Would You Walk 500 Miles? My Camino Experience

 

Do you think The Proclaimers knew about the Camino de Santiago? If you have any memory of the 1980s, you may recall the hit song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by this Scottish duo. However, if you weren’t born yet and only know the 1980s as a period of weird clothes and lots of hair, not to worry—I much prefer this recent cover by Sleeping At Last anyway.

After writing Beneath Wandering Stars, this song will forever make me think of my favorite character from the book–Seth Russo–but it also makes me think about all the reasons people might walk 500 miles in the first place. And yet thousands of people have and do, thanks to a trek known as the Camino de Santiago.

I only walked 150 miles of this ancient pilgrimage route (the most popular version, the Camino Frances, is roughly 500 miles), but even that was enough to inspire a story. People often ask where I got the idea for Beneath Wandering Stars and usually I refer to my own upbringing as the daughter of a U.S. soldier (Gabi, my protagonist, is also an Army “brat”), but there were other personal experiences that contributed to this story.

One was walking “the camino.” Or part of it, at least.

camino4If you haven’t heard of the Camino de Santiago, you’re not alone. North Americans aren’t as familiar with this 2,000 year-old route across northern Spain (yet!)—a cultural and spiritual trek that has seen a resurgence of interest among Europeans in recent decades. I only learned about the route after studying abroad in Spain during college when I took a medieval history course. A few years later, in May 2011, I bought my first pair of hiking boots at R.E.I. and spent almost two weeks walking this ancient route with people from all over the world.

Parts of it were tough (emotionally more than physically), but it was also magical—one of the best travel experiences I’ve had, and from it Gabi and Seth were born. Readers and reviewers of Beneath Wandering Stars often comment on how authentic the setting details and characters feel, and I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that aspects of both those things were drawn from real life. I definitely met people as diverse and quirky as the characters Gabi and Seth encounter along “the way,” and I also tried to recall my own inner roller-coaster as I described my heroine’s internal and external journeys.

Also, there’s just something about lukewarm showers, hostels that perpetually smell like feet, and the constant availability of cafes con leche that sticks with you many years later. Spain is a beautiful country and I enjoyed the spirit of comradery among those walking the camino, but my favorite aspect of the journey had to be how awake it made me feel—perhaps because of the lack of creature comforts (minus all the amazing food). 599181_10151009805515871_1551433263_n

For a few long days of walking without a phone, without email, and without a to-do list, I was able to focus. To pay attention to everything that truly matters. By the end of the pilgrimage, I knew writing fiction was what I wanted to do more than anything, and by the time I reached the route’s destination—the city of Santiago in the northwest corner of Spain—I almost had a story worth telling.

The details of that story weren’t fleshed out yet—those didn’t come until later. Yet I knew I wanted to write a story about real, imperfect human relationships and real, imperfect life—as well as the journeys of love and discovery that each of us must make if we are to experience a life truly worth living.

So would I walk 500 miles? You bet. 150 was just a warm-up.

Happy Book Birthday, Beneath Wandering Stars!

Today is the official release day for BENEATH WANDERING STARS, so I just wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who follow my blog for being a part of this journey! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the encouragement and feedback you have provided, along with many thoughtful reviews. Thank you!

Beneath Wandering Stars
This is a photo of me (and G.I. Lucas!) in my old Wuerzburg American High School soccer jersey and it pretty much summarizes my reasons for writing this story. Like my protagonist Gabi, I spent my teen years on an Army post in Germany, and I wrote Beneath Wandering Stars, in part, because I wanted to share the story of the thousands who have experienced this unique “third culture kid” upbringing. This makes Beneath Wandering Stars a bit outside the norm when it comes to today’s Young Adult fiction market, which is always a risk because it requires readers to take a chance on something that’s a little different. Yet based on the feedback I’ve received so far, those who take that risk are usually glad they did!
And I have YOU all to thank for that! Word of mouth is the best form of advertising for a book like this, so I really appreciate how wonderful you all have been when it comes to sharing this story with family and friends! I’m excited to see all the places Gabi & Seth’s story will travel to.
P.S. Speaking of which, if you come across BWS at your local indie bookstore or at Barnes & Nobles, would you please take a photo and tag me on either Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? Thanks!
Buen camino!

