When Life Gets in the Way: Writing through Tough Times

Four months after my debut novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean, was published, my father went missing. It was late December, bitterly cold, and he left without a coat. And his cane. At 95, my dad was extremely frail, and he suffered from dementia. I called 911 in a panic.

Within minutes, NYPD detectives flooded my parents’ Manhattan apartment, asking questions and taking notes. They issued a Silver Alert, and promised to find my dad. “The old guys never get far,” the lead detective assured me. “Don’t worry.”

My mom wasn’t worried because, like my dad, she has dementia and had no idea what was going on. But I was a nervous wreck. New York is a big place, and my dad was probably confused, hungry, and cold. I feared the worst.

Afternoon turned into evening, and then into night. Finally, my father was located at the Empire Hotel, two blocks from Lincoln Center. He had taken a cab, the fare paid in coins from a velvet Alexander McQueen makeup bag. If I found this detail confounding, imagine my surprise when the hotel manager informed me that my dad had checked himself into a room, raided the minibar, and owed $685 plus tax. I would have paid anything, of course. My dad was safe.

But then, four months and three health-care aides later, my dad went missing… again. This time, he was found wandering the streets of SoHo, with a broken finger and lacerations on his face. He was rushed to the hospital, where I met him in the ER. He wasn’t as lucky this time. He developed a severe kidney infection and, after half a year in hospice care, passed away at home. He was 96 years old.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: This story is depressing! You write funny stuff. BE FUNNY!

I wish I could. But at the time, there was no room in my life for humor—or for writing. I tried, but I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to succeed. I was always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did. Again, and again, and again.

I’m still dealing with my fair share of stress (my mom now has advanced dementia), but I’ve found a way to balance life-related responsibilities with my writing. Here’s how you can, too:

Adjust your expectations. If you’re going through tough times—and, like me, juggling a zillion things at once—there’s no way you can be as productive, or as focused, as you were before. Think about it: Your brain has to work overtime just to keep up! Plus, stress has a sneaky way of sapping your emotional and physical energy. So, if you can, cut yourself some slack. Set realistic, manageable writing goals. If you’re used to writing 2,000 words a day, write a thousand. Or five hundred, or 250. Or whatever number your schedule, and emotional energy, allows. If you don’t hit a specific target, that’s okay too. Just write every day, even if it’s for 15 minutes. You’ll feel good for having done it.

Try journaling. Expressing your thoughts and feelings in written form is an excellent stress-management tool. It’s also been shown to be highly therapeutic. So, if you don’t keep a journal already, now would be a good time to start. You don’t have to write pages and pages; just a few lines a day. Or one line, if that’s all you’ve got in you. Just get your thoughts (and more often, your frustrations) down on paper, and see where it leads. There are many ways to journal, but if you find that journaling is not for you, give yourself permission to stop. You can always try again later. Or don’t. Make (or break) the rules as you see fit. This is something you’re doing for you.


Limit social media. It’s tempting to mindlessly scroll through social media—or binge-watch Netflix, or spend hours searching YouTube for cute-kitty videos—when you’re stressed and in need of distraction. (When my dad was sick, I played Wordscapes until my vision was blurry.) But the hours you engage in unproductive phone activities are hours you can’t get back. Plus, screen time wreaks havoc on your concentration. Removing apps from your phone is the obvious solution, but it’s unlikely you will do this (I still have Wordscapes on mine). Instead, think of screen time as a reward for writing time. Five hundred words = fifteen minutes of Wordscapes; one thousand words = an episode of 90 Day Fiancé (or pick your poison). The point is, you’re allowed to zone out when the time is right—but don’t make a habit of it. Your time is too valuable to waste. (For advice on how to walk away from social media completely, check out this post from Salon.)

You do YOU. Writers often compare themselves to others. That’s what we do. But as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was right. Knowing that your friend’s debut MG novel sold eight billion copies and has been optioned for a movie starring Kylie Jenner (or Kendall Jenner, if you prefer) while yours is languishing in a bargain bin at Costco is a fact of life—but don’t dwell on it. You have enough on your plate to worry about! By all means celebrate your friends’ achievements, but don’t let their success(es) overshadow your own. Sometimes getting out bed in the morning is enough.

Practice self-care. This should be a given, but if you’re busy looking out for others’ needs, you tend to ignore your own—or put them last. This is understandable (I’m guilty of this, too), but try to put yourself first once in a while. Squeeze in a run, or have coffee with a friend. Get a massage, if that’s your thing, or sneak out to a museum or art gallery. Catch up on your sleep; eat Frito’s Corn Chips. Dance. Whatever it takes to bring you to your happy place, do it!

