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.

Once Upon a Bathroom Scale…

This is a time of year when many people unite around a common story, whether it’s the miracle of a temple flame burning for eight days, the tale of young couple far from home when the new baby arrives, or the sharing of cultural roots that reach past a period of enslavement to the rich and varied histories of West African societies. I can’t recall a major holiday in my childhood that wasn’t in some way associated with storytelling.

One of my family’s favorites was that time when Grace tried to weigh her head. You read that right. I was five or six, and I got taken with the notion of figuring out how much my head weighed. I laid on the bathroom floor and put my head on the scale. There’s a problem with this approach: With my head on the scale, I couldn’t read the scale. What to do?

Had I chosen, say, the middle of a Saturday afternoon to research this vital fact, then there were would likely be no story. I chose a weekday morning at about 7:30 am. At this time of day, my oldest two brothers would have been trying to get out of the house to attend their college classes. Three other siblings had a bus to catch, and my dad needed to get to the office.

And the nine members of the Burrowes family had to execute the morning routine with one bathroom between us all. The other half bath, being in a more or less renovated garage, was colder than a well digger’s boots, and saw about as much use as would a two-seater at the back of the hog house.

Because that one full bath was in constant demand, it also had one of very few locking doors in the house. To conduct my head-weighing experiment, I required privacy, like most great minds when wrestling with a profound question. I locked the bathroom door, and commenced to study on how to weigh my head and read the scale. The problem was complicated.

A brother pounded on the door. “Grace, hurry up! I can’t be late for class.”

As if that was my problem? Genius takes time. Another sibling thumped on the door. “What the heck are you doing in there?”

“None of your business.”

This went on–five older siblings make a lot of racket–until my mom realized that our usual early morning ballet had hit a logjam. “Grace, unlock this door.”

“No. I’m weighing my head.”

Except I wasn’t. I was trying to weigh my head, but no matter how quickly I peeked, the scale didn’t register the actual weight of my head. An estimate for such vital data would not do.

“Open this door immediately, young lady. You can weigh your head some other time.”

“I want to know how much my head weighs now.” To this day, I have no idea why I had to know the weight of my five-year-old head. Nor do I know what guardian angel of reckless five-year-olds inspired me to climb up the shelves and get the hand-mirror, because using that important tool, I could both lay my head on the scale, and read the resulting weight.

When my mom’s magic bobby pin unlocked the bathroom door, I was putting away the hand-mirror, and quite pleased with myself. My family was enormously entertained–genius is often misunderstood–but I bet they don’t know how much their heads weigh.

What stories does your family tell about you? What stories do you tell when you get together with old friends or family? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amex gift card, but you have to say nice thing about me if the topic of how to weigh your head ever comes up.

 

 

 

Clothes Maketh the Horsewoman

I have resumed my equestrian education. I’m three lessons in, and have walked, trotted, and–wheee!!!–cantered both directions on an elderly school horse named Jack. I love him. He loves treats. We’re getting along just fine.

I’ve also just finished A Duke in Shining Armor by Loretta Chase. For the most part, when an author includes fashion descriptions, I yawn, but Loretta uses fashion to symbolize story elements–like a fussy, flouncy, hard-to-get-out-of wedding dress that’s all wrong for the pragmatic, whip smart heroine.

What has Lady Olympia’s wedding dress to do with riding lessons? Well, you can’t just slap on your schooling tights and head out to the barn. I have to get some layers on my top half, because even though it’s 25 degrees out, after leading himself around in deep sawdust for twenty minutes, I don’t need a coat. Then too, you have to get your hair all tidied up and out of the way.

As I’ve resumed the routine of dressing for my lessons, I’ve noticed a few things. First, my paddock boots have about a one-inch heel. This is to stop the foot from sliding through the stirrup iron, but the effect on me is a slight increase in height. The paddock boot also protects the toes from mis-steps by a half-ton equine. They are substantial footwear, and my footsteps announce my stride when I’m wearing them.

I wear winter schooling tights for my lessons, which have an elastic waistband, and suede patches on the inside of the knee. That patch helps me grip the saddle more snugly, and protects the inside of my calves from being pinched by the stirrup leathers.

Everything I wear for riding is for my safety or for my comfort. NOTHING is designed with a primary aim of enhancing my attractiveness, making me look skinny, or hiding my bulges. Interestingly, riding is a sport where men and women wear the same attire–unlike our Olympic beach volleyball athletes.

I can’t think of any other venue where the dress code is for my safety and comfort–none. Not the courthouse (no open-toed shoes… why? Are my bare toes that distracting?), not church (cover my hair because that was a cultural norm 2000 years ago?), not the office. My Chico’s duds are cold in winter and hot in summer, and in the Chico’s store, the nice ladies are usually whispering “slim secrets” (which always involve the purchase of accessories) before I’ve tried on the first outfit.

