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a hand drawn color picture of a winding river against a floral background, top-down perspective

That feeling when:

A friend sends an “omg GET THIS!” text

A coworker sneaks over to your desk and says “I have to tell you what happened!”

A neighbor calls over the hedge “Have I got a story for you!”

When a story is coming, we draw breath. Out hearts skip a beat. Our ears perk up. What, we wonder, could this be about? 

We all know this magical, world-is-still moment. When we’re about to hear a new bit of gossip, anticipation fills us. The delight of victory may lie within any tale. Our veins may course with the vengeful grit of schadenfreude once the last word is told. A golden cloud of curious amazement may envelop us and never let us go. Especially eager are we to hear a tale told by a deft voice, a voice we trust as a skillful sculptor of time and words. 

Diane Setterfield is that sculptor. She is by far one of my favorite storytellers. I first came upon her when I found her debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, on the “New” shelf of my local library. The book’s cover was a hand-drawing of stacked books. The mysterious title pulled at me. I picked it up, and I didn’t put it down. You may wonder why I’ve never reviewed it on this blog. I don’t know if I ever will. It almost means too much to me; I wouldn’t be able to convey my love for it with a mere blog post. It has become one of my most sacred texts.

So. Yes. When a writer ends up in your “holy canon” pile naturally you will read every word she writes (even tweets).

I’ve read and reviewed Ms. Setterfield’s second book Bellman & Black (I should say Dr. Setterfield – she’s a literature professor in England). Bellman & Black was an entirely different book than her first, although still steeped in the gothic genre she so expertly and modernly painted in The Thirteenth Tale. Once Upon A River is another deep dive into the setting of 1800s rural England, but again Setterfield delivers a completely different tale in a fully-fleshed and original narrative voice. In Once Upon A River, Setterfield —or her narrator— is telling us a story directly. She addresses us as “you:”

There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a day’s walk from the source. There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider each one had some particular pleasure to offer. The Red Lion at Kelm- scot was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of lost love. Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation. If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot. The Swan at Radcot had its own specialty. It was where you went for storytelling. 

Diane Setterfield. Once Upon A River: A Novel. 2018. Page 1. Paragraph 1.

Setterfield’s opening pages remind me of Dickens telling us to note something important in A Christmas Carol:

“The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. 1843. Page 1. Paragraph 3.

In Once Upon A River, Setterfield is like Dickens. She is almost sitting, candlelit, recounting the tale just for us. The effect is delightful. At the moment you notice she is addressing you, your heart skips a beat. You draw breath. “Oh,” you realize, “this is a Story.”

In Once Upon A River’s beginning pages, Setterfield gives the reader the lay of the land, namely the Swan Inn at Radcot and its inhabiting characters. She tells of how “Dreams and stories merge with lived experience” at the Swan, the little and ancient Inn on the river Thames that is known for its entertaining storytellers. It’s a place where “… the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and present touch and overlap.” We are warned, again, that in such a place “Unexpected things can happen.”

Before we hear the tale, we are to wonder, what really happened? “You will have to judge for yourself,” the narrator says. “…Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.” 

What follows is a tale of great victory, a story of sad schadenfreude, a whispered myth of innocent wonder. As the story continues, the narrator’s strong voice in the beginning of the novel expertly fades into each character’s mind; you feel like you’re hearing the tale flow from its very source – the characters themselves. The transition is as seamless as a calm river’s waters; It is smoother than a toddler’s cheek. I find myself woefully undereducated in the ways of great literature to properly give Ms. Setterfield her due. To a novice fiction-writer like myself, this amazing transition is magic. Diane Setterfield is a master storyteller. You should read her work.

That is the end of the book review. 

Now for my story. It starts with questions:

“What am I doing?” 

“Can I do this?”

“Why is it such a struggle? Maybe it’s a sign I should give up.”

Often these questions arise when I am sitting at my writing table.

