In Other Matters

The first time I was aware of being an Other—an outsider, a freak—was in my early teens. A friend and I were riding our horses in rural Pennsylvania and we passed either an Amish or an Old Order Mennonite school house. The children were outside, and as a group, they lined up to laugh and point at my friend and me. We were apparently a hilarious sight—to them.

Or at least I think that’s why they were laughing at us. I do not speak Pennsilfaanisch Dietsch, so I couldn’t ask them. I have never forgotten my sense of bewilderment, though, to be riding along on a pretty day—something I’d done many times—and abruptly become an object of group derision. I was uneasy, possibly even frightened—of laughing children.

I’ve had the same sense to a lesser degree elsewhere in life. I defy you to tell a lawyer joke that doesn’t include an undercurrent of meanness toward lawyers, for example. I get classified as an other because I’m a lawyer, because I’m female, because I’m old (oldish, compared to my late parents), because I love words. In fifth grade, the othering—we call it bullying too sometimes—became so vicious, my mother put me in a different school.

Sometimes the message is subtle—there are no clothes that fit me in the entire lady’s fashion store, despite the fact that I’m within two sizes of average in many styles. If you’ve seen internet trolls at work, you’ve seen a desperate, ugly, public attempt to label somebody as an Other, and inevitably (our brains work this way) as lesser.

I didn’t realize how pervasively this dynamic had soaked into my life until I was at a Romance Writer’s of America conference a few years ago. In that milieu, to be my age, my gender, my size, doing what I do, dressing the way I dress, expressing myself the way I do, with the degree and type of smarts I have  (and even my kind of not-so-smarts), is NORMAL.

Right down the list, I fit in with that crowd, even in the ways I don’t fit in. To be in my mid-fifties before I had an experience of being professionally normal is a miserable reflection on the narrow bandwidth society approves of in most regards, but I’m still glad I got a taste of professional life without deflector shields.

I’m going to watch Black Panther, where I might be a slightly Other member of the audience. I travel to froeign countries, where again, I’m an Other. I have slogged through decades in the courtroom, in the last county in Maryland to appoint a female judge to the bench. I figure the more I look for opportunities to be a benign, curious stranger, the less and less I’ll be an Other, and the more we’ll all just be people.

Where have you been an Other, where have you seen somebody treated as an Other? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Kelly Bowen’s latest release, A Duke In the Night.

Goal Posting

I often think I’m closing in on the end of a book, think I can see that “through line,” wrapping up, the MGM orchestra finishing on a lovely triple-forte kiss… but oops, I need a scene showing what happens to the bad guy. So I write that scene.
And I also need a scene to wrap up the subplot.
I write that scene.
And I also need a scene for the secondary hero to leave town so the next book is set up.
And I write that scene…. The goal posts keep moving. Winter can pull the same maneuver. We get a few temperate days, I open the house up, start the day with tea on the front porch… then more snow in the forecast. Happens three weeks in a row, then five weeks in a row.
My day job has done the same thing. Three years ago, I thought I was done with courtroom representation. I’d hired good people and enough of them that I could stick to the administrative work, troubleshooting, and emergency back-up appearances.

The good people went elsewhere, and twice, I’ve had to suit up and get back on the horse. This is Not Fun. I’m finding that every time I have to raise my deflector shields after adjusting to life outside the courthouse, it’s harder. I’m that much more tired, that much more impatient to be free of the whole business.
And that sense of having to get back on a horse when I’m saddle sore, has been dogging me lately. A combination of the winter blahs, the lawyer-blahs, the homeowner blahs, the body-owner blahs. I know Canada has provincial holidays this time of year, because the late-winter blahs are that much a thing.

I’ve bought myself a Daylight, because I know it helps my mood and energy. Its primary function is to regulate my circadian rhythm, so the dreary days don’t tempt me to push bedtime ever later.
I’m also declaring Monday a Goof Off Day. I’m not going into the office, probably won’t write new material, might get some housework done (this is such a novel activity, it can qualify as a diversion).
I’m keeping flowers in the house, bright reds and yellows. I’m re-reading my keeper authors. I’m trying to be conscientious about getting on the tread desk, though that is ever a struggle.
Mostly, I’m relying on the calendar. Today we got a couple inches of snow. Tuesday, it’s supposed to be in the seventies. Spring is coming. I just need to hang on. I’ll get the book written (again), I’ll find my balance in the courtroom (again), and spring will arrive.
How do you cope when the winter-blahs or the job-blahs, or the I-thought-we-were-done-with-this blahs hit?
To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of  A Rogue of Her Own.

