How my horse taught me to write…

When I paid attention, I learned a lot from my horse. My most recent Personal Steed was a 17.1 hand Hanoverian (doing business as an Oldenburg) gelding whom I referred to as Boy Genius. When he had adequate years, his moniker morphed into Wonder Pony, and several other appellations, depending on the quality of our ability to communicate.

Beloved Offspring on Beloved Andy

I am not by nature an athlete. My idea of a good day is to sit for at least six hours in front of the computer, spewing make believe and swilling decaf tea, then having a nice lie down with my latest potential keeper (book, that is) for a few hours, then a few more hours of composing at the computer. I will feed my beasts at the beginning and the end of the day, which entails heaving a few hay bales, maybe lugging a 50-pound sack of pony chow from the top to the bottom of the barn, and chucking out some 5-gallon buckets of water, but God forbid I should break a sweat.

As much as I loved my horse and enjoyed riding, there were many days when my energy for the task was not great. Then too, there were windy days, when the arena might creak and groan, provoking my dearest steed to occasional lapses of dignity. Or sometimes it might be stinkin’ hot, or stinkin’ cold. Stinkin’ rainy was only half an excuse because I rode in an indoor arena, but it would do in a pinch.

Some days, I would get to the barn, tack up my horse (or the grooms, sly boots, would tack him up for me), and lead him into the arena, and still, the motivation to ride would not well up in my soul. “I’ll just ride him at the walk,” I’d say. I’d swing aboard, pat my pony, and off he would saunter. He has a lovely walk, does Wonder Pony. He walks like a gunslinger, and if you make allowances for his species, the guy is certainly tall, dark and handsome.

We’d walk this-a-way, and that-a-way, and pretty soon, we’d have walked just about every way you can in a modest indoor, all the while having a nice visit with my instructor about Life In General, or maybe a little about how the horse feels to me as we walk. What the hell, I would say to my pony after about ten minutes, let’s just loosen up a little at the trot. But the horse has a pretty big trot, and as is the case with some warmbloods, he loosens up better at the canter.

So what the other hell, I’d cue him into a nice, relaxed canter, which is kinda fun. But you can’t canter just one way, so we’d canter around the other direction and maybe try a flying change across the middle, and before long, I’m trying to put the horse together in a working trot, working on suppleness, moving him off my leg (this is a term of art), and generally engaged in the meat of a worthwhile riding lesson.

Todd Bryan, most wonderful trainer

My instructor (also tall, dark and handsome, but not the same species as the horse) probably pulled my horse aside first thing in the day, and worked out this little conspiracy, but eventually, when I’d say, “I think I’ll just sit on him at the walk,” it was all both of them could do not to laugh at my prevarications outright.

Let them laugh. They are my prevarications, and they serve me well. When I’m not enthusiastic about taking a walk (which is 90 percent of the time) I’ll tell myself, “I’ll just go a half mile to the neighbor’s mail box). This is generally the start of a two-mile walk. When it comes to housework, I tell myself, “Just vacuum the bedroom. You can worry about the downstairs later.” And sometimes, I do, and sometimes, as long as I have the darnedd thing out…

When it comes to my writing, prevaricating is very handy. “I’ll just read over what I wrote yesterday….” “I’ll just buff the last scene, add a little dialogue…” “I’ll just get out one scene, then have a cup of tea….” If you ride the right horse, if you’re patient with yourself, and you don’t judge yourself for nibbling your way through life’s challenges, you too can complete twenty-five manuscripts without ever once pressuring yourself  to finish a single book.

 Have you ever walked your way to a significant accomplishment? Tried just one date, signed up for a single course… tell us about it. To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of “Lady Eve’s Indiscretion,” which is also a story about taking small steps toward a big goal.


New Year’s Insights

I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. Statistically, most of them are bad history by Groundhog Day (and what fool put Valentine’s Day within six weeks of all those anti-chocolate resolutions anyway?), and more to the point, if something is worth resolving, it’s worth resolving on December 17, or July 11.

I do, though, believe in focusing on insights that have befallen us, and on the new behaviors those insights can inspire. Here are a few of my recent insights:

1) When your house is not just the place you look after when the day job has wrung you out, it can become a creative refuge, and also a source of that creativity.

2) To quit the day job and become a full time writer will involve a lot of risk—as did becoming a single mom, opening my own law practice, marrying, divorcing, buying a house, or signing any publishing contract. I am good at managing risk and I had forgotten this.

3) Seeing new horizons is good for me.

4) Seeing Scotland was very good for me.