Reflecting on how much I love riding attire makes me aware that when when you tell somebody how to dress, you are to some extent telling them who they should be. Wear those stilettos, and so what if they will result in a hip replacement by the time you’re 55. Wear the perfume, because the smell of horse, hay, and leather isn’t attractive, unless it’s on a guy. Wear the smile, because…

What items in your wardrobe are for your comfort and safety? When have you told the dress code or the fashion police to get lost? To two commenters, I’ll send… a $25 American Express gift card, which I hope you spend on something comfy to add to your wardrobe.

 

Just STOP–no really, Stop!

In my travels this week, I came across the concept of a ‘stopping cue.’ These are the zillion tiny signals dotting our lives that tell us to end an activity. Way back when, the five o’clock whistle would blow, and we’d down tools and head home.  The sun would set, we’d go to bed.

In print books, you have scene and chapter breaks, and at the very end you get those Dear Reader letters from your truly, but then… the book is over with. Time to let the dog out for last call and go to sleep.

A stopping cue is a big help in regulating health and well being, because it becomes something we don’t have think about, like stop signs. You see that red octagon with four white letters in the middle, and in very short order, you don’t have think, “Oh, time to bring the car to a complete cessation of motion.” Your foot just moves from the gas to the brake, while you keep impressing the world with your roadtrip karaoke, musical genius that you are.

When our stopping cues are gone, we have to use a lot more energy and focus to remain oriented and self-regulated, like trying to diet in the midst of multiple smorgasbords filled with favorite recipes.

In one area of life, there has been a concerted effort to remove stopping cues, and that’s on our screens. We can now “binge watch” entire seasons of television shows at once. Social media will dazzle our wondering eyes with a bottomless sea of personal content, camouflaging the fact that we’re really staring at a tabloid shopper. The news cycle is now 24 hours, and all of it sticky with anxiety-producing negativity. You can play Minesweeper until your arm falls off, not just until the quarter runs out.

As I look at the approaching new year, I already know I want to pay more attention to stopping cues, and to protecting the ones I have. There are places I won’t be taking my iPhone (like the dinner table), days I won’t be on social media (aiming for two a week), and times I won’t be scrolling email (outside business hours). I suspect at first, rebuilding some of these boundaries will be hard, but I grew up without any social media, and calling during the dinner hour has always been considered rude.

Have you felt an erosion of stopping cues in your life? Have you built any into your day or your week? What did you used to do with your personal time, before screens became our default mode?

I’m sending out three give-aways this week, because our list last week was so impressive: an audio recording of Jack: The Jaded Gentleman Book IV, a glittery amaryllis from Hirt’s Nursery, and a pound of Mary See’s dark chocolate marzipan.

 

 

 

‘Tis More FUN to Give…

I do a giveaway every week with this blog and this is for reasons. I know my readers are all pretty capable of looking out for themselves, but when I send out a book or a box of chocolate, I feel more connected to my tribe. I like to think of somebody seeing a package and wondering, “I haven’t ordered any–Oh, yeah! I won a book from Grace!”

You get a smile, and I get a smile. The neuroscience says I actually get the bigger smile. When we give to somebody else, we get a bigger dopamine reward than when we self-indulge. The parts of our brain associated with happiness and altruism light up when we’re generous, and our blood pressure drops. People who can keep the generous habit going into old age report better spirits, and the generous among us tend to live longer. And you don’t have give a lot for it to make you happy–just be thoughtful within your means.

BUT there’s a difficulty here. You good folks reading this blog mostly have my books. You also have a lot of the books of my writin’ buddies, so what to give away become a challenge. My mom was one of those people who could spot the perfect blouse for you from a geosynchronous orbital altitude of eight miles. I didn’t get that gene. I’m not big on stuff myself, so the idea that I’d send somebody something they didn’t need or want makes me cringe.

Then I read John Scalzi’s blog post, an annual tradition with him. He opens up his blog once a year for everybody else to post books, crafts, albums, fave charities, art, anything that might make a good holiday thought for somebody with a shopping list of names and not enough ideas. I will be cruising John’s blog daily for the next week.

But I’d like some help with MY blog. I need giveaway ideas, Christmas gift ideas, links to anything you saw that would be perfect for Aunt Impossible or that brand new six-week-old nephoo. If you have a favorite charity (I’m fond of Heifer International, and that’s one of their hand-knitted Peruvian ornaments to the right) then put that in the comments.

Then I’ll chose three of your suggestions and send out those gifts to commenters. If you’ve been very good this year (or even if you haven’t), then it’s fair game to list the thing you’d like to come across this holiday season–with your name on it. I just might end up sending it to you. (Or you might get the fuzzy socks, just sayin’).

