Williamsport resident Melissa Foster is a successful author with three books on Amazon's top-100 electronic books listing. She's happy about that, and about the two books she is currently writing.
But Foster, 45, knows writing can be hard work, especially for children. So when she leads her writing program, Aspiring Authors, at area elementary schools, her first question to the kids is "How many kids here hate to write?"
"My focus at first is to engage the kids in telling me why they don't like to write," she said. "Then I let them figure out how to make it more fun."
Foster says she talks about how authors make stories interesting — developing characters, plotting story lines, picking a genre and so on.
And then she pops a surprise. She challenges the students to take what they just learned, write a story and enter a contest.
"In 45 minutes, I give them a mini-seminar on writing," Foster said. "Then I surprise them with the Aspiring Authors contest."
To enter, students must write an original story 6 to 12 pages in length and draw illustrations for it. Foster judges the entries and selects a fourth-grade winner and a fifth-grade winner for the school. She gives each winner a handmade writing journal and a $25 gift card.
The contest appeals to kids who appreciate a challenge.
"This is for the kids who want to go to the next level. It's a confidence builder," she said.
Nurturing kids is second-nature for Foster. She is the mother of a blended family of six — five sons and a daughter. The family moved to Williamsport in August when Foster's husband, Les, retired from the U.S. Army and took a position at Parkway Neuroscience and Spine in Hagerstown.
Family has been an important inspiration for Foster's own writing career. The concept for her second book came from an experience she had with her mother. About 15 years ago, her mother underwent a procedure to remove fibroids.
Nothing unusual in that — except that Mom didn't tell Foster the whole story.
It wasn't simply fibroids, it was a potentially cancerous tumor. And doctors were so concerned about the tumor that during the procedure, there was an oncologist standing by, ready to act quickly if malignant tissue were found.
When Foster found out the whole truth a year later, she freaked.
"As her daughter, I reverted to a teenager: 'Oh, my God, how could you leave me?'" Foster said.
The episode shaped part of the story of "Megan's Way," Foster's best-selling book, released in 2009. In the book, Megan, a 30-something professional mural painter faces the return of the cancer she thought she had beat. This time, the cancer has metastasized into her bones, and doctors tell her it will kill her. Heartbroken, the woman doesn't want to put her friends and 14-year-old daughter through the wrenching emotions they went through during her first bout with the disease.
So Megan decides to lie.
Megan's choice to hide her cancer as long as possible — even from her daughter and close friends — is the basis for the book's title.
"That was a hard decision for me — to have Megan decide to lie," Foster said. "It's hard to accept your (disease). She didn't want to be the cause of months of everybody being sad. She wanted to keep them happy."
Megan's urge to take care of others parallels Foster's. In 1998, she and Les Foster married and blended their four children — two of his, two of hers — into one family. They had two more children, and the eight of them lived for 15 years in a farmhouse in Boyds, Md., in northern Montgomery County. With lots of kids inside and lots of open space outside, Foster and her husband nurtured a close-knit family culture.
"When we watched a movie, we were like a litter of puppies — everyone sacked out around the room," she said.
Foster was a stay-at-home mom, to provide the stability of a parent at home. And she started writing on evenings and weekends. She finished her first book, now called "Chasing Amanda," a child-abduction mystery featuring a clairvoyant protagonist set in and around Boyds. "Megan's Way" was her second book, but was published first.
Both books have sold well, particularly as electronic books, and earned reader awards. "Chasing Amanda" has done particularly well.
"I sold 30,000 (electronic) books in September," she said.
Her third book, "Come Back to Me," was released earlier in November.
Foster wants to encourage other people to write. The Aspiring Authors program is one way to encourage kids to develop their writing skills. But she's also pushing back against the increasing amount of time kids spend in front of an electronic screen.
"I want to give them something to do other than play video games," she said. "We've become such a plugged-in world. I feel it's important not to lose our creativity."
In January, Foster will bring the program to Williamsport Elementary School.
About the author
Author: Melissa Foster of Williamsport
Title: "Megan's Way"
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Price: $14.95; $.99 ebook
Website: www.womensliterarycafe.com; it is also available online at Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com.
Available locally at: Turn the Page Bookstore in Boonsboro; It may be borrowed from Washington County Free Library in Williamsport.
More: Aspiring Authors is one way Melissa Foster tries to give back to her community. She also hosts two websites:
WoMen's Literary Cafe (www.womensliterarycafe.com), connecting readers, authors and aspiring authors.
The Women's Nest (thewomensnest.com), providing a support community for women, with free medical advice, lifestyle advice and financial advice.