what’s new and upcoming

Hello! I hope you’re staying warm and cozy on this winter morning (it’s one degree Fahrenheit outside here in northern Indiana). I’m just dropping in to let you know that I’m planning to be back soon with some new posts on creative writing. For now, check out my latest podcast episodes at https://anchor.fm/tess-r-martinus. There’s a zombie episode, a board game episode, and some opportunities to hear from people who mean a lot to me. Listen and let me know what you think!

monthly goals

Hello, blog readers! It’s been over a month since I’ve posted, and I miss you. I’ve had a couple of students tell me they’ve started following my blog, so I thought I should get on the ball with some new content. Before I do, though, I want to remind you about my podcast, It’s Lit Time! with Dr. Tess. While this blog focuses on teaching and learning, the podcast is about literature in a broad sense, including film and other forms of storytelling. I have some exciting conversations with guests coming up later this month, including discussions of The Godfather, superheroes, and mistakes writers should avoid. For now, check out my first two episodes:

Episode 1: What Is a Story? https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-1-what-is-a-story/

Episode 2: What Is a Novel? https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-2-what-is-a-novel/

And now that the commercial is over, today’s post.

I was reading last week about someone who shares her goals each month with her blog readers as an accountability method. I thought I would try doing this, with hopes that it will be useful not only for me but also for you–perhaps as an inspiration for a framework for your own goals. (The goals themselves, of course, will be highly individual.)

All year, I’ve been using a formula for my goals that involves the concept of loving others well. I started with three and have added one each quarter, so I’m up to five. Here they are:

  1. Love and serve God well.
  2. Love and serve Jordan well. (Jordan is my husband.)
  3. Love and serve my students well.
  4. Love and maintain my body.
  5. Love and maintain our home.

The first thing some of you might notice about these goals is that they are not the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) goals that many of us have been taught to make in organizational settings. (Teachers, you know these would not fare well as lesson objectives, as in “After this lesson, the student will be able to…”) This shortcoming is addressed partly by the fact that these goals deal with relationships in which I’m attuned enough to the other person or entity that I can usually tell intuitively whether things are going well or poorly. But also, as facilitated by my Cultivate What Matters Powersheets Goal Planner, I’ve broken down each of these large-scale goals into quarterly mini-goals, which are further broken down into action steps. My mini-goals for this summer range from the near-universal “Clean more regularly” to ones that are specific to my situation right now, like the one about helping Jordan transition back to the office three days a week after having worked almost entirely from home since March 2020. My action steps are even more varied, from setting my alarm earlier on Sunday morning to training for a race (I just signed up for a local zombie-themed 5K trail race) to making strategic use of apps like Forest and Love Nudge.

Once again, this post is meant to be inspirational, not prescriptive. And I realize that for some of you, the idea of making quarterly mini-goals and action steps sounds cheesy or restrictive. But for those of you who enjoy this kind of stuff–or are open to trying it–I hope this post gets you excited. Please feel free to keep me accountable–and to share your goals with me. Let’s help each other out!

Sam’s Town revisited

This past weekend, I received another royalty payment (which I know is a crass and demeaning topic that true artists are supposed to avoid [kidding!]) for my novel, Sam’s Town, so I want to take a moment to thank everyone who has purchased, read, reviewed, or recommended it. As Mac Barnett and Adam Rex’s recent picture book How This Book Was Made reminds us, a book really isn’t finished until it has readers. So thank you for making my book a real book!

In case you missed basically all of my posts last fall, in October I self-published (via Kindle Direct Publishing) my zombie apocalypse novel Sam’s Town, which has a title borrowed from a Killers album and fantastic cover art by Mike Nair. It’s more about relationships than about zombies, but fans of George Romero and The Walking Dead should find it satisfying. You can read more about it here and in most of my September and October posts. It’s available in paperback and e-book formats; the shopping link is in the post above. If you have questions, let me know in the comments!

Sam’s Town–the paperback


Hi everyone, I’m back with some exciting news: I just submitted the paperback of Sam’s Town to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing for review. If it passes quality inspection (and I see no reason why it won’t, with this fantastic cover by Mike Nair!), it will be available for purchase within about two days. I will post another announcement when I receive confirmation, but in case I forget or am busy (a likely scenario, these days), I wanted to go ahead and give you the news. Mark your calendars for the end of this week! Just search the book title and my name on Amazon.com.

the character you’ve been waiting for–and the cover reveal!

