Sometimes Less is More

Except for a few short breaks, I’ve been at the keyboard for the last 12 hours now.

I fed the animals and took the dogs out for potty breaks. I fixed a series of healthy snacks–if you count cheese and crackers, cookies, buttered toast, and apple pie as ‘healthy’. There was an intense break when I stormed around the yelling that the ziplock bag with all the chargers HAD to be in the house because I’d used the phone charger since my return from RWA (I found it under a pile of clean clothes from the trip). But starting at 8 am, I had my butt in the chair, determined to finish the edits I’d been working on for the last week. I had to get them done—I have a deadline.

I also wanted to get them done by 3 pm because that’s when the online writing course I’m taking had its next session. I haven’t been keeping up with either of the online courses I’m currently taking because, yeah, edits, but I had high hopes of  getting caught up if I just worked hard enough.

At 3:05 pm, I discovered the document I’d been working on all morning had phrases in it I thought I’d deleted the day before. That’s when it hit me: that little glitch I’d experienced the night before, when the elderly laptop suddenly closed the file I was working on? Yeah, when I recovered the file, it was an old version. I’d lost all my edits and there was no way to recover them.

Bad words were said. Tears were shed. And I came this close to chucking the whole thing. Not just the draft, but the whole shebang. The writing, the marketing, the constant push to do better, the entire demoralizing, nerve-wracking, frustrating process. I was ready to quit.

I felt as though I’d wasted the entire week, the evenings clacking away at the keyboard after work, the hours not walking the dogs, or riding the horse. The house uncleaned, the laundry undone. Heck, I still haven’t finished unpacking from our remodel and it’s been nearly six months. I could have been doing that instead of working on a book that only a handful of people will ever read. (Yeah, I was that down)

The good news is I didn’t chuck the draft, though I was sorely tempted. I had too much invested in it. I’ve been working on this story since before my mother died over a year ago. I have a cover I adore. And I like these characters a lot. They deserve to have their story told. I want to share their story with you.

So instead of participating in my online class, I went back to the keyboard and worked on restoring as much of the edits as I could remember. I worked for another five hours before deciding to stop for the evening. I tried to get as much done as I could today because working piecemeal around my day job makes everything harder. The edits went better than I’d expected, and with luck, I can get them done in the next few days.

But I learned a few things along the way.

First: I don’t really need to take any online courses right now. I’m up to my eyeballs in courses, books, articles, and videos I don’t have time to read or watch. They’re lined up on my shelves, stuffed in my inbox, and languishing on my hard drive. I’ve been shelling out money to learn more about the business of writing in all its forms, hoping against hope I’ll somehow find the magic formula that will make me an awesome writer AND bring my stories to international attention at the same time… while I think this is all important and necessary if I want this ever to be more than an expensive (exasperating, frustrating, and depressing) hobby, I also have to write the stories in the first place. So maybe the smartest thing for me to do right now is contact the class moderators and explain I need to drop out.

Second: I don’t run well on a steady diet of sugar and carbs. Seriously. I need more green things in my diet. Ditto with getting up and moving around from time to time.

Third: I was on fire to assimilate and implement the knowledge I received at RWA, but like Rome, my writing career won’t be built in a day. A lot of what I learned at RWA simply isn’t applicable to me at my current stage of my career. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever use that information, or that I won’t even begin using some of it now. But I can’t start putting up walls if I haven’t laid the foundation yet.

Fourth: I wasn’t a very nice person today. I hissed and struck like an irritable rattlesnake, blowing up over stupid things and then losing my cool when I discovered the glitch. I know I’m stressed by my work, the state of the world, and all the personal things I’ve gone through in the last couple of years, but the writing is supposed to be the fun part. The part that brings joy into my life I can then share with others.

I don’t want to be this person. The person snarling and snapping at everyone around them because I don’t have enough time or energy to do the things I think need to be done.

Fifth: I have to let some things go. I can’t do everything I want or need to do in a given 24 hours. I need to re-evaluate and prioritize, making way for the stuff I really want to do. Do a Marie Kondo on my life, but the mental and emotional aspects of it. If it doesn’t bring me joy, let it go.

So I will drop out of the coursework. I’ve got enough material to keep me occupied for a very long time, so no more new stuff until I’ve made a dent in what I already have. I’ll finish the edits. I’ll go back to doing self-care stuff—meditation, listening to music, taking the dogs for long walks in the woods (okay, when it’s cooler…). I will spend LESS TIME ON SOCIAL MEDIA. I will go back to the heart of why I do this: the writing itself.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll discover my better self again. The one who is kind, compassionate, and fun to be around. Not just the person my dogs think I am, but the one they deserve. Let’s hope so, at any rate.

Why Editors are like Riding Instructors

Recently, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, I wound up with a story with an incomplete edit. Anyone in the writing business knows how hard it is to find a good editor at the best of times. When you’re in the middle of fording the river, it’s a terrible time to switch horses. But it couldn’t be helped.

I tried to explain the difficulties to a friend of mine. “It’s like trying to find a new hairdresser right before a major event. You don’t know if you’ll get a genius or a disaster.”

