Uncertainly Ever After

I’ve just sent Miss Devoted to the proofreaders (Happy New Year!) and this tale concludes as so many romance do, with love conquering all. Two characters who thought they knew where their path lay in life on page one have by the end of the book instead chosen love and all the uncertainty attendant there to.

When Michael Delancey and Psyche Fremont make that choice, they have to give up all the comforts of predictability and control, and instead learn to hold the balance between hope, adaptability, risk, and trust. When Samuel Johnson characterized second marriages as the triumph of hope over experience, he was missing the point. Somebody who can love after a significant loss has learned to weather uncertainty with courage and hope.

The pandemic gave us many opportunities to improve our tolerance for uncertainty. We go to the store, and still–still–know that some items we rely on won’t be in stock, or won’t be stocked in adequate quantity. So we just change our menus and hope for better luck with the avocados next week.

We plan a trip, knowing everything from weather turbo-charged by climate change, to the ubiquitous staffing shortages, to viruses that refuse to go away, might torpedo our plans. We travel anyway, and pack extra masks. We take on a new job though the work from home option might be shortly curtailed. We try the job on anyway.

Despite all of the maybes, what-ifs, and not-agains, we go forth, and have a new appreciation for how much security we took for granted a few years ago. That was then. And if we don’t build up our tolerance for uncertainty, then our alternative is to dither over all decisions, avoid any and all risks, and generally limit our lives and our relationships in the name of safety.

As a self-employed author, I have to make friends with uncertainty. People aren’t reading as voraciously as they did two years ago so sales are down (or more accurately, back to normal), but–thank the merciful powers!–I can once again nose around out in the world where most of my inspiration comes from, and that is a good trade. Artificial intelligence is threatening to destroy the whole career field of fiction writing; big tech has devalued books relentlessly; and pirates steal from authors daily with smug impunity.

Miss Devoted by Grace BurrowesAll true, but the world will also always need good stories, and I delight in trying to write them. Then too, part of what I hope good fiction does is fortify us again the buffeting of uncertainty. Romance tells us love triumphs, mysteries reassure us that the truth will out, and thrillers posit that one person can save the world if they’ll simply persist. I like hearing those messages, and that won’t change no matter in which direction the winds of fortune blow.

What risks do you take on willingly? Are you more or less tolerant of uncertainty than you were earlier in life? I’ll add three commenters to my ARC list for Miss Devoted.

The Big A-ha!

‘Tis the season to watch It’s a Wonderful Life, or maybe to see a version of A Christmas Carol (yes that’s Patrick Stewart ca 1999), and to marvel at how much change one pivotal night can make in a life.

I enjoy these tales of transformation, and I’ve enjoyed writing a few too. Nevertheless, part of me thinks the big a-ha makes for good entertainment, while real life is more often a matter of nigh imperceptible evolution (like cleaning my house).

I can though, recall some pivotal moments in therapy. When I faced unplanned motherhood, I began what was to become five straight years of weekly therapy. This was back before for-greed health care, and how I wish every new parent had support like that for even fifty minutes a week. One day after a few years of sessions, my therapist casually (hah!) observed, “So I guess nobody showed you how to do stuff when you were kid?”

I thought for a moment. “My brother Tom showed me how to tie my shoelaces.” Two bunny ears… I couldn’t think of any other situation where I’d been overtly instructed in the home. In that instant, I realized why I’d become an enthusiastic baker at age seven: A recipe tells you how to make something. Every ingredient, how much, what order, and how to mix them… detailed instructions. What a concept. Sheet music works the same way–it’s laid out in black and white, note for note.

Parents on constant, profound overwhelm don’t have the luxury of explaining much of anything to small children. Oh.

I saw a kinder perspective from which to view my parents and my own general distrust of authority. I got a clue as to another way I might be a helpful mother. I realized part of why music theory had such strong appeal for me. All from one simple question.

But that epiphany rested on a carefully built foundation of trust, courage, and truth. My therapist was brilliant at reflective listening, and she probably tossed out a hundred leading questions for every insight I eventually gained. I recall those moments, but I also recall that she showed up for me, week after week, and let me wander, mosey, barrel or backslide toward my issues, without any judgment on her part.

