Wise Words, Hard Times

In the interests of feeding my own creativity (and thus feeding me and my cats and other dependents), I read newsletters from people working outside the fiction-writing sphere. One of those newsletters is called Dense Discovery, a collection of thought-provoking cites about all things tech, with a particular focus on graphic arts and design. One of my best buddies in college was a graphic designer, and I loved how his mind worked (and lot else about him too). I have kept a casual eye on the field of graphic design ever since.

One feature of Dense Discovery is called Worthy Five, where, in sound-byte fashion, somebody lists a phrase worth knowing, a newsletter they read, a twitter account they follow, a concept worth understanding, and an activity worth doing. This week, writer McKinley Valentine offered the following worthy phrase: You don’t have a problem, you  have a solution you don’t like.

I read that idea as a little nasty–having a solution you don’t like, can’t morally accept, lack the means or resolve to implement IS a problem–but I also see wisdom there. People don’t like to wear masks, they don’t like to be wrong, they don’t like to do the hard work of listening to differing viewpoints and finding common ground, they don’t like a whole lot of solutions to vexing conundrums, myself included. I know I would lose weight–maybe only temporarily, and with all sorts of metabolic backlash, but I would–if I’d just starve myself.

Another quote offered in this week’s newsletter: “Looking at life from a different perspective makes you realize that it’s not the deer that is crossing the road, rather it’s the road that is crossing the forest.” (Muhammad Ali)

I’m reading Dickens’ Sketches by Boz these days, and I’m struck by how he could leaven  huge, windy, lofty, bravura sentences and cinder block paragraphs with zingers. “A proper melodrama (three murders and a ghost)…” This is now literary canon law regarding melodrama, and enviably efficient guidance too.

That skill, of encapsulating wisdom in memorable and brief words, fascinates me. It’s like the next step after poetry in terms of effective communication. A whole worldview in a sentence. I don’t have this gift–it takes me 90,000 words to get my worldview across–but I am so glad other people do. I will be thinking about that business of the deer, the road, and forest all week, and further about solutions I don’t like where I see only problems.

Have you come across any pithy wisdom to help you through the trying days? Are there authors or friends who have the knack of condensing a whole worthwhile perspective into a few words? Maybe you just carry a few of these worthy aphorisms in your head, not sure where you picked them?

To three commenters, I’ll send ARC files for My Heart’s True Delight. The web store already has this title on sale, and the print version can be purchased from Amazon here.

Pandemic With Cats

I have theorized that people who are weathering this pandemic with dogs are going to manage better, generally, than those of us without pups. Having to walk the dog contributes to overall health and to stress management, and caring for the dog preserves an owner from becoming entirely self-obsessed. Then there is that intangible wonderfulness of the canine personality. Never met a physically well dog who wasn’t also a cheerful pup.

But ya know, cats aren’t all bad. The nicest thing about cats is that they purr. There I will be, typing away, focused on a scene between Sycamore Dorning and his lady fair. I carefully craft dialogue that resonates with each character’s true essence, and I add in sensory details that draw the reader into the story world and I… hear a cat resonating with itself on the credenza beside me. I look over, and I get that scrunchy-eyed expression of regal condescension. “Permission to carry on, human.”

Thank you, Your Majesty.

Cats are also very pleasant to pet. I have some long-haired kitties among my feline associates, and also–at present–some kittens. Petting them is my privilege and also my pleasure. When I go outside to feed, cats strop themselves against my calves, and when I sit down to write, usually a cat or two has taken up picket duty elsewhere in the kitchen.

Cats are pretty. Some of my cats, the torties and cream torties in particular, are gorgeous, and I think whatever is beautiful to you helps your mind stay focused, relaxed, and happy. I am also friends with some all black cats, and their eyes are especially lovely.

And cats are entertaining. I’m  impressed by the mama cats who play-wrestle with their kittens, and the unrelated adult cats who turn a tolerant eye on kittens leaping upon a waving tail, or kittens copping a random cuddle with any adult heat source. Some of these guys clearly skipped a few pages of the Alpha Predator World Domination Manual.

