The Season of Dreams

dickIn a few weeks I will be 57, the age at which my dear brother Richard had a stroke. This guy is a PhD nutritionist, and was out for his obligatory morning jog when he began having trouble completing sentences. Yes, he was on blood pressure medication which he took religiously, and if he wasn’t at his ideal body weight he was a few pounds below it. 

In other words–the picture of health. Exercised regularly, watched his diet like a very well educated hawk, went to the docs and did what they told him to do. And if his wife hadn’t realized immediately what was going on, we would probably have lost him. 

Since the stroke, Richard has written a book, become a master of foxhounds, ridden in competitive horse shows against people one fourth his age, and generally recovered in fine style.

alanXrickmanXcroppedThe part of growing older nobody likes is that our health becomes unreliable; rather, our health is unreliable–always has been–but now we know it.  

There’s an up-side to this. 

In every other regard, my fifties have been a better time for dreams coming true than any other time in my life. Why? In part because I have a lot of resources I didn’t have earlier, though I’m certainly not at my wealthiest these days. I do, though, have more control over how I spend my time. The parenting demands have ebbed, the professional learning curve is very manageable. 

classI have a small group of true friends, people who’ve known me not since the start of the semester, but for decades. Friends who give it to me straight, and–better still–these friends are drawing on decades of their own life experience when they offer me advice. 

I have wisdom, albeit nobody ever has too much of this resource. I grasp concepts like projection (when people accuse you of having their own faults); and blaming, shaming, minimizing and denying–other means by which responsibility is shifted from the person who ought to own up to it. I get how important it is to define a problem if it’s to be thoroughly solved; and I certainly don’t have much energy invested in my appearance.

virtuoso_244wIf health were guaranteed for the first century of life, I might miss the advantages I have now–terrific, precious, no-short-cut advantages when it comes to living the life I was born to live. Health is not guaranteed. Never was, but as the day inches closer to sunset, I can see that, and decide what I want to do with the remaining light. 

That’s a good thing. It makes my dreams more precious, my blog posts more precious, my dogs and cats and brownies and books more precious.It makes YOU more precious to me, too.

What about your life has become more beautiful as sunset approaches? What is better, more free, more peaceful? What dreams tempt you now, and why aren’t you going after them?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of The Virtuoso, a story about a guy who thought all his dreams were lost to him forever.   

The Rut Stuff

blogXcatXinXaXtreeI’m mourning the end of the holidays, though not for the reasons you’d suspect. I don’t decorate, I don’t socialize much, I try not to overindulge in seasonal delicacies.

I do, however, get into a pattern where I can write for days on end. I might have to pop into the office later in the day, but mostly, over the holidays, I can get up, and write at least a couple thousand words, day after day.

blogXsnowyXyardI expect I get the same buzz from a writing jag that other people get from going to gym (and I NEVER get from exercise, ever, period, don’t even glance down that path). When I can consistently add to a story, I have a lovely sense of living with it–waking up in the story world, visiting it again last thing of the day, seeing it in my dreams. The disguise_550sense of forward momentum is BLISSFUL, and tends to be self-reinforcing. 

I’m making progress, so the story stays with me, so I make faster progress–Wheeee! When I can catch this vibe of productivity and creativity, it’s barely work. It’s what I was born to do, and sitting in my writing chair, I’m soaring. 

And yet… I’m a voracious consumer of trivia, and one of the items I’ve come across in my travels is a description of the traits attributed to people who consider themselves lucky, versus unlucky. One that stands out to me is that blogXrescueXaXrakepeople who feel lucky avoid hamster-wheel routine. They go on frolics, take a different way to work, grab a sandwich from the new place at the end of the block. 

Unlucky people, often burdened by greater negativity and anxiety, tend to stick to their well trodden paths. The problem with the familiar, though, is that we stop seeing it. We go into screensaver mode, seeing what we expect to see when we even bother to look. 

The person who has the confidence and curiosity to step off the beaten track by contrast, will end up in new territory. When we’re in new territory, we look around, and we see with new eyes. We pay attention, we’re less in thrall to our hidebound expectations.

soldier_244wSo my writing orgy is over for now, and I miss it, but I’m also aware that getting out of that joyous rut can bring me new plotting ideas, new writing connections, and new resources. I can find that comfy rut again, but I also need the sense of frolic and adventure that’s the opposite of a rut.

What small frolic can you go on this week? A new coffee shop? A new author? A different entre on date night? Is there a blissful rut you’d like to try, and a way to set that up?

