A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Change

I’m pondering stories for the remaining Dorning brothers, and as usual, getting my hands on the external conflict–the real, interesting, substantial force pushing the couple apart–is a challenge for me. I know whatever that force is, it has to embody the worst fears for the characters involved. The characters will have to face the one choice they’ve promised themselves they will never, ever consider.

In other words, the external conflict demands that the characters change if they are to earn their happily ever after, and usually the change required is a change of heart. Darius Lindsey had to break away from his father’s view of him as a largely failed, worthless, powerless man. To cite a more recent book, Quinn Wentworth had to learn that love is a force more powerful than money.

In every case, at the start of the book, our hero or heroine has very good reasons for believing as they do. They have evidence–a lifetime and a whole society’s worth of eyewitness evidence–which they then spend years confirming, with the selective zeal of the confirmation bias. (We notice what confirms our beliefs, we ignore or invalidate whatever conflicts with our beliefs.)

If changing a mind (or a heart) was as easy as confronting that mind with facts, then the loyalty of Darius’s staff, the regard of his siblings, his success as an estate manager, should have fixed his little self-esteem problem by page 3. Same for Quinn–his siblings stuck with him though every hardship, Duncan taught him to read out of simple kindness, and Quinn himself cannot be bought off lest his family be ashamed of him. He should have figured out that money isn’t as big a deal as love.

But nope.

If my characters are to re-open a painful question that they’ve firmly settled in their minds–settled for very good reasons–somebody has to come along who can say, “I know you well enough to understand why you think the way you do–you are plenty smart and I respect that. Your conclusions made sense at the time, but here are some reasons why a different decision would be an improvement now.” (And in a romance, one of those reasons will be, “No HEA unless you reverse engines.”)

So instead of asking about what pushes my characters apart, maybe I need to ask what long-held (mistaken) belief they will be able to give up, if somebody convinces them they are lovable despite all their mistakes and wrong turns. (Valerian Dorning, Emily Pepper, I’m looking at you.)

Even writing that sentence, I’m hesitant to ask the same question of myself: What long-held (mistaken) belief would I be able to give up…? Changing my mind–changing me–is a scary prospect, one that involves admission of mistakes and regrets, but one that also holds out the hope of more joy, freedom, truth, and love.

Has anybody changed your mind or your self-image? Is there a shift in perspective trying to nudge its way into your awareness? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-card.

 

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

So there I was, driving my trusty ten-year-old Prius (“It can pass a gas station but not much else…”) down to Richmond to join with writin’ buddies at the Virginia Romance Writers’ annual awards luncheon. I hadn’t left my house until about 7 pm, and I was pretty tired and grouchy. Part of my grouchiness was because I was taking Route 15–nobody sane drives I-95 south on a Friday evening in summer, or ever, really.

The day was cloudy, so by about 8 pm, the glorious Virginia countryside was shrouded in darkness. Bummer. And then it started to rain, which after dark in my little pee-pee car is my absolute NOT favorite. I wound past Warrenton and on through Culpeper, getting more tired and out of charity with myself when an enormous burst of light filled the night sky.

Fireworks? In Mid-East Cowpat, VA?

Another great burst of light exploded, and another and another. Seems I’d hit the great metropolis of Orange just as the local carnival was putting on its big display–and it was quite a display. As I drove past the carnival grounds, I was reminded of all the times I’d been a kid at a carnival, my precious tickets clutched in my hand as I chose my fun, that funnel-cake scent filling the summer air.

I can’t watch something that spectacular and not be impressed–with human ingenuity, if nothing else. Fireworks are purely for enjoyment, purely a spectacle. I drove on, and oh, lookee! The lightning bugs were out down around Boswell’s Tavern. I do love the lightning bugs.

I bethought myself to see what CD I’d left in my CD player the last time I’d used it (sometime in 2018), and it was Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World” medley. Gorgeous composition. Played it three times back to back and sang along. Got to my hotel room and snuggled in with the latest Jennifer Ashley Kat Holloway mystery–I am so enjoying that series.