I like observing cat behavior. Who is da boss, who is laid back? Who will slap his mama to get to wet food, and who never eats until everybody else is gone and darkness has fallen? They have their personalities and their stories, most of which I will never know.

And finally, for my cats, there is no pandemic. Life for them has gone on without missing a beat. They eat, they spat, they play, they hangout in the sun, they yowl at the moon, or they watch me write. There is no election drama unfolding in their feline lives, no virus decimating their nursing home population, no jobless report to fret over. S’all good as long as the wet food shows up in the evening, and the dry food is put out in the morning. I learn calm from the lilies of the field and the cats of the porch.

Are there animals in your life these days? What do they add, and what do they cost you? If you had to do this year over, would you change your beast/life balance in any way? I’m ready to send out ARCs for My Heart’s True Delight, and today’s commenters get a shot at being added to that list. (And print readers, the Amazon print version should be up any minute…)

Winter Is Coming… I Hope

I have been comforted in this uncomfortable year, by the extent to which, if nature is noticing the pandemic at all, she’s mostly finding benefits from it. The clear canals in Venice, the improved air quality, the reduced carbon emissions… all good stuff. My spring flowers bloomed with their usual enthusiasm, the feral kittens showed up at the summer kitchen on schedule (dang it), and summertime arrived, complete with heat, humidity, and bugs.

And I have had enough of summer, thank you very much. I’m trying not to use the daytime AC this year, and ye gods… How can it be that fans pretty much guarantee chapped lips while the stinkin’ humidity guarantees two showers day? Did you know that cats can transmit poison ivy? That will teach me to let the little buggers strop my ankles when I’m running around in shorts and a T-shirt.

I’m ready to be done with summer. Done, done, done. I want to get to the part of the year where hot drinks, fuzzy socks, and long-sleeved layers are delightful. When you can take that power walk after 8 am and not worry about heat exhaustion. When cooking is partly to keep the house toasty, and not a last resort in a kitchen that feels like an oven even when the oven is off.

I want to get to the weeks when cleaning out the flower beds doesn’t mean a wringing sweat in the first five minutes of outdoor activity, and scented candles rather than essence de pet de mouffette perfumes the evening air. My energy ratchets up when the temperature drops and the days get shorter, and the colder months are generally more productive in terms of writing for me too (Sycamore Dorning, take note).

I know people gathering indoors more is not a good thing from a public health standpoint right now, but I’m not much of a gatherer in any weather. Bring me autumn, please, and to heck with this heat. I want to spend long, dark evenings reading great books, and chilly mornings writing some happily ever afters.

Are you getting exasperated with any aspect of life these days? Do you dread to see the seasons change, or are you looking forward to the cooler months? What has brought you comfort and a sense of normalcy this year? What are you looking forward to?

I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for My Heart’s True Delight, which will be available in the web store in just a couple weeks!

Horse Hobby

I’m glad we have Zoom technology these days, because it has allowed me to take advantage of some really cool writing seminars, and to sit in on hearings for a family member arrested in connection with police brutality protests. Next week, I’ll use Zoom to attend a virtual concert, and my sister-in-law is doing a lot of medical consultations via Zoom tech.

So having internet access is probably a good thing, given the present pandemic, and alas for the tens of millions of Americans (mostly poor and/or rural) who don’t. I also suspect that having a pet and most especially a dog makes coping these days easier. Pets are good company, they distract us from our woes, and they give us messes to clean up. Dogs who need walking also get us up off the couch, and when it is that ever a bad idea?

If I had to list another item to keep in my pandemic bag of tricks (besides good books, of course), I’d include hobbies. We don’t hear much about hobbies any more. Our children and grandchildren have activities, extra curricular classes, or instruments to practice (or they did earlier in the year), but those goal-oriented, qualitatively evaluated, supervised efforts are not a hobbies.

I think of hobbies as non-productive activities undertaken purely for fun. I am a flower gardener several months of the year. I used to bake a lot. I ride horses when my thumb and wrist aren’t boogered up. These activities don’t earn money, they don’t have to be social, and they don’t relate directly to what I do for a living. They are enjoyable pastimes that I’ve pursued for the sheer joy of doing as I please.

