That’s My Motto

I am of the belief that as you travel on in life, if you are on the right path for you, you acquire regalia–outward trappings of your ever-more-bounteous inner majesty. Maybe your regalia is a scarf your grandma knit or a beer stein your dad picked up while serving our country in Germany. The value of your regalia lies in its emotional merit, its ability to anchor you to something genuine and precious in your life.

Among my regalia is a little slate coaster that I bought on my first visit to Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands. The trip was magical, a series of unfortunate events morphing into a little Cinderella moment for a woman on the backside of forty who dreamed of writing books someday. On the coaster is the motto of the Royal House of Stuart and the Order of the Thistle: Nemo Me Impune Lacessit. (Voltaire says it’s his motto too.)

This motto, which was dear to Queen Victoria, means, essentially: You mess with me, I’ll make you pay, or, nobody provokes me with impunity. For a woman barely five feet tall, ruling from a throne that hadn’t been held by a female in centuries, those words probably spoke to her heart. (And, lest we forget, she had nine kids and her adored hubby popped his clogs at the tender age of 42.)

The other night I was reading along in one of my improving tomes–I think it was Give and Take by Adam Grant?–and I learned that Frank Lloyd Wright’s family had a motto: Truth Against the World. I imagine young Frank, watching his dad raise a toast to the family motto–has a nice ring to it.

And then I bethought myself: What would Lord Stephen Wentworth’s motto be? Must think on that. (The title for his tale is, “How to Catch A Duke,” release date in about year.)

And then methinks: What is MY motto? My website says, “I believe in love,” and that’s true. My personal theory for why Romance as a genre scares so many people is because it’s about love, and love is the most positive, transformative power on earth. Scary business, and I believe in love strongly. But what’s my motto?

My prime directive is, “Be kind; tell the truth.” Having that moral touchstone in my ethical treasure box helps keep me going in an honorable direction, and true to myself. So I s’pose my motto might be: Honesty and Kindness. (Latin: Probitatis et Misericordiam.) Or maybe my motto is simply: Honor.

Family crests and coats of arms have mottoes. Schools have mottoes. Corporations have missions statements, but most of those read to me like so much blah-blah that the PR folks came up with for the shareholder report. Maybe corporations would be better citizens if they could boil their values down to a motto. Not my circus.

By I am curious: Do you have a motto? Does your family? Can you think up a motto that might be appropriate for muddling through the present interesting times? To one commenter, I will send a $25 B&N gift card.

 

The View From the Time Out Chair

Well, here we all are, enjoying various degrees of home detention. Who woulda thought, huh? It occurred to me how often we use isolation as a form of punishment. In prison, solitary confinement is about the worst fate that can befall an inmate, to the point that many psychologists consider it a form of torture that can’t be abolished quickly enough.

Naughty children are sent to their rooms, unruly toddlers are told to take a turn on the Time Out chair. As a society, Americans have historically dealt with their oddballs and miscreants by using them to tame the wilderness, an often solitary and therefore dangerous undertaking.

There’s another side to solitude, though. A peaceful, contemplative side that has been part of the monastic tradition for centuries. Any number of scientific advances have germinated in the course of a solo walk, and one of our quintessential heroic archetypes is the lone wolf. This character has become skillful and self-sufficient by adapting to his or her particular wilderness and learning its contours over a long course of careful study.

So here’s to us, the lone wolves of the family rooms and backyards.

For me, a shelter-in-place lifestyle isn’t much different from normal. I no longer go to the horse barn, which means I might leave the property once a week–to provision, bank, and pick up meds–as opposed to twice a week. I am still aware though, that things have changed–radically for many of us–and might never be quite the same again.

I’m OK, so far, and part of what sustains me is the company of my cats. They give me a concrete way to worry–Forget TP. Will the stores have cat food and kitty litter?–as opposed to leaving me prey to apocalyptic anxiety. They are soft and furry, they purr, they have their little dramas and personalities. They are company of a kind that is familiar and comforting to me.

My two-acre yard is an enormous consolation, in part because spring is marching forth right on schedule–what virus?–and in part because it’s hard to feel claustrophobic on a bucolic two-acre parcel. I can plant pansies, I can clean up the beds left over from last year. I can move rocks around in the stream–a surprisingly soothing pastime.

My work is a particularly precious delight. I play make believe for a living, and now is a great time to have a job that focuses on the transformative power of love, and the miracle of human courage. My current work in progress is Ash Dorning and Della Haddonfield’s tale, and they are both people isolated by emotional challenges. What a metaphor.