If You Can Do It For Joy…

First, thanks to everybody who commented last week. You overwhelm me with your interest and with your insights. I’ll continue working through the comments between ice storms and power blinks.

I’m also continuing to work through my “Write Better, Faster,” workshop, and this week’s exercise is to keep track of how we’re spending our time. Not only are we writing down what we’re doing, we’re writing down whether it’s essential, a high priority, a desirable activity, or a non-essential task. Finally, we’re keeping track of how we feel about the various to-do’s we’re doing.

This is tedious, and finding the time and motivation to make one more list has been a struggle. Interestingly, the presenter puts great emphasis on the need for adequate sleep. We haven’t yet discussed adequate rest, rejuvenation, or joy. We will doubtless get to that–the presenter is very knowledgeable and thorough–but I think I might need theremedial sessions on that topic.
As I read down my time log, I’m struck by two things. First, so much of what goes into a day is non-negotiable. We must procure groceries, we must tend to hygiene, we must deal with the bank, we must get the scripts filled, we must eat, we must show up for that day job.

Second, so little of what I do in my day occasions joy. I’m grateful for my many freedoms and privileges, I’m grateful to have a meaningful day job (well, most days I’m grateful…), I’m grateful to have food to eat (really grateful), but the reality is, I can’t eat what I want to eat (not without life-threatening consequence). I can’t miss court (not without profession-threatening consequences). I can’t blow off taking out the trash or putting gas in the car.

Most of my days aren’t awful. They hover between boring and OK, with some tedium or some pleasantry thrown in. I am very, very lucky and I know it. But I also see that list of chores–most of what I do is a chore of some sort–and I see the emotional monotony it invokes, about a much bigger chunk of my time than I would have suspected.

Which leaves me with why I write: I love to write. I’m happy when I write. I’m not content to do it, or OK with it, or comfortable with it. I love to write. Doesn’t matter if it’s a blog post, an email, or a scene for a novel (wrote a hot scene today–wheee!), I was born to write. If I can get some writing hours in most days, then all the other duty-do’s are bearable.

Writing is the one item on my list that has words like “Yum!” and “Lovely!” beside it, every time that activity is on my time log. So as I move into 2018, I want to make sure I get that writing time in, no matter what.

What were you born to do? What’s the activity on your schedule that would almost always have a smiley face beside it? Can you do more of that?

To three commenters, I’ll send signed copies of A Rogue of Her Own

 

Strong and Graceful

I believe in love. I also believe in education, so I’m enrolled in a class titled, “Write Better, Faster.” Speed doesn’t interest me–Margaret Mitchell wrote one book, shifted significant discussions, and retired wealthy–but the part about writing better…that caught my eye.

One of the course instructor’s first points is that when we focus on our strengths in addition to our weaknesses (not instead of), we often see astonishing benefits. She cited a study done by the Gallup Institute (of Gallup polls fame), involving reading speed. A group of school children were all given the same instruction on how to improve reading speed. The slow readers doubled their reading speed (from an average of 70 wpm to 140 wpm) which is a fine result. The fast readers increased their reading speeds up to ten times, some of them reaching speeds of 2900 wpm.

To get a sense of how fast that is, those fast readers could zip through a 90,000 word manuscript in about 32 minutes, but because they were already fast readers, the likelihood of them ever being put in the path of speed reading instruction was slim to none.

We don’t teach to our strengths.

One of the realizations I’ve come to early in this course is that I had to stop and think–hard, at length–to even identify my strengths, while my weaknesses are… I have a list right here. I’ve been carrying that list around since childhood, adding to it a lot more frequently than I cross anything off. While we see our weaknesses as susceptible to improvement, we tend to badly underestimate the effort necessary to address them.

This half-empty mindset can make for a lot of frustration. The data is, when we spend our days focused mostly on what we do well, what we love to do, what comes naturally to us, we’re happier, healthier, more productive, more creative, more energetic, more resilient, and better learners. That seems like common sense, but life–in the form of bills that must be paid, children who must be raised, and employment situations beyond our control–has a way of obscuring common sense.