Hi everyone, thanks for sticking with me through this month-long tour of the characters of Sam’s Town, my zombie apocalypse novel releasing…any day now! My fantastic cover artist, Mike Nair, has finished his work, and it looks great! I’m going to show it to you at the end of the post, but if you’re too excited to wait, go ahead and scroll down now (Sam and I would just appreciate if you came back here and read the rest afterward).

Today I want to tell you about Sam, who is both the protagonist of my novel and, to a great extent, my concept of what a good (though flawed) man looks like. Forgive me while I get sappy for a second: I was telling a friend the other day that all this character development I did over the past couple of years–for Adrian, Joe, and Frankie too, but mainly for Sam–helped me to figure out what I was looking for in a man I would want to marry. And right around the time I finished writing my novel this past summer, I met a man like that in real life. My boyfriend, Jordan (who I hope is reading this), has many of Sam’s best qualities–his loyalty, his intelligence, and most of all, his gentleness.

But enough about my personal life. What can I tell you about Sam Larson without taxing your patience with an unusually long post? He’s the writer and illustrator of a web comic called The Adventures of Sparky the Sidekick. He loves movies and will watch just about anything, but some of his favorites are the Godfather trilogy and George Romero’s zombie classics (the latter of which serves him well now that he’s living in a world where zombies actually exist). He’s a good cook who specializes in Italian food, though he doesn’t show off that skill very often. He hates conflict. He likes to feel useful. He struggles with depression. He’s smart and persistent, which makes him good at problem-solving. (In the novel, he tinkers with a vending machine until he figures out how to open it without a key. Which reminds me of another fact about Sam–he loves Coca-Cola.) He has a gift for making other people feel calm, which makes him the perfect counterpart to his frenzied best friend Adrian. He has these enormous pale blue eyes (just like his mother’s) that are always making people ask him if he’s okay, which he finds incredibly frustrating. He constantly underrates himself. He’s stronger than he thinks, physically and mentally, as the circumstances of the novel force him to discover.

Here are some fun facts about Sam:

  • I imagined a version of this character years ago, when I was in high school. His name was Sparky (like the aforementioned sidekick). You can read about the evolution of Sam in this post.
  • I once wrote a post about Mr. (Fred) Rogers in the voice of Sam.
  • Just like I gave some of my random quirks to Adrian and Ramona, I endowed Sam with this (understandable, I think) phobia that I have: He hates to watch people using intravenous needles in movies or TV. Stabbing a zombie in the head, fine. Shooting up heroin or getting an IV, no thank you. He has to look away.

And here are the first two paragraphs of my novel, in which we meet the title character:

You could tell by his apartment that Sam Larson lived alone. There were always a few dishes in the sink and a few pencils and sketchpads sitting around, and there was a sag in the middle of the couch where he usually sat. Sam worked from home, mostly. He taught an occasional art class or appeared at a comic book convention (his name was never high on the billing), but mostly he sat in his apartment and made comics. That was how he liked it.

On the last Friday night in July, Sam made spaghetti carbonara and ate a plate of it.  Then he turned on his epic movie scores station on Pandora and started drawing.  He was working on an installment of The Adventures of Sparky the Sidekick, his superhero web comic that capitalized on the ironic potential of foregrounding the affable best friend and downplaying the character who would normally be the hero.  Sam’s fans—they were few but loyal and willing to express their loyalty with their money—loved Sparky because he was witty and long-suffering and always came out okay in the end, despite all the crap he deflected away from his rather useless best friend.  But none of his fans knew that Sam drew Sparky as a version of himself—a short, round guy with straw-yellow hair and big washed-out-blue eyes that were always making people ask if he was okay.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: Here’s the cover of Sam’s Town! What’s your favorite part about it? I’ll pass your feedback along to the artist!


Stay tuned for the official release announcement!

#Samona, part one

In these final weeks before the release of Sam’s Town, I want to introduce you to two more characters. Next week we’ll finally meet Sam, but today we’re focusing on Ramona Bates (her last name never appears in the novel), a former English professor from “the hillbilly part of Ohio” (her words) who, unlike Sam and Adrian, has never watched a zombie movie or TV show, yet takes to this post-apocalyptic world quite naturally, discovering survival and weapons skills she never knew she had. And oh yes, she falls in love with Sam, though she ends the novel still undecided on whether she would truly describe herself as “in love”—Ramona is an overthinker (and this, along with the English professor part, is directly autobiographical). Although, as I stated last week, Sam and Adrian’s friendship is the cornerstone relationship of the novel, Ramona and Sam’s awkward, by-fits-and-starts romantic relationship plays a key role in both characters’ development. It’s also a favorite storyline of the friends and fellow writers who have read and given feedback on my novel, as evidenced by the celebrity couple hashtag that one of them coined, #Samona.

