The Local Wild: Crayfish: The Poor Man’s Muddy Little Delicacy

Let’s just get this out of the way: I love seafood. Not so much fish (unless it’s whole, head-on), but more so the weird, curious, more interesting types of water-derived meats. I’m talking scallops, mussels, clam, octopus (yes!), oyster, eel, and let’s not forget crab and lobster. Yum!

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Thanks to ScribbleMaps.com, we now know it’s almost exactly 1,000 miles from Minneapolis to the nearest Atlantic coastline.

Considering Minneapolis is about 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and 1,500 from the Pacific, it’s no surprise that Minnesota doesn’t offer up much of a seafood selection. I usually make due with frozen shrimp or fish from the grocery but, if I’m feeling particularly exotic, I venture to the nearest Asian market to quench my seafood appetite. (Being half Asian, I’m partial to not only unique Asian seafood offerings (dried squid strings, anyone?) but also other delectables that fondly remind me of my mother’s kitchen).

Our property here in Cannon Falls has a small man-made pond fed by a constant flow of freshwater from a hillside local wild spring. When we first moved here, the pond was occupied by a small school of pan fish; one huge, very elusive bass; an army of frogs (yes: a group of frogs is really called an army); and, to my elation, a healthy population of crayfish.

My Arkansan dad taught me to call those tasty little creatures crawdads, but the small shellfish go by a surprising variety of other names: crayfish, crawfish, crawlfish, crawldads, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mud bugs, and (in Australia) yabbies, gilgies, koonacs, redclaw, or marron. What a mouthful!

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What do other people in the US call crayfish? My Arkansan dad says “crawdad” (as do I!). Credit: Joshua Katz.

 

And quite literally just a small mouthful, actually. Crayfish offer little more than a bite of tail meat and a heady—seriously, from their heads—slurp of crustacean-type foie gras. Amy McCarthy, editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston, wrote in 2017: “If you’ve been eating crawfish all this time and [left] the heads behind, you’ve sadly been missing out.” She explained further:

“…there is an organ inside [the crayfish head] frequently mistaken as a brain or a big glob of crawfish fat. That mysterious blob is actually the crawfish’s hepatopancreas, which [functions like a liver] … In terms of flavor, the hepatopancreas (often called “crawfish butter”) is sort of like what foie gras would taste like if it came from the sea. As such, it’s a poor man’s delicacy.”

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The rusty crayfish, one of the two invasive crayfish species in Minnesota. Credit: Wisconsin DNR.

What’s the difference between crayfish and lobster? The most obvious difference is size—crayfish are much smaller—but the other is that lobster live in saltwater while crayfish are a freshwater animal. Thus, Minnesota and its “10,000” freshwater lakes (plus all its rivers and streams) makes for an appealing crayfish habitat. According to the Minnesota DNR, there live five species of crayfish in our state: three native and two invasive. (As of 2007, a published paper from Brigham Young University counted over 640 species, with about 382 living in North America alone. That’s a big crayfish family!)

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A tidy — though muddy — little crayfish mound. Credit: Jessica Woken.

Crayfish are generally nocturnal and very shy, so it’s rare to see one out and about unless you’re really looking (or hunting). One of the most obvious signs of crayfish population in a body of freshwater is the presence of mud mounds or “chimneys” around the water’s perimeter. These volcano-looking mounds are the tops of crayfish burrows. They measure about 6” in diameter and are topped with a very neat, almost perfect, little 1-2” access hole.

The crayfish population at my own pond remains strong, despite me catching and boiling some for an exotic treat one afternoon, much to the worry of my husband who was convinced I’d get ill from some mystery disease (Note: I did not). This past September I spotted a handful of the softball-sized mud mounds, so it’s nice to know I haven’t completely disturbed the crayfish population with my voracious and curious seafood appetite. And, seeing as they’ve been living here for some years, burrowing deep into the mud to keep from freezing over winter, I think it’s safe to say that there yet lies abundant hope for next spring’s crayfish catching season at this girl’s personal local wild pond. (Psst: Crayfish season goes from April 1 to Nov 30 and, yes, you do need a fishing permit.)

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This article is one in a series written for a column titled “The Local Wild” in the Beacon newspaper of Cannon Falls, MN.

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The Local Wild: Coyotes, the “Barking Dogs” of North America.

I spent the last two weeks of October visiting family in the high desert of Southern California. That particular part of SoCal is not as glamorous as some mid-westerners assume all of California to be. It’s made of dusty mountains, scrub brush, strong afternoon winds, dry air, and autumn temperatures nearing the 90s. Even so, that particular area has its local wild charms like every other place. One of those charms is shared with Minnesota’s local wild. Which one? The wandering coyote!

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A common coyote in Death Valley, California. Photo: Creative Commons.