Food & Fiction: A Dash of Specificity Yields a Serving of Magic

Food & FictionOne of the first things I did when I left home and moved out on my own was buy cookbooks. Lots of them. I’m not really sure why—I don’t think I’ve bought a cookbook in the past ten years. But for a brief period, the bargain shelves at Barnes & Noble became my hunting ground, and the prettier the photographs or the more exotic the international cuisine, the more likely it was that I’d lug another heavy hardcover home. Sadly, I don’t often prepare recipes out of these cookbooks anymore. When life gets busy, cooking tends to feel like something  I must do, rather than something fun that I want to do. Nine times out of ten, I just Google whatever I’m in the mood to make, mash a few online recipes together, and give it a go (or throw it all in the Crockpot). Yet every once in a while, when I’m in the right mood and have the energy, I find myself wanting to make something special—something that takes time and preparation and thought. In other words, something meaningful.

In this way, food and stories have a lot in common. Humans need both on a regular basis and in a variety of formats. Some days, all my husband and I really want to do after a day of work is collapse on the couch, order a $5 pizza from Domino’s (the thin crust with bacon and jalapenos is a winning combination), and watch a few suspenseful episodes of the latest mediocre drama on Amazon Prime. Other days, most likely on the weekends, I’m in a better place to soak up a literary master like Willa Cather or T.S. Eliot, and I’m also more enthusiastic about preparing food that takes time.

And in these moments, I often find myself returning to the dishes of Spain.

Beneath Wandering StarsWhen I wrote Beneath Wandering Stars, I didn’t plan on incorporating Spanish food into the story. It just happened. Yet I believe this unconscious sprinkling points to a paradoxical truth about writing: universality is found in specificity. Or, to put it more simply—the more specific a story’s characters, setting, and themes, the more likely that story is to touch on universal human truths that resonate across the boundaries of culture, geography, and history.

In a similar way, Spain’s cuisine is super specific—there are certain dishes you’re only likely to find on menus in certain parts of the country—and there’s something about this specificityCamino Cuisine that gives Spanish food a certain power over the imagination (or my imagination, at least). Unlike the United States where you can order a burger no matter what stretch of highway you happen to be on, when Gabi and Seth (my novel’s main characters) walk the Camino de Santiago, it became apparent that there were certain dishes they just had to order. Café con leche in the morning is common enough across Spain, but Caldo Gallego—this delicious, rustic soup made of chorizo sausage, white beans, and leafy greens—wouldn’t leave my mind once Gabi and Seth reached Spain’s northwest, Irish-like region of Galicia. Likewise, when Gabi and Seth are walking the city streets and get hungry for a late-night snack, churros con chocolate at 3am was the only dish that made any sense. (Want to know more about these and other Spanish recipes? Check out Gabi & Seth’s Guide to Camino Cuisine).

The specificity of food in fiction can be an effective approach to “world-building” when writing a story, and it’s no wonder that this appeal to multiple senses has resulted in certain fictional dishes living on in the minds (and bellies!) of readers. Here are a few magical recipes from some beloved works of fiction—ones that provide so much “scope for the imagination,” I might just be inspired enough to spend more than thirty minutes in the kitchen…even on a weeknight.

 

Anne of Green Gables (you had to have seen this one coming)

Anne’s Goblin Cake

“I just grow cold when I think of my layer cake. Oh, Diana, what if it shouldn’t be good! I dreamed last night that I was chased all around by a fearful goblin with a big layer cake for a head.” – L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

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Marilla’s Raspberry Cordial

“No. The sitting-room will do for you and your company. But there’s a bottle half full of raspberry cordial that was left over from the church social the other night. It’s on the second shelf of the sitting room closet and you and Diana can have it if you like, and a cookie to eat with it along in the afternoon, for I daresay Matthew’ll be late coming in to tea since he’s hauling potatoes to the vessel.” – L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

 

Harry Potter

Butter Beer

“Why don’t we go and have a butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks, it’s a bit cold, isn’t it?” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire

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Kreacher’s French Onion Soup

 