The insights are great to have, but the more profound gift was that slow, solid, unremarkable building of a positive relationship. That example did more to fortify me as a single mother, a woman, and a person than all the clever questions or big insights that also came out of the relationship.

Miss Devoted by Grace BurrowesDo have you had “life-changing moments,” or does change tend to come over you in gradual increments? Pretty soon, I will have ARCs of Miss Devoted, and I’ll draw some names from among this week’s commenters.

I’m giving myself a couple weeks hiatus from this blog, but will be back after the first of year, when Lady Violet Says I Do goes live on the retail sites! Happy holidays, bloggin’ buddies, and see you again in 2023!



The Forest for the Squirrels

I subscribe to Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed newsletter for writers, and in a recent post, she made the following point: In the Great British Bake Off annals, chefs often fail in one of two ways. One pitfall is a tendency to revisit failures. If a week went badly because the challenge involved souffle, and a given chef simply did not get the souffle gene, almost without exception that same chef will feel compelled to try another souffle and another later in the season, without notably unimpressive results.

There’s apparently a part of us that thinks, “If at first you don’t succeed, keep tilting at that windmill until you, Sancho Panza, and his donkey, just can’t even even…”

For writers this might mean forcing yourself to write in first person because some writing coach said the young adult genre works best that way, though you don’t like working first person and don’t much like reading it either.

The other recipe for failure noted among the chefs was the compulsion to go, “over the top.” To do more than the challenge required, to go big and go bust. In an effort to impress the judges, the actual goal–a good chocolate cake with only six ingredients, a dish that will feed four for less than $20 total–slips out of sight.

I’m feeling some tendency to play to my weaknesses and miss the forest as my sister’s visit comes closer. I well remember our mother’s houses, which were never showcases, but always wonderful. Bright colors, big windows letting in lots of light, comfy furniture in the right configurations… Mom kept a clean house and usually had wonderful smells coming from the kitchen. She had a knack for everything domestic from traffic patterns, to throw pillows, to African violets.

I did not get that gene, or if I did get it, the window for its expression was taken up with single parenting, paying bills, and going to the horse barn. My house is functional, mostly, but no sibling has visited here for twenty years. I want my sister to at least find the place adequate. Better if she thinks I dwell in a cool little farmhouse well suited to my needs.

Lady Violet Says I Do by Grace BurrowesThe temptation to go overboard–matching towels, curtains, rugs, and place mats–when I can’t Marie or Martha–is as ridiculous as it is real. The color of a towel doesn’t matter if it’s clean, and I haven’t used place mats for… have I ever used place mats? But here I am in the home stores–for the first time in years–looking at place mats.

I am having talks with myself about reasonable expectations, and “You are not your house, thank the merciful powers,” and, “Sister is not Simon Cowell…” but the tug, the wish that I could be more and do more as a home maker and hostess… it’s still there.

Are the looming holidays tugging at you to fret over any figurative place mats? Does this time of year call for genes you didn’t get? I still have some Lady Violet Says I Do e-ARCs if anybody’s interested (email me at [email protected]) and I’ve also made a little short story–Love Disguised–available for free on the web store (previously published in the anthology A Midsummer Night’s Romance).

Weighed in the Scales

The first week of the month I spend a fair amount of time toting up the previous month’s sales, especially for new releases. I want to know how Miss Dauntless‘s first month compares with Miss Delectable‘s (not as well, but a first in series title generally will lead the pack) and Miss Desirable‘s (a little better, oddly enough), particularly from retail platform to retail platform.

As rabbit holes go, sales tracking can become a whole job, especially when you have a lot of books published. Is any particular month best for new releases? Should books in a series be released three months apart? Four? Two? All at once? How do library sales affect retail sales? What is going on with my revenue?

And all of this glorious information has to be sifted against what genre I’m publishing, who else is releasing what else in various months, and what price points are in play. And let’s not forget about the alchemy of cover art!

As Peter Drucker famously said, “What gets measured gets managed.”

A lot of writers take it a step further, charting their word count totals day by day and even using little apps and extension to help them do that. We like to know how many books we’ve sold in total, in all languages (I have no idea), and where we rank on various bestsellers lists from book to book, if we’re lucky enough to hit those lists (and what month is the best for trying to hit a list, anyway?).

