Booked for the Holidays

I love the long, quiet evenings of winter, mostly because those are great reading hours. I’m finishing up James Clear’s Atomic Habits (like most self-help stuff, not a whole lot of substance, but well intended). I have queued up Make Your Art No Matter What by Beth Pickens (thanks to Austin Kleon for the recommendation).

And I have scheduled a grand pause on all fronts this week, because Mary Balogh’s Someone Perfect comes out on Tuesday–and you know what that means.

I am also noshing my way through Andrew Roberts’ new biography of George III, The Last King of America. The British Royal Family recently opened up a whole trove of original sources relating to George’s reign, and Roberts scored access to the lot of it. In addition to frequent quotes from George himself (he was a keen and voluminous correspondent), Roberts parses the history of the American Revolution from a British–or perhaps disinterested?–perspective.

John Hancock like most wealthy merchants from the northern colonies, made bank smuggling and doing illegal business with the Dutch. Independence meant he could avoid massive fines assessed against him for breaking the law.

George Washington, along with Jefferson et alia, was heavily in debt to London merchants, and saw independence as a means of walking out on those debts. Southern landowners were terrified that Lord Mansefield’s 1772 judicial opinion outlawing enslavement in England would be imposed on the colonies. Wealthy colonial land speculators were furious that Britain prohibited wholesale invasion of Native American lands across the Allegheny Mountains.

Those Native American tribes had been crucial allies in the Seven Years War, and George wasn’t willing to repay their assistance with invasion.

I feel like I’m reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not regarding American revolutionary history, though Roberts’ scholarship is utterly beyond reproach. The picture that emerges is a bunch of greedy, clever colonial agitators who saw terrific opportunities for personal gain. The situation wanted wanted only some catchy lies, religious paranoia (most Americans were dissenters, and rabidly anti-Church of England), and lofty rhetoric to pull off the grandest parade of moral new clothes in history.

Whether I find Roberts’ conclusions convincing or not, The Last King of America has made me think hard about what I learned in Advanced Placement American History and subsequently. I love it when a book makes me stop and ponder, or makes me re-arrange my assumptions.

Have you come across books that made you stop and think? Books that turned your assumptions inside out? Special give-away this week: To any interested commenter, I’ll send an ARC file of My Cosplay Escape. My dear, darling niece, Amy Trent, is dipping a toe in contemporary romance waters, and this title will launch Dec. 7. It’s bouncy, heartwarming, fast-paced, and fun (if I do say so my own, not-very-biased self)!

PS: Lady Violet print links for Amazon are populating as I type this. I’ll add them to the book pages as I spot them (and I love her ladyship’s covers)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Necessary Roses

Way back when I was a piano student, I had to participate in the annual ritual of the recital. I hated it. HATED IT, and a lack of performance ability is why I eventually abandoned the career in music that was already supporting me.

But I did learn a lot from the whole recital ordeal, besides the fact that I am not cut out to be a performer (for reasons I am only now beginning to understand). My piano teacher was an inspired instructor, and one of her tenets was that to really learn a piece of repertoire, you had to master it, then put it away, then come back around later and master it again. I would learn my recital pieces in the fall, then forget about them over the winter, and pick them up again in spring.

I once asked Cathy Maxwell, who has written many a fine book, what one lesson she had to keep learning over and over as a writer. Her answer would have resonated with my piano teacher. She said something like: If the story isn’t coming, if I’ve tried all my usual tricks to get through a knothole, then I need to shut off the computer and walk away.

As a writer, I am rationally convinced of the creative necessity for frolics, holidays, and intermissions. The well goes dry if all I do is stare at the screen.

But society generally frowns on intermissions. We no longer have even two-minute commercial breaks, we instead binge entire seasons of streamed content. Our version of the Sabbath is usually a highly structured, busy day even if it’s a religiously observant day. Endless scrolling is the default design. Year round school (because less re-teaching, I know). Prep years instead of gap years. We are lucky to get a whole two weeks paid vacation after working without interruption for an entire year, and it’s not necessarily vacation–it’s “personal time,” meaning too bad if you use it all up being sick or caring for sick loved ones.