And finally…

Expect setbacks. It’s important to remember that most things in life are out of your control, like when a parent develops dementia–and dies. When a child is sick or disabled and needs constant care. Unemployment; bankruptcy; a house fire; divorce… You can only do so much to keep afloat emotionally. Sometimes, it will feel like an impossible struggle. You’ll miss deadlines. Bills will go unpaid; birthday cards unsent. For every step forward, you can expect two—or fifty—steps back.

Grieving isn’t linear, and I miss my dad every day. Still, he would have wanted me to keep writing, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope you will, too.

STEM Tuesday– Checking Your Health — Writing Craft and Resources

Heath is an absolutely fascinating subject. Health-related media surrounds our daily life. The reasons are fairly simple as health affects everyone and is something everyone can relate to. Children’s literature is no exception. Health-related topics make great kid lit!

Microbes are my jam. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, microbiomes are things that attract my attention every time. I caught the fever in college. As strictly a cell biology student, I wandered down the hall one semester to take an elective from the microbiology section. I liked it and took another. Then another. Pretty soon my cell biology emphasis was a thing of the past and I switched lanes into the world of microbiology. Viruses especially grabbed me. The simplicity of their construction. The intricate ways they infect and replicate inside of the host cell. It was the perfect marriage of cell biology and infectious agent. Fast forward thirty years to my day job as a research microbiologist. The group I work with studies the interaction of pathogens with the host cell. Our primary focus is how bacteria intricately switch on and off the host inflammatory defensive response to their survival advantage. It’s a fascinating story to observe how pathogens go about affecting health. 

Microbes make great STEM health topics. Look back at our book list for this month. Microbe heavy! Today we are going to take a look at how health fits into the craft of STEM literature and some resources to learn or stay informed about health topics.



Health fits into just about any type of nonfiction. Using Melissa Stewart’s fantastic nonfiction book family tree, try to think of health-related middle grade or middle reader books you can put into each category. If you really want to burst my TBR budget, add your list of books in the comment section below.

  • Traditional
  • Browseable
  • Active
  • Expository
  • Narrative

When writing health nonfiction for middle grade, the key is in the details and how to best use them.

  • Is the topic better suited as a straight up informative text?
  • Do the details and the facts lend themselves to a narrative structure? What’s their story?
  • Is the topic loaded with activities which help illustrate and teach the information?
  • Is the topic wide-ranging enough to allow for many separate facts to be included?

Allow the facts to help dictate what the best way to tell a health-related STEM nonfiction story.  But where can one find the facts and details about a topic which interests them? That’s where the research comes in, right? Where do you start research? By finding solid resources.


Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)

Back in those college days, my virology and pathogenic microbiology professor had a standing assignment due every Friday. We had to turn in a summary of at least two articles in the latest MMWR bulletin from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). We’d race over to the library to check the shelf to see if the latest version of the pamphlet arrived yet. What’s MMWR, you say? The Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report. With online access now in the digital age, it’s a weekly update from the CDC on what’s making Americans sick or causing death.

World Health Organization

World Health Organization (WHO) has a great website to find information, resources and exceptional commentary on world health. It’s always good to keep a healthy eye on what’s going on around the world. In a global economy, where one can travel great distances in short amounts of time, health issues halfway around the world can still be threats.

National Institutes of Health 

The NIH is a slice of science and health nerd heaven. The grants, the news, the health reports, the grant funding, the databases for researchers, etc. It’s nearly impossible to write in one STEM Tuesday blog post about all the information on the NIH website. I use PubMed and GenBank at least twice a week at my job. (Confession. I sometimes get sucked down the PubMed rabbit hole while searching for research papers; like the time my labmates and I spent half a day talking about a medical pathology journal paper titled, Death by Greyhound.)


There are all kinds of newsletters one can search for to provide information on health and health issues.

Johns Hopkins Health & Wellness Newsletter

The Biotechniques daily news updates are one of my favorites daily email newsletters. The email updates cover interesting molecular science in a variety of disciplines from around the world. Plus, their Biotechniques journal is free!

Death Toll Comparison Breakdown

I ran across this Death Toll Comparison Breakdown post from Tim Urban’s Wait But Why blog that is possibly the most informative graphic ever about health and comparative death tolls of various historical events. 

Nothing to fear but fear itself…

Heath can also be used to invoke fear and create a culture of fear. Think about conversations going on right now in our society:

  • Exercise and weight loss
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Vaccines
  • Cancer
  • Emerging pathogens – Ebola, Zika, Bird Flu

The more science we know behind our health problems and issues, the better we can analyze, identify, and reduce the fear factor associated with the health issues. Information fights fear. Observe, verify, and then pass information on. Once we get past the fear, we can focus on solutions to those health issues. 