On the not-helpful side of the scorecard, I place excessive exposure to the news. We’re in a dangerous time, I get that. Age places me in the higher-risk demographic–I picked up on that detail too. Unless there’s some significant new development, I have my marching orders for the next month or so.

Keeping in touch with my family, even by silly texts, is helpful. Watching the stock market is not helpful. Bringing yard flowers into the house is helpful. Staying friends with my tread desk is helpful. Engaging with social media trolls–never very smart–is an absolute no-go now. Reading good books–exceedingly helpful!

What’s working for you? What’s making life a little harder? Any surprises or disappointments? To three commenters, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card, but you have to promise not spend it all on TP.

 

What I Learned in COVID-19 Class

I have been watching the news, wondering what, if anything, constructive I can add to the cacophony the current pandemic is inspiring. I come down in a hopeful place, somewhat to my surprise, because I am learning things as result of this experience, and learning is always good (though not always happy).

One thing I learned is that having a few weeks worth of extra cat food on hand at all times was  not a bad idea. I always considered that stockpiling pet food was my Potato Famine heritage making a last gasp in the land of plenty. I also kept a big cat food inventory because I am haunted by the following thoughts: I live alone, I have few close friends and no family in the area. If I am ever out of action for any length of time, who will look after these felines whom I have allowed to become dependent on me? If the food is on-site, I can hire somebody to dish it out.

I am learning that I want everybody to have some sick leave/family leave, even if that means I have to pay a little more for my bread, cheese, travel, or phone service. Working sick is just wrong, though we’ve all done it, and expecting people to work sick, or send kids to school sick, is even more wrong. We can do better.

I am learning that we are pretty practical folk. My local grocery store ran out of TP, milk, eggs, and bread. The pasta was running low too, but a lot of “non-staples” like soft drinks, chips, cookies, and cereal, were abundantly available. That says to me that wine has not become the fifth food group, and neither has chocolate (yet). When we panic, we at least do so sensibly.

I’m learning, once again, that I live a very privileged life. I can go to the store at any hour, I can haul home a double-shop with no problem (both because I have a car and because  I can walk unassisted). I can afford to shop for two weeks at once instead of one, I can buy whatever version is on the shelves instead of having to stretch my budget by purchasing only the cheapest brands. Golly Ned, am I privileged.

I hope a lot of employers are learning that most people can be trusted to work from home. The job gets done, the carbon footprint is smaller, the employee wastes less time commuting, and HVAC costs at headquarters are reduced. What a concept.

I am learning that books are wonderful. I always knew that, but I know it now in an immediate way. I would rather have a new Deanna Raybourn mystery to read, or a Joanna Bourne novel to re-read than any anti-anxiety medication you can name. My keeper authors got me through so many difficult years, and they are coming through for me now.

What lessons do you see coming out of the current uproar–if any? To three commenters, I’ll send $25 Amazon gift cards. And PS: I dropped the price on a fourth novella anthology, Love by the Letters, which you can now pick up for $1.99. (The other three half-price anthos are linked on my Deals page.)

Once Upon a Never…

I was certain I would never be among those women who turned to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to deal with menopause. Frequent hot flashes are a big So What. They don’t hurt and they’re over in minutes. Dry skin? Use moisturizer. Anxiety? Who doesn’t have anxiety in the current political and economic climate?

But last fall, I realized that my writing productivity had dropped in half and was still sinking. I could not turn my mental gears for more than about a single scene most days.  A trip to the barn for a 45-minute horse back ride wiped me out for the day. My 10,000 steps were drifting down to 7,000…. most days… I guess. I was paying bills almost-late even though I had the money sitting in my account.

I did not feel like myself. I wasn’t acting like myself. I felt like a vague old dear who would soon be forgetting if she’d fed the cats. I am normally somewhat foggy because I live much of the time in my imagination–or I do when I’m on my game. This was different, more like screensaver mode, stuck in neutral. No energy, but can’t sleep.

A Duke Walked into a House Party by Brace BurrowesSo off to the doc I did go, and the doc’s first recommendation was HRT.

“I’ll try it,” says me, much to my own surprise, “because I’m losing my stories, and I need my stories to be me. Also to eat.” A couple months later, Doc gets the lab work back that says my thyroid juice is WAY too low, so we double that in addition to the prescribed testosterone and progesterone.

I am happy to report that after six months of following doctor’s orders, things are looking up–Lord Stephen Wentworth’s book is completed in draft, and that rascal played least in sight for all of 2019. My next step will be a hiatus on the hormones, because what if the whole problem was just my danged thyroid (again)? But even trying the HRT was something I’d told myself I’d never do. I have no patience with the notion that a woman “should” be sexy, attractive, alluring, or anything that uses male attention as a frame of reference. Heck with that.