Many may argue that coyotes can hardly be considered local wild “charms”. These predators are commonly labeled as pests; dangers to small children and pets; carriers of disease; and damagers of property (for instance, they are known to chew off sprinkler heads in search of water). Coyotes do offer some good, though unfortunately the benefits they provide often get ignored in the shadow of their bothersome antics.

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The green area indicates the Great Plains, the original territory of the now wide-spread North American coyote. Image: Wiki Commons.

But how did coyotes become so numerous and pesky to begin with? Sadly, us humans are to blame. Before strong hunting regulations were in place hunters freely took out larger predators like bear, mountain lion (aka puma), and wolf that kept the coyote population in check. With those big animals out of the picture, coyotes—which were primarily limited to the Great Plains—were able to easily spread. They’re now a common, and still spreading, predator in North America (yes, even on up in Canada, the Arctic, and down into Mexico!).

In a previous Local Wild where I discussed the famed (or infamous?) Asian Beetle, I explained basic taxonomy using dogs as an example. In that article we learned that coyotes’ scientific (taxonomic) name is canis latrans. The Latin name translates to “barking dog” and is an ode to the sounds coyotes make. But how many different sounds do coyotes make, and why do they make them?

Coyote language is an impressive blend of howls, yelps, barks, yips, whimpers, and calls, all with specific meanings and applications. As far as “how many”, that’s complicated. It’s not so much the number sounds themselves, but the combinations of the sounds that makes coyote communication—otherwise known as “song”—so fascinating. A small trio of coyotes can sing together and make themselves sound like a whole choir is singing together! Some believe coyotes imitate other animals in an effort to lure prey to their location, though that is largely disputed.

Like other scavengers—opossum, turkey vultures, and even bald eagles—coyotes eat carrion, helping to clean dead animal carcasses from the wilderness, an essential but yucky task. But because they’re also skilled hunters of live prey coyotes help keep populations of rabbit, squirrel, gopher, vole, raccoon, opossum, and even woodchuck in check. What would happen if the number of coyotes were to retreat back down to near zero? Well, those smaller populations would boom, creating a whole new local wild problem!

Coyotes are mostly solitary hunters but they’ve been known to hunt in groups when times get tough, like when food becomes scarce deep into a Minnesota winter. They are social animals, though, and live together in packs ranging from 3 to 30 strong. Hunt solo, live together: That’s the coyote way!

All this isn’t to say that coyotes shouldn’t have their limits. I keep poultry and wouldn’t want a “Barking Dog” barking up any of my trees! You can deter coyote from your property by keeping pet food locked up or inside at night, or by installing motion activated lighting or putting out deterrent sprays or alarms. If nothing is working, know that its always open season for coyotes and in many areas property owners are permitted to take coyote by certain means if the animal is damaging property or poses a danger.

Readers are urged to contact the MN Department of Natural Resources (www.dnr.state.mn.us) for laws and details about handling troublesome coyote.

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Discover more about the beneficial coyote at Project Coyote.

The Local Wild: The Frighteningly Fast Funnel Weaver Spider

October is here and that means Halloween decorations abound. I’m not a big fan of gory, ghoulish décor or equally grisly horror films, but I do enjoy the more whimsical decorations and entertainment. Of these my favorite are the adorable, often fluffy spiders. I’m tickled by their friendly, yellow eyes glowing from their perfectly round heads; their cartoonish grins affixed via white paint or stitching; and their long legs, soft and spindly, appearing to dance jubilantly even from a standstill (or, rather, a hang-still).

Unfortunately, real life spiders are not—in my mind—at all adorable. Or fluffy. Or jubilant. The film “Arachnophobia” really ruined me and, though I don’t run screaming from the sight of a land-dwelling arachnid, I do keep a wary eye open for them and their webs as I move through the local wild.

My most recent encounter was with a spider who decided to get cozy in a recess of our home’s stone façade, right next to the front door. From the looks of its web it was a barn weaver spider, a small, brown, deeply introverted yet frighteningly fascinating variety of arachnid.

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A common barn weaver spider in waiting at the far end of its signature funnel-like web. Photo: Jessica Woken.

Barn weaver spiders are a common type of spider of the family Agelenidae. These spiders enjoy quiet places with lots of dark corners like wood piles, basements, and barns to build their signature funnel webs. The openings of the webs are wide and non-adhesive and progressively narrow into a funnel and end at a sticky silk den where the spider spends most of its time. Barn funnel weavers are not poisonous and will only bite if provoked or startled. Bites are generally mild or even painless and rarely require any medical treatment.

