All the Feels

When I’m coming up with a plot for a new book, the first question I ask myself is, “What is the hero/heroine’s defining trauma?” Then I ask myself, “Where did I put the Green and Black’s dark chocolate?”

From the character’s major, unhealed wound comes a world of coping mechanisms, defense strategies, choices made for the wrong reasons, and even strengths. From that one unhappy piece of backstory comes the road map for what joy looks like for that character, and what obstacles will require the most courage to overcome.

All of that comes from answering the question: Where does it hurt and why?

But there are characters enduring a different kind of suffering, and I first met them in foster care. Early, early in my courtroom career, I came across kids who couldn’t distinguish hungry from full, and who would either go for days without eating–yes, days–or gorge for no apparent reason. Other children had trouble with incontinence, still others couldn’t recognize when they were tired or thirsty.

These kids had been born into domestic war zones, more or less, and had spent all of their attention on staying out of harm’s way. They broke my heart and baffled me. How sad, to be that out of touch with your personal reality, that your survival needs never hit your own radar.

At the same time as I was getting up to speed as a child welfare lawyer, I was dealing with frequent migraine headaches. Nothing helped–not drugs, not other drugs, not acupuncture, not exercise, not nothing, not no how, except sometimes–maybe every tenth headache–if I could feel that sucker coming on, I could smack it down with caffeine, which I reserved for that one purpose.

BUT for that approach to have a prayer of working, I had to notice when the headache was first trying to creep up out of my back and into my neck. If it reached my temple, I was doomed. I began to Pay Attention. I noticed that fatigue, hunger, thirst, exercise, heat, allergies, stress, stress, and stress could all trigger a migraine.

I noticed how in the course of a day, I was usually tired, hungry, thirsty, stressed, overheated (much of the year), and stressed some more. Single parenting, running my own business, trying to make ends meet, dealing with the child welfare system, forcing myself to exercise… it was all a big, um, headache.

I couldn’t change much about my circumstances, but I could do better. I could prioritize sleep, I could ease up on exercise when it was too stinkin’ hot, I could keep a bottle of water handy. It helped, but first, I had to start paying attention to where it hurt.

Was there a time when you were the last one to get the memo? When your body had to whack you upside the head to get your attention, or a friend or family member had to point out the obvious to you about your own situation? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Tartan Two-Step.

 

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Try a Little Tenderness

When I have a chance to discuss with my cover designers what I’m looking for in an image, I start with tenderness. Tenderness is hard to capture visually, and probably doesn’t sell as many books as steam, hunkiness, or cowboy hats. I’m not backing down, though, because to me, tenderness is the essence of romance.

We choose to be both vulnerable and loving in tender moments, and if our honest emotions and courageous overtures are ridiculed or rejected, we’re devastated.  A little rejection in a tender moment lasts a lifetime. A little tenderness, when somebody is expecting ridicule or rejection, ALSO lasts a lifetime.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that Pope Francis has done a TED talk and declared that we need a revolution of tenderness. Tenderness, sayeth the Pope, is, “love that comes close and becomes real… it means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other…Tenderness is not weakness, it is fortitude.” .

The Pope and I share a priority, and to some extent a value. Imagine that. I’m a lapsed Catholic, and I can go to town full-lawyer-female-righteous about why, but the Venn diagram of Francis and Grace has a big area of overlap. Hmm.

I found myself quoting Mitch McConnell this week too, because he and I also agree about something. He put it this way: “We have term limits. They’re called elections.” In the context of a larger discussion (gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, FCC rules regarding campaign coverage), I cited McConnell’s reasoning. If we get dark money, gerrymandering, and a few other behemoth evils out of politics, the electorate will turf out the bad eggs, and keep in office the folks who are pulling their share of the load. It’s a theory, anyway.

The point is, I almost, sorta, yikes, agreed with somebody with whom I would have said, I have nothing–nuffink!–in common. Two somebodies–the Pope and Mitch McConnell. Mercury must be in retrograde.