She should be delighted with her lovely bad self all the time at every age no matter what–says me.

But I wasn’t so delighted with myself when I could not make the words happen. I love to write, and I knew when that started to slip from my grasp, it was time to cross at least one never off my list.

Do you have nevers? Are there bright lines you hope you never have to step over? Bright lines you have stepped over that maybe you should have hopped over sooner? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card.

And PS: One result of feeling a little more the thing is that I’m getting my backlist novellas repackaged and republished (hence A Duke Walked into a House Party, and A Lady Without Peer). I’ve also put a new cover on Percival and Esther Windham’s prequel novellas (The Courtship/The Duke and His Duchess), and I like this cover sooooo much better than the old one!

 

What Works?

A Duke Walked into a House Party by Brace BurrowesI’m on several author loops, and an abiding theme of the conversations thereon is, “What works?” What works to get the darned manuscript completed? To write an effective blurb for it? To market the books so they find the readers who will love them (and don’t find the other kind)? To foster creativity in the midst of dry spells and sanity in the midst of a very tough writing market?

What works?

In this still-chilly time of year, as I’m waiting, waiting, waiting for it to be warm enough to PLANT FLOWERS, I’m asking myself: What’s working? On June 1, I will celebrate two years of freedom from the lawyer job (wheeee!) and I’m taking inventory about what has gone well in this time and what needs some tweaking.

At the top of the going well column is a schedule full of hours and hours and hours of solitude. I go for several days at a time without leaving the property or talking to other human beings (I talk to the cats). This has two benefits: I like being home by myself, and when I do get out among people, I am appreciative of the company. Whether it’s the grocery store or the horse barn, the bank (yes, I still go to the bank), or the doctor’s office, I’m more attentive to other people and happier to be around them.

Another marvelous development: I am reading like nobody’s business. Whether it’s Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell mysteries, an ARC of Vanessa Riley’s, A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby, (LUCKY ME!!!), or “Switch–When Change is Hard,” by Chip and Dan Heath, my nose is in books of my choosing and I am loving all the reading time. Loving. It.

And the working well list would also have to include the whole writer gig. Revenue is down all over town, but I am still enjoying every writing day, and finding time to get after some backlist that needs to be republished. I am having a great time with my works in progress (Stephen Wentworth waves coyly from stage left), and I remain convinced that the romance readership is one of the purely nicest demographics anywhere.

So what’s working for me is writing, reading, tons of unstructured time, the company of cats and horses, and NO LAWYERING.

What works for you? What habits, routines, activities, or indulgences have you put in place or learned to avoid to keep yourself bebopping happily along from week to week? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

Never Put Off Until Tomorrow…

Where I live, winter still has some teeth. Nothing like the winters we got twenty years ago, with two feet of snow at once, single-digit days, and more snow on top of the snow already on the ground. Instead we get mud, rain, freezing rain, ice, wind, and more mud. This is not exactly good horseback riding weather.

So my trips to the barn lately have been fewer, and I’ve noticed that this has put a stutter in my writing. I get a good scene done most days, but those three-scene days have gone on hiatus. Then I recalled why I resumed the riding lessons in the first place.

I needed the drive to the barn and back. It’s about an hour each way, most of it on back roads, all of it very familiar. The distance is great enough that I get to mind-wandering as I tootle along. Yes, I wrote an OK meet scene, but there’s no contradictory emotion suggested by the subtext. What’s going on there? Why isn’t anything going on there? Stephen Wentworth, I’m looking at YOU.

Once I’m at the barn, if it’s not pouring down rain, I try to hand-graze Darling Pony for at least fifteen minutes. This is No Time At All according to Santiago, but to just stand there watching a horse chew grass… I get to mind-wandering again: Maybe I should write that meet in the heroine’s point of view, not the hero’s. How would that change things? Go away, Stephen, I am not talking to you now. I said, Go Away….

In short, I need to set aside my creative effort from time to time, to make myself wait,  watch, and cogitate. On occasion, when I blitz through a book, the result is exactly as I’d wish it to be (Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish was written in about 40 Messiah-soaked days (and nights)). But for most books, periodic pauses, breaks, days off, even weeks off, help surface the better story line and the more credible character motivations.

The usual name for this process, putting off until tomorrow what could be written today, is procrastination. There’s little respect for it in a productivity-driven culture. The early bird catches the worm! Early to bed and early to rise! The harder I work, the luckier I get! Nobody ever says: Go ride your horse if you want to write better books. Try not to go past  2500 words a day… And the data is, people who nosh and pause, think, and re-think, and tortoise along often aren’t particularly productive.

