Be the Mouse

A recent exchange with the hubster went something like this.

Him: What’d you do today?

Me: Same as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.

Him: You’re a persistent little bugger, aren’tcha?

Me: *shrugs* I’m a writer.

But it’s not as simple as that, is it? Persistence can be grueling at times.

If someone told me ten years ago that in 2021 I would stumble across a true story that’s so meaningful and important it might forever change my writing trajectory, my first reaction would’ve been: Ten years is a lifetime away.

But the truth is if I found this case ten years ago, I wouldn’t know how to do it justice. Today I do. 🙂 This narrative nonfiction/true crime project has so many parallels to my own life, my passion is at an all-time high. Which brings me to persistence. Persistence while researching. Persistence while re-investigating the crime. Persistence while interviewing witnesses. Persistence while submitting the proposal.

The Big Dream

When I wrote my first novel—longhand, by candlelight—the Big Dream was all I could think about. I remember searching for other writers’ interpretation of success and how long it took them to “make it” in this business. Most said a new writer won’t make any money until they’ve written five novels. If they’re lucky, they’ll sell a few hundred copies of their debut. That’s the last thing an aspiring writer wants to hear.

The aspiring writer thinks: If you build it, they will come.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad mindset if it drives the writer to the keyboard. I’m a dreamer. Always have been, always will be. As long as we offset the dream with a dose of reality, I say dream big, dream often, dream without limits.

Now, with a backlist of 17 titles and 5+ trunk novels, I look back on that early advice and it means something completely different.

Writing five novels isn’t only about building an audience. It means the writer has honed their craft. They’ve let their passion lead them on a journey of self-discovery (Think: Who are you as a writer?). It means the writer never gave up. Or quit. S/he continued for love, not money. S/he kept her head down, fingers on the keyboard, butt in chair, and created, edited, rewrote passages, scenes, or whole chapters, and finished five manuscripts.

What else happened?

S/he learned the business side of writing—found an agent, publisher, or learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Lastly, it means s/he learned how to market a product, build a brand and an audience. S/he persisted, even though the odds seemed insurmountable. S/he leaped out of the nest and learned to fly.

Sometimes this biz can be disheartening, other times it’s super exciting. The ups and downs are all part of this amazing journey. The minute we stop trying to achieve future goals, we’ve already lost. Aside from creatives—writers, singers, artists, actors, musicians, etc.—I can think of no other field that requires as much persistence.

What is persistence?

The dictionary defines persistence as:

  • continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • continuing to exist or endure over a prolonged period

The definition clarifies how difficult it is to persist.

What happens in the brain during the act of persistence?

Serotonin is a neurochemical in the brain important for feelings of happiness. It’s also known for:

  • promoting good sleep by helping to regulate circadian rhythms (a 24-hour inner clock running in the background to carry out essential functions like the sleep-wake cycle)
  • helping to regulate appetite
  • promoting memory and learning
  • helping to promote positive feelings and behavior

If you have low serotonin, you might:

  • feel anxious, low, or depressed
  • feel irritable or aggressive
  • have sleep issues or endless fatigue
  • become impulsive
  • have a decreased appetite
  • experience nausea and digestive issues
  • crave sweets

Scientists have studied serotonin levels and persistent behavior in mice.

During foraging, all wildlife explores an area for food and/or water. But at some point, they must move on to a different area. Thriving animals exhibit patience and persistence before exhausting their search at each location.

In the study, researchers required water-restricted mice to “nose poke” while foraging to obtain water as a reward. The probability of obtaining water in each area lessened with each nose poke. The higher the number of nose pokes equaled more persistence in that individual mouse. Scientists also used video tracking to measure how long it took for the mice to switch to a different foraging area.

Mice exhibited optimal foraging behavior. Meaning, they optimized the trade-off between time spent searching an area for water and leaving to find a water source in a different area.