I find this emphasis on puts and takes a little ironic for a profession that knows, intimately, the futility of defining success exclusively through linear, measurable processes. Was Miss Delectable “more creative?” than Miss Desirable? You can’t measure that. Did Miss Devoted have more satisfying prose than the Last True Gentleman? You can’t measure that either. Was that two- thousand word scene I just whipped out in an hour any better storytelling than the six hundred words that took me all of yesterday afternoon?

I can’t measure that, and what I think is brilliant in draft tends look much less impressive come revision time.

Which book did I enjoy writing more? Why? What makes some books so hard to write? Others so easy? I will never forget the sheer ebullience with which I wrote The Duke’s Disaster. I drafted that story in 40 days flat and it was one of the easiest writing tasks I’ve ever completed… and I’m not sure why. What a Lady Needs for Christmas was another “book that wrote itself” though it’s not really even a Christmas story.

As we approach the end of the year, with tax season right around the corner, I want to resist the temptation to get lost in the numbers, and instead focus more on what cannot be measured. Am I happy with the books I’m writing? What does my creativity crave in the way of challenges and inspiration? What does my perfect writing “rest and recharge” day look like? What does that tell me about how to manage my imaginative resources?

Lady Violet Says I Do by Grace BurrowesThe numbers are important–up to a point–but things I cannot measure are important too. If I’m to keep writing joyously and consistently, the un-measurables–what piques my curiosity, what frosts my cookie, what makes me want to write scene after scene– are the critical aspects of what I do.

What do you measure? What non-measurable qualities are as important to you as the numbers? I will send out my Lady Violet Says I Do ARCs this week (if you want one, just email me and let me know what device you read on), and the print version is already on sale. Wheeee!


Dear Me

One of the tasks in the Great Preparation for my sister’s post-Christmas visit is to procure a guest bed that doesn’t date from before the flood. To the mattress emporium I did go, and a serviceable new bed I did get, but an aspect of the transaction has bothered me ever since.

I picked out the only suitable bed in the store, and sat down to write the exorbitant check, and the floor rep says to me, “I don’t accept checks. That ten or twelve day float creates too much opportunity for fraud, and that’s a risk I can’t take. I have two little kids and a wife who doesn’t work.”

He put it like that, as if maybe even the children are slacking. I did not explain to him that staying home to raise two kids is work, and I did not foghorn that check truncation means a ten or twelve day float is an artifact from the last century… You can take the lawyer out of the courtroom, but.

I paid up with my debit card, and left, and here’s hoping the bed I bought isn’t so horrible that I’m going to wish I’d written a check I could stop… What bothered me most about the whole encounter (besides paying that much for a cheesy bed), is that this man called me “dear,” repeatedly, despite having my complete, legal name staring him in the face.

“You know what I’m sayin’ dear?”

“Thanksgiving will be with family for me, and trust me, hon,  I’m not much of a family man…”

“You have a nice day, dear.”

His use of endearments in the course of a business transaction annoyed the living peedywaddles out of me, and I didn’t ask him to stop, which annoys me even more. Part of me thinks I should have splainy-splained to him that some women find the casual use of endearments from strangers uncomfortable or even offensive.

I don’t like it from anybody, but especially not from men, and this guy was not the Ancient of Days such that the fig leaves of yester-century can be plausibly handed to him.

Yes, I felt sorry for him. I don’t believe too many of us aspire to support a family of four on a mattress floor rep’s salary. I apparently didn’t feel sorry enough for him that I’d  tell him his presumptive use of endearments means I will sleep in the hay mow before I go back to that store. And so what if he doesn’t like hearing about my uppity-female-sensitivities, because I’m also peeved at him.

The argument that, “He didn’t mean anything by it….” is no argument at all, in the sense that his intentions are not more important than my perceptions (neither are they less important). He was on the job, taking money from me for goods, and I regard his behavior as unprofessional and backward. So why didn’t I raise the topic with him?

Lady Violet Says I Do by Grace BurrowesI have lost sleep over this (not a lot, and not in the hay mow… yet). Why not speak up? Not to educate him, not to improve the likelihood that he’ll make more sales going forward, but simply because he was addressing me in a manner I dislike. What seat-of-pants assessment did I make that mitigated in favor of silence?

