you about it in the next post.

Eating Destin-ations

What is the perfect trip? One where you experience everything possible? Our recent trip to Florida probably wasn’t perfect, but we had fun every day, discovered some new things, and made a new friend. That’s pretty much what happens to Molly and Michael in every one of our books. In that sense, it was a true Molly and the Magic Suitcase adventure.

I can’t share the whole experience at once, so we’ll keep it topical. This post features or two best eating experiences.

Magic Trip

Our goal was simple: get to the beach! We’ve been to two destinations that are within a long day’s drive of the Indianapolis area and decided to return to Destin, Florida. Destin is an area growing in popularity and the town has grown tremendously in the past ten years or so. Our initial visit was on a recommendation from a soccer teammate.

Molly, Michael and cousins enjoy the kids area at Lulu’s.

The drive was an easy one and the kids were great. We have a 2008 Town & Country touring model. It allows you to remove or swivel the middle seats and install a table. For this trip, we did both. One seat was out (90 lbs…whoof!) and the table was in. The real Molly and Michael loved the new setup and we’ve kept it since.

Magic Food

Amy and I always manage at least one wonderful food experience when we travel. This time out, we found two places we’d return to in a heartbeat.

Lulu’s is a place owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of Jimmy. The beach lifestyle is the focus with a wonderful area to distract the kids while the food is prepared. Lulu’s prides itself on using fresh ingredients and with some fish offerings you can see when and where your fish was caught, as well as who caught it.

The food itself is excellent. I usually reserve my seafood eating for when I can “see the sea.” Browsing the menu, it may look like a typical shoreside restaurant, but because of the insistence on freshness, you’re going to have a much higher quality meal here.

We started with the “Holy Guacamole!” and I selected a simple, grilled grouper sandwich. The grouper came with a wonderful mild tartar spread, clearly a house recipe. The portions were generous and everything delicious.

It was a family affair as we met Amy’s cousin Tim and his two kids. The smaller cousins had a great time playing together and, thanks to the kids area, the adults had a chance to visit as well. Parents, you know that alone is a value worth paying for and it’s another reason for us to return to Lulu’s next time we’re in the area.

First look at Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill and what I noticed was the “Locals Eat Here” sign. I knew at that point we were in good hands.

The second place you need to know about is the Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill in Grayton Beach, part of a larger area, including Santa Rosa Beach, known as “30A.” Whatever your first impression is of the place, your last thought will be, “that’s some of the best food I’ve ever had.” It was a superb dining experience.

Our server brought out tortilla chips along with salsa and this was our first indication of things to come. The chips were excellent. You don’t expect to praise this pre-meal offering, but I have to. They were excellent with a seasoning we couldn’t get enough of. We gobbled them up and ordered our entrees.

Fish tacos at Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill, their photo.

The Crab Cakes were simply perfect. I don’t know how they can be so tender and not fall apart. That’s to say nothing of the flavor. I could use any superlative to describe it, but the bottom line is you must try go there and try them.

Amy had the Fish Tacos (blackened) with black beans. She was thrilled with the tacos, but the black beans are what she still talks about. The tacos brought some heat, and the flavors made you forget all about it.

Magic Days

I’ll stick to just talking about food and wrap it up here. Future posts will talk about the 30A, our activities and diversions, and our accommodations. It was a wonderful trip and I look forward to sharing the other details.

Don’t miss out on these two places, whether traveling with children or not. The Hurricane Oyster Bar & Grill is just behind Wolfgang Puck’s El Postrio in my ranking of dining experiences. Get on a plane or in your car and go now!

Creating Fear: How to Build Suspense

He examined the page. It was only at some length and challenge he arrived here. There were the hours of examination, application, and exposition. All of it mattered little. There was nothing. It was a great void where he expected definition. He stared.

What adventures this page wrought, and further journeys it foretold. Yet, here, in this place, there was only emptiness…and urgency. The clock continued its course even as the puzzle before him revealed nothing.