And yet, for some inexplicable reason, entrepreneurship across the whole US marketplace has been trending downward for fifty years. Now why is that?

Growing up, I heard, “Proboscis ad carborundum!” And if it wasn’t nose-to-the-grindstone, it was another of my dad’s famous aphorisms, “You gotta gnaw it to death.”  And yet, the guy who pounded that into my head took almost daily long walks in nature when he was at his most productive, largely because my mom made him walk with her. He went on every possible sabbatical, he nipped off on weeks-long scientific “expeditions” that I suspect bore a resemblance to party boat excursions on a yacht with a lab on board.

Dad’s words venerated unrelenting effort, his deeds were about the absolute necessity of building in a seventh inning stretch–and a third inning stretch, and maybe a fifth inning stretch too.

How do you know you need an intermission? How do you build in the frolics and detours? What is your ideal break from the routine? Are you getting enough of them? To three commenters, I’ll send ARCs of Miss Dignified (no later than mid-December).

 

Dream a Little Dream

So there I am, scrolling through my Facebook feed, which I do once a day in the mid-afternoon (usually), and I come across a long post from a male sci-fi author who ended up at mystery writer’s conference. Sci-fi tends to be a male dominated field, though that’s (slowly) changing, but in the mystery genre women writers are well represented.

Mr. Sci-Fi was appalled at how many of the lady attendees were retirement age–not because they were older, but because they had put off writing their books for decades. Until retirement, until the kids were raised, until the grandkids were beyond the day care years, until the elders expired, until the house was paid off… His post was a plea for women writers to prioritize their publishing dreams, to push back against all the familial demands, and to align themselves with people who support their writing goals.

On the one hand, I wanted to give Mr. Sci-Fi credit: He noticed something many others haven’t. Women put off their dreams for the sake of others.

On the other hand, I wanted to kick him, hard, where it counts. Not once did he mention family leave, gender wage inequality, a woman’s right to reproductive freedom, workplace harassment and sexism, affordable health care, affordable day care, affordable housing–all of which disproportionately affect women.

And what got me was not his cluelessness–the house will pay itself off, of course, and elders don’t need looking after, and children can just go raise themselves, right?–but the comments, largely from women, stating how important it was to do as Mr. Sci-Fi said, and “make the time” or “find the motivation” to do the writing.

NO. What’s important is to educate Mr. Sci-Fi, who meant well, to the sheer impossibility many women face (and men, too, for that matter) when it comes to following his simple fix-the-victim prescription.

I did not start writing until my daughter left home. She–like forty percent of American children–was being raised by a single parent. I was also running my own law practice. How, exactly, was I supposed to “make the time,” or “find the motivation” to write, when I went for years without getting adequate sleep? Against whom was I supposed to push back? My mortgage company? The body that craved more than five hours of sleep a night?

Oh, I got so steamed. I fear too many women don’t even HAVE dreams, because their entire adult lives have been subsumed with all the unpaid and underpaid roles without which society would cease to function–and that goes double for women of color. What do you think? Are your dreams coming true, or are you still waiting to dig them out from under a pile of laundry, dishes, family obligations, and unpaid overtime?

I’ll add three commenters to my Lady Violet Investigates ARC list. (Which reminds me, the Lady Violet ordering links for all six books have been uploaded. Wheee!)

 

Raccoon Roulette

Authors are forever engaged in failure analysis–why didn’t my Bookbub discount result in more sales for subsequent books in the series? What’s wrong with my book cover?

We also do a lot of what we think is success analysis: The readers raved about my cover because the color red ALWAYS gets more attention. (Readers were complimentary  because I asked them what they thought of the cover, and my readers are generally positive, articulate people.)