So, what am I going to do about this? Well, most of you know I rented a roll off dumpster, and I can cheerfully report that it’s mostly full now. My living room echoes, and I love that. I will move my writing space into the living room this spring, and spend the intervening months looking for the perfect rug, etc.

With respect to new horizons, I’m thinking of booking a trip to Scotland, to parts I haven’t seen yet, and with friends I haven’t met yet. This will cost much money, so I had better write some really good books. Fortunately, I love to write.

And with respect to the day job… that’s a tough one, but there are ways to readjust it that won’t involve as many days in court, which is a step in the right direction.

And steps in the right direction are all any insight can inspire us to.

How ‘bout you? Any interesting insights this year? Any resolutions you simply can’t resist? To one commenter, I’ll give a $25 Amazon gift card.

We’ve Been Nice!

This is a simple blog because we all have better things to do this week than hang around on the internet (I hope).

I believe in cursing the darkness. I believing in airing the best, most creative, specific, vivid, forceful vocabulary I have when I’m naming my woes and miseries. Naming has a power to contain, to render an enemy concrete and thus, defeatable.

I also believe in lighting candles, in doing the next necessary thing to bring kindness and honesty forward in the world. When I was parenting a Strong Willed Child, one of the best pieces of advice I got was, “Catch her being good, and praise her for it.” To catch somebody being good, you have to pay attention to them. So I’m paying attention to you in the comments. Tell us something you did this week that was kind, that lit a small candle, even if nobody else saw you. I am Facebook friends and Likes with a lot of my regular commenters. I’ve seen you this week baking cookies, hanging with the grandkids so Mom and Dad could get some wrapping or shopping done, dropping off books at the homeless shelter…

Modesty deters us from tooting our own horns, usually. Put the modesty aside, please, as I shall now demonstrate:

I was in my little local post office when closing time came, and the line inside the door was looooong. I had many books to mail all over the world, so I peeled out the line and went to the end, allowing everybody else to get out of there a little earlier.

Your turn! And I’m giving away a fistful of Amazon and Starbucks gift cards this week…







Once upon a time while pursuing a master’s degree in conflict management, I had to take a course called, “Disciplines for Sustaining the Peacemaker.” I tromped into the class ready to hate it with a rabid, unrelenting passion, because for me, discipline itself—structure for its own sake—is a dubious, if not impossible, source of sustenance.

And yet, the class had value. My classmates were from all over the world, dealing with deadly, entrenched conflicts. They’d seen first hand the kind of tragedies enacted in Newton, CT, had gone eyeball to eyeball with genocide. A later student in the program, a Liberian lady named Leymah Gbowee, ended up winning the Nobel Peace prize. They were warriors for peace, and to examine how they’d maintain physical, spiritual and emotional health under the most trying of circumstances was a worthy pursuit.

The idea being, once the bullets started flying, time or motivation to reflect on self-care would be scarce.

One assignment was just to make a list of all the things we did that we considered “self-care,” whether we did them daily or infrequently. I sat down, prepared to be stumped, because at the time I was a single working mom, running my own law practice, and “self-care” was not an indulgence I felt I could throw many resources at.

The list surprised me:

Journaling, going for a walk, having a hot cup of tea, reading novels or watching movies with happy endings, meeting friends for breakfast or lunch, seeing the naturopath regularly and being treated at least monthly with acupuncture. Petting the cat or the dog, meditating, lifting weights, taking vitamins, pursuing an education, finding solitude, sleeping, having sex, listening to music, nature and natural beauty, long drives, gardening, prayer, keeping flowers on hand, laughing, wearing the clothes I want to wear…

Other people had things on their lists I did not: Dancing, going to church, the occasional alcoholic drink etc, making music, painting, reading to their children, cooking, cleaning, yoga, team sports, running, reading scriptures or various denominations or favorite authors, knitting, throwing pots, reading history…

What came home to me is that my identity and sanity are protected by measures great and small, everything from a cup of tea to pursuit of an advanced degree. I was surprised to realize I had a bag of tricks—a big bag—and that I was engaged in sustaining the (insert identity of choice here) without realizing what I was doing.

So are you. This week has been hard—awful, in fact—for most of us, and yet, you’ve carried on, you’ve tended to your obligations, you’ve possibly even tended to others as they’ve coped with shock, horror, and sorrow following the Newton shootings.

I’m not giving anything away this week. Instead, I’m asking you to share what you’ve done to keep yourself moving forward. What are your mantras, your cups of tea, your playlists for when it hurts to be human?

Promoting Domestic Tranquility

For the past twenty years, my day job has involved providing legal representation to children in cases of abuse and neglect. If you must be a lawyer, this is a terrific way to go about it. My clients are regarded as having problems rather than being problems, and it’s the court’s job to solve those problems as best it can, with limited time and resources.