Forget its odd web, though. That’s not the truly fascinating thing about these spiders: it’s their incredible speed you should be mesmerized by. Many describe them as “very fast”; I saw one enthusiastic blogger write “startingly fast”. I, however, prefer to categorize funnel weaver spiders with superheroes like The Flash. It’s difficult to visually catch these arachnids moving from their dens to outer webs as they launch onto prey and to say it happens in the blink of an eye feels absurdly inaccurate. To give an example, a YouTube videographer reduced the playback of a recording of a weaver spider retreating to its den to 5% speed. Even so, the videographer was still barely able to catch the spider FIRST turning around and THEN running away. That said, I consider their quickness more of a teleportation situation and, if these spiders have superpowers like that, I’d rather leave them to their introverted lifestyles at the base of their sticky dens.

Mother Nature does not give anything in the local wild superpowers without reason, and the truth is the weaver spider’s non-adhesive outer web means they need to be quick enough to run out of their dens and catch their prey—generally flies and gnats—before it gets away. One variety of funnel weaver was clocked at 1.73 ft/s. That’s “only” 1.18 mph to us humans but when you consider the size of the runner—that particular specimen was ½-inch long—1.18 mph is incredible! Need some math to convince you? I’m happy to comply!

Let’s say a ½-inch spider has a ½-inch running stride and that this spider runs 1.18 mph. Compare it to the average human’s running stride—66 inches—and we can use basic algebra to calculate X, the human’s comparative speed. The answer? A blazing 155.76 mph.

As a kid in Southern California I’d taunt the west coast’s funnel weaver variety by tossing small pieces of grass onto the outer edge of the web, tricking the poor arachnid introverts into darting out in anticipation of a meal. The spider would appear only to be met by a lousy snip of grass and a human child’s goofy grin. Trick or treat, indeed!

Simply, I’m just glad bigger, more aggressive spiders, including the adorable Halloween decoration varieties, are not weaver spider-fast.

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The Local Wild: Asian Beetles & Ladybugs: Same Family, Different Name.

Bust out your vacuum cleaners and hand vacs, folks—it’s beetle season! Autumn is typically greeted with cheers at the colorful foliage and cooler weather but it’s also met with a collective moan of irritation because we know that the local wild’s cool-weather nuisance, the Asian Lady Beetle, is not far behind.

When I refer to these non-native insects as ladybugs many folks are quick correct me with a “They aren’t ladybugs. They’re Asian beetles.” Perhaps they feel as if the term I use is putting them in the wrong? The trouble is they aren’t wrong… but neither am I. This is one of those rare instances where both parties are correct! How? Let me explain by offering a quick refresher course in basic taxonomy, the science dedicated to the classification of organisms.

Scientists classify organisms according to named groupings that cascade from general to specific: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Subspecies, with some trickling and even more precise categories beneath. We’ll use man’s best friend to illustrate how this categorizing system works.

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Taxonomy, levels of categorization.

Wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs all belong to the kingdom canis, which translates simply to “dog” from the Latin. As you travel further down the taxonomic ladder the animals split off from one another. Coyotes branch away first into their own species, latrans (the scientific name canis latrans translates to “barking dog”, an ode to the wide variety of sounds coyotes make), while wolves and domestic dogs are together in the species lupus (“wolf”). Domestic dogs go a step further into the subspecies familaris, which scientifically categorizes them as canis lupus familiaris or, translated, “the family wolf”.

When it comes to Asian beetles, calling them ladybugs is not incorrect, it’s just less specific. All ladybugs belong to Coccinellidae (say “cox-in-elly-die” and you’ve got the pronunciation right), the widespread family of beetles ranging in size from 0.8 to 18mm that are most easily identified by their smooth, spotted, domed shells. Asian beetles split from other ladybugs down the line into Harmonia (genus) and Axyridis (species). Taxologically they’re referred to as harmonia axyridis. “Asian lady beetle” is the common name people use around this local wild, even though the insect also goes by these other names: Harlequin ladybug, multicolored Asian ladybug, Japanese lady beetle (not to be confused with the Japanese beetle, a different pest entirely), and even Halloween beetle due to their October swarming habits.

Asian beetles have a signature M-shaped black marking on the protonum, the exoskeleton plate covering its thorax, and they can have anywhere from 2 to 22 spots with colors that vary from yellow to red. Asian beetles are generally considered beneficial since they are voracious predators of garden- and crop-harming pests, and indeed that’s why they were brought to North America in the first place in 1978: to get rid of crop pests in place of harmful pesticides. Asian beetles go from helpful to harmful when they swarm, seeking a safe and warm hibernating space, and often move in such numbers that they negatively affect humans’ quality of life. Some individuals experience allergic reactions—ranging from eye irritation to asthma—to the noxious yellow secretion the beetles let loose in self-defense or upon death.

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The signature “M” shows proudly on on the protonum of this Asian lady beetle.