One kind of analysis we don’t see much of anywhere is the near miss analysis and yet, I find this kind of pondering to be productive. First comes the realization that I’ve HAD a near miss, then comes figuring why I was spared the worst outcome, and what I need to change going forward. A near miss is a free lesson in disaster avoidance, and that is wonderful information to acquire.

Last night I had a near miss. I heat only one area of my house–the kitchen/bathroom area (washer and dryer are in the bathroom). The house was designed this way on purpose, with the intention that if more heat is needed, that big old honkin’ wood stove in the living room will do the trick (boy, will it ever). To accommodate my cats, I leave the cat door open in the living room during the day.

I close the cat door when I go to bed, because raccoons, possums, and skunks get airs FAR above their stations. When that happens, a domestic disaster can result. Last night, I forgot to close the cat door, (don’t worry, they have the hay mow, the summer kitchen, and the crawl space to hang out in), but no unwanted visitors came calling.

A near miss! My relief was inordinate. The damage a raccoon can do when inspired by a twenty pound bag of dry cat food is ridiculous (also expensive). A skunk in a bad mood… let’s not go there.

But I dodged disaster this time. I will think about why I was distracted last night, and try to re-organize accordingly. I will be more vigilant going forward about locking that cat door, but I was also reminded that life is not all lost elections, daunting case statistics, and planetary disaster.

There is good luck, there is being in the right place at the right time, there is rainfall when needed and sunshine for the solar panels. Serendipity is not dead. Last night’s near miss helped me re-set my anxiety and gratitude dials, and gave me a little dose of optimism. I won that round of Raccoon Roulette despite betting on the wrong number.

Have you had near misses? Do they make you stop and think? Or are you more one to ponder success and failure? Three commenters will go on the Lady Violet ARC list. A sample of the cover art (courtesy of Cracked Light Studio) appears at right, and I am getting SO excited over the launch of this series! C’mon, December 14!

Give It a Try

My dad was a scientist, and two of my brothers are well qualified in the life sciences. My mom was something of a scientist too, in that she was always experimenting. If a recipe was good as written, would it be better with a little lemon extract to go with those blueberries? A different pie crust? Some ice cream?

I absorbed this habit of thinking experimentally, but I had not realized it until I joined some author loops. Much of the discussion is around effective marketing and promotion, and many of the questions asked are a version of, “What works? What boosts SALES?”

Some authors are vehement supporters of the idea that the first book in every series should be free. Other authors are equally convinced that approach devalues the brand and the content, and attracts people who expect something for nothing all along the way. Some authors swear by Facebook ads, other authors will go to the mat for Amazon ads.

One thing we know is true: If there were a magic formula, we’d all be following it (in which case, it would likely lose its magic in a hurry). My approach to the whole discussion is: Try it. Try making a book free and see if the series sell-through gets a boost. Try running some ads. Try focusing entirely on the writing. Life is long, take some time to mess around with this and that marketing approach…

I am the same way in the saddle. Does the horse react when I shift my weight from one seat bone to the other (not dignified, but it is effective)? Am I a better rider when I keep my eyes up? (YES.) When I keep my gaze soft? (Double YES.) Is the horse peppy today or just not feelin’ it? Did he get that vibe from me?

I try new routes, I read new authors, I pick up every craft book I can find, because who knows where my next authorial light-bulb moment or story idea will come from? Going through life like this means paying attention to results, to cause and effect, to the impact of my decisions on me and on others (especially my horse).

But I also like the sense of life being a big adventure, or maybe an on-going experiment around the question of how to improve on my current schtick. Maybe the quest today is to decide between coriander and cumin for a particular dish. Maybe it’s joining a reading group, or painting one wall of the living room green to see if that warms up the vibe.

Give it a try. Pay attention to the results. If you don’t like ’em, try something else…

Do you run little experiments? Big experiments? Has doing a trial run or a beta test ever served you in good stead? I’ll add three commenters to my Lady Violet Investigates ARC list. (That’s NOT the final cover, but I do love me some flowers.)

