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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It’s Good to Be the Grace

I finish each day listing five things I’m grateful for. Sometimes, this exercise takes a while, because I am in a Bad Mood, or I’ve had a Bad Day. I don’t let myself go back to the same things too often, or my list would like look:

Chloe purring in my lap while I write my books.

My keeper authors and their wonderful HEAs.

My readers.

My family.

A safe place to sleep and enough to eat.

My health.

(Math was never my thing). In any case, that’s a nice list, it’s always true, and most of the stuff on that list IS a big deal. It occurred to me today though, that a slightly different list also deserves some attention: What do I like about being me? What’s going right in my, what’s a big treat that I get just for being Grace Burrowes right now?

I get to play Let’s Pretend endlessly, and I get PAID for it. Is that cool or what?

I can have a lot of solitude without feeling lonely. Very few jobs offer the exact balance of freedom and connection that being an author does, and it’s pretty nearly perfect for me.

Wellington’s Library

I get to research ALL KINDS OF STUFF. Louisa Cornell’s great post on Georgian libraries is research. A two-week intensive class in Gaelic on the Isle of Skye is research. Recreating a 200-year-old recipe for syllabub is research.

I get to learn about language. Did Jane Austen use gotten? (Yes, so did Pepys, and Trollope, and Dickens.) When did direction cease to mean your mailing address? (Late Victorian.) Which contractions were in common written usage in the Regency? (Lots of ’em.)

I feel appreciated (see last week’s comment from Colleen, for example, among others).

I set my own hours, which is great for somebody who likes to hammer on projects with some intensity but not punch a time clock.

There’s a LOT about how I go about my life now, that I just love. It wasn’t always like this, but I’ve always had something–some small thing–in my life that was for me, on my terms, even if it was a “just” a romance novel to read before bedtime.

What’s wonderful about being you? To one commenter, I’ll send a big old bunch of flowers.

 

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The Greatest of These Is Love

As a published romance author, it’s occasionally my happy privilege to join discussion panels at conferences, libraries, and other venues. The talk often turns–regardless of how the panel is titled to–why does romance get so little respect?

Romance novels are half of all paperbacks sold, but the New York Times bestsellers list was recently revised to make it harder for romance to make the lists–harder for all genre fiction, but especially romance. If those lists are not about what’s selling the best, then what are they for? Nora Roberts has hit the New York Times bestseller’s lists for a collective score of nine years–more than 400 weeks, and counting–but she’s been mentioned in their book review section twice.

The stats that paint a picture disrespect are legion, and as recently as this month, a major news network covering tiny libraries referred to romance as “trashy.” (They won’t do THAT again.)

The theory that’s usually put forth to explain denigration of romance is that it’s literature largely written by women, about women, for women, and edited by women. The problem with romance is the problem women in society face generally: Not enough respect.

Then there’s that business about THE SEX. Who can respect a genre that’s sold strictly on the basis of THE SEX?

Except, to me, those theories don’t jive with all the data. At the end of a romance novel, the hero has often been transformed by love every bit as much as the heroine, if not more. She gets what she wants, but he gets what he wants too, and both of them have changed goals as the book has progressed. And as for the sex…

I’ve read thrillers that have more sex than my romances, and more graphic sex. I’ve read mysteries that have more sex than ANY inspirational romance. I’ve read lit fic that seems to add gratuitous sex every fifty pages. I’ve read women’s fiction that has longer sex scenes than anything I’ve written. Only romance, though, is stereotyped on the basis of its erotic content. Why is this?

Only romance consistently presents sex in the context of a loving relationship. Only romance puts that loving relationship right on the cover. Only romance insists that both hero and heroine find the courage and take the risks required to earn a lovingly ever after.

Only romance–every romance novel ever published, including the increasing number not written by women or about women (yay, diversity!)–is built on the premise that love conquers all… and can potentially conquer anybody. If you base your self worth on other forms of power–beauty, charm, money, physical strength, legal structures, academic knowledge–then the very premise of a romance novel can feel threatening.

That theory, to me, explains more of the data than simply citing a societal disrespect for women. Love is scary to many of us. My rebuttal to that: Try living in a world without love. Now that is a terrifying prospect.

Do you think romance deserves more respect? Why, and is there any merit in trying to change that perception? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy an audiobook of The Heir.

 

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Welcome, Peepers!

