Introducing Author Debbie Burke

In honor of her triumphant breakthrough into publication I want to introduce my good friend Debbie Burke, who agreed to write this post for my blog. I met Debbie in the late 90s when I moved to Kalispell, Montana, and joined the local writers group. Debbie was a member of my first critique group and a wonderful mentor to me in my endeavor to hone my writing skills so I could become a published author myself. Her input into the first book of my upcoming Golden Threads series was invaluable, and she was a fantastic beta reader for Book Three of the series. I was thrilled to learn of her success in having her new thriller, Instrument of the Devil, chosen for publication after she won the Kindle Scout contest.

The above photo shows a sweeping view of the Mission Mountain Range of the Rockies. In Debbie’s new book, set in these beauties surrounding Kalispell, a terrorist frames a Montana widow in his plot to bring down the electrical grid by cyberattack on the Hungry Horse Dam. When I read it I was struck by the juxtaposition of the glory and the horror.

For the post Debbie writes about mentors. As a recipient of her mentoring, although I wasn’t a young mentee, I appreciate the sentiments. Thank you, Debbie.

Paying It Forward


Debbie Burke

Stirling Silliphant was a renowned writer in Hollywood for decades. His screenplay of the 1967 movie In the Heat of the Night won an Oscar. His credits included countless TV scripts and feature films. In addition to prolific writing, he served as a generous mentor to a young Army officer named Dennis Foley.

Dennis started in Hollywood as a military advisor and slid sideways into screenwriting when a director needed an emergency rewrite by the next morning. Dennis delivered and was tasked to redo scripts even though he knew next to nothing about the craft. Stirling took Dennis under his wing and, during many late night phone conversations, talked him through problems and taught him fundamentals.

One day Dennis asked, “Stirling, you’ve helped me so much, how can I ever repay you?”

Stirling replied, “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an a**hole.”

For more than twenty years, Dennis has passed it on in a big way by mentoring me and hundreds of other students. If not for his wise counsel and broad experience, many of us would not have been published. [Debbie’s book cover at left.]

Sharing knowledge without expectation of payback is what mentorship is about.

My earliest mentor was my third grade teacher, Miss Parker. She recognized my hunger to write and encouraged it, while giving concrete suggestions how to improve. Years later, I invited her to my wedding…and she came!

Sadly, I lost track of her…until recently, when I looked her up on the internet, found a phone number, and called. “Are you by any chance the Miss Parker who taught at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in the 1950s?”

“Yes, I am she,” she answered, ever precise with her grammar.

She’s 87 and still sounded sharp, retired after 50 years of teaching school at all levels. We laughed about how the “bad boys” were always assigned to her classes. Although she wasn’t much taller than her third graders, she was ferociously athletic. The troublemakers knew she could drop kick them across the playground and they respected her for it.

After retirement, she taught five more years in the jail system. She affectionately called those students “my jailbirds.” I have no doubt they respected her as much as the “bad boys” had in third grade.

During our conversation, when I referred to children as “kids,” she gently corrected me, admonishing “kids are baby goats.” Still editing me all these decades later, but still with kindness. She congratulated me on the publication of my novel and I’m sending her a copy.

Many other mentors have offered their hands to lift me up. I feel a moral obligation to offer the same to those coming after me. But it’s no hardship. [That’s Debbie in front of the piano below.]

When I help young writers, I always receive more than I give.

They keep me hopping barely one step ahead of them. How to explain active verbs? Pacing? Point of view? If you really want to learn something, teach it to another person.  The more I have to explain an amorphous concept to a new writer, the more deeply I come to understand it myself. When I analyze what is wrong in someone else’s work, I recognize and can fix problems in my own.

My group, the Authors of the Flathead, sponsors an annual writing contest for high school students. One year, a particular story exploded from the pile of anonymous submissions we were reviewing. All the judges were blown away by compelling narrative, vivid characters, and sophisticated themes. We invited the winner, sixteen-year-old Sarah, to read her story at our regular meeting.

That evening, she asked me if I would mentor her in writing. Of course! Who wouldn’t want to work with a bright, energetic, dynamic young woman? Through high school and college, Sarah often sent me essays, articles, and fellowship applications to critique and edit.

Harvard ultimately accepted her and she earned her PhD in astrophysics (totally without my assistance!). By that time, I only understood a few words in her writing—the, and, because.

Two years ago, she defended her dissertation and I flew to Boston to attend. As she stood before a packed audience at the Forbes Lecture Theater, my heart swelled with pride and I used up a whole package of tissues.

Recently Dr. Sarah Rugheimer posted a video lecture on Facebook delivered by a young scientist she’s now mentoring. Her pride in her mentee’s accomplishment glowed all over the post. I messaged her: “Now you understand.”

In Stirling Silliphant’s unforgettable words: “Pass it on. If you don’t, you’re an a**hole.”

The above photo shows the Hungry Horse Dam where shivery scenes take place in Debbie Burke’s Kindle Scout winning thriller, Instrument of the Devil. Available on Amazon, the book also won the Zebulon Award sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference.

Visit Debbie at:





Backtracking the Oregon Trail #5

Day Three ~ The High Plains

463.wagons high plainsWind whistled across the high desert. The sun shone warm on her back, not a cloud in the sky. Nights had been cold, though, everything white with frost in the mornings. The acrid smell of sage clutched her nose. She’d been tasting it for days. The scrubby plants dotted the landscape, along with other low, tangled brush, a spare coat of dry grass like a mangy dog’s hair.
A Place of Her Own: The Legacy of Oregon Pioneer Martha Poindexter Maupin, Janet Fisher. (Guilford, CT, Helena, MT: TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press, 2014), p. 116.