I could see I hadn’t convinced her. And then it came to me. The perfect analogy. “It’s like finding another riding instructor.”

As a horsewoman herself, she instantly got it.

I’ve written in the past about the similarities to writing and riding horses, so it should come as no surprise I find editing and riding instruction comparable activities, too. There is a lot of commonality between the two roles.

A good riding instructor assesses your skill level and does her best to make sure you understand the basics of horsemanship before putting you in a situation where you might get hurt. (What you do on your own time without her knowledge is on you) Good riding instructors are skilled at reading their students. They are firm because making mistakes could kill you. They know when someone needs encouragement and praise. They are quick to dole out correction when someone makes a bone-headed move. They know when to push a student to the next level and when to stop someone before they jeopardize themselves and the horses they ride. The best instructors can do this without demoralizing or belittling their students, all while pointing out bad habits and little errors that will keep you from winning in the show ring. They also realistically assess your level of talent, dedication, and the ability of your mount, and try not to over-face you. The goal is to keep you safe, and make you and your horse the best possible team you can be.

Likewise, a good editor will pick up on those habitual phrases you use and correct your SPAG. They’ll praise your writing’s strengths and point out its weaknesses. They’ll drill the basics into until you can perform them in your sleep—until you automatically correct your own draft before sending it in to them for editing. And if you’re not ready for “competition”, they’ll tell you. They’ll also tell you when it’s time to move up in the ranks and push yourself harder. The goal is to help you make your story the best possible story it can be.

The relationship between a writer and editor, or student and riding instructor, is a special one. The person giving the expert advice is in a position of power. A thoughtless or overly harsh criticism can to do great harm. What works for one paired team might not work for another. Sometimes the only thing that keeps a person plugging away after crushing criticism is a deep abiding love for the thing they desire: be it riding horses or writing stories.

I’ve had riding instructors tell me I had no business being on a horse—and for a while, I believed them. I’ve ridden with an Olympic coach—and had him consider me and my backyard nag beneath his notice. I’ve also successfully competed with my slaughter-house mount and won reserve champion with the highest test score of the event. It took me many years and many instructors to find the right one for me. It wasn’t easy. Just because you find the right person doesn’t mean that relationship is all rainbows and flowers, either. There are times when I get deeply frustrated with my instructor, but you know what? Most of the time she’s right.

There are a lot of reasons why you might need a new editor. Maybe you’ve outgrown the one you started with, or their life circumstances have changed and they can no longer work with you. Maybe you tried someone’s services and recognize they aren’t a good fit for you. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are to train a horse. Trust your instincts and do what is best for you. Find the person whose advice resonates for you. If you disagree, ask yourself why? Are you resisting sound advice because it’s hard taking your writing to the next level or because that advice is wrong for you and your story?

Because in the end, it’s just you and that half-ton beast galloping down to that double oxer. The instructor might have given you the tools to get to the obstacle, but you’re the one jumping it.

Surviving the Daily News: Comfort Reads

At this year’s Romance Writer’s Association conference, keynote speaker Jennifer L. Armentrout made a powerful statement regarding our work as storytellers with an emphasis on happy endings: “Your stories save lives.”

On the surface, that may seem to some like a bit of an exaggeration, but I don’t think so. I can look back at cycles in my life where things were so bad, where every day was a struggle to get out of bed and go to work, where I found little joy in the things I cared about most, and I needed help to get through my day–again and again I can point to certain books that got me through those dark times. I tend to plunge into a series during these times, devouring at least a book a day. The story must engage and MUST end well. Surprisingly, mysteries often fit this bill, as long as they aren’t too grim or realistic. Mysteries that come to a satisfying conclusion can be just as good as romances for pulling me out of a dark news cycle or a life full of stress. The most important thing is that this form of entertainment not stress me further. That’s why romances reliably deliver the HEA I need when the world is a dumpster fire.

When things are really bad, I reach even farther back. I pull out the books of my youth: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, or The Blue Castle. I dig out the horse (or dog) books I read as a child: Summer Pony by Jean Slaughter Doty, or the Black Stallion by Walter Farley, or Silver Chief: Dog of the North by Jack O’Brien.

Most of the time, I’m looking to recapture that joy experienced when I first read these books–the total immersion into another world. I can look to how many times I’ve re-read the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters and recall the happiness it brings me instead of the circumstances which made me read it again.

So when I woke to another news cycle of horror, of people spouting useless platitudes instead of taking definitive action to end a cycle of unspeakable violence in our country, like many people, I furiously made my opinion known. I lent my voice to others saying ENOUGH. I magnified the voices of others calling for change. I wasn’t the only one.

But as the day went on, I noticed other voices quietly begging for recommendations for comfort reads and shows to watch to shut off the anxiety and depression these news cycles bring. I saw fellow authors express guilt for announcing new releases or cover art and heard other creators beg the collective community to keep celebrating their works. It’s not wrong to want relief from horrific world events, especially when we’re all more connected than ever, especially when it feels as though we’re hurtling toward a battlefield from which we can’t turn back.

