In spring, a young-at-heart author’s thoughts turn to…

One piece of advice fiction writers hear a lot is, “Give your characters goals in every scene.” To me, that dictum shades a little toward visual media, because the idea is that an audience will become invested in the character’s striving toward the goal, and in the repeated disappointments and surprises as the scene goals elude Our Hero/Heroine.

I don’t know as book characters need to be that obviously running gauntlet after gauntlet, because readers can peek inside the characters’ minds and hearts more frequently and deeply than a screen audience can. The interior landscape, particularly in romance, women’s fiction, and YA, can be more compelling than a race to Boston to win the jackpot.

But goals do matter, whether the goal is tangible like that race to Boston, or intangible, like self-acceptance or the courage to fail. It strikes me as I’m writing, writing, writing my way through the pandemic, that my goals lately have taken on a different feel. The past year has been tough, whether you are struggling with how to manage kids/work from home/elders-at-a-distance, whether you are in Texas, or whether your cousin’s restaurant has gone bust.

Or whether you have lost loved ones among the half a million casualties.

Our objective has been to survive, to endure, to make it through, or to recover. Virtually every disaster movie and thriller ever conceived has exactly that goal, and unless it’s a tragedy, after significant hardship, the protagonists prevail. Where I am, the vaccines  are in very short supply, but we’ve been conscientious about masking, distancing, keeping the schools closed, and handwashing.

Our positivity rates are at about 3.5%, and hospitalizations and new cases are on the wane. The election is behind us, and there’s a sense that the worst is behind us too.

And yet, we could still blow it. We still have major economic readjustments ahead, many people have lingering recoveries to make, and there are those variants lurking in the bushes. Now is not the time to let down our guard, but I find myself looking for some way to ease up a little. To exhale, to have that happy scene in the middle of the book where optimism and courage forge new ground.

There are other names for that scene, but in a romance, the point in the middle of the book is to give the characters a glimpse of the emotional riches ahead if they will remain loving, brave, and true to their honorable selves and each other. To fortify myself at this seventh-inning stretch, I’m writing a little novella. All the happily ever after, but in one third of the words. A frolic, and one I haven’t indulged in for a while.

I’m jealously watching the crocuses sprinkled around my yard, and they have rewarded my vigilance. I polled my sisters about a family trip in 2022, and the reactions are enthusiastic. Next we’ll research destinations… I’m launching a new series in June, and hope to have my first mystery series on the shelves–the whole six book series–by autumn. I’m looking forward in ways I haven’t for the past year, and it feels good.

Are you feeling the urge to indulge in a seventh-inning stretch? What does that look like? I’m starting my ARC list for Miss Delectable (already!), so pass along those comments and think spring!

 

What’s In a Nickname?

The Biggest Bluff is among the books I’m enjoying of late. I you haven’t come across it, the premise is: A PhD behavioral psychologist sets out to understand the balance between luck and skill in her life by conquering poker. The author, Maria Konnikova, studied confidence scams for her doctoral work–hence a game that blends probabilities with bluffing appeals to her–and this is her third NYT bestseller.

I like the psychological insights about everything from why we fall for well told lies, and why we have little instinctive sense for how probability works. I like watching Maria’s progression from novice to pro, but what has interested me most about this book are the personalities.

Every world-class poker player, eventually, is given a nickname on the tournament circuit. “Chewy,” might be the handle given to Elliott Funk, because he looks like Chewabaca, doesn’t say much, and never misses a trick. “Ironman,” goes to some guy named Arthur Winchell, because he does pushups during breaks. The Charminator reels you in with his friendly table talk, but watch out, because he can bluff anybody.

There are two kinds of nicknames, though. There’s the moniker conferred by the collective wisdom of your peers and competitors, and there’s the handle you choose for the online tournaments. One is the label the worlds gives you; the other is the label you want the world to associate with you.