But they are creative. The result of tortoise-ing, backtracking, and driving to the barn is more insight, more original thinking, more seeing with fresh eyes, and that might not make for the most books, but it  makes for better books. I will thus leave the worms to all those early birds, while I have another chat with Lord Stephen.

Does your day give you time to mind-wander? Did you have this as a kid? Could you benefit from more pauses and down times? To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card.

To billion or not to billion…

I should know better… I am on social media mostly to hang out with my readers. My family isn’t there, I’m not much of a group joiner, I certainly don’t need social media to acquaint me with the news…. but there I was, scrolling along on FB, and I saw a meme along the lines of: I am so glad I wasted my time learning about parallelograms, though it sure would be nice if I knew how to do my taxes instead.

I about sploded, because that kind of “joke” is so wrong on so many levels. It subtly bashes public education, which is one way to make me start snorting and pawing, and it more specifically bashes general education–subjects you ought to study at a basic level simply to be a well-rounded thinker.

And the meme is wrong. The data we have says that people who take more high school math–Algebra II, trig, calculus (all of which come after dear old geometry), tend to be BETTER at applied math (doing taxes, managing a check book), than the people who enroll in consumer math, life skills, or other applied courses. The basic general education stands you in better stead than the “practical” education.

But the larger issue for me is, “What am I doing on Facebook in the first place?” Authors who maintain a social media presence supposedly sell more books, directly or otherwise, than authors who avoid social media. Selling books has become a necessity for me, as royalties are now my only income.

And yet, my prime directive is, “Be kind; tell the truth.” Facebook takes huge sums of money (from any and everybody, few questions asked) to propagate what it knows are lies, and–worse, from my perspective–celebrates this behavior by calling it, “Standing up for free speech.” Newsflash, Mr. Zuckerbucks: The first amendment does not protect lies. The Supreme Court is REAL clear about that. You aren’t standing up for anything except the next $1 billion added to the $85 billion you already have.

And I’m helping him make that next billion. Is he helping me sell books?

Does that even matter? I lean increasingly toward no, selling a few books  more or less does not matter, when measured against the great harm resulting from handing a huge megaphone to falsehoods favoring those with ad money. Be kind, tell the truth, and don’t lend any traction to people who ditch the truth for the next $1 billion in personal net worth.

Or am I being impractical and self-sabotaging? How do you reconcile yourself to social media–or do you? And in happier news, A Woman of True Honor goes on sale at the major retail platforms on Tuesday. (You can already snag a copy from the web store or in print.)

 

The Economics of Oggly

I spent much of my corporate life in cubicles, thinking that was just how offices were supposed to look. Then came the great day when I opened up my own law practice.

I went a little bananas. My new office was in the former county library building, and had the strange dimensions to show for it. I not only had custom curtains made, but I also paid for matching carpet, and painted the walls and wainscoting my own un-crafty self. I ended up with a seafoam, white, and pink color scheme, complete with throw pillows to match the cabbage roses on the upholstered wing chairs, and a pink cushion for my rocking chair.

Take that, corporate Murika! I bought silk flowers for the hearth, filled a basket with stuffed animals, and put an actual green plant (that was still thriving twenty years on) in the window. I hung decorative quilts on the walls along with a six-foot-wide paper fan of a Japanese tiger. I even commissioned a small stained glass window for the transom space–three doves, because doves symbolize peace.

The sheer delight I took in my workspace was shocking to me, because I’m no Martha Stewart. I figured as a self-employed attorney, how I kitted out the work place would say a lot about the extent to which I valued my work and my clients. Then too, my clients–all of whom were dealing with some sort of trauma–deserved at least comfy chairs and a few cheerful colors when they came to see me.

And lo and behold, as far back as the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow (meaning SEVENTY YEARS ago), we have studies to prove that pretty makes us happier with the tasks we’re performing, more upbeat generally, and better able to stick to the job. Ugly makes us cranky, easily distracted, and whiny.

The economic impacts of that finding are profound. Think of all the boring offices you’ve worked in, all the drab waiting rooms you’ve endured, all the classrooms that nearly put you to sleep because they were so blah. Think of the public housing developments and underfunded schools… The entire neighborhoods that haven’t so much as a pot of flowers growing on a street corner.

We regard beauty as an extra, an indulgence, a frolic, but the research says otherwise: It’s an essential nutrient for contentment and productivity.

My take-away from this topic will be to make an affirmative gesture in support of those who create beauty, but I’m also curious: Where is the greatest beauty in your life? If you had unlimited resources, where would you add to the beauty in your community?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card for 1800-FLOWERS. (And while you’re here on the website, please recall that A Lady of True Honor is already available on the web store, and the Deals page has been updated for February.)