They also create a time when I’m not attending to the news, not fretting over that man without a mask in the produce section, not staring down some character who won’t tell me what his defining trauma is (Sycamore Dorning, take a bow). My creative brain needs these moderately-engaging, low stress activities to free up my subconscious to solve problems, generate new ideas, and make new associations between divergent concepts.

I NEED the break hobbies provide, in other words. I benefit from goofing off in ways all the focus, discipline, and determination in the world can’t match. When reality is scary and uncertain, knitting a scarf, methinks, can be the best coping mechanism.

I hope some clever PhD candidate in psychology or sociology is studying how we regular folks are weathering unprecedented storms. I suspect simple tools–a hobby, a pet, screen-free days, passion projects, or handwritten letters–will prove to have stood us in good stead.

Have you ever pursued a hobby? If you could pick up any hobby at all, have all the tools right at your fingertips, which one would it be? A long, long time ago, I earned a Girl Scout merit badge in embroidery….

I will add three names to my ARC list for My Heart’s True Delight, so let’s hear your dream hobby ideas!

The Lady and the Tiger

I’ve watched the school-reopening debate grateful that my own child is well past compulsory education age. What strikes me about the debate (it never seems to be a discussion) is the forced-choice quality: Either we re-open schools, OR we bludgeon an already ailing economy (meaning Main Street, I suppose, because Wall Street is largely doing fine).

The benefit of forced-choice thinking is that it can make us re-evaluate priorities. Just how important is education for a child on the schedule we all grew up with? Socialization? Access to supportive services? Was Main Street dying anyway, and might the pandemic simply speed up to the inevitable? When we’re faced with lady or the tiger decisions, we focus on what matters to most us and why.

The downside of binary thinking is that we oversimplify, ignore nuances, and become polarized. Maskers vs. Anti-maskers, vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers. The versus gets more emphasis than it deserves, and become a means of identifying people rather than positions on issues. I met an older, white, male US citizen the other day who described himself as “very conservative,” but he’d spent 15 years raising a family in Costa Rica, and said, hands down, their universal health care approach made much more sense than the racket we have going here. That is not a position the typical “very conservative,” white, male, older, American would espouse.

So binary thinking leads to inaccurate labels. The other downside of binary thinking is that it creates false dichotomies. I was told I had to study classic piano or jazz. I studied both. I had to choose between Spanish, Latin, and German in terms of language classes in high school. I studied all three. I was supposed too choose ONE major in college, I ended up with a B.S. in political science, and B. Music in Music History, because I was interested in both (and very lucky to be able to afford the extra classes, but forty years ago, college was affordable).

The false dichotomies were presented to me as fiat, as reality, as How We Do It, but once you sniff out one or two false dichotomies, you get a nose for them, and a nose for the road less traveled that lies between, around, and under them. You can be a patriot who favors gun safety reform, a soldier who hates war, a conservative in favor of universal health care. You can look for solutions instead of divisions, and that is much more the sort of person I want to be.

Have you ever had to blast through a false dichotomy? Plow new ground, stand a problem on its head? Have you ever had to tell somebody, “I’m doing it anyway.” Have you ever wished you could? To three commenters, I’ll send an eARC of My Heart’s True Delight.

One of Those Days

I woke up Tuesday to find that a cat had used the nice warm little black box that is my modem as a chamber pot. I called tech  support at my ISP, and the nice man assured me, “Any all in one modem/router will do the job. Just go to Best Buy and they’ll fix you up.”

Off I went to Best Buy(25 miles away), and sure ’nuff, that fella told me the ONE combined modem/router they had on the shelf would work just fine. He was sure. Trust me, lady.

I trusted him, though I knew installing the danged thing was going to be an Ordeal, and worse, when I got to the grocery store (to pick up the week’s cat food, of course), I could not find my phone. I looked ALL over my car, my purse (referred to as the Vast Lonely by my daughter), I said the Saint Anthony prayer OUT LOUD (’cause silently is cheating). I went back to Best Buy and combed the parking lot, I asked inside the store…

No dice. But I know where the phone store is, so I bought a replacement phone, which meant the towering annoyance of salesmen who know all about up-selling and nothing about customer service–and I do mean NOTHING. And even better–you knew this would happen–as I’m driving away from the phone store, I hear that little notification bell on my old phone.