I like this idea of intentional naming. I get to do it in books, choosing who is a Hiram and who is a Sebastian, for example, and I chose my pen name. The name conferred upon me at birth was a foregone conclusion, because one of my mother’s patron saint’s name days was in the same week. That all important first name, by which I will be called a million times in life, was just a function of when I popped into the world.

My pen name, though, was my decision, based on who I wanted my shelf neighbors to be (Loretta Chase, Joanna Bourne, Mary Balogh), and what name I thought resonated with my brand.

If you were going to choose the name by which you would be known among friends or co-workers, a brand new name selected to fit the persona you want to project, what would it be? Conversely, have you ever been given a nickname? Regency society dubbed Sally, Lady Jersey, “Silence,” because she was a compulsive talker. Wellington’s men referred to him as “Old Hookey,” because of his proboscis. And the nickname Lord Bryon applied to William Wordsworth was not very nice AT ALL.

To one commenter, I’ll send an ARC of Miss Delectable. This title goes on sale May-June, so the ARCs will come out in April.

 

Your (Apple) Core Story

There is a school of thought among romance authors that a writer must find her “core story,” and learn to tell the heck out of it. That’s the piece of the craft puzzle, so this theory claims, that opens creative doors; builds a big, devoted, readership; and leads to first-rate fiction. These authors will reliably tell version after version of their core story–small town lady crawls home (or off to Tuscany) to sort out her life after falling from grace in the big city, for example–and should they wander too far from that narrative, their readers will nudge them back onto the core story path.

I got to considering this notion of a core story this week… I threw in with the Mennonites in my thirties, for many reasons, and one of the first things that struck me about Mennonite culture was how it valorized persecution.

Mennonites read the Protestant Bible, but you can’t spend much time around us without hearing about The Martyr’s Mirror. This tome was the largest book printed in America prior to the Revolutionary War. Originally penned in 1660 and written in Dutch, it recounts a whole lot of official murder and misery inflicted on especially Amish and Mennonite believers. The stories and woodcuts are gruesome, and every Mennonite school child is exposed to them (or was until recently).

The book is more than 350 years old, but it is still venerated as an accurate recounting of the Anabaptist core story–not only its origins, but its current narrative. Not that we were victims of persecution, but that persecution is our fate, demanded by our faith.

That is, of course, not the sum of Mennonite theology–much of which I still embrace–but neither is it an aspect of the Anabaptist story that I want to move toward. I don’t think of myself as a core-story author, and seems to me a core story can be a very mixed blessing. On the one hand, that story can memorialize virtues and triumphs, on the other… Do we close doors by sticking to the old tales and expected endings?

I recall my mom attributing many of her own behaviors to “the potato famine,” from cooking way too much, to keeping an overstuffed junk drawer, to inviting anybody and everybody (including some people she should not have allowed into the house) to dinner. But my Irish ancestors were in comfortable circumstances during the potato famine, so why hark back to that tragic tale?

Does your family or employer have a core story? Do you like to read certain tropes and premises over and over? No giveaway this week–I’m donating to some charities active in Texas and Louisiana instead.

Grinchin’ with Grace

Valentine’s Day always makes me a little uneasy. I’m all for love, and for appreciating the people we love, but Valentine’s Day focuses the celebration on one aspect of adult(ish) relationships–the bonded or bonding-in-progress romance.

For some who’ve lost a spouse, I imagine this day is the hardest of the year. For people recently dumped from a long-term relationship, Valentine’s Day is also no fun. For school children, I wonder if it’s still the same puzzling exercise it was for me.

Each child at Our Lady of Perpetual Anxiety (I’m Catholicizing here) was required to walk up and down the rows of desks and leave a Valentine on the desk of every other child in the class. Our moms had to buy the packets of ready-made Valentines, and we stayed up the night before addressing the cards. Some of the Valentines I received were thus from children who refused to allow me to sit at their lunch tables and referred to me as “it.”

Happy Valentine’s Day?

