Paring it Down To Get it Done: How Much Writing Advice Do You Need?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The other day I opened my inbox and nearly had a heart attack.

I had over 600 unread emails.

Mind you, this didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t like I hadn’t been doing my best to keep up. I answer the important emails right away, but if there’s something I want to read later, I tend to skim the post and then mark it as unread so I can find it easily in the future.

I have six email accounts. At least five of them have over 500 unread emails sitting in the inbox now. (I know, six is ridiculous, but I have accounts for pen names, fandom names, work, personal, and the LLC…)

And my inbox is full. Emails on marketing. Publishing. Unread author newsletters. Notifications of posts on favorite blogs. Craft emails. Posts about advertising as an author. Emails from lists and organizations I participate in. I have a terrible habit of signing up for workshops and online courses I never finish taking, so my inbox is also filled with posts on coursework I plan to check out someday.

Only some day never arrives. I always have something else I need to do that’s more pressing, and before I know it, when I do have a spare moment, the sight of all those unread emails makes me shudder and close out the browser. I’ve been trying to take an unf*ck your habitat approach to this problem by reviewing as much material as I can in twenty minutes, and then walking away–a method recommended when the problem before you is so daunting you don’t know where to start–but unfortunately, so much material these days comes in a video format, which makes sticking to the 20 minute rule tough.

So this weekend, I took a Marie Kondo approach instead: if it doesn’t bring me joy, the email got deleted.

If the email has been sitting unread in my inbox for over six months, it got deleted. If I haven’t opened at least one newsletter in six months, I unsubscribed from the mailing list. Same for coursework I couldn’t connect with or didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Also, I don’t need ten different courses on “how to make it big as an indie author”.

Do I worry I might be missing out on that one tiny nugget of information that will transform all my writing dreams into a reality where I can quit the day job and write FT? Of course. But how is unread, unfinished coursework any different from deleted coursework? Narrator voice: it isn’t.

What did I decide to keep?

I’m keeping my membership in the Author Transformation Alliance. This community has been a valuable resource, not only with master classes on everything from making book trailers to beating impostor syndrome to building your social media followings (and everything in between) but it has been a font of support and interconnected services as  well. Need input on graphics or a blurb? Help with formatting? Help finding an editor? The ATA is there for me. Not to mention, they do a kick-ass Writer’s Retreat each year. This year the pandemic hit just a few weeks before the conference began, and they seamlessly switched to a virtual experience that was amazing. I highly recommend joining when enrollment is open again.

I’m keeping my Author’s Planner by Audrey Hughey. I’ll be honest, I’m much more a panster than a planner, but if you want to treat your writing like a business, this is the planner for you. It’s like having a coach, an accountant, a personal assistant, an accountability partner, and a motivational speaker all at your fingertips. Well worth it.

I’m keeping my coursework with Mark Dawson and the Self Publishing Formula. Okay, I already paid for the coursework, but the videos are bite-sized and come with written transcripts. I’ve run into a few issues where the presentation assumes a greater background knowledge than I have, but by far and large, these courses have been worth the investment for me in that I’m actually completing the coursework and I can do it on my own time. It still remains to be seen as to whether his methods will work for me or not, however.

I’m keeping my copy of the 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge by Rachel Thompson. I’ve participated in BadRedhead Media‘s NaNoProMo held each May for the last two years, and it’s full of terrific tips, as well as opportunities to learn from the industry’s best and a chance to win valuable prizes from these professionals.

I’m also keeping Jami Albright’s Launch Plan. Okay, I haven’t dipped into this yet, and I’m already behind the 8-ball because I’m expecting to release a book later this summer and I should have ALREADY STARTED MARKETING IT BY NOW, but there you are. I think it will be useful in mapping out my plans for future releases, and hey! I have this handy planner to keep track of things!

I’m also keeping some of the craft-related emails/coursework I signed up to take. The rest is going in the trash bin, even if I paid money for the course work. If I haven’t taken advantage of the training offered by now, I’m not going to. It’s like keeping work-related articles I save but never read. After a few years, how relevant are they? Or all those exercise DVDs and programs you buy because you’re sure THIS one will be the magic bullet that helps you effortlessly shed those unwanted pounds.

Like any diet or exercise plan, you have to choose the one you think you can do (and won’t hurt you), and stick with it. Like the blank planner, you have to pick up a pen and start somewhere. By paring down my choices, I’m more likely to finish a program.

And I’ll start using my planner to block out a reasonable chunk of time each week to process this information. I’ll chip away at it a little at a time, while vowing not to add to the pile as it stands.

Now if I could just do the same for my TBR stack.

Nah, let’s not get carried away here…

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

 

 

Bantering Couples and Why I love Them #MFRWHooks

I am a sucker for bantering couples.

Give me the wit and flair of the interaction between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The smoking chemistry of Maddie and David in Moonlighting. The rapier-sharp exchanges between Beckett and Castle (in the early days of the show when it was still fun). Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence. Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies.

There’s nothing I love better than snappy dialog, unless you pair it with a mystery to solve as well.

Which is why I went after the slow burn (crockpot) relationship development between Bishop and Knight in the Redclaw Origins series. I knew I wanted to tell more stories about these two, and so slowed their relationship down so we could watch the progression over the arc of the series.

I’m having so much fun writing about recurring couples, that I’ve decided the next series will feature the same. But right now, I’m close to finishing the first draft on Bishop’s Gambit and am looking for a late summer/early fall release date. For now, here’s a little sampling of why I find Rhett and Peter so much fun to write. Here’s an excerpt from Bishop Takes Knight:

I could see his point. And since I had him here, I asked about something that had been on my mind since the day of the mechanical spider. “What do you think is the purpose behind these artifacts?”

He leaned back in his chair to the point he risked toppling it over backward. The front legs lifted until he settled the chair back in place with a thump. “That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, isn’t it?” His raised eyebrow implied both curiosity and concern. The combination was frankly compelling. “Where do they come from? Who or what is behind the technology? It’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked on some top-secret projects. My guess? It’s not from this planet.”