Uneasiness clouded his mind, a slow rising, a light burn of exasperation. Had he not worked for this moment? Did it not deserve something? Yet, still, there was only a blank. Tick-tock-tick.

He looked around the room for answers. There was a map and photos from distant places. Was there a code? He swiveled. He saw books: stories of exploration, of war, and of warnings. Tick-tick-tick.

“An oasis in a desert?” he thought, briefly acknowledging a photo. It suggested little. He noted the fascination with ancient mystery. What did it tell him? Nothing; there was nothing here. Everything in his life led to this barren place. Tock-tick.

A cry of frustration, perhaps despair, rang through the hall. Tension gripped him. “Well,” he thought, “I’m not alone.” He considered whether to investigate, then the cry became a squeal and little else was heard. Tick-tock.

He looked again at the page. It seemed an impenetrable vacancy. Tock.

A word came to mind and his shoulders sagged. It wasn’t the stress of an unfathomable burden, but, rather, a bit of clarity through the fog. The word was no mystery and it held enormous consequences. Tick.

He learned some time ago to trust these moments of intuition. Still, another part of his mind pleaded the clock’s case. Tock.

A deep breath allowed him to quiet the voice and focus on the previous insight. “Manufactured” was the word. What did it mean? He glanced at the page again and found it populated with intent.


The Work

The intent, of course, was a bit of suspense. That’s part of my job and the “fear” created above was something akin to writer’s block, though mercifully short lived. There are many different directions the story can go. Part of the inspiration was the thought of an investigator or adventurer reaching his or her goal and finding nothing.

The writing is an end, at least in many cases. It is the last part of a process of inspiration, research, preparation, and visualization. I sometimes have the privilege of being in the room with many aspiring authors and the final part is always the writing. It’s the intimidating blank page that creates a weight, certainly a fear in some. There are many great story ideas out there, but even with the vast number of self-published e-books, a good number of the stories are never written.

In longer forms of writing it’s often a fifth or sixth draft that is (at long last) released. The most revision an author mentioned to me was nine drafts. Even with so much revision there are always new ideas, mistakes, and extraneous words, sentences, paragraphs, and even unnecessary chapters. Everything is a work in progress, particularly our thoughts and convictions.

The first effort of any writing is just to get the ideas down. First drafts do not pass muster. By the time you reach a final draft there should be few unaltered words, and this includes editing as you write. Don’t worry too much about the quality of your first draft. It’s the ideas that matter.



The lesson learned, not long ago, was this: every fear is manufactured. I didn’t write books in my 20’s, and managed just two at the end of my 30’s. Three years into my 40’s I’m working on my Molly and the Magic Suitcase Logotwelfth and thirteenth for two different series, and researching number fourteen. I manufacture fear in the mystery series, only able to do it because of diminishing my own fear.

But all that is a little touchy-feely, though I did consider making it the focus of this post. Instead, let’s look briefly at the first section and break down a method of creating fear for narrative purposes.

He examined the page. It was only at some length and challenge he arrived here. There were the hours of examination, application, and exposition. All of it mattered little. There was nothing. It was a great void where he expected definition. He stared.

First, the reader is placed in a fairly mundane position: looking at a page of paper, then told that this simple act was the result of great effort, reinforced through the description “hours of…” The effort, however, is insignificant: a sense of loss is presented, using little, nothing, and void to reinforce the feeling.

What adventures this page wrought, and further journeys it foretold. Yet, here, in this place, there was only emptiness…and urgency. The clock continued its course even as the puzzle before him revealed nothing.

The second paragraph reinforces the sense of loss and creates new tension in the guise of a deadline.

Uneasiness clouded his mind, a slow rising, a light burn of exasperation. Had he not worked for this moment? Did it not deserve something? Yet, still, there was only a blank. Tick-tock-tick.