Why, from elementary school on up, do we give this one aspect of some people’s social life a Hallmark nod? Intimate relationships can help us become our best selves (somebody should write a book about that), but intimate relationships can also be lethal, toxic, financially disastrous… Half of all marriages are still ending in divorce, and many of those not ending are miserable.

What is this holiday trying to say?

What does making an international occasion of Valentine’s Day say to a lonely heart? To the one in four women (and one in ten men) experiencing intimate partner violence? I dunno, friends… I would gladly give you back Valentine’s Day for some universal family/personal wellness leave. I’d give you back Valentine’s Day for a drop in domestic violence statistics. I’d give you back Valentine’s Day for a commitment across the chocolate industry to use sustainably sourced, fair trade cocoa.

But then I took a look at this page from the National Retail Federation, where (scroll down) it breaks down the estimated $22 billion Americans will spend on Valentine’s Day into categories. Only half that sum is likely to be spent on partners. The rest is spread over friends, relatives, pets (about $1.3 billion!), co-workers, and others. I’d still like to see the name of the day changed, maybe to Care About Each Other Day, but it appears we’re prying the holiday free of its historical pair-bonded roots, and I hope that’s a good thing.

Where does Valentine’s Day leave you? Is there a holiday you’d like to see added? A time of year that needs another day off? I’m in the process of drafting a Christmas novella for the Rogues to Riches series. One commenter will get to name the Viking kitten who has taken up residence in Pietr Sorensen’s vicarage. We can’t use Loki, because Nathaniel Rothmere’s horse has that moniker…

The Hokey-Pokey

If you want to watch me shoot around the room backward with steam coming out my ears, then avail yourself of Amazon’s “quality assurance” tools, and report as wrong something in my books that is not an error. Tell Amazon that I used the incorrect word when I absolutely did not, or inform Amazon that my grammar is in error when it’s correct. (Rhetorical font!) Amazon kindly passes each and every ding on to the author and expects us to fix or explain them all, lest the book suffer the dreaded Quality Warning. (Not that Amazon pushes out the corrected files, of course…)

Folks, I honestly do not expect a 100,000-word book that’s sold for $4.99 to be perfect. The publishing industry rule of thumb (outside of Amazon) is about one typo or other error (homonyms, transpositions, miscellaneous fumbles) every 20,000 words. A handful of boo-boos per book is considered within normal limits by the big New York houses.

And yet, if I had three wishes, squeaky clean book files would be among them (as would world-peace-and-justice-with-great-chocolate-and-a-livable-planet-for-all). One study I saw claimed that the top reason readers cite for not finishing a book is too many bloopers. So here’s Jeff Bezos himself helping to clean up my books for free (well…), and I’m in an intergalactic swither because readers sometimes miss the mark when they try to assist.

“Grace Ann,” I ask myself, “aren’t you ever both wrong and passionately sure you’re right? Frequently in error and seldom in doubt, like our best old friend Percival, His Grace of Matchmaking?”

You will be astonished to learn that I am. I was a staunch advocate for term limits on political office, for example, but the research says term limits actually have an anti-democratic impact. Well, pooey. For a long time, I was wrong about the word “delope,” because my mother used it to mean “decamp.” I did not know that loath and loathe meant different things.

What it says about me, when I shoot around the room backward over a reader mistakenly taking issue with a single word, is that I would rather be right than learn something. I’d rather be right than open-minded. I’d rather be flawless than human. It says I should not have to take the time to double-check, when it’s my name–and nobody else’s–on those books.

I need to simmer my behonkis down and get some perspective on the fine art of acknowledging author errors. Amazon’s quality do-loop has problems (authors get trolled, and you can’t fix a file that died on your old computer five years ago), but the larger issue is my reaction to it. I do want to know when I’m wrong, I want my books to be squeaky clean. At least for new releases, I have the time (and files on hand) to do the double checking.