I’ve been rolfed (loved it), and had lots of other body work, and something the rolfer said stuck with me: When pain comes, we almost can’t think of anything else. When pain leaves, we often don’t notice.

I think she was right about minor aches and pains, the stiff shoulder gradually eases, the sore foot is better a week later. I had migraines for years though, and I can assure you, when I woke up on day three, and that sucker was finally crawling back under the rock from whence it came, I noticed. On those rare occasions when I could kick one early with caffeine, I noticed all over the place.

But picking up from last week–what are we looking forward to?–I’m focusing now on what I’m putting behind me. I heard spring peepers last night for the first time, and that reminds me that winter is drifting away. For this year, I’ll soon be done with entire weeks of unrelenting overcast. That weather pattern got so bad in Maryland this year that I bought a DayLight to shine at myself first thing in the day.

I’ve turned in the three books I owe Grand Central publishing–my first New York deal!–and the process has gone well so far. I won’t have to write those books again, and it’s onward and upward to whatever series lies ahead. (Suggestions welcome. I love Percival and Esther to pieces, but haven’t they meddled enough?)

I’ve settled in to the wrap-up phase at my law office. I’ll probably be going to court for another year at least, but the burden will be lighter and lighter, and oh… the stuff I can get rid of. Emotional, physical, logistical. It’s good to be the dowager queen.

I’ve been through the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death, which is a milestone. Life is moving on, and that’s exactly what she’d want for me.

I recall a line from Anne Lamott, when she was talking about how to help a friend who was in the absolute Slough of Despond, somebody who’d been overwhelmed for too long, and was too tired to even pitch a hissy fit about the unfairness of it all. (Warning: the context was both political and religious.) For many paragraphs, Anne prosed one about the glories of creation and the wonder of life, and the stages of grieving, but she also noted that sometimes, all you have to offer is…. “Mornings are nice.”

This for me remains mostly true. Mornings are nice. Each day comes around offering some mystery and potential, some joy and some challenge, and that day says hello to me with a morning. The day might also present a lot of drudgery and disappointment, but on first impression, there’s always some potential there too, and if nothing else, another night is behind me.

What have you put behind you? How are your mornings nice? To one commenter, I’ll send a print version of Dukes in Disguise (the ebook version being on sale for $.99!).

 

 

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Five Things

I have a theory about emotional endurance, about how we persist in the face of the tough stuff, and about how good folks can be ground to dust by hard times. My theory goes like this here:

Three factors tempt me to give up when I’m overwhelmed by my situation. First, if I think my suffering will never end. That’s really tough, because never is the rest of time. Second, if I think my suffering is serving no purpose. Unproductive suffering is such an abomination to our sense of justice that we become creative trying make our suffering meaningful. Third, if we’re entirely alone with our burdens. Being alone is itself painful for many people. Being alone with misery is a heartache added to an indignity.

There’s more to my theory, but to the extent I can stay connected to others, avoid dead ends, and make escape hatches, I can mush along fairly well. Another aspect of keeping on keeping on, is to have good stuff to look forward to. Such as…

Spring. Can’t wait to see all the flowers blooming, to feel the warmth of the sun on my face.

The Romance Writers of America gathering in July. It’s a ways off, but this is when I get to hang with my writin’ tribe, buff my craft, and hug and be hugged.

A writer’s conference out west that I’ll be attending in March. Nothing but craft, craft, craft with all kinds of talented presenters.

A panel on February 15, 2017, at the Darien, CT, library. I’ll get to say hi to my editorial team in New York on the way up, and take a break from the lawyer job for a couple days.

Finishing the manuscript I’m working on. Charlotte Windham and her Welsh upstart nabob should get their happily ever after right about St. David’s Day, appropriately enough.

I could go on. I have books coming out in March, April, May, and June (have to write this one. Details, Details), and July. I expect to get some family time in the next six months. There’s a trip to the UK later in the year. There’s the next Mary Balogh coming out NEXT WEEK.

When I dwell on all these goodies adorning my calendar, the present day does not seem so daunting, nor so solitary and inescapable.

So what are you looking forward to? To one commenter, I’ll send an audio book of Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait, the laassst of the Windham family series to come out as an audio book.

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But I don’t know what to DO…

Anybody else feeling fed up, cranky, tired, ready for winter to be over, politics to be over, tax season to be over? I can’t recall a time in my adult life when we were all so unrelentingly upset. The election, the economy, the media… Keeping folks upset has apparently become a subgoal on too many agendas.