Then I saw the Heineken commercial, which chronicles an experiment. Two strangers cooperate on a task, putting together an Ikea-style modular bar. Unbeknownst to them, they are paired up because they hold wildly opposing viewpoints on political issues. They learn this after they’ve built the bar, and then they’re given a choice: Walk out, or have a beer together. They find the courage and humility to have that beer and talk to each other.

Division, isolation, and separation make us weak and easily frightened. What struck me this week, though, is how my default mode has become to anticipate differences, to ignore areas of common ground. That is tiring and contrary to my values. I want to live more in the middle of my Venn diagrams, where I’m connected to other people, braver, and more open-hearted.

Have you ever been surprised to find common ground? Relieved to not have to keep your dukes up all the time? To one commenter, I’ll send an audiobook of Thomas, the latest Lonely Lord to hit the audiobook shelves.

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The Quiet Game

In Maryland, we can go from nights below freezing, to days in the nineties without much in-between. Some years, the air conditioning comes on in March, and the heat goes off in May. It’s… interesting.

This year, we’re having an extended period of gorgeous weather (meaning more than two days). The nights are chipper but not freezing, the bugs have been slow to come out, the days have been mostly sunny with low humidity.

What I notice, without the heat blasting, the woodstove crackling, or the fans roaring, is the quiet. We’ve all had the experience of the power winking out, and even if we’re sitting in a sunny location, we hear the house go off grid. The ‘fridge sighs, the dishwasher stops, the everything goes silent.

And our first reaction–even before, “The %$#*! power cut out again!” is a sense of relief. Studies show that people who live near chronic sources of noise–heavy traffic, airports, construction sites–will have higher blood pressure, higher levels of stress, and poorer quality sleep than the general population. The news gets worse, because that stress and elevated BP translate into heart disease.

You read that right–living loudly can cost you heart health. Other areas affected are your immune system, learning efficiency, hearing, attention span, birth weight (if your mama is dealing with a noisy gestational environment), propensity for headaches… In other words, noise is not only a nuisance, over time it can hurt us.

I am not good at tuning out sounds. I can ignore visual clutter, stink, most people, and lots of other distractions, but noise sinks my ship of creativity. I think about this when I visit those poor souls trapped in open-plan offices, particularly the exposed-duct-work, warehouse style versions. We’ve had years to study those environments, and yea, though they lower HVAC costs, and delight snoopy, insecure managers, they invariably raise sick leave totals and reduce productivity (this the opposite of team-building, ye managers). I wonder if some of the damage they do isn’t simply a function of having a lot of ambient noise.

Our brains like a good dose of silence, even to the point of finding silence more relaxing than “relaxing” music. Silence helps us integrate memories, and tend to the background brain functions related to figuring out how we fit into the world we live in.

Maybe this is why I like to write about the Regency and Victorian Highlands, and why my contemporaries are almost always rural. Those are quiet times and places, where characters can literally hear themselves think.

Do you treat yourself to regular servings of silence, or are you silence-averse? If you could add some quiet to your day, where and how might you do that? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Duchesses in Disguise, because our hero, Sir Greyville Trenton, is comfortable with silence, and can communicate well while using his handsome mouth to do a lot more than talk.

 

 

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The Story of Eve and Some Guy

So, I’m reading along…. and I see an article about ADHD in women. My daughter’s pediatrician had told me long, long (like 25 years) ago, that ADHD is “underdiagnosed” in girls in his opinion, because girls don’t break things, climb the walls, fidget and other wise act like boys with ADHD. They do, however, have all the mental earmarks, and sometimes get the diagnosis of ADD.

At the time, medication was seldom prescribed for those ADD girls, because their behaviors weren’t problematic to anybody else. They just flunked math class because they were “airheads.” The article cited above confirms that long-ago assessment by that pediatrician, and goes one better: The reason ADHD isn’t accurately diagnosed in women is because all of the initial studies of the disease were done on little white boys.

Would you ever mistake a herd of busy little white boys for any other population demographic? I think not. The disease of ADHD is different in women. Period. What a concept.