One random event–the fireworks display–jolted me out of my funk, and from there, the positive vibes grew. As I drove home today (dry roads!), I was in a much better frame of mind. What fun to meet new writin’ buddies! How lovely the countryside is when blanketed in summer green! How wonderful to have arrived safely home after all that driving, and isn’t a cup of tea just the most delectable treat ever?

How to Ruin a Duke by Grace Burrowes and Theresa RomainI try to end my day listing at least five things I’m grateful for, but this little road trip through VA reminded me that gratitude has more zing–more power to lift mood and reduce anxiety–when it’s specific to our immediate situation. Of course health, family, friends, job, a safe place to sleep are all wonderful, but those unexpected fireworks were wonderful in a more immediate sense.

And that led to noticing the lightning bugs, the brilliance of a well crafted historical mystery, the pleasure of comfy bed, the flowers by the Gordonsville visitor’s center, and much more.

What small, unique-to-this-day thing are you grateful for right now? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed print copy of How to Ruin a Duke AND a $50 e-gift card.

 

 

 

When You’re Smiling…

Look closely and you can see people along the rail at the top.

Americans are apparently somewhat notorious for smiling, compared to other cultures. I was warned by several Francophiles not to expect big cheery grins in Paris, and those warnings proved useful. What I did get, when I walked into any shop, approached the information desk at the subway, or started my day at the conference, was a hearty, “Bonjour!”

The hotel desk clerk said it as I wandered by, the lady in the breakfast dining parlor said it to every guest, the guide who took us around Versailles said it when he met us, though he also offered a friendly handshake. My sister had been told the same thing: Don’t smile your way through France. You will probably look foolish, and for sure you will look American.

One explanation for the Smiling American is that ours is a wonderfully diverse land. Fewer than 10 percent of those dwelling in France are immigrants, and about half of those immigrants are from neighboring European countries.  The US, by contrast, has

Facade of our hotel

the largest immigrant population in raw numbers of any nation (about 47 million compared to France’s 6 million), and those folks total more than 14 percent of the whole. Then too, our immigrants are from Everywhere.

Add to that how often Americans move–on average, 11 times throughout life, compared to the Europeans’ four times–and the great cultural diversity of even our native-born citizens (didn’t your mother bake a chocolate potato cake every year on March 17 in honor of St. Patrick? My mom did.), and we’ve ended up with a situation where it can be pretty handy to have a non-verbal signal for, “I’m not here to make trouble.”

So we smile, and I LIKE that we smile. Nearly 20 percent of French people smoke, and nearly 30 percent of their student-age population smokes. In the US, we’re at about 14 percent overall for smokers, and for college students it’s even lower. I like that too, but I didn’t realize our countries diverge on this issue until I noticed that at nearly every sidewalk cafe I passed in Paris (I passed dozens), somebody was smoking at a table.

I had a wonderful time in France, but I also came home appreciating that I no longer smell cigarette smoke at American restaurants. I smile a lot in the course of a day out here. I see tons of people in the US from all over the world and they smile at me too. We’re footloose compared to a lot of other societies, and that can mean we see a lot of different How to Ruin a Duke by Grace Burrowes and Theresa Romainterrain in the course of American life.

It has been easy for me lately to see what’s amiss with my country, not as easy to appreciate its many good and dear qualities. A time away has helped me hit re-set in that regard, and has me smiling (like an American) a little more than I was before I went away. What do you like about where you are right now?

To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card. And if you’d like a review e-book copy of next week’s novella duet release, How to Ruin a Duke, just drop me an email at graceburrowes@yahoo.com.

 

 

One at a Time…

So, lucky, lucky me, I’ve recently attended the Festival du Roman Feminin in Paris (Festival of the Romance Novel). If you ever get a chance to go… GO. I had a marvelous time, met many wonderful people including both authors and readers, and I am so very glad I went.

I was in France once before, 40 years ago for a few days. I don’t recall much about it, except a general sense of awe. Now my sense of awe is more specific. I’m in awe of the history, the natural beauty, the integrity of the culture, the reasonably priced fresh good food, and the kindness of the people. Everybody has been unfailingly gracious, patient with my four words of French (all mispronounced), and good-humored.