Have you ever been wrong even though you KNEW you were right? Has anybody ever presumed to correct you when they themselves were mistaken? How do you handle the whole business of feeling like you’ve screwed up? To one reader, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

 

A Call to Order

In 2020 the average American family size was 3.15 people (how is that even…?). I grew up in a household of nine, which qualifies as a large family by today’s standards. Queen Charlotte, who presented George III with fifteen assorted princes and princesses, scoffs. Loudly.

As I put the final touches on Sycamore Dorning’s story (youngest son of from a brood of nine blended siblings) I was struck by how often I write a series from the top down. The Windham sons, being the oldest, made up the first trilogy for that family and Lady Eve brought up the rear. The Haddonfield tales began with Wee Nick, the oldest, and finished with Max/Adolphus, the youngest son. The first two Dorning tales were Jacaranda and Grey, followed by Willow, et cetera and so forth.

Mary Balogh, with the Slightly series, proved beyond a reasonable doubt that having the oldest sibling as the eminence gris who occasionally does secondary hero or secondary villain duties, can really build suspense. By the time we get to Bewcastle’s tale (Slightly Dangerous) after watching him sashay through five other books (and never once smile), we are pretty well panting for His Grace to fall hard.

But I seem to prefer to watch the younger siblings develop and mature as their elders take center stage first. I’m indebted to my niece, who has a master’s in social work, for splaining me why this might be.

It’s apparently a trait of younger siblings in large families to take on whatever roles aren’t already spoken for. If the parents and older siblings lack financial sense, the youngest might become the family bookkeeper. If nobody else in the family pays any attention to the Aged P’s, the second-to-youngest might take on that job.

Last-borns and later-borns apparently often develop an ability to size up their tribe–or any tribe–and see what’s lacking. Sometimes, the moment calls for a joke, other times, what’s needed is a hard truth nobody will admit. The later-borns are more facile at reading and meeting these needs, and the family as a unit is stronger and healthier as a result.

That dynamic can leave the later-born child in a quandary though, trying to sort through what’s familial duty and what’s personal preference.

It’s a theory. In any case, I apparently believe that saving the best for last in a sibling series means finishing with the younger, cannier, more chameleon-like later-borns. But I absolutely loved the Slightly series, and Slightly Dangerous in particular.

Do you have a preference for series order? Do you think there’s anything to the idea that younger siblings adapt to meet familial needs? My oldest brothers would probably say the shoe goes on the other foot, with trailblazers getting stuck with the hardest jobs…

I’ll add three commenters to my e-ARC list for The Last True Gentleman, and PS The pre-order links are up for Miss Delectable, Mischief in Mayfair–Book One.

 

 

What Goalposts?

At the start of the day, week, year, or decade, it’s tempting to set goals. “I will lose X pounds by my next birthday!” or, “This house WILL be de-cluttered by summer!” “I will read at least forty books by Christmas!” We’re told to make our goals SMART, or better still, FAST.

Except… I don’t do very well with goal-setting. The process feels fake to me. If I want to achieve something, I will do my best to get ‘er done. I might succeed, I might not, but not for lack of trying. If I’m lukewarm about an objective, all the charts, acronyms, refrigerator charts, or schedules aren’t going to make me passionate about it.

But I came across the notion recently of choosing a theme rather than a goal to inspire reflection and growth. I know as an author, when I have a sense of a book’s theme, of the residual message the story tells, then the tale usually has more impact and is easier to write.

I’m finishing up a story for Orion Goddard and Ann Pearson (you’ll meet them in Sycamore’s book, The Last True Gentleman). Ann, who is a dedicated cook, needs to realize that you can starve emotionally while serving up banquets, while Orion has to see that the respect of fools, no matter their rank or consequence, isn’t worth pursuing. Their theme is about the difference between the appearances society values, and the substance that can only be found by listening to the heart. The result, I hope, is a story with an extra layer of depth and weight. (There’s also plenty of smoochin’ too!)

In my horseback riding these days, my theme is, “If you can’t do great things, then do humble things greatly.” That approach is working to shore up the foundation of all good riding–the ability to craft a dialogue with the horse.

