Weekend Road Trip: A Writing Class, Santa Cruz, and Becky Levine

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

The first time I set foot on California soil was in the 90’s. I hadn’t started writing yet, at least not seriously. Sure, I’d dabbled at writing a few stories, mostly because I grew up reading The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Poe. And I really don’t want to admit it, but I’ve even flipped through the pages of a Bobbsey Twin book or two, as well. Actually, I’ve never been very far from a book of some kind. So I guess it was inevitable that I’d someday attempt to put pen to paper. Especially since writing a book had been a dream of mine for many years.

Anyway, back to California. When our plane crossed the mountains and San Jose finally came into view, I sensed that my life had changed, instantly. I just had no idea how drastic that change would be. I was a huge mystery fan at the time, reading several books per month, and had recently ended a long career in law enforcement. I hadn’t the slightest clue that I would soon merge the two.

First, though, my wife and I explored our new surroundings. We loved the area, especially the beaches. Santa Cruz was just over the mountains from us and we made regular trips there on Friday afternoons to enjoy the boardwalk, watch the sunsets, and to hear the free concerts on the beach. In fact, it was one of those Fridays when I met Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. Peter and I have even exchanged a few emails since.

View of the Pacific from the Santa Cruz boardwalk

The beautiful scenery, and the fact that the Bay Area was filled to the brim with talented people, began to have an effect on me. The urge to write was growing each day. But I really didn’t know where or how to start.

Capitola fisherman

I happened to see a short piece in a local paper that advertised an upcoming writing class in Los Gatos, one of my favorite cities in the Bay Area. I think the cost for the course was $68. So, I signed up.

The class was small, but not too small. My fellow students were quite talented, which was a little intimidating for me. Even so, I enjoyed it when we shared the stories we’d written. Mine were horrible, but I was finally writing and it felt great. But what really impressed me about the whole experience was the teacher. She seemed to have this uncanny ability to critique our work in a way that stimulated our creativity, conjuring up ideas from every corner of our imaginations.

California scenery is breathtaking.

I learned a lot in that class, the only writing class I’ve ever taken. And at the end of the six weeks the teacher, Becky Levine, encouraged me to continue writing. She also invited me to speak about police work to her critique group. As luck would have it, one of the members of her group was also the director for a large writers conference. After the meeting the director asked if I’d present a similar session at her conference. Well, that event started a huge chain reaction.

Since that day, I’ve spoken at dozens of conferences, published various stories, articles, and books, appeared on TV and radio, I write this blog, I’ve begun hosting my own event, The Writers’ Police Academy, and I’m in the process of completing the final rewrites of a thriller. Hopefully, I’ll have that book back in my agent’s hands within a few days.

I live elsewhere now, but I still think of California and the wonderful places we visited, like those in the photos above. I think there’ll probably be a piece of California in everything I write.

My former writing teacher, Becky Levine, has recently released a book of her own, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback.

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I ran across one of the short stories I wrote for Becky’s class, so I thought it would be fun to share. Finding this was sort of like seeing your picture in an old high school yearbook. Weird. Anyway, here’s my first attempt at writing.


Wave after wave crashed against the beach, a relentless, metronome-like cadence that pounded at the soft sand. Gobs of sea foam rode the currents and sizzled like frying bacon when it contacted the jagged rocks at the water’s edge. The combined sounds were quite maddening. Not to mention the screeching gulls and the salty air that reeked with the stench of sun-baked, rotting kelp and decaying crustaceans.

On the horizon, a small wooden trawler chugged northward against the powerful surf. Its wooden hull creaked and groaned as the craft strained to tow massive nets laden with rock fish and perch. Sea birds dove in the ship’s wake searching for remnants of bait fish that had been tossed overboard by the crew.

The man wanted to wave his arms and yell. He wanted to scream and to jump up and down. He desperately wanted to catch the eye of the boat’s bearded captain. But try as he might, rigor mortis had pinned his arms to the wet sand.

He’d not been able to move even the smallest muscle since his wife and her lover, that flannel-shirted dockworker from the harbor, had dumped his body there among the sea oats. Somehow she’d managed to slip a massive dose of oleander into his salad. He hadn’t noticed the toxic emerald-green leaves mixed among the spinach and lettuces. She’d done a great job of concealing the killer plant.

It didn’t take long. First came the nausea. No big deal. It happens. But the stomach pains that followed had been horrendous. And the vertigo. Mustn’t forget that.

In the end, there’d been no bright lights or long tunnels. There were no joyous reunions with long lost loved ones. Nothing. He wasn’t even sure if he was dead.

His mouth was locked open, and he tried really hard to scream, but the only thing that came out was a tiny crab seeking a bit of sunshine after its evening meal.

2 replies
  1. L.C.McCabe
    L.C.McCabe says:

    And I am ever so glad to have attended your first ever writers conference session at the East of Eden Writing Conference. If I hadn’t tried unsuccessfully at sneaking in late, I might not have met you. I am grateful to count both you and Becky as literary friends.

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