Play It Forward

In 2018, I shed the professional identity of lawyer and cast my revenue-generating lot exclusively upon my writing abilities. (Wish me luck!) Typical of me, I approached the transition intent upon educating myself about how to manage the writer’s greatest asset: Her imagination. I would say to friends, “I’m studying creativity, taking a look at what sustains creativity, what fosters greater creativity.”

That sounds quite serious, quite grown-up, and it’s very interesting reading. In reality, though, my brand of creativity–a sustained gamed of Let’s Pretend–is little more than lucrative play. I’ve taken a pastime every child should be familiar with, spinning stories from worlds that don’t exist, and turned it into a livelihood, as many other lucky people have done before me.

I did not say to my friends, “I’m off to learn how to play more exuberantly.” Or, “I’m focused on winning the Let’s Pretend gold medal in the romantic fiction long distance event, open bedroom door division!” Creativity has an improving reputation, play is for children. Among the enlightened, maybe play is for rejuvenation so we can get back to work refreshed, but I’m beginning to take issue with that definition too.

Play is serious business, as proven by even a few minutes spent with the scientific literature on the subject. Play improves memory and focus, language learning capability, problem-solving ability, math skills, and self-regulation (which our moms called self-discipline). Play can also be where we learn team work, cooperation, and both how to be a good leader, and how to spot the differences between good and bad leaders. People with good play histories are more resilient and better able to make connections between divergent concepts.

Play is so important, that when we are play-deprived in childhood, particularly deprived of self-directed, unstructured “free play,” (also known as wasting time, goofing off, or messing around), we become more anxious, depressed, and aggressive. The bad news is that children’s free play has been declining for decades, mostly from expanding schoolwork requirements, but also because of safety concerns, hovering parents, and over-scheduling of organized activities. The very bad news is that as free play has disappeared from the common childhood experience, suicide rates for children under 15 have quadrupled.

The good news is, I am the boss of me as much as anybody is the boss of me. I not only want to infuse my life with recreation–new sights, lovely people, great books–but I also want to get over the notion that play is frivolous and self-indulgent. I am VERY fortunate that my childhood play history was an embarrassment of riches, complete with my own wild woods to wander in, parents who thought television was a tool of Satan, and stacks and stacks of National Geographic magazines to pore over.

I would like for my dotage to be similarly blessed, because I am convinced that all work and no play makes us a hopeless, bored, doomed society. Play is not just for fun or a change of pace before we plod back to the salt mines, play is the engine of the ingenuity, resilience, and creativity that have allowed us to survive thus far.

How did you play as a kid? How do you play now? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift certificate, and I promise, this week, I will do a better job of responding to comments!

Auld Lang Syne Wave

I did not have the easiest time of it in 2018. Getting shut of the law office was months of hurry up and wait/do nothing until you hear from the bureaucrats/are we there yet? My dearest old kitty girl Chloe departed for the Elysian fields as did my best old dawg Murphy. I got better acquainted with e. coli than anybody ever should (trust me on that), and I was too ambitious in terms of my travel commitments. I look at parts of the year with an element of, “That was no fun AT ALL.”

And yet, it was a very good year. Somebody asked me what I did in 2018 that I’m proud of, and I had to stop and think. My natural inclination is to deny that I’m proud–proud is like arrogant, isn’t it? Well, no, Grace Ann. Proud is not like arrogant, but that’s a topic for another blog.

I have on a few occasions been quite pleased with myself this year. I was pleased with myself earlier this month when, on my third riding lesson in forever, the horse cantered and I stayed on. I’d asked for a bigger trot, but the horse volunteered the greater effort of the canter, so correcting him for over-trying in good faith would not have been fair. To feel the canter again was wonderful and did marvelous things for my joie de Grace. 

I’m also proud of myself for traveling to New Zealand and Australia. It’s a measure of my timidity that even very friendly, easily traveled English-speaking foreign countries challenge me. Nonetheless, I know that if I’m to rely on my imagination to make my living, then I have to see new sights and expose myself to new perspectives. Suffice it to say, I hope I get back Down Under…. eventually.