In my house work, the theme is, “Micro-tasks.” Wipe a counter as I wait for the tea water to heat, pick the kitty litters between writing scenes, toss the bird seed up behind the barn while the tea bag is steeping. The result is that I never feel oppressed into procrastination by a monumental chore list, and the nest remains habitable.

Are there themes lurking on the edges of your life these days? Are some new themes trying to get your attention along with the new year? To three commenters, I will send e-ARCs of The Last True Gentleman.

Alone Together

I pick up those check-out line ladies’ magazines from time to time, in part because they contain a surprising amount of this-just-in good science. Who knew that bergamot reduces cholesterol, for example? Each issue also has somebody’s as-told-to story of  a life-changing hack, usually how to beat obesity and/or fatigue.

The pattern in the articles is always the same: The author recounts her suffering–can’t play with the grandkids, forgets her bestie’s daughter’s name, is too tired for date night again–and always adds, “And I was letting down the people who count on me.”

That aspect of the stories bothers me. You mean a woman’s suffering doesn’t deserve attention simply because it’s making her miserable? We must always add a coefficient of guilt because Somebody is Disappointed In Me for Being Sick? Phooey on that.

But then I thought back to the thousands of foster care cases I’ve handled, many of which involved a parent struggling with addiction. Because Twelve-Step programs are free and ubiquitous, they became the treatment referral default  in my jurisdiction, despite little evidence that the programs work. (The evidence is, they tend to work about as well as doing nothing.)

One admonition those programs hand out frequently is, “You cannot get sober for the kids, your spouse, your team… You have to get sober for you.” But over and over, I’d hear mothers on the witness stand say, “The program says you have to get sober for you, but I only agreed to go to the meetings for my kids. I want to be there for them, and that’s what keeps me going.” And if anybody was getting sober, it was those moms.

So maybe, Grace Ann, there is something compelling about feeling your sense of connection threatened because a problem has gone unsolved for too long. (And maybe a treatment approach developed by guys born more than a century ago, when patriarchy and rugged-individualism were the answer to everything, needs some updating.)

The past year has been hard for me as an author. I am accustomed to putting on my writer hat, and conjuring happily ever afters from thin air. I do that regardless of family difficulties, my own frustrations, and whether the characters are making nice-nice with me. But in recent months, my determination hasn’t always been sufficient to subdue the Undertoads of isolation, despair, and anxiety.

That’s where my readers have come in. Just when I think, “Might have to, I dunno, hire out as an editor or something…” I will get an email from a reader telling me that the books have been a happy place for her in a dark time, that what I do matters. Writing is not only my job, it’s also my calling, and how I contribute.

And with those kind words fortifying my resolve, I can make another cup of jasmine green tea, and get back to my dukes and damsels. I’m not as isolated as I think, and that realization has been a tremendous comfort and inspiration.

What connections comfort you, however distant or virtual these days? To two commenters, I’ll send e-ARCs of The Last True Gentleman, due out on the web store Fed. 9 and on the retail platforms on Feb. 23.

 

World Domination Is Overrated Anyway

Me on Delray the Wonder Pony (I should be looking UP more.)

To limit my COVID risk, and to accommodate some health boo-boos, I’ve seen my riding horse only once a week for most of the past year. At my age, and in my generally unimpressive state of health, riding once a week will not result in progress. I am simply sore for half the week, every week, though it’s a righteous kind of soreness.

So I’ve applied to riding the same approach I’m taking with most of life these days: What small increment of progress can I achieve given the constraint of riding once a week? Welp, it doesn’t take great conditioning or brilliant tact with the aids to improve the transitions from the walk to a halt or to walk Those surprisingly complex operations take  focusing on the horse, on my seat, on my breathing, one where I’m looking. Note to self: Kicking the horse and pulling the reins are not involved in a these activities, when done correctly.