 

Of PBJs and HEAs…

In April, I’m supposed to present a talk to a bunch of writers about sustaining creativity.

So I’m reading, reading, reading about the challenges of sustaining creativity, and I came across My Creative Space, by architect Donald M. Rattner. The subtitle is, “How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation.” One of the first premises Rattner proposes is: If your work requires creativity, then you should set up a dedicated place where that creativity routinely happens.

His point is that our minds build associations even in the absence of any causal relationship. When we suffer insomnia, one of the first pieces of advice handed out is: Don’t do anything in that bed but sleep (unless you are fortunate enough to have a lover, of course). Don’t watch the telly when you’re in bed, don’t scroll through texts, don’t read 1000-page biographies (looking at you, Grace Ann). Ditch the devices and train your brain to believe that the only thing that happens in that bed is sleep.

My house, a log farmhouse with a kitchen and bathroom added in the 1950s, was not built to be a creative residence. The intention was to make spaces for sleeping, socializing (I socialize with my tread desk in the living room), preparing and consuming food, and (now) tending to personal hygiene. That’s it. No sewing room, no play room. No game room, no library, no study, no Florida room.

I write at my kitchen table, and because it’s a small table, and my computer sits up on a special riser (thanks Graham!), I end up munching through breakfast, lunch, and dinner where I work. Or I eat standing up in the kitchen, or–in nice weather–I sit out on the porch steps to eat. I pay the bills where I work. I play cribbage where I work.

I am guessing, if I want to write another 55 novels, then I had best re-think this camping-in-the-kitchen approach to my writing space. The mind functions best with  definite on-work and off-work settings, and in my current situation I’m having recess in the biology lab and trying to study math in the gym.

I can make better use of the place where I’ve been living for thirty years. I can segregate functions, and do a better job of priming my brain to be creative here, enjoy a PBJ there, and nosh on a biography over there. More than that, I’m thinking about how I’d design my ideal space. For sure it would have a lot more natural light than my house has, it would have a desk and a kitchen table (what a concept), and it would have a cozy little nook for reading the books I love so dearly.

Do your spaces–work and home, especially–function the way you need them to, or are you making do and compromising? If you could change one thing about the place where you live or work, what would it be?

To three comenters, I’ll send advanced reader e-copies of A Woman of True Honor, and those files will starting going out early this week!

 

 

Walking the Talk

Nothing says, “Cat Toy!!!” like a bit of plastic with some string attached and a shiny glint or two of metal thrown in for good measure. Thus when the nice customer service people told me yesterday that my Tread Desk had flat-lined because the safety key was missing, I knew exactly which species to blame.  Clearly, the folks who designed that tread desk live in blessed ignorance of feline curiosity.

Well, no matter. I ordered two replacement keys and resigned myself to a sedentary day. The sky was pouring buckets of rain, and I had buckets of work to do. But one day of sitting on my rosy fundament is one day too many. My C-reactive-protein score is Not Good, and a surefire way to make it worse is to lard about on my behonkis in a blissful fog of authorial busyness.

Besides, I like being outside. The sky and the trees and the birdies, the fresh air and sunshine… they are good for me. I’m always telling everybody to go outside and play. Get your kids and your elders outside. Be one with the natural world, says me. It’s the walking part I’m not too keen on, but one little heart attack will ruin my whole writing schedule, so today I sneakered-up and out the door I went.

What I noticed first was the usual misery I associate with exercise–clammy sweat, labored breathing. an aching back, and the ghastly torment of sports induced histamine response (subcutaneous itching of the feet and legs).

After grumbling along for a while, I did notice positive aspects of the experience. Because we got a deluge last night, the cool air was humid. My skin loved that. We’re at a time of year when late day sunshine is gorgeous. I was pretty happy about that. I heard the rushing water draining into the culverts and streams, and that’s lovely music. I heard a few little birdie-tweets, and I am fiercely glad to hear that any time. I introduced myself to two cats I hadn’t met before–always nice to make new friends–and said hi to the neighbor’s kids.

I got my 10,000 steps in, and I’m glad I did. But I will also be glad when that replacement safety key shows up. My characters are always running around outside, taking tea in the garden, or going for a horseback ride. When I had less of a choice about how and when I spent the time outside, seeing the positives was an effort.  Note to self: More than being outside, I want to decide when and how I spend my time there.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of your own advice? Ever had to walk the talk and changed your tune? Is there advice you no longer hand out that your younger self was happy to share? I will add three commenters to my ARC list for A Woman of True Honor. The files should be ready to send in a week or so!