My mouth dropped open. “You mean…alien?” I sputtered.

He nodded in all seriousness.

“You seriously believe Martians or Moon Men or something like that is seeding our plant with their gizmos?” The shock of his statement having worn off, scorn now laced my voice.

His shrug was eloquent. “Maybe. I think it more likely an advanced race implanted these devices millennia ago, knowing at some point we’d develop nuclear technology, hence the activation of said devices now.”

“But why?”

He shook his head. “A test? A trap? Who knows? Maybe the awakening tech triggered some kind of signal to the developers and even now, they’re on their way to greet us.”

I wondered if we would disappoint them. It was a distinctly disturbing thought. “Is this a working theory or are you just blowing smoke?”

His devilish smile made an appearance. The way it peeped out of hiding, combined with the fall of that rebellious lock of hair over his intense eyes when he leaned forward, would have charmed the pants off most women I know.

I don’t charm that easily.

“My dear, I just tinker with the gizmos.” He leaned back in his seat once more, his clever fingers toying with his spoon as he spoke. “I’ll leave winkling out the motives of the artifact-builders to the scary people, like you and Ryker.”

I straightened. “Me? Scary? What on earth have I done to give you that impression?” Ryker, I could understand. We knew so little about the shifters, how they lived, and what they could do. The way Ryker had tossed Billy around that day in the office was a fair indication he was stronger than most men, and of course, there was the rapid healing thing as well. More than that, I didn’t know.

“Scarily competent.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Am I supposed to thank you? That makes me sound like every other woman in the workplace. Standing behind the boss and making him look good.”

His laugh caught me off guard. “No, you have it all wrong. The smart man stands behind the girl with the ray gun.”

Okay. Perhaps I could be charmed a little.

 

I’m participating in a blog hop today, so follow the link to the other blogs and check out some fun teasers!

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Bishop Takes Knight is a Prism Finalist! #MFRWHooks #MFRWAuthor

I got some amazing news this week! Bishop Takes Knight is a finalist in the prestigious Prism Awards, held by the Futuristic, Fantasy, and Paranormal Chapter of the RWA (the Romance Writers of America). You could have knocked me over with a feather when I got the email! Check out all the finalists here. Let me tell you, I’m in some pretty lofty company there! It’s an honor to be listed among such great authors and their stories.

That’s definitely been the carrot prompting me to work harder to finish the next installment of the series, Bishop’s Gambit, in time to release late summer/early fall.

Let me share a snippet of Bishop Takes Knight with you here. In it, Rhett is lunching with her old college roommate, Em. The topic of Rhett’s current state of poverty comes up:

“I’m not marrying Tommy.”

This time, a single eyebrow arched upward. “Has he asked?”

“He wasn’t serious. He was drunk at the time.”

“My dear, that’s the only time Tommy is serious. You should have accepted him.”

“As amusing as Tommy is, I’m rather off drunkards at the moment. Besides, I can’t marry someone for the sake of financial security.”

“I don’t see why not.”

Like most people who didn’t need money, Em had no real concept what it was like to live without it. I hadn’t either, before I discovered I was dead broke. I could have taken the sanctuary my mother offered, but I didn’t care for the price tag. I had a hard time believing her love of status and wealth hadn’t been a huge factor in the decisions my father had made, even as he’d kept up the pretense that everything was all right. Aloud, I said I didn’t blame her for my father’s death, but in my heart of hearts, I did.

Em continued, unconscious of her ignorance. “Women have been doing it for centuries. Not just for the money, but for power, too. Look at Cleopatra.”

“You realize that didn’t end well for her.”

“Didn’t it?” Em opened her eyes wide and then shrugged. “The point is, you shouldn’t turn your nose up at the idea. Don’t you ever want to get married?”

“Not to someone I don’t love.” I spoke with complete, uncomplicated sincerity.

“Oh, Rhett.” Em gave me her genuine smile, not the sexy little moue she usually made. “I never would have pegged you for a romantic. Love is so over rated.”

 

This post is part of the Book Hooks blog hop, so if you’d like to check out other fun excerpts in the hop–go to this link below: 

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The World’s Loneliest Cat

Hey. I know how bad things are right now. Seriously bad. We’re facing a pandemic while at the same time riots are breaking out all over the country in response to yet another killing of an unarmed black man by police during an arrest. Unemployment is at a record high, and here in the US, health insurance is tied into your job–if provided by your employers at all, that is. Our administration has taken “rising to the level of incompetence” to a whole new height that has already resulted in the death of over 100,000 citizens and possibly the death of our democracy as well. The world’s climate is changing with devastating results at an exponential rate, murder hornets have appeared in the US, monkeys attacked a lab tech in India and made off with samples of COVID-19 in their escape, and we’re expecting an onslaught of seventeen-year-locusts in our region. The last time these buggers hatched, it sounded like you were on the set of a B sci-fi movie from the 50s.

So why am I here talking about cats?

Because I need to. And maybe you need to read it. So bear with me here as I muse about the funny little cat that has taken up residence at my house.

He’s not the first, by any means. Before I met my husband, back when I first bought this property, an ugly and quite evil-tempered cat had a litter of kittens under my porch. I didn’t even realize they were there until kittens began popping out of a hole in the boards like adorable whack-a-moles. By that time, however, it was almost too late to start the trapping process. I only managed to catch one–and he is living out his senior years with a friend of mine now. The only girl kitten in the bunch got hit on the road (we’re sadly too close to a busy road for my comfort), and the young males dispersed like wild animals. Mom cat sneered at my efforts to trap her, and disappeared.

Only to return the following spring with another litter of kittens. This time, I managed to trap her, and had her spayed and vaccinated for rabies. While she was gone, I was able to catch the kittens. I found homes for all but one, and that one became one of my house cats.

 

The Evil Momma Cat tamed down after spaying (I’ve always maintained hormones are the root of all evil), though she remained largely a wild animal. She took up residence under my porch and I began feeding her to keep her out of the road. A year later, one of her sons from the previous litter showed up, and though it took me forever to catch and neuter him, I finally managed to do that as well.