I’ve noticed something else about the little slice of France I’ve seen that I also respect tremendously: People here do one thing at a time, with a very few exceptions. If they are sharing a meal with a friends, they aren’t also checking texts. If they are walking down the street, they walk down the street, they don’t talk on the phone at the same time. They enjoy their food, they interact with their children (who are much in evidence), they occupy some of the ubiquitous benches along the parks and boulevards, and to a much greater degree than my American neighbors, they simply enjoy the park without getting out a device and tapping a screen.

In one of the largest cities on the planet, the pace felt slower to me than it often does in my sleepy Maryland backwater town. Waiters don’t hover to chase you away from the table when you’re done eating, cars wait for pedestrians to get out of crosswalks, museum staff take the time to make sure your questions are answered. And yet, the French, with their 35-hour work week, five weeks of annual leave, and a dozen federal holidays, are a more productive work force than we hard-charging Americans are.

My sense is, this culture is both more focused and more relaxed than the one I live in. I like that focused/relaxed approach better than the scattered/anxious tone I can slip into at home, even when I’m in the solitude of my own home. To be around other people who can maintain focus on a conversation, who can eat good food slowly, who can walk down the street without setting land-speed records, helps me be more relaxed and focused.

I have really, really enjoyed being in Paris, which surprised me. I associate cities with hurry, noise, and over-stimulation, but I have not found that true of Paris at all. My data sample is tiny, of course, so I will doubtless have to return to Paris to gather more information.

Is there someplace you simply enjoy being? Why? The people, the landscape, the food, the weather, the entertainments? Would you live there year-round if you could? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

The Golden Hours

For photographers, the golden hours are immediately after sunrise and right before sunset. The angle of the sun imparts a quality both sharp and mellow, luminous and sentimental, to images created then. I’m aware of a golden hour quality in my life now, of the sunset variety.

Every time I go to the riding stable, I’m grateful that I can still sit on a horse. I might never look competent on the right lead canter again, but I can get into the saddle and be joyous nonetheless. When I plant my flowers in spring, I’m aware that a back problem, tight finances, who knows what, might mean next year’s flowers won’t be half so spectacular. In fact, my flowers might never be as grand again, so I enjoy them immensely while I have them.

I’m reading like nobody’s business these days, well aware that some of my readers have had to give up print books because failing eyesight required the enlargement options on an e-reader. Other readers have trouble reading as much as they’d like because even holding an e-reader can become challenging after a time. I’m not facing those limitations yet, and so I delight in each book I can physically read (even Churchill’s mammoth biography).

One of these years, I expect to get the lecture about Type II diabetes, and though I try to be conscientious about food choices, there’s little arguing with genetics. So I relish abundantly being able to have a dash of cream in my tea and that little square of dark chocolate at mid-day.

The pattern is one of loving well that which I must leave “ere long,” and while I’m aware that I’m in the second half of life, I feel as if the joy and wisdom of these later hours are more than compensation for any losses. I went to Australia and New Zealand last summer because I would probably never have that opportunity again. I’ll be in Paris later this month because of the same reasoning. Putting off adventures or challenges until they are more convenient isn’t my default strategy any more.

Maybe this is a phase, a golden hour before darkness falls, but it’s a happy phase and full of its own kind of wonder and discovery. At my present age, both of my parents still had thirty years of good living ahead of them. I hope for that kind of a sunset, and this recent upwelling of gratitude and focus means if I do get those years, they will be as wonderful as I can make them.

And if I don’t get those years, all the more reason to head off to Paris NOW.

What’s your next adventure or challenge? Is there one you’ve been putting off? Looking forward to? One you had to  give up on? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

 

Rampaging Joy

I’m aware of puzzling dichotomy at work in my life lately.

