novel, playing the genetic lottery
I wrote this article for the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper. It was a gratifying assignment for me, as I love dogs and I'm an advocate for raising positive awareness for those living with mental illness. As the author of a novel about schizophrenia, I fully appreciate the efforts of those, like the staff at the Paget Center, to heal. This  An abandoned five-year-old Cocker Spaniel has found a new home and a new purpose in life helping military combat veterans recover from post traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD. Laddie was adopted recently out of the Santa Cruz SPCA to serve as the house therapy dog at the Paget Center. The 12-bed residential facility helps homeless vets recover from their traumas and transition back into civilian life after serving on the battle field. The gentle, people-pleasing pooch immediately had a positive impact on residents.

“The mood in the house is lighter” said Lino Montes, the manager at Paget Center. “People who were withdrawn are coming out of their shells. They're taking an interest in walking and feeding him. It's amazing to see the transformation.”

Laddie languished in the SPCA for months because he doesn't get along with other dogs. But when it comes to humans, he offers nothing but love and support. He has the run of the house at his new home, a large fenced in yard to play in, and has an uncanny knack for detecting when individuals need comfort.

“If he sees you're upset, he puts his head on your lap,” Montes said.

The Paget Center is staffed by veterans who have also have been affected with PTSD, and understand the many challenges combat vets face. Funded by the Veteran's Administration, the house operates under the auspices of Front Street Inc., a behavioral health agency, and provides 90 days of emergency shelter for homeless vets and a host of services. Along with individual counseling and group therapy, the Paget Center also helps veterans find jobs, housing, and provides other services to help them reengage with society.

The residential facility, which has been operating for 17 months, has a 98 percent success rate in helping veterans get their lives back on track, Montes said. As manager, Montes has the authority to provide any services his residents need. When he realized the residents would greatly benefit from a house dog, he contacted Mandi Hart, the assistant manager for the Santa Cruz SPCA and asked her to help. Hart recommended Laddie, who had become a staff and volunteer favorite at the shelter for his people skills, and brought him to the Paget Center for a visit. Instantly popular, Laddie was officially adopted a few days later.

“I can't thank Ms. Hart for all the help and support she gave us,” Montes said. “Laddie gets all the attention he wants and has a big house to run around in.”

With a dozen different beds to sleep on, Laddie also seems to know who needs his company most. One of the residents who has struggled with severe insomnia brought on by PTSD said he was able to sleep through the night for the first time in years after Laddie arrived.

“It's awesome,” said Anthony Uzzi. “The first night he was here he slept on my bed. It was the best sleep I've had in years. Having the dog in the room does help me because I'm not constantly listening to sounds. With Laddie, it's an extra set of ears that lets me stay asleep. He's got my back.”

Like other residents, Uzzi said just petting Laddie helps reduce his stress. The dog also provides another set of ears for veterans to talk to about their experiences. While there is a one to two ratio of counselors to residents at the center, and staff members on site 24 hours a day, sometimes the men are more comfortable confiding in the dog.

“You can tell him anything and he's just going to give you that unconditional love,” Uzzi said. “It really does help us heal.”

Laddie also helps add a homey touch to the residential house.

“This place is about giving back the gift of life,” said Kendra Cooley, the center's outreach coordinator. “It's a home, it's a family, it's a safe place and a springboard to the next path.”

For a formerly homeless vet who struggled with chronic pain and depression following a traumatic brain injury he incurred while in the military, the center helped him heal, then hired him to help others.

“This place was a Godsend to me,” said Ernie Soto. “It gave me back my drive, my desire and a purpose in life.”

Understanding mental illness is one of the big keys to reducing the stigmas surrounding it. The stigmas that prevent people from talking about mental illness, and from seeking help. One out of every four people will be affected by mental illness at one point in their lifetime. In my mind, that makes it even more urgent to educate people about mental illness and dispel many of the myths and misconceptions surrounding it.
With that in mind, I've lowered the price of my ebook to 99 cents in the US and to 77 pence in the UK through Amazon. Why reduce the price by 2/3rds? Because reducing the stigmas, to me, is more important than making a few extra dollars on each sale.

 As many of you know, I live in Santa Cruz County, California, which I consider paradise. Not only is this central coast community blessed with great weather, beautiful scenery, excellent surf and dozens of recreational activities, it's home to a number of wonderful, caring people. This article, which I wrote for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, is just another example of why I love living here.

Linda Braun, who had lived in Santa Cruz County for four decades, loved her home and garden. She had long planned to give both a makeover, but between her volunteer work, real estate career, family and numerous friends, as well as her active lifestyle, she could never find the time. So when the previously healthy woman was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer last August, an entire community of county residents to come together to fulfill her dream.