We have a long battle in front of us. That doesn’t mean we can’t stop and rest along the way. That we shouldn’t eat or sleep until we win the war. That path leads to madness and a level of grief and depression we can’t overcome. It’s okay to curl up with a book and shut out the world for a while. To turn off social media and watch four or five episodes of Due South. To remember what it was like to immerse yourself in the Secret Garden or journey to Narnia.

It’s also okay for us as creators to keep creating. More than okay–it’s vital. Not only to our own mental health but to anyone who reads our story (or hangs our paintings, listens to our music, watches our films) and finds a measure of peace there.

So if you as an artist are feeling despair right now, remember, someone needs your work. And if you feel guilty for promoting your latest work, it’s okay to take pleasure in something positive we’ve created. There’s a lot of negative energy in this world. It’s not only okay to put back some pleasure, it’s part of the battle.

So tell me, what are your comfort reads/comfort watches? I want to know.

What I learned from my first RWA Conference

Last week I attended the Romance Writers Association Conference for the first time. It was very much out of my comfort zone on many levels, and yet I learned so very much. I’m enriched for the experience and I have so much to process and assimilate now!

Obviously I can’t begin to list all the things I learned. I wish I could–it would go a long way to helping me retain and utilize all the wonderful tips and advice I received. And maybe if I get my act together, I can do some blog posts on some of the workshops I attended–though truth be told, by the end of the second day, my poor little brain was on information-overload. I’m not sure I could do justice to the seminars I attended.

So this is more of a bullet-points post about the things I experienced and what I got out of it:

  • You don’t need as many clothes as you think you do. Pack a set of clothes for each day of the conference, something for the parties, and a couple of T-shirts if you decide to be a tourist.
  • SAVE SPACE IN YOUR LUGGAGE FOR BOOKS. You will be given a crap-ton of books, and the last thing you want to do is leave them behind for lack of space!
  • COMFORTABLE SHOES ARE MANDATORY. Yes, bring something pretty for party-wear, but try to plan your outfits so one pair of heels works for all the dressy events–back to saving space in your luggage!
  • The hotel elevators often suck–so build in time to get from one session to the next. However, don’t hate on the slow transportation too much–some of my best meetings occurred on escalators and in elevators!
  • Wear your FIRST TIMER ribbon. This opens the door for people to talk to you and ask you about your con experience. I saw this advice posted on Twitter and I’m so glad I did! Everyone was really nice. 🙂
  • The Goody Room is awesome! Clever, inventive swag, free stuff–including books! Paper swag, such as bookmarks and cards, are easy to make and easy to pick up–but it’s also the easiest for someone to discard, too. I got some great ideas about things to try out next, though, including nail polish and hand-held fans! With my own swag, hardly anyone took any buttons, but ALL of my books went, as well as all of my pens. I noticed a lot of other people with pens who had no takers–but mine were really decent pens, if I do say so myself. I doubt anyone will be tossing those away!
  • Carry business cards with you at all times–it goes without saying, right? But I got a fantastic tip from Aimee Easterling (one of the speakers I met at the keynote breakfast): jot down notes on the back of the card to help you remember the conversation you had with the person or the context in which you met–terrific idea!
  • They don’t feed you at the RITA awards ceremony. I made the mistake of assuming they did, and my husband and I ended up chowing down on hard lemon candies and then bolting to the bar when it was over to grab something to eat. We were starving!
  • Most events are cash bars only. Which is puzzling to me–they can’t use a Square? But yeah, carry cash to most of your after-hours events if you want drinks. This includes non-alcoholic beverages as well–including *water* at the RITAs.

Some other useful tidbits I discovered:

  • Harlequin throws a pretty awesome party. Massages, manicures, appetizers, temporary tattoos, a prize wheel, and an open bar–all at their party to launch their new ReadBliss website.
  • The Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Romance Writers (a chapter of RWA) throw a pretty wicked party too. We were encouraged to come in costume, and everyone had a blast. I even danced–something I don’t normally do. If you write in these genres, I highly recommend you join this chapter.
  • Being up for an award is terrific–but winning isn’t everything. I had some fantastic, interesting, and enlightening conversations hanging out with the hosts after my awards event, and it was utterly delightful. I highly recommend submitting your next romance story to the Greater Detroit Romance Writers Association Booksellers Best Award
  • I learned this from watching my husband (who didn’t have a horse in this race) chat with people: Be a conversation starter by asking questions of fellow attendees. Let other people talk about their books. Ask about their convention experience and what sessions they’ve found the most useful so far. Don’t just “wait your turn” so you can jump in with your own information.

If you’re like me and from a small town (population 15,000) then 48 hours in NYC can leave you in a meltdown from sensory overload. By the evening of the second day, I was certain I was doing everything about writing and marketing wrong, and I wanted nothing more than to hide out in my room with a pint of ice cream. Most of us writers are introverts–yet at the same time, we seldom have a set of people to talk craft with–so there’s a push-me pull-you about socializing, attending meetings, and needing time to recharge. If you find yourself getting weepy and depressed, chances are you need a break from the activities. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to take it! You’ll get more out of the rest of the conference if you do!