If residents wish to deter these beetles without using artificial pesticides, consider mixing together 2 cups water, 5 drops dish detergent, and 10-15 drops of Tea Tree oil in a spray bottle and spraying around doors, windows, or other places Asian beetles like to gather and enter the home. (Beware: Tea Tree oil is toxic to cats. If you keep or have cats that wander around your home, consider a citrus essential oil instead.) I have personally found this Tea Tree oil mixture to be effective.

In closing, if anyone insists our pesky non-native coccinellidae be called Asian beetles instead of just ladybugs, perhaps, in the name of fairness, they should also insist dog owners refer to their canines not merely by kingdom but by most specific subspecies. In which case, congratulations to all you folks with domestic dogs: You can now tell people you don’t have a dog, but a Family Wolf.

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This is one in a series of articles written for The Local Wild, a bi-monthly column in the Cannon Falls Beacon.

The Local Wild: Nature Recovers.

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon, 2018.

I was originally going to write this Local Wild on an exceptionally bright green insect I’d discovered in my garden, but after the tragedy of the storm last week I felt compelled to rifle through my photo archives and contemplate on the resilience of Nature.

In early spring, before the snow had fully thawed, a doe passed away on our property. We don’t know what caused her death, but we left her body undisturbed. One, we didn’t want to contract any potential disease that may have caused her end. Two, her final resting spot was out of the way of our usual traffic so we figured to simply let the doe return to dust, as it were. But much more than dust happened.

Over the course of the next few months the corpse of that doe disintegrated, left largely undisturbed except for one instance when I spotted a hungry opossum chewing on a meaty leg for supper at the tail end of the snowy season. But, as that snow melted the tendrils of Mother Nature’s loving hands began to encapsulate the deer, the grasses and wild flora wrapping themselves inside and around her body like a gentle blanket championing her transition from one life into another.

In early July the prairie fleabane began to blossom. Named for its supposed ability to drive away fleas and evil spirits, this annual herb does actually have some and anti-fungal properties. It’s narrow, hairy stems had jutted up between gaps in the unattractive remains as the weather had warmed and, now, the delicate white flowers were creating a rather welcome cover.

At full bloom, around mid-August, it actually became a pleasure to walk by the doe’s “burial” site. I was able to stand as a spectator at Nature’s recovery of something living that had collapsed from life and turn it into a thing of quietude and, dare I say, beauty. And, if I may reference an adage referenced by the Apostle Paul, surely it is true: Death really has been swallowed up in victory.

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A doe’s final resting place turns beautiful with cloudy clusters of Prairie Fleabane. Photo: Jessica Woken.

The remains of Cannon Falls in the aftermath of Thursday night’s tornado are gory. It seems ironic and almost confusing how decades old trees that stood tall and proud, silently symbolizing the unbreakable and eternal, were felled by the very hand that created, nurtured, and grew them. The non-permanence of even the seemingly permanent was made apparent. Mourning ensued and continues through the wreckage.

But Nature—of which we are a part—will recover. This truth Mother Nature has shown time and time again. Ergo, WE will recover. Our town will recover. Let us not forget how resilient a people can be; how during the healing process the break in a bone for a time becomes stronger than the surrounding bone that was left intact. For a time, we will be stronger than we were, stronger than our neighbors. Then, eventually, things will resume normalcy. Trust in that.

Even now we are experiencing the blanketing of victory over our remains: a community come together, love we didn’t realize was there is erupting sporadically in tufts and clouds across town, like the fleabane that bloomed from the recesses of the deceased doe’s body.

I envision those little white flowers sprouting up in the nooks and crannies of Cannon Falls: the side streets, the neighborhoods, the cemeteries, the churches. This little white flower that symbolizes exorcism and protection did just that for the ugliness that was a deer carcass. Given time and faith in the gentle, slow, and steady process of Nature, our spiritual fleabane can do the same for Cannon Falls.

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“The Local Wild”: Exploring Nature & Writing About It.

I’d like to share an exciting development (at least for me): I’ve been writing a bi-monthly column for my local paper since late June called “The Local Wild” that focuses on educating the community about the wonders that abound in the local ecosystem.

I’ll be sharing each of those columns here on WordPress, starting with the first one that was published June 20. The paper doesn’t have the headline room to print the titles I give each column, but I’ll be using them on this page to help you (and me) identify the topic at hand.

Since moving to rural Minnesota in 2014, I’ve fallen in love with the diversity of the ecosystem here. For some reason it’s many times more interesting than that in my homeland of Southern California; perhaps it’s just because it’s new to me? Who knows.

All that matters is that I’ve had a great time writing these articles and I feel so grateful that the local editor has agreed to both print my column and allow me permission to also share the column on my own page.

In closing, I hope you enjoy reading and learning about my local wild as much as I enjoy sharing with you what this Minnesota implant has learned.

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Read the first of “The Local Wild” here.