The makeover was a way for Linda's friends to show how much she meant to to them. Initially feeling helpless and devastated after Braun was diagnosed, her friends, and friends of friends, rallied together to transform her home and garden and make her final days comfortable and bright.

“She was a very special person,” said Val Peyser, who was one of Linda's best friends. “Linda was always one to help people out, and she touched so many lives.”

Her illness took everyone by surprise. Braun had never smoked, and no one had suspected she was so ill until her diagnosis. Braun's daughters, Anna and Hillary, had insisted their mother go to the emergency room because they were concerned she wasn't as sharp and active as normal. Three days later, doctors discovered she had lung cancer and it had spread throughout her body.

“While Mom was still in the hospital, her other best friend Debby Dobbs stepped up and took control,” Anna Braun recalled. “She said we need to do something special for your mom when she comes home.”

Dobbs asked a friend of hers, who is an award winning interior designer, to help select paint colors for Braun's home. The friend, Donna Brunetti, had only met Braun a handful of times, but she was happy to help.

“You could see how everybody was hurting,” said Brunetti, who owns and operates Brunetti's Interiors. “So I called a couple of people and said how about we go over and paint the whole thing. I emailed some friends, and 30 people showed up that weekend to help. There were people there who didn't even know Linda.”

Brunetti assigned everyone different jobs. By the end of the weekend, the house was freshly painted, the furniture had been rearranged, the home decorated and the garden had been redone, thanks to another friend who donated his landscaping services. Many of the volunteers, including Peyser, Dobbs, Roseanna Wright and Brunetti, were still at the house when Linda Braun saw their handiwork for the first time.

“When my mother arrived home from the hospital she couldn't speak; the house was full of everything she loved most,” said Anna Braun. “The community, friends, her family, and our dog and a new home to spend her last days in.

“I still get chills when I think about it,” said Anna Braun added. “As soon as she came in the house everyone started crying. My mom kept saying 'I can't believe this is my house'.”

Watching Linda Braun's reaction was very rewarding to everyone who helped with the makeover.

“It was amazing because she was so appreciative,” Brunetti said. “It was good for my morale as well as for everyone who helped.”

Linda Braun passed away on October 28th, about two months after her diagnosis. Months later her daughters are still so grateful for all the people who helped make their mother's final days full of love.

“It's amazing what a community can do for someone or for a family,” Anna Braun said. “We are lucky to live in such a great place like Santa Cruz..”


I consider schizophrenia, which is the topic of my novel, Playing the Genetic Lottery, to be a family disease. There is a genetic component to the mental illness, meaning it runs in families, a fact that shapes the life of my protagonist in this fictional memoir. I also consider it to be very much of a family disease because it affects the families of the person living with schizophrenia immensely. Having a parent, child, sibling, even a close friend diagnosed with schizophrenia is life changing. Along with sadness, fear, confusion and challenges come questions. How do I help my loved one? What is this disease all about? Did I do something to cause my child to get sick? What will my friends think? How can I cope with my child's/parent's/sibling's bizarre behavior?

I didn't realize how much families were impacted until I began researching the subject before writing about it. So it's been very gratifying to me to hear from readers who have a family member with a schizophrenia diagnosis how helpful my novel has been to them. That's the biggest reward a writer can have; knowing something you've written has helped someone who is struggling with what initially appears to be an intractable situation. That's even more gratifying than hearing from readers complaining Playing the Genetic Lottery kept them up all night because they just had to find out what happened next.

Although Playing the Genetic Lottery is a novel, I worked hard to weave accurate information about the disease into the book. I wanted to raise compassion, but not at the expense of individuals living with schizophrenia. So I was both relieved and honored when Ashley Smith, the founder of Embracing My Mind wrote the following review about my book:


Top Ten



Being a voracious reader, it's hard for me to come up with a list of my favorite books. With the exception of East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, which truly is my favorite book of all time, and my novel, I generally draw a blank. To be honest, my favorite book is generally the one I'm currently reading. Since there are so many books available, I tend to be a little fussy. If the book doesn't hold my interest, I stop reading it. Sure, I'll persevere a little longer if I'm reading it for my book club, mainly so I can explain why I didn't like the book. So, to generate this list of my top 10 reads, I thought back to the eight most enjoyable books I've recently read.