Both cats remained “porch” residents, doing their best to keep the mouse population down and in general, behaving as though they lived there. I worried about them during various polar vortexes (and bought a dog house for them) and medicated them when they got injured. They were tame enough I could boost their rabies vaccines when needed and occasionally put flea stuff on them, but they weren’t pets by any means.

Over the years, other cats have shown up. All males. All like wild animals. I eventually trapped, neutered, and vaccinated them as well, and became more attached than I should. I was devastated when a cat I’d spent 6 months taming got hit by a car, and I still haven’t gotten over losing my favorite cat, the namesake in Ghost of a Chance, to the same.

I made up my mind then and there. I would not get attached to these ferals. I wouldn’t feed any new ones that showed up.

My plan worked for a while. But then I faced a big dilemma: my husband and I decided we could no longer put off the major renovations needed for the house. What would we do with the porch cats? There was no way the destruction/construction wouldn’t run them off, and by this point, the two resident ferals were getting elderly. The safest bet seemed to be building cat condos for them and housing them in one of the outbuildings until the construction was complete.

It was supposed to only take a few months. But delays to the start and heavy rains meant that instead of finishing in October, they didn’t finish until March of the following year. By then, it was clear that the Evil Momma Cat had become deaf in her advanced age and that her eldest son was developing hyperthyroidism. There was no way I could release a 15-16 year old deaf cat back outside when her “porch” as she’d known it for the last decade was gone. And with the other cat needing twice daily medication, releasing him back outside was impossible as well.

Worse, in their absence, new ferals had shown up! The first was Blackjack, who wanted so badly to be a friendly cat, despite the testosterone from his unneutered state. I fell hard for him, and decided I couldn’t release him post neuter, only to watch him get hit by a car as well. I put him in the last remaining cat condo, and made plans to build a big catio for all the captive ferals to use on a rotating basis.

BJ had been fighting with another young feral, Harlequin, who was much wilder. Once I trapped BJ and moved him inside, the remaining tom began regularly showing up for food, but was still too feral to get near. I finally caught him in a live trap, and did my usual process of keeping him in a cage post-neuter for a week before releasing him. He never warmed up during the week I had him caged, and on release, he zipped into the woods like devils were chasing him, and I didn’t see him for months.

(Someone has pointed out that the very act of naming them means I’ve given them more status and recognition than I should if I was determined not to get attached. Like naming unimportant secondary characters who don’t have a large role to play in your story. In my defense, I would like to state I have to call them something when I take them to the spay/neuter clinic to be fixed/vaccinated, and I can’t just call them Cat1 and Cat2 on their rabies certificates…)

Until he showed back up again. Only from a distance, at first. I would occasionally see other cats as well, just as wild, but Harlequin was the only one who would consistently return. He began hanging out on my new porch(a fraction of the old one’s size), only to jump off the deck and run when I approached. He was always there first thing in the morning, and when I pulled into the driveway after work. He began running up to greet me as I got out of the car, and following us when I took the dogs out for a walk around the property. 

Though scared of the big dog, he loves the little dog, and will walk side-by-side with him. He sits on the porch under the slight ledge that provides little protection in the rain or snow when he could hide out in numerous, warmer places. He comes trotting up to greet me whenever I pull up in the driveway, and he’s sitting at the door when I open it to take the dogs out. If I bring the dogs out to do their business, he comes with us and does the same. No joke, he comes with us to pee and poop when the dogs do. He hangs out just beyond the gate when I let the dogs loose into the yard to play. Once, I had to seriously discourage him from climbing the fence and joining us.

He’s there crying at the door at 6 am. He’s there when I come home from work, every time I step outside, and last thing at night before I go to bed. He’s there more often than he’s not, and it always seems as though he’s just waiting for me to show up. If he’s not there when I open the door, he comes galloping up shortly thereafter.

And that’s when it hit me. This little feral cat is lonely.

I suspect I’ve bonded with him because it’s hard not to feel affection for something that is so darned glad to see you every time you show up, even if it is only because he knows you provide food. Or maybe it’s because of the stay home order in place during the pandemic, and the animals are the only living things I see once I come home from work in the evenings. I’ve become accustomed to seeing his little face at my door every morning and night. He lets me pet him, and rubs up against me, but isn’t so tame that I could pick him up. Getting tick control on him once every three months involves sneaking up on him with a can of tuna in one hand and the product already open and ready to apply in the other.

Sometimes I sit on the porch with him–just the two of us together–and I tell him that the world’s a dangerous place and he needs to continue to stay home. He ignores me and continues to do his own thing. He is a cat, after all.

I’m torn as to what to do about him. I’m fresh out of room to take in more cats–I have no more cat condos, and am already struggling to provide good quality of life for the ones I’ve moved into captivity. He and BJ fight. The geriatric cats would fight with him too, and they’re in no shape to take him on. My own inside cat likes dogs but not other cats, and besides, my house is far too small to bring in another animal. I put out too much food to give him no reason to cross the road, but he’s a lonely cat looking for company–it’s hard to keep him “home” when I’m frequently gone.

I want to keep him safe in a world where safety is a myth. And like everything else in my life, I’m doing the best I can, in the certainty that it will likely fail.

In the meantime, I will look for his funny little face waiting to greet me whenever I open a door.

Be safe. Be well, everyone.

Does That Job Offer Come with a Pay Raise? Bishop Takes Knight #MFRWHooks

I’m so pleased to be sharing an excerpt of Bishop Takes Knight here today! This story is the first in the Redclaw Origins series. Set in the 1950s, it explores how Redclaw Security came into being. See, there have always been shifters out there: dragons, phoenixes, griffins… the stuff of legends. But after the advent of developing nuclear technology during WW2, dormant shifter genes in the general population became activated, resulting in a new wave of shifters: lions and tigers and bears, so to speak.

In this scene, Rhett has just helped take down an intruder into Redclaw’s offices, and is discussing the aftermath with her boss, Ryker. Be sure to read to the end to get the link for the blog hop and see who else is sharing book hooks today!