Check your health!

Health is one of those common concerns for humanity. It affects so much of our lives. It’s a good idea to learn as much as possible about the way our bodies work and how they interact with our nature and environments. STEM nonfiction can be a powerful tool in developing this understanding. Health concerns can be scary. Knowledge can overcome this fear which can lead to overcoming the health concern. Knowledge is power within the health realm. 

Improve your health and go check out some STEM health titles. Or write some health-related nonfiction books on whatever fascinates you. There’s something out there for every taste—even for that someone who is interested in studying how we taste!

Mike Hays, Microbiologist III


The O.O.L.F Files

The Out Of Left Field files this month focus on the….

I’m hacking the O.O.L.F. File this month for a little self-promo. But it’s self-promo with a purpose. Me and 38 science friends have joined Dan Koboldt in an information-packed book from Writer’s Digest Books called, PUTTING THE SCIENCE IN FICTION. The release date is set for October 16, 2018.

It’s an awesome resource for writers and educators with experts explaining the nuts and bolts of science topics, including health. There’s also an introduction written by Chuck Wendig. (Yeah, that Chuck Wendig!)

Here’s a look at the section titles in PUTTING THE SCIENCE IN FICTION:

  • Research Labs, Hospitals, And Really Bad Ways To Die
  • Genome Engineering: It Never Ends Well
  • The Brain Is Wider Than The Sky
  • From Zero To Sixty (Legs, That Is)
  • Things To Know For When Skynet Takes Over
  • Earth And Other Planets. Yes, Pluto Counts!
  • Sometimes, It Really Is Rocket Science
  • Star Wars And The Far Future

My two contributions to the anthology are “The Science of Jurassic Park” and “Zombie Microbiology 101”.

You can also check out Dan’s Science In SciFi, Fact in Fantasy blog series for even more awesome science content from real-life experts. The blog is a great place to learn something new or to learn science for your writing.




STEM Tuesday — Checking Your Health– In the Classroom

Once again, the STEM Tuesday Team put together a powerhouse book list for this month’s theme: CHECKING YOUR HEALTH.  You can access that book list quickly and easily right HERE.

As always, on Week Two, we’re going to take a few books from the list and talk about classroom application. Upper elementary, middle school, home school, summer school – we’ve got activities for you!

Lights, Camera, Action

Human Body Theater

Use Maris Wicks’s fascinating book Human Body Theater, a Nonfiction Revue to put on a show! The book, which is in graphic/comic strip format (can we say graphic novel for nonfiction? Hmm….) is divided into Acts One through Eleven, with each act explaining one of our bodies’ systems. Students might work in groups, choosing a system and writing a script for a whole-body performance. A ticket to the Human Body Theater might be just be the hottest ticket in town!





Then and Now

Bubonic Panic Cover

Using Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America by Gail Jarrow and Ebola: Fears and Facts by Patricia Newman, compare the effects of two devastating illnesses that hit the world at two very different times. What challenges do scientists and medical professionals face today that are similar to those faced years ago? What advances have made research and treatment easier? What still needs to happen in order to prevent an epidemic from ever occurring again?


Biology Biography Bash

murphy_breakthrough        reef_florence nightingale

Many classrooms hold Biography Bashes or Living History events or otherwise showcase people from history who’ve had an impact on the way we live. Consider hosting a biography event centered around historical figures who have made a difference in the fields of health and medicine.  This month’s book list contains two fantastic examples: Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life the Legendary Nurse by Catherine Reef and Breakthrough! How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever by Jim Murphy.

And, don’t forget fiction!

Here at The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, the STEM Tuesday team loves to highlight great middle-grade fiction with our nonfiction topics.  In Chasing Secrets: A Deadly Surprise in a City of Lies, Gennifer Choldenko’s fictional characters must try to understand a mysterious illness. She sets the story against the very real backdrop that was San Francisco in 1900. I was hooked in chapter one, when the main character says “I know I shouldn’t say things like this. Aunt Hortense says I try hard to be peculiar. But she’s wrong; I come by it quite naturally.”

So, here’s a challenge for the comment section below: Add a middle-grade fiction title that explores a health or medical issue. Contemporary or historical, realistic or science fiction. Can you come up with one to share?

Michelle Houts created today’s STEM Tuesday post. She’s the author of several fiction and nonfiction books for kids, including the STEM-based Lucy’s Lab Chapter Book Series from Sky Horse Publishing/Sky Pony Press. After reading about bubonic plague, tuberculosis, ebola, and other deadly diseases for today’s post, she is now going to go wash her hands. Again.