To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of “The Soldier,” a story about a guy who was in all the wrong ruts, and got sorted out when he found new scenery, and new loves.  

Merry Christmas!!!

This week marks the launch of Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight, the tale of Louisa Windham and her doting, growling, limping, pig-farming swain, Sir Joseph Carrington. Louisa doesn’t see those qualities in Joseph, though. She sees that he listens to her, he asks her to dance when nobody else has the courage, he recites poetry to her, and he risks his life to save her reputation. Guess what Louisa gets for Christmas?

And Joseph? He doesn’t see that Louisa is too smart for her own good, nor that she lacks the preferred pale English beauty, nor that she suffers a lack of small talk and flirtation. He sees that she’s brilliant, lonely, brave, loyal, and completely going to waste in the ballrooms and conservatories of Mayfair. How anybody could overlook such a treasure baffles him utterly.

Michael Hague, a noted teacher in the field of screen writing and story architecture, has a pet peeve with many romances: On page 3, the hero and heroine see each other across a moonlit alley/crowded ballroom/soccer field or battle field, and fall in love: THUNK! He or she is emotionally distant, despite there being Chemistry. They snark at each other, sabotage each others’ plans, and so forth for 300 pages, but on the strength of their mysterious attraction, they cast Steamy Glances (ahem) at one another anyway.

His point is that if you or I came across such a potential mate, we’d perhaps indulge in a fling, but never consider them keeper material. What creates a credible bond is when somebody GETS us, they understand when our wounds are acting up, and their response is compassionate. They appreciate our strengths even when those strengths are standing between us and our best selves. They do not love us and leave us, or toss grenades at our dreams.

And maybe this is why I love Louisa and Joseph as a couple. More than other couples I’ve written, these two complete each other. They are not a crooked pot and a crooked lid, they are the pot and lid made for each other in a unique and beautiful design not intended for the standard kitchen. Last year, they were my Christmas present. This year, I hope they number among yours.

So… in the interests of making our Christmas shopping lists, who are some of your favorite romantic couples, and are there any romantic leads who just did not work for you? To three commenters, I’ll be passing along signed copies of Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight.

It’s Called “Earthing…”

I read recently about something called “earthing.” Proponents of earthing (which consists of standing barefoot in the grass or on bare earth) claim it benefits everything from the immune system to heart health. The optimal practice is to get your feet in contact with terra firma for forty minutes a day.

I also came across a study in a wonderful book, “Last Child in the Woods,” that claimed for every hour an ADHD kid spends outside, their ritalin prescription can be reduced by 5 mg.

 Hmm. I betcha it took a Ph.D. or three to conclude what every kid under the age of eight ought to know: Messing around in the great outdoors is good for us, and if we can do it in bare feet without getting stung by something obnoxious or otherwise injured, then so much the better. From an evolutionary standpoint, the conclusion makes sense: For the first three million years of homo sapiens’ tour on earth, those of us who thrived in the out of doors were the ones most likely to survive to reproduce.

 It’s interesting to me that in my third book, “The Virtuoso,” (Sourcebooks, November 2011) a significant part of the action takes place out in the country. Lord Valentine Windham is a piano virtuoso who is suffering an odd malady of the left hand. I suspect it’s a variant of carpal tunnel, but then too, it might be an affliction of some arcane manly humor that comes into play when a fellow is recruited to be the hero in a romance novel.

 Lord Val believes his music to be his defining accomplishment. He’s played his way through family trauma, loss, joy, and all manner of upheaval. He’s forbidden to play at the start of the book, but this leaves the door open for him to once again learn how to play as he did when he was boy growing up with four brothers.

 He builds a fort with his friends, though it’s in truth a stately old manor house that he restores.

 He camps with his buddies for much of the summer and cooks over an open fire.

 He does a lot of his bathing in the farm pond beyond the woods (skinny dips, if you want to get technical).

He kisses a pretty lady in those woods, and falls in love with the pretty lady in her flower garden.

Not surprisingly, what Val and Ellen get about each other is that each requires a life that allows for a great deal of creative self-expression. For Ellen, the flower gardens serve that purpose, for Valentine, it’s his music.

He learns to love again, despite not having his piano handy to say the hard things for him. She learns to trust again, despite her conviction that she has to manage her troubles without endangering anybody else.

I have to wonder now in retrospect how much of their healing took place because they were around each other, and how much because they were in daily, happy contact with the good earth and the great outdoors. Think I’ll go stand out in the grass and ponder this question.

What about you? Spring is coming: Do you thrive on regular doses of nature, or are you one of those who manages quite nicely without poking your nose outside unnecessarily?