I had looked under the seat, but I had not looked hard enough, apparently. But heigh-ho, I’m in good health, I have my purse, I have a functional vehicle AND a back-up phone. Stop whining, Grace Ann.  Got home, ready to set up the new modem, and… it’s not wireless. My computer has no ethernet port, neither does my splitter.

Bad words. Many bad words,  but wait a minute. Before we embark on Lunar Landing 2.0…

I save all the little silicone packets from new shoes, bottles of supplements and so forth (see Potato Famine gene). I stashed my dampish old modem into a tupperware container on a quart of uncooked rice with all my silicone packets.

The next morning, it worked. First thing I did was order a back-up wireless, router/modem combo; second thing was fill out an on-line survey about the lousy behavior of the salesmen in the phone store. Sorry guys, but you tried to mess with the wrong little old Luddite, and I haz the words.

I’m struck by two things about this day. First, it was inordinately upsetting to have two pieces of tech go AWOL on the same day–ridiculously upsetting. Panic-attack upsetting. Second, the three men upon whom I relied for tech support and guidance all let me down (St. Anthony, as usual, came through.) Two were simply incompetent (but quite confident); the phone store crew… as Sir Walter Scott put it, they moved me to “oaths too vile to be rendered upon the page.” (I love that kinda talk.)

I now have back-up tech in place, lest I be at the mercy of the incompetent again, and I’m really glad for a stupid little baggy full of silicone packets.

Do you have some Potato Famine/Depression/Granny Always Said… habits that have come in handy lately or even Saved the Day? What moves to you Walter Scott levels of frustration? I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for My Heart’s True Delight (which is off at the proofreader’s!).

Prune Juice

The Harvard Study of Adult [Male] Happiness reached the pretty clear conclusion that the men who are healthiest and most joyous in later years are the men who took the time to invest in relationships.

I read that finding and had two reactions. First: Ya think? Every spiritual tradition of more than a nanosecond’s duration focuses on “Love One Another.” Not on “Die With the Most Toys” or “Bill 3000 Hours a Year.” Of course relationships matter. You needed eighty years of data to reach that conclusion?

But–as I usually do–I also had a conflicting reaction. “Yes, men who have a lot of healthy relationships are going to do better in old age, but does that mean the same finding holds true for women?” Because a lot of the older ladies I know are busy, busy, busy later in life, still tending to grand kids, siblings, spouses, or coworkers. These women, into their sixties and seventies and beyond, are silently wondering, “Will I ever get a break from all the relationship demands?”

Harvard has graciously begun to interview the spouses and female offspring of their original study participants, but I’m not holding my breath for eighty years while Harvard plays catch-up.

I did though, come across some useful insights reading Daniel Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. He mentions the concept of pruning, which is also part of healthy aging. When our own candles grow shorter, we cut loose the people, groups, and tasks that take more than they give. We respect our limitations and put a greater priority on using our energy for who and what matters to us, and for ourselves.

That resonates with me, and has become almost a silver lining to the COVID19 virus. Travel got pruned right out of my life, which saved me a bunch of money and writing disruption. I like my dumpy little house (mostly), and was leaving it for weeks at a time because I figured I will soon be old and frail and broke, and “Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may…” I’m really glad I traveled as much as I did, but a little pruning of those ambitions has been good too.

I’ve also pruned my carbon footprint. No road trips, no weekend retreats and workshops. No conferences except the virtual kind. I’m OK with that too. If we do ever get to something approximating a pre-virus normal, I will choose my reasons for venturing forth more carefully and say no more.

The pruning has resulted in more vigorous growth in other places. I’m reading more, I’m doing less wash, I’m writing at a pace that keeps the whole book in my head and taking break when the story is done, instead of having to stop and start and fiddle around trying to recall what bright idea was going to save the day.

Has your year seen any useful pruning? Any lessons learned or COVID-induced experiments that bore fruit? I’ll add the names of three commenters to my ARC list for My Heart’s True Delight.