  1. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  2. Playing the GEast of Eden, John Steinbeckenetic Lottery, Terri Morgan

  3. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

  4. All For One, Ryne Douglas Pearson

  5. A Suitable Vengeance, Elizabeth George

  6. Run, Ann Patchett

  7. The Drop, Michael Donnelly

  8. The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer

  9. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

  10. This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band, Levon Helm.

 Last week, my novel, Playing the Genetic Lottery, was #2 on the Kindle best seller list for several hours. How do I know? Because I checked the Amazon sales of my e-book almost every hour during my 3-day KDP select promo. For 72 hours I allowed anyone and everyone with a Kindle to download my novel for free. Although giving my hard earned work away at no charge seems counter intuitive to me, I'm hoping it pays off in the long run.

I've been a professional writer for over 30 years, but I'm a relatively new novelist. Playing the Genetic Lottery, which I self-published as an e-book in late 2011, and as a paperback last May, is my first work of fiction. Without a track record as a novelist, and the budget of a starving writer, I've had to get creative to promote my work. I've also had to educate myself as to the best ways to market my novel on a shoestring.

My self-education program initially consisted of reading everything I could get my hands on regarding self-publishing, book marketing, social media marketing and book promotions. In blog after blog I kept reading about writers offering free downloads to generate interest in their books. I was skeptical, but willing to keep an open mind.

After struggling to self promote my book with little success, I realized I needed some help. Sure, I sold a few copies here and there. But my sales were slow, and I had to admit I was in over my head, especially when it came to social media. So I took a deep breath, budgeted, and hired Donna Huber, who I met at, to help me with my promotional campaign. She had a number of brilliant ideas, and I gradually learned to trust her suggestions. So when she suggested, for about the 5th time, that I conduct a free Kindle download promotion, I decided she was right.

We started planning the promotion about two months ago. That gave me ample time to scour the internet for websites that let people know about free e-books. I compiled a list of all the sites, then one-by-one checked each one out. Some weren't appropriate for my genre; others charged fees to have books listed. A couple I didn't qualify for, since I didn't have enough published reviews. I made notations on my list to avoid duplicating my efforts, and recorded the date I contacted each site and what response I received. By the time I was finished, at least two dozen sites had agreed to either post my promotion and/or email their members.

In the meantime, Donna booked an excerpt blog tour for me. Each blogger that signed up received an excerpt from my prologue. We encouraged readers to follow the excerpts sequentially to read the entire introduction. Many of the bloggers graciously allowed me to guest post on their sites in conjunction with the tour. And all listed the except tour schedule along with an announcement of my promo.

I posted the promo on my website and my book's facebook page, blogged about it, and tweeted to get the news out. Nearly 6,000 people downloaded the book, and it sure was fun to log onto Amazon and see my novel climb up the best seller list from 12 to 9 to 7 to 4 to 3 and finally to 2. Of course, those numbers have dropped now that the promo is over, but it sure was cool while it lasted. I hope everyone who downloaded it reads and enjoys my book, and tells their friends about it. I also hope readers will take the time to write a brief review on Amazon about my book.

In the meantime, happy reading.

Come join me as I take part in an online excerpt tour. I'll also be guest posting on some of these wonderful blogs.
Monday Feb. 18
Alli's World
Java John Z's Giveaways and Reviews
izz "pingle" bookish place &
Bubbles. Deux.

Tuesday Feb. 19
Library Girl Reads & Reviews
Recent Read
Lindsay and Jane's Views and Reviews
Brooke Blogs

Wednesday Feb. 20
Mary's Cup of Tea
Books R Us

Thursday Feb. 21
Ali's Bookshelf

Friday Feb. 22
Alberta Ross
Uttley's Take -


Novelists, like screenwriters, sometimes get a little too creative with creative license for my liking. By that I mean their story lines strain credibility. Having a character who can stretch his limbs like Rubberman, or display any other super power commonly found in comic books, is fine in a fantasy or science fiction tale. However, when I'm reading a literary or contemporary novel I just cringe when I come across a scene that's grossly inaccurate. When a firefighter, for example, performs emergency surgery on a car crash victim who is trapped in a vehicle while the rest of the rescue team urges her on instead of using the jaws of life to extract the victim, I get annoyed. If the obvious errors happen too often, it can turn a dramatic story into a comedy for me. Or, in cases where the book is riddled with mistakes, like the one I started reading the other day, I'll stop reading. A book with five factual errors in the first 50 pages, just doesn't hold my interest.

That's why when I decided to write my first novel after working for over 30 years as a freelance journalist, I spent weeks doing research even before I typed P1 on my blank computer screen. My novel, Playing the Genetic Lottery, is a fictional memoir of a woman who grew up with two schizophrenic parents. It was important to me that I portray the devastating mental illness accurately, even though I was writing fiction.