I also think this is a gendered issue. Women are culturally expected to put their own needs behind those of family and co-workers, and thus doing the blah jobs, ignoring our own boredom, and forgetting what a great day feels like, goes with the gender terrain for many of us.

I hope to widen the portion of my life that comes from my strengths. I want to be a happy camper, same as everybody else, but I’ve also learned that when we have that great privilege of playing and working to our strengths, we’re much more likely to make progress tackling the weaknesses.

What’s something you absolutely love to do and do well? Is there a way to do more of it?

To three commenters, I’ll send signed author copies of A Rogue of Her Own.

 

Dear Little Me

I’ve seen those memes about what would you tell your younger self if you could talk to her now, and the answer for me is never simple. My younger self went nineteen to the dozen, either working and going to school full time, or working and single-parenting, or working two jobs. Hard to get anything of substance across to somebody traveling at warp speed, but bills do not pay themselves.

I do though, occasionally talk to my daughter, a millennial still thrashing through an undergraduate curriculum as she nears age thirty (oh, so old!). She’s also working and going to school, also riding horses, also doing battle with nagging mental and physical health issues. She gets daunted.

Who doesn’t? When we talk, I try to reassure her that these busy, overwhelming, difficult years will come in handy. She won’t know when, she won’t necessarily see it coming, but the hours she spent volunteering at an animal shelter in Denver, the voice lessons she took, the marathons she’s run (two, and many halfs), are all building equity toward happiness and effectiveness later in life.

I earned a degree in music history. My father despaired of my making my living playing piano, though I did just that all through college. After college, I closed the lid of the piano, and thought I was done with music. Thirty years later, I was writing The Virtuoso, and using my music history degree like a boss.

I rode horses as a kid, then put away my childish things. When I was staring at serious burnout in my mid-thirties, the horses brought me back to life.

To get my music history degree, I had to take twelve credits of German, but hadn’t had to use German for more than 35 years. There I was in Scotland a couple years ago, at Culloden Battlefield, grabbing lunch in the snackshop. An older woman gestured to the table I was standing near. “Ist es frei?” she asked. “Ja, es ist frei,” I replied. “Sitzen sie sich, bitte.” (Is this [table] free? Yes, it’s free, please do sit yourself down.)

That little exchange made me so happy!

Life comes together, I would tell my younger self. Treasures you forgot you stuffed in your pockets will come in handy down the road, and that will be big fun. Dots connect in wonderful and unexpected ways, skills realign to create new opportunities. I tell my daughter: It’s all yours to keep. No course, no race, no casual convo in the King Souper is wasted. You’re piling up riches that will pay interest you can’t foresee.

Romance novels nod in the direction of this sentiment when the closing scenes hark back to the opening lines, or use a setting that’s shared with the first kiss or the big black moment. It all comes together, and in a happy way.

What treasure did you pick up along the way that came in handy long after you thought the warranty had expired? Or is there something in your pocket you haven’t quite found a use for, but are glad you picked up?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed Windham Brides bundle: The Trouble With Dukes, Too Scot to Handle, No Other Duke Will Do.

 

On Your Mark, Get Setting, Go!

A few of my fridge magnets.

Writing a scene is a busy job. The characters in that scene are all supposed to Have Goals. The goals can be simple–let me eat my ice cream in peace!–or complicated: Find the bomb, diffuse it, get out safely and collect the king’s youngest daughter before the enemy’s guards swarm the throne room, and DO NOT SNEEZE even though the palace is overrun with cats to which our heroine is allergic.

The scene should contain tension, which is a job in itself. The point-of-view character’s goal is usually thwarted (sorry, your dude-ship). The character’s emotions are usually conflicted (it was a stupid goal anyway, and the princess is a pain in the behonkis on a good day, and ice cream is never as scrumptious as it’s supposed to be), and the other characters in the scene are generally throwing sand in the gears (because they DO want the bomb to go off).

Tea towel of Scottish wildflowers.

Wheee! With all that emotion and activity, the result can be “talking heads in a white room.” I’m guilty of this, at least in first drafts. I’ll be so focused on getting to the snappy repartee and ‘splainin’ the feels while the characters do the stuff, that I forget that this drama, or even this quiet moment of despair, takes place in a setting.