Women are more likely to die of their first heart attack than men are. Why? In part, because for years, the usual scenario of heart attack symptoms was limited to the somewhat overweight guy clutching his chest, staggering around, unable to breathe. Heart disease is the number one killer of American women, more than every kind of cancer combined, and yet, that “I felt like a horse was sitting on my chest” scenario isn’t as likely to apply to women.

We’re getting smarter about heart attacks and women, and now realize that the disease is different for women and men.  Here again, would you ever mistake your grandma for your grandpa? No, you would not. Medical science did, with fatal results for women.

Then I came across this 75-year long Harvard study, which has a heartwarming and reassuring conclusion: the key to a long, healthy life is to spend time with the people who make you happy.

So you might think, “Well, now that I have scientific proof, I know what changes to make!” Except…. Read any article about this study (there are many), and notice that not one of them points out: The findings might be different for women. Every subject of this study was male–every one–and nobody has cited that limitation as relevant.

So on this holiday that celebrates resurrection and the triumph of love over darkness, I’m feeling a sense of my gender-identity being resurrected. Women are different from men, not the lesser included model, not the vicarious beneficiaries of male medical relevance. We are not male, and when we are mistaken for male, we can end up avoidably flunking math class, and avoidably dead.

Glad I got that off my chest. To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Tartan Two-Step, a story of love, whisky, and big, sunny skies. When did medicine get it wrong for you or somebody you love, and did gender play a role? When did medicine get it right, because thank heavens, medicine so often does get it right.

 

 

 

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Duking It Out

So… drove to Oregon, surrendered the truck into the keeping of Beloved Offspring, and also took in a Free Expressions writing workshop. For a week, I soaked my head in the craft of fiction, and the book I focused on was my old pal, the Welsh Duke, aka No Other Duke Will Do. (There’s a sneak peek at the cover!)

Julian St. David, Duke of Haverford, rode shotgun all the way out to Oregon, and I still arrived to the conference feeling as if he just hadn’t quite come clean with me regarding his defining trauma.

After 455 miles of Nebraska, 403 miles of Wyoming, and about 2000 miles of Everywhere Else,  my hero was still holding out on me.

Dukes can be like this.

So every day, his ducal behonkis got the brunt of my workshop focus. All the exercises were about him, the homework was about him, the in-class prompts were about him. I was NOT going to let up on that guy until I’d figured out what, what, what had hurt his heart so badly that he was turning up a ducally magnificent nose at true love.

I got nowhere. If anything, His Grace climbed higher on his castle parapets, hid more deeply in his vast library. GRRRR.

Finally, I gave up. Told him to just be like that, because I’d brought along Loretta Chase’s Captives of the Night, and the Comte D’Esmond was a lot more fun to hang out with than some pouty old workaholic duke…. Guy has a library of 30,000 volumes, which treasure I bestowed on him in my capacity as author, but does he bother to thank me? Does he meet me in the library for a heart-to-heart? Nooooo.

I flounced off to bed with the Count, but as soon as I started reading, somebody or something tapped me on the shoulder: Pssst! The duke never reads. He owns all those books, and much interesting stuff happens in his various libraries, but why doesn’t he ever, not once, read? He’s nearly bankrupting himself to keep the family book collection together, but HE NEVER READS.

I shoved poor Esmond out of bed, and got back to my keyboard, because that was the loose thread that unraveled the mystery of what needed to happen with the duke.

But guess what? Somebody besides Haverford had stopped reading.

Sometime  since the new year began, I’ve grown too busy, too tired, too focused, too something to be sure I have good fiction with me at the end of every day. Reading has a zillion benefits–lower blood pressure, better heart and liver function, increased empathy, stronger vocabulary, better memory, less stress, less likelihood of Alzheimer’s–but I’d stopped reading.

And I hadn’t noticed that I’d stopped reading regularly. I’d instead felt a malaise of undetermined origin, which I blamed on that dratted duke. Once I got Haverford straightened out (or he got me straightened out), I climbed back in bed with Esmond, who made the return trip with me. Captain Gabriel Lacey is on deck, Alistair Carsington is in the bull pen.