“Uneasiness” and “exasperation” reinforce the character’s emotional state. The real question is whether it is shared by the reader. The first paragraph briefly described efforts that could be just about anything, including college courses. Here, the hard work is re-emphasized and, hopefully, the reader draws on his or her own experience to empathize with the character. Finally, I get a little gimmicky with the imagined ticking of a clock. It’s meant to build more tension.

He looked around the room for answers. There was a map and photos from distant places. Was there a code? He swiveled. He saw books: stories of exploration, of war, and of warnings. Tick-tick-tick.

It’s a short paragraph, but five complete sentences. The quick chops here push the pace. I’m not a fan of long descriptive sentences, particularly those that start with dependent clauses. I taught English in a private school for some years and that was precisely the method other teachers espoused for ‘artful’ writing.

It usually sounds to me like the author wants to impress himself/herself and doesn’t consider the reader at all. That said, if you write for critical approval, those are the type of sentences needed. An example: “Stopping to examine the hall, a tremulous feeling began as a buzz in the back of her uneasy brain as she felt the ancient weight of the ages in the dank and dusty walls.” It’s a short example, but plenty wordy. Critics love it. So, include plenty of this crud, add angst, stir and there is your recipe for good reviews. Likable characters aren’t needed, just the angst and wordiness. You may not even have to pay for your Kirkus Review.

The paragraph describes my office. There is a map, some travel photos, and plenty of clutter as well. The observation of seemingly significant information that is of no help adds to the frustration/tension. That’s the intent.

“An oasis in a desert?” he thought, briefly acknowledging a photo. It suggested little. He noted the fascination with ancient mystery. What did it tell him? Nothing; there was nothing here. Everything in his life led to this barren place. Tock-tick.

“Nothing” and “barren” continue to build the sense of loss or helplessness. The rush of time continues to be highlighted with the “tick-tock” gimmick. I reduce the number of ticks and tocks as the story continues to give a sense of time running out.

That’s probably enough to get the picture. There are few more things to mention, including the emotions described. I purposefully avoided the word ‘fear,’ and utilized as many synonyms of ‘empty’ as possible: nothing, void, emptiness, blank, little, barren, vacancy.

The cry of despair, incidentally, was my son who (once again) wasn’t napping. He vocalized the frustration I wanted to create and seemed to settle down. He still didn’t nap. You know how it is. If Shield of Horatius Coverit were a longer story, this part would be edited out. It’s not important, but included here to throw the reader a bit. The “oasis” is a reference to photos of the Valley of Fire (Nevada) around my desk. There is a double meaning because the character wants a lifeline and can’t find it.

One additional and relevant note is this: there are no exclamation marks. Let your word choice create emphasis and urgency. Do I always follow this rule? My books are for a younger audience so word choice is sometimes limited. That said, the mystery The Shield of Horatius purposely stretches the young audience’s vocabulary while providing context to show the meaning of the word. In other words, the young reader won’t have to use a dictionary if they’re engaged.



There is no singular method to create fear or suspense, but, step by step, here is a summary of what was done here:

  1. Established a familiar character.
  2. Established a recognizable situation.
  3. Created an unresolved necessity (an unknown).
  4. Enhanced the difficulty of obtaining the need.
  5. Increased the emotional tension of the character (and reader).
    1. Evocative language
    2. Deadline

Resolution isn’t always needed, or even desired. The story that comes to mind is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” where her Step Three was to distort the recognizable situation into horror. She spends much of the story on Steps One and Two and it increases the emotional impact of the distortion. Steps Three, Four, and Five arrive suddenly before the abrupt ending.

Similarly, Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” inverts a familiar situation, but the menace is straightforward and there is resolution (without graphic description). Both of these stories are terrific–in both senses of the word–October reads.

This was my take on a selected topic for another site. I hope you had fun. My wife wants me to make the story the basis for a new book, so I guess that turned out okay.

Happy October reading, and thanks for taking the time!