Excerpt:

“Sir, was it my imagination, or did this man start to…?” I wasn’t sure how to complete my sentence. Perhaps I was guilty of reading too many pulp magazines. They made a nice change from the classics, but they had a sad tendency to influence my dreams. Could they affect my waking thoughts as well?

No, I know what I saw.

Ryker didn’t make it easy for me, merely lifting his own questioning eyebrow.

“Just as he was about to attack me, his nails became claws and his face sprouted fur.” Before Ryker could call me crazy or tell me I was imaging things, I said in a quiet but firm voice, “I saw him change.”

“Ah. I was hoping you hadn’t noticed that.” With a heavy sigh, he went back to the sideboard and poured whiskey into two tumblers, returning to the desk to hand one to me.

I hesitated before accepting the glass. Given my father’s fate, more than most people, I had good reason to avoid alcohol. Yet, whiskey seemed like a better choice than tea right now, especially since tea didn’t seem to be forthcoming. When Ryker had taken his seat again, I continued, “I also noticed when you pressed the switch under Miss Climpson’s desk, you seemed confident Billy no longer posed a threat. Did you turn some kind of dampening field on him? What did he want? Was he after the mechanical spider?”

My questions caught Ryker as he took a sip and he choked. Setting the glass down, he looked at me with mild astonishment. “My word, Miss Bishop. In another century, they’d have burned you at the stake.” À propos of nothing, he added, “What do you go by? Henrietta?”

My eyes narrowed. In my experience, you couldn’t trust bosses who asked for personal information. “My friends call me Rhett,” I spoke each word with careful deliberation.

He nodded. If he sensed my wariness, he had chosen to ignore it. “Very nice, indeed. It suits you.” Something of my expression must have registered with him because he held up a hand. “Please believe me when I say I have no designs on your person. It’s just that I feel you’re wasted in a secretarial position, and I don’t want to keep ‘Miss Bishoping’ you. Unless, of course, you prefer it.”

“You may call me Bishop, if it’s easier.”

He seemed delighted by this. “Like I would Russo or the others? Except for Miss Climpson. She could never be anything other than that.” He leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. “At least to her face.”

I coughed to conceal a small laugh. No one called Miss Climpson ‘Climmy’ in her presence. In fact, I’d chosen to do so when confronting the intruder solely to alert Miss Climpson I was aware something was wrong, had she been able to hear me.

Ryker picked up his tumbler again, staring into its amber depths. “How would you like to be a field agent, Bishop?”

Bishop Take Knight is a Top Pick at The Romance Reviews and a Crowned Heart of Excellence recipient at InD’Tale Magazine and has been nominated for a RONE Award! Bishop Takes Knight was recently voted Best Paranormal/SFF Romance in the 2020 New England Reader’s Choice Awards, too. So if you like light paranormal romance and bantering couples, check it out!

Follow the link to go to other blogs participating in Book Hooks this week and check out some great reads! 

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Bishop Takes Knight is a RONE Nominee–And I Need Your Help!

I hate asking for votes.

It feels pushy, for one. It also reminds me that being relatively unknown, my chances of winning anything based on my following is slim to none. But this time is a little different.

See, Bishop Takes Knight has been nominated for a RONE award! Voting in the subgenre division for Long Paranormal Romance opens Monday, May 18th and runs through Sunday, May 24th (though I’m told not to wait until the last minute as some people have been caught by time differences). The only way Bishop Takes Knight can advance to the finals is if it receives enough reader votes! So here I am, asking for your help to get to the next round…

Here are the instructions from InD’Tale Magazine:

It is extremely important that you let all your readers and fans know!  We would hate to think a superior quality book lost only because people were unaware of the time limit. Also, make sure that they understand they MUST be registered on our website at www.indtale.com in order to vote. Once they register, if they haven’t already, they will be required to click the verification link sent to them via email. If they do not verify their registration with this link, they will be unable to vote. This is very important to help ensure that the voting is fair and maintains the high-quality standards required for this top-tier award.

Once you’re logged in, you can go to the 2020 RONE Awards in the drop-down menu at the top right corner and scroll to the category (or date) Paranormal-Long. Or go to this link directly!

So you see, your vote is crucial to getting to the next step! I hope if you’ve read and enjoyed Bishop Takes Knight, you’ll consider voting for it in the Paranormal-Long category. If you haven’t read it, but you like my works, you can still vote for it, or spread the news among your friends. Your support is deeply appreciated!

 

Find Someone Who Knows Your Value: The Panther’s Lost Princess #MFRWHooks #MFRWauthor

Most people who’ve met me know I’m a big fan of Marvel’s Peggy Carter. I love the Captain America movies, but I adore the fact Peggy is competent and kick-ass without being a superhero. She is what she is by dint of training and hard work, and a healthy appreciation of her self-worth. There’s an iconic line in the Agent Carter series where Peggy says, “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.”

I love that line. I try to embody it, but the truth is, I’ve spent more time running myself down than building myself up. I grew up in a household where the standards were impossibly high, and I could not possibly ever be pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough… in short, Good Enough. Under those circumstances, it’s frequently easier to put yourself down before others can do so. Over time, it becomes a bad habit, teaching you to settle for less than you deserve because you don’t believe you deserve better.

One of the things I love doing is creating heroines who have this potential living in them, but they need to find it for themselves. Part of that is by giving them heroes that build them up, that believe in them. Not to rescue them. But helping them to see they can rescue themselves. I also write supportive heroes because the world is a tough place. You might be able to go it alone, but it’s easier to keep fighting the good fight when you have a support team on your side.

My SO and I currently have to maintain separate households because of the pandemic. I’m an essential worker. The SO can work from home. So we made the decision for him to self-isolate with the high risk family members in their home, while I, as an essential worker exposed to the public every day, am staying on the farm to take care of the animals.