I am angry almost ALL THE TIME these days. I’m angry at those elected to public office who haven’t a clue how constitutional government is supposed to work–nor, apparently do many of them they care. I’m angry at social media, destroying our privacy for profit while expecting us to believe they are building “online community.” I am angry at much of what passes for journalism, I’m angry that our dear old Mother Earth is in such peril. (Happy Mother’s Day, Earth…), I’m really angry at people who profess to value the family while doing everything possible to make the average family’s situation harder. So much to be angry about.

And yet, I’m also aware that I’ve never been personally happier. Every possible variety of pleasure  is mine in abundance. I have a toddler’s pleasure in the simple things–ice cream cones, flowers, and clean sheets. I have a grown-up’s pleasure in adult recreation, such as cantering around an arena on horseback just because I still can. I have an attorney’s pleasure in reasoned, informed debate, and a writer’s pleasure in making my living doing something challenging and meaningful that I love.

I hope it’s not a pleasure reserved to the elderly, but I am also wallowing in good books. Churchill’s biography, long-form journalism, social commentary, my keeper author’s new romance releases,  all those historical mysteries I mentioned last week… whatever I want.

Wheeeee!

I even take a certain delight how free I am to quarrel with our present realities. I’m not exhausted by single parenting, not weighed down by child welfare cases, not battling a major health issue such that all of my reserves are taken up with basic survival. How amazingly lucky I am to be at a point in life where I can acknowledge my emotions, experience them, and decide what (if anything) I want to do about them. This is a very great luxury, though it shouldn’t be.

In the world according to Grace, we all have the skills and mental freedom to acknowledge our feelings, however uncomfortable, confusing, or inconvenient they might be. I know that in real life, that’s not always the case, and much misery and mischief result.

So here I am, pulled toward gratitude and joy on the one hand, and pulled toward passionate indignation on the other. I don’t recall any other time in life–not adolescence, not new-mothering, not mid-life, when I’ve been at the both ends of such a spectrum simultaneously quite as thoroughly as I am now. The connecting thread is that I’ve arrived to a passionate phase, when I can delight in having sprinkles on my double-dip and be appalled at our plastic footprint. Both, fiercely.

I hope this makes for some great books, because I am surely having a grand, interesting time.

What–despite everything–is giving you particular pleasure these days? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of A Lady of True Distinction, which is available in print now, and goes on sale as an ebook on Tuesday. (Wheeee!)

What’s YOUR Superpower?

I’m off on a frolic some evenings, writing a historical mystery series set in the Regency. My main protagonist is Lady Violet, a widow of means with a penchant for getting into trouble. I’m only into the second book, so Violet and I are just getting to know each other, and the first things to strike me are some of her weaknesses. She’s working on a case of agoraphobia, for example. She’s also a little OCD about some things, which can make her a pain in the behonkis as well as a good investigator.

I’m trundling down this path in part because I enjoy reading historical mysteries. Captain Gabriel Lacey is my book boyfriend, Thomas and Charlotte Pitt scratch my Victorian itch, Charles Lenox scratches my other Victorian itch, and, and, and… If you like historical mysteries too, you’ve probably come across C.S. Harris’s Sebastian St. Cyr Regency mystery series. (Has smoochin’ in it!)

From the first book, Sebastian exhibits a combination of traits that make him well suited to sleuthing. He has very quick reflexes, astonishingly keen hearing, and excellent vision particularly in low light. His eyes are golden, and highly sensitive to light. Madam Author very, very cleverly gave her protagonist superpowers before they were popular by conferring upon him a case of Bithil’s syndrome. This is a genetic mutation found in some Welsh family lines, and the author’s daughter has a particularly robust form of the symptoms.

From a plotting perspective, Sebastian’s superpowers get him into and out of trouble. He hears things he’s not supposed to, sees things others can’t discern, and gets the side-eye when he’s trying to fit in. Like a lot of people with superpowers, he didn’t realize he was different until later in childhood, and the moment stands out in his mind.

Which of course led me to a question: Do I have a superpower? (Other than the ability to make good dark chocolate disappear.)