The mice who received serotonin neuron stimulation performed a greater number of nose pokes compared to mice who didn’t receive stimulation. They also took longer to leave an area, suggesting they were more persistent.

This is the first study to show a correlation between serotonin neuron firing and active persistence. Previously, scientists hypothesized that serotonin was involved in patience. We now know a rush of serotonin is involved in persistence, as well.

If our persistence starts to wane, we need to increase our serotonin level.

Here’s how:

  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise
  • Bright light
  • Massage

The list is almost meaningless without more explanation. So, let’s dive into each tip.

Healthy Snacks

We can’t get serotonin from food, but we can get tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted to serotonin in the brain. High-protein foods contain tryptophan. For example, turkey and salmon. But it’s not as simple as eating tryptophan-rich foods, thanks to the blood-brain barrier—a protective sheath around the brain that controls what enters and exits. Isn’t the human body amazing?

Like with most life hacks, there’s a shortcut around the blood-brain barrier.

Research suggests eating carbs along with tryptophan-rich foods pushes more tryptophan into the brain, thereby raising the serotonin level.

Some tryptophan-rich snacks include:

  • oatmeal with a handful of nuts
  • plums or pineapple with crackers
  • pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk


Exercising creates an ideal environment for serotonin by triggering the release of tryptophan in the blood and decreasing the amount of other amino acids. Thus, more tryptophan reaches the brain.

Aerobic exercise of any kind releases the most tryptophan. Don’t fret if you’re unable to do aerobics. The main goal is to raise the heart rate. This can be accomplished by:

  • a brisk walk
  • a light hike
  • swimming
  • bicycling
  • jogging
  • blaring the music and dance

Bright Light

This surprised me, but it makes sense when you consider seasonal affective disorder. Serotonin levels dip in the winter and rise in the summer. What should we do? Spend 10-15 minutes in the sunshine. Or, if you live in rainy climate or can’t get outside, use a light therapy box. Both will increase serotonin levels.


Massage therapy increases serotonin and dopamine levels. It also reduces cortisol, a hormone produced when stressed. If paying for a professional massage therapist isn’t within your budget, ask a friend/spouse/partner to swap 20-minute massages.

Be the Mouse

Writers cannot achieve goals without some form of persistence. Be persistent, dear writer. Be the mouse.

39 thoughts on “Be the Mouse

  1. Good morning, Sue. You once again give us all gold. Thank you.

    Immediately before I read your post this morning I found an article about the 25/5 rule, which is attributed to Warren Buffett (he denies creating it, interestingly enough). That plus your excellent advice feels like a nudge from the ether. Seratonin here we come.

    I can’t wait to read your completed true crime project, Sue. Thanks for sharing. Have a great today, tomorrow, and week!

  2. Thanks for a wonderful post, Sue. Persistence is the key to success. And all your suggestions are gold (as Joe said). I especially like the healthy snacks, the light exposure, and the exercise. Too many of us put in our time with butt in chair, but don’t get enough exercise.

    One other simple tip to keep the brain healthy (our biological personal computer) is to supplement B6, Folic acid, B12, and omega 3 fatty acid. A couple studies a few years ago showed that increased intake of those nutrients were associated with stabilization of brain size (from MRI studies) and cognitive function (from cognitive testing). In other words, those simple nutrients slowed brain aging. And they’re all cheap and available over the counter.

    Thanks for a wonderful post. Have a great day!

    • Thanks, Steve! I read about that study. Thank you for including supplements here. As a non-medical professional, I didn’t feel qualified to include supplements in the post and hoped you’d chime in. About a year ago, I started making smoothies for us. It’s a delicious way to sneak in multiple vitamins, super foods and vegetables, supplements, and probiotics. 😀

      Wishing you a great day, too!

  3. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

    That quote’s been with me from the beginning of my writing journey.

    And just to add to one of your suggestions, sunlight is also essential for a solid dose of Vit. D, one of the biggest factors in immune system health. 10 – 5 minutes between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. is ideal. I do wear a floppy hat, though. My face had enough sun growing up on SoCal beaches and athletic fields.