I had a REALLY crappy day at work yesterday. Exhausting, frustrating, and incredibly stressful. I came home to find a package waiting for me from the SO. He’d sent this mug:

It immediately brightened my day, but it wasn’t until this morning that the real message struck me… by sending me my favorite quote from a favorite character, he was saying he knew my value too.

Wow. Just wow.

So I recommend to you all: find someone builds you up when you’re feeling down. Who makes things easier for you, not harder. Who knows the tribe is strongest when we support all members. Who believes in you. Who knows your value.

The Panther’s Lost Princess features just such a couple. Ellie is a waitress seeking to change her future. What Jack knows about her past changes everything. On Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. Only 99 cents for a limited time!

Excerpt:

Ellie stared into her mug as though she might be able to divine her future there.

“You okay?”

She looked up sharply.

“What’s not to be okay about?” Her words had a definite snap to them. Before he could speak, she leaned across the table so she could hiss intently, “You waltz into my life, telling me that not only am I the long-lost heiress to a kingdom I’ve never heard of, but apparently I can turn into a dragon and I’m some magical musical messiah to boot. I’m supposed to just give up everything I’ve worked so hard for—hell, even my identity—and go live with people I know nothing about? Oh, yeah, and someone is trying to kill me as well. Forgive me if this is a bit too much.”

“Well, if you put it like that…” He smiled, hoping she’d see the humor in it.

She didn’t.

“Look, Ellie. I know this is a lot to take in, and believe me, I think you’re handling this really well.” Her expression registered on him and he continued hastily. “Amazingly well. Seriously. You have no idea. I wish I could have explained it better somehow. I don’t know, broke it do you more gently or something.”

Ellie leaned in over the table to speak in a low hiss. “Exactly how would you have explained that I can turn into a dragon more gently?”

Jack shrugged a little helplessly. Ellie rolled her eyes and sat back in her seat with a huff.

“Look, I’m telling you this because you need to know, but also because I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on out. If we get in a jam, I want you to shift and get yourself out of it, you hear?”

Ellie frowned. “I thought you—we—shifters had rules about changing in front of others. At least, that’s the impression you gave me. Isn’t that the whole reason you don’t want me at Nightingale?”

Jack glanced around the diner. No one seemed to be paying them any attention. “You’re right. The current atmosphere is pretty anti-shifter. If the US president goes forward with his plans to start internment camps, it would be bad for anyone to know you’re a shifter. That’s one of the reasons we don’t tend to shift in front of the general public. That’s why there are special resorts and compounds—so that shifters can change at will without fear of persecution. But if it comes down to protecting your identity or saving your life, you have to shift.”

“I don’t know how.”

He laughed at that. He couldn’t help it. “Honey, most people don’t know how to have sex the first time they try it but they figure it out. Instinct kicks in.”

Her face reddened. She didn’t meet his eye. Instead, she fiddled with the empty paper packet of sugar. “I don’t see what the rush to get me back home is. It’s been almost twenty-five years—why can’t it wait a few more weeks?”

“I think it’s a timing thing. Your birthday is next week. Your grandfather wants to bring you home and introduce you to the kingdom with a combined birthday celebration and coronation. And, uh, besides, there’s the Prince to meet.”

“Prince.” She spoke the word with the flat coldness someone else might have used to say, ‘spider’ or ‘snake.’

Jack coughed. “Um, yes. Prince.”

“As in my brother? Another family member I’ve yet to meet?” She tapped her spoon on the table in irritation.

Oh hell. “Not exactly. More like as in your betrothed.”

“My betrothed?” She didn’t shout the words, but she rose out of her seat and planted her hands on the table to lean over and snarl at him. A small puff of smoke released from her nostrils and she gasped and sat down again, her hands clasped over her nose. Her pupils widened into black holes, and her eyebrows climbed up into her hairline.

“I’m starting to think even the amulet can’t hold you back much longer. Why don’t you ditch it and accept who you are?”

The Panther’s Lost Princess is the first book in the Redclaw Security series, but each story can be read as a standalone. Check it out today!

This is a blog hop, so check out the other blogs on this list today! 

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McKenna Dean: Goat Hunter

Yes, you read that right. McKenna Dean, author of paranormal romance, is a goat hunter. Goat. Not ghost.

And not in the way you might think. I’m not out with a rifle tracking down goats to shoot them. I am stalking them, however.

With a camera.

See, earlier this year, I began walking the dogs in the evenings again. Soon it will be too hot, but we’ve had a long cool spring, and after struggling with plantar fasciitis for over a year, it was good to get back in the habit of daily walks. Our route takes us past some fields where people keep livestock, and I’ve become interested in their inhabitants, as one does.

The goats have proven to be the most entertaining. There used to be a television program in the 70’s called Hee Haw that featured country music and cone pone humor. Given endless life in syndication, it was the sort of show most people knew about, even if they hadn’t seen it. I was never a fan (my tastes leaning more toward Saturday Night Live, even as a child), I occasionally watched an episode with my grandparents. One skit comes to mind: a school teacher presents a math problem to a student (let’s call him “Abner”) concerning goats:

Teacher: Abner, you have 20 goats in a field and 2 get out. How many goats are left in the field?

Abner: Zero.

Teacher: Abner! I said you have 20 goats and 2 got out. 20 minus 2 is 18, not zero!

Abner: Ma’am, if two goats got out, they all done got out.

While I’m not a fan of wince-inducing humor, this particular kernel (get it, I made a corny pun) has a lot of truth to it. Goats get out of any field you put them in.

So on any given afternoon, I might turn the corner on my path to find goats everywhere. Tall Nubians with their floppy ears. Stubby little Pygmies and sturdy little Alpines. Goats with spots, goats with horns, goats without horns. Goats with beards, goats with blue eyes, goats with attitude.

It takes you back a bit when confronted with a herd of goats, some of them shaking their horns at you and your dogs. The lovely thing about herd animals, however, is their sense of flight distance. This is the zone you enter that will trigger the herd to collectively move away from you. If you come into slowly and quietly, without taking a threatening posture, you can pressure the herd to gradually move in the direction you wish.