No Longer “Just Writing”: Why Mountain Owl is Now “Creative Services”

When Mountain Owl Ink was in its infancy I was bound and determined not to make it a one-stop shop of bookish services. I cringed at the idea of offering that kind of general, overlapping service; I felt that providing services other than writing would water down my writing work and dilute my skill set.

Even so, potential clients would ask me, “Can you do layout and design?” No. “Can you help me publish?” No. “What do you do?” My answer: “I write. I edit. I don’t want to muddle that in publishing, drawing, layout, graphics, blah, blah, blah.”

“I just want to write. That’s it.”

My, how my perspective has changed!

Bunny is frustrated with Phil and Mieux's recent, um, "activity."

Gaining Perspective. Aug 23, 2017.

Mountain Owl Ink has transformed over the past five years, especially since adopting one new motto per year for the last three years to keep us on our toes: 2016’s “Just Say Yes” (no associated blog post–the motto was quite unofficial back then!); 2017’s “See Farther”; and 2018’s “Baby Steps”), I’ve come to realize one very critical detail about writing that I had absolutely wrong when I first started out in 2013:

Writing isn’t just about writing.

It’s widely understood that communication is about 80% body language and only about 20% the words we use. (Of course communication is much more complex than that, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll stick with the 80/20 rule!)

Body language (the 80%) is the visible: what we can see, feel, and touch. Speech is the invisible: those things spoken, the audible words we hear but cannot touch and the feelings elicited by those words.

The experience of reading is much the same.

In the same way a conversation has a speaker and a listener, so the act of reading has two participants: The writer and the reader.

Let me break it down for you:

The Reader’s Reading Experience

Everyone–with the exception of the dyslexic–hears a voice in their head when they read silently. It’s commonly called an “inner voice”, but the act of silent reading actually activates the muscles of the vocal cords, lips, throat, and mouth to move (if only minutely). In the scientific world, this is called subvocalization.

hand-person-girl-woman-photography-pattern-1215168-pxhere.comSubvocalization is reading’s body language response: The physical reaction our bodies make to words received via the page. The invisible part of the communication is the “inner voice” itself: that strangely audible yet inaudible voice that can’t be touched but can definitely be heard and experienced.

 

Subvocalization is reading’s body language response: The physical reaction our bodies make to words received via the page.

The Writer’s Communication: The 80/20 Difference

Obviously the writer’s actual words–their choice of words and the way in which they order them to create the voice of their book–make a difference to the reader’s response. The novice writer’s base assumption is that correct word choice and order is all that’s required to cause the reader to respond positively to their message.

That’s simply NOT true. Why? Because reading is so much more than words!

Just as 80% of communication is through body language, so 80% of the reading experience is the physical nature in which the words themselves are displayed.

If an author assumes that being a good writer is 100% about word choice and order, they’re 100% wrong! They’re completely missing out on the physical aspect that comes with the reader’s experience. In other words, the author is assuming that all communication is verbal, that none of it is body language. How tragic!

Let’s try it this way:

A Loving Example

Consider these three words: “I love you.” On a computer screen and in an unassuming font, perhaps they “sound” kind to you. There is no verbal inflection you can hear by reading them, no hints as to their source or implication.

But what if I typed them in bold, in bright red, and centered the words on a single line? Now read it:

I LOVE YOU.

Does it “sound” different now? Louder, more forceful, more certain and confident? How does it feel? Different? More intense? Maybe seeing it this way makes you happier; maybe it makes you uneasy. Whatever it does, it likely has a different effect on you from the first time I wrote it. And how about this way:

i love you.

Does that read like a gentle and warm whisper in the ear? A sweet nothing? Adding an ellipsis changes it even more:

i… love you.

Now what? Does it sound hesitant, quiet, shy, maybe even a little embarrassed? How about this:

I love you.

Maybe, written this way, you’re left confused. Hurt. Why say “I love you” only to cross it out? you may wonder.

From start to finish, the three words stayed the same. I didn’t even change the font. But the physical differences in their layout and design–color, page and line placement, emphasis (i.e. bold, italic)–help to demonstrate the power and importance of the writer’s “body language”.

If subvocalization is the reader’s (the listener’s) physical response, what is the writer’s (or speaker’s) physical communication device?

Simply put: the layout and design of the book itself.

Why Mountain Owl Now Goes Beyond “Just Writing”

MountainOwlInk_coloronyellowbackgroundWith this concept in mind, I couldn’t well leave the layout and design of books up to someone else. If I was working to help authors communicate to their readers with an experience in reading, I had to also offer to involve myself in the other 80% of the work.

That’s why we no longer describe ourselves as offering “writing services” as we did from 2013 through last year.

Mountain Owl Ink is now in the business of offering “creative services”.