    • Love the quote, Jim! Yes, sunlight has many benefits. You’re lucky to have the sun year-round. Winters here can be dark and gloomy, but oddly enough, I’m still as productive sitting by the wood stove. 😉

  4. Good advice, Sue. I hadn’t considered massage therapy.

    I must ask: why did you write your first novel by candlelight?

    Good luck with your exciting new true crime project.

    • Haha. Great question! I’ve always been an early riser. And I prefer candles to a bright overhead light. So, I’d wake at 4 a.m. and write longhand by candlelight before the hubster woke up. The whole process seemed magical at the time…until it came to transcribing the notebook into a computer. Never again. 😉

      Thanks, TL! I’m excited about it.

  5. When it comes to getting sunshine, here in the southwest we’re the opposite of most of the nation. While the majority of folks are out and about the most during summer, in the desert we tend to head into the sunshine less over summer.

    The other thing I’ve noticed is that when I lived back east, cloudy days didn’t phase me one way or the other because there were so many of them it was normal. But now that I’ve lived in the southwest for almost 25 years, and we have about 360 days a year of sunshine, when it’s cloudy, it does affect the mood. Guess that’s a good time to write really depressing stories. 😎

    • Haha! Cloudy or snowy days don’t affect my productivity, either, Brenda. New Englanders are used to it. When you described desert life I immediately thought of those lizards (chameleons?) who go out early in the morning to hunt, then hide during peak sun. I wouldn’t want to be out in that heat, either. 360 days of sunshine sounds amazing! Lucky you.

    • I did the opposite – moved from south Texas where it was always sunny, to St. Louis where I have to fight for every sunny day. S.A.D is a real thing and I have the light boxes to show for it. Too many cloudy days and my brain becomes a useless piece of mush.

      • I believe it, Jeanne. One of my neighbors suffers from S.A.D. He and his wife are at each other’s throats all winter and by the end of March, they’re ready to divorce. Once spring arrives, they’re in love again. I don’t know how she handles it, to be honest. They’ve done this dance for almost 30 years.

  6. My personal writing anthem is Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s song, “The Waiting,” which is about persisting. Your post is a fantastic look at persistence. I actually did write five novels, all trunked, before writing a sixth that was publishable. And that was after lots of writing craft study, workshopping, working with a dev editor etc.

    Persistence, it truly is key to writing and publishing. I remind myself and other published writers that a great many people want to write a book, very few finish even one. You have to hang in there, do the work, and continue the journey.

    The tips to boost your serotonin levels are terrific. I’m a big fan of cardio workouts–we do Zumba 3x a week at home via an online video class, as well as take walks in the morning. We often have oatmeal for breakfast.

    However, with a high forecast of 116F for Portland today, we might be skipping the Zumba this morning, and eating something cooler than warm oatmeal 🙂

    Thanks for this post–definitely being saved for future reference.

    • Dale, I wrote those five trunk novels, too. Isn’t it odd how those writers narrowed in on five? ‘Course, some writers rewrite that first novel a gazillion times rather than moving on to novel #2. Same end result — to hone their craft.

      Thank you! Zoomba looks like tons of fun. I must try it. Can you point me in the right direction to the class you take?

      Ugh. I hear ya. We’re in the middle of a heatwave, too, so sitting outside in the sun is off the table for now. 🙂

      • It is interesting that five novels seems to be a magic number–I think of it as the novelist’s version of Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.

        We take our online class from ” Zumba George.” He’s awesome. George taught in person Zumba classes at our gym, which is how my wife met him. His wife Marilynn, also a licensed Zumba instructor, will sometimes join him on his stage, otherwise she’s dancing behind the webcam. He uses Boxnet to cast, and you can sign up to be notified about classes each week. Here’s the the link to the Google Docs info for this week’s classes:

        He’s also on Facebook:

        He’s from Hawaii originally, and has that wonderful Aloha spirit.