I think I do, though it’s hard to describe. I can yeah-but anything. You tell me God once destroyed the earth with a Great Flood and I will come back with, “Very sad business, but we got the rainbow out of that deal, and Mr. and Mrs. Noah had a ton (literally) of fertilizer ready to go when it was time to start over, and I bet they got some quality couple time in during those forty nights…”

You tell me being fat is unhealthy and I will tell you that as body mass index increases, the use of antidepressants goes down as does the rate of successful suicides. The two-party system can lead to power swings and entrenched conflict but the multi-party system can result in a minority calling the shots. I have always had this ability to think in dichotomies and counter-examples. As a kid it got me in trouble. As an attorney, it got me a lot of results for my clients.

I believe everybody has superpowers, and that those qualities are usually part blessing and part burden. I still have to figure out what Lady Violet’s superpower is, but I’m also interested in YOUR superpower. Do you have one? More than one? Is it a mixed blessing or purely a boon? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon e-gift card.

PS: If one of your superpowers is reviewing books, and you’d like an advanced reader file for A Lady of True Distinction, please email me at graceburrowes@yahoo.com.

Oh, the Joys of Not…

I will soon have reached the “out of the courthouse” for a year anniversary, and it has been a wonderful year. There is so much I do not miss AT ALL about that lawyer job.

I don’t miss all the paperwork, though much of the paperwork had become electronic. The courthouse filings were electronic, as were my invoices, and my monthly reports. I had to report on how I spent my time down to the quarter hour, how my contractual activities benefited the Maryland economy (huh?), which cases went to court for what kind of hearing and when the next hearing was scheduled even though the date was purest conjecture on the judge’s part… And all of that information went into Deep Space, never to be seen again, but heaven forfend the reports were late.

This is exactly the kind of work I loathe–detailed, pointless, largely unverifiable, all for show. How on EARTH did I end up in a job where I was evaluated on the basis of this kind of baloney?

I don’t miss the courthouse itself. I was married in that courthouse, and I was on good terms with the people there, but a courthouse–except for marriages and adoptions–is mostly a house of misery. For every person who wins a case, somebody loses, and sometimes everybody loses. People lose their liberty at courthouses, and are consigned to the most brutal, violent, atavistic, bigoted system of incarceration in the developed world (and one of very few permitted to do business on a for profit basis).

Many of those people aren’t guilty, or aren’t guilty of as serious a crime as they’ve been convicted of (or plead guilty to). Many others did not get adequate representation because We the People do not fund  the Public Defender’s Office at nearly the levels justice requires. (While the prosecutors, for some reason, tend to do pretty well.)

I don’t miss the lawyers, though I got on well enough with most of them. I might miss them, but I have romance readers and authors to compare to them. Lawyers can have a quirky sense of humor, they tend to be philosophical about complicated questions, and most of them in my little jurisdiction knew how to be civil while representing opposing parties.

But those attributes pale beside the sheer joy of meeting with a writing buddy for book talk-talk, of trading some chat with a reader who wonders whether Bart is Priscilla’s father, of reading the comments on this blog, of seeing an author friend’s release day go well. I am grateful to the lawyer job for all the financial security it generated, I hope I made a meaningful contribution when I wore that hat, but ye gods, I DO NOT MISS IT.

What don’t you miss? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 Amazon gift card. ALSO, I’ll be ending out e-ARCs for A Lady of True Distinction in the next week or so. If you’d like one, please email me at graceburrowes@yahoo.com, subject: True Distinction ARC.

 

Down to Specifics

Writers are often admonished to write vividly, to focus on the specific details that will bring a scene to life. As Anton Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” We’ve all seen the moon up there in the sky, but when Chekov mentions the glint of light on broken glass, the scene becomes much more immediate–an alley, a deserted road, a trashy little backyard where something sad or bad could happen. Broken glass is a powerful, painful image.

Apologies benefit from specificity. If you can say exactly what you did wrong and how you are willing to take responsibility for it, your remorse is more trustworthy, and your wrongdoing is more likely to be forgiven. “I’m sorry,” is good. “I’m sorry I took the Prius when I knew you wanted to make a grocery run today. Give me a list and I’ll get it done right after dinner,” is much better.