With Ramona, I hope I have successfully portrayed a realistic female lead character: neither a damsel in distress nor a one-dimensional tough girl. When Sam and Adrian first meet Ramona, who is hitchhiking along a deserted highway in Michigan, she impresses them as strong, smart, and a bit intimidating. (Before taking a nap in the backseat, she threatens to kill anyone who touches her.) But after some late-night, emotionally vulnerable conversations, Sam learns that Ramona is just as insecure as he is. They are drawn together by their mutual kindness and respect, even after they have learned each other’s insecurities. I have learned in my own life that honesty can be kind of sexy. Not coincidentally, it is after Sam opens up to Ramona about his mental health struggles that she first kisses him.

Here are some fun facts about Ramona:

  • In Sam’s Town, we learn that Ramona has a sister that she believes is still living in their hometown. In the sequel, Sam’s Home (which I plan to work on next month during NaNoWriMo!), we learn that the sister is indeed still alive and is named Melissa, that Ramona is the older sister, and that Melissa has an ex-husband named Mike with whom she is back together (and who might turn out to be a bad guy—I haven’t gotten that far in my plotting yet).
  • This is the first time I’ve used the name “Ramona” in a story, but I’ve been tossing it around in my head ever since I heard Bob Dylan’s song “To Ramona” when I was in college. Though I never state this in the novel, I like to think that Ramona’s parents were Dylan fans and that this is perhaps why Ramona so readily recognizes the name of the town where Sam and Adrian are headed: Hibbing, Minnesota (Bob Dylan’s hometown—and Sam’s).

Here’s a 100% autobiographical, totally self-indulgent scene about Ramona’s past as a college professor. It begins with Sam asking her to define a term she has just used, “FERPA” (you’ll have to read the novel to find out how that came up in conversation!).

“It stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It means I don’t have to talk to parents unless my students give their permission, because…” She stopped walking and turned to face him but held onto his hand. “Because my students are legally adults. Sam, I’m a college professor.” She looked down at her feet.

“Oh!” he exclaimed as it all clicked into place. “Sorry, I’m slow. But wait—why do you seem embarrassed about that?”

She sighed, lifting her shoulders exaggeratedly like a little kid. “Because people always treat me differently when they find out. Especially guys. They act like I’m from another planet when they find out—“ she lowered her voice to a whisper—“I have a Ph.D.”

“You have a Ph.D.?!” Sam practically yelled.

“See? Exactly like that,” Ramona huffed.

“Sorry,” he said, laughing a little. “Well, I won’t lie; I’m impressed. But you still seem to be from this planet.” He smiled and tried to make eye contact with her, but she kept looking down.

She absently swung their hands back and forth. “I feel like such a pretentious—person.” She cleared her throat. “And I don’t know; I still feel like a poser when I say I’m a college professor. Like people are thinking I’m too young. Or too—too something. Or not something enough. Sorry.” She finally looked up. “Clearly I’m very insecure.”

“Well, hey! So am I,” Sam said with a fake heartiness, fighting a grin.

Ramona snorted. “Glad we got that off our chests.”

This scene also gave you a little preview of the guy you’ve all been waiting to meet—Sam Larson. Come back next week to learn about my protagonist, whom I love (and I hope you will too!).

meet Adrian Fallon, who does not suck as a friend

Hi, everyone! I hope you’re enjoying getting to know the characters of my novel Sam’s Town, which is getting so close to being released. I saw a mock-up of the cover last week, and it looks awesome. I can’t wait for you all to see it.

Today, I’d like you to meet Sam’s best friend, Adrian Fallon. At one time, Adrian was basically a second protagonist. I had been written stories about Sam and Adrian for a few years before I decided to throw them into the zombie apocalypse and make a whole novel out of their adventures. Eventually, Sam came to be the main character, but Adrian still has some crucial point-of-view scenes, and I would argue that his friendship with Sam is the central relationship of the novel, even more so than the romantic connection, which I’ll talk about next week. Adrian and Sam have known each other for fourteen years–since their sophomore year of college. They’ve been through hard times together, eaten many pizzas, had many convoluted all-night conversations on various finer points of geekdom, and watched Night of the Living Dead too many times to count. Their personalities contrast, but they share some crucial hopes and fears, and they understand each other better than nearly anyone else in the world. They look out for each other, like brothers.

