When All Else Fails…

I mentioned last week that having the freedom to write day after day has resulted in… carpal tunnel symptoms in my left wrist and hand. I don’t mind that it hurts–compared to a three-day migraine it’s nothing–I mind that it scares me. This is a condition that sometimes only admits of surgical treatment, and that means downtime, expense, logistical challenges, and woe is me.

Other worries in the current environment go Yertle the Turtling on top of that fretful situation, and pretty soon, I am in a corona-funk. Everything is awful, the sky is falling, and I’ve already finished the new Julia Quinn, the new C.S. Harris AND Ozan Varol’s first mainstream nonfiction title. Whatever shall I do?

My worries are trivial compared to the life and death stakes many people are facing, but lecturing me about that doesn’t help my outlook. “It could always be worse,” is, to me, a Hail Mary pass thrown at reason on a playing field full of legitimate, painful emotions. It could always be better too, ya know.

I think back, though, to my parents, who endured the Great Depression; WWII (Dad served, Mom was a nurse); the Korean War; McCarthyism; Vietnam (my oldest brother served); Watergate; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Medger Evers, and Harvey Milk; the Kent State shootings; and various other wars, recessions, miseries, and scandals since. They both grew up without penicillin (Mom turned out to be allergic to it),  and with the ongoing threat of polio.

And you know how my parents coped? Welp, Dad generally had two double martinis every night after work. The first was in his hand within ten minutes of arriving home, and, “Mama, can I fix you a drink?” was probably his way of saying, “Honey, I love you.” In my mother’s words, “that was how you coped.” They may not have been the greatest generation, but they were certainly the drinking-est generation. And no, I never saw either parent drunk.

Some people cope with adherence to a faith tradition, some with music or exercise, some with a glass of chardonnay, some with books (Yay!!!), some with meditation or journaling. I’m personally consuming a bit more dark chocolate than usual–a big bit.

But my bedrock coping mechanism is to default to gratitude. As worried and scattered as I’m feeling, as disruptive as a sore paw (and a little bitty pandemic) could be for a chubby, aging, full time writer, what am I grateful for?

Ethically sourced dark chocolate, that’s for bleepin’ sure. Medical professionals who can fix a sore paw. Technology like dictation software that means this is not the end of the world, Grace Ann. Readers who like what I write enough to keep a roof over my head. Nifty little wrist cuffs that, for $19.99, will keep me from messing up my hand any further. My bloggin’ buddies, who stop by this space to share wisdom, wit, and worries…

And pretty soon, after I go down the gratitude gopher hole, I’m feeling less anxious and more settled. So what I want to know is: How do you cope? To three commenters, I’ll send SIGNED print ARC’s of A Duke by Any Other Name (c’mon, Tuesday!).

Curmudgeons Are Us

When people ask me how I’m doing with this lock-down business, my answer is quite cheery. “I’m used to tons of time at home, and I love my solitude. I’m doing pretty well, actually!” And that’s true. Maryland has been social distancing since early March, and we have apparently succeeded in flattening the curve… so far. Governor Hogan, a  cancer survivor in his sixties (and a Republican), has cautioned all and sundry that reopening will be a slow, cautious process, and the first steps are at least a month away.

It helps to know my state leadership is erring on the side of my safety, and it helps tremendously that I am one of the 25 percent of the workforce who can work at home. My stay-at-home angst is also eased by the fact that lately, I haven’t been among the forty percent of the population living paycheck to paycheck. I have lean times, but I also have family who would give me a hand if I fell ill and could not work for weeks.

Nonetheless, I’m getting a little crispy. On social media, I’m tempted to snark at both the social distancing police who delight in shaming anybody who puts a foot wrong, and those misguided souls who believe a constitution intended to balance a series of conflicting rights has morphed into a guarantee absolute freedoms. I get snappish at all the “fun quizzes” on Facebook hiding a sinister invasion of privacy agenda, though Facebook has been allowing those quizzes to invade our privacy for years.

And yet, the only thing that lock-down has changed for me, really, is that I don’t go to the horse barn twice a week. How lucky am I, to be so minimally impacted by what is an ongoing tragedy for many others? Even so…

Going to the horse barn to ride for 45 minutes means driving an hour each way through the beautiful Maryland countryside. It means interacting with people I don’t see otherwise. It means about thirty minutes of quietly hand-grazing my darling pony, phone off, nobody else around, just me, the beast, the grass, and the quiet.

So 45 minutes in the saddle turns into a long half day away from the place where I both live and work. It involves a change of scene, conversation with real human beings, relaxation, and a different physical challenge than I face anywhere else. These two outings are my big adventures for the week, my best times of contemplation, and my biggest break from a job that I sometimes do eighteen hours a day without putting on my shoes.