Yes, of course we still (gladly!) offer writing, editing, and proofreading. But alongside those things Mountain Owl Ink, LLC also performs these important–nay, critical–tasks that allow writers and authors to communicate at their best:

  • Complete, print-ready book layout & design (on Adobe InDesign)
    • for both print and eBooks
  • Graphics assistance
    • Direct Illustration
    • Digital Graphics Creation
  • Amazon Kindle and Amazon KDP publication assistance
  • Writer’s Coaching
  • Complete Manuscript Reviews
  • Assistance with creation of Author Websites and Sales & Marketing Materials

Just as being an actor isn’t only about regurgitating lines of script but about conveying the full breadth of humanity through a performance deep in body language to an audience eager to hear (and see) a tale be told, being an author isn’t only about putting the right words on a page: It’s about lending a full human experience to your readers, your audience, through the language of visual design and aesthetic.

Being an author is about lending a full human experience to readers through the language of visual design and aesthetic.


Have a creative project on your mind? Contact Mountain Owl Ink today. We offer a FREE INITIAL CONSULTATION to let you know if and how we can help.

It’s On: MOI Gets Credit on Copyright Page

Copyright pages are something most readers pass over immediately. But, if you’re an editor, writer, or publisher, you likely find this page that’s hidden between cover and main content and full of legal information as fascinating as I do.

As part of See Farther (MOI’s business motto for 2017) and 2018’s Baby Year concept, I creatively contracted with my latest client, real estate agent Rich Cordaro of Pennsylvania, to help move MOI forward and check off one of my writing bucket list items: having my name printed on a copyright page.

Of course, the ideal and perfect situation would be for the copyright page to be all about ME: me as the author, me as the editor, me as the illustrator, et cetera. To have my name on the copyright page of a book that is truly and completely all my own!? Ahhh… The dream!

But let’s get real. We’re working in baby steps, remember? So as part of the contract with Rich I offered a reduced rate in exchange for copyright credits on his book, The Essential Guide to Selling Your Home. I’m pretty strict when it comes to setting my rates–after all, I worked long and hard to earn the experience that enable me to justify the rates I charge!–but you have to consider that charging fees is not all about what you can get in money, but also about what you can get in benefits.

The Benefit of Barter

Not to beat a dead horse, but bartering really isn’t a dead concept! Some people even took bartering virtual and it’s a big hit (in larger, urban areas, that is).

Even though the typical method of payment nowadays is cash, there are still many businesses (and even governments!) that will exchange services for product, service for service, product for product, et cetera. It’s a great way to get goods and services that you otherwise couldn’t afford, or non-monetary and immaterial benefits that can’t be directly valued (like a copyright page credit).

This latest project with Rich is a perfect example of mutual benefit from a strategic barter. Sure, I could have charged my usual rate and made more money, but that wouldn’t have accomplished anything more for me in the long run. By negotiating a lower rate for copyright page credits, both parties got the best deal: Rich saved money and I got to check a box on my bucket list!

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Rich Cordaro and I worked out a contract where I would be mentioned on the copyright page of his book in exchange for a reduced editing fee.

About Rich’s Book: A Well-Thought Real Estate Guide

Rich and I found each other via Upwork and I’m so glad we did! Working on this book with him was such a joy and it’s rare to have a client as open, flexible, understanding, and focused as Rich Cordaro.

He wanted his book to be easy and fun while still making sure readers would be able to understand and apply his real estate advice. Could I do that, he asked? Of course I could!

We brainstormed ideas during the first couple months. Once those were solidified we worked together to…

  • blend graphic illustrations into the text;
  • create worksheets;
  • develop an Index and Glossary of Terms; and
  • offer the book in both print and electronic versions.

Not only was Rich a pleasure to work with, but I was also able to gain some really valuable experience during the project, like…

  • Learning more about the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon KDP) requirements and process;
  • Learned about the 99Designs process;
  • Get hours logged using Adobe InDesign as a publishing layout tool; and
  • Get [more] hours logged for Adobe Photoshop (to turn hand-sketched images into digital graphics).

Good experience is hard to put a price tag on. Even though Rich has expressed his joy with the project’s end result to me more than once, I can’t help but feel like I got the better end of the deal on this one.

And THAT’S the proof of a great barter: When both parties feel like they got the better piece of the pie!


If you’re in the market for an easy how-to real estate selling guide, please pick up a copy of Rich’s book ($9.99 paperback, $3.99 Kindle). He really lays out his strategic–and proven!–selling methodology in an easy-to-read fashion (i.e. no confusing lingo!); the worksheets contained within the text can be immensely useful; and the graphics we put inside the text make it a fun and quick read. (And, no, I don’t get any portion of royalties. I just think it’s a great book!)

Can Talk, Can’t Write: Why Voice Recognition Software Doesn’t Make for Good Authorship

I frequent a chiropractor who knows I type a lot. She has asked me numerous times if I have purchased any voice recognition software (VRS) — like Dragon — to help give my hands, arms, and everything about my desk-sitting posture a break during long(er) shifts at the keyboard.
As of yet, I have not invested in such software.