And I’m proud of myself for things that might seem small to others, but for me are significant: A bazillion steps on the tread desk. In real life, I am not a sloth, I am a glacier. Moving around is simply not what I do best, but day after day, I shook the lead out and did some steps. That’s an improvement over previous years, and I’m proud of it.

I’m proud of myself for learning how to take a Word document and, using Vellum software on a Mac, format it for use as an ebook on either a kindle or another ereader. Then I learned how to upload those files on all the major ebook platforms. I’m slow, I have to re-learn half the process every time I do it, and I don’t enjoy it (see “on a Mac”), but I learned new tech skills, and got ‘er done for three different releases. Old dawg, meet new tricks.

What about your 2018 made you proud of yourself? Is there a challenge you’d like to tackle in 2019? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift e-card.

The Alpha-Myth

In a certain corner of Romancelandia, the alpha male stalks as the uber-hero. He’s first of all, tough. His physical prowess is undisputed, and if you cross him, he will flatten you. He solves a lot of problems with violence, which earns him the respect of all who behold him. Only underhanded cunning can bring him low, but such is his determination and resilience, that he will triumph over even brilliant cheaters, and crush them beneath his size 13 black biker boots.

These guys have never really worked for me, unless they are also written with human depth–humor, tender sentiments, unexpected hobbies, foibles, and other traits we expect real men to have.  I encounter the alpha male most often when I’m judging contests, and I’ve been assigned the romantic suspense entries. All too often, half-way through the book I’m wondering: Is the only difference between the hero and the villain that the hero is a more effective killer who takes lives on behalf of the “right” flag? And we’re supposed to fall in love with that? Really?

So when I came across a TED talk by Frans de Waal, the primatologist who popularized the term “alpha male,” I gave it a watch. According to de Waal, we think–or have been taught to think–of an alpha male as the guy who wins the fight for reproductive rights in the chimpanzee troop, because the ability to fight hard and be big and strong must surely be the traits nature favors for perpetuation of the species. This mythology would have us believe that nature itself wants the biggest bruiser to get the most representation in the gene pool, and nature is never wrong.

Except, that’s not how any of this works. Turns out, the alpha male has two jobs that take up most of his time. The first is to serve as an impartial judge of disputes. Without reference to whether the unhappy parties are his family members or unrelated to him, he adopts a disinterested perspective to settle differences. This flies in the face of genetic priorities, but the evidence is incontrovertible. The alpha male must be a fair judge.

His second big job is consolation. He is the great giver of pats on the back and hugs, whether the aggrieved are the losing parties in his courtroom or a family dealing with the loss of an infant at the paws of a rapacious cheetah. He’s Mr. There-There, I share your loss. I’m sorry for your troubles. He’s clergy, in other words.

Maintaining his alpha status is much more about justice and compassion than about violence or dominance. If an alpha male is well liked, he can be deposed as the top dawg and still enjoy plenty of reproductive privileges, suggesting–again–that nature values

charm, compassion, and fairness more than a violent temper.  Moreover, our closest primate kin–the bonobos–are matriarchal, and their communities thrive by solving almost all problems with copulation rather than aggression. You surely don’t see many mainstream tales based on that scientific fact, do you?

I suspect the inaccuracy of the alpha male myth doesn’t come as much of a surprise to romance readers. We have little patience for thugs and bullies, and certainly don’t fall in love with them. What I do wonder is why the science was so widely mis-characterized in the first place, and why any man worth a meet would have accepted the myth at face value, much less let it come to represent a persona to be mistakenly admired or emulated.

Who’s your ideal hero? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card.

When Nothing is More

I’m back in the saddle. I tried taking riding lessons last winter, but the situation didn’t gel. I still love horses, I need joy as much as the next author of happily ever afters, so I try, tried again. The process now is very much one of remediation, as in, “The horse goes on the bottom, Grace!”

Good to know! Little known fact: In order to work efficiently, a horse has to be relaxed. Even if he’s putting out a lot of effort, he should have a rounded, fluid silhouette over his back, he’ll be fighting his own physics with every step.