So after attempting without success to locate the owners of the field and tell them their goats were getting out, whenever I’d come across the loose goats, the dogs and I would carefully approach the herd until they zipped back through the opening in the fence they were squeezing through. There was always one holdout: a big horned goat that would give us the stink eye while all his or her buddies ran back to the safety of their field.

It made for an interesting interlude in our evenings walks, that’s for sure. Then one day last week, I noticed a new addition to the field! OMG, a BABY GOAT. Yes, I know they are called kids, but c’mon, it’s like saying Baby Yoda even when you know it’s not really Yoda (or is it?)

As you can see, this is a crappy pic taken with my cell phone on zoom because it was the closest I could get with the dogs. But I decided I’d come back the next day without the dogs and with my Real Camera to take a decent pic.

That’s when the stalking began.

Because the next day, there was no baby goat to be seen. Mama was there, walking about the field, bleating in the most pathetic way, but no Baby Goat. I have to say, this upset me more than I expected. Perhaps it’s because of the pandemic that I’m so emotionally sensitive right now. I’m an empath, and the degree to which the world is hurting is hard to bear many days. I couldn’t believe how invested I’d become in these goats and how the absence of one little newborn could hurt so much. I thought it possible the goats had left the field again (though I hadn’t seen any recent evidence of that) and perhaps the baby had gotten lost. Or maybe it had just been too cold for it (we’ve had frost the past couple of nights). Or maybe the mother didn’t have enough milk. Unfortunately, because of the thicket that surrounds most of the field, I could only scan so much for the missing baby.

But I was determined to keep looking.

The next day was cold and rainy. No sign of the baby. In fact, most of the goats were huddled a distance away from the fence line. That wasn’t good. I realized the kid probably didn’t make it. Depressed, I continued my walk.

The day after that was sunny and breezy. The dogs frisked along in front of me as we approached the field. I gave the goats a passing glance, when what did I see? THE BABY GOAT! Only as before, I only had my cell phone, and the excited dogs made Mama goat lead the baby further away from the fence. Fine. I’d be back in the morning with the Real Camera.

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic is I’ve been forced to slow down. I can’t rush here and there like I used to. I have to give some thought about when and how to go to the store. I spend the evenings at home alone with the animals. Days off are spent at home as well, and I’m doing more reading, more cleaning, more baking. This forced–I don’t want to use the word inactivity because I’m not sitting around doing nothing–it’s more of quietness that has had a chance to flourish–anyway, this forced quietness has resulted in a willingness to be patient, to allow things to come to fruition in their own time.

It’s been good for my writing. After months of barely scribbling a word, I’m okay with letting the story simmer on the back burner for a bit if it needs to. When I do write, it’s with the knowledge that what I’m committing to paper isn’t forced, but has come into its growth on its own. My crit group has noticed, commenting that what I’m turning out now is more complete on the first draft and needs less polishing. I think it’s because I’m no longer spinning my wheels in an endless effort to get out of the muddy pit I’ve been mired in for so long. I know where I want to go with this story now and I’m okay with how long it takes to get there.

And this quietness has taught me patience in other areas as well.

So when last Sunday, I took my camera and went up to the field to try to capture an image of the baby goat with a high quality camera, I was able to sit on the hood of my car soaking in the sunshine and listening to the birdsong while I scanned the field, camera in hand, waiting for a baby goat sighting. I didn’t feel as though I had to be somewhere else. It was just me, the brisk morning breeze, the trilling calls of the redwing blackbirds, and the milling about of goats in the field. I never saw the baby goat that morning, but I did identify the daddy. And a handsome fellow he is, too.

I must have sat for over thirty minutes hoping to spot the baby, to no avail. And yet it did not feel at all like wasted time. Now that I knew the baby was still alive, it was just a matter of time before I photographed it. I kept looking for it on dog walks, but I also randomly drove out to the field at different times of day to see if I could get a picture. I began to get a feel for the goats’ pattern of movement now. How they hugged the far fence line in the heat of the day, where the thicket provided shade. How they slept piled around the large bale of hay in the mornings, enjoying the warm sunshine. How they’d flock to the gate when I pulled up in my car (as opposed to when I came on foot with the dogs), indicating they were used to being fed by someone in a vehicle.

Yesterday, I woke to a porch slick with frost and the occasional flake of snow coming down! In May! The afternoon was brisk and chilly, so I decided to take the dogs out while it was still sunny and reasonably pleasant. And what did I see when I reached the field? Not only the baby goat I’d been seeking, sleeping beside Mama in the sun, but MORE BABY GOATS!

Four new ones, to be exact. I don’t know why this surprised me, after all, I knew there was a billy in the group and that he’d bred at least one doe. So yeah, more kids were kind of to be expected. But I felt as though I’d won the jackpot. Because now there were FIVE baby goats to stalk, er… photograph. I finished my dog walk and returned with the Real Camera.

The goats were still pretty far away, but I got some decent pictures…

Are they not adorable or what? You can see they take after their daddy.

The mamas seemed pretty chill about who nursed whom as well. These babies seemed to belong to this doe…

But then they turned around to nurse on this one as well! Yay for the village to raise some baby goats!

And in case you’re wondering, I did get a photo of the original baby goat–now astonishingly bigger than the newborns, with just one week between them!

I don’t know why goat-watching has brought me such joy this spring. Perhaps because it’s brought me uncomplicated peace. Perhaps because emerald-green grass and sunlight fields were made for baby goats to skip across while golden melodies pour out of nearby songbirds and a breeze ruffles my hair.

This spring will forever be the spring of the 2020 pandemic. But for me, it will also be the spring of the baby goats. I hope you can find peace and joy in your lives right now. Be safe. Be well.

 

 

 

The (Almost) Lost Art of Writing Letters

Photo by Abstrakt Xxcellence Studios from Pexels

Back before the internet made sending emails so easy, I used to love getting letters in the mail. Still do, actually. I have a handful of friends who still send snail mail letters, postcards, and holiday greetings, and every time I receive a missive in this manner I’m struck again with a kind of awe. Mostly I admire the time someone took to write to me in this format. Buying stationery, envelopes, and stamps. Taking the time not only to write the letter by hand, but frequently decorate it as well with stamped images, stickers, and other things that make me smile. Walking it out to the mailbox instead of just clicking “send”.