I saw one author on social media going into a righteous spiral because another author, who shared her views on certain issues, refused to go into a righteous spiral…

Except… one of the things they teach you in conflict 101 is that our first, most effective tool in a highly conflicted situation is a non-anxious presence. I don’t know why I noshed my way through a master’s degree in conflict management somewhere along the way–you’d think law school would have cured me of the need for education debt–but I did, and I have never regretted it.

My teachers and fellow students were people who’d dealt first-hand with unraveling Apartheid, settling civil wars, making peace in genocidal conflicts, re-integrating child soldiers, and finding constructive uses for gangs in Los Angeles. My little traumas in child welfare court were pee wee league compared to the troubled waters these people had sailed–and sailed with astonishing success.

One of the primary take-aways I got from the whole master’s program was the utter non-negotiability of self-nurture if you find yourself in a conflicted situation. Especially in these trying times, it’s a gift to the community when you keep flowers on the table, listen to your upbeat play list, re-read a comforting keeper, and go out of your way to greet your fellow dog-walkers. Look for the aspects of your immediate environment that help you feel positive and focus on them.

If there aren’t any, time to redecorate your environment.

I have moral convictions and firm opinions on many topics (surprise!), but when I’m standing up for those beliefs from a place of calm resolve, I’m more likely to get a fair hearing than if I fire off a rant from panic and shredded nerves. If I”m calm, confident, and respectful, everybody around me is likely to catch a case of calm, confident, and respectful from me.  That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

If I’m shooting around the room backward, with flames pouring from every orifice…

So if your instinct is to unplug, to get out the crafts, to limit your social, keep the playlist handy, and take cookies to the old folks home, good on ya. Happy warriors win battles too, and happy, well rested warriors probably prevent wars, without anybody even realizing it.

My two. How are you keeping your balance in these interesting times? Or how are you regaining your balance if you’ve lost it? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Ashton, Lord of Truth… because Matilda learned to stay calm when she’d rather have lost her buttons.

 

 

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The Best Laid Plans

January 25th is “Burns Night,” when the Scottish diaspora (and those of us who like Scotland) celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns. Burns was ahead of his time, as a democrat, feminist, humanist, and linguist. One of his most often quoted lines is, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice and Men/Gang aft agley.” (Or oft go awry, in the Anglicized version).

You can read the whole poem, To a Mouse, but the jist of it is: Burns, who was a farmer, was out plowing a field under one autumn. In the course of his efforts, he unearthed the burrow of a field mouse. Mrs. Mouse had worked long and hard to make a safe, snug winter haven for the Mouse Family, then along comes Robert, trying to keep his family safe and snug, and it’s disaster for the Mouses.

Burns was writing about what the conflict resolution professionals call “unintended consequences.” No matter how many what-ifs you think through, no matter how carefully you craft an agreement, chances are, something unforeseen will crop up, and the perfect solution will result in more problems.

This is why, in the case of any conflict of substance, imposing solutions from outside the situation generally fails in the long run. At the first opportunity, those who don’t like the decision will point to these unintended consequences as proof everlasting that the decision was wrong (even if it was objectively brilliant). Decisions made with the input of those affected tend to hold up longer, which is why judges always, always try to have parents rather than the court come up with the schedule in a custody case.

In a juvenile justice setting, a restorative justice approach makes the victim and the offender, along with their support systems, come up with the punishment and the reparation. Not surprisingly, offenders who’ve been through an RJ process have a much lower recidivism rate than in the traditional system. Victims report that RJ results in more resolution of trauma symptoms, and better attention to the damages they suffered as a result of the crime.

Beside durability, the other benefit of participatory problem-solving is that by thrashing through an issue together, learning to see the person behind the position, parties in a sticky situation usually develop some trust and respect. This can save the day when those unintended consequences pop up, as they invariably do.

Tartan, plaid seamless pattern.

Unintended consequences can be positive. I started taking riding lessons as an adult because I was badly depressed, and that was one physical activity I knew I’d get myself out of bed to pursue. Unintended consequences of that solution included making some lifelong friends, developing a big area of common ground with my daughter, and learning how to manage a large, complex competition without losing my cool.

Conflict really can be an opportunity. Have you ever been faced with unintended consequences–positive or negative? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The MacGregor’s Lady (and please consider stopping by our post-Burns Night Facebook party on Thursday evening).

 

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