Interview with Kids Travel Books

We’re featured this week at Kids Travel Books!

Molly and the Magic Suitcase Week at Kids Travel Books










The latest post is an interview, excerpted below:

Tell me more about you and your wife. What made you want to start writing/illustrating travel books for kids?

Travel was always an interest of mine. I always looked at travel as an opportunity to experience something new. The writing side of it comes mainly from my love of reading. The magic of books, I always thought, was both the story and being transported to different places and times. The more vivid the setting, the more I was drawn into the story.

Amy has drawn all her life, as long as she can remember. She illustrated cartoon series for fun and for the school paper. Later, she was an intern for Marvel Comics and became very interested in the Disney style. She always wanted to illustrate a children’s book series and the inspiration struck when we took our (at the time) one-year-old daughter Molly to Florida.

Molly crawled into my suitcase as we were packing. She bounced up and down a little as if she expected it to take her for a ride. I said, “Look! There’s Molly and her magic suitcase!” Amy immediately seized on that as inspiration.

For the rest of the interview go here:

Thanks, all and happy travels!

Notes from ‘Molly Goes to Rio de Janeiro’

When it is time to research I put the blinders on and this blog is temporarily ignored. Now that the process is complete, I want to share a few more thoughts on the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Unrivaled Natural Beauty

There are, in a way, two Rios. The Rio of Ipanema and Copacabana is set among the granite cliffs. These include the Corcovado where the statue of Christ the Redeemer is found, and Sugarloaf Mountain. The latter is right down on the water with an excellent view of Copacabana and the smaller beach area Botafogo.

The Corcovado rises dramatically from the city and divides it. I watched several videos of the Santa Teresa Tram and in one, the cliff face rose vertically from the neighborhood–a giant wall establishing the boundary.

The cliffs are another reason there is so much green. There is a lot of unusable land. The Tijuca Forest and other protected areas provide a background of green.

Down at sea level, there are the Botanical Gardens and Parque Lage. It is a green city on this side, and part of that, I think, is the heat. There are several microclimates in Rio because of the cliffs. One reason that the lush forest is probably appreciated and preserved is to have an escape from the heat.

The other Rio is what you expect from a city: more or less a concrete jungle. This is where you’ll find some of the older parts of the city as well as the Maracana Stadium. It is, essentially, the ‘downtown’ of Rio and most of it lies north of the Corcovado.

The Favelas

I want to be careful here. The favelas of Rio are different from each other. Some might be considered middle class as far as the city is concerned, but as our friend in Rio said, “To Americans, all favelas are poor.” A little less than a quarter of Rio’s population dwells in a favela, or 1.5 million people. 95% of these structures are brick, concrete, and reinforced steel, so there’s one surprise that may dispel the view of favelas as slums or tenements. These are permanent structures and their residents work to maintain and improve them.

That is not to say the favelas are without problems. Another video I watched was posted by someone who hired a car to take him through the favela of the Santa Teresa area. Given the data above, it was about what you’d expect. One of the most noticeable things in the video was a large amount of garbage on the streets. There were huge dumpsters waiting to be carried away, but there was also a large amount of bagged trash simply sitting on the curbs because the dumpsters are full beyond capacity. I only mention this because garbage collection seems like one of those things we take for granted. It really is something to appreciate.

Another surprising and notable housing statistic is that 30% of the population isn’t connected to a formal sanitation system and this includes some of the wealthiest parts of the city.


I grew up playing soccer and just about everyone I knew in the sport had a pair of shoes known simply as “Sambas.” Samba is a type of music and dance and it is an integral part of the Brazilian culture. When it emerged in the early 20th century, the President of Brazil encouraged its popularity. He saw it as a unifying cultural force.

A few decades later, Brazil’s national soccer team emerged as an international phenomenon, winning the World Cup three times in four tries between 1958 and 1970. One particular player on all three of those teams was Edson Arantes di Nascimento. The world knows him better as Pelé. The Brazilian teams of that era played a flowing style of soccer that was both individually brilliant and unrivaled for its aesthetic. They style became known as “samba,” of course.