Whew! So… What does reading do for you? To one commenter, I’ll send my Advanced Reader Copy of Mr. Rochester–A Novel. It’s a retelling of Jane Eyre from Edward’s perspective, and it is TERRIFIC.

 

 

 

 

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So Sue Me

I’ve been traveling lately (hence, I’m behind on responding to comments), and this has put me in conversation with people I don’t often get to talk to, specifically young people, those in the 18-35 millennial bracket. Most of them are looking for or holding a job–any legal job–that will pay bills or pay down student loan balances. Many of them are also working a “side hustle” or freelance gig such as Uber, AirBnB, Fiverr…. anything they can find to scrounge up bucks.

I admire their initiative, and also their willingness to focus on issues other than their own ambitions–issues such as a healthy planet, elder care, functional democracy, to name a few. I leave these conversations wishing I’d bequeathed to my daughter’s generation a better deal, and hoping that between the millennials and their parents, my grandkids will have that better deal.

But I also get a big dose of appreciation for the career I’ve had in the courtroom. Last week, I sang the praises of my writin’ buddies, but this week, I want to give a nod to the  bar association.

The legal profession comes in for a lot of disrespect, but I think that’s a backhanded way of acknowledging that lawyers can make a huge difference. Think of Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, to name a few. (While we’re on the subject, 35 of the 55 Constitutional Convention delegates of 1787 were lawyers or had legal training).

I have enjoyed very much the company of other lawyers. They tend to be problem-solvers by nature, pragmatic, and hard working. Most lawyers have seen so many of life’s wrong turns in their case loads, that they’re also tolerant if not outright compassionate. When you see what incarceration for child support arrears does to  the clients affected by a stint in jail (at the taxpayer’s expense)–and also see what those missed payments mean for the children whose basic needs are going unmet, you tend to cling less righteously to the idea that your answers are the only good ones.

Lawyers who’ve been in practice for more than year have great war stories, and most also have a quick, irreverent sense of humor.

I have liked being a lawyer. That juris doctor after my name meant I was taken more seriously than I would have been otherwise, especially by men. How I wish I could give a little bit of that professional credibility to every young woman out there who’s waiting tables, because she’ll never be able to afford the current $82,000/year price tag for my law school alma mater (and neither could I!).

That’s a post for another day. For today: Here’s to the lawyers, among whom I have a been proud to number. If you were a lawyer, what would you do with your legal abilities? Where would you practice and what sort of cases would you focus on? Any interest in being a judge, or maybe a John Grisham?

To one commenter, I’ll send signed copies of my three Sweetest Kisses novels, all of which feature a lawyer protagonist.

 

You Gotta Have Heart

I’m fortunate that both of my professions–attorney and author–put me in company with people I enjoy. Attorneys tend to be good analytical thinkers, confident, and curious. Writers might be quieter, but they’re no less astute or mentally active. Of the two, I prefer the writers, because they are also more likely to be divergent thinkers.

Writers come up with the insightful questions and creative theories, the off-the-wall wisecracks, and turn-it-on-its-head solutions. They probably score higher than average for the personality trait known as openness, though they can also be very shy.

So there I was at a writer’s conference, and because the workshop sessions taxed the imagination sorely, the presenters allowed us frequent breaks. I was hanging out waiting my turn at the tea fixings, when I struck up a conversation with another guy in the class who’d introduced himself as “homeless when in the United States.”

He’s civilian military working overseas, but came all the way, all the way, all the way back to the States to attend this conference. He was debating whether to sign up for more work in a war zone, or fold up that tent, and come back here to write full time. Note to self: I have it pretty stinkin’ easy.

I told him I was at a much humbler crossroad, winding up my law practice, and deciding where I wanted my next exciting adventure to happen.

“That takes courage,” he said. “Making changes, shifting directions. It’s always a little scary.”

I gather he spoke from experience, but he didn’t launch into Back-When-I-Was, so I dribbled the conversational ball a little farther down the court.

