The Best Time Ee-vah!

I have wrapped up my visit to New Zealand with the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference, which reminded me again that romance writers are a special, wonderful breed. We learned a lot, we had fun, we forged and strengthened relationships, and we probably hatched up more than a few new projects.

I really liked New Zealand (can you tell?), and pass along to you here five things I noticed that made me think.

1) On the Air New Zealand flights, every announcement started with “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…” What a concept: Children are visible people. It’s a detail, to include children in flight announcements, but a detail that caught my ear.  Very likely, every kid on the plane sat up a little straighter when they heard that greeting.

2) This is a very diverse culture (the Maori make up fourteen percent of the population, and many other minorities contribute smaller percentages), but it has no history of enslavement or genocidal polices. There is racism, there is wealth inequality, and relations between those of European descent and other cultural groups are not always smooth, but as one New Zealander put it to me: The problems NZ has finding justice amid diversity were far preferable to her than the problems they saw in places like the US and Australia where longer, more bitter history has to be overcome.

3) As an island, NZ grows as much of its food–nearly everything but bananas–as possible. The result is a very clean, locally sourced, seasonally varied diet, and every restaurant I went to offered vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and dairy-free options.

4) New Zealand culture is gracious. This might be a Maori contribution; a legacy of colonists far from home; a result of people on an island having fine-tuned radar when it comes to the small rituals that help a society get along; or a by-product of a climate that never drives anybody indoors for too long, but it’s lovely. Driving from Wellington to Hawke’s Bay, we stopped to have a cuppa tea with another writer. Two hours later, we were still solving the problems of the known universe. I gather that’s not unusual in New Zealand, and nobody’s ever too busy to stop for a “wee natter.”

5) The most respected brand in New Zealand is Whittaker’s chocolate. This is a family owned business that set up shop in a suburb of Wellington that had few jobs. They’ve been offered many buy-out deals from the big dawgs, but the Whittakers are loyal to their workers and their product, and New Zealanders are loyal to their Whittakers. This is a much more long-term view of success than many businesses take, and it’s working well.

So… in honor of a lovely time in a lovely land, to one commenter, I’ll send a bag of Whittaker’s milk chocolates. Has anything made you stop and think lately? Some snippet of news? A line in a book? A headline or overhead bit of gossip? Is there someplace you’d like to visit, just to get a peek at the culture? (And yes, the authors whose book covers I’ve included above are all from New Zealand, and you can learn more about their books here: Bronwen Evans, Emily Larkin, and Janet Elizabeth Henderson.)

All Hat and No Comprehension

Silver Fern, national symbol of New Zealand

One of the sessions I’m supposed to present at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference has to do with how an author can keep her balance in an industry that combines the worst of big tech with the worst of the commercial arts. Writers are supposed to stay on top of a business environment that’s growing more complex by the nanosecond, while protecting a creative imagination that’s increasingly endangered, to a significant extent by the very tech we rely on to generate a product.

What’s an author to do?

Write books of course, and stick with the readers, because they support the core agenda of getting good stories into the hands of the people who will appreciate them most.

Flower from which manuka honey is made

Everybody else–the publishing houses, marketing weanies, tech giants, agents, editors, and various other support personnel–takes a backseat role to the readers. If an author doesn’t have or value readers, the circus folds in short order.

But beyond that Prime Directive, I’ve also spotted a few potholes that wait to trap the unwary author, and one of them that seems to cross many professions is the person whose receptive language skills can’t keep up with their expressions language skills.

Whazzat mean? These are the people our grandmas and grandpas said, were, “All hat and no cattle.” They can talk a good game… as long as that game is about themselves. They are articulate, knowledgeable, and even charming, but the more closely you listen the more you realize, they can’t process what you’re telling them. A basic question, “What platform do you find best suited to discovery of a dinosaur-shifter-suspense series?” gets a lot of blah-blah-blah in response.

These folks can always tell you what they want you to know, but when it comes to dishing on what you need to know… more blah-blah. They can’t process incoming information well or quickly, they aren’t good analytical thinkers. They are tapdancing as fast as they can, hoping you (and they?) don’t find that out.

I have met many receptive-language laggards in the courtroom. Attorneys, social workers, clients… as long as they are on “send,” they manage quite well. When it comes to “receive” or “acknowledge,” the speed is much slower and your message has a hard time getting through. Of course, nobody wakes up at the age of three and says, “Who needs receptive language skills? Not me. I’ll just express myself at top speed for the rest of my life and I’ll be fine.” This skill deficit that makes life hard, and I don’t wish it on anybody.

Kiwi Tree

But I also don’t wish its results on me, or one my author buddies, so in my presentation, I’m dropping a flag on people with this communication pattern, authors included. If this is your cross to bear, then you’ve probably learned to ask, “Could you repeat that?” or, “Let me make sure I understand…” or, “How, exactly, does that work in a cause and effect sense?” In the absence of compensating habits like those questions, dialogue can become monologue very quickly.

What are some communication styles or habits that drive you bonkers? Are there any skills or habits you’ve come across that are particularly helpful for keeping conversation productive? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of my laaaaasssst (I think) ARC of My One and Only Duke.

 

Grace Goes to Summer Camp (with Alexander von Humboldt)

I’m having an orgy.

In the bathroom, I hang out with Alexander von Humboldt, of Humboldt Current fame, and he’s currently spending the summer with Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and I forget who else. They talk about Everything far into the night while Napoleon begins his twenty-year rampage of violence across the Europe. In another eighty pages or so, the intrepid explorer and I will climb Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, and then we’ll pay a call on Thomas Jefferson.

Von Humboldt really, truly, did rub shoulders with all those luminaries, and impressed every one of them. By the year 1800, he’d predicted human-induced climate change. This guy was amazing, and you can read all about him in The Invention of Nature.

On the tread desk, I’m gorging on Empire of Guns, a frighteningly convincing look at how violence fueled the Industrial Revolution. We focus on all the inventions and the progress when learning about the Industrial Revolution, but change the perspective a bit, and ye gods, all the wars… the huge, expensive, deadly wars, and the technological advances they engendered. That book is going to take me a while.

Because war and politics aren’t exactly light fare, I’m also scarfing up In Search of Sir Thomas Browne–The Life and Afterlife of the Seventeenth Century’s Most Inquiring Mind. I’d never heard of this guy, but he invented the words electricity, hallucination, and suicide, to name a few among the hundreds of terms he introduced into English. Sir Thomas and I must become better acquainted. Where has he been all my life?

I know where Sir Thomas has been. He, like the expedition von Humboldt led up Mount Chimborazo, have been waiting for me to ditch the lawyer gig. They have been patiently holding their horses until I had the time and energy to wander in a bookstore for an hour–a whole hour!–picking up whatever I pleased to investigate and purchasing whatever I chose to read.

I write books. I know how wonderful they are, but I’d forgotten what it’s like to have the time to read as I pleased, not only as I should. I’m still browsing a couple of writing craft books, I still need some historical mystery to fall asleep to, but to have good books weaving themselves into my whole day is the best summer camp ever.

What would your best summer camp ever look like? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card.

 

 

Expert Support

I have spent the past week at the Romance Writers of America annual conference, which is like no other gathering I’ve experienced. Complete strangers hug me, and for the most part–at RWA–I’m OK with that. What follows the hug is usually something along the lines of, “I love your books, especially the one about the guy with the dogs, and the Shakespeare lady, and there was a nervous pug…”

Will’s True Wish, The Soldier, Darius… my books have made friends for me, and thus those hugs are not really from strangers.

In the past few years at RWA, the concept of imposter syndrome has popped up in many discussions, and even on the programming. What is it? What to do about it? Is it a uniquely female affliction and if so, why? To quote the Harvard Business Review: Imposter syndrome can be defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. ‘Imposters‘ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.”

Oddly enough, I have been reading lately about expertise. What is it? Who has it? What does it take to become an expert? Malcolm Gladwell and others have popularized the notion that expertise is not a function of innate talent. Experts are made not born, and generally, they are made by enormous amounts of practice, with 10,000 hours being the figure most often cited.

But I can sit in a practice room and saw away on my violin for 10,000 hours, and still not become very accomplished. To develop expert status, I need two other resources. In addition to assiduous practice, I need knowledgeable, devoted teachers. I can make progress by self-teaching, but those experienced instructors will propel me toward true expertise. The final leg of an expert’s stool is… emotional support.

To achieve the status of master, along the way, we need not only teachers guiding our hard work, but the support of those who have faith in us and our ability. We need a cheering section, or we’re likely to give up, doubt, backslide, and drift away. RWA is one place where authors who mostly toil at their craft in solitude can find both competent instruction and enthusiastic support. Of the two, the enthusiastic support is the more precious.

I suspect that is part of the origin of imposter syndrome: Somebody has worked very hard, for a very long time, while receiving good instruction. They lacked support, however, and thus when success arrives, nobody is saying, “I knew you could do it! I’m so proud of you! The great day has finally come and your hard work is getting the appreciation it deserves!”

So maybe it’s not imposter syndrome at all. Maybe it’s “If I wasn’t worth supporting along the way, maybe I don’t deserve success now” syndrome. Perhaps we should call it sabotage syndrome: When somebody working very hard toward a goal must do so without needed support from friends, community, and loved ones, and the success achieved is emotionally sabotaged by those who withheld needed emotional support. Just a theory.

Is there an expert-in-progress you’ve supported? Did you get the support you deserved as you struggled to develop competence? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of My Own and Only Duke. (And no, Quinn Wentworth does not suffer from imposter syndrome.)

The Importance of Earnest Daydreaming

Because I can’t be working on Lord Casriel’s happily ever after with Lady Canmore every waking hour, I’m also reading a nice little book, The Net and the Butterfly, by a couple of clever people whose topic is, “The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.” This is related to my last reading project–Iconoclast–which had to do with thinking new thoughts and solving old problems with new solutions.

The breakthrough thought is also usually a solution to a problem, or an insight about the way forward. I need a lifetime supply of these if I am to write interesting fiction, but such thoughts also come in handy when trying to decide whether to sell the house or which car I should get when my 10-year-old Prius dies.

The book explains that we have two ways of attacking our mental goals. One is through the executive network. This is the conscious pondering, parsing, studying, debating, and information gathering…. all the stuff you do when you’re faced with a decision or given a challenge. This is “using your smarts.” The other resource we have is the “default network,” which hums along quietly in the background.

The two networks cannot both be in high gear simultaneously. If we’re deploying all of our firepower on executive tasks, the default network, which operates below the level of conscious thought, has to stand down. The default network swings into action when the executive network has downed tools. That happens while we load the dishwasher, fold clothes, go for a walk, drop off to sleep, or stand around waiting for the guy to find our dry cleaning.

When an idea “pops into your head” as you squeeze the shampoo into your palm or water the plants, your default network has been given enough time and resources to produce a solution for your executive network to implement.

What I got from that little description of cognitive functioning was two insights: First, it’s important to build “idle tasks” into my day if I’m trying to puzzle out a plot, develop a convincing character arc, or make a big career decision. In fact, workers carrying a heavy cognitive or creative load are most productive when they do have frequent breaks or their assignments throughout the day vary between the brainiac and mundane.

Second, there is such a thing as thinking too hard about a problem. The default network excels at finding patterns the executive will never spot, at seeing similarities and metaphors  the hyperfocused executive could never connect. If I’m to come up with the best stories, over and over, it’s imperative that I build in that most critical period for any successful mind: RECESS.

Have you ever gotten a “bolt from the blue” insight? Ever wrestled with a big problem only to have the solution drop into your head while you were vacuuming? How does your day include recess, or how could it? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed Advanced Reader Copy of My Own and Only Duke.

Hello Silence, My Old Friend

After a stretch of days that nudged up to and hit the 100-degree mark, (complete with good old Maryland humidity), we’ve hit a patch of lower temperatures–80s by day, 60s by night.

I use window units to the cool the house, so I’m only cooling where I am, when I’m there, and only when the discomfort has become unbearable. As much as possible, I make do with just a fan. Now that we have a break in the weather, I notice the cool–oh, boy, do I–and the difference in the light because of the lower humidity and the fact that I’m keeping doors open all day.

I also notice the quiet. No roaring box fans, no AC clicking on and off, and back on. The house is what I consider “normal” again, so quiet I can hear the florescent bulbs in the kitchen and every bird tweeting in the yard. Every car that goes by is a ripple across the pond of my quiet.

Quiet is good for us, and may constitute a large part of the benefit of mindfulness mediation. Noise, by contrast, is bad for us, and most definitely makes the list of reasons why open office plans are a false economy, large classrooms can be tougher learning environments, and sleep patterns become erratic. This is true even if it’s quiet when you go nighty-nighty. If your day was noisy, your mind can stay noisy long afterward.

My dear mother was not as attached to quiet as I am. She would play morning radio for company, or a classical music station in the evening. She was home alone by the hour, and sound helped her feel less isolated. She needed light though–natural sunlight, if at all possible. She thrived in homes that had many large picture windows, and arranged her surroundings to take advantage of the sunlight.

Turns out, natural light is full of benefits. Given a choice, most people will seek natural lighting over the artificial kind, and if they can find some natural light, they will be happier, more productive, and calmer. Homes full of natural light are less likely to be plagued with mold and mildew, students who have naturally lit classrooms will enjoy better academic performance. Young children who spend time in natural light are less likely to end up nearsighted.

My mom needed a tidy house, I need a house where I can see my stuff, or I’ll forget what I have (this is typical of visual thinkers). I need flowers too, which also bring a surprising load of benefits with them, from enhanced problem-solving and creativity, to improved mood.

What is your ideal environment? What are your environmental non-negotiables? Is there a way to have more of what makes you thrive, and less of what blights your joy? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of My One and Only Duke.

Stand By Me

In many good novels, there comes a point where the protagonist (hero/heroine) has been battling heavy odds, facing setback after setback, though all hope is not quite lost… until the author takes away the one other character who has been faithful no matter what. The lover, mentor, sidekick, cheerleader, beta hero… they are either killed off (I would never…), they desert the cause, they are captured by the forces of darkness, or they reach the limit of their patience with the protagonist.

Why do authors doooooo this?

Authors have their reasons. It turns out that if we have even one ally, one person telling us we’re not crazy, we can stand firm in the midst of a horde of doubters and detractors. A psychologist by the name of Solomon Asch figured out a way to test how powerfully social pressure works to create conformity.  He sat twelve people in a room and set up a bunch of comparisons like the one at the right, showing four bars. The question was, which of the three bars at the right is the same length as the bar on the left.

The correct answer in the example is C, and 95 percent of us can do this test, example after example, and get the right answer every time–if we’re answering in writing, individually. Asch took things a step further. He had the twelve participants answer out loud, one at a time, and stacked the room with shills so that by arrangement, subjects one through eleven gave the same wrong answer two thirds of the time. The independent variable was subject number twelve, who didn’t know the whole thing was a set up.

Seventy-five percent of the participants caved to a blatantly wrong answer at least a third of the time, if the group was against them. When Asch debriefed his subjects, they gave explanations such as, “I wondered what was wrong with me… I knew something was off… The choices were difficult…” [They weren’t.] In a neutral laboratory experiment, with no consequences whatsoever for voting against the group, most people caved at least every third try. Everybody also underestimated how often they had caved.

But–and this is a big but–if even one person shares our position and is willing to say as much, we stick to the evidence of our individual perception.

This explains part of the high stakes in a romance. The protagonists are asking each other, “Will you be the one person who tells me I’m not crazy, when my entire  family/town/upbringing/society is against me? Will you help me hang onto the parts of me that see clearly and speak honestly?” This is part of what’s lost when the big, black moment threatens to end the whole relationship.

That’s psychological life-or-death stuff, and it resonates with people who’ve been ostracized, ridiculed, or held in contempt for defending a personal truth. So the next time somebody is blathering about romance novels being fluffy reading, you just explain Solomon Asch’s experiment to them. Romance is the very stuff of truth, honesty, and courage. Doesn’t get any less fluffy than that.

To one commenter I’ll send a signed copy of My Own True Duchess. Who stands by you when you’re going against the crowd? Who has stood by you? Was there a time when you had to stand alone?

 

ALA Summer Conference Remarks

I was recently privileged to participate in a panel discussion at the American Library Association’s summer conference. Each author on the panel had a few minutes to discuss a recent release, and I chose A Rogue of Her Own. (A few spoilers ahead). I think Charlotte and Sherbourne got a good book, and their story has stuck with me. I similarly think libraries are among our finest institutions, for reasons as follows:

I got lucky with A Rogue of Her Own, because Charlotte Windham and Lucas Sherbourne ended up in a two-party, single-issue, values conflict, which is the hardest kind of conflict to resolve within the context of an ongoing relationship. Makes for good tension.

Charlotte Windham is the only one of twelve ducal cousins to remain unmarried, and she thinks she can do the feisty spinster thing, but her feisty is fizzling. She’s not a woman to suffer fools, especially prancing lordling fools. Her best friend was ruined by such a man, and then died shortly after giving birth to his illegitimate son. Eight years later, Charlotte is running something of an underground railroad for fallen women, which matters to her much more than snagging a husband. She is no pushover.

Lucas Sherbourne isn’t looking for a pushover. He’s a wealthy Welsh commoner who seeks to better his circumstances, also the circumstances of the families in his valley back home, and the circumstances of his children, should he be blessed to have any. Lucas is determined to marry up, not only because a good match will open social doors, but also because it will improve the probability that he’ll find titled Englishmen willing to invest in his mining venture.

Lucas likes and respects Charlotte’s blunt nature and pragmatism. Charlotte likes his brash confidence and honesty, also his loud waistcoats. Liking leads to smoochin’, and to a wedding when Lucas and Charlotte are caught in flagrante smoochie.

UK Cover

All goes well at first—of course—as the marriage turns into a romance. Lucas seeks Charlotte’s opinion on matters at the mine; Charlotte begins to campaign socially on Lucas’s behalf with the local gentry. They are becoming partners and lovers, and maybe even the crooked pot with the crooked lid can have a happily ever after… except Charlotte learns that the first and only wealthy English investor Lucas has been able to attract is the very man who ruined Charlotte’s friend and turned his back on his own child.

Charlotte’s like, “Dude, you are my husband. How can you allow your hard work and expertise to enrich a monster?”

Lucas is like, “Madam, you are my wife. How can you expect me to break my contractual word to this this man who outranks me, who can ruin my chances of ever finding other investors of his stature, and humiliate me before your entire blue-blooded family over an old hurt I can’t fix?”

Charlotte wants a powerful man held accountable for past sins; Lucas wants to preserve the greater good even if it means a misdeed remains unaddressed.

My objective when writing a romance is to fit into Joanna Bourne’s plotting rubric: Liking, attraction, and respect pull the couple (or threesome, foursome, whatever) together; something real, interesting, and substantial pushes them apart. The book worked out well, and yes, there’s a happily ever after, but you will have to read about that at the library.

I want to use my remaining few minutes to say thank you. I don’t find myself in a room full of librarians very often, so I will seize this opportunity now to tell you how much I appreciate what you do. In my humble opinion as an author, libraries are the only subscription model worth participating in, and I wish libraries had the ability to sell my books to the readers who’d like the occasional keeper copy or download.

Subscription models always promise that they will help an author’s books reach new readers.

Only libraries deliver on that claim in a meaningful sense. I see at least three reasons why library discover is the best discovery.

First, to state the obvious, librarians are literary professionals, not marketers, retailers, or programmers. You are educated, trained, and hard-wired to take joy in connecting the right books with the right readers. No algorithm or bot can come close to the expertise with which a librarian can assess a reader’s preferences.

Librarians don’t process a load of mined data about a reader, you notice she has kid in a kangaroo pack. You recall that she was in the Tuesday night knitting group, you see that she’s tired… and you recommend the perfect author for an overwhelmed new mom who’s into fabric crafts.

Here comes the part where I end my career: We’ve seen what results when a large automated subscription collection is maintained without library expertise or values. And this is where, as Walter Scott said, I’d like to descend into oaths too foul to be rendered on the page, which digression time fortunately does not permit.

You know your calling. A recommendation from a librarian is word-of-mouth on steroids, and as we all know, word of mouth is, was, and every shall be, even in this age of cyber wonders, the gold standard for discovery.

The second reason I think library discovery is the best discovery, has to with the fact that the library demographic is not a shopping demographic, picking up a book between ordering pet food and stocking up on jasmine green tea, it’s a reading demographic. Library readers are sufficiently passionate about books that they’ve established a relationship with an institution that’s all about book culture. Those readers might not have a lot of disposable income—who does?– but they are very likely to have big mouths about books. I want the name of my book on their lips, and libraries are how I get it there.

Third, my tagline is “I believe in love.” Wonder Woman stole that from me, except you can’t steal love. In my small town, the library is the only daytime cold weather shelter we have, the only free public cooling station. We get 100 degree days, we get zero degree days. Libraries are bomb shelters and hurricane shelters. They are public gathering places where everybody is welcome, no cost to walk through the door.

And the library doors are open, no matter what, though you might not feel that libraries should be responsible for public safety. Fair enough, but my county library is also the only place people can go for free access to the internet. My county has nearly a twenty percent adult illiteracy rate and the institution doing battle with that dragon most consistently is the county library.

If I believe in love—and I do—then I am exceedingly gratified to think that when I reduce the compensation I receive for my books in the hope that I’ll find new readers, some small residual benefit might also go to an institution that’s keeping people safe, championing book culture, and teaching people to read, rather than to a lot of shareholders who revere the buck rather than the book.

Libraries are compatible with my brand at the level of my values, which is where all solid HEAs must rest. For those reasons, you have my unending thanks for what you have done for me, for my neighbors, and for my readers.

Save the Dads

My first Father’s Day without my dad approaches, and I am inspired to sound off on behalf of dads, because they are precious, whether they know it or not.

Children raised without an involved father are at MUCH higher risk for suicide, violent acts, truancy, academic failure, incarceration, substance abuse, sexual abuse, addiction, teen parenting, maltreatment, trafficking, and mental illness, to name a few curses that disproportionately befall the fatherless.

If you want to inspire yourself to pop out of your chair and go hug a fatherless kid right now, read these stats. Forty-three percent of American children live in a dad-less household, meaning nearly half of our children face heightened risk of Every Bad Thing happening to them.

You’d think our public policy folks would be in an uproar to protect children from paternal abandonment, and to ensure that every measure is taken to support paternal involvement in children’s lives. Instead we get…

Gender wage inequality that financially rewards families who opt for dad to spend more time working and less time with the kids, as opposed to families who opt for both parents to work the same number of hours.

Corporate cultures that reward dad for putting in the long hours to win that corner office, where he can expect to put in even more long hours, because he “benefits” from gender discrimination in promotions.

Public housing polices that discourage dad from hanging in with mom and the kids when money is scarce, because the family is more likely to qualify for affordable or shelter housing without him.

Public policies that give men NO family leave, while Mom can at least get a little time off to give birth and bond with the newborn. She might get time off without pay, she might slip back in the promotion sweepstakes as a result of those weeks out of the office, but she has a parental starting lap Dad isn’t offered.

Not coincidentally, the hero I’m writing now, Grey Birch Dorning, Earl of Casriel, is beset by the daft notion that his primary job in life is to see the family coffers enriched, even if he has to marry a wealthy woman to make that happen. Grey is willing to sacrifice his happiness, his freedom, his everything to ensure his family’s material security. (He has a rude awakening ahead of him in the person of Beatitude, Countess of Canmore.)

What’s more, these guys who think being the family ATM is what fatherhood is about are giving up life-expectancy, joy, and healthy old age when they put in the overtime rather than hang out at the tot lot. The Harvard Study proved that men who took the time to develop close meaningful relationships throughout life were far ahead of their work-obsessed brothers at the end of the game.

That’s my Father’s Day rant. If we value families and children, we need to value Dads as Dads first, and as employees, managers, and wage earners second. To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of  My Own True Duchess. What advice would you have for a dad whose first child was born today?

I Can See Creatively Now

I am somewhat infamous among authors for using the analogy that you can’t make a baby in one month with nine women as a way to refer to creative productivity. If you’re a 2000-word-a-day author, sometimes all the free time and congenial circumstances in the world can’t bump that word count up to 2250 a day.

But I have occasionally been a 5000-word-a-day author, and once I wrote a 7000-word short story in a day. I love those days when I’m writing hot, the story pouring onto the screen, the characters so real to me I expect to hear them ride up to my kitchen door. My limiting factor most often is the flow of story ideas, and the clarity with which I envision a story line.

So I bethought me to read the book, “Iconoclast,” which is about people who do what others regard as “impossible.” Turns out that our brains for the sake of efficiency, tend to operate on the “hum a few bars” premise. We perceive something generally–has wheels, about six feet by twelve feet, white, rumbles, smells like fossil fuel–and the brain leaps to, “That’s your Prius, dummy.”

Or, “That’s your kid/boss/house…” But we’ve ALL had the experience of walking up to a car in the parking that is indeed the make and model of ours, but it’s not our car. The brain missed the ding in the door, the out of state plates, the bobblehead doll in the window.

For the sake of our survival, we don’t want our minds dithering, over and over, about whether that’s OUR Prius or just A Prius, so the mental tendency to leap to conclusions is very strong. It’s also very costly, in terms of innovation, insight, creativity, and problem solving, because the brain loves a perceptual rut.

As an author, I need to see new ideas, come up with insights, and turn assumptions upside down, or I’ll be writing the same book twenty times. Fortunately for me, there’s an easy way to jolt the imagination out of the path of least effort: Court novelty.
Go new places, meet new people, try on new ideas, learn new skills. Watch a new television show, even. Just give the old noggin some new nosh.

Novelty is scary though, so most of us avoid it. We order the same thing on the menu, we drive the same commute, we sit in the same seats, and we’re happy–but we’re not very imaginative.

I cherish imagination. The big problems I face as an aging female and as a creative professional will take courage and imagination to solve. The big problems we face as a society will also take courage and imagination.

All of which tells me that a few vacations, or some small adventures, are really our obligations as citizens concerned for the future of society. What new experience would you like to have, what new place would you like to see? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of My One and Only Duke. (Wheeeee!)