Samba continues to be a major part of life in Brazil and particularly in Rio. The flamboyant costuming seen each year during carnaval represents the different schools of samba. The schools compete in a number of categories during carnaval, costuming among them.

Beaches Aren’t For Sunbathing

One sure way to mark yourself as a tourist in Rio is to lay out on the beach. That isn’t why carioca go to the beach.

Not that you’d have the chance to lie down, the beaches are packed! And everyone is doing something whether it’s playing soccer, volleyball, doing yoga, or practicing capoeira. That’s to say nothing of surfing and other water sports.

‘Carioca,’ incidentally, is how the residents of Rio refer to themselves. It is a reference to what the indigenous tribes called the first settlers. It translates from the tribal language as ‘house of the white man.’ Regardless of heritage, all the people of Rio are now carioca.


All I want to add here, that isn’t in Molly Goes to Rio de Janeiro, is there is a lot of meat in Brazilian cuisine. I don’t mean a lot of meat dishes. Many Brazilian staple recipes include two or more types of meat! Arby’s new slogan “We have the meats!” is an apt description of many Brazilian dishes.


As a disclaimer, one thing I haven’t mentioned is the emergence of the Zika virus. Whether this affects the attendance of the Olympics is something to be seen. It does give pause, but I will say this: the city and its culture are a strong lure. If there were no public health concerns, I would not hesitate to travel there with family, and I’m absolutely sure it would be a wonderful experience.

Part of this is the music. I love a lot of the music going back to some of the greats like Sergio Mendes, but also more modern musicians like Sabrina Malheiros and Bebel Gilberto.

Perhaps the strongest part of my attraction to Rio, and Brazil in general, is every person I’ve met from Brazil has a palpable zest for life. They seem to have boundless energy and an unrivaled capacity to capture and express joy. It’s a quality that makes everyone around them feel good. It is intriguing, to say the least, to consider what you might find in a visit.



The Piazza at Night: An Evening in Rome

There are occasions we receive opportunities. Some years ago I received the advice, “when someone asks you to do something, say ‘yes.'” The reference was to volunteer activity. There are some moments I wished this advice came to me sooner, but then I wouldn’t be where I am and there is nowhere else I’d rather be. One occasion I said ‘yes’ was on this trip.

Day Five: Still Getting to Know Rome

The day continued after our stop in the ancient Roman Forum. We boarded the bus and made the short trip to the Circus Maximus. Today the Circus is essentially a long, flat park. During Natale di Roma (Rome’s birthday, April 21st), the park serves as a showcase for various events including battle reenactments. Our guide talked mainly about the Imperial Palace, which overlooks the grounds.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
Southeast end of the Circus Maximus.

The Circus was essentially a huge race track with two tight turns at each end. Chariot races and other events were held there. According to Pliny the Elder, the stadium seated 250,000, but historians think it was considerably less. Regardless, it must have been something. The original movie Ben-Hur gives an idea of the thrill and danger of the races.

The Imperial Palace didn’t seem terribly impressive from our vantage point. The panoramic photo I share below doesn’t show much. It seemed like so much ruin and it was difficult to picture the splendor the palace once had. Appearances are deceiving.

When I wrote The Shield of Horatius there was a need to revisit the grounds, and in much greater detail than before. Fortunately, Google Earth allows you to explore the palace as it is now, and the Internet at large gives us access to numerous artistic renderings of the Circus and the Palace (scroll to the bottom of the linked page).

One of the things hidden by the ruins is the Hippodrome of Domitian (middle photo of the article). Scholars aren’t certain whether this was a stadium or simply a garden. Either way it shows the ruins of the Imperial Palace have more to offer than what is seen from the roadside benches on the other side of the Circus Maximus.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
A stitch of two photos I took produces this panorama of the Imperial Palace. You’re looking at the Palatine Hill, immediately adjacent to the Forum (on the other side of the hill). In the foreground is part of the Circus Maximus. The line between the two photos is clear at grass level, but hard to pinpoint further up.