I was trying to get my mount round and relaxed at the trot, which meant he’d be pushing from behind, but still moving smoothly. Up one side of the arena we went, around in a circle, down the other side… and me being out of shape meant my signals to the horse became increasingly noisy as tired. I was bouncing around more, banging on his back instead of managing my own weight. Over-relying on my reins, and generally doing a worse job the longer I kept at it.

My horse was not going round. “OK,” I says to myself, “time for a walk break or this will just degenerate further.”

Now, at a certain sophisticated level, the rider thinks, “Walk,” and a smooth, balanced transition from trot to walk happens. The horse floats into the slower gait, the rider remains poised and elegant in the saddle… but the third lesson back is not that day. I’m in the saddle thinking, “Eyes up and soft, weight balanced over both seat bones, reins in connection, don’t forget to breathe, and–ARE YOUR EYES UP AND SOFT, GRACE?!–elbows at your sides, inside shoulder back and down…” while my noble steed is be-bopping good-naturedly around in the trot.

From the center of the arena, madam instructor expostulates, “THERE! You got him round! That’s wonderful, look at him. What did you do? Because this is the frame you want.”

We came down to the walk about a quarter of a long-side later, and I thought back: What had I been doing when the horse had relaxed, stepped up behind, and begun to work through his body? What had I been doing? What? What? WHAT?

“Nothing,” I said. “I was too busy planning my downward transition. I just… sat here?”

The instructor smiled. “You got quiet. You gave him a minute to process what you were asking, and stopped handing out orders.”

On the next trot set, we tested the hypothesis: If I waited for a few seconds between asking and expecting a result, did the horse produce the result? Yes, he generally did. He needed time to process, without me offering reminders, encouragement, footnotes, and other assorted noise. He need ME to listen to HIM. He needed ME to adjust to HIS mental pace.

What a concept. Do you need processing time? Do you get it? Are there people in your life who might benefit from being allowed a little more of it? Are there situations where to get what you want, you have to be quiet and listen? To three commenters, I’ll send an Advanced Reader Copy of Not the Duke’s Darling, which releases on TUESDAY!!!

 

 

Grace the Grinch

I have written many Christmas stories, and they remain among my readers’ favorites. I suspect this is not because Christmas is such a wonderful time of year, full of love and laughter, though it can be. I think the Christmas romance resonates with many because Yuletide is such a hard time of year, lonely, bleak, and overwhelming.

When Lady Sophie wants some solitude at the holidays rather than more time around her huge, happy, happily-married family, readers get that.

When Lady Joan views the holidays with a gimlet-eyed determination to uphold propriety and the expectations her family has of her, readers know where she’s coming from.

When Lady Jenny gets through the holidays with a silent promise to herself that she’ll  get the heck out of Dodge in January, and finally embark on the pursuit of her own agenda, readers don’t judge her for that.

When I was doing foster care lawyering, I knew that without fail, the week between Christmas and New Years would see two kinds of hearings. First, we’d get “disrupted placements,” meaning foster parents or relatives who’d taken in a difficult kid would give up on that kid. Second, we’d get “drive by” Child In Need of Assistance cases, meaning care providers–girlfriends, grandparents, even single parents–would simply drop the kids off in the lobby of the Social Services building with a hearty, “I can’t handle this,” and ride into the sunset.

Christmas Eve is the second-most domestically violent night of the year (after Super Bowl Sunday in the city that wins). New Year’s Day is the annual high point for car theft (talk about an un-designated driver). Alcohol has something to do with these wrong turns, as does stress, disrupted routines, dark skies (in the Northern hemisphere), and pressure to socialize and be generous.

I recall vividly being eight months pregnant one Christmas, unmarried and expecting a child I had not planned. I was still morning sick, which made shoveling a foot of snow off my truck just ever so much fun. I was also living alone and broke (had to move out before a lease was up, because no children allowed–cha-ching!). I knew that if I didn’t get the crib, changing table, and rocker assembled over the holiday break, I’d likely not have another time to do it and for some reason, I was supposed care about that. (I got it done.)