“Or do I stay where I’ve been for the past twenty-five years, fix up that house, and reconcile myself to spending the next twenty-five years there?”

My writin’ buddy smiled. “That takes courage too.”

Two thoughts: How compassionate, that a man who’s working in a war zone, could see the choice faced by a relatively secure civilian with lots of good options as requiring courage, but also, he’s RIGHT. Just getting out of bed, slogging through the day, pulling our share of the load can be a heroic undertaking.

Anybody’s life can be scary, whether that person is parenting for the first time, or parenting their first special needs kid. Whether the boss is being a pill, or the marriage is feeling shaky. Whether that old left hip is acting up, or the retirement fund is drifting down.

We’re all heroes and heroines, when viewed with sufficient compassion. To one of my fellow heroines (and heroes), I’ll send a signed ARC of Too Scot to Handle.

Tell us something you did that was brave. I’ll go first: I drove from Maryland to Oregon, all by my little lonesome. Yeah, it was tons of fun, but that’s also a long, long way to road trip when a lot of the route was still sporting snow.

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In My Bones

Long, long time ago, I spent a few months in Germany with my Mom, Dad, and younger brother. Dad was an exchange professor under a program set up in gratitude for the Marshall Plan, and he went on a lecture tour that included a stop in Freiburg. This is in the heart of the Black Forest, and while Dad did his science thing, Joe and I wanted to go walking in the forest.

A very nice old guy at the hotel’s front desk explained to us how to get to the trail head, and further assured us that though it was cloudy, the day would be lovely. His system for predicting the weather consisted of peering out a certain window through a certain hole in the trees at a certain hour of the early morning. After decades of collecting data, he had great faith in his system.

We did not get rained on, and the Black Forest is lovely, dark and deepl.

When I travel across country, I notice stuff: How are the roads? Are there any fancy new interchanges under construction? How many over-sized loads do I pass in the course of a day’s driving? When I finally, finally get to the hotel, is the parking lot nearly empty or crowded?

I’ve been doing this for decades, and my horseback survey generally points in the direction of the nation’s economic health. People don’t buy boats or new combines when times are hard. Hotels don’t fill up, major construction projects don’t get funded. A few years back, I was hearing a lot of headlines about economic recovery, but my roadtrip indicators said the recovery hadn’t reached the provinces yet.

We all have this kind of radar. As the mom of a school aged kid, I knew she was getting sick when her eyes were shiny, though I’ve never seen that symptom described in any medical literature. Often, Herself wouldn’t yet feel under the weather, but I knew she’d wake up the next day symptomatic.

As a writer, I love these kinds of details. I can convey to the readers, “lousy economy” by describing potholes and empty hotel parking lots without ever using words like recession, depression, or downturn. The sensation of a car hitting a pothole at speed–the sound, the inner wince–is universal. Four potholes is proof of either an awful winter or not enough budget for repairs.

The tricky thing is paying attention to the information that will clue us in, and ignoring the noise. The old guy at the hotel desk had the same shift, day after day, and only one window to look out of. Still, he had to go to the trouble of connecting the weather dots, testing his hypothesis, then refining it.

Do you have some horseback survey data that you’ve learned to rely on? A canary in the coal mine or weather prognosticator that’s unique to you and your experience? Have you ever had that kind of information and ignored it, much to your regret? To one commenter, I’ll send an advanced reader copy of “Too Scot To Handle.”

Teaching the World to Sing

On the basis of exactly no scientific evidence, I’ve concocted a theory for how to destroy the human spirit. The genesis of this theory was a session with a very good therapist, oh, ’bout thirty years ago. I was not happy with my mother–what therapy client is?–and had been maundering on at some length about being invisible to Mom, ignored, emotionally neglected, oh woe was little me.

Mind you, I had a childhood many would envy, but I was eight-and-twenty, no use to talk to me. Then too, I had become pregnant by virtue of a series of unfortunate events, and figuring out what the ideal mom should provide had become a pressing matter.

