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Howard County author festival reflects area's literacy and creativity

Howard Weinstein is the author of “Galloway’s Gamble”
Howard Weinstein is the author of “Galloway’s Gamble” (HANDOUT)

What makes a successful community of writers?

Fifteen local writers of all stripes, who have a lot to say on that subject and others, will come together to discuss their techniques and their books on Jan. 13 at the Howard County Author Festival sponsored by the county library system.

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"Life is very hectic and people are curious about the writing process and about finding a balance" between work and personal interests, said Allison Jessing, library events and seminars manager.

"We have an amazingly creative community with so many different ideas incubating here that we wanted to highlight the full range of local authors and genres," said Jessing of the event, being held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Miller Branch in Ellicott City.

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Established and emerging authors alike will take turns in the spotlight at the festival, a blend of structured and unstructured formats that will be capped off by an hour of mingling and casual conversation with the audience.

The collection of works is large enough that all six county branch libraries have a dedicated space for displaying books by the local authors, defined by Jessing as people who live or work in Howard County.

There is also a huge amount of interest from aspiring writers in learning how they can break into the field, Jessing said, so a related workshop will precede the festival.

"Getting Your Foot in the Door: Publishing in Literary Magazines" will be held the same day from 11 a.m. to noon to provide aspiring writers with tips on getting their work published.

To further promote interest in writing and reading, there will be a presentation on the library system's #100K Book Challenge that launched Jan. 1, which dares all who live, work or attend school in the county to read a combined total of 100,000 books by Dec. 31.

"We're pretty sure we will hit that mark," said Jessing, who noted that library administrators estimate 91 percent of the county's 313,000 residents are library cardholders. "We've already decided to launch a stretch goal of 150,000 books if the initial goal is reached early."

Jessing's team contacted authors about participating including Toby Devens, whose most recent book is "Barefoot Beach," and Howard Weinstein, an Elkridge resident who made his name by writing "Star Trek" novels and comic books for 35 years, but has now turned his focus to historical fiction.

The library also allowed emerging authors to self-nominate, a successful strategy that led to seven names being placed on a waiting list, Jessing said.

Weinstein, whose recent book "Galloway's Gamble" was released in September, said "it was time to shift from writing about the future to writing about the past."

"In the 1960s when I was in high school there was a groundswell of optimism about the future and young people were trying to change the world," he recalled. "But the world has become more troubled … and we haven't become the future world that 'Star Trek' portrayed."

After deciding to write a western set in the period from 1850 to 1875 — the years on both sides of the Civil War — Weinstein has become more aware that "time is one long continuum."

"Everything that is going on today is linked to the past, and we are making some of the same mistakes from 150 years ago," he said.

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Weinstein makes this distinction between science fiction writing and historical fiction writing: The former has to be plausible and the latter has to be accurate.

"Before, I could comment on life in an oblique way, and now I can illuminate actual events," he said, noting he's already planning a sequel to his novel.

Weinstein will also bring visual aids, including a "Star Trek" phaser, a Civil War pistol and a sheriff's badge.

Devens, a best-selling novelist and 42-year Wilde Lake resident, said she believes Columbia attracts creative types, "people who think outside the box and embrace the theme of inclusivity."

She also believes people have a great need for escapism in today's divisive world.

"When things get rough — as they are now — and you feel powerless, authors have a god-like power to create narratives that have satisfying endings," she said, noting that the power of women's friendships is a thread in her writing.

"Everybody has a book in them, but first you have to know how to write," Devens said.

Faye McCray — author of a recent book of affirmations for kids, a creative workshop presenter and an Ellicott City resident — believes creativity often blossoms in places where job demands may conspire to stifle it.

"The government is such a big employer here and it's not always nurturing, causing some people to feel lost in suburbia," speculated McCray, whose most recent book is titled "I Am Loved!"

Creative types "rise up in an atmosphere like this, which presents an opportunity for reflection," she said.

Meg Eden, who writes poetry and young adult fiction that falls in the genre of "magical realism," which she describes as the intersection of the real and fantastical worlds, will lead the morning workshop geared toward amateur writers and also participate in the festival.

"Most who attend my workshop will be people who write and want to share their work, but don't know what the next step is," said the Severn resident, whose most recent book, "Post-High School Reality Quest," came out in June.

The workshop, which Eden describes as a sneak preview of the three-hour presentation she often gives, will include a display of some of her own rejection letters, cover letters and queries to publishing houses to help ease people's expectations.

"I still get a million rejections… it's relentless," she said. "Only 1 in 10 of the letters I send actually connects with someone."

Heather Cumiskey, an Ellicott City resident with a background in advertising copywriting and marketing, writes young adult fiction and is the author of "I Like You Like This," which was published in November.

"My platform has evolved into helping teens find their voice," said Cumiskey, who has three kids. "I like to say I was propelled into the teen world and the genre found me."

Cumiskey, who gives presentations on creative nonfiction to county high schools, also likes helping teens with their writing.

"Because of social media, authors know more about each other," she said. "It's like a club and we learn from one another."

Devens said it can't be overemphasized that the festival will provide multiple levels of opportunity for interaction — authors with readers, authors with authors, and readers with readers.

"There is so much out there today," she said of local authors' work, "and a lot of it is really quite good."

If you go

The Howard County Author Festival will be held 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 13 at the Miller Branch Library, 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City. A complete list of participating authors is available online at hclibrary.org. Representatives of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society and the Little Patuxent Review will attend. Registration is not required.

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Persons interested in the "Getting Your Foot in the Door" workshop are asked to call 410-313-1950 or check online to see if it's full before making plans to attend.

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