That was a miserable Christmas, made even worse by all the people who gushed to me about how “special” it must be to be expecting over the holidays…

So I approach the holidays with an eye toward the people for whom it’s not an easy time of year. I give to charities aimed at helping families in my area–assistance with the electric bill, donations to food pantries, aid for families with somebody in the pokey. I try to keep mostly to my routine, I really try to watch what I eat because sugar highs and lows don’t help anything. (But the occasional homemade cookie is lovely). I keep good books around me, and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Rudolph,” and “Pretty Woman.”

In other words, Christmas is in some regards, just another lovely day, and that works for me. What works for you?

To THREE commenters, I’ll send an advanced reader copy of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Not The Duke’s Darling. Talk about Christmas coming early!

Un-Social Media

Another week, another flame war on social media. This time the dust-up occurred because YA author Tomi Adeyemi thought romance icon Nora Roberts had chiseled in on Tomi’s titling turf. You can read the backstory here. Tomi apologized, Nora issued a statement, and onward we trudge, after 72 hours of misery, strife, and discord in Author-ville.

My experience of Nora Roberts is that she is kind, honorable, generous, and hard-working. I know this personally, having signed at her store several times, and seen her in action at conferences.  She couldn’t spell “petty” if the nuns wrote it on the board for her in pink chalk letters a foot high. She has no need to poach creativity from anybody.

Tomi is 25 years old, the author of one very successful book, Children of Blood and Bone, and I have never interacted with her personally. She’s probably one sorry young woman as I type this, and clearly, she didn’t have enough experience with traditional publishing to understand that Nora’s title was submitted BEFORE Tomi’s book was a gleam in any editor’s eye. The ladies apparently had a chat. Tomi’s a little better informed now.

Oopsie. I hope all concerned can get on with writing great books for very large and appreciative readerships.

What stuck with me though, is that I saw many authors piling on, and by writing this post, I am arguably doing likewise. Some authors quietly admitted, “I once posted something publicly that I thought was a in a private group…” Or, “I posted in a private group, and somebody shared screen shots even though that’s against the rules…”

Then comes the question, “How are we supposed to deal with this if/when it happens to us?” The consensus is, a published author has to be on social media, but even being exceedingly careful–Nora did nothing wrong, her PR is in the hands of pros–you can be flamed, trolled, and mobbed.

I ask myself, “Who benefits from a social media environment where bad behavior is amplified immediately and loudly, while good behavior seldom is?” I don’t think the authors involved see this as an author-win, their readers probably don’t see it as a reader-win, but Twitter and Facebook? They scored enormous upticks in traffic, and that’s a win for them and their shareholders.

I want to stay connected to my readers, and social media helps me do that, but I no longer want to support ecosystems where the human neurological predisposition to negativity is hijacked into maximizing profit for those sitting safely on the sidelines. So I have some questions for my blog buddies: How important is it that your authors have a social media presence? How do you know about our new releases, if not from social media?

I love my readers, but I want to hang out with them in flame-free environments. And because the holidays approach… to one commenter, I’ll send a Noveltea Pride and Peppermint tin (which is fun even if you don’t drink tea).

 

The Most Wonderful Holiday

As a kid, I sensed that Thanksgiving was a different sort of holiday. It wasn’t about piles of presents, or going away to someplace exotic and expensive. It wasn’t about a cake and candles and more presents. It wasn’t about a basket overflowing with sweets I probably should not have been eating in those quantities, or dressing up in a costume to score more sweets.

Thanksgiving involved a very good meal, true, but more to the point, it involved gratitude and loved ones. That’s it–period. That’s the reason for the holiday, to be grateful for what we have. That we follow this holiday with the Black Friday ritual of unbridled consumption strikes me as calculated to distract us from Thanksgiving priorities.

I get that some people need every deal they can find on staples, much less on discretionary purchases, but does that explain the hordes thronging to the stores to buy Mario Kart and Spiderman Games? Xboxes and Nintendo Switch bundles? We spend, on average, $5 billion on that one day, very little of it for necessities.