What would you have done? Because if this happens again, I want to be prepared with a proactive strategy other than second-guessing myself and muttering about it for a week.

This week I’ll be taking names for the e-ARC of Lady Violet Says I Do, which will be released in print and on the web store on Dec. 13, and on the retail sites Jan. 3. Where has this year gone!




Being a Reader

I love the the long dark evenings that arrive with the colder months. Between holidays that I pretty much ignore, bad weather, and chilly temperatures, I have a lot of time to stay home and read.

I often keep several books going at once. I am reading one Regency romance now with an eye toward doing a blurb for the author. I’m also reading The Dip, by Seth Godin, subtitled, “A little book that teaches you when to quit and when to stick.” That one’s kinda off topic for me to be honest–a bathroom book. For nighty-night reading, I’m working my way through Ellis Peters’ Felse Investigations series. Scrumptious writing, meticulous research, and good plotting. Yum!

But if I had to pick one title to do a book report on, that would be Being a Human by Charles A. Foster.

The fundamental question of the book–Who are we and how did we get to be this way?–inspired Foster to live as a Cro-Magnon hunter/gatherer and then as a Neolithic farmer. The better to describe the impact of the Enlightenment on human development, he relied on his experience as an academic with fingers in so many smarty-pants pies I’d need another blog post to list them.

The book is sad in a lot of places–we’re befouling our own nest and have the dubious distinction of being the only animal that goes to war against its own kind. Nonetheless, the fundamental message is optimistic: If we’ll remember who we are, we can step back from much of our wrongheadedness, and live happier lives without imperiling our very planet.

As hunter-gatherers, our challenge was to get by with the fewest possessions necessary to eat, sleep out of the cold and wet (mostly), and get along with our neighbors. When you have to haul your worldly goods from place to place as the caribou move or the seasons change, your life can depend on traveling light. For nearly all of our behaviorally modern history, dying with the most toys was the definition of insanity.

When you reply on the natural world directly for everything, your quality of life depends on the breadth of your skill set. To thrive, you will need to know how to find dry tinder under a foot of snow, how to tell a great story, how to make a bunny into a boot, and what every cloud formation presages in terms of tomorrow’s weather. Honed senses and lifelong learning were our hallmarks of success, and any chance to acquire a new skill was worth investigating. Heaven help the hunter gatherer who decided to go for him MBA and then coast…

When you don’t own real estate, real estate doesn’t own you. The whole concept of private real property, upon which mono-crop agriculture, colonization, social hierarchy, kingdoms,  and a zillion other evils are built, was foreign to our nature for the huge majority of our history.

When the small band you’re born into is all that stands between you and death on a bad day, you take the well being of your kith and kin nearly as seriously as you do your own.

Foster is not suggesting that eight billion people can inhabit the planet in the same manner eight hundred thousand of our distant ancestors did, but he does make a case for a legacy of values that are highly relevant today. Eschew consumerism, stay passionately curious, treasure your people, treasure and respect nature for the miracle it is.

Those values resonate with me–admittedly often in the breach–and Foster makes an eloquent case for why they should.

So what about you? Read any good books lately?



The Friendlier Skies

I recently traveled from Maryland to Portland, OR, to see my daughter. This was my first big trip (though not a long trip) since 2019. I was prepared for traveling skills to have atrophied–traveling skills too— but to my pleasant surprise, I did OK.

Packed enough but not too much, and brought the right stuff for Portland’s weather. I remembered all the necessary medications, power cords, and toiletries. Got through airport everything without setting off alarms or being paged to return to my vehicle. Had the right stuff–parking chit, rental car contract, driver’s license, hotel room key–at the right time, even though my computer died the morning of departure (and has subsequently self-revived… go fig).

So I’m pretty pleased with that aspect of the adventure. Even better, I got to see Beloved Offspring, meet her Sig O, meet her pony (she called him my grand-pony. I maintained a diplomatic silence), and had some Good Talks ‘Bout Family Stuff. Nobody knows me the way my daughter does. Nobody extant has lived with me as long as she has. I delight in her company.

And–be still my thumpin’ tail–as an unlooked for joy, my younger brother just happened to be driving clear across Oregon to see the state-wide high school cross country meet, and we managed to connect for lunch. That was so special I could just about do nip-ups.