Gratitude also benefits from specificity–and variety. I finish my day journaling, and fishing my journaling listing five things I’m grateful for. If gratitude is to work its mood-stabilizing, anxiety-reducing wonder, that list should vary from day to day. Not simply: My health-my family-my home-my safety-my privacy (I’m grateful for ALL of that). But rather, the ability to plant flowers, which requires cooperation from hips, knees, back, hands, and more. The phone call from my sister Maire that she made Just Because.. and so on.

And this time of year, I’m aware of a general rejoicing in the season, but again, to be more exacting about what’s making me so quietly delighted when I get out of bed in the morning makes the glee more vivid. I love the quality of the light in spring and fall especially in the morning and evening. The light is more contrasty, to use a photographer’s terms, more romantic to use mine.

I love seeing the bulbs I planted last fall, as days grew shorter and nights grew colder, waking up to the opposite–more light, more warmth. I love that I don’t have to wear as many clothes. I always dress for comfort these days, but in spring, I can shed layers. This is especially evident at the horse barn, where winter can mean bundling up and gradually peeling off layers as the lesson progresses, then peeling them back on, then layering up the horse in his blankets too.

I love to leave my balcony door open at night, so I wake up to the robins singing. Nothing says to me that the ecosystem is healthy like hearing birds first thing in the day.

The trick to being specific, though, is that it takes focus, it takes effort, and in the attention economy, the brass ring of profit goes to those who excel at distracting us from our own realities. That’s a form of thievery, in my book, and actively reclaiming my ability to focus, to experience the wonderfulness or the sorrow or the rage, is the very business of living the only life I’ve been given.

Name one detail–an impression, a memory, an experience, an object–that absolutely delights you or drives you absolutely ’round the bend. To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.

Take Note

I am indebted to Neil Gaiman’s writing masterclass for reminding me to keep paper and pen near at hand at all times. I knew this, but way led onto way, and I got out of the habit. And all times means ALL times. By my bedside, when tromping the neighborhood in pursuit of the daily step count, in the grocery store. Why? Because we know how the old brain-eroo works.

We have an executive mental mode for Getting Stuff Done. This cognitive approach is for solving problems, doing task-oriented work, and checking off to-dos. Then there’s the unfortunately named default mode, which is equally productive, but much quieter. We kick into  default mode in the shower, driving a familiar route (say, to the horse barn and back), and sometimes when sitting in meetings (or, um,  writers’ workshops).

In the default mode we are also Getting Stuff Done, such as bringing connections up from the subconscious (sometimes experienced as an aha!), deciding what we stand for, and making long-term plans based on our values. But default mode can be coy. If you don’t jot down the brilliant aha! or what-if, it can swim away never to be seen again. When you physically write the thought down, you signal to the brain that the concept has weight and merit, and the imagination–rather than forgetting it–will embroider on the idea further.

This carries over to the classroom, where we know that physical note-taking results in greater comprehension and retention than typing notes into a computer does. Why? Because the physical act of writing is fundamentally different from typing, and something about writing helps anchor thoughts in memory more effectively than typing does. Then too, when you write on paper, you are not simply taking dictation. You must paraphrase what’s presented, boil it down, and use your own symbols, sketches, and abbreviations to record it. You have to not merely listen, in other words, you must also think.

Writing by hand has other benefits in the classroom besides improving comprehension and retention. Students who write by hand are not sitting behind a physical device, fixated on the screen and keyboard. Class discussions evolve from the teacher-student dialogues common in computer-note-taking classes, into group-wide conversations of more depth and variety. That too, makes the material more interesting and memorable.

Many writers begin their days with what are called Morning Pages, a time to physically write about what’s on their minds or where they want their stories to go. I finish my day journaling, but I’ve fallen into the habit of journaling on my computer. I’m going to go back to handwriting those final thoughts of the day, as I did for years, just as soon as I recreate a space in my house where handwriting is comfortable (ahem). You know–a desk that isn’t commandeered by a computer?

Do your handwrite anymore? Why or why not? If you were going to re-introduce the skill, where would be a good place to start? To one commenter, I’ll send a $50 e-gift card.