So my halts and canter departs are improving, slowly. My attention to the house has also improved a tiny, tiny bit by virtue making the kitty-litter-picking ritual part of the morning routine. It takes fifteen minutes including the toddle to the muck pit behind the barn, and gives me a sense of having addressed the worst infractions against tidiness.

I am slowly, slowly, one title at a time, getting a section of the web store set up to sell print versions of my independently published titles. At my current rate of progress, the store front won’t be operational for months, but again, I have a sense of lighting a candle against a threatening abyss of ennui.

As the problems in the greater world have expanded in both time and scope, I have learned to take joy from minute victories against sloth, inertia, and despair. Then too, I’ve learned to let the occasional down day go, to even expect that once or twice a week, the day will get away from me or sleep won’t happen, and my plans for world domination will have to be put off. Oh, well. Have a cup of tea and try, try again tomorrow.

I’ve learned to be grateful that I have tomorrows. So I guess my take-away from 2020 is quality or quantity in terms achievements, and humility over ambition. Be kind, tell the truth. If the wash gets done too, then take a bow. If the wash gets done AND the canter transitions go well, then take two bows.

And then sit down and get back to writing a happily ever after for Ned Wentworth and Lady Rosalind.

What was your take-away from 2020? To one commenter, I will send an ARC file of The Last True Gentleman. Sycamore says the title should be The Best True Gentleman, but we know how he is. The files should be ready on or around Feb. 1, so I’m starting my list now…

Readin’ Buddies, Represent!

One of my nephews has been incarcerated since June on charges stemming from demonstrations against police brutality. The charges are federal and will probably be pled down (meaning they are at least semi-bogus), but for now, due to COVID, he still has no trial date.

He’s reading romance novels, comic books, ANYTHING he can find. I got to thinking about nonfiction titles I’ve come across that delivered a lot of well-supported insight and information, books he might enjoy as a change of pace from whodunits and HEAs. My top five suggestions were:

Give and Take by Adam Grant (2014). This was “groundbreaking” when it came out in 2014, but the basic premise will ring true to any romance reader: Nice guys rarely finish last in the races that matter. Grant’s big contribution was to back up that finding with the sort of studies even C-suite alpha dunces have to take seriously.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (1962), from which we got the term “paradigm shift.” An oldie but goodie that concluded, long before confirmation bias was a thing, that science, which we hope to be fact-based, objective, and radiant with the golden light of truth, generally reaches that light after a thorough bath in the less than fragrant waters of bias, expedience, and politics. Galileo could have told us so, but did we listen?

Talking to Strangers (2019) by Malcolm Gladwell. Before we were protesting police brutality in 2020, Gladwell had done some brilliant research into why our policing has become so ineffective and frustrating for all concerned (including the cops). What strikes me now is how relevant this book is to the national debate, and how little I’ve heard it mentioned.

When–The Scientific Secrets to Perfect Timing (2018) by Daniel Pink. Despite the cheesy title, Pink packs a lot of interesting and highly readable science into this tome, which looks at everything from late bloomers (yay!), to night owls, to the super-virtuoso female musicians who studied with Antonio Vivaldi in the early 1700s. Not what I’d call a life-changing read, but it does debunk the 10,000-hour myth and points out the big downsides of early specialization (so there).

Thinking Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahneman, PhD. Kahneman took a look at how we make decisions, compared to how we believe we make them, and found a trove of myths much in need of debunking. We are far more subjective, impressionable, and irrational than we like to, um, think. Anybody interested in world domination should read this book, as should anybody who does not want to be manipulated by villains, greedy social media corporations, or children’s organizations selling cookies.

Is there non-fiction on your keeper shelf? On your gift lists? What exactly ARE you reading in these challenging December days? To one commenter, I will send a $100 gift card from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, or Apple (your choice), and then my little bloggy-poo is going on hiatus until January.

To tide you over until then, please recall that Truly Beloved will be available from the web store starting Tuesday (12/16), and is available in print already.