Goal Post

I’m on several author loops and social media groups. Not a week goes by without somebody posting about goals. Writing goals, publication goals, revenue goals… Everything they do is justified because it satisfies some sort of goal.

And goals are a craft unto themselves. They must be SMART, (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound) or better still, FAST (Frequent, Ambitious, Specific, Transparent), unless you’re working with a group, in which case your goals should be CLEAR (Collaborative, Limited, Emotional, Appreciable, and Refinable). But if none of that works (how could it not?) then maybe your goals should be DUMB (Dream-driven, Uplifting, Measurable, and Behavior Driven).

This all leaves me a little baffled. I get up in the morning and write the next scene because I like to write fiction. I also like to polish my prose and educate myself about how to craft better stories. I enjoy interacting with readers (wave to my bloggin’ buddies), so I post blogs and occasionally show up on social media. I know the IRS takes a dim view of tax avoiders, so I tend to my ledgers too.

Compared to many of my writing friends, I sometimes  feel un-ambitious and backward. I don’t have goals. I just write stuff because it’s fun.

Except that’s not quite true. I do have goals–I want to write good stuff that people enjoy, which sells well enough to keep me solvent–but I don’t focus on that goal. I focus on the process for getting there. I focus on, “Get up and write. Don’t post about writing, don’t complain about writing, don’t compare writing productivity with others. Write.” I focus on what I need to be happy and creative–avoid the emotional vampires of social media, read a lot of good books, nom some good writing webinars, be on the look out for creative inspiration.

I was trying to put my finger on my approach to writing when I came across this quote from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits: “The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to keep playing the game.” He goes on to point out that everybody who competes at the Olympics has a goal of winning a gold medal. Are the silver medalists losers because they failed to reach their goals? Are the gold medalists superfluous to their sports once they stand in the center of the podium?

He stops short of saying that we’ve been hornswoggled by capitalist productivity obsessions to think goals are some sort of panacea, but I do know, setting goals just hasn’t been very important or helpful for me. Focusing on my systems–for writing books, keeping my accounts, getting some exercise–has kept me playing the game of life pretty happily.

Are you a goal setter? Are you more system-oriented, or do you trade off depending on the circumstance? I will add three more names to my Lady Violet ARC list. Book six is back from the first proofreader. Wheee!

 

Bring It!

Last time I visited my doctor, we looked over a batch of labs and I saw my C-reactive protein score was up. This is a measure of general inflammation, and it’s a test where the lower the score, the better. My PA, though, pointed out that my score ALWAYS goes up in the summer, and comes back down in the winter. The number swings from, “This is flirting with rheumatoid arthritis territory,” down to, “What’s inflammation?”

This comports with my sense of the seasons generally. I detest the heat, humidity, and bugs of summer, and I made things harder on myself this summer by trying to minimize my use of AC. By July I am wrung out, August is a white-knuckle slog, and September is one long prayer for a hard frost.

It’s October, and we still haven’t had a hard frost, but we’ve had a few nights in the forties, and the end of this week should see a dip into the thirties. I say, Bring It. Bring on the days when hot tea is wonderful, bring on the nights when it’s dark early enough that evening feels like evening, not like perpetual, overheated afternoon. Bring on the days that start when days should, not at 5 am with the neighbor-cows bawling their greeting to the sun.

I am just not made for summer, no matter how light my clothing, no matter how many fans I use, no matter anything. I am made for soft layers of comfy clothing, thick socks, hot tea, and cats snuggled in a heap on my living room counter. I thrive on weather that means riding a horse warms me up rather than wrings me out. I delight in starry, starry nights, when I can see my breath and the Milky Way.

I know winter is coming. One indication is the number of readers ordering A Rogue in Winter from the web store. Another indication is that the horses at the barn are getting fuzzy. Yet another is that I’m sleeping better. I love this time of year, when I no longer feel I have to defend myself from excessive heat and humidity, and I can move around in peace again.