The Lord of the Rings

Elven Lembas Bread

“Often in their hearts they thanked the Lady of Lórien for the gift of lembas, for they could eat of it and find new strength even as they ran.” –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

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Ent-Draught

“The effect of the draught began at the toes, and rose steadily through every limb, bringing refreshment and vigour…” -J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

 

The Chronicles of Narnia

Narnian Scotch Eggs

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Turkish Delight

“At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and hat anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” – C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

 

The Hunger Games

Prim’s Basil-Wrapped Goat Cheese

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Peeta’s Cheese Buns

“From the bag I pull two fresh buns with a layer of cheese baked into the top. We always seem to have a supply of these since Peeta found out they were my favorite.” —Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire

 

A Christmas Carol

The Smoking Bishop

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob!” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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Christmas Pudding

“But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the pudding up, and bring it in.” –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Military Kids: Tomorrow’s Trailblazers?

Military KidsIt’s the 4th of July, a day when the extra splash of red, white, and blue around the country always makes me think of those who serve it best. Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Military Child Education Coalition’s National Training Seminar in Washington, D.C. (you may have seen on social media that G.I. Lucas, who plays an important role in my YA novel Beneath Wandering Stars, joined me for the occasion). I learned a ton and met some wonderful people, but what I loved most about this event was that it focused on something I’ve been passionate about for a long time: the strengths of kids who’ve grown up in military families.

Military KidsOften times—too often, IMHO—military brats are merely known for having to move around a lot (the average brat will attend 6-8 different schools by age 18). This often makes non-military connected folks feel bad for us, and while a military upbringing does come with some very real challenges (“Budget cuts. Back-to-back deployments. Missed birthdays.”), I’ve always felt it was a privileged childhood and an experience that provided far more benefits than drawbacks. One of these benefits is the intense character formation that is part of military life, something I (both as a teacher and as an author) was thrilled to see MCEC focusing on at this year’s training seminar. The theme of the conference was summed up in three traits embodied by military kids: GRIT, DETERMINATION, and PERSEVERANCE.

GRIT seems to be a buzz word these days (closely related to RESILIENCE), but what exactly does it mean? Grit “in psychology is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.” People with grit are able to take a “long view” and can resist the distractions of instant gratification. They are capable of devoting themselves to a goal that may take years to achieve, and understand that anything worth having requires commitment and sacrifice. For a full overview of the term and how it applies to children specifically, check out this TED talk by the author of the new book GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance—it sounds like she’s describing a lot of the military kids I’ve known! Personally, I know I wouldn’t have spent the last 7 years trying to traditionally publish a book (a process that involved rejection every step of the way) had it not been for the grit instilled in me (at least partially) by my military childhood.

MCEC is right—military kids truly have what it takes to be “tomorrow’s trailblazers.” My hope is that those of us adults who are fortunate enough to work with these kids are able to help them uncover their hidden resources by acknowledging that they are not “disadvantaged” or to be pitied.

Rather, they might just be our secret weapon.

How to Travel Like a Pilgrim, Not a Tourist

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The grass is green and the sun is shining. Tomorrow I leave for an out-of-state wedding, and my airline just emailed me a friendly reminder about the long security lines at this time of year, recommending that I be at the airport at least two hours early for my 6:20 a.m. (yikes!) flight.

Forget green grass and my ensuing allergies. Those long lines at the airport are how I know it’s summer.

Summer is when we shake off the winter cobwebs and get moving. Family vacations. Camping. Road trips. Lots and lots of weddings. Given the excitement that accompanies seeing new places and visiting old friends, why does travel so often feel like a tiresome chore? Is there anything we can do to make it more meaningful?

I doubt much can be done to make the chaotic, circus-tent security maze waiting for me at the Denver International Airport (a.k.a. purgatory) more enjoyable, but when it comes to finding meaning in travel, it might help to look to an earlier age that didn’t have to deal with TSA (though admittedly, the bubonic plague was a bit of a nuisance).

