Mining Neighborhood Treasures for Writing


Blog post Julie Graham

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Here’s what I know about the little town I’ve lived in for the last 20 years, a small village by the Santa Monica Bay that basks in its relative isolation from the thrumming street life of Venice and Santa Monica. I know these factoids by osmosis, just from living here, talking with friends who have lived here all their life, reading the local paper, and walking the neighborhood:

  1. In the 1920’s an exclusive group of rich and powerful men built a ranch in a canyon below Sunset Boulevard and called it, and themselves, the Uplifters Club. The name was a play on words, since they supported the arts by promoting and uplifting artistic endeavors, but also because they drank heavily (uplifting drinks to their mouths) during the prohibition era in speakeasies hidden around the ranch.
  2. In a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Thelma Todd, a famous and beloved actress, was murdered in1935. The mystery of who killed her and why has never been solved.
  3. A meditation center and shrine surrounded by a lush garden sits on a spring-fed lake at the edge of town. On the edge of the lake sits a windmill which has been converted into a chapel.
  4. In the mountains above my town sit the ruins of what was to be Hitler’s North American compound, had Germany won. It’s now a hiking destination and a graffiti artist’s dreamscape.
  5. A new street mall designed by a local developer is set to open next year, with nods to historical buildings of yesteryear.
  6. A small Italian restaurant next to the local Starbucks has a Hookah club after hours, members only.
  7. A champion Muay Thai boxer teaches and trains in a local martial arts studio. He’s the only man in the world who has ever won World Boxing titles with only one arm. He goes by the nickname “The One Armed Bandit.”

What do these factoids about my town have in common? Any one of them could be become a travel essay.  The truth is, any fun fact — large or small — about your own hometown can make fascinating reading; the possibilities for travel writing are endless.

As a travel writer, this is how I look at any place I go, even if it’s just around the corner. What would I want people to know if I had to write about this place, or this person. What’s unique to the story? Recently, for instance, I wondered why there are different types of trees planted on each block in the neighborhood?  What’s the city planning history behind this section of my town? And why is my street the only one in the town with a Japanese name?

I’ve lived in many urban areas that have infinite places of interest to write about and I’ve lived small bedroom communities too. Although it seemed at the time that there was nothing exciting about those humble suburban towns, in hindsight through the lens of travel narrative, I can now think of a dozen ideas that would make great reading. There are stories everywhere we look — journeying miles across oceans to find them is not necessary.

Seeing your neighborhood, town or city through the eyes of a travel writer is an incredible way to connect to your town.  Writing it into a travel essay connects your hometown, and a bit of yourself, to the rest of the world.

Learn more about writing your own place in Julie’s class, Crafting Your Hood: Travel Writing from Your Own Backyard

Julie Graham has written award-winning articles on Halloween in Obidos, Portugal, theater costuming in Berkley, California and izakaya-hopping in Tokyo.  Her work has appeared in Pilot Getaways, including destination vacation pieces on Sundance, Utah and St. Helena, Carmel and San Diego, California. Although trained as a news journalist, her penchant is for literary travel essays and memoir.  She earned her degree in Communications and Journalism from Mills College and her Masters in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles.  Julie has two teenaged kids and a dog named Jasper; all of them drive her crazy, but when she travels, she misses them fiercely.

Release Your Imagination!


by Jacquie Nichols

The clouds are gathering, dark gray masses obstructing the moonlight. The days are dwindling to only scant hours of natural light. The year approaches its close and the breezes begin to bite at your skin, demanding coverage. The answer, some may say, is to cuddle up in your fluffiest jammies, draw the curtains against the cold, and binge watch your favorite shows on Netflix till the weather breaks and the sun shines again. I say, that’s for the obedient folks who live complacent lives only to repeat the next day the same as the last. Now, for those who are willing, I propose a challenge. Forget the monotony of the so-called normal life, drag yourself away from the plastic lives of reality stars and embrace the unknown. Reach out and grab hold of it until you can claim it as your own. Take a class that will forever change you into the person you will become, the person that has gained more knowledge than the one on the couch and revels in the wonder of what may come next.