My seasonal preference has grown more pronounced as I’ve aged, and as climate change has made summers more unbearable. My dad, by contrast, grew to hate winter, to the extent that at age 55, he retired from Pennsylvania to San Diego, and never looked back. For me, we’re finally moving toward good writing weather, good sleeping weather, good everything weather.

How does this time of year find you? Losing energy? Gaining energy? Looking forward? Backward? Crafting? Reading? Or–one of my faves–hibernating? I’ll put three commenters on the ARC list for my first Lady Violet mystery–Lady Violet Investigates, which is due to release in the web store on Dec. 14.

A Little Better

Somebody changed the radio channel playing at my horse barn.

Instead of country music, we got a mix of show tunes and standards–you know, La Vie En Rose, Unforgettable, Disney ballads. As I began tacking Santiago up, Randy Neuman’s version of You’ve Got a Friend in Me came on. I defy ANYBODY to be either a) still, or b) miserable while that song is playing. Yes, I sang along. You should too. Santa was not too impressed with my barn-aisle boogie, but he got a hug out of it because that is exactly the way I feel about him.

The next tune was A Dream Is a Wish That Your Heart Makes, from the old Disney version of Cinderella. I haven’t heard this piece in years and years… I just leaned on that horse and cried. I don’t know why. It’s a mushy little number, about needing a sanctuary where it’s safe enough to dream, about hope, about fluffy bunnies and twittering birdies… Fortunately, it’s short. I got on rode, and we did pretty well for us, but for a few sniffles (on my part).

This teary trend actually started earlier in the week, with a Zoom concert presented by my friends Jim and Susie Malcolm, a pair of spectacularly talented traditional Scottish singers. Their program focused on Highland tunes, and in the middle of the hour, they sang Wild Mountain Thyme. As Scottish traditional songs go, this one’s actually happy. It’s in a major key, nobody dies, nobody leaves home forever, and if our hero can’t talk his lassie into going thyme-picking with him, he’ll “surely find another.”

Pretty upbeat, for the genre, but the last time I sang this song, I was in Scotland. It’s one of Jim and Susie’s touring anthems, along with Auld Lang Syne. (My favorite version EVER.)

I associate Wild Mountain Thyme with going off on adventures in good company, seeing beautiful scenery, and making new friends far from home. Jim and Susie did the introduction, and I was wrecked. Boo-hoo crying, getting dirty looks from the cats, and missing the hell out of Scotland and my friends.

I don’t think there is “happy crying,” but I do think there’s comfort to be had in feeling safe enough to cry. When my oldest brother went off soldiering in Vietnam, I was about ten years old. I did not cry. I cried when he came home safely a few years later. So too do I think my recent fits of the weeps are an indication that I’m more hopeful and sanguine than I was six months ago. I have the emotional bandwidth to notice the music, Zoom in for the concert, and feel what I’m hearing. For me, that’s progress.

Any progress for you? Setbacks? Wishes or dreams for 2022? I’m donating to the Maryland Food Bank this week. If you’d like to send some meals to the hungry, this site can help you find a food bank near you.

Like the Plague

One of my joys in life is an occasional lunch with my buddy Graham, and last week was one of those occasions when we got together.

I forget what set me off, but I lapsed into Opposing Counsel mode, rag-chewing on everything from gerrymandering to book piracy to for-greed healthcare to the universal abomination and invasion of privacy known as facial recognition software (am I supposed to get a new face if my file is hacked?) to, to, to… I  wish I could say I was in rare form, but I’m just naturally capable of contentious discourse on any variety of topics. I got that gene. Both alleles.

Graham put up with far more of my bloviations than he should have, but as we were getting ready to repair to separate vehicles, he asked, “So, Ms. Happily Ever After, what’s the positive note we’re going to end on? Give me something upbeat to take home with me.”