I don’t know which part of my story we’re in. I may be at the beginning of my writing journey, where my first novel is the hardest hill to mount. This could be the middle, where after many, many years of trying to teach myself fiction writing I am in the dragging “this is where I give up” depths. The scariest option is this may be the end, where I finally close the book for good.

Great writing like Setterfield’s always sets me to thinking: Do I really want to write fiction? I’ve loved my years as a blogger and content writer, but I’ve struggled with my fiction project. I’m confident in my blogging skills. With fiction writing, not so much.

Diane Setterfield’s skill doesn’t discourage me. I’m OK with knowing I won’t likely ever get to her level. But will I ever get the confidence to forge forward with my fiction writing, at whatever level I can achieve? Will it ever be as natural to me as writing this blog post? Many days you can find me searching for yet more training, for more books on plot and character, for more tips and tricks. I’m always seeking out that magic formula that will bring all my adrift story skiffs securely ashore.

Like one of the Swan Inn’s drunken patrons, I stumble through the dark English woods with no lamp to light my way. I continue on because I’m driven to tell my story to a willing listener. Is this what all writers experience? Is this the typical flow chart of this program? I don’t know. As I said, I look for clues anywhere I can find them.

Like a miracle (but to be expected from this generous and wise author), Ms. Setterfield delivers one of those clues. Once Upon A River: A Novel is, at its very core, a beautiful, reverent ode to storytelling. On each page, the book declares our common love of telling and listening to stories. Ms. Setterfield is there, behind her narrator, whispering encouragement to me and any other hidden writer with the same dream. On Page 2 she writes:

“By force of repetition you would become adept at the telling. And then, when the crisis was over and you turned your attention to other things, what is more natural than that this newly acquired expertise would come to be applied to other tales?” 

And maybe that’s all the magic I need. 


Once Upon A River: A Novel

By Diane Setterfield 

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (December 4, 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743298071
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743298070

Image Credits

Book Covers: Diane Setterfield and publishers
Tree in fog: Original photo, Christine Cavalier copyright 2019
Walk in the woods: Photo by Gabriela Palai from Pexels

a hand drawn color picture of a winding river against a floral background, top-down perspective 0 comments

Erasing my social site self


Smartphone in human hand, face forward to viewer. Trails of smoke come out of its black (turned off) screen.Erasing myself

After my last post about image management, you may find it amusing that I’m deleting tweets and Facebook (FB) posts. I’m not deleting my accounts. I’m just deleting posts. I’m leaving all my Pinterest pins and every other social network I’ve posted on, but those two biggies are undergoing a serious purge. I’ve left a whole lot of funny, serious, disrespectful, reverent and crazy tweets and posts in my wake. In general, it’s a mess. I’m cleaning it up. 

I’m feeling a bit differently about deleting posts from each platform, though.


Back in the early days of Twitter, deleting tweets was considered to be quite poor form. The culture seemed to honor each and every post as sacred, and those who could not stand behind what they tweeted were seen as the worst self-serving dregs of internet society. Deleting tweets just wasn’t done, and those who dared were automatically assumed to be guilty of some egregious trespass and in dire need to cover their tracks.

That was over a decade ago. Times have changed.

Now, keeping a record of all your posts does little to serve you and is more likely to work against you. Any tweets older than 6-12 months usually serve very little good purpose for the account owner. No-one is looking at tweets 6-12 months old. Providing data for others who would use them for nefarious purposes isn’t the smartest move. Not only are the ad bots annoying and invasive, the climate of online culture has gotten downright vicious. People have been fired for 5-year-old tweets. Is keeping your stream in tact worth risk to your livelihood? Sure, you may stand behind everything you tweeted, but anything can look bad taken out of context. Jokes especially do not age well. And I’ve not been known to keep it serious on Twitter these last 11 years. So out it goes.

facebook logo


As I delete FB posts (by hand, for various reasons, the main one being there isn’t a satisfactory way to do it otherwise), I am feeling guilty. I am erasing Likes as well as posts. I’m untagging myself. I’m hiding things from my timeline that I can’t delete. Erasing myself from my friends’ “histories” tugs at my heartstrings. The thought of them going back to a post and not seeing my comment that perhaps they really appreciated (maybe?) makes me sad. In reality, though, very few of them will ever review their old posts, and if they do they won’t remember I was in the conversation. One friend did mention that it was a shame all my amusing posts would be gone. I didn’t ask if he regularly reviews old posts. I just felt sorry.