In Honor of The Soldiers

The Soldier” is dedicated to my oldest brother, John, who is a soldier in the best sense of the word, and to all the soldiers in uniform and otherwise who find the road to peace an uphill battle. Your sacrifice is not in vain.

Thus opens the book that tells the tale of Devlin St. Just’s fight for his happily ever after following the Napoleonic wars, but when I think about it,  is the road to peace ever not an uphill battle?

And what is a “soldier in the best sense”? By that I meant, somebody whose passion to protect the people they love is so great, they will offer their lives in the effort. This is the stuff of heroes, certainly, but in my work with foster children, I also see a much quieter version of soldier than we usually envision when we think of a hero. I see people who each day offer their lives and their love in the fight to reclaim families from the sundering forces of addiction, mental illness, and crime.

I see parents who finally, finally climb on top of years of excuses, blaming and denying to get healthy and sober, and to step up to the challenge and honor of raising their children.

I see children who by rights ought to be incapable of functioning, though they somehow hold it together, get an education, and make good choices.

I see the police officers whose job it is to accompany child protective services workers into dangerous and heartbreaking situations, and they do it. It’s part of the job, and they don’t expect to be thanked for it any more than the CPS workers expect thanks for what they do, or the judges expect thanks for hearing the difficult cases in the foster care court room.

My ninety-one-year-old dad served a Navy tour during World War II, my brother John did a stint in Vietnam, but they rarely talk about their experiences as soldiers. Today, let’s talk about our soldiers—who in your life is protecting and serving, offering their life and their love for what they believe in? Whether they’re in the military, or serving in a civilian capacity, they’re soldiers to me.

Eleven people commenting on today’s blog will receive a signed copy of “The Soldier,” and one lucky commenter will receive a new Kindle.

What Ails My Valentine?

            A blog commenter recently asked me what, exactly, was wrong with Lord Valentine Windham’s hand that it became so inflamed? Was his whole problem psychosomatic?

            Physician David Worthington, Viscount Fairly, intimates as much, and Valentine supports that diagnosis when he notes (to himself) that the first twinge of pain came when he closed his hand around the symbolic clod of earth that began the process of burying his brother Victor.

            In fact, Valentine has buried two brothers, and hasn’t really let go of the keen grief resulting from either death. He’s lost two more brothers to the inexorable grip of happy marriages, and his oldest brother, Devlin, has also removed two hundred miles north to the West Riding.

            Valentine has been holding onto to a lot of bewildering losses—no wonder his hand aches.

            Except… This is one of my early manuscripts, and as such, has been significantly pared down from its original first draft… pared down by, oh, say 50,000 words. That means there’s half a book I’ve written about this story that you haven’t read, and buried in that half a book is more information about Val’s ailment.

            As a child, trying to keep up with his older brothers while skating, Val had a fall on an outstretched hand (FOOSH). He hid the condition from Her Grace, and by the time His Grace figured out that his baby boy was injured, the affected wrist was healing. His Grace pronounced it a bad sprain (it was a fracture), and tried to tell himself that stoicism even in a five year old is something to be proud of. (Her Grace would have known better.)

            In modern medical terms a FOOSH is one condition that can create a predisposition to carpal tunnel syndrome. Val’s symptoms—worse inflammation around the thumb and index fingers than the other fingers, abatement of inflammation following rest—are consistent with a diagnosis of carpal tunnel. Repetitive stress can play a role in carpal tunnel, but so too, the literature suggests, can chronic emotional stress.

            So maybe Valentine had a case of carpal tunnel that resolved with rest.

            Or maybe it was a matter of him having to let go of what ailed his heart before his hand would heal. I’ve been around a lot of dedicated pianists, and as a group, I’ve noticed they tend not to suffer ailments of the hand—to the contrary, many of them ply their instruments with breathtaking skill very late in life (Eubie Blake, Marion McPartland, Arturo Rubinstein, Dave Brubeck to name a few).

            To answer the question then, I know Valentine’s ailment was at least physical, but David Worthington was right too: Illness can have its origins in the emotions of the heart, and healing can originate there too.

 Have you ever endured an ailment you suspected was more of the heart than the body?


The Virtuoso’s Play List

For each book featured in a newsletter, I’d like to answer a question that either came up frequently on the blog tour for that book, or should have come up frequently and didn’t. The Virtuoso being about a musician, I expected to be asked if I listen to music when I write. It doesn’t say so on the website, but I have a Bachelor of Music degree in music history and my instrument was piano.