To neglect setting is to neglect an entire layer of the story, for in that setting will be a treasure trove of symbols, small and large, that add subtle depth and complexity to the tale: Westhaven’s relentlessly clicking abacus, the dilapidated estate Valentine is trying to salvage with its terrace “listing hard to port” like Valentine’s life, Nick’s mare Buttercup–the wrong mount for an earl’s heir, or is she? Tremaine, the shrewd, self-interested wool nabob who loves a late night snack in a warm, shadowy kitchen. Lucas Sherbourne, whose remote Welsh manor house is elegantly appointed but impossible to keep warm.

Some of my editorial assistants.

The physical realities in a character’s scenes should give the reader insight into the character’s interior life, longings, and secrets. Writers know this, and they also know that symbols and settings aren’t just for works of fiction. Many of my author buddies have a “glory wall,” or a place where they keep the visible reminders of their successes: A deal memo from a publisher, a glowing review, a landscape they snapped when researching their first novel.

Other authors go more for affirmations, or pictures of loved ones, or physical copies of the books that motivated them. These words and objects have the power to inspire, to reassure, to remind us of who we are or who we want to become.

Everybody’s symbols will be different, but we do know that the objects we keep around us tell part of our story. Can you think of a scene where the setting made a particular impact on you? If I was writing a scene about YOU, what objects would you want me to mention, and why?

To one commenter, I’ll send an audio book of Too Scot to Handle, in honor of Colin and Anwen’s nomination for a Romantic Times Reviewers Choice award for Best Historical Love and Laughter (urchins, represent!).

The Villain of the Piece

In novel writing classes, after we’ve discussed character arcs, pacing, prose-craft, world-building, voice, and a zillion other angels dancing on the head of a pin, somebody gets around to raising the topic of the antagonist.

The antagonist need not be a bad person, or even a human. The antagonist can be an immutable law of the novel world (treason must be punished–The Traitor), logistics (an ocean between our obligations/not enough money in the world–Elias in Love, The Highland Holidays novellas),  values (she cannot tolerate violence, honor compels him to seek justice–The Captive), or a misunderstanding/secret (many novellas, The Laird), but to the reader, the antagonist, to quote Joanna Bourne, must be “real, interesting, and substantial.”

I have rarely written a truly heinous villain, in part because I don’t want to dwell on evil. In the Windham Bride series, I’m coming close, though. (Sorta spoiler alerts…) Hamish and Megan face a man who’d force an unwilling woman into the intimacy of marriage for the sake of his creature comforts. That’s awful–and he’s so cheerful about it.

Colin and Anwen face people who are cavalier about starving children, and unbothered by again, using coercion of innocents, even the threat of death, to get what the villains want. In A Rogue of Her Own, the hero, Sherbourne, is an outsider, meaning he both sees the titled villain more clearly, and also risks much more than scandal if he tries to hold his lordship accountable. (Can you tell I like that book?)

Those stories are in contrast to a tale like Worth: Lord of Reckoning. No bad guy, no bad gal. Just the competing demands of honor, a secret or two, stubborn pride, but it all works out in the end.

Then I come across this quote form CS Lewis (sorry I don’t know how to make it larger), about “scoundrelism,” and how it often germinates from the very human desire to be part of an Inner Ring. Our craving for intimacy and acceptance lead us away from decency. As he says, “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

That quote is scary. I don’t want to write that book, with an antagonist who seduces decent people away from the light, promising special status, acceptance, and perks. I’m not sure I could write that book, especially not as a romance, but the other rubric I hear in writers’ classes is that the protagonists are only as compelling as the forces they overcome. What force is more compelling than the creeping allure of intimate evil?

Where do you come down on antagonists? Have I written one that worked especially well for you, one that fell flat? Is a book like Worth, which leans toward comedic techniques, a more convincing romance than The Captive? What “real, substantial, interesting” problem have you seen most effectively keep a romance hero and heroine from waltzing away with an easy HEA?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed Advance Reader Copy for A Rogue of Her Own (found another one since last week).

 

Already Winning

My social media feed is full of ads targeting the New Year’s resolution crowd: Life coaches, super food delivery programs, yoga video packages, keen-science athletic gear, self-help workbooks, special look-younger goop or pills…. I take great delight in clicking, “Hide ad–not relevant to me,” for all of it.