The average American is bombarded with 1600 advertising messages in the course of a single day. That’s 1600 times we’re told, “Buy this, and you will be happier/prettier/healthier/smarter…” Or my favorite: “Buy this and you’ll be wealthier…” Which is shouted at authors from many sides.

I see two problems with the message that buying some thing fixes a problem. First, I’m happy right now, I’m pretty enough right now, I’m in possession of enough goodies to assist me with maintaining and improving my health (waves to the tread desk and the comfy walking shoes). The implication that I should be discontent with my circumstances is a) manipulative, and b) usually a lie. Most people would consider themselves to be living the dream to have what I have–a roof over my head, some money in the bank, a job I love, good friends and dear family, as well as reasonable health. Besides peace and justice for all on a well cared for planet, what more SHOULD I want?

But when you’re told 1600 times a day that your life can and should be better? How long can you even hear the evidence of your own contentment, much less trust it? Now consider that you’re a seven-year-old kid, trying to sort out what matters in life, and turn those 1600 missiles of manipulation into nuclear warheads. And maybe you think,  “I just ignore all the ads,” but the ads are designed to ensure that even when we don’t realize we’ve seen them, they impact our behavior and our moods.

The second problem I see with the swamp of consumerism is that while we’re busy getting and spending and laying waste our powers, we’re not creating relationships, building communities, or devising public policies that protect our privacy and peace of mind. We’re not doing the things that have been proven to result in true contentment and health, in other words. You can probably think of a better use for $5 billion than hand-held games that will be mostly gathering dust (or made obsolete) in a few months.

So here we are, facing the time of year when we’re most heavily besieged to buy, buy, buy… What one addition to or subtraction from your life would you really like to find under the tree next month? I’d like to find more time with my friends, and you know what? I know exactly where to get it. This week, I’m not doing a giveaway. I’m doing a donation to Heifer International for beehives and trees in the name of my blog buddies.

 

 

Setting the Table for Breakfast

I recently watched a writing master class given by Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame (and fortune). Dan writes suspense/thrillers, but his books also have a strong mystery element. I’m toying with a mystery premise (Miss Fisher meets Jane Austen), so I wanted to hear what he had to say.

The class was interesting, and also a good review of some basic writing wisdom: Try to write in an internet-free zone, or at least during internet-free times. Know when to ease up on the research because before you can sell those books, you have to, um, write them. Find a process that works for you, and then work that process without getting too hung up on tropes, fads, software, trends, or spiffy new equipment.

Dan writes in the early, early morning hours, from 4 a.m. onward, and one of his suggestions was to “set the table for breakfast.” He did not mean to literally lay out a place setting for the first meal of the day, rather he meant that before closing the document for the day, add a few lines about where the scene is heading or what needs to happen next. Leave yourself some questions or clues that will get your mind moving into the story when you first sit down.

I know one writer who purposely stops her words for the day in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a paragraph, in the middle of a scene. If defy anybody, writer, reader, or neither, to sit down in front of that document and ignore that incomplete sentence. Anthony Trollope wrote for three hours every morning, with his pocket watch open on the desk before him. If he was in the middle of a word when the clock struck 8:30 am, he stopped writing.

What stands out for me about these writers is that they are all successful. I suspect the “setting the table for breakfast” habit not only closes a writing session with the subconscious noshing on the next scenes, it also begins the writing session with all kinds of creative compression. I set the table for breakfast the way Dan Brown does, with a trail of bread crumbs into the next scene. I also try to read over my pages for the day last thing before bed.

Before I get out of bed in the morning, I turn my waking mind to the writing objective for the day and ask myself: What about this scene makes it essential to the book? How can I make this content surprising to the reader rather than predictable? I try to not be in a hurry to get out bed (luckiest woman in the world, that’s me), but to be patient with my imagination, until I can feel the ideas beginning to flow in a direction I want to capture in words.

Then I scamper downstairs and get writing. I do though, pause long enough to punch the microwave start button, because part of my setting the table for breakfast routine is also to prime a cup of jasmine green tea, so that all I have to do in the morning is hit start, and I can get to the writing.