During my graduate study of Medieval History, I became fascinated with pilgrimage—a concept that has made a lasting impact on my imagination and followed me into my fiction writing. I don’t want to sanitize or romanticize this popular mode of travel during the Middle Ages, but the notion of “going on pilgrimage” has seen a resurgence in recent decades, which suggests there’s something about the pilgrim mindset that modern people find attractive in our world of fast food pit-stops and kitschy gift shops. So what does it mean to walk through life as a pilgrim instead of as a tourist, even if our travel excursions have little to do with religion in the traditional sense? Here are a few guideposts to help us mark the difference…

Read the rest HERE at Humane Pursuits

Military Brats & Memorial Day

Military Brats and Memorial Day
One of the many perks of military brat life — parrots!

I’m very fortunate. We military brats like to pride ourselves on our toughness, our adaptability, our proficiency at living out of a suitcase and changing addresses a dozen times. But despite the minor sacrifices of military life—mainly a lot of tearful goodbyes—I consider my childhood to be one of mostly benefits and blessings. I grew up in what I like to call a “golden age” of military bratdom—that brief period in the 1990s between the first Gulf War and the second—where parents weren’t deployed that often (or at least that long), and life as a brat mainly meant getting to see the world while being part of a close-knit community the likes of which I have never encountered as an adult. I’m sure there are others from my generation who had a different experience, but for me, a military childhood was a blast.

Yet that doesn’t mean I don’t know what it’s like to be young and afraid. When I was about five-years-old, my dad was supposed to take part in Desert Storm, but got called back at the last minute. His bags were packed and waiting by the front door, and even as a kindergartner, I worked hard at being stoic and strong. I distinctly remember people (kids at school, maybe?) trying to comfort me by saying that my dad would be safe because he was a medevac pilot—“no one is supposed to shoot down a helicopter with a red cross on the side,” they assured me. Another memory forever seared into my brain took place when, as a high school senior, I heard about the 9/11 attacks on my morning drive to school, which meant panicked phone calls to friends whose parents worked at the Pentagon. But other than these two bookend events, my military childhood was mainly a decade of relative peace, not to mention a nonstop adventure.

That isn’t always the case for many military brats today. You may not know them personally, but if you live anywhere close to a military installation, there are likely kids in your area who are intimately acquainted with what Memorial Day really means. Only some of them have a parent who made the ultimate sacrifice, but after the frequent deployments of nearly fifteen years of war, almost all these kids are familiar with the anxiety that comes with knowing such a sacrifice is one their loved one might make.

Now that takes resilience, and it’s also worth remembering, so here are a few organizations that do an amazing job of supporting kids in military families:

 

Angels of America’s Fallen

This nonprofit based in my hometown of Colorado Springs stands by the children of fallen military members and first responders by providing them with mentoring and support.

 

Military Community Youth Ministries (Club Beyond)

Another nonprofit in Colorado Springs, MCYM made a great impact on me when I was a teenager and continues to touch the lives of military kids all over the world.

 

Military Child Education Coalition

This incredible team of educators seeks “to serve as a model of positive leadership and advocacy for ensuring inclusive, quality educational opportunities for all military-connected children.”

 

Humans on the Homefront

I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes of this new project, as I’m all about encouraging military families to tell their stories.

 

BRATS: Our Journey Home

If you haven’t seen this documentary, it provides wonderful insights into military brat life across many generations. The nonprofit also supports many wonderful projects that seek to share the experiences of brats with the wider world.

 

Ashlee Cowles is an Army brat and the author of BENEATH WANDERING STARS (Merit Press, August 2016), a forthcoming novel about a military teen and a young soldier who know what it means to sacrifice for the people they love.

Books about BRATs

Did you know that today is National Military Brat Day? That’s right, we have an actual day! In honor of this occasion, I thought I’d share a few fiction books about brats (and often by brats). What a perfect coincidence that my publisher released the Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) of my debut novel, Beneath Wandering Stars–the story of a modern-day Army brat–in April, the Month of the Military Child. If you’re at all interested in reading this Young Adult, coming-of-age story before anyone else (one that adults will hopefully enjoy, too), please scroll down and enter to win an advanced copy!

But before we get to this “new kid on the block,” let’s talk about some members of the popular crowd in the world of military brat books.