What wasn’t so special was the actual air travel. My reading light did not work (in business class, because all those old unused miles…). The guy next to me could not get his seat back to remain upright. The wi-fi on the plane coming home was “intermittent,” meaning worthless. The food was ridiculous. The plane had no seat-back screens. Everything was “download the app,” and I consider most apps to be commercial spyware, so nopity-nope. The PA system for the pilots broadcast mostly static.

Three years ago, I would probably have been annoyed, or filled out some survey with a lot of cranky comments (writers gonna write), or said something to the flight crew. Now? I am just so happy the planes are flying, so happy I could see my kid, so happy the hotel was open and the sheets were clean… My standards have come down and my joy has gone up. I tipped like a boss, thanked everybody at the airports, hotel, and restaurants, and still just want to hug the world because I got to see my daughter, and I’m home safe and sound.

My joy has gone up , and so has my hope. Maybe I can pop out to Portland again next spring and stay for more than a couple days. Then too, it takes me no longer to fly to Scotland than it does to fly to Oregon…

I don’t like traveling in a plane that’s getting rickety in the details, but I’m no longer concerned with amenities when the main priority–safe travel–is attended to. I took for granted that I could always just hop in a plane and go see family, and I will never take that for granted again.

What aren’t you taking for granted these days? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Yuletide Gems!


Middle Life

I blogged last week about the situation at the horse barn, wherein a critical player–our Barn Manager–is laid up, leaving a lot of work to be temporarily covered by those willing, able, and available. The result has been more time for me at the barn where I’m not riding. I’m mucking, hand-grazing, sweeping, and odd-jobbing. I’m slow at all the manual labor, but one reason to go there is to break a sweat, and any sweat will do.

I’ve always known though, that part of the appeal of riding for me has been its social aspects. Horses are a lifestyle choice, and though my barn acquaintances might be on vastly different political wavelengths, come from faith traditions I’ve never experienced, and work at jobs I can’t wrap my head around, we all get horses. At this barn at least, there’s also a shared value that the welfare of the horse comes first.

Because pandemic limitations are easing, and because we’ve all been on the ground at the barn a little more, I’ve been able to regain a smidgen of the social aspect of riding lately. I’ve gone trail-riding with one lady I know only in passing, had a good talk with another one about our riding histories, and visited briefly with another about our tastes in travel.

As introverted as I am, I need these casual, middling-close relationships, and I’m really glad to see them re-emerging from hibernation in my life. I tell myself that being unable to travel has been a challenge to my creativity, but being unable to shoot the breeze at the barn, unable to gush over somebody’s grand-baby pictures, and unable to hold a friendly exchange with  stranger in the produce section has, I am sure, also taken a toll.

Research tells us that it’s acquaintances, not friends and family, who are more likely to put us onto new jobs, introduce us to our new bestie, help us rethink problematic beliefs, and expose us to new information and perspectives. I have wondered if our political polarization wasn’t made worse because for two years, we were less inclined to chat up the stranger on the subway or even visit with the new neighbor over the back fence. Many of us also didn’t have to go to the office where we overheard small talk in the lunch room, or debated sports loyalties while waiting for a meeting to start.

I am not yet ready to book a month in Scotland, but I am very pleased to have livelier interaction with a broader circle of acquaintances. What about you? Did you miss the chit-chat and office gossip, or would you just as soon keep the social clutter to a minimum? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Yuletide Gems (which for some reason, I keep typing Yuletide Germs).




Stone Soup for the Barn

Today I hand-grazed a mare I’ve “known” for four years, in the sense that I walked past her stall and knew the big bay event horse (meaning she can run, jump, and do dressage) was Sallie. I’d never ridden her, never groomed her, never even watched her go under saddle. I’m at the barn mid-day, and her workouts were morning or evening. She’s on a short end-of-season layup due to minor veterinary issues, so that means stall rest.

When you’re born and bred to run, stall rest gets old fast, so periodic walk-around-and-nom-nom breaks are a good idea. Sally and I enjoyed a recess in the fresh air today in part because our barn manager took a tumble from her horse last week through no fault of anybody. Fortunately, Barn Manager did everything right–all the right safety equipment, all the right precautions–and everybody will be fine. For the present though, Barn Manager is also on stall rest (well sorta).