How do you, mentally or otherwise, set the table for breakfast? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card, because cyber-everything will soon be upon us, and we’ve all been good this year.

Not the Duke’s Darling by Elizabeth Hoyt

Not the Duke’s Darling by Elizabeth Hoyt (Dec. 18, 2018)

Freya de Moray is many things: a member of the secret order of Wise Women, the daughter of disgraced nobility, and a chaperone living under an assumed name. What she is not is forgiving. So when the Duke of Harlowe, the man who destroyed her brother and led to the downfall of her family, appears at the country house party she’s attending, she does what any Wise Woman would do: She starts planning her revenge.

Christopher Renshaw, the Duke of Harlowe, is being blackmailed. Intent on keeping his secrets safe, he agrees to attend a house party where he will put an end to this coercion once and for all. Until he recognizes Freya, masquerading among the party revelers, and realizes his troubles have just begun. Freya knows all about his sins–sins he’d much rather forget. But she’s also fiery, bold, and sensuous–a temptation he can’t resist. When it becomes clear Freya is in grave danger, he’ll risk everything to keep her safe. But first, he will have to earn Freya’s trust…by whatever means necessary….

Freya laid her hand on the doorknob and carefully turned it without making a sound.

Well. A sound a human could hear.

It wasn’t until she saw the eyes at hip height reflecting back her candlelight that she remembered Tess. Harlowe kept his dog in his rooms.

Freya froze…or she started to in any case. A large, masculine hand seized her arm and dragged her into the bedroom.

She gasped as the door was closed behind her and she was shoved up against it.

Her candle was plucked from her hand.

Harlowe set the candle on a table by the door. He propped his hand on the wall and leaned over her, smiling a very untrustworthy smile. “Had I known you were coming to visit me tonight, Miss Stewart, I would’ve called for a tray of bonbons.”

What a maddeningly capricious creature he was.

And that was not excitement rising in her breast at the realization that he was awake and ready to spar.

She put both hands on his chest and pushed.

Nothing happened.

“Let me go,” she snarled at him.

“Oh dear, I am sorry,” he said with patently false concern. “You must’ve mistaken the room. Were you looking for Lord Rookewoode? Or was it Lord Stanhope?”

Her nostrils flared with rage. “I—”

“No.” His smile disappeared and what remained on his face was an expression that made her shiver involuntarily. “Whatever lie you were about to tell me, darling, don’t.”

For a moment he simply stared at her and she stared back, her breaths coming faster and faster.

Tess sat down and whined under her breath.

“Now,” the Duke of Harlowe said, “why are you in my rooms?”

She raised her eyebrows and said in a voice made steady only through great will, “You’ve already guessed, Your Grace. I find I’m overcome by a sudden tendre for you.”

His mouth twisted into something ugly and for a second—just a hair of a second—she thought he might strike her.

Then he straightened. “Tell me, Miss Stewart, do you loathe all men or am I special?”

“Oh,” she whispered, and this time she couldn’t still the waver of pure hatred in her voice, “you’re very special.”

His brows drew together. They stood only inches apart. Every time he inhaled, his chest nearly touched her unbound breasts beneath her chemise and wrap. They were so close, she could almost hear his heartbeat.

They might’ve been lovers.

Or enemies about to kill each other.

“Do I know you?” he murmured. “Have I caused you harm in some way?”

She couldn’t afford to have him recognize her.

She should apologize. Let him believe whatever he wished so long as he let her go and she left.

That was the smart thing to do.

The responsible thing.

Rings, memories, and revenge shouldn’t matter at all.

She reached up and placed her palm gently—so gently!—against his hard cheek, feeling his bristles, and widened her eyes. “If you can’t remember, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

His eyes began to narrow, but she rose on tiptoe, wrapped her hand around his fingers, and jerked him toward her in a single movement.

She ground her mouth against his.

His lips tasted of betrayal and wine. Night and childhood memory.

Love and loss.

The emotion he aroused in her was so profound she almost lost herself in the embrace.