The speeches were amazing. I don’t just mean the acceptance speeches–a high proportion of those were given by writers rendered speechless by their unexpected wins–but some came eloquently prepared. No, I mean the emcee, Sarah MacLean, and the various presenters, the nod to trailblazers in the industry, and keynote speech by Jennifer L. Armentrout, who reminded us that “I’m here to tell you, 100%, you have saved someone’s life. And for all of you…who are publishing soon–you are going to save someone’s life.” and with that profound reminder, this: “Romance books save lives. Maybe it’s not changing the world but it’s changing the individual who can then change the world. Which is why it’s so important for romance to mirror the reader.”

Along those lines, I was privileged to see history in the making. Up until this year, despite the fact the RWA was co-founded by a black woman, no black author has ever won a RITA award. This year’s RITA award winners included two black authors, as well as a South-Asian author. Kennedy Ryan won Best Long Contemporary with Long Shot. M. Malone won the Romance Novella category with Bad Blood, and My So-called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma won the YA Romance division. I don’t single out these winners to diminish the other winners of this year’s awards by any means. I mention them because, as Courtney Milan noted on Twitter today, they were brilliant enough to get over a bar set higher for them.

It was also an utter delight to watch J.R. Ward receive a RITA for Best Paranormal Romance with Dearest Ivie, in part because she looked amazing, but also because she herself seemed utterly astonished and delighted to have won. And I cheered when I heard them announce Susannah Nix‘s name for Best Mid-Length Contemporary Romance with Advanced Physical Chemistry–I love her science-based books! As well as Elia Winters for Three-Way Split in the Erotic Romance category–I only began following her a few days before the conference, so how cool is that?

You know what else I love? I love the fact so many of these authors were self-published. It gives me hope that one day I might be sitting in that audience as a finalist, and not just an enthusiastic guest.

So to sum it up: the RWA conference was an amazing experience that I feel lucky to have been able to attend. I have a lot of information to absorb, process, and act upon, and I hope that I’ll be able to go again in the future. Next time, I won’t be so green, and hopefully I’ll pace myself a bit better too!

 

 

Finalist in the 2019 Booksellers Best Awards: Ghost of a Chance

Last week, I came in from walking the dogs to find my husband making dinner.

“Oh, someone called while you were out.” He indicated my phone lying on the counter, where I’d left it charging.

I checked the number. Not one I recognized. I’d been getting a lot of automated calls lately, so even had I been in the house, I wouldn’t have answered it. “Huh,” I said, picking up the phone to activate the voice mail. “It’s probably one of those Chinese spam callers again.”

But I was wrong. When I listened to my message, it was from one of the organizers of the Booksellers Best Awards, calling to tell me that Ghost of a Chance was a finalist in the best paranormal romance category.

My initial reaction was one of disbelief, so much so when I was asked if I was planning to attend the RWA National Convention, where the awards were being held, I said no. I mean, I wasn’t. Attending hadn’t even been on my radar beyond some wishful thinking. So I stammered my way through the conversation, still somewhat stunned. I was so certain someone would call back to inform me there’d been a mistake that I didn’t announce it on social media right away. I did tell the members of my crit group, who immediately read me the riot act for not planning to attend.

I still didn’t quite believe it was all real. I told a few people here and there, and the opinion was universally the same. I had to go to the RWA convention.

I had to jump through some hoops to arrange things, but yes, I’m going to RWA in July. I’m beside myself with nerves and excitement, so instead of focusing on the awards themselves, I have a new thing to worry about: what the heck do I wear?

I rarely travel. I spend most of my time in jeans, T-shirts, and barn boots. I don’t really own anything “business casual” or something fancy for the special night out. I’ve been poking around the internet trying to come up with photographs and videos of previous conventions to get an idea both of day wear and evening wear and the general consensus seems a bit all over the map. So, just for fun, I invite you to drop a comment here either with a link or your advice as to what I should pack with me. I have a feeling I’m going to have some shopping to do!

I came across this fabulous speech given by Suzanne Brockmann last year on receiving the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s well worth watching again. I’ll drop a warning here for language–I know it bothers some people–but honestly, that’s part of her point here. Two seconds into it, I forgot I was supposed to be watching for some clothing ideas.

To make this interesting, I’ll pick someone at random from the comments and send you a signed print copy of Ghost of a Chance–or if you already have it, a chance to win my new story coming out in July, Bishop Takes Knight.

Contest open until June 1, 2019!

Betty Crocker: The Dear Abby of Cooking

Just this past weekend, I typed the words “The End” on the first draft of my paranormal romance novel set in 1955.

Writing a story set in a different time period comes with a special set of problems, not the least of which is the research necessary to get things right. Frequently I’d have to mark text with the intention of looking up a phrase or piece of technology to confirm its use in the 1950s. Sometimes I’d wind up down the rabbit hole of research, discovering interesting tidbits that had no bearing on the story but fascinated me anyway.

For me, setting a story in another time period is more than just learning the slang or studying the clothing, however, both of which I did. It’s about attempting to understand the mindset of the people of that time, what their hopes, dreams, and fears might be. What makes them tick. That’s one of the greatest appeals of writing historicals for me. 

I tend to do a lot of background reading as a result, even if the material never ends up in the story itself. It’s there in the structure of the story, how the characters act and think. To me it’s as important as costume design or a soundtrack is to a movie. It sets the stage for the characters and for the reader to enter their world.