That guy. I eyed him up. I eyed him down. I grumbled and I muttered, but I also stopped and thought: What have I come across lately that’s positive? Think, Grace Ann…  and I recalled a couple of articles I’d read.

“Solar power is contagious,” I said. “One house getting the panels results in more houses in that immediate neighborhood getting panels, across income levels, across demographics, like a green flu.” I think I surprised him, but more to the point, I surprised myself. Focusing on this one fact got me out of Ranty MacRant-Pants mode, and back to a place of reason and hope.

All the way home I was pondering the extent to which I’ve internalized the contentious, entitled, one-way foghorn dynamic of social media and news media, rather than the listening, constructive, humanistic outlook I purport to value.

I know other good stuff. Compassion is contagious, and also hard-wired into us. Darwin himself stated that compassionate communities will FAR out-perform competitive communities when it comes to thriving and adapting. (Take that, boardroom capitalism.) Laughter is contagious, and good for us. Exercise is contagious, at least among runners.

What I take away from Graham’s seemingly casual question is that I have to be more vigilant about my emotional hygiene. I want to work against the evils of the world without becoming depressed, close-minded, righteous, and loud. That will take paying attention to all the  sources of contagion around me, and allowing close only those that are constructive. It’s a plan, anyway.

What have you come across lately that’s positive? I’ll add the names of three commenters to my ARC list for Miss Dignified (ahem), Mischief in Mayfair book three, which comes out right after New Years. (Yikes!)

 

 

 

Old Dog, Clever Tricks

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Whoever came up with that must have been a complete failure as an animal trainer. As I’m sure the pup-lovers among us would report, old dogs, who have learned many tricks, are often much quicker to pick up on a new one than the younger specimens with smaller training vocabularies and tons more energy.

In humans, faster learning among the more experienced is often because we learn by analogy. After a phase of memorizing nomenclature or being shown some basic structure, we grab on to new material by linking it to something familiar. Sitting on a trotting horse, for example, has a certain “washing machine agitator” quality to the movement.

If you’ve ever watched a top-loading washing machine go swisheroo-and-swisheroo you already have a rhythm in your head that will sync your seat up with the horse’s back… even if you’ve never been on a horse before. If you’ve run a marathon (or even a hilly 10k), you have a grasp of boredom and endurance that will stand you in good stead when you start a college degree program, and so forth. The more we learn, the better we get at learning. Learn the violin, and the French horn’s learning curve is shorter and shallower.

And this is fortunate, because a taste for education–formal, informal, any sort of learning at all–is one of the factors linked to later and lighter mental decline in old age. If we want healthy brains, it becomes imperative to keep learning new tricks. I’ve learned to wear my mask out in public, for example, and that was pretty easy because by the age of three, I was having to keep track of my eyeglasses. I have yet to be caught without a mask when I needed one (knock wood).

I’ve learned to Zoom. The writer job keeps me online a fair amount, so click this/open that/turn on the other wasn’t much of a leap, (and what an absolute JOY to see my daughter’s face and hear her voice). I think my next exciting adventure will be to Duo-lingo French, in part because that’s the language I’ve studied that I’ve heard the least in real life (Scottish Gaelic doesn’t count), and in part because Xavier Fournier is giving me fits. (And French is beautiful.)

I’m thinking of ditching the piano in the living room that has been decimated by wild temperature and humidity fluctuations, and getting an electronic keyboard, because I never did learn the Chopin Ballades, and they are sumptuous. Also, most musical instruments require “cross body” physical functioning–you just can’t just use your dominate hand–and that is also good for keeping the neurology happy.

How are you doing in the new tricks department? Have you had an opportunity–or been forced–to pick up any new skills or knowledge lately? Is there a learning project you’d like to tackle on the bucket list?

To three commenters, I’ll send ebook files for A Rogue in Winter. This title has already gone on sale in the web store (and in print and libraries), but the retail launch won’t be until Nov. 2, and that just seems so far away…