When Debbie Burke moved from San Diego to Kalispell in 1988, she decided to take creative writing classes at Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC). She had always loved to write and frequently took writing courses in California but didn’t pursue it professionally. Thirty-five years later, she’s the author of eight thrillers and a founder of the Authors of the Flathead, a local nonprofit organization for local writers. With a nod of her head and a bright smile, she explained the group’s origins, “I took some classes at the college [FVCC] and met some other writers and we were all having such a great time and we decided, ‘hey, we’ve got to keep this going.’ So we started having little ad-hoc critique groups. None of us had been published, none of us had any success but we were all trying.”
As more writers became interested, Burke and her peers decided to open the group and form the Authors of the Flathead. “It’s always had a welcoming attitude,” said Burke. “We have a very supportive attitude towards each other in welcoming new writers. We’re all across the board — we have people who are very experienced and people who have never written three words together. But they’ve always wanted to.”
The intentional culture of being welcoming and supportive allowed the organization to grow and expand its offerings, including weekly meetings, guest speakers, and the annual weekend-long fall conference. The mission of the Authors of the Flathead is simple and direct: writers helping writers. The group meets every Thursday at 7 p.m. at A-1 Vacuum and Sewing Supply in downtown Kalispell. Each week there is a different presentation, and the schedule includes a workshop on the craft of writing led by member and author Kathy Dunnehoff, open readings where members can bring in their work for feedback, guest speakers, and the fourth Thursday of the month is for screenwriting, hosted by Barbara and Glenn Schiffman. Authors of the Flathead also helps writers form critique groups, an invaluable connection for writers of all genres and experience levels. The organization welcomes writers of any genre and there is no requirement of publishing experience to join. Another key component of the organization is the annual fall conference, the Flathead River Writers Conference. Similar to how the Authors of the Flathead formed, the conference, which features guest speakers, acclaimed authors, literary agents, and editors also had small, humble origins. According to Burke, the group wanted to expand and include a weekend opportunity for writers to connect and learn. Thirty-three years ago, they hosted their first conference in the basement of the Northridge Lutheran Church in Kalispell. Burke explained that one of the members invited three writers from Washington who presented, and there were around twenty-five attendees.
“It was so much fun,” she said. “We actually made money, which was really amazing. So we said, ‘let’s do it again next year.’ Then it kept getting bigger and bigger, and we got bigger names. We started developing a really neat reputation because New York editors and agents would come and they’d have such a good time.”
Twenty-six years ago, Dunnehoff, at the time raising her two young daughters in Kalispell, attended the Flathead River Writers Conference for the first time. She was introduced to the conference and the Authors of the Flathead by a writer and teacher who would be instrumental to the organization and all the writers he interacted with. In the 1990s, Dennis Foley came to Whitefish from Hollywood, an acclaimed writer and producer for both network television and major motion pictures. Foley taught fiction at FVCC. Dunnehoff had an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana, a nationally famous program for its writers and professors like William Kittredge and Richard Hugo. A classmate of hers, Christine Carbo, also of Whitefish and the author of an award-winning suspense series set in Glacier National Park, recommended that Dunnehoff take Foley’s course on novel writing. Between that course and attending the conference, where she delighted to be in a room with other writers, editors, and agents, she joined the Authors of the Flathead and has been involved ever since.
Burke is quick to point out that Foley’s involvement, which has recently declined due to health issues, was pivotal. “He took our group and really whipped us into shape, taught us professional standards, and how to go about making real progress towards getting published. He taught us what he was teaching at UCLA like screenwriting and he would give us the same lessons that people were paying huge money for in L.A. He just gave it to us,” she marveled. Under Foley’s tutelage and mentorship, the Authors of the Flathead became more professional, and more writers became published, like Dunnehoff and Burke. Burke’s “Tawny Lindholm Thriller” series are bestsellers on Amazon, and the collection’s first installment, “Instrument of the Devil,” won the Zebulon Award and Kindle Scout contest. Dunnehoff is the Amazon bestselling author of four romantic comedies, including “The Do-Over,” “Plan On It,” “Back To U,” and “Hollywood Beginnings.” “The Do-Over” is printed in German, and also available on audio.
Although the organization has developed and Dunnehoff jokes that there are more published authors on their membership roster than they can currently count, the mission hasn’t changed. Board president Craig Thomas Naylor, of Kalispell, cites the mission and the camaraderie that drew him to the group. A composer and conductor, Naylor refocused on his writing in 2017 and writes poetry and military thrillers. He finds the guild very supportive and appreciates the learning opportunities from craft talks to a guide to publication. It was the connections between members that impressed him and encouraged him to join. At his first Flathead River Writers Conference, he ended up sitting next to Sue Purvis, the Whitefish author of the 2018 bestselling adventure memoir, “Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost and Myself,” and afterward, decided to join. He said, “I started coming to the meetings, learned a lot and I got into a critique group. It really transformed my writing.” As the volunteer board president, he’s also in charge of organizing the fall conference. Last year was the first in-person conference since Covid and he’s looking forward to hosting this year’s at the end of September. Supporting student writers is also an important aspect of Authors of the Flathead and they host an annual student writing contest for grades nine through 12 in poetry and short fiction. Naylor and members from the organization judge the submissions, and the winners receive a cash prize and free tuition to the conference.