In addition to the Internet, I rely a lot on books about the various periods I’m interested in, hence the photograph above. One of my late purchases arose out of my research (and I’m still trying to justify it to myself): Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.

Did you know there was never any such person as Betty Crocker? She was the brainchild of an advertising firm hired by a flour-milling company that eventually became General Mills. She was created as part of a 1921 ad campaign to solve a puzzle and win a pin in the shape of a bag of Gold Medal Flour. The response to the contest was unexpected–in addition to the 30,000 women who solved the puzzles, the company was flooded with letters asking baking questions. Betty Crocker was created to answer those questions and by 1950 was an amalgamation of the forty-eight women who worked for the Home Service Department of General Mills, the largest  customer-service department in the industry, fielding up to 2,000 letters a day to help homemakers solve a wide variety of cooking and baking problems.

The first Betty Crocker cookbook was published in 1950, became a runaway bestseller, and has been a favorite ever since. When I opened my copy, I recognized both in the layout and the nature of the recipes within all those old timey comfort meals I’d grown up with copied from those “Church Lady cookbooks” that every major church I’ve ever been associated with has published at one time or another. The recipes I associate with my grandmother and the holidays. Truth be told, that was the real reason I bought this copy of the original Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with all the salt, sugar, and fat of the old recipes. On her death, I discovered that my mother had given away all the treasured church lady cookbooks, and many of those recipes were lost to me as a result. Now I have them again. And with them, a little piece of my past.

By the 1950s, Betty Crocker was a callback to the past, a font of maternal advice that was missing in the lives of many post-war young women widowed or settling down with former soldiers to build families in communities such as Levittown.

Isolated in suburbia from the generational women who would have taught them the ins and outs of the homemaking, modern brides were leaving behind their mother’s old-fashioned ways and complicated recipes–and prepackaged mixes were replacing traditional baking. It only made sense for General Mills to produce a cookbook using General Mills ingredients and Betty Crocker as their substitute mother.

Another brilliant marketing move by the company was to remove powdered eggs from the mixes, instead having the homemaker provide her own eggs, which allowed the baker to feel as though she were ‘making the cake from scratch’ by contributing to the creative process. I confess, when I make brownies or cakes from a mix, I consider them “homebaked” desserts, and pat myself on the back as though I’d grown the wheat and ground the flour myself. Such is the rarity of my having the time to cook for my family these days. And that’s what Betty Crocker allows us to do.

That iconic red spoon and that readily identifiable signature was part of the brand that helped homemakers recognize the advice they trusted. The irony here is that my fictional heroine might be an even worse cook than I am–so she would definitely need this cookbook. Ah well, maybe in the next installment of the series.

 

The Power of Re-inventing Self

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a new set of characters. My heroine has been through some tough times and has come out the other side not liking herself very much and looking to rewrite her story from this point out. I’ve started a notebook just for these characters and this new series, but it’s still mostly blank. I’m in the homestretch of a WIP with a June-July deadline and I can’t allow myself to get distracted by the new-shiny right now. But her story seems more interesting to me than the one I’m working on and it wasn’t until this morning that I realized why.

I’m in the same process myself.

Yesterday, I did something highly unusual for me. I went shopping.

I dislike shopping in general. I tend to get sensory overload fairly easily, so an hour in a large shopping mall has me screaming for the exits. I also resent the time-sink. I have so little free time on a given day that to waste hours in a department store is just mind-boggling to me. I’d much rather shop online, which can be done at my convenience. The biggest downside to online shopping is returning something that doesn’t fit, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay so that I can pick out a pair of boots at midnight. Truth be told, I don’t do much shopping no matter what. I tend to make do with utilitarian clothing that suits my lifestyle.

Only I’m not so sure what that lifestyle is anymore.

For years, my life has been dominated by my work–both professionally and at home on the farm. I’m most comfortable in boots and jeans. I wear a lot of graphic T’s. I have jewelry, makeup, and dresses I rarely wear. I don’t really need to shop.

But like the first shoots of green breaking through the ground in spring, I find myself after several years of heartache contemplating change. I’m also realizing that colors and styles that worked for a young brunette with long hair no longer work as well for an older woman with a blonde pixie cut.

And yesterday, instead of coming home from work and starting in on the endless list of chores to do around the house, I remembered I have This Thing at the end of the month and decided to go shopping instead.

I didn’t have any expectations of finding anything I liked. To be honest, the mustard and olive green colors that seem to be in fashion this year don’t do a thing for me. Part of the reason I’ve always disliked shopping was because my Inner Critic has always been so mean on these outings. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. No sense of style.

Well, the last one is a fair assessment. I don’t have a good sense of style. I’ve always chosen value over fashion, which means sturdy materials, doesn’t show the dirt, and can be worn at the barn without changing clothes first. A quick view of my closet looks as though I shop at yard sales. I’ve thought about trying one of those box set things where someone sends you a ready-made outfit, including accessories, each month. Kind of like meal plans, but for clothes. Given the lack of success I’ve had with the meal plan kits, however, I decided the clothing kits would be wasted on me.