I’m a big fan of the Jacquie Lawson animated e-cards–both in their inventive beauty and the ease of sending them to friends and family–but there is something about getting a physical, handmade card in the mail that speaks to me of a whole different level of caring because I know how much time was involved in the process. I find it interesting that the majority of my friends who are still letter-writers are also fans of pens and ink. Sharing their epistolary love is one of the ways they get to play with their fancy ink pens, and it gives them an excuse to use up (and buy more) of those cute little stickers and stamps meant for journals and scrap-booking. I understand and appreciate the hobby interests, but I appreciate even more the time involved that goes into the creation of a handwritten letter.

To me, a handwritten letter is an act of love.

I have a lovely “crafty” friend who loves making things. Her cards and packages are a thing of joy and beauty as they come decorated with images of cats, and hand cut stamps of things from her favorite sci-fi show, and embellished with drawings and other decorations. A card is never just a card. A package is often so cleverly wrapped it’s almost a shame to open it–and I frequently photograph such deliveries before I destroy the outer paper. Her handwriting is practically calligraphy (and puts mine to shame) and these letters often appear out of the blue for no particular reason except to say she was thinking about me. They never fail to cheer me up. They also always seem to arrive when I need a pick-me-up the most.

I asked her recently how she found the time to put together such fun/beautiful cards, and she said she frequently made a bunch in advance when she was playing with her craft materials, and then set them aside to fill them out and personalize them when she needed them. I love this idea! More than half the reason I don’t send hand-decorated anything is a serious lack of time. If I pull out all the craft stuff to do one project–making additional things at the same time is more efficient and increases the odds I might send something out in the future.

This past week, I received a hand-written letter from a friend for the first time. We exchange emails, and meet up on rare occasions, but living as she does in another country, she’d never written to me before. She explained that since she’d been working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt the desire to hand write letters the old-fashioned way. I found I was utterly charmed by this.

By sending me a cheerful, chatty letter, she was able to switch out inks with every sheet of paper, so that I received a veritable rainbow of colors. She also clipped the pages together with this novelty paper clip. It’s supposed to be a bunch of cherries, but as you can see, that’s open to interpretation…

I think the part that made me smile the hardest were the stickers she used at the end. I have a bunch of “encouraging” stickers myself, ones I bought from the local craft store, but nothing like these! This letter came on a day when I’d had an utterly exhausting day at work and I’d come home nearly weeping with resentment and frustration. The stickers, which I won’t post here, were about self-care and doing your best (only laced with expletives which made me LOL). Just perfect.

Which made me decide I should be writing more letters by hand as well. If I think taking the additional time to hand-write and mail a letter is an act of love, then why aren’t I spreading the love around? 

The first thing I did was dig through my stationery. I have some paper that I got from the National Wildlife Federation that I love, but not very much of it left. Sadly, it’s been so long since I’d purchased any stationery, the NWF no longer produces any.

This led to me looking online for replacement stock. I didn’t find as much as I’d hoped. Lots of cards, yes. But not as much in the paper department. That made me more determined than ever to start writing letters again though.

I had a conversation with author Amanda Weaver on Twitter yesterday that drove home the value of physical letters even more. She mentioned going through a box of keepsakes and coming across old letters from a past relationship. She spoke of the value of keeping memorabilia, and then wondered what people in relationships today would keep. It made me wonder too. For the longest time I kept a voice message from my husband, until it either got accidentally deleted or didn’t make the transition to a new phone. I decided I wanted there to be some sort of concrete piece of me out there somewhere with the people I love in case something happens to me.

That, and the fact that the United States Postal Service is in trouble. Turns out there are people in the government that want this Constitutionally-mandated service to fail so it can be turned into a for-profit business. Not only would doing so fly in the face of the Constitution, but it would force the cost of delivering the mail through the roof. Many seniors and people living in rural communities are dependent on the USPS to deliver not only the mail but to pay their bills, get prescription medications, and more. Not everyone has internet access, nor do all companies allow online bill payment. Heck, even the government sent the Census out by mail this year, and until this past year, I used to snail mail my Federal Income Tax Payments. I still mail my state and local tax payments. Who has the freaking time to go down to the Treasurer’s office and pay in person? And especially now, in the face of the ongoing pandemic, we should be able to apply for a ballot and send in our votes by mail in elections.

The nice thing about mail-in ballots? It’s harder to hack than an electronic voting machine.

If everyone in this country bought stamps to mail letters, it would be like a big GoFundMe campaign to save the USPS. So go ahead. Write that letter. You know you want to.

EDIT: Speaking of the PO, there’s a twitter thread that’s gone viral about a young, ardent letter writer and her thank you to her postal carrier. I came across it the same day I posted this blog post, and it seems appropriate to share here.

The New Normal in Pandemic Times: Are You Still Writing?

Photo by Sebastian Voortman from Pexels

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a hard time finding my balance these days.

As an essential worker, I spend most days dealing with the usual difficulties of a demanding job while at the same time, I’m in a constant state of vigilance regarding the coronavirus and whether I am doing everything possible to limit my exposure. That means wearing a mask for ten plus hours day, washing my hands after touching anything in a public space and before I touch anything else. Using my sleeves, shirttails, and elbows to open doors, turn off faucets, punch in keycodes. Wearing long sleeves specifically for this purpose, despite the fact external temperatures are beginning to soar. Disinfecting my hands to the point the skin is glassy and taut from the chemicals, and worrying about how I will manage one month, two months, three months from now if hand sanitizer and wipes are no longer available. Recognizing what a privilege it is to have access to soap and water.