I mentioned last week that Adrian is more like me than any of my other characters (though Ramona, whom you’ll meet next week, is a close second). Like me, Adrian is a tense person who gets easily frustrated when he himself, other people, and the world don’t meet his high standards. (As you can imagine, the zombie apocalypse poses a problem for him.) Adrian worries–among other worries–that he isn’t the good friend that Sam needs and deserves, but he’s wrong about that. He’s empathetic and fiercely loyal, and if he says something hurtful in his irrational anger, as occasionally happens, he won’t rest until he’s apologized and done all he can to restore the relationship. All of these, I think, are qualities that Adrian and I share.

Here are a couple of fun facts about Adrian:

  • Speaking of things we have in common: Probably my worst physical habit is picking at my cuticles–especially those of my thumbs–when I’m nervous, sometimes to the point of making them bleed. I gave this habit to Adrian as well.
  • Adrian is from Boston, and I wanted to make him Irish-American but not to hit readers over the head with this. So I added a couple of subtle hints, one of which is that his mother, Eileen, used to make and sell “Celtic” clothing and accessories. I also gave him the last name Fallon, which is Irish but not to the point of caricature…
  • …and is also the last name of a musician whose work I enjoy, Brian Fallon, formerly of The Gaslight Anthem. Like Adrian, Brian Fallon has always seemed to me like a deep thinker and a frustrated person who wants to do what’s right. And Adrian is a musician too, a former high school music teacher who can pick up and play nearly any instrument, and who ends up using a broken guitar as a zombie-slaying weapon.

Here’s a scene about Adrian being frustrated:

It was thirty minutes since Adrian had left the restaurant. He knew this because he always wore a watch. He sat down on the edge of the mine nearest to the town and felt the blood and adrenaline coursing through his body.

The Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine was nearly three miles long. Most of the zombies had been contained at the opposite end, but one had strayed down to this end—or, more likely, had fallen in from above, and was clawing uselessly at the steep, smooth wall of the pit. It hissed monotonously. Adrian concentrated all his anger on the zombie. He wanted to throw a rock at this idiotic creature that was too stupid to give up. He looked around in the moonlight for a rock he could throw. Although he was sitting on the edge of an enormous quarry, he didn’t see any rocks, which made him angrier.

Adrian lay on his back and looked at the pale, round, mild, stupid face of the moon. He put his forearm over his eyes to block the light. He tried to take deep breaths, but his lungs felt like somebody’s knees were pushing down on them. With a strangled cry, he scrambled to his feet and looked around. Nobody was there, of course. Adrian started running toward the far end of the mine.

Okay, so be honest (even though Adrian is like me, he isn’t, actually, me)–do you like Adrian? Do you think you’d want a guy like him around during the zombie apocalypse?

Stay tuned for next week, when we’ll meet the woman who loves the man that the novel is named after.

Joe and Anna Larson, the cutest couple in the zombie apocalypse

Welcome back to my series of posts introducing you to the characters in my forthcoming zombie apocalypse novel, Sam’s Town! Today I’d like you to meet Joe and Anna Larson, the parents of my main character, Sam. In genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction), it’s fairly rare to see a relationship between an adult character and his or her parents, and it’s rare in all types of narratives these days to see a positive portrayal of such a relationship. And I’d argue that it’s even less rare, especially in genre fiction, to see a portrayal of a romantic relationship (especially a healthy one) between people over 40–dare I say, even over 30? Well, get ready for this: Joe and Anna are over 50–approaching 60!–and they’re unmistakably in love. Part of the reason their passion is so evident at present is that Anna has recently emerged from a decades-long period of debilitating depression that kept her housebound and unable to fully participate in the relationships that meant so much to her, primarily those with her husband, Joe, and her only child, Sam. If it doesn’t sound too sappy to say it, it’s almost as if she’s falling in love all over again. And even during the bleakest times, Joe has never stopped feeling awe that a woman like Anna would want to be with a guy like him.

Sam is a lot like both of his parents, including in ways that he might not want to admit. His relationships with each of his parents were some of my favorites to explore. They’re not perfect relationships, but they’re kind and well-intentioned and, most of all, loving–and this is something else we don’t see enough of in fiction. I think some writers are called to write about the ugliness of the world around us, including in the way humans treat one another, but I wanted to write an aspirational story. Set in the zombie apocalypse. How’s that for irony? Anyway, I think all my characters have qualities worth emulating, but as the oldest of the bunch, Joe and Anna are perhaps the greatest mentor figures in the story, flawed as they are.