I know my chiropractor uses VRS regularly: While waiting in the exam room, I can hear her in her office talking (albeit muffled) to her PC, giving it medical notes and telling it about her last patient. I’m certain she doesn’t do much typing, which is good considering she needs her hands for healing and shouldn’t subject them to the dangers of carpal tunnel syndrome, but VRS doesn’t work for someone like me who writes as a profession.

Why not?

Speaker’s Brain vs Writer’s Brain

First, speaking and writing are completely different in that we use different words, phrases, pauses, et cetera for each, so how we talk and how we write (or, conversely, read) are not nearly the same thing. The reason is because the parts of the brain that handle speech and writing work independently from one another. Perhaps this is why some people have such difficulty reading out loud: They have yet to teach their brains how to bridge the talking-writing/reading gap.

Granted, some people speak well. I’m not one of those. I know if I really focus and pull myself together I can make a pretty good speech without inundating it with a bunch of um’s and awkward silences, but speaking is just not where my strength lies.

My strength is in my ability to write well, which comes in handy for those clients of mine who have trouble putting together a written sentence that doesn’t read like an automaton typed it out.

Just because you can talk doesn’t mean you can write.

Second, VRS marketers have convinced the general populace that if they can talk, they can write. HA! If only that were true!

Most people understand that talking and writing require different skillsets and talents. Unfortunately, there are those who really do believe they are (or can be) great writers because they can talk. They feel VRS is their savior!

‘Why hire a ghostwriter,’ they say, ‘if I can just talk into my computer and it writes everything I say for me?’ This is especially true for professional public speakers: I’ve had conversation with a number of them who feel personally attacked when I criticize their writing, as if I were saying they’re terrible speakers as well!

They may be upset with me for correcting their writing, but I know that what they’re really having trouble understanding is that people don’t talk the way they write.

Human speech is riddled with vocal inflections, fillers (e.g. um’s, uh’s), and slang that just has no place in good writing. In bad writing? Sure. In Facebook posts and texts? Why not.

But would anyone take seriously a book full of slang, misused and misspelled words, um’s, and awkward phrases? I doubt it.

Bottom line: Just because you can talk doesn’t mean you can write.

VRS: A good tool

VRS has its place in the writing world. It’s a great tool for creating rough drafts; for getting down ideas if you can’t type quickly; or for train-of-thought writing. I’ve used Windows Voice Recognition software occasionally when my carpal tunnel is acting up. It’s a good tool, but it ends there. Rarely does VRS result in a draft that doesn’t require heavy-handed editing.

Having a good tool at your disposal does not replace the need for good engineering to back up a good product, and writing is just that: the engineering of stories.

When a new client sends me a manuscript, I can usually tell by the end of the first paragraph if they used VRS to draft the entire thing because the writing is so bad. I have no problem with editing those manuscripts — it’s my job, after all! — but sometimes my clients are left in shock when I send them a document with so many markups on it that it looks like my red pen had a sneezing fit.

Fine tuning the product

If you’re the type of person who prefers to talk over type, that’s great. Nothing wrong with that. However, don’t disregard the importance of having that work edited by someone who has a knack for writing. That “someone” doesn’t necessarily need to be a professional you hire and pay (although a second set of eyes on a manuscript never hurt). You can certainly edit your work yourself.

Before you publish, consider these tips on how to edit if you rely on VRS for the initial draft:

1. Read your work out loud.

Reading what you’ve said back to yourself can reveal many a writing hiccup. Sometimes VRS uses “our” instead of “are”, “there” instead of “their”, or just mishears what we say altogether.

Common mistakes are easily discovered and rectified by reading the draft or manuscript out loud to yourself.

2. Print out your work onto paper to read it.

Our brains process things differently on a screen than on a piece of paper. Studies show that we absorb information differently (that is, better) when we read from paper than off a screen.

Print your draft as a hardcopy and read it, away from screens and distractions. I like to read drafts in bed or while laying on the couch (that is, away from my desk and PC), because then my mind is in a place where I can review it as if I were a regular reader, not an editor or writer.

3. Use a ruler or other straight edge to read each line independently.

Remember how we learned to read, line by line, in elementary school? There’s a reason children learn to read that way: Blocking out the next line removes the distraction and anticipation of what words are to come, improving our focus on the words were reading at the moment.

This is an editor’s trick that can reveal errors you might otherwise be blind to. 0ur brains tend to fi1l in gaps or “autocorrect” mistakes our eyes see because it knows what things should look like, even if in reality they are completely different.

For instance, did you notice those errors in the last paragraph? There’s a zero instead of an O in “our” and a 1 in place of an L in “fill”. If you’re an editor and your eyes are trained to find things like that, you probably saw them. Otherwise, you likely glazed right over without a second thought.