  7. Good morning, Sue, and thank you for this wonderful post. I read it as I was eating my oatmeal this morning! Tomorrow I’ll add some walnuts to the mixture.

    Persistence is a miracle drug. (I owe that sentence to John MacDonald. I was just reading one of his novels last night where he said “Vanity is a miracle drug.” Couldn’t help substituting persistence for vanity when I was reading your article.) Persistence — determination — endurance — whatever you call it, it’s a requirement for success in all areas of life, don’t you think?

    Persistence is a theme in both of my novels. The MC is a runner who has endured several trials in life. Her running mantra is “Never give up.” Coincidentally, it’s also the message that’s engraved at the bottom of the ID bracelet I wear when I’m out running.

      • Sue! You and I are on the same page. Several years ago, I made a video that had this song as the background. The video accompanied a talk I gave about teamwork, using the incredible story of the Wright brothers and the way they worked together. I can’t post the video online because of copyright issues. Maybe I can post it on a password protected page on my website. I think you would like it.

  8. Sue, Thank you! This is vitally important info — and snack ideas 🙂 —for writers. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, one of the smartest people I know (he’s a Rhodes scholar and a military historian), told me a long time ago that the secret of accomplishment (notice I didn’t use the s-word, success) is persistence. Basically, he said to keep on doing what you do the way you do it. That is how you will find yourself in the best sense.

    Of all the “wisdom” I’ve heard over the years, these are the words that ring most true.

    • Thanks, Ruth! Fantastic advice. Success means something different to everyone, so I love the substitute word you use. Accomplishment seems easier to achieve. 🙂

  9. Love this post, Sue. Every sentence rings true.

    Interesting about the link between serotonin and tryptophan.

    My first novel that was published was actually #10 or #11. Somewhere I read one must write at least a million words to achieve proficiency. That’s ten books of 100K words each.

    If my nose keeps poking the keyboard, will chocolate eventually pop out?

  10. Be the mouse. Who knew?

    Hey, Sue, you’ve re-charged me today. I’m tired of the extreme heat here in the PNW (108 today here in God’s country), worn out with a family situation, distracted by world events and all the media’s dire predictions about the future of humanity. Good grief, enough already!

    Then, you come along and tell me “be the mouse”. I’m back to nosing for water and the next morsel I can parlay into a story. Thanks for this post…definitely what I needed today. 🙂

    Definitely off topic: ran across a gem of a book, written in the ’40s by Antoine De Saint-Exupery, called The Little Prince. Can’t remember where I heard of it…maybe here. Beautifully written, only 40 pages, and definitely for those of us who want the child within to have more space than the dull, pain-staking, joy-robbing grownup we’ve become. Started it yesterday and was completely captivated. Don’t know how I missed it as a kiddo. 🙂

    • Yay! I’m so glad you found the post helpful, Deb.

      Ooh, The Little Prince sounds terrific. Thanks for the recommendation! Somehow, I missed that one, too.

  11. Pinky the Mouse: “Gee, Brain. What are we going to do tonight?”
    Brain the Mouse: “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.” –“Pinky and the Brain,” THE ANIMANIACS cartoon.

    Sorry, the mouse talk brought out my inner Brain, the meglomaniac mouse who sounds like Orson Wells. I never took over the writing world, but I enjoyed the journey even after I found out I was the idiot Pinky. Narf!

  12. Great post! And it gave me a great idea for a post due last week. lol I put a link to this one in the post. When if first started writing I came across this: “Success is that place in the road where preparation and opportunity meet. But too few people recognize it because all too often it comes disguised as hard work.” ~Anonymous

  13. You ‘n me are always on the same wave length, Sue. We’re also about exactly the same place in our never-ending writing journey and probably about the same level of tenacity (persistence on steroids). Dare to dream big? How about you ‘n me hitting 10K followers on PostMortemPod and you finally telling me about this secret WIP you’re onto.

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