Just prior to the stay-at-home orders, I’d begun watching Monk on Amazon Prime. As the pandemic spread, I went from enjoying the quirky show to being annoyed with it in rapid order, to finally accept that I had to be Monk in my daily routine now, with the exception of compulsively touching things. As a matter of fact, this pandemic broke me of a weird habit of my own: the need to place shopping carts in the correct order at grocery stores. Prior to the pandemic, I used to re-order the carts when I put my own up: putting the small carts on one side and the large on the other. It started out as the result of mild annoyance at certain shoppers who couldn’t be bothered to put the carts away properly, and morphed into a desire to make things easier for the kids who had to come out and collect the carts to bring them back into the store. But all that changed with the advent of COVID-19. Now I walk past disordered carts with scarcely a flinch. I’m not touching anything someone else has handled if I don’t have to.

This post started to be about the pros and cons of various masks I’ve tested. As someone who is a non-medical essential, I’ve tried a LOT of different masks. This morning I spent a hour taking selfies of me in various masks, and then another hour playing with filters to give myself different hair and eye colors. I can tell you that flimsy cotton fabric masks without filters probably aren’t doing you much good, but thick fabric masks with filters make it difficult to speak while wearing them because you can’t move enough air and they muffle your voice. And while N95 masks are probably the best thing to wear when you MUST go out in public (mine is one left over from when I was cleaning a mouse-infested garage last year), they suck down to your face like a facehugger from Alien, and though it doesn’t hamper speaking, within minutes of putting one on, I feel as though I’m standing outside in the middle of July in the deep South, where the air is warm and thick and hard to breathe. And this is from someone working in a temperature-controlled environment. Also, even the best fitted mask will fog your glasses at times, but a piece of tape on the top of the mask over the bridge of your nose can help with that. Like I said, originally I’d intended to write about masks, but I realized the selfies and the photoshopping are symptomatic of my pandemic brain right now. It’s easier to make bread, or watch TV, or take photographs (and play around with filters), than to do almost anything I used to do.

One thing I’m not doing much of is writing.

I know many of my fellow authors who say the same. They are finding comfort in other creative activities but not writing. Coloring in books, doing puzzles, decoupaging old bottles, felting, planting a garden. They speak of writing as something that may never come back for them, but I suspect, like me, they will circle back when the time is right. A recent conversation in an indie author Facebook forum seemed to indicate most people are falling into two distinct camps: those that are able to take advantage of the stay-at-home orders to write more and those finding it impossible to muster the energy to do the same, regardless of the demands of their day jobs. Would I be writing more if I could stay-at-home? I used to think so. Now I’m not so sure. I suspect I’d need at least two weeks to recalibrate my brain and rediscover my balance before I could sit down to write. To get used to the new normal.

It’s not just writing that is affecting me like this. I normally read 2-3 books a week. These days I DNF more books than I finish. It finally dawned on me it’s not the fault of the book itself–I’m just having a hard time concentrating that hard on anything. I’m avoiding my usual comfort reads. Contemporary romances make me want to smack the MCs when they can’t seem to overcome the slight obstacles to their love. Cozy mysteries make me snarl when the amateur detective can leave her own business for hours on end to go sleuthing and yet conveniently fails to share any information gleaned with the police. Science fiction, a lifelong love, has been thrust aside as being too potentially painful. I can watch an old TV show (one that I’m not that emotionally invested in) but I suspect if new episodes of The Mandalorian aired today, I’d have a hard time watching. I stopped watching Picard because I couldn’t bear to be hurt by my entertainment right now and I felt the risk of that show wounding me was high.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my inability to focus right now. There was a recent opinion post in the New York Times about this titled: Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving. Makes sense to me. It’s a good post. You should read it. It makes me understand that even if I could stay home, I probably wouldn’t crank out forty-one novels.

Lack of focus means hour long television shows also easier for me to commit to than a movie. I paid the hefty fee to stream the new Emma and despite the apparent delight of my fellow Jane Austen fans out there for this version, I loathed it. Seriously. I. Hated. It. Would I have enjoyed it had it not landed at the same time as the pandemic? I don’t know. Don’t ask me to explain COVID-19 anxiety. It takes different forms for different people.

 

My characters are currently languishing in the 1950s suburban neighborhood where I left them. Instead of solving the mystery they are there to investigate, they are being appallingly domestic. In fanfic, this kind of story is referred to as “curtain fic.” A story essentially about making curtains for the home, if you get my drift. It’s Hurt/Comfort without the Hurt. All Comfort, all the time. I don’t read curtain fic as a rule, and I certainly don’t write it. I’m watching in a kind of horrified fascination as my characters bake bread, wash the dog, mow the lawn, attend cocktail parties, and play tennis at the country club.

That’s not to say stories that center around these kinds of activities are without interest. English author E. F. Benson wrote a lovely series set among the upper middle class in the 1920s and 1930s. The two main ladies of the series, Lucia and Miss Mapp, battle for social prestige with a deadly intensity that is delightful to behold. Like the other members of the community, we watch with avid interest to see which of these two formidable women will get the upper-hand this time.

But that’s not the kind of story I’m supposed to be writing, more’s the pity.

Teaching myself survival skills (such as baking, or making masks, or planting a garden) gives me a constructive outlet for my fears, but at the same time, I’m starting to recognize there are some things I’ll never be good at, and I should farm them out accordingly. I’ve survived the first few weeks of sheer panic and rising anxiety: now I have to figure out what the long haul looks like. Eating my weight in carbs every day is neither healthy nor sustainable. I’m feeling the pull to make better food choices, to get outside and get moving again. I probably will plant a garden (I fully expect it to fail hilariously and catastrophically, with everything being consumed by groundhogs). I probably won’t start making my own clothes, despite the brand new sewing machine mocking me from where it still sits in its packaging.

And I will write again. I haven’t quit entirely, but my output is very low. For now, I’m letting my characters do their thing. If I have to cut out 15 K of curtain fic out of my romantic paranormal suspense story, so be it. But for now, I’m going to leave them alone.

Eventually the novelty of playing house will pall and the mystery will call Bishop and Knight back to their assigned duties. But right now, I have to let them practice self-care too.