And that’s what I’d start with: I love Maggie’s organic wool hiking socks. They are the gift I bring my hostesses, my condolence gift to the bereaved, and what I sent to my editor and my web team last year as a token of holiday appreciation. If there’s a sock hound on your list, consider a pair of Maggie’s. They are spendy, but they last and last and are like a hug for your feet.

Your turn, and didja see the website got its holiday decorations, didja huh?

Don’t Worry, B 12

I’m having company next week. A friend from Scotland is spending a few days with me while airfares are cheap and the weather isn’t too wintry. We’ll probably stroll the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, grab some grub at Dan’s Tap House and drop by Turn the Page Bookstore.

I have not had company stay overnight at my house for the past fourteen years, at least. The issue isn’t pathological introversion, though I’m VERY introverted, nor do I lack for friends whose company I enjoy.

I just didn’t have the energy. Company is a lot of work. There’s housecleaning to be done, meals to plan, errands that have to be taken care of ahead of time so company isn’t neglected while visiting. There’s clean up and then catch up, and the sheer effort of being “on” for several days at a time. Then there’s the fact that because I do not prioritize housework, getting the premises ready for company has become a sizeable undertaking.

But I’m doing it, and I’m pleased to be tackling the challenge. The spirit has long been willing, but the flesh… for years, the flesh has had all it can do to sit in an ergonomic office chair and type 2000 words a day. The tread desk was the next priority, the law office had to be tended to, and of course, the pets got their due. But I had nothing left for more than subsistence domestication.

What changed?

When I went to the doc a couple months ago, I made my usual lament: Got no juice to spare, and the usual suspects–bad sleep, bad diet, low iron, thyroid disease, Lyme disease–have all been addressed. The doc, a nice lady of mature years to whom I’ve been singing the “no juice” blues for YEARS, asked, “What about B12?”

What about B12? “I had an uncle with pernicious anemia. Showed up in his fifties. I don’t think I’ve been tested for it.”

I got tested, and whaddya know, I needed B12. I started the shots, and within a week, I felt as if somebody had wiped the bug-splat off my mental windshield, as if the sun had come out. I’m not turning handsprings physically, but my mental engine still has compression at noon for a change. I wish I’d thought to test B12 sooner, because I look around now and see a cruddy house that should be cute and cozy (and will be!), a diminished social life, missed opportunities with friends, and other symptoms that could have been so easily treated if somebody had just taken a half-decent family history.

Now, I wonder what other B12’s are lurking in that family history, and in the routines and environments I’ve built up around myself. Sometimes, everything turns on finding the pea under the mattresses, on asking even one casual, obvious-in-hindsight question.  Are there peas lurking under your mattress? Small changes that have made a big impact? Little questions that have led to big insights?

To one commenter, I’ll send one of those praline and truffle assortments from the Highland Chocolatier, because that choice was VERY popular last week.

 

Deep in November

It’s not even 5 pm, but the day has been dreary and mizzly so it’s nearly dark outside. Temperatures are trending down toward freezing, and the wind is gusting making it feel even colder. I know many people dread this time of year–the cold, the slick roads, the darkness make everything harder.

But I like the transition from fall to winter. First off, NO BUGS. I know bugs are important to the ecosystem, but my nearest neighbors are bovines. I get all the insect companionship I want by the end of summer. Secondly, I sleep better when it’s cold. This might be a circadian rhythm thing; might have to do with the house being quieter when doors and windows are closed; might be because exercising in cooler weather isn’t as awful as exercising in summer’s heat, so I’m more tuckered out.

Thirdly, the long dark evenings mean I get more writing done. I think the sun going down earlier prompts me to leave the danged law office at a reasonable hour, whereas in summer, I’ll still be there at 8 pm, pretending I’m getting stuff done. Fourthly, the holidays approach, and that’s a lovely time of year. We think of others more naturally then, and when is that a bad idea?

Fifthly, changing seasons give my life a sense of moving forward–toward something–and I like that. My parents lived in San Diego, and while I know there are seasons in that latitude (June has a lot of morning fog, rain comes (if ever) in December and January), but the seasons where I live are dramatic enough to create a strong impression. When the first snow hits, when the first crocus comes up, when the first lightning bug is spotted, things are changing.

This has been challenging year for many of us, and the changing seasons remind me: Onward. We have only this one life in which to create a meaningful legacy and light a few candles.

How does the onset of winter find you? Ready to read for three months straight? In a funk? Catalogue shopping like a boss? To one commenter, I’ll send a box of The Highland Chocolatier’s signature truffles and pralines. They will take a while to get to you, but are well worth the wait.