Fun facts about Joe and Anna:

  • Joe is a dentist who ends up as the de facto leader of the apocalypse survivors in Hibbing, Minnesota. I learned of an interesting coincidence after I had already created this storyline: A real-life dentist from Hibbing named Rudy Perpich also took an important leadership role, serving two terms as the governor of Minnesota.
  • It’s said several times in my novel that Sam looks a lot like Joe but has Anna’s eyes. Does this remind you of anyone? It should remind you of Harry Potter. 🙂
  • Frankie, whom you met last week, says Joe Larson is Clemenza’s best customer of all time. Before the zombie apocalypse, he ate there at least once a week.

And here’s a romantic encounter between Joe and Anna:

He turned his head to look her in the face, his eyes searching for hers in the dim light from the bathroom. “Be careful,” he said. “I can’t lose you.”

She reached over and touched his face. “You won’t.”

“I mean it,” he said, and his voice cracked.

“I mean it too,” she said with her eyes locked on his. “You won’t.”

They just looked at each other for what felt like a long time. “I love you so much,” Joe finally broke the silence, “but my neck hurts.” He turned his head back to face the ceiling.

Anna giggled quietly and whispered, “Good night.

Let me know what you think of Hibbing’s “it” couple (okay, maybe not, but they’re my “it” couple) in the comments!

Next week, I’m going to introduce you to the character who is most closely based on me. If you’ve read any of my novel, any guesses who I mean?

meet Frankie Clemenza and his resplendent car

Welcome to the first in my series of posts introducing you to the six main characters in my zombie apocalypse novel, Sam’s Town! Today I want you to meet Frankie Clemenza, an old friend of my main character, Sam. Frankie is a lifelong resident of Hibbing, Minnesota, where most of the story takes place, and although he’s a little self-conscious about the fact that he’s never gone to college, married, or done much traveling outside of Hibbing, he loves his life. Frankie has recently inherited the family restaurant from his aunt and uncle, and he’s opened it up (along with his upstairs apartment) as a safe house for Hibbing zombie apocalypse survivors. As the only true extrovert in my novel, Frankie loves the constant flow of people in and out of the restaurant, even if they’re sweaty and bloody. He also loves giving hugs. And he’s a bit of a klutz. Frankie can come across as “an unambitious goof-off” (his uncle Bobby’s words), but beneath his weight-lifting, pasta-cooking, classic-car-restoring surface, there’s a loyal friend and maybe even a capable leader.

Fun facts about Frankie:

  • Yes, his last name (and thus the name of the restaurant) was inspired by that of Peter Clemenza, one of the capos (and one of Vito Corleone’s oldest friends) in The Godfather. My Clemenzas have no organized crime connections, but because they’re chefs and restaurant owners, I associate them with Peter Clemenza, who once took a break from planning a Mafia war to teach Michael Corleone how to make tomato sauce–and uttered the famous line, “Leave the guns; take the cannoli.”
  • Frankie drives a 1960s Cadillac DeVille (I didn’t specify the year), which saves the day at a crucial point in my novel and which Sam describes as “resplendent.” I loved the idea of him in a chrome-plated “pontoon boat” of a car, but I knew that four-door cars were less common mid-century, so I had to do a little research to make sure that Cadillac came out with a DeVille in the 60s that had rear doors, which I needed for plot reasons. (That’s all I’m telling you right now!)

And now, for your reading enjoyment, here’s a snippet of the scene in which Frankie first appears. Frankie is having his arm bandaged due to an accident in which a gun went off while he was holding it. (Did I mention he’s a bit of a klutz?)

The man in the chair stood up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older than Sam. He had the arms of someone who spent a lot of time in the gym and the abs of someone who spent a lot of time around garlic bread. “I just grazed the top of my arm. Could have been a lot worse, as klutzy as I am.”

“Frankie Clemenza!” Sam grinned.

The other man furrowed his brow. “Frankie was a dumb kid. I go by Frank now.”

“Oh, sorry…” Sam took a step backward.

Frank’s serious face split into a smile, and he stepped forward. “Just kidding, man! You can call me whatever you want!” He grabbed Sam in a fierce yet lingering hug. “I missed you, buddy. It’s been way too long. You never come home! But—” he pulled back to look Sam in the face but kept hugging him—“I read your comic every week when it comes out. Every week!”

What do you think of Frankie so far? Would you want a guy like him around during the zombie apocalypse, or is he a bit much to handle? Let me know in the comments!

Next week, we’ll meet Sam’s parents, Joe and Anna Larson, one of whom has been called Clemenza’s best customer of all time…