But yesterday, not having any expectations going into it, I didn’t restrict myself when it came to trying on things. I tried on outfits I wouldn’t normally consider and found myself buying something that unexpectedly pleased me. I also bought clothing because it was comfortable and looked nice, not caring or stressing about the size on the label, which is pretty remarkable, considering a couple of hours in front of a full-length mirror usually reduces me to tears. Even more remarkable is that I’m significantly heavier and older than that young, critical version of my self used to be, and that alone should have been enough to make me despise the process. It didn’t. This new me didn’t give a rat’s ass. Remaking myself held more power than destroying myself, it would seem.

I also bought new makeup, refreshing my color palette and replacing products that should have been tossed years ago. I topped off the shopping trip with a stop by the ice cream parlor, walking out the door with a cone. To my surprise, I’d spent hours at the mall and didn’t begrudge a single minute of it. In fact, I came home in a good mood, better than it’s been in a long while at the end of a work week. Finally, I understand the phrase ‘retail therapy.’

This morning I spent an hour or so going through my closet and pulling out everything I knew I’d no longer wear, no matter how much I’d liked it when I bought it *cough* twenty -some-odd years ago. Or worse, the clothing mistakes: items with tags still in place that never quite made it off the hanger. Off with the old. Bring on the new.

It took me time to reach this point. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “I love shopping!” and want to be a fashion plate after years of being a tomboy. I’m not convinced I do love shopping or that I’ll wear my new clothing more than once or twice a year, only that I had a lovely afternoon focusing on doing exactly what I wanted without having to answer to anyone else. I suspect it could have been any activity that I chose solely for myself.

But the fact it was part of a re-imaging of myself was a scoop of ice cream on a hot spring day. No regrets.

Sharing Traits with Your Characters

Most writers are familiar with the saying, “Everything is grist for the mill.”

Our life experiences, especially those that brought us pain or had to be overcome, have a way of ending up in our stories. Perhaps not in the same form, but transmogrified to convey the same elements within the structure of our stories: the way it feels to sit beside a family member in the hospital, or to know your nemesis is waiting to beat you up after school. It’s there when we imbue our characters with the knowledge of what it feels like to be other, and when we give them the joy of knowing home and family aren’t necessarily the standard experiences.

Sometimes we base our characters themselves on people we know. Not directly, and certainly never such that the people in our lives could recognize themselves. It may be a prototype: a frenemy from your past, an encouraging mentor, a domineering parent, a supportive lover. What prevents these depictions from being two-dimensional characterizations are the little quirks we give them. On any given day, we human beings are a complex mix of conflicting emotions, drives, and desires. It’s what makes us interesting as people, and it’s what gives life to our fictional characters.

I’m not a girly-girl. I live on a farm with dogs, cats, and horses. My footwear tends toward hiking boots, usually covered in mud. I live in blue jeans and graphic T-shirts. I rarely wear any jewelry, makeup, or perfume.

But I love these things.

I have a major weakness for nail polish. Growing up, nail polish was one of my main identifiers of my not so readily apparent feminine state. Blessed with the ability to grow thick, strong hair and nails, I took these things for granted. My nails rarely chipped or broke. Hair clips frequently trembled and sprang open under the weight of my hair. People stopped me on the street and asked if my nails were real and what I did to make them grow so long and strong, and hair stylists joked about how I should stop putting Miracle-Gro on my hair.

Once, when I was opening a can of soda with my nails, someone asked me if anything ever broke them. I smirked and replied, “Kryptonite.”

When I was in theater, I had the best of both worlds–the ability to be my tomboy self 90% of the time and yet indulge in my desire to go all-out in costume, complete with makeup, hair, and nails. When we had our full dress rehearsals, the act of putting on the outfit, whether it was a period piece or something modern, transformed me into that character. Putting together all the outward trappings of my character was like slipping into a suit of power and I became the person I was portraying. It was a very heady feeling.

Recently, I’ve discovered the joys of having my nails professionally done. I tend to be a bit on the conventional side when it comes to polish. I like strong colors, and I adore temperature sensitive polish like the one depicted in the picture above. But I don’t have the patience for nail art. Durability is the key for me now, and while getting manicures is a pure indulgence, it’s one of the few things I do indulge in. With the advent of SNS powder, a manicure can last me 3-4 weeks now, a far cry over something that needs to be touched up every few days.

So it doesn’t surprise me that I gave this love of nail polish, makeup and vintage clothing to one of my characters. Another loves horses and rode competitively as a teenager. Still another has a secret girly side at war with her no-nonsense professional image for work. Another is a sci-fi fan, while yet another can sing along with every Disney Princess.

But while these traits come from me, those characters aren’t me. They’re weaker in some respects, stronger in others. They have a different story arc. Sometimes they’re more selfish, frequently they are braver. They react when I probably wouldn’t, and I’m pretty sure I can’t turn into a panther or a dragon (though I’d dearly love to!) So while I put a little of myself into every character I write, when you see one of my characters, you’re not seeing me. Just a sliver.

But the next time you read one of my stories and I’m describing nail polish, you’ll smile and know where that came from.