I go about this work as an independent contractor to the State of Maryland, and periodically, the State competes the work to ensure the taxpayers are getting the best bargain for their money. I won the contract through the competitive procurement process, and I’m prepared to lose it the same way.

Fair is fair, and twenty years is a long time to labor in any one vineyard.

And yet, there’s a part of me that thinks, “I have learned so much in the past twenty years, I’m better at this gig than I’ve ever been before. I know the players, I know the rules, I know the rhythms and rituals. I AM the best bargain for the taxpayer’s nickel, and oh, by the way, I’m a single mom with a kid still in college and could really use the steady paycheck.”

We’ll see what the universe says to that. Meanwhile, the idea that I could have a lot more unstructured time has given me an opportunity to poke my head out of my prairie dog hole, look about me, and see my immediate environment with new eyes.

New, not very impressed eyes. I’ve been living in the same small, rural house for almost twenty five years, and I’ve shared this place with one daughter, and a herd of cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, white rats, birds, fish, and once I found a possum helping himself to the dog food in the kitchen (at 3 am, oh-what-a-night). Having horses on the same property didn’t exactly contribute to a manicured look.

House beautiful, it ain’t.

If a door to the legal profession is closing, then of course, I want to write full time, but I have to ask myself: If I’m going to be working from home, how can I make this space optimally conducive to writing wonderful stories? The house itself is a 150+ year old log cabin with addition. It has character, but needs charm. My first step in the direction of preparing for a career change was to rent a roll off dumpster.

Dead clothes, ancient romance novels, defunct CD players, hamster wheels that won’t turn (note to self: excellent metaphor there), ribbons from some horse show ten years ago, broken Christmas lights… “Kill them all, Mr. Smee!”

It feels good to purge—also a little scary—but then what? How do you make the place you live more than just a long term campsite without it becoming a time and money suck too?

To one commenter below, I’ll send an audio version of Richard Armitage reading Georgette Heyer’s “The Convenient Marriage.”


When the economy tanked, my personal finances followed suit. Winter of 2009 approached, and I was digging the spare change out of the couch cushions, Coinstar-ring the grocery runs, and rationing shampoo. Bills were paid at the last minute, if not late, and I was reminded of my dad’s philosophy for forestalling unneeded acquisition: Can I do without? Can I use something else? Can I fix what I’ve got? If yes to any of the foregoing, don’t buy it.

We’ve all been there, many of us dwell there regularly. I wasn’t quite terrified—I have family and friends—but I was, shall we say, anxious. Very anxious.

Also too broke to buy books.

Off to my keeper shelf I did go: Mary Balogh’s entire Slightly series, start to finish came first, then my wonderful Judith Ivory collection. From there I mined my very favorite Loretta Chase titles, my Julie Anne Long’s, and whatever I had on hand from Jo Bourne, Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Carolyn Jewel.

This was… bliss. A reunion of old friends, and a recollection of all the times in my life when I’ve turned to books for solace and fortification. One of my all time favorites is Loretta Chase’s “Not Quite A Lady,” which is not a big book, but it’s a book with a big heart.

“Not Quite A Lady” has a simple premise: A marquis’ daughter who managed to deliver a secret baby at age sixteen has made a career out of discouraging the attentions of appropriate men, lest any of them learn of her lapse. When Darius Carsington moves in next door, Charlotte is equally attracted to and exasperated by him, wanting very much the passion he offers, but unable to trust him to protect her confidences…

Darius is a hyper-rational natural scientist who views reproductive urges as so much biology, until Charlotte’s courage and vulnerability engender feelings he eventually admits are worthy of the label, “attached.” And once he falls, Darius becomes Charlotte’s champion in all things, even to healing the loss she endured years earlier.

The book is tender, humorous, steamy, and fast paced. I find something new to admire about it every time I read it.

And that was just one of the old friends I found on my keeper shelf. I’ve decided the word “keeper” does not refer to my maintaining ownership of favorite books. The term refers to the books that have kept me sane, coping, hoping, and functioning at times in my life when all temptation was to the contrary.

I have keeper poems, keeper songs, and keeper movies, but late at night when the moon is full and the thermostat turned way down, it’s my keeper books I’ll reach for to keep my heart warm.

What about you? What’s the book that never fails to cheer you along, to provide consolation in the tough times, and new pleasures in each reading?

To three commenters, I’ll send copies of “Not Quite A Lady,” and please recall that if you left a comment on my blog about Sarge a couple weeks ago, I’ll send you a copy of “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid,” if you’ll send me your snail mail addy.