Learn how to write the stories that celebrate the darkness. Release your imagination and run the streets with the zombies, unravel the mystery of the specter in the basement, destroy the serial killer at the circus—or let him triumph and kill them all! The possibilities abound, it’s all up to you. Do you watch the same plot twists replay with different faces all winter, or do you learn the secrets behind building suspense on the page and making your reader cringe while gripping your story in their fists, pleading for it to end but unable to put it down? You tell me, has the couch already begun to mold to your backside? If you’re ready to deny your furniture the warmth of your flesh, click the link below:


Frightening Bursts of Creativity with Jacquie Nichols


If horror isn’t your bag, that’s not a problem. We have options here for all. If non-fiction is your preference, check out a class on travel writing:


Crafting Your Hood: Travel Writing From Your Own Backyard with Julie Graham


Or document your everyday with:


Mommie Brain: Document Your Parenting Journey with Rachel Schinderman


Maybe it’s poetry that’s coursing through your veins, searching for an escape. If so, try this one on for size:


The Phases of Military Deployment and the Poetry Within with John Holt


And if none of those tickle your fancy, yet you still want to expand your knowledge and heighten your craft, this one may just fit the bill:


How to Make Your Novel More Cinematic for the Reader with John Reedburg


Come on! Click one! I dare ya!

3 Simple DON’Ts when Querying Agents

Lightning Bottle

by Lilly Barels

I’ve heard the odds of getting a literary agent are like winning the lottery. Or being struck by lightning. But I’m here to say it can be done. With a lot of work and dedication, it is possible. (Side note: The day my agent called to offer representation is an experience I wouldn’t trade for any winning ticket.)

The purpose of a well-written query letter is to interest an agent so much that she requests your manuscript for review. Consider a query to be the 30 seconds you get in a round of speed dating: Introduce yourself, pitch the manuscript, and be respectful. A query letter is your single chance at impressing the agent so much that she loses sleep over waiting for your manuscript.

If you read examples of successful query letters, they all have a few traits in common. A query showcases the writer’s knowledge of the types of projects the agent represents. It also describes the writer’s manuscript in a succinct and intriguing way. Finally, the letter describes the writer in a brief, relevant bio.

Now, just like speed dating, there are definite No-No’s when it comes to writing a successful query letter. Consider the following don’ts before you begin drafting:

  1. Sending an unfinished manuscript: Do not query until you’ve drafted, revised, and reworked your manuscript to be the very best version of itself possible. Many think they should start the query process while they’re completing the manuscript because finding the right agent can often take a long time. However, this is misguided. Querying a partial manuscript is a mistake because the agent assumes you’ve completed the project. So when she requests it, the agent expects to receive the full manuscript in a timely manner—not in six months when you finally finish.
  2.  Groveling: Please do not beg, brown-nose, or suck up. An agent expects you to be confident, courteous, and professional. The query is your opportunity to display your skill as a writer as well as the type of client you’ll be when you’re signed. I’ve heard of aspiring writers sending flowers and boxes of chocolates to potential agents. Spend the extra time on drafting an impressive letter because you’re a skilled writer, not because you have extra money to spend on gifts.
  3. Sharing TMI: Be specific and concise with your bio. Leave out anything that doesn’t directly apply to the manuscript or your writing career.  Do not make up publishing credits.  Do not discuss your dog.  Keep it relevant and to the point. Another mistake aspiring authors make is including information in the bio that has nothing to do with the legitimacy of being a writer. Provide a list of publishing credits and writing awards. The literary agent doesn’t need to know about accolades not associated with your writing career, unless you can creatively tie them in with the reason for writing the proposed manuscript.

For more advice, tips, and resources, check out Lilly’s upcoming class:

Art of the Query Letter: How to Woo an Agent from the Slush Pile

So, you wrote a book and now it’s waiting to be on bookshelves. If you aren’t planning to self-publish and the owner of Penguin Random House isn’t your cousin, then you probably need a literary agent. Join me for this 2-week crash course that’ll get you down and dirty with the elusive query letter. We’ll use real examples that worked–including mine! And create a plan of action for taking your query into the world of literary agent slush piles. 
(P.S. if you aren’t sure what the heck a slush pile is, I’ll be sure to explain that too).