Books about BratsThe Great Santini by Pat Conroy

The story of a Marine fighter pilot and his family, The Great Santini is a modern classic that captures one of the archetypes of military life–the authoritarian officer father. Although not every military brat grows up under such a strict regime, many will sympathize with Ben Meecham, the Great Santini’s eldest son, as he confronts his love/hate relationship with his larger-than-life father and fights to come into his own.

Sadly, Pat Conroy passed away just last month from pancreatic cancer. Like many brats, Conroy grappled with his complex identity his entire life and often explored these conflicts in his writing. He once told NPR:

“I’m a military brat. My father was a Marine Corps fighter pilot from Chicago, Ill. I did not live in Southern towns, I lived on bases. I was a Roman Catholic, which is the strangest thing you can be in the South. Not only that, I married a Jewish woman from Bensonhurst. So when people refer to me as a Southerner … I liked it because I never had a home. It was the first name that was ever associated with me that put me in a place.”

 

Books about BratsThe Yokota Officer’s Club by Sarah Bird

“After a year away at college, military brat Bernadette Root has come ‘home’ to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, to spend the summer with her bizarre yet comforting clan. Ruled by a strict, regimented Air Force Major father, but grounded in their mother’s particular brand of humor, Bernie’s family was destined for military greatness during the glory days of the mid-’50s. But in Base life, where an unkempt lawn is cause for reassignment, one fateful misstep changed the Roots’ world forever…”

 

 

 

Books about BratsDurable Goods by Elizabeth Berg

“On the hot Texas Army base she calls home, Katie spends the lazy days of her summer waiting: waiting to grow up; waiting for Dickie Mack to fall in love with her; waiting for her breasts to blossom; waiting for the beatings to stop. Since their mother died, Katie and her older sister, Diane, have struggled to understand their increasingly distant, often violent father. While Diane escapes into the arms of her boyfriend, Katie hides in her room or escapes to her best friend’s house—until Katie’s admiration for her strong-willed sister leads her on an adventure that transforms her life.”

 

 

 

 

Books about BratsThe Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins

If you’re familiar with The Hunger Games, you may already know that the author of this YA sensation is an Air Force BRAT–and upbringing that surely influenced her ideas on violence and war. Suzanne Collins explores military life more directly in her children’s picture book, which is a semi-autobiographical account of the year her own father went to the Vietnam War.

 

 

Books about BratsIt Burns a Lovely Light by Penny McCann Pennington

This  USA BEST BOOK FINALIST is on my summer reading list!

“‘Us four and no more’ is the James family motto as Farley, savant-like William, and their beloved parents move from military base to military base. Then, in the course of one horrific evening, the family becomes completely unsprung. Stunned and grief-stricken, Farley and William move into their aunt’s decrepit boarding house overlooking the city of Pittsburgh – a city still reeling from the loss if its great steel industry. But tragedy threatens from several directions, and their newly-built family must pull together in order to save what they can from disaster yet again.”

 

 

Books about BratsBeneath Wandering Stars by Ashlee Cowles
Here it is, my debut novel, which will be published this coming August! In the meantime, I’d love to give a few ARCs away to other book-reading BRATs (and anyone else who is interested), so I hope you’ll enter the raffle below!

In researching books about military families, I’ve discovered that many of the most popular brat novels depict military life during the Vietnam era or earlier. While many aspects of the military lifestyle remain the same (e.g. moving around a lot), one of the things that led me to write Beneath Wandering Stars was a desire to share the experience of military brats since 9/11, as well as what it’s like to be stationed overseas in Europe during high school. Here’s a short summary of the story:

 

After her soldier brother is horribly wounded in Afghanistan, Gabriela must honor the vow she made: If anything ever happened to him, she would walk the Camino de Santiago through Spain, making a pilgrimage in his name. The worst part is that the promise stipulates that she must travel with her brother’s best friend–another young soldier and a guy she has despised all her life. Her brother is in a coma, and Gabi feels that she has no time to waste, but she is unsure. Will she hesitate too long, or risk her own happiness to keep a promise? An up-close look at the lives of the children of military families, Beneath Wandering Stars takes readers on a journey of love, danger, laughter, and friendship, against all odds.

Enter to win an Advanced Reader Copy!a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Do you have any favorite BRAT books that I missed? I’d love to see other recommendations, so please leave a comment below.