Making a List…

Some weeks it’s hard to know what to blog about. My life is prosaic, and I value my privacy, and what, in the territory between those two realities, is worth sharing? Then I see somebody else dart forward with a simple, worthy why-didn’t-I-think-of-that idea, and I know for one week, if I’m willing to indulge in a bit of attribution, I’ve found my topic.

Author Vicky Dreiling writes a fun, warm hearted, Regency romance, and has many, many accolades to show for her efforts. She’s also one heck of a nice lady, and came out with a Facebook post this week along the lines of: Thanksgiving is coming. I’m posting one thing I’m grateful for every day this month.

Brilliant! And when wouldn’t that be a good idea?

So with a tip of the quill pen to Vicki, here’s a short list of things I’m grateful for, in no particular order:

1)      Loving family of every description, including friends and pets, also strangers who help when they see the need

2)      Health, enough health to (mostly) do for myself

3)      A life where at least for today, the necessities are tended to: Food, clothing, shelter

4)      Literacy and all that flows from it

5)      The arts—music especially, but the visual and plastic arts too

6)      A niche in the legal profession where I can be helpful to those disempowered by circumstances beyond their control

7)      The green growing things, whether we use them for food, just for pretty, or to keep us supplied with oxygen

8)      Weather. For reasons I don’t understand, I need the variability of weather and season to keep me moving forward

9)      Imagination, for when all my blessings don’t feel like enough, and I need to grasp an image of happiness that’s not yet realized

10)  You. You read my words, and that helps give my life a bit of its meaning. Last week’s posts about our pets reminded me of this emphatically. I’m grateful for you.

Your turn! To one commenter, I’ll send along a signed Advanced Reader Copy of “Lady Eve’s Indiscretion.”

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon to the Rescue

My mastiff lived far longer than his breed is supposed to, but my bull mastiff out lasted him by even yet a few more years. To keep the bullmastiff company, I betook myself to the pound, and asked for the biggest, oldest, black dog they had.

People tend not to adopt big dogs, old dogs, or black dogs, and the selection was daunting. The long term inmates included a lot of grinning Rotties, a few shepherd-cross looking beasties, and one fellow who looked kinda like a Lab-Rottie cross. Amid all the “Pick me!” and “Hey lady, over here!” commotion, that one dog lay quietly watching me was I went from cage to cage.

Sarge and Teapot

The quiet dog had dignity, and this is a virtue by my lights. I read his card—he knew some commands, didn’t bark much, and answered to the name of “Sarge.” What’s not to like?

“You,” I said. “You’re coming with me.”

Sarge and Boo Boo got along well enough, though it wasn’t long before Boo Boo followed Fuzzy up to the Cloud Pasture. This left me with a dog, when I’m not a dog person.

If I leave Sarge home in the morning, his expression is sad, a touch reproachful, and resigned. Despite how deeply I disappoint him, when I arrive home hours later, he’s ecstatic to see me. (Boyfriends, husbands, children, take note.)

While it’s nice to come home to a cheerful reception, it’s also nice to have company at the office so Sarge has become an officio member of the bar. I sit at my desk doing lawyer stuff, talking on the phone, reading my files, and yet a little bit of me is also aware that Sarge is peacefully napping a few feet away.

Of course, a dog must have regular outings. When we’re at the office, I will take him boulevardiering at mid-day, even if it’s a court day. Ours is a quaint, old-fashioned section of town. While the block is defined by streets on all four sides, alleys criss-cross behind buildings, and many carriage houses and stables line those alleys.

Sarge inspects every vacant lot on our block, sniffs every little sprig of lambs quarters growing around every telephone pole or lamp post. When we walk past the soup kitchen next door, he must make six new friends among the people waiting in line for their lunch. Without fail, if somebody sees this black mutt on end of my horse lead rope (a nice, lavender colored one), they start smiling.

We also sniff our way past the old folks’ assisted living apartments, and on the benches outside, Sarge finds more friends. He’s an equal opportunity smile-generator, happy to kiss strange old men, delighted with the attentions of the smokers we find on various stoops. Doesn’t matter who you are, if you can pat a dog, Sarge is your buddy.

He asks very little of me, this dog—some puppy chow, the occasional visit to the vet so we comply with the county’s laws about vaccines and licenses. Mostly, Sarge wants to know where I am, and to be with me.

I am not a dog person, but I am a Sarge person. He asks little, gives much, never complains, and sets a good example for me in terms of his unfailing good cheer, and his nonjudgmental view of everybody he meets. If I only say “I love you,” once in the course of my day, I could do far, far worse than to say it to this dark, handsome fellow who has become my domestic companion.