 

Pets in My Stories: The Joy and Heartbreak

Trigger warning for the loss of a pet

I’m in the homestretch of the current WIP, and I couldn’t resist adding a dog in the story.

Not just any dog, but this one. This ridiculously cute terrier who is a cuddlebug and the sweetest little guy you could ever hope to meet–unless confronted by vermin, in which case he’ll turn into a ferocious killer in the blink of an eye.

The dichotomy of his behavior is intriguing–and just a little amusing–to me. And since it suited the nature of the story, Captain makes an appearance in the upcoming Bishop Takes Knight, and if he has any say so in the matter, will be a series regular. I can’t wait to share him with you!

You’re going to find dogs, cats, and horses in most of my stories. Not just because my stories are set in shifter universes, but because animals are a big part of my life and I want to include them in my storytelling.

At the same time, I tend to get nervous when I read about animals in other stories or see them in movies. Killing the pet seems to be a common way of ratcheting up tension or creating emotional impact. Let me say up front that this is something that I don’t do as a general rule. I won’t say never because I believe in writing the story that needs to be told. But since so many times I’ve stopped reading a book or series because of the casual extermination of a pet for the purposes of creating angst, I’m extremely unlikely to do that myself. As a matter of fact, if an animal appears in a story, I frequently read ahead to make sure it doesn’t die or else I get someone else to read the book for me first.

There’s a website called DoesTheDogDie.com, which describes itself as crowd-sourced emotional spoilers for movies, TV, books, and more. It has icons which indicate what stories include pet death, which ones end happily, and which ones seem to indicate the pet dies, but in the end, doesn’t. I routinely check this site out for movies, but haven’t spent as much time on it for books. I’m definitely going to do that more in the future.

But one of the things I hadn’t counted on when giving my pets roles in my stories is how sometimes it hurts when you lose the namesake–not in the book, but in real life.

Recently, I released Ghost of a Chance, in which the eponymous Ghost is a stray German Shepherd taken in by my heroine after her previous owner dies. The German Shepherd in the story was based on my very first dog, Abby, who’s been gone more years now than she was alive. I gave the dog in my story her personality, her courage. Having lost her so long ago, it was easy to give my fictional dog Abby’s traits and smile while doing so. But I chose the name from a little feral cat I’d started feeding and eventually trapped, neutered, and tamed.

He was still a wild animal, but he’d come running whenever I left the house with the dogs, and join us on our rambles around the property. He’d let me pet him, as long as I didn’t try to pick him up. Making him a house cat wasn’t an option. He wasn’t that tame.

Ghost rapidly became a favorite of mine, despite knowing how risky it is to give your love to a feral cat. Sadly, six months after I published Ghost of a Chance, my favorite wild cat was hit by a car. I knew he’d been crossing the road at night sometimes. I did everything I could to encourage him to hang around and not leave the property. I blamed myself for the disruption to the general environment with the heavy construction we’d undertaken, that probably threatened him enough to make him wander. In short, I was devastated.

For many weeks afterward, I found it hard to look at the book I’d so joyfully written. I couldn’t think about it without remembering the shy little cat I’d loved and lost.

It wasn’t until I re-read another story in which I’d included a cameo from another pet now deceased that I was able to see this with new eyes. I’d written a little fluffy piece of fanfic and included my dog, Sampson, for the fun of it. I lost Sampson two years ago to cancer, but in my story, he was alive, tongue lolling, tail wagging, eyes alight with mischief, ready to go for a walk (or to chase a bear up the side of a mountain). 

When I wrote that story, I had no idea I’d be losing him so soon. I also didn’t give much thought to how I might feel years later, coming across that story again. When I began reading, that same emotional wrench of loss was there–but as I read on, I became fiercely glad I’d included him.

It was no different from taking a photo or video that I could look back on with a teary smile, remembering the joy he brought me. I’d captured his essence, and it would always be with me.

As Abby the dog and Ghost the cat live in Ghost of a Chance. As Captain will live in Bishop Takes Knight.

Being immortalized in that manner isn’t such a bad thing after all.

 

Wicked Wager Book Tour and Giveaway with Beverly Oakely

Wicked Wager
By Beverley Oakley

♥♥ GiveAway ♥♥ 
Beverley is giving away a signed print copy of The Duchess and the Highwayman during the tour. Please use the Rafflecopter below to enter. Remember there is a chance to enter everyday so be sure to follow the Blog Tour. You may find the tour schedule and locations here https://goo.gl/XTRwwr

About Wicked Wager:

Can innocence survive the machinations of a malevolent society beauty and a charismatic rake?

Two weeks before her nuptials to her cold, harsh cousin, virtuous Celeste Rosington finds herself in the arms of notorious libertine, Lord Peregrine.


The unexpected encounter is, at first, shocking, but as Peregrine’s charm weaves its magic, becomes a welcome distraction from Celeste’s troubles. Isn’t she already the subject of whispers due to her involvement in the mysterious disappearance of a wealthy plantation magnate? It was a role orchestrated by her demanding husband-to-be in which Celeste had failed spectacularly.


Nevertheless, Celeste has no intention of sacrificing all of her scruples for a man she knows is only toying with her. One kiss from handsome, charismatic Viscount Peregrine will surely be enough to give her the strength to fulfil her marital obligations?