Then I came across this article, courtesy of Susan Cain (the recovering lawyer who wrote Quiet) which describes a means of making yourself more intelligent, healthier, more empathetic, and  less stressed. You’re already doing it, my friends, because you read book-length fiction.  I was appalled to learn that 70 percent of inmates and 85 percent of our juvenile delinquents are functionally illiterate, but that’s a post for a different day.

So I’m patting myself on the back for being a dedicated reader. Then I come across another article, telling me that black tea is packed with polyphenols and flavonoids, which goose our immune systems, and quintuple our production of interferon. Black tea and green tea also boost alpha wave production, which is the calm, “screen saver” brainwave we enjoy upon rising–my best time to write. What’s more, the quercetin in tea helps increase HDL cholesterol, which is a good thing.

So I’m patting myself on the back for being a life-long tea drinker (and sorry, coffee does not confer these same benefits, though it has perks (get it!) of its own). Then I come across this article, which says that 3,000 steps a day, five days a week, will go a long way toward cutting my risk of diabetes. 10,000 steps a day will do much more, but there’s a lot of benefit even from the shorter distance.  I have to be purposely spuddin’ not to hit 3000 steps in a day.

Then I come across this article, which recounts the demonstrable benefits of keeping flowers on hand, whether in the workplace or at home. Flowers make us more compassionate and creative, and less depressed or anxious. (Yeah, somebody did some funded research to prove the obvious.) Guess who loves flowers, and often grabs a bouquet at the grocery store?

Then I come across this article, which backs up the notion that good, dark chocolate (in the 70 percent cocoa range), can improve brain function, vascular health, mood, and a host of other health indicators. We knew that.

Here’s where I’m going with this: In the New Year, I resolve to keep doing the things that work for me and contribute to my health and well being. I’m going to read good books, chomp good chocolate, swill good tea, trundle on the tread desk in moderation, and indulge my love of flowers.

How are you already winning? What ways do you indulge yourself that are actually pretty good for you? To one commenter, I’ll send my last (I think) advanced reader copy ofA Rogue of Her Own (Mar. 6, 2018).

Auld Lang Zinger

I have no particular New Year’s Eve plans, other than to stay warm. My day will be spent revising My One and Only Duke, which you lovely folks won’t see on the shelves until November 2018, when the Rogues to Riches series launches.

And yet, the time of year does get me thinking about where I’ve been in the past twelve months, and where I want to be. 2017 was a year of losses for me, some of which–like those twenty pounds I won’t miss–are cause for celebration. Others, like the law office riding slowly into the sunset, are simply life moving along, and one–my dad’s passing three weeks shy of his 97th birthday–hurts like blazes.

If there’s a silver lining regarding Mom’s death in 2016 and Dad’s death earlier this year, it’s that my six siblings and their spouses and kids are terrific people, and they are all still mine to love.

2017 also saw gains. I aspire to write and publish about half a million words each year, and I met that goal with titles I’m proud of. I got back in the saddle (wheee!) something I’d been muttering about for several years, and I saw some new sights on the Number One London country house tour. I traveled too much (again), but am nowhere near ready to throw in my frequent flyer towel.

Next year, I’m slated to attend the New Zealand Romance Writers’ conference, and what the heck, I might as well pop over to Australia while I’m in the neighborhood. I’m also scheduled to attend the Historical Romance Retreat in San Diego, and I’m even considering having a Regency ballgown made for that occasion, because I missed out on playing dress-up as a kid.

And that’s probably my theme going forward: I want to play more. Being self-employed, it’s easy to fall into a work-all-the-time habit. Even when I’m traveling in the UK, I’m usually working on a manuscript, reading copy edits, or both. When I was in Northern England this year, my hotel was across from a lovely little park. On one of my down-time days (meaning working on a book instead of touring a house), I toddled over to the park to get some fresh air, because–altogether now–sitting is the new smoking.

I soon noticed that I was walking faster than anybody else in the park, barreling along, consulting the step-counter on my phone, debating how many laps around the pond I should do…. I’m sure the nice people spotted me for an over-wound Yank before I’d completed my first circuit.

I like that version of Grace–she’s productive, mostly solvent, and mostly happy–but she needs to find a lower gear sometimes, so she too can make it well past her three-score-and-ten, and write lots more happily ever afters along the way.

So how was your 2017, and what are you looking forward to in 2018? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of the book of his or her choice.