What’s in a Name?

I have drafted Stephen’s Wentworth’s book (How to Catch a Duke), and unless Ned Wentworth has a big surprise in store for us, Stephen’s happily-ever-after will conclude that series. At the same time, I’m wrapping up Daisy Dorning’s story (working title, Truly Beloved) and preparing to tackle Sycamore Dorning’s tale (working title All Hell Truly Breaks Loose in Mayfair), which will take us to the end of the True Gentlemen.

Guess I’d better come up with a new series, huh? Readers have made suggestions. Noah, Duke of Anselm (The Duke’s Disaster) has four siblings, and they do need stories–probably for 2022 because I’ll have the rights back to Noah and Thea’s tale by then. Elijah Harrison (Lady Jenny’s Christmas Portrait), comes from a huge, boisterous family that’s now connected to the Windhams. Maybe I should pan for gold in that stream? (Prudhomme sends regards!)

But simply writing a bunch of sibling tales usually isn’t enough to build a strong series. For the Windham sons, whose trilogy traveled under the name The Duke’s Obsession, the issue was how to keep an ambitious and grieving father from making a muck of life for his surviving sons as they followed his example by fighting for their true loves.

For the Rogues to Riches series, the Wentworth siblings brought significant trauma with them up from the gutter, and had to find the partners who could help them resolve the trauma and turn wounds into superpowers.

The challenge for me is to not only to come up with a premise, but also to refine the series title until readers (and I) can tell in a few words what the fundamental struggle of the characters will be. Rogues to Riches does that, and the books have been fairly easy to write. I think Tessa Dare’s Castles Ever After is another brilliantly branded series–each heiress inherits a problematic castle, and each castle comes with a problematic man (and isn’t that always the case?).

The Lonely Lords, by contrast, have generated much reader email, asking me about continuity, sequencing, inter-relationships… ‘A bunch of lonely guys find true love’ isn’t  a strong organizing principle for a series, and if you’ve read the books, you know it’s really two series–sort of Darius Lindesy-and-friends, and the Worthington-family-plus-a-few-strays. Write and learn.

As I was ruminating on where my next inspiration might lie, I came across this blog post from Ozan Varol, a rocket scientist turned legal eagle turned idea guy at large. He’s noting the importance of names and labels. Is it his home office (blech), or his idea lab (cool!)? Are the people driving a company’s productivity employees (blah), or inventors (huh?)? How we frame a concept with words signals on a deep level what our minds are supposed to do with that concept.

So I will continue to cast around for a series premise that I can encapsulate into an elegant, engaging, and accurate title, while I ponder which problems or proclivities are substantial enough to unite a series of happily ever afters. The goal is to put a few precise words on a picture big enough to charm and intrigue–how hard can that be?

What series do you recall as being larger than the individual books? What about the stories, characters, or story-foundation made them memorable?  I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for My Heart’s True Delight.



Pat Your Pony!

One of the aspects of riding horses that I find most intriguing is the constant push and pull around who is training whom. Say you put Thunderbolt in the wash stall cross ties after your lesson. Because it’s hot and you are a conscientious rider, you will wash off your sweaty beast before you put him back in his stall.

But you have sweaty tack to deal with too, so you leave Thunder chilling in the wash stall while you take your sweaty saddle pad outside to dry in the sun. No sooner do you drape that sucker over the fence than you hear, scraaaape, scraaape, scraaape. Mighty steed is pawing in the cross ties, because he wants outta there. He wants his water bucket, or a pile of hay, or the pleasure of rolling in the mud, but he does not want to hang out in the cross ties. Nopity-nope. This is not rocket science, ye human.

You hurry back to the wash stall and shake your finger him. “Naughty pony. Don’t paw.” Then, you don’t want to forget to scrub off your bit and bridle, so you nip into the tack room to hang them by the sink.

Scraaape, scraaape, scraaaaape. You are back to the wash stall in a flash. “Bad pony. No pawing. Just be cool and I’ll get you–”

Scraape, scraape, scraape, and for good measure, Thunder tosses his head, because he is dealing with one slow human. You hose him down and dry him off, and finally, after he has patiently explained to you–THREE TIMES–the necessity to look after your horse and stop dawdling, he gets to saunter back to his stall. He has taught you to come to him hotfoot when he paws, while you have…?