Facebook especially is a data stalker, and, simply put: I don’t feel comfortable with a long trail of data being present there anymore. And I am protecting my friends. The next time I’m targeted by a troll, I don’t want my friends to be trolled, too. A friend list is one thing but a troll may stalk my comments on their posts and begin to harass them too. I understand the situation is unlikely. Protecting my friends from any potential privacy invasions is yet another reason to erase my past presence on their Pages.

One friend mentioned archive sites may still have a hold of my tweets and perhaps even FB posts. Sure. But unless data crawlers are looking for my archive specifically (which, why would they?) then the archives don’t do me much data-trail harm. At least, not yet. Where the archives can do me harm today is this: one troll who is searching for a tweet that could seem damning out of context could trawl the archives. Thankfully internet archive sites can be spotty, and the typical call-out culture trolls tend to search the current Twitter site, not the archives. (Europe’s “Right to Be Forgotten” laws would be handy here in deleting those archives. We don’t have those protections here in the U.S.)

When I get to feeling nostalgic or panicky about my old tweets and FB posts, I remind myself that this is just the internet. It isn’t life. Many people don’t use FB or Twitter and their lives hum along normally. I’m not ending friendships; I’m deleting tweets. I can’t place too much value on data I barely own and was constructed with not much thought. Those posts may have been useful for a few seconds, maybe a few minutes, or a day if I hit a trend. It’s only garbage now.

three pencil tops with erasers close up

The Future

Will this change the way I post? Yes. The vicious climate online had already affected my posting behaviors, so I expect that same level of caution to continue. But now that I’m realizing how difficult it is to delete these two particular data trails, I will definitely rethink every post. Instead of Liking and Commenting, I’ve been increasing my use of FB Messenger (via the browser version) and texting my friends more often.

I have not yet cleared out my Instagram profile (which is public) or my Flickr pages. I’ll consider doing that, too, but it is much harder to twist meanings of photos or trawl them for metadata that directly relates to me. That will change as bots get more sophisticated, of course.

Right now my concern is more immediate. I must decide whether or not to put my Instagram account on the private setting. I’m definitely leaning toward this although I have long been a public-stream kind of person. Since FB is a walled garden, it makes sense for Instagram to be. The days of the public stream on any site are probably over. Public streams will be left for brands and businesses, and the individual private streams will be standard. That’s how I see this all going. FB isn’t private enough, though, and I don’t know if it ever will be.

We’ll just have to keep cleaning until we no longer make any mess.



Smoke Phone pic: Geralt on Pixabay. 

Facebook pic: Book Catalog on Flickr.

Eraser pic: Nicholas Erwin on Flickr.


collage of different colors of a woman holding a finger to her lips. she is surrounded by social media logos.

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collage of different colors of a woman holding a finger to her lips. she is surrounded by social media logos. 0 comments

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picture of two human torsos modeling two different scarves made in the style of the Harry Potter movies 0 comments

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a pile of balanced smooth stones arranged in bigger to smaller sizes vertically, from the ground up. Set against a blurred nature (green) backgroundBalance. Who knows what this term means anymore? Do you feel balanced? I don’t. Everything is off. Maybe since 9/11/2001, everything’s been off for us as a nation. 

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Cover of Niki Brantmark's book titled Lagom: The Swedish Art of Living a Balanced, Happy Life 0 comments