What about you? Has your path ever crossed that of a good example on four legs? To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Richard Armitage reading the Georgette Heyer classic, “A Marriage of Convenience.”

She Who Hesitates

While waiting for my mom to get ready for a trip to the grocery store, I passed the time by perusing the San Diego Union Times. I saw an article go by that described a book touting the idea that in addition to everything else our hurry-up, go-go, do-do lifestyle is costing us, it’s also tempting us into more and more stupid decisions.

I regret I cannot recall the name of the book, but it purported to be a well supported, scientific case for the idea that the best decisions are the ones made with the greatest deliberation, just short of waiting too long. This flies in the face of much that we hear:

Go with your gut.

Your first choice is usually correct.

He who hesitates is lost.

Just do it.

By contrast, the author pointed out something I think should be obvious to everybody who’s ever started doing the homework assignment before the teacher finished explaining it (only to find when they get their grade that they did it wrong): Good decisions are made based on good information. Ergo, the longer you sit with a choice, gathering data about the options, pluses and minuses and your reactions to them, the more likely you are to make a good decision for you.

My editor may be on to the same reasoning, because she has challenged me with my next book (about Sebastian and Milly, whom you haven’t met and I’m just getting to know), to up my craft. Madam Editor says to take my time, to nibble and nosh my way through this book, not set the world on fire with a land speed record.

The result so far (about ten percent done), is a process I’m enjoying very much. I made myself figure out the entire general plot before I worked on the opening scene (thank you, Kansas). I don’t start a scene until I know what makes it an “uncuttable” addition to the book. When I write the scene, I’m mindful to put that uncuttable aspect as close to the end of the scene as I can, and I’m trying to make the writing vivid, precise and wracked with tension.

This is fun. Instead of telling myself, “If I average 3000 words a day, I can finish a draft in a month,” I’m telling myself, “It’s not done until you say it’s done, so take your time, and write the heck out of it.”

We’ll see if I can sustain this approach for an entire book, and what the results are. My next step is to figure out what about impulsive decisionmaking is so attractive, and how I can slow the process down to improve its results.

Do you have any rules of thumb regarding decisions? Do you wait twenty-four hours if it involves money? Always consult your spouse if it’s kid-related? Put off until tomorrow if you can?

To one commenter below, I’ll send a signed copy of the Advanced Reader Copy for “The Bridegroom Wore Plaid,” or the Grace Burrowes book of their choice.

Justice Might Also Be Deaf

Driving around the Central Valley of California, I got an insight.

I did not want an insight, I wanted an external conflict in my next book. I’m always in need of those, always in need of practical, believable stubborn problems to visit on my protagonists, problems that will drive them apart and bring them together, both. When I come up with one, you’ll hear about it because I’ll be happily reporting progress on some book or other.

The insight that befell me has to do with why the courtroom has become an increasingly difficult place to earn my living. Part of the trouble is that my jurisdiction is laboring under the same budget difficulties as the rest of the planet, so child welfare cases aren’t coming to court until things are dire, indeed.

Much like a health care system that doesn’t emphasize prevention, the challenge of making a meaningful difference for a family in trouble gets tougher, the longer that intervention is denied them. I’ve dealt with some really crappy cases this year, one after another, and that’s hard.

Everybody else involved—the social workers, judges, opposing counsel, therapists, psychiatrists and so forth—are all stressed by the same factor, and that’s hard too.

I think what’s most difficult, though, is that the court room is a place where everybody but the judge is allowed to not listen to each other. Each party is concerned only with putting their version of the facts before the judge, each lawyer wants only to make the most convincing closing argument—myself included, on a bad day.

If we listen to one another at all, it’s to better plan our rebuttals, objections, and cross examinations. We’re not listening to understand, we’re listening for strategic advantage.

This is a chancy way to solve complicated problems. It gives the judge not varying versions of the truth to work from, but varying self-interested perversions of the truth.

In a love story, part of the character arc for the protags is to learn to hear each other, despite all the temptations and self-interest to the contrary. The result is a happily ever after, for two reasons. First, only by hearing each other can the parties work together to safeguard the child, find the missing document, or otherwise defeat their problems.

The second reason a happily ever after results is that a person who’s intent on listening for understanding is a person who has admitted to a hope—a difficult, vulnerable thing, to hope—that a mutually agreeable solution exists. Somebody who listens is mature and secure enough to set their own agenda aside for at least a few minutes, to elevate a human connection above the need to win

Those are the people who earn happily ever afters. I haven’t found too many of them in courtrooms.

If you were going to write a romance about a lawyer, what problem would you give him or her to solve on the way to their HEA? To one person who comments, I’ll send a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card.