The barn owners (our trainers) also did everything right. Communication with the barn family was immediate and clear. Everybody knew what happened, and everybody was invited to pitch in as we could or to just bear with the circumstances as graciously as possible. One lady volunteered to take on dumping, scrubbing, and refilling twenty water buckets daily, another will help feed morning or evening (every horse gets a slightly different PBJ, based on age, work load, temperament, metabolism and owner preferences).

Another boarder will help out cleaning stalls (that show must go on), and other riders are picking up odd jobs–like hand-grazing Sallie. The work in a well run horse barn is endless, and much of it requires some specific knowledge. There’s even art to mucking a stall.

The upside here is that so far, it’s all going pretty well. A previously latent (OK, somewhat latent) well of goodwill and esprit is covering the bases, and it occurs to me that part of the hell of the pandemic was that we couldn’t pull together. We could institute family movie night or sister-Zooms, but we could not all show up with snow shovels to clear out the church parking lot, couldn’t get together to edge a set of baby quilts for the new parents.

It shouldn’t take me four years to get to know a horse who lives two stalls down from Santa, but a chunk of that particular four years was spent in head-down, mask-on mode. Now I have a connection to Sallie I didn’t have before, and her rider texted me a thank-you. We’ve never texted before. Earlier this week I mucked stalls with another barn-buddy I don’t spend much time with, which was an occasion for small talk. We’re all paying a little more attention to the barn’s Facebook group page, because we want to stay informed about Barn Manager’s progress and who’s doing which job this week.

Hardship can be opportunity, but that nasty old pandemic… it was and is a stinker of a challenge because of how many ways it isolated us. I’m glad that for now at least, my barn is back to a place where we can weather a challenge together-together instead of together-apart.

Are you experiencing any instances of renewed community activity or community spirit,  (or even family spirit) that the pandemic curtailed? I’m donating to the Maryland Food Bank this week, because we can’t all sustain good health eating clover and orchard grass.


Comfort Ye My People

I am indebted to Austin Kleon for the term “comfort work.” By this he refers to what some people call slack-day projects, but with a little more depth. He describes comfort work as, “Work you do when you don’t know what to do.” That’s how I feel when I finish the first draft of a manuscript. I’m a little lost. What now? Who now? Where did my characters go and what do I focus on without them?

I cannot start revisions immediately, because a rough draft needs to air off for a time so that when I do get back to it, I read with fresh eyes. I might not have the energy to dive into the next project, or I might not have the inspiration. That is scary–when the imaginative well feels dry, when everything I come up with feels flat.

That’s when I need comfort work, or a way to feel productive that isn’t emotionally taxing. A way to signal to the subconscious that I’ll be ready when the inspiration does come along.

A comfort project is more than just coding the general ledger or toting up payroll. Those tasks must be done regularly, and they feel more like housework. Do it or pay an escalating price. Looking for fresh cover art qualifies as comfort work. Stockpiling blog posts can feel like comfort work. Gardening at certain times of year is comfort work.

I recall the same idea from my law practice days. I’d finish with a multiple day termination of parental rights case, and the next day in the office, I’d re-organize the case file, read psych evals for upcoming cases, or return backlogged phone calls. I did not schedule client appointments, and I often did not wear courtroom attire. I was clearly at work, but without the intensity or pressure of the litigation days.

I think relationships benefit from comfort work. To me, that’s when you agree to go for a leaf-peeping hike to sorta spend time together, and sorta get some exercise, even if a trail walk isn’t anybody’s idea of high adventure. It’s when Santa and I do trot sets around the paddocks instead of in the schooling arena. We’re working, but we’re also getting in a little sightseeing and avoiding other riders.

I read a lot about how to stay productive, and where creativity comes from, but Austin–“a writer who draws”–is the first person I’ve seen put a finger on this concept of coasting forward rather than going all engines ahead. It resonates with me intuitively as a way to both progress toward desired objectives, and acknowledge that some days are better spent in a different, lower gear.

Is there comfort work in your life? Tasks you save for the lower-energy, slower-vibe days?  Or do you lean more toward, “Go big or go home?” To one commenter, I’ll send a SIGNED copy of Yuletide Wishes (Pee Wee not included)!