Children do this, dogs do it, social media for sure does it. Attention grabbing is an art and a science, and with horses, the way to get off the merry-go-round is to catch him being good. Ignore the pawing, as difficult as that is, and praise the standing quietly. Set him up so that he seldom has to resort to pawing, and still, praise him for standing quietly. Praise him for coming along like gentleman on the lead rope; tell him he’s a good boy just for going forward off your leg.

Pretty soon, your horse (or your clever and patient instructor) has trained you to look for the small successes, to look for the tiny gains, the minuscule signs of better communication, while you becomes less reactive to what’s wrong (though you still notice it). Instead of resentment and frustration on both sides, you and Brave Steed eventually  become a team able to whisper to each other even in the midst of a gale.

The habit of looking for the positive is all but stomped out of us, particularly in trying times, when negativity is prized by the greedy as “engagement.”  So I’m starting at home, looking for the places where I made a better choice, steered around a pothole, or behaved myself despite all temptation to the contrary. (Like say, responding to last week’s blog comments instead of fooling around on news sites, fr’instance.) Then I am patting myself on the back for that, because reinforcement builds habits–for good or otherwise.

What are you getting right these days? What pothole did you steer around? Where did you make a smarter choice or set yourself up to avoid frustration? To three commenters, I’ll send an e-ARC of My Heart’s True Delight. The book releases in mid-September, the ARC files should be ready to go in the next thirty days.

You Had ONE Job…

I love where I live. We have four seasons, big trees, enormous green biomass, plenty of surface water… all the features that make me feel safe and happy. I can deal with the ice storms and power outages (all hail the wood stove). I don’t mind having to get after the yard for months on end. For me, the pollen rotation is bearable, but there is one characteristic that I positively loathe about life in the Maryland countryside, and my neighbors are partly to blame.

I’ve had the same neighbors (or their kin) for decades. They are mostly quiet and family-oriented; they keep to themselves. Their favorite pastime is to loaf in the shade, though the kids often get together for play dates. I wouldn’t want any other neighbors, but being bovine neighbors, they tend to POOP in the FIELD and this draws FLIES by the SWARM.

I cannot abide house flies. Hate them with an irrational passion and will turn up violent in my efforts to keep them from my domicile. A house fly lands on me and I am rage personified. I, who can be philosophical about a mosquito needing protein to reproduce, who have been bitten by both European hornets and a brown recluse spider (in the same summer), don’t lose my buttons nearly as quickly over those bugs as I do over house flies. I’m not phobic about a flies–my reaction isn’t fear-based–I HATE them.

Flies are dirty, I know that, but it’s the feel of them I can’t stand. The little buzzing sound, the random flight patterns. My brain knows they are just going along trying to have a decent little fly-life, and that civilization would stop without the work that flies do, but my heart is determined to win the battle of the house fly at all costs. I know all the tricks–fans, light off, repellents, sprays, candles, colors, AC if your carbon-conscience can go there–and still they invade my space.

And wouldn’t you know it, one of the effects of the pandemic supply chain disruption for me has been a scarcity of the little cans of room-bomb (I did stumble upon a stash at Target). These are environmental anathema to me, but a sure fire last resort in knocking back the fly population. That they have become a little scarce upsets me inordinately.

There will one day be a character in my books who hates flies, and you will know why I have afflicted him thus. Authors are supposed to give characters quirks, because quirks lead to interesting backstory, and in this case, the backstory stops here. I think the War on Flies has special weight for me now because it has brought the reality of the pandemic closer to me. I did OK without milk, I conserved TP well enough, I have been masking up since mid-April no problem, but to be without my fly-killing bazooka of last resort… it maketh my blood to boil.

Are current events pushing any special buttons with you? Has the pandemic found or exposed any buttons you didn’t know you had? Keep it civil (cussing is OK, though), and I will send a signed copy of Too Scot To Handle (on ebook discount for $3.99 this month) to two readers.