Domitian expanded the palace significantly in his day and renamed it the Domus Augustana in honor of Caesar Augustus. Augustus, ironically, lived mainly in a borrowed home. The house, like the palace later named for Augustus, was also on the Palatine Hill and is a fairly recent addition to a tour of the area. The house was discovered just 50 years ago.

We piled into the bus again and went on a motor coach tour of the city. I do remember the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, but there wasn’t time to snap a photo. Given the area, Giovanna, our guide, probably also discussed the Aurelian Walls. One other moment burned itself into memory. We drove past the Israeli embassy and I saw armed guards at the road gates. I must have been looking the right way this time because the men were armed with Uzi sub-machine guns. It seemed pretty clear they were ready for anything.

Say ‘Yes’ to the Piazza Navona

The lead chaperones on our trip were an English teacher and his wife. I never had this particular teacher for class, but his influence was greater than many teachers I did have. Much of it comes down to this first evening in Rome.

Most of the adults, you see, decided to have an evening out. Not a dinner or anything that took hours, they planned to go to the Piazza Navona. The day was pretty long and I felt the extent of our travel to that point, but was privileged to be asked along.

An artist draws Molly in the Piazza Navona, from "Molly Goes to Rome." Illustration by Amy Houston Oler
An artist draws Molly in the Piazza Navona, from “Molly Goes to Rome.” Illustration by Amy Houston Oler.

The Piazza Navona is a large square in what was once known as the “Field of Mars.” When Rome was still pretty small this was the assembly area when they needed to field an army. The same part of Rome today boasts the Pantheon, the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Campo de’ Fiori area, Trajan’s Forum, and many other sites of interest. Piazza Navona was once a relatively small (compared to the Colosseum) stadium. It hosted competitive athletic contests, as opposed to involuntary gladiator bouts. We might call it an Olympic stadium today. The area of the Piazza closely conforms with what was once the athletic field. The city market relocated here in the late 1400’s and there is a continued market today of artists.

I can’t put a finer point on this: this brief evening excursion was an important life event. If I only wrote about this and left out all the other lessons learned, the story would be nearly as complete. Well, let’s make an exception for Pompeii.

The Piazza Navona was then and continues to be a great place for gelato. Partially because of this it is a great place to take kids. We confirmed these things when Amy interviewed a former coworker who grew up in Rome and takes her kids there often. The interview was part of our research for Molly Goes to Rome.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, illustration by Amy Houston Oler. From our first book "Molly Goes to Rome."
The Fountain of the Four Rivers, illustration by Amy Houston Oler. From our first book “Molly Goes to Rome.”

The open air market is part of the attraction, but also the three fountains. The most well known is the Fountain of the Four Rivers. It is a tradition to throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain and you should do so with the currency of your home country. I brought along a few quarters. One thing I didn’t bring was my camera. The Canon Snappy AF was not a low-light performer, at least not with my photography skills.

My memories are certainly romanticized. I recall the lighting of the fountains, the tropical air, the imposing (due to the lack of lighting) edifice of Sant’Agnese in Agone, the few artist stalls still there from the day, and the community of travelers there to experience it all. The crowd was small and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Families and small groups took photos, there was a general festive feel.

We didn’t stay long, maybe an hour. It was the first bit of Europe I experienced without our large tour group. It allowed me to relax and really absorb the atmosphere. It was similar to the experience in Siena, but magnified. All this and my first instinct was not to go. Why was I asked? Who knows?! I am thankful it happened.

Molly Goes to Rome features two illustrations from the Piazza Navona, more attention than we gave any site. There is simply something more to it. It is, as others say, a place to observe today’s Rome and its culture.