Breaking up paragraphs into independent lines can help put a stop to your brain’s autocorrect function, making errors pop out.

Again, VRS can be of great help for authors of all types, even ones with a preference for typing like me. The good thing is that the accuracy of those programs continues to improve as tech gets better. However, I doubt any computer program will ever be able to replace the need for editors because writing is an art and one that can’t be substituted with a machine.

I’m hoping to soon acquire VRS to help me draft some of my longer projects — my carpal tunnel would certainly thank me, and my chiropractor could then stop worrying about my slouchy, computer posture.


Do you use voice recognition software? If so, which one and what do you think of it?

Baby Steps: Starting Out Anew

In January, I declared a new motto for Mountain Owl Ink in 2017: See Farther. You probably don’t know that when I created that motto I had no idea I’d give birth to my first child in a few short months. And, how appropriate, because I’ve come to realize there is little that makes you see farther into the future more than having a child.

Then, on November 17, just over a month after my son was born, I had recuperated from childbirth and gathered enough of myself together to reflect upon 2018, the year I’ve come to call The Baby Year. And, like my 2017 motto, I’ve just come to realize that the name takes on a double meaning:

Not only is 2018 the first full year of enjoying my literal baby, but it’s also a time for me, in my “baby” stage as a new mother, to reevaluate myself and make changes. It’s a time for Mountain Owl Ink, in light of those changes, to restart itself in infancy and move forward in baby steps.

Taking Baby Steps

When my son takes his first steps, it will be something new. I’ll be amazed at how he’s developing. I’ll be happy and proud and slightly afraid as I am faced with the reality that he’ll forevermore be increasingly mobile.

At the same time, to him his first steps may not be much of a shocker. He would have been working toward that goal for a while, his whole life, in fact. After all, before he stepped out, he’d have been working on looking around, at rolling over, at sitting up, at standing, all these things would have happened before he took that first step out.

So, while I, the outsider, may be shocked at the development, to my son it’ll be something he’d been (more or less) planning on and pursuing for some time. It will be exciting, I’m sure, but it won’t be a surprise.

His developmental leap, from my perspective, will be just another “baby step” for him.

What Baby Steps Mean

In this light, baby steps are those small leaps forward that we take that go largely unnoticed by the outside world. They can be internal (emotional, mental, or spiritual changes within us) or they can be external (physical changes or material achievements, like a diploma or accolade), just as long as they bring us closer to a preconceived goal.

As an example, when I decided to wake up every morning and get dressed as if I were going to an office (even though I worked from home), that was a mental change I made even though it materialized as me wearing different clothes. But, did it matter how I dressed to the outside world? No. Absolutely not. Nobody knew that I was in office wear while puttering around my house. Did anyone notice I wore heels while I did laundry or vacuumed? No! But I certainly did. That was an attitude change — an internal baby step — that brought me closer to a preconceived goal (that is, taking my business seriously and not just as a hobby).

Baby steps mean you’re working toward improvement, whatever “improvement” means for you. And, when you can track those steps, you’re better able to see how far you’ve come — and how much farther you have to go — to reach a goal you’ve set for yourself.

But that brings up the question…

Can baby steps backtrack?

Absolutely.

When my son starts walking, he’ll undoubtedly fall down. He may just bump down onto his heftily padded rear end (thank you, fluffy cloth diapers!) or he may topple forward and hit his head on the floor.

After such disappointment (and pain), he may not think that walking is as great as it’s hacked up to be. Nobody really wants to face plant on the floor. Nobody wants to be disappointed after putting in so much work and effort.

But he WILL keep trying, because that’s what babies do. They don’t obsess about what happened last time; that’s a grown up thing. Babies just keep on keeping on.

And that’s what babies can teach us: To stop obsessing about “last time” and just keep on. Sure, we’ll face road blocks, disappointments, backtracking, bumps, pain… but those are ways to learn to baby step better, not reasons to avoid baby stepping at all!

Let’s Learn from Babies

So, 2018 will be MOI’s Baby Year. I’ll be starting over with a fresh perspective about what I want from me, about what’s important to me and how I might get there (a little of this I already shared in my last post).

As a result, MOI will be shifting gears. I already know that that’ll involve working more on my own projects and less on being hired out to work on other people’s publishing dreams.

I also know that Le Mieux will be taking a temporary pause while I create a clearer path for it’s development (can you say website and swag?) and movement forward. That’s a sad thing to admit, but sometimes we need to backtrack in order to baby step forward. Nobody knows this better than writers, who sometimes have to face the difficult task of tossing a few pages in order to change the story and make the whole of the book better.

More to come… See you in the new year!


Is 2018 YOUR baby year? If so, what changes do you foresee making for yourself, your business, etc.?