Eventually my therapist asked me: “If you could get even with your mother–no judgement, no responsibility, just blue-sky, for argument’s sake–what would you do to her?”

I didn’t even have to think. “I’d pop her into a phone booth way, way out behind Pluto, in the coldest, darkest corner of space. I’d give her one quarter, and I’d make sure the phone was out of order.”

You’d think, with an imagination like that, I’d have an easier time writing villains. Of course, I was describing what parts of my upbringing had felt like. The overwhelming impression is one meaninglessness and isolation that will never end. There is no point to stuffing that quarter in the slot, over and over, hoping, hoping, hoping for a different result on the 217,349th try.

And from that interesting (to me) discussion with a gifted therapist, I began to grasp that to be alone with troubles that make no sense and have no end in sight is really, really grueling, and beyond a certain point, impossible for most sane people to bear.

The flip side of this recipe was slower to penetrate my awareness: Staying positively connected with others, pursuing that which has meaning, and always keeping some breathing room and respite in sight are very likely to result in resilience and stamina when life hands out challenges.

Which life reliably does.

I thus keep a wary eye on anything that can isolate me for too long, or overburden me to the point that life feels like a pile of demands and deadlines. I try to figure out my own priorities, rather than let other people’s “shoulds” determine my to-dos. On a broader spectrum, I avoid adversary situations, because anything that sets up an “us versus them” dynamic has an isolating quality. Even in the courtroom, I’m trying to solve a problem, not attack an opponent.

So that’s my theory for world peace: meaningful work and connections, and lots of self-care.

Among the results of my meaningful work this week was a box of advanced reader copies for Too Scot to Handle, which doesn’t come out until July. To two commenters, I’ll send signed copies.

When you think of somebody who has egregiously wronged you, or wronged somebody or an organization you love, what does revenge look like? If that’s too dicey a question, what would restitution look like?

 

 

 

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All She Wrote

I’m facing what I expect are my last months as a practicing attorney, my last year at most. I could keep the doors of my law practice open and branch out into divorces, contract disputes, and other areas I dealt with years ago, but I’d rather write books.

I’m also writing a list of lessons learned in the child welfare courtroom, aimed not so much at my successor but at the social workers who are also involved in every case I handle.

Some of these social workers weren’t born when I took on my first child welfare case. This maketh my mind to boggle. Their jobs are very difficult to do well, and impossible to do right all of the time. We share that aspect of the work, but in other ways, we’re islands whose shores will never touch.

I want them to have the benefit of my experience, and I also want my years in the courtroom to mean something. I had no mentor, no senior attorney cutting the ice for me on tough cases, no supervisor to rehearse my tricky cross-examinations with me. If I can spare anybody the steep, stupid learning curve I faced, I want to do that.

So, I’m writing, and enjoying the task. When I write, my thoughts calm down and line up. Writing gives me a sense of having put to bed whatever keeps my hamster wheel turning. I journal at the end of every day. I write big emails to my siblings, and with respect to my legal career, I’m writing something between a memoir and a homily… and a rant.

That this exercise should feel good isn’t simply because I’m a writer. Writing is good for us. People with asthma who write about their condition have fewer asthma attacks. People with AIDS who write about their diagnosis have higher T-cell counts. Writing improves everything from our liver functions to our memory to our immune systems. A little bit of what I’m writing is what I wish I’d known, but a lot of it is what I wish the social workers had known.

One borderline personality in a case can make the effort required to manage it quintuple.

Attorneys are not trained to be aware of their own family systems baggage.

Fewer children in foster care can mean more children in harm’s way, not more social work yielding successful cases.

This qualifies as a fun project for me. I won’t publish the results. I’ll probably email them to director of my local Dept. of Social Services (I knew him back when he was a line worker). And then I’ll move on.

What would the you who faces (or lives in) retirement say to the you who’s new to the job or to the workplace? What would you want to pass along to your boss or your co-workers? Would that young person have anything to say in return that you might find useful?

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Duchesses in Disguise, which is on sale from the website store now.

 

 

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