When Lord Valentine was acquiring his skill at the keyboard, the entire repertoire of Mozart, Haydn, Handel, CPE Bach, and some J.S. Bach would have been available to him. Over in Vienna, Beethoven would have written all but his ninth symphony, and pianist and composer Muzio Clementi would have been touring to packed houses.

So what did I listen to when I wrote “The Virtuoso?”

Unless you count the contented snoring of my bull mastiff, I listened to silence.

In hindsight, I think I would have been happier had I pursued a college degree in composition rather than musicology, because even more than I liked to create music, I liked to listen to it being created. When I listen to music, my ear is not passive. I take apart what I’m hearing the way an art historian might assess a painting, even the mass produced art hanging in a hotel room.

You hear a string quartet, I hear a cello getting too bossy and a viola hiding under the second violin. I hear magnificent close harmony, or a bass line going muddy as the tempo picks up. In other words, I listen analytically.

I cannot turn this off any more than I can turn off the senses of taste and touch. It’s work for me to listen to music, just as it’s work for me to write. I enjoy both—enjoy them tremendously—but both take focus and effort.

Composer G.F. Handel

So, no, I do not listen to music when I write. That would be like trying to dance and write at the same time—nigh impossible for me. But—and you knew there would be a but—when I was writing “Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish,” time was of the essence, and a Christmas feel for the book was also of the essence. To help me get a sense of Christmas into the book, I listened to Handel’s “Messiah” (the Christmas portion) almost incessantly when I wasn’t writing. I hummed it, I sang it, I whistled it—and happily “lost” the CD once the book was written.

The neat thing about that work is that even in the Regency period, it was popular Christmas music. Hearing the oratorio over and over, knowing my Regency characters would have been thoroughly familiar with it, helped the story flow more easily.

If there’s a question you’d like to see addressed in a future blog, send it along and I’ll try to work it in. If YOU had written the Virtuoso, what might you have listened to (beside my snoring bull mastiff)?

Web In-site by Grace Burrowes

A new author is warned that publicity will be a significant part of her responsibilities post-publication, and a website is one of the cornerstones of that publicity. I’m not a cyberphobe, but I’m not a techie, either.

And I am a Warp Nine introvert, the same as most other writers. I crave long solitudinous hours filled with only the sounds of my fingers tapping on the keyboard and my bull mastiff snoring contentedly at my feet. This business of building a website loomed for months as the nearest thing to housework: Necessary and a relief to get done, but hardly satisfying.

It will astound you to know my prognostication was wrong.

Having the talented ladies at Waxcreative, Inc., develop a website for me has meant I had to take a look at my author bios, and tell the thumbnail version of the Story of Me yet again in a way that might connect with readers. It means I’ve had to go sifting through my first two books looking for those few paragraphs that will best grab the reader, those snippets of dialogue that surprised me when I first reread them because, what do you  know, they’re good.

This is like looking at baby pictures with a younger version of me as a writer in the background. It shouldn’t be fascinating, but to me it is.

I’ve had to look at the earliest versions of my books for the scenes I deleted, some because they just didn’t propel the book forward, others had to be cut to make the almighty word count. The whole time I was on a scene-cutting revision—killing my darlings!—in the back of my mind, I consoled myself with the thought: I’ll have plenty of material for the website this way.

And of course, some of the scenes I had to cut felt as well written as anything elsewhere in the books. I loved those scenes and cutting them was painful.

Then too, I like websites with interesting little quotes sprinkled around on them, so I pawed through my Bartlett’s, hunting for the perfect words from the great and powerful, and what writer would not enjoy that exercise?

With my website up and running (soon!) I’m going to have my own blog again (to wit), and that means hunting up books to blog about. There is so much good writing out there, so much creativity and graciousness…. With my nose buried in a WIP, I forget about the pleasure of browsing among the websites of the authors who’ve comforted and inspired me as a writer.

And if that’s not enough to change my mind about the fun of developing a website, I hear from other authors how nice it is to be so directly accessible to readers. To get those encouraging emails and to be able to respond, almost real time, with the dog still snoring contentedly at my feet.

Hmm. Suppose I’ll go goggle at the pages under construction. I’ve done enough on the WIP for today and nobody is going to steal my dust woofies. What a wonderful thing it is to have a site under construction.

And how wonderful too, to be so pleasantly surprised by life, once again. To inaugurate the re-emergence of Her Grace Notes from developmental hiatus, I’ll give away a signed copy of “Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish” to one person commenting on this blog. Just leave some version of your email, and I’ll contact you for more information within the next week if you’re our winner.