I suspect this lack of breathing room is part of why I have such easy access to my inner curmudgeon lately. Which brings me to my question: If you’ve had to socially distance from your frolics and detours, or the joys that feed your soul, how are you coping? How are you keeping that inner curmudgeon from taking over the whole house?

To three commenters, I’ll send an e-ARC of A Duke by Any Other Name. (And PS… I had my friend Graham make a trailer for this title–just for fun!)

 

 

The Better Normal

Occasionally, in the midst of a trying time, my sainted mother would catch me whinging and whining, and one of her stock responses was, “Well, yeah, it’s hard right now, but what do you learn on your good days?” She was making a backhanded reference to silver linings, teaching moments, or some other danged constructive perspective which I was usually incapable of appreciating at the time.

I’m looking around at this pandemic, and thinking, “This is the biggest, baddest snow day I have even seen in my life. It’s definitely new terrain for me personally and for my society. What useful insight can I take away from this?” In other words, how will this pandemic change the way I go about my life? How do I want to see it change my society for the better?

One thing I want is paid sick leave as a norm. If somebody brings enough to my organization that I’m hiring them as an employee, then they bring enough that I can cover them for a few weeks a year when they’re under the weather. People get sick, and we’re learning to our sorrow the cost of expecting that those who make the smallest wages–handling our food, looking after our old folks, staffing day care centers–should just work sick. Who ever thought that was a smart idea anyway?

Um, we did. Apparently?

For me personally, that means I should always have enough provisions on hand that I can stay home for a week or ten days if I’m sick. I wasn’t really thinking in those terms before, but I will now. It means keeping a few, “Been meaning to get around to it,” classics in my TBR pile. It means updating my will. (Still on the to-do list.)

I came across this article, which warns us that many highly motivated interests will encourage us all to forget this ever happened, and get back to “normal” as quickly as possible. But normal–full of distrust for the media, contempt for basic science, indifference to the planet’s welfare, relying on of some of the worst health care in the developed world (through no fault of our health care practitioners)–is a significant part of how we got here.

We have a chance to re-examine whether normal was working for us, and to decide what to do about the normal that wasn’t working. What lessons will you take away from our big snow day? How will this experience motivate you to build a better normal?

I’ll put three more commenters on my Advanced Reader Copy list for A Duke by Any Other Name. (Book comes out April 28, eARCs will start going out about April 17.)

 

Change One Thing

Like many people, I have more time on my hands lately to muse and ponder and think. I have been bedeviled by a question which popped into my head for no apparent reason:  Grace, if you could change one aspect of society right now, what would it be? Of course, I’d like a safe, readily available COVID-19 vaccine, but there will be another virus next year, and my question is aimed at societal structures.

I see posts about gerrymandering, voter suppression, wealth concentration, climate change, public health, corporate greed… all kinds of issue are begging for our attention. I came across a paper, though, that says at least when it comes to climate change, if you offer people a small step they can take that doesn’t really have a big impact (like getting rid of plastic shopping bags), then they are less likely to support the big measures (a carbon tax) that have been proven to have a real benefit.

The paper goes one step further. About 25 companies create half of our fossil fuel emissions worldwide, and 100 companies create more than 70 percent of global green house emissions. These companies are often major sponsors of the highly visible, barely effective measures that help us feel virtuous about our personal green agenda, while we move the global needle barely at all. The big dirty polluters know they are lulling us into a false sense of activism by throwing us these dog treats, and my friends, that really frosts my cookie.

So would I put at the top of my “things that need to change” list holding major polluters accountable? Well, that’s tempting, but that’s only one issue that we aren’t very well informed about. I think instead, I’d put reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine at the top of the list. This was the set of FCC rules that, until Reagan repealed them, required news coverage to be fair, balanced, and accurate. Another provision of the Fairness Doctrine was that people had to be told–prominently–whether what they were reading or hearing was news, opinion, or advertisement.

And NEVER the twain did meet.

Now? The networks cover whatever grabs ratings, “commentary” disguises bias as news, major advertisers provide content to news pages. (Looking at you, CNN…). If we do not have a reliable source of truth, of facts, of informed, disinterested analysis, then how can we intelligently move forward on any issue? We will spin our wheels on campaign finance reform, climate change, and just about every major issue out there, because we’ve been trained to expect entertainment instead of information from our “news” sources.

So that’s where I come down in terms of How to Fix Society: Reinstate the Fairness Doctrine first. Then you have a standard of truth, easily distinguishable from non-truth, and beholden to no one set of interests. It was a good plan, and it worked well for a long time, and from that foundation of truth we can attack all the other sharks swimming in our collective bathtub.

What’s on your mind these days? If you had three wishes, what would they be? To three commenters, I’ll send an ePub file of A Duke by Any Other Name, which is coming out on April 28. (And PS, Darius is on sale in the webstore this month for $3.99, and $4.99 at the major retailers!)

 

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.