Wedns Aug 4 Traveled 8 miles. Came to Soda Springs. laid by the rest of the day. Here is quite a curiosity. The water boils right up out of high rocks in some places and it boils out of the level ground quite . . . high. The water is not so strong but what a person can drink it very well.
—The diary of Martha S. Read, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 236.

July 6th We traveled 18 miles through the Pass;; The ascent and descent is very gradual it being impossible to exactly determine where the culminating point is. . . . The next stream we passed was a small one called Pacific Creek The water here runs West while every other stream we have passed runs either (East) or South
—The diary of Abigail Jane Scott, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 82.

August 1st Sunday To day we left the waters that flow into the Atlantic and proceed to those of the Pacific We let our cattle feed till about noon and then started on, for the South pass 10 miles distant – It ill comports with the ideas we had formed of a pass through the rocky Mountains, being merely a vast level sandy plain sloping a little each way from the summit and a few hills for we could not call them mountains on each side. Some few snowy peaks in the distance, and this is the South pass through the Rocky mountains
—The diary of Cecelia Adams & Parthenia Blank, in Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1890. Vol. 5, 1852, The Oregon Trail, Kenneth L. Holmes and David C. Duniway, eds. (Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1986), p. 278.

493.mountains to crossAs we continued our journey to Kansas City, retracing the footsteps of our ancestors over the Oregon Trail, I kept picturing Martha, subject of my new book A Place of Her Own, walking this rugged track in 1850 with her husband Garrett Maupin, all their worldly goods packed in an ox-drawn covered wagon. My great-great-grandparents. What hardy souls they were.

Leaving Fort Hall, my daughter, granddaughter, and I struck out eastward toward Soda Springs, where pioneers marveled at natural fountains of soda they could drink like a soda back home. My granddaughter Calliope was determined to buy a soda in the town of Soda Springs. Checking the label she found that the soda came right out of—well, Mexico. But she insisted it was delicious anyway.

Weather had turned cooler today, thankfully, perhaps because we’d moved into higher elevations, or the overall weather patterns had changed. We could enjoy getting out and walking around.

We soon crossed the modern border into Wyoming somewhere near the Oregon Trail with another looming ridge in the near distance. The range extended on either side of the road and looked too wide to go around. We would have to go over.

494.continuing rangeI couldn’t help thinking how the hearts of those pioneer travelers must have sunk, seeing ridges like this ahead of them and wondering what manner of mountains they were coming into now. As we followed the highway into this ridge, the road rose before us and we could hear the subtle change in the laden car’s engine. Imagine taking this step by step, one foot in front of the other, the oxen tugging that laden wagon up a slope with no smooth highway, only a rutted track.

Of course, they were coming the other way. They faced this mountain from the other side. Our uphill slope was their downhill grade. But downhill isn’t so easy either. While there isn’t the tug of hauling weight upward, a decline can be treacherous. A heavy wagon pushing down on you. Rocks in the path ready to trip a person or flip a wagon. Truckers today understand the danger of a runaway vehicle on a steep descent. A runaway wagon could happen too. Mountains, beautiful as they are, must have always evoked dread.

We left the Oregon Trail somewhere in western Wyoming. The main highways in Wyoming veer from that track, and we had limited time. We had a long drive ahead before we reached our day’s destination, and my daughter had meetings scheduled the morning after our scheduled arrival in the Kansas City area at the end of Day 5. We needed to take the fast route across Wyoming. And I do mean fast. Much of Interstate 80 is posted at 80 mph. That does make the miles slip by.

Again I thought of the pioneers who faced other kinds of time constraints. They had to get across the last mountain before winter snows came. They may have had some flexibility of days, but they didn’t dare delay too long.

Years ago when my kids were young our family had taken the more northerly zigzagged route across Wyoming on a road trip with a travel trailer—our version of a covered wagon—and we did our best to follow the Oregon Trail all the way. I well remember the surprising topography of South Pass where the trail crossed the Continental Divide which separates the waters that flow to the Pacific from waters that flow ultimately to the Atlantic. It doesn’t appear mountainous at all. It’s just a slight rise in ground in the midst of a dry plain, dotted with sagebrush and other scrub. Such luck for all who passed that way in the early days that they found this easy crossing through the otherwise craggy mountain range of the Rockies.

495.sediment on rocksOur crossing of the Continental Divide on Interstate 80 wasn’t much more noticeable. We saw a lot of country like the above, wide flat stretches of sagebrush and dry tufts of grass with multicolored bluffs rising here and there. Barren but beautiful. I liked the soft reds in the bluff above, which I shot while the car surged forward.

497.colored rimrockAnd this formation near Green River, Wyoming, was interesting with its strawberry tint in layer-cake slices. I think I was beginning to get hungry.

After two nights of drive-through fast-food dinners gulped down in the air-conditioned car because it was too hot to leave the dog, we decided this evening we would have a sit-down dinner in a restaurant. The weather had remained pleasant all day. The dinner couldn’t be anything fancy. We were still far from our motel in Laramie and needed something quick. But quick wasn’t in the cards that evening. Food took a long time to reach our table. My daughter, who did the driving, bolted hers down. My granddaughter and I got to-go boxes. And off we went again. So much for a relaxing dinner.

Dark fell much too fast, and it was 10 o’clock by the time we rolled in. I thought about Martha and other emigrants who made those night runs across the desert when the weather became too unmercifully hot to travel in the day. Ours was just a little miscalculation of the time this portion of the drive would take, a late start due to loss of sleep from parties next door, and slow dinner service.

One thing. We slept well this night.

[The wagon photo at the top was taken at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center at Baker, Oregon.]

NEXT: Scott’s Bluff, famous landmark of the trail