Naylor also cited the range of writing and writers produced by the members, and he breaks into a smile when he lists the writers that have landed on bestseller lists or announced a new book deal. “Sue Purvis is a bestselling author, Christine Carbo is working on her fifth book in her award-winning series. On and on down the line. It’s a group of highly successful authors.”
For Emily Lucas, a licensed professional counselor in Kalispell, she used to view her lifelong love of writing as a hobby until she enrolled in one of Dunnehoff’s continuing education classes on writing and creativity. Last year, she joined the Authors of the Flathead and was impressed by the professionalism the organization offered emerging writers like herself. “They really want you to be a writer. Not just have a hobby — they’re going to introduce you to people that have published, whether that’s Kindle Vella or traditional publishing.” Lucas, a mother of two young children, arranges childcare on Thursday evenings so she can attend. Lucas continues to take classes from Dunnehoff, whom she considers “the coolest woman in the world.” Authors of the Flathead boast a handful of members who also teach writing, screenwriting, storytelling, poetry, and more at FVCC like Dunnehoff and the Schiffmans.
Although Lucas is new to the group, she was attracted to the supportive culture. “They are so excited about their writers. Craig, in particular,” she added, “seems to really pump people up. He’s really excited when members are successful.”
It’s not a requirement to have a bestseller to join but rather an interest in writing, learning about the craft and the business aspect of authorship, and a willingness to support others that is part of the foundation of Authors of the Flathead. That willingness is another hallmark that Naylor appreciates. “There’s just a wide range of resources. The elders have seriously taken on the role of being elders.”
“Writers just need writers,” says Dunnehoff. “When we gather, whether that’s for information you’ve never heard before or because your friends are there, it reminds you that you’re a writer.”
Another writer who found herself and launched her writing career thanks to Authors of the Flathead is Jess Owen. Owen said she always wrote and always wanted to be a writer, so she started attending meetings when she was still in high school. In 2012 she published her first fantasy novel in five-book “The Summer King Chronicles,” to great success. “Songs of the Summer King” about Shard, the gryfon, had a huge following and landed the young author several awards including an honorable mention in the 2013 Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards and winner of the Global E-book award for Fantasy. Both “The Summer King Chronicles” and the new series, “The Dragon Star Saga” are self-published books, but Owen also recently landed a two-book deal with Page Street Kids for her contemporary YA fiction. In 2022, “A Furry Faux Paw” debuted, and in May of this year, the release of “Don’t Ask If I’m Okay,” a coming-of-age story exploring grief and love. Owen published both new novels under the name Jessica Kara.
Upon reflecting on her 20 years of membership with Authors of the Flathead, including serving as a board member and conference presenter, Owen acknowledged that the group offers a diverse knowledge base to draw upon, a resource that’s guided her writing career. “We are open to help writers in whatever they want, whatever their goals are. If you want to be the next Ivan Doig we can probably set you on the path. If you want to write commercial fiction like Debbie Burke, who certainly has the experience, we can help. We can help with self-publishing, too. We’re not pretentious.”
The lack of pretension was as important to the original group as it is today. From a handful of writers in Burke’s nascent workshop three decades ago, there are now more than sixty-five members. Conference attendance, purposely designed to remain small in numbers to allow for opportunities to connect and foster relationships, fluctuates between eight and 100. Lucas, who’s working on a novel, said she plans to attend the conference this fall. The attention focused on developing a community of writers lies at the heart of the organization. Burke also suggests another reason for their ongoing success: “We aren’t elitist. We’re not embarrassed about writing commercial fiction. We’re writers.”
The writers who attend Authors of the Flathead meetings range in age, writing experience, genre style, and publication goals. From screenwriting to poetry to self-publishing to the traditional path of publication, the community Authors of the Flathead — thirty years and counting — continues to do whatever it takes to enact its mission of helping writers. For Dunnehoff, Authors of the Flathead goes beyond the weekly meetings about craft or learning how to query an agent. “I always give the example: you think your dog really, really loves you until they see another dog. Then they shoot off,” she said. “And that’s how it is with writers. You have friends and family that you love — who are not writers — but you shoot off at the Writer’s Park. Because you need to be with your tribe.”
Authors of the Flathead
Annual membership: For $50, members gain access to weekly meetings, including lectures, workshops, and open readings. Members also get early access to conference registration.
Meeting information: Every Thursday at 7 p.m.
Location: A-1 Vacuum and Sewing Supply, 140 West Center St., Kalispell. Some meetings are held online via Zoom.
Schedule: Posted online, mandatory attendance is not a requirement. Interested individuals are encouraged to attend a few meetings before becoming a member.
2023 Flathead River Writers Conference
Dates: Friday, Sept. 29 – Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023
Location: Red Lion Hotel, Kalispell
Keynote Speaker: Mark Sullivan, acclaimed author of eighteen novels and the historical bestseller “Beneath a Scarlet Sky”
Featured Guest Speakers: Chris La Tray, a Métis storyteller whose first book, “One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large,” won the 2018 Montana Book Award and a 2019 High Plains Book Award; Literary Agent Julie Stevenson from Massie & McQuilkin; Associate Editor Zach Honey from Fine Print Literary; novelist, editor, and teacher Mark Leichliter; author/coach Glenn Schiffman; script consultant and coach Barbara Schiffman; and author and holistic chiropractor Erika Putnam.
Cost: $170 for the full conference, $60 for full-time students. Day passes available.
Membership is not required to attend the conference.