More about Lilly Barels:

 A decade after receiving her BS in neuroscience from UCLA and being named Valedictorian, Lilly decided to pursue her true passion for writing and received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2014. She resides on Oahu as a full-time mother of two sandy children and a part-time writer of three novels. Lilly enjoys being an active member of the SCBWI and incorporates avocado into every possible meal. She is represented by Sarah LaPolla of Bradford Literary Agency. Connect with Lilly on Twitter @lillybarels

“Mom!!You WROTE About Me??” Question of Boundaries and Ethics for Mothers Writing


by Rachel Schinderman

I had a writing teacher who once said, “Write as if your parents are dead.” The meaning was not to censor yourself and to write freely despite thinking your parents may see it, which could be embarrassing. Others have said, “if you didn’t want to be written about you should have been nicer.” As a writer who has written extensively about motherhood, and therefore my children, I think about this differently. Now, I won’t imagine my children not being here, but I must take them into account. And being “nicer” isn’t really appropriate for someone going through what is often called the terrible twos or are referred to a as threenager.  In fact it is developmentally appropriate for them to not be nicer. Or at least that is what the parenting books tell me.

There is very little I could say about myself that I would censor. I am pretty much an open book (hence being a memoir writer), but by writing about motherhood I am writing about my children and this can be sticky.

When my children were babies, I had a newspaper column where I explored our day to day lives and challenges. My son could not give me permission to write about him, obviously.  Those columns were not just about sleep challenges (they were there and then some) or ear infections (had those too), but were more about our daily struggles in the aftermath of a birth trauma where my son almost died the day he was born. To me, this very personal and intimate tale was mine to tell. This was my story of how motherhood was unfolding in a different manner than I expected. But did my son have any say in this? Did his brother when he arrived four years later premature and we added another layer of challenges?

And so I stopped my column. To be honest it was mostly that I was overwhelmed with parenting, not for any privacy or ethics concerns, but even without the column I found that I still wrote about motherhood and my children. I needed to. And so I told our stories in shows like Expressing Motherhood.

Writing for me is an outlet.  A way to explore what is going on my life, in the world.  It guides and focuses me.  Ona Gritz explores this idea beautifully in her New York Times piece “Finding Myself on the Page.” But is it fair for me to share my story when it involves someone else, especially when that someone else is the person I am supposed to protect above all else?  Now that he is older, 11, my son has asked me not to publish certain stories ones he may find too revealing and I have listened and done as he asked. But now that he is older, he also revels in the celebrity aspect of being written about. He thinks he is famous if he can find his name in a Google search.  I haven’t the heart to tell him mommy isn’t that well known and therefore anything I write won’t make him famous.  He will have to do that on his own.  And he is up for that challenge.

I explored this issue in my column, “Debating the Benefits of Sharing Our Kids” and revealed that I was written about as a child.  My mother, Eileen Douglas, wrote a children’s book called Rachel and the Upside Down Heart, about our lives after my father died when I was only four.  What I discovered in writing that column is what I hope my sons will also discover, that I felt great value in having someone write down my story.  It elevated what was happening to us.  It made me feel like it, and therefore I, mattered.  And what could be more motherly than helping your children find value in their stories?

As I wrote in my column:

But I found strength in writing. And I found strength in having this document, this book that my mother created. I had beautiful illustrations depicting my childhood. I had words that captured a specific, though difficult time in my life. This was a time I may otherwise have shut away never to have remembered.

So now as I look for ways to remember these early years with my child, in addition to taking numerous photos and videos, I write.

In doing so, we as mother/writers must also be aware of our children, and write not as if our parents are dead but as if our children will read it one day.

Rachel Zients Schinderman is a writer, teacher, and mother living in Los Angeles. As a teacher, she is the creator of the writing groups for moms, Mommie Brain  (, which was featured in Daily Candy.  As a writer she has had her work appear in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, The Manifest Station, The LA Times Magazine to name a few and had an ongoing column about parenting in The Santa Monica Daily Press also called Mommie Brain. As a mom she has two sons, ages 7 and 11. Learn more at or to read some of her work. She is also a regular performer in the hit show Expressing Motherhood and has placed twice in LA Parent’s Moms Who Write Contest.  She has a Masters in Professional Writing from The University of Southern California and a Teaching Certificate from Antioch University, but more than all of that, she is excited by other people’s stories and helping them discover them.  


Rachel’s class, Mommie Brain: Documenting Your Parenting Journey provides real tools for writing on motherhood. Begins April 2, 2018.