I began my research for calling a friend who has a brother who is schizophrenic. Chris and I have been close friends for over 20 years, and I've gotten to know his brother Charles fairly well. Over the years Chris has shared with me some with me some of the challenges he and his family have faced trying to get Charles the care he needs. Chris was happy to provide me with detailed information about his brother's illness and treatment programs. He also discussed the impact his brother's illness has had on their family. During one of our conversations, Chris also pointed me toward several resources, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I scoured the NAMI website, and followed links to over a dozen different sites. I bought some of the books Chris recommended, and I checked out nearly every book I could find on schizophrenia from my local library. After I began writing I gave chapters to Chris, and a couple of other friends who are familiar with mental illness, to read. Based on their comments, I rewrote several of the chapters .

After conducting all that research, and my long experience writing non-fiction, my first few chapters ended up reading like a text book. I rewrote those as well after my husband reminded me that the role of a novelist is to reveal, rather than tell.

I'm taking a similar approach with what I plan to be my next novel. Now that I have one novel under my belt, I felt I had the credibility to call up professional strangers and ask to interview them. Most of the people I've contacted have been extremely gracious in sharing their expertise and experiences, although a few have yet to return my calls or respond to my emails. In those cases, I asked my sources to recommend others who could help me fill in my knowledge gaps. Several people I've interviewed have also offered to read drafts for accuracy and realism. And yes, I've spent hours on the internet, cleared out the shelves of my local library, and bought several books that have proven to be excellent resources.

The only drawback I've found to conducting so much research is that, at least for me, it's hard to stop. I'm not sure if that's because I love learning about new things, am worried about overlooking something, or if it's a way of procrastinating. So far, I've conducted enough research to fill four file folders. I've outlined the novel, created my key characters, established a setting, and even bought a new flash drive to back up my drafts on. Working on this blog post made me realize it's time to stop researching and start writing. While I want to make sure my novel passes the reality check, I have to write it first.

Playing the Genetic Lottery is my ninth book, but my first novel and my first self published book. So for me, it's very special, and I still get a thrill when I see the cover of my novel. I'm pleased to have it offered for sale in all four of the independent bookstores in Santa Cruz  County, where I live. I'm so pleased, in fact, that when friends and family visit from out of town I usually take them to one or more of the bookstores so they can see my novel on the shelves. 
I'm happy to say that so far my visitors have been excited to see my book for sale, or at least done a good job of pretending to. And now I'll have another venue to show them. Last month the Santa Cruz Public Library System purchased four copies of Playing the Genetic Lottery. While the copies have to be entered into the library system and processed before becoming available to borrowers, I'm excited for several reasons. As an avid reader, and a longtime library patron, I'm looking forward to seeing my book on the shelves in some of the library branches that I've spent so much time in. I'm also very happy I was able to sell copies to the library because I was under the impression they didn't purchase self-published books.
I had been told that by another writer who also self-published her novel. She complained to me that her local library refused to buy her book, although they did accept a donated copy. She was miffed, because the librarian told her that libraries only buy books from established publishers. Even though she volunteered regularly at her local library, the libraries acquisition department refused to make an exception for her. After hearing her diatribe about the unfairness of it all, I
was almost convinced she was right. 
Fortunately, however, I've been a journalist for most of my career, and as such, have been trained to be skeptical. As a reporter, I always tried to get “facts” confirmed by more than one source. And as a reporter, I've learned not to be afraid to ask questions, even if you suspect the answer will be “no comment,” “leave me alone,” or something more hostile. So last month, when I was at the library, I asked the manager who I needed to talk to about selling my book to
the library system. She gave me a name and a number. As it turned out, the woman she suggested I contact wasn't the correct person. But she was friendly and offered to find out who was. Ten minutes later, my phone rang, and another
friendly woman from the library administration department was on the line,
asking for information about my novel. To make a long story short, the following morning I hand delivered the books along with an invoice.
 I don't know if my local library system bucks a trend and makes exceptions for local authors or not. I do know, however, that if you don't ask, the answer is always no. And I'm very glad I did ask. As a writer, I want my work to be read. Sure I'd prefer it if each reader purchased their own copy of my book, but as a new and relatively unknown novelist, I'm always looking for ways to get the word out about Playing the Genetic Lottery. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising I've found, and the more people who read it, means there is likely going to be more people talking about it. And as a longtime library patron, I'm proud to have my latest book on the library shelves for others in my community to enjoy.  
Terri's note: This post  for Morgen Bailey's outstanding blog.

Ashley Smith is a young woman living with schizophrenia. The founder of Embracing My Mind, she frequently shares her story with others to educate people about mental illness and provide a living example of how to successfully live with the disease. When I first discovered her work and her webpage,, I thought she would be one of the best people to provide me with feedback about my novel, Playing the Genetic Lottery. She wrote this wonderful review of my book, and posted it on her blog. Here's the link: