The Workable Quirk

As an author, I’ve been told that characters with quirks will appeal to readers more strongly, because we ALL know people with quirks. Maybe we had an aunt who made the sign of the cross when passing graveyards, even though she wasn’t Catholic and never attended  services. I once worked with somebody who ordered grill cheese sandwiches at every restaurant because a grilled cheese sandwich is safe, fast, cheap, and filling. My mom could grow African violets that seemed to bloom ALL THE TIME.

We remember quirks, which helps build a character from an authorial standpoint, for two reasons. First, odd behaviors stand out–I don’t know anybody else who can grow African violets like my mom did–and second, there’s often a story attached to the quirk. The home where I and six sibling grew up was a fairly utilitarian place–big dining room, five bedrooms (one of them huge), enormous yard that backed up to a woods, and our dining room chairs were “radar” style patio furniture because that stuff is indestructible (and sixty years later apparently worth a mint, alas). But the house also had ten floor-to-ceiling picture windows, which meant a great deal of light all year round and significant solar gain even in winter.

So Mom beautified our dwelling with house plants, and making cuttings from African violets is a cheap way to propagate a flowering plant. The African violets were for pretty, but also cost-effective, and that reflects two realities of my mom’s version of raising a family: Her needs often came last, and one salary for nine people was a tight squeeze in a good year.

Trenton Lindsay confided in his horse because he’d grown up without friends and continued that isolation into adult life. Who else did he have to talk to? Eleanora Hatfield, heroine of next week’s release, Forever and a Duke, is fanatic about finding missing pennies, because she was raised with no pennies to spare  in a family full of shysters. Stephen Wentworth always greets animals because when he was a little boy with a game leg, nobody greeted him.

An interesting characteristic of a quirk is that from my perspective, my quirks are sometimes normal and it’s the rest of the world that really makes no sense. When writing, I am highly intolerant of noise for example. I get annoyed by the sound of the ballast humming in the florescent light in my kitchen. Crickets distract me, though I love them. Most writers thrive in a coffee shop environment, which turns out to be in the ideal zone for the sort of white noise that typically fuels creativity.

“A coffee shop?” I think. “People write in coffee shops? Human people intent on generating good books write in COFFEE SHOPS?! How can this be?” But of course this behavior is normal, to the point that you can download an app that will re-create the hubbub of a coffee shop to boost your writing productivity.

Do you have a quirk or know somebody with a memorable little habit? Is there a story  behind that human foible? To three commenters, I’ll send signed author copies of Forever and a Duke (international comments welcome!), but for those who aren’t print-readers, the pre-order price for this new release is $3.99. Get ’em while they’re hot!

 

NaNo-Here-We-Go

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

If you frequent social media in any writerly circles, you’ll see references at this time of year to NaNoWriMo. What on earth is that? It’s shorthand for National Novel Writing Month, and the general idea is that you clear the decks for all of November, and write as much as you can each day, hoping to have a 50,000 word rough draft done by November 30.

This is year 30 for NaNo, and the official website shows about 800,000 people participating in this round. Doubtless many more are unofficially giving it a shot, or half a shot. People who find this exercise useful will schedule writing meet ups, make pep-talk-pacts, do on-line writing sprints together, and exchange accountability totals. Many a fine book got its start in the fun, grueling, determined, did-we-mention-grueling trenches of NaNo.

For me, every month is NaNoWriMo, but writing is my calling. Many others trying to hit the 50,000-word goal are raising children, holding down day jobs, maintaining primary relationships, and otherwise impersonating human beings. Coming up with the time and creative energy to average 1,666 words a day, without fail, is no mean feat.

The mentality of gutting it out for a month also characterizes the Whole-30 diet, which for many people is a fast from Everything They Hold Dear. No sugar, no booze, no legumes, no grains, no dairy, no MSG/sulfites/carrageenan. I’ve done it twice, with no apparent benefit (and a moderate sense of on-going deprivation), but what made it survivable was the knowledge that Day 31 was growing ever closer. The benefit of reduced systemic inflammation would supposedly be lasting, while the effort was time-limited.

I’ve also run across the Forty Bags in Forty Days decluttering challenge. The idea here originated with Lent (technically 46 days, but Sundays are for rest), and it’s fairly simple: Remove on average, one bag a day of clutter from your house every non-Sunday between Ash Wednesday and Easter Saturday. If you live in a spotless temple to organization and cleanliness, you can remove one item of clutter a day instead. The removed items can be donated to charity if appropriate or simply tossed.

These very different projects have several commonalities. NaNo, Whole-30, and 40 Bags are all social. They all come with forums, websites, FB groups, and a group effort element. They are all time-limited, and as the Whole-30 founder says, for thirty days, you can put up with black coffee. They all break down a significant challenge into day-by-day progress.

For me, anything that happens dans un troupeau is to be avoided. I don’t feel safe in crowds, I don’t like them, not even virtual crowds. There’s a force at work in crowds that weighs against individual awareness and judgment, and that’s a nope for me. But I do like the idea that in a relatively short period of time, I can nibble away at a big task, and get ‘er done. I like especially that at the end of my trudge, I will have something lasting to show for it (though clutter grows back, all by itself. It does).

When you have a big job to do, or a big change to make, how to you tackle it? Step by step? Blitz? Round up your team? Chase off all the non-essential personnel? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card. I’ve also updated the Deals page for November, and the half-off title this month is Jack (who faced a big job, and didn’t have a lot of time to accomplish it).

I Want the World For Christmas

When I was a kid, I would lie awake of a summer dawn, and listen to the birds sing. They made one heck of a racket, and it was a beautiful sound. Day was breaking, and for a child who was terrified of the dark, there was no greater joy.

I don’t hear the songbirds much any more, despite living in a more rural environment now than I did growing up (which was, admittedly, pretty rural). My herd of cats has something to do with that, but it’s also true that the birds are dying off. In my lifetime, we’ve lost a quarter of our birds in the United States.

Maryland is also losing its bat population, thanks to something called White Nose Syndrome (and wind turbines aren’t helping either). This problem has arisen in the past decade or so. A fungus that likes caves has attacked hibernating bats, and disturbs their rest. Long story short, the bat die-off is costing US agriculture billions.

Bee Colony Collapse Disorder is another problem that is costing us billions. Monarch butterflies, one of our busiest pollinators, are also imperiled, and I am frankly terrified that my government, which commands enormous resources, no longer seems to be focusing on these looming tragedies.

So I’m focusing on them. For Christmas this year, nobody is getting fuzzy socks from me, nobody will receive any chocolate. No delicious collections of designer teas, no cashmere scarves from Scotland.

It’s a green Christmas in the Burrowes household. I will send out milkweed seeds for the monarchs, tailored to fit the recipient’s ecosystem. You can browse here for the best variety to plant where you are here, (and fall is the best time to plant most species). For the bats, I’ll send bat boxes. They discourage the troublesome fungus, and on Amazon, they retail for as little as $30.

For the bees, I’ll give pollinator perennial seed packets, using the website here to make sure the flowers I’m sending will work where they’re planted. For those with the room, I might send a bee house, because pollinators need places to raise their young. My Christmas present to myself will be to plant more flowering trees and fruit trees on my property.

If all else fails, the hard to buy for on my list will get some danged birdseed and a bird feeder to help the non-migatory species get through the winter. I still want everybody to have good books for Christmas, (see the November Deals here), and I want peace on earth and wellbeing for my human family too. I also want to have a world like the one I grew up in, where the birds and bees were abundant and happy, and a summer dawn was a noisy, joyous time.

How is your holiday shopping going? Do you stick with some old reliable gifts year in and year out, or will this year take a little different direction? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card.

Driving Me Nuts

For years, I drove pick-up trucks. I needed a vehicle with enough power to pull a two-horse trailer, and I wanted one with good crash test statistics. Got me a Tundra, and fell in love. Driving on the California freeways, I felt safe in that truck. I had excellent visibility and plenty of oomph. In the snow, it handled well for a truck even without 4WD, and with 4WD that truck was a beast.

Except, it was a beast that was killing the planet. 15 MPG was disgraceful, and once I no longer needed to haul a horse trailer, I could not justify owning a truck. I passed the truck onto my daughter to be her barn vehicle and got myself a used hybrid. (Daughter drives a hybrid for everyday too.)

I HATE my hybrid. Yes, it gets nearly 50 MPG, but I can’t see over the bedamned hood when the car angles uphill–not something I knew to check out on a test drive, because what idiot would design a car with a blind spot in the direction of travel? I can’t see out the back because the back seat is too high, and the little back-up camera doesn’t work for doodly-squat in high contrast light.

Last week, I ended up with flat tire. I probably got some tree limb caught in the undercarriage because the idiot car has about four inches of clearance from the road surface. I got out The Stuff, loosened the lug nuts, jacked up the vehicle… and could not get the tire off.

I kicked, I cursed, I whacked at it with my trusty hammer, but nope. I know better than to get under the car and kick, and besides, I don’t FIT under that car. Had to call the nice man, who also kicked, cursed, and whacked, but being about a foot taller and four stone heavier than yours truly, he was able to get the blasted thing off.

So fast forward a couple days later, and I’m having new front tires put on, because the hybrid “spare” is just a donut. The nice guy at the garage told me they are now making cars with no spare. Instead you get 24-hour roadside assistance connected to your on-board blue tooth.

What fresh hell is this? The reason I can’t see out of my car is because all cars are designed to accommodate “average man,” who is five foot nine, and has the weight distribution of a man. Visibility, dash layout, airbag deployment, seat design–it’s all for Average Man. Even the crash tests are done for Average Man because there are no crash test dummies built like a woman. None.

The result? Women are more likely to die or be seriously injured in traffic accidents. Well, OK. We can design seats that heat, cool, vibrate and recline, but we can’t design a car that accommodates a woman’s smaller frame or the anatomy she’s had since moving out of Eden. What are a few more dead or injured women anyway?

Then I find out we have cars with no spare tire now, the better to force drivers into road service contracts. But–oops!–there is a stretch of road not five miles from my house where there’s no cell service. There’s another stretch of road I’ve driven across where there are no services of ANY KIND for a 100 miles, and no cell service either.

Maybe a breakdown under those circumstances is fine for Average Man. But for this little old lady, or her daughter, that’s not going to fly. Why should I have to choose between a truck that gobbles up the planet and a reasonable amount of personal safety as a female driver–because those do seem to be my options.

What do you drive? Do you feel safe in that vehicle, or did you choose it for some other reason? Did you even have a choice? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 B&N gift card, and I promise I will be a in cheerier mood next week.

Olympic Gold

I’m getting ready to take a master class riding lesson with a very skilled instructor I used ride with years ago. I was fortunate to snag a lesson with this guy earlier in the year, and as I was toodling around the arena this week, my current teacher asked me, “What do you think has improved since you last rode with Todd?”

Huh? Aren’t my myriad weaknesses of much greater import? How am I going to be the oldest perpetual beginner ever to win Olympic gold in the saddle if we don’t obsess on my many shortcomings?

And yet, to focus on weaknesses is bad, albeit venerable, pedagogy. Looking instead at strengths–on the things you know you do well, look forward to doing, and focus on easily and completely–results in better general job performance, better self-motivation, and better relationships with the people around you. You are happier and more fun to be with, in addition to being more productive.

I think about how much of my life I’ve spent trying to compensate for, overcome, and eliminate my weaknesses.  How I struggled with trig and calculus (in both high school and college) though I’ve never used either one. How I wedged myself into business suits that were never going to flatter a woman with my endowments. How I went down in a hideous ball of flaming mortification trying to acquire the ability to perform at the piano in public. (It was awful, and I do mean awful to the hundredth power.)

I heard things like, “If only you could hack the math you could go into the sciences…” Or, “If you wore contacts, Mr. Right might notice you…” (Granted, that was 30 years ago, and from my mother.) “If you want the promotion, you have to look the part…” “You can’t get a teaching position in music if you can’t perform…” If, if, if, if…

In a society driven by the lie that all discomforts, ills, and anxieties can be eliminated if  we buy or consume something, we all but lose sight of the the little old truth that we each have vast areas of abundant natural competence. Happy people involved in joyous careers are doubtless a lousy advertising demographic.

I love to write–love it like this is what I was born to do–and I should not have been 50 years old before it occurred to me that other people might enjoy reading my books. My siblings eventually made that suggestion–and thank heavens they did–but having kept a journal since before I could write cursive; having scored 200 points higher on my verbal SAT than on the math; having earned consistent, easy straight A’s in English; with a reading habit that ate up every spare minute… why did it NEVER occur to me that the joy I took in my native tongue was a really important signal about where I ought spend my time and energy?

Why? Because I was too busy fretting over differential equations, which–to this day–make my eyes to cross and my blood to boil.

What were you born to do? What are you just naturally good at? When did you figure that out? Did somebody help you to see it or like me, did you go down in roaring flames trying to become something you’re not? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card.

When Grace Falls

And here we are, thanks to a merciful Deity, once again in my favorite season of the year. Summer is my least fave, sorry to say, mostly because of the humidity and bugs, which are abundant in Maryland and can run from May to late September. The bugs are awful. At one point, I was sporting a brown recluse bite on one arm and a European hornet bite (“not very aggressive,” my bloomin’ aspidistra) on the other. Phooey!

A couple weeks back, we went from mid-90s and yucky one day, to low-40s and wonderful the next night. I woke up after that low-40s night and felt as if I’d been put on pure oxygen. Doing my 10,000 steps was no big deal, my mood was great, I got a lot done.

But being more comfortable when I exercise is only part of the reason I like fall. Because the humidity drops, the quality of the light changes, colors are sharper and contrasts more vivid. The hours of daylight no longer exceed the hours when I have energy to do stuff, so my circadian rhythm and Mother Nature are in better harmony. I sleep so much better in the fall. I enjoy a pot of tea so much more thoroughly in the fall.

I can open up my house–windows and doors, both–and work with a sense of being connected to the out of doors. I hear the birds, I hear my neighbor’s cows munching the fall grass, I hear when a squabble flares up among the cats on the porch. I do not hear, at least not as much, the lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and weed whackers that seem to drone on all summer.

I am no longer barricaded in my kitchen, a window unit air conditioner roaring all afternoon along with a box fan or desk fan. The quiet is scrumptious because it’s natural quiet. Yes, the crickets are still singing–slowly, tiredly–and the farmers are getting out the trucks and combines to bring in the corn and soybeans, but for much of the day, all I hear is nature. My stream trickling over the rocks, the dry breeze teasing at what leaves remain, an occasional rooster or barking dog.

One other aspect of autumn that makes it special to me: I know of nowhere that this weather is available year round. In San Diego, my parents had something close to perpetual summer. The seasons were subtle, but in any month, most days, you didn’t need to turn on heat, you didn’t need to wear a jacket.

Other parts of the world tend colder, but the spring and fall seasons are always just passing through. So I am wallowing in this glorious weather, and in gratitude that it’s finally here.

To three commenters, I’ll send advanced reader files for Yuletide Wishes, the novella duet I’m publishing with Christi Caldwell on October 22. If you could create a Camelot for yourself in terms of weather, what would it be?

Curiously Wonderful

I’ve been home from my travels for more than week, and I’m still not all here. Metabolically, I’m waking up too early and yet I’m also a little tired. In terms of mood, I’m grumpy because a few domestic matters fell seriously apart in my absence, and I’m somewhat daunted. “Picking up where I left off,” creatively, is easier said than done.

So this is me, rolling up my sleeves and gettin’ on wi’ it, as the Scots would say. Post-travel adjustment is a very privileged, first-world complaint, and despite these re-entry megrims, I hope I will travel again. At a basic level, shaking up my routine gets my brain out of predictive text mode, and that’s good. On a more global scale, when I travel, my curiosity gets a boost.

And curiosity is worth more than rubies. Older folks who retain a strong sense of curiosity about life live longer than those who don’t. People who get a little adventurous with their daily schedule–trying a different piece of equipment in the gym, googling rabbit-hole questions for the sheer pleasure of learning, picking up books that simply look interesting–are likely to show more goal-orientation and persistence on those same days. It’s as if letting our brains off the leash a little makes our thoughts happier to stay on the porch when we need them to.

One of the three characteristics of highly successful innovators is that they are curious. Where most of us have a healthy sense of caution about novel elements of our environment–Could be snake! Might taste yucky! Everybody might laugh at me!–the innovators who do well balance that caution with curiosity. They go through life more wide-eyed and inquisitive than most other adults. (The other two characteristics: A large and varied circle of human connections (they are charming or at least interesting people), and a capacity for generating a volume of ideas rather than only a few good ones.)

We know when we’ve met one of these curious cats because they ask questions that make us think instead of sticking to the weather, sports, and superficial smiles. What’s on your bucket list? What’s your perfect day? If you had three wishes, what would they be? We remember the people who pose those queries, and remember even more when they listen to our answers.

Curiosity solves problems. Why does Valerian Dorning feel unworthy of Emily Pepper? Is it possible to make spray-on or feed-through birth control for feral cats? (Somebody please say yes.) What do people who’ve moved to Oregon say about making that work out well?

If you were going to award a research grant, or take an all expenses paid sabbatical (say, to Scotland…), what would you investigate? What would you like to know more about? What recently made you stop and think, “Now, why izat…?”

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card. Which reminds me: The B&N discount this month is BNPTARTAN50, which gets you half-off Tartan Two-Step, a story about a Scotsman who had some first-rate questions about a particular Montana whiskey distiller…

There’s No Place Like Home

I am back from more than three weeks of travel around Great Britain. The washing machine is working its magic as I type this, my first cup of “home tea” is brewing, and I am very, very glad to be once more in my personal typing chair. I am also very, very glad I went a-touring. I connected with family and with family history, and I learned a lot.

One of the primary reasons I travel is to see my familiar surroundings with new eyes, and this trip did that for me, though the results weren’t always cheering. Compared to the UK, for example, where I live is no melting pot. In Scotland, I heard accents from six continents, just as I toddled around the hotels and village shops, let alone the tourist sites. At home? I don’t even hear many regional American accents, and that’s a sort of poverty that probably afflicts much of rural America.

I saw no guns in the UK, unless they were antique firearms in glass cases. The UK has transitioned from having a gun-centric squirarchy in days of yore, to embracing different norms where firearms are concerned. I saw no guns at the harbors, on the ferries, in the airports, or the major train stations. Again, I view the proliferation of guns in the US as an indication of a sort of poverty, though several members of my family are gun owners (and I am not clamoring to “take their guns”).

The UK is way, way WAY ahead of us in terms of climate responsibility. Scottland is a net exporter of wind energy and ahead of schedule for achieving 100 percent renewable energy. Food, to the greatest extent possible, is locally sourced. That means it’s fresher, and while produce might not look quite as appealing on the shelf, the taste is better, the nutrition is better, and the carbon footprint much smaller, to say nothing of what various EU pesticide bans are doing to reduce toxicity to the consumer or the environment.

I saw areas in the UK that I’d like to improve on, of course. Handicapped accessibility lags in the UK tremendously, in part because it’s hard to retrofit castles (and their medieval villages) without destroying the original structures or the National Trust’s budget. The EU bears the scars of centuries–approximately fifteen of them–of religiously motivated killing, right up to the Troubles in Ireland. The future is looking more encouraging, but I often reflected on how lucky the US was to be “born” after the Reformation, and to have a built separation of church and state into its foundation. We’re still working out the details on that one, but the basic concept is sound.

The British monarchy and aristocracy continue to be sources of great contention, particularly when their extravagant living is compared to the meanness of life for the masses, where famine, clearances, enclosures, game laws, and other brutal aspects of modern history still linger in cultural memory. Again, I am glad the US has no overt hereditary royalty or peerage to try to wrestle into harmony with a democratic constitution.

Much to think about. It’s LOVELY to be able to handle money without peering twice at every coin, lovely to be able to understand people easily the first time they speak, lovely to be home, and beyond lovely to be ensconced in in my little house with my cats.

If you were to change one aspect of your home turf, what would it be? To three commenters, I will send an e-ARC of Love and Other Perils, which goes on sale October 8.

Too Many Castles

So I’ve bounced over from Ireland to Scotland (a forty minute flight between Dublin and Edinburgh), and I am having an enraptured time. Whenever I visit Scotland, I feel a sense of wonder and joy, in part because it’s just so danged pretty, and in part because it’s Scotland. History here, as in Ireland, goes back thousands of years before the pyramids, and everywhere you look somebody’s story—the Picts, the Vikings, the Jacobites—has left venerable footprints.

I envy the Scots the unifying influence of a long, shared legacy, but I also realize history can be too much of a good thing. Which castles should be saved? Which should be allowed to continue their slow march toward a death from natural causes? How many “historic stately homes” can the sightseeing public or the taxpaying public support, and what should be done with the extras?

On this visit, we paid a call at Traquair House, the oldest continuously occupied home in Scotland—continuous, as in since the early 1200s—and one of few that preserves the Catholic side of the whole violent mess we call the Reformation. Mary Queen of Scots slept there, and her rosary and crucifix are on display.

We also called at Abbottsford, Sir Walter Scot’s home, and one that claims to be the most important writer’s residence open to the public anywhere on the globe. Without Sir Walter, we might not have stumbled upon the notion of historical fiction (he turned hist fic into a global phenomenon), so of course his house ought to be preserved too.

My favorite place so far has been Ellisland, a humble farm worked by Robert Burns for a few years in his late twenties and early thirties. He built the farmhouse and many of the existing dry stone walls himself, plowed the ground and designed the house. His years at Ellisland were among his most productive, and the property is beautiful, even if the ground wasn’t all the fertile. I’d like to see Ellisland preserved for future generations too, and besides, it has a resident self-appointed feline welcoming committee of one which immediately ensures National Treasure status, right?

Americans move on average 11 times in our lives, and I’m on track to match that number, but my story has taken place mostly in two places: The one home I lived in between birth and age eighteen, the home where I’ve raised my daughter.

And yet, the place I lived when my daughter was conceived, the little apartment where she began life, the blasted summer rentals in San Diego where I was forced to spend several childhood summers… they are part of my story too.  My dad always pointed to the house where I and six siblings grew up as, “the place where it all happened,” but it turned out to be just one scene in his long, long story.

If you had to preserve one location for posterity as the place to tell your story, where would it be? Why? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card. (Which reminds me, keep an eye on my new Deals page, and feel free to nominate a book for discounting.)

 

 

Cleaning Up This Town

Apologies for skipping last week’s blog post. I was caught between jet-lag and travel-logistics, having just flown into Ireland. WHAT a beautiful country, so beautiful in fact, that I remarked to a local that I didn’t think I’d seen a single piece of litter outside of a major city.

There’s a reason for that! A reason why billboards are mightily discouraged, why flowers are on abundant display, and why the beaches are immaculate. Some bright soul took the basic Irish penchant for tidiness and launched the Tidy Town competition. This contest is divided into nine divisions based on the size of the competing entity (small village, medium city, and so forth), and the rules go like this:

Each town takes on its eyesores, civic problems, and social shortcomings as best it can with a combination of volunteer, donated, and municipal resources. If somebody’s shed is doing the Big Oggly right by the road, the hardware store might donate the material for a new roof, the garden center might spring for window boxes and flowers, and a dozen pensioners and teens might provide the labor to turn the eyesore into a quaint rural fixture such as postcards are made of.

The prize for winning a tidy town award is a chunk of cash, and part of the submission is a plan for what the town will do with that money. One place might need a tot lot, another might propose (and did propose) to change EVERYBODY’s lighting–public and private–to LED, thus saving money in the long term and benefiting the environment.

The contest is judged by trained volunteers who pop in on each contestant several times a year unannounced, and the consolation prize for the losers is an honest, thorough report on the state of the town, both positive and negative. If your town wins a Tidy Town award, your property values will increase for at least several years immediately following.

I like this idea a lot. It’s a way for people not central to the work force–the unemployed, post- and pre-employed–to jump in and make a difference. Neighborliness between businesses and residents, different areas of town, and different walks of life is encouraged. Resources are shared and community relationships are strengthened. Some potential exists for the competition to make things worse–squabblers are going to squabble–but the Irish have found this program to have overwhelmingly positive results.

If I were on my local Tidy Town committee, and I took a look around at what we need, what would be at the head of my list? The question is complicated because, though I’ve lived three miles outside the same dot on the map for nearly 30 years, I still don’t know the place very well. Oops.

If you were turned loose with a Tidy Town challenge, where would you start? What would you prose to do for your neighbors with the prize money? (And can you imagine a series of small town romances based on this premise?)

To one commenter, I will send a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card.