But what if one kiss is not enough?


With her reputation in the balance, Celeste must navigate the treacherous waters of envy, intrigue and deadly secrets, unaware she’s the unwitting pawn in a wicked wager between a ruthless society beauty and delicious, dissolute Lord Peregrine.


Could Peregrine really be a party to such perfidious plans? Will his reckless charm be the final undoing of a young woman once respected for her virtue and piety?


Or will Peregrine discover that true love is more powerful than greed and ambition in time to save Celeste from the terrible fate that otherwise awaits her?

Genre: Georgian Historical Romance

Buy Links:

~♥~♥~♥~♥~♥~

Excerpt:

The last of the applause drifted away and for a few seconds the shrill cries of the orange sellers held sway. Rising from his ironic bow for the benefit of his companion, Lord Peregrine held back the red velvet curtain that had afforded them privacy so that Xenia could pass through and join the throng of theatregoers descending the sweeping staircase.

He saw that she had fallen into conversation with a club-footed general whose more than interested eye swept appraisingly over Xenia’s abundant assets, and once again Perry felt again the familiar heating of his loins that only Xenia could inspire with a mere incendiary glance.
The contours of her sack-back gown, adorned with a row of bows the length of her stomacher, recalled the more lascivious of those thoughts he’d entertained for the past decade: what it would be like to undress her, layer by layer by layer. He could only imagine how many layers there might be, but the prize would be worth the exquisite torture of restraint. He’d not revealed quite how much her proposition tonight had taken him by surprise, and the fact he’d agreed fuelled him with an odd combination of conflicting sensations: raging lust tempered by the knowledge that he’d just sunk to depths of moral depravity that might make even his uncle squirm in his grave: seduce an innocent on the eve of her nuptials.

Except that Xenia maintained the young woman’s ingenuousness was a ploy. Still, Miss Rosington retained her standing in society as a paragon of virtue. What right had he to assume otherwise, just because it was convenient?

He was diverted by a squeal to his left. Xenia was moving ahead, caught up by the crowd, her head bent to absorb the admiration of her club-footed general. Peregrine meanwhile found himself unable to continue, due to the fact the young woman in front of him had snagged her skirts on what appeared to be a nail or splinter protruding from one of the supporting beams. No one could move until she’d freed herself, and as Peregrine was directly behind her it was incumbent upon him to act the gentlemen and so enable the rest of the pulsing crowd to forge ahead.

‘Please be careful, sir, it’ll tear and it’s the first time I’ve worn it,’ the young woman warned as he took a handful of stiff silk in one hand. ‘It’s my finest.’ She twisted her head round to address him.
As her lips parted, revealing a set of near perfect small white teeth, and her worried blue eyes bored into his, Peregrine felt a jolt of something unidentifiable plummet like a stone to the pit of his stomach. No, further than that, for without a doubt his groin was reacting with something akin to roiling hunger. And, surprisingly, with an intensity that exceeded the dull throb of ten years of wanting Xenia like a frustrated schoolboy.

Close to, Miss Rosington was exquisite, her pale white and rose-blushed skin far more lustrous than when seen from a distance through opera glasses. Her powdered coiffure, dressed to fashionable heights, accentuated high, rounded cheekbones; and with growing excitement he followed the sweep of her graceful neck to a bosom that was rising and falling with surely greater rapidity than fear of what peril her gown might face. He liked to think that was so, as her candid look met his and the connection between them seemed like the sharp tug of some inner cord, forcing him forward, his hand brushing hers, nestled beneath a froth of silken furbelows, as they both reached for the undamaged silk petticoat, now released.

‘No harm done,’ he murmured as she drew herself up, her companion, the black-eyed viscount to whom she was affianced, returning to claim her, drawing her away with the barest of thanks.

All over in a matter of seconds, and at what cost? For while silk skirts and dignity had escaped with minimal damage, Peregrine was the first to concede, as he watched her graceful back with pounding heart and aching groin, that a great deal of harm had indeed been done.

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About the Author:

Beverley Oakley is an Australian author who grew up in the African mountain kingdom of Lesotho, married a Norwegian bush pilot she met in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and started writing historical romances to amuse herself in the 12 countries she’s lived as a ‘trailing spouse’ (in between working as an airborne geophysical survey operator, a teacher of English as a Second Language, and writing for her former newspaper).

Her Scandalous Miss Brightwell series was nominated Best Historical Romance by the Australian Romance Readers Association. She is also the author of the popular Daughters of Sin series, a Regency-era ‘Dynasty-style’ family saga laced with intrigue and espionage.

Under her real name Beverley Eikli, she writes Africa-set romantic suspense, and psychological historical romances. The Reluctant Bride won Choc-Lit’s Search for an Australian Star competition and her Regency tale of redemption The Maid of Milan was shortlisted in the Top Ten Reads of 2014 at the UK Festival of Romance.

Beverley lives north of Melbourne (overlooking a fabulous Gothic lunatic asylum) with the same gorgeous Norwegian husband, two daughters and a rambunctious Rhodesian Ridgeback.

You can read more at beverleyoakley.com

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