She opened her mouth, licking across his bottom lip until his own tongue came out to tangle with hers.

Then she bit him.

Fuck!” He stepped back, blood beading on his mouth, his face twisted in confusion and outrage. “You’re insane.”

The dog was on her feet, whining in distress.

“No. I’m not.” Freya opened the door and all but ran down the corridor, her breath coming in shaky gasps. When she reached her own room she shut the door behind her and pushed a chair under the doorknob.

She sat on the side of her bed, trying to calm her heart.

Perhaps she was insane.

For five years she’d been nothing but dull and circumspect, polite and utterly forgettable. She’d served the Wise Women well as the Macha. Every step she took, every word she spoke, was considered carefully so she would not be revealed. She had a mission that was vitally important to the continued existence of the Wise Women.

And yet in less than twelve hours she’d thrown all that away.

Freya opened her hand. Nestled in her palm was Ran’s ring. She’d wrested it from Harlowe’s finger when she’d bitten him.

She held it up, studying the worn gold of the band. It was a signet ring with a carved onyx meant to be used to seal wax. The intaglio was of a bird of prey. The bird, worn about the edges, might’ve been a falcon or even a hawk, but Freya knew that it was a merlin.

The de Moray family symbol.

Merlins were the smallest of the falcons. Swift and ruthless, merlins caught other, smaller birds on the wing before landing and devouring their prey.

This ring had been worn by generations of de Moray men, including her own papa before he’d given it to Ranulf on his eighteenth birthday.

Freya closed the ring in her fist again. No doubt Harlowe would soon realize his ring was gone.

Too bad.

He might be a duke now, but she was a de Moray woman, small, swift, and above all ruthless.

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Making It Work

So last week, I maundered on about the joys of working from home. For a little old introvert like moi, the benefits are many. But how did I get onto that topic?

Welp, I’m researching the causes of depression, in part because Ash Dorning told me to. In his day, depression was called melancholia, and the most frequent prescriptions were to hang out in beautiful nature, move the heck around (walking, fishing, riding, “taking the air,”), and stick with caring, upbeat people who read good books (I did not make that up).

In my research, I came across some studies of the British civil service done by Sir Michael Marmot several decades ago. The purpose of the inquiries was to look at how work impacts our health, and the general theory going in was: The guy (back then it was always a guy) in the corner office has the most stress, the most visibility, the most accountability beyond his department. That’s where the heart attacks, anxiety, depression, and stroke rates will be highest.

Nope. Sir Michael found a straight-line correlation between how far down the pay scale your position was, and how HIGH your risk of physical and mental misery was. All of the civil servants were making a solid livable wage, all were fairly well educated, all were doing “desk” jobs in a society where higher education is affordable and health care is easily accessed. What varied was a) whether they felt they had control over their in-boxes, and b) whether working harder meant more recognition (promotion).

Then the researchers took it one step further: They looked within pay grades for the jobs that had some autonomy and compared them to the jobs that required passive acceptance of whatever was assigned. No surprise, the passive jobs were much more prone to depression and ill health, and yes, we can screen out the causation argument: People with no history of depression became depressed working those in-box jobs. People depressed in the in-box jobs lost the diagnosis when they switched to a more self-empowered position.

The methodology for this research was rigorous, in part because the stakes were high. In one tax inspectors’ office, the suicide rate was four times the national average. Pills might (that’s a big might) ameliorate symptoms of depression, but the cure was to restructure the work place and the means by which people were recruited to it.

We’re told depression is a result of “brain chemistry” run amok, but in Ash Dorning’s day, nobody would have accepted that as a reasonable explanation for melancholia. The logical inquiry would have progressed to: But WHY is the brain chemistry amok, and most often in fairly predictable segments of society? I will do more research on the not-very-cheering topic of why depression happens (thanks, Ash), but this research about work struck me as important and under-reported.

We just set the clocks back, and in the northern hemisphere, we’re approaching the cold, dark, don’t-go-outside season. If you get down, what are your coping mechanisms? Have you spotted factors that make the blues more likely to come around? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of My Own and Only Duke.