Michaeline: Procrastination and Kittens

Mama Tabby is a short-haired farm cat. In this picture, all four of her babies are varying shades of tabby. You can see the cute little face of one, and the pink little feet of another. The other three are buried under Mama, looking for milk.
Mama Tabby, inspiration for Tabby Kate in my current WIP, had kittens in Auntie Milk’s bathroom last night! Hooray! Mother and babies are doing fine, but bewildered. (E.M. Duskova)

I’m going to tell you a dirty little secret: I like to procrastinate. If I don’t have an idea for the Saturday blog that thrills me, I’m perfectly willing to wait and see if something fresh pops up Saturday morning (which is still Friday night in the Americas, so something fresh often does pop up in people’s exuberance for the weekend). Procrastination often serves me well.

But when it doesn’t, it’s awful. A ton of pressure to produce 500 words of crap . . . I could have done that Thursday afternoon and saved myself the pressure!

And then there’s today, when something so wonderful happens that all thoughts of writing and blogging are driven out of my mind.

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Jeanne: In Memoriam

Rita’s high school graduation picture, 1971

On March 13th, 2021, my sister Rita passed away. I’m one of seven children, but Rita was just sixteen months my senior, so she features prominently in my childhood memories. I’d like to share this story in her memory.

In the 1950’s, like many American families, our family celebrated Easter by coloring eggs. Mom would dissolve little dye tablets in boiling water laced with vinegar–to this day, I associate the smell of vinegar with Easter. Then we’d take a dozen hard-boiled eggs and color them hues that don’t occur in nature–the orange of circus peanuts. the turquoise of Studebaker fenders, the yellow of polka dot bikinis.

The next morning, before we got up, Mom and Dad would hide the eggs in our backyard and claim the Easter bunny put them there. As kids, we totally bought this. After all, it’s no bigger leap to believe in a cheapskate Easter Bunny who simply conceals the eggs you colored yourself than it is to believe in a Santa who slides down your chimney to bring you only the gifts your parents approve (i.e. no ant farms or chemistry sets).

One spring morning when I was four or five and Rita was five or six, we awoke to find that the Easter bunny had visited us a second time that year. Easter had already come and gone, and instead of hiding colored eggs in the grass, this time Mr. Bunny hid sugar cubes.

I can remember this so clearly. The sky was a clear, cloudless blue. The grass was the light green of early spring and the lawn sparkled with dew. Rita and I came outside and headed for our swing-set only to discover a wonderland of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sugar cubes nestled in the grass all throughout the yard.

As an adult, I used to recall this event occasionally and scratch my head. I mean, it made no sense whatsoever. What kind of parent-masquerading-as-Easter-bunny would hide sugar cubes in wet grass? Even if the dew didn’t melt the sugar into a syrupy glop, those cubes would be crawling with ants. A mother who won’t let her insect-fascinated daughter have an ant farm isn’t likely to go down this road, now is she? In my memory, though, the lawn was speckled with blazingly white sugar cubes, still solidly six-sided and insect-free.

Fast forward sixty years. Rita is up visiting from Florida and we drive to the other side of town to visit my brother. On the way home, I tell her about this bizarre memory, expecting her to razz me about my over-active imagination, as she often does.

Instead, she bursts out laughing. “It was hail,” she says. “It was the first time we ever saw hail.”

And just like that, the corners melt off those little white sugar cubes. When I pluck one from the grass and hold it in my hand, it’s icy cold.

I was this goofy little kid who saw sugar cubes, but big sister knew the score and as soon as I thought to ask, she set me straight.

The back of this photograph pictured above reads To a weird little sister. Good luck in high school next year without me to watch your step, so be good. “God bless” Remember Me Always, Rita.

I will, Sis. I will.

Jilly: Easter Eggs!

Happy Easter, if you’re celebrating today!

Do you enjoy Easter eggs? Story ones, not the chocolate sort 😉 .

In this context, an Easter egg is a bonus nugget—an object, action, character, or phrase—that isn’t critical to the story and may be overlooked by many readers or viewers but which is somehow significant and provides an extra hit of geeky pleasure to those who notice it.

Easter eggs may offer a wink and a nod to a sub-genre. Here’s an easy one: I have lost count of the number of romance heroes who say “As you wish,” when being ordered around by the heroine. No explanation is ever asked or offered, but most romance readers would immediately recognize the homage to William Goldman’s 1973 fantasy romance The Princess Bride, or more likely Rob Reiner’s wonderful 1987 movie adaptation. It’s what farm boy Westley says frequently to Princess Buttercup, and it means, of course, “I love you.”

Or they could be a tiny detail within a book or series that adds a little extra zing. In the final book of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, when the eponymous hero has finally found his HEA, there’s a quick exchange where his beloved says “You can give me a brooch. A sapphire one.” He answers, “But will you take care of it?” Which harks back to their very first encounter, in the very first book, when she’s a ten-year-old child. Lymond questions her to verify her father’s honesty. It’s frightening and dangerous, and when it’s over he pins a beautiful sapphire brooch to her nightshirt by way of apology. She rips it off, hurls it to the ground and grinds it under her shoe. Yay Philippa! Yay, Dorothy Dunnett!

An Easter egg could also be a reference to pop culture. The heroine of Ilona Andrews’ most recent book, Blood Heir, was an important secondary character in their bestselling Kate Daniels series. In the Kate Daniels books she’s Julie Olsen, but in Blood Heir she returns to Atlanta with a new face, a new name—Aurelia Ryder—and a whole raft of new superpowers. She becomes a temporary member of the chivalric Order of Merciful Aid, which makes her Knight Ryder. I laughed out loud the first time I read this. Because if you’re as old as I am, you might remember Knight Rider as a 1982 TV series starring David Hasselhof, a police detective who’s rescued after a near-fatal shot to the face and returns to town with a new face (thanks to plastic surgery) and a new name to become a hi-tech, modern crimefighter. I guess it was most likely a joke that became a book.

Easter eggs are everywhere. Peter Grant’s car (a Ford Asbo) in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Google it if you don’t know what an ASBO is. Ford Prefect’s name in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Quentin Tarantino’s sneaky cameos in many of his movies. A quick glimpse of John Thaw in a mirror in the Inspector Morse prequel TV series Endeavour.

I think they’re a nice bit of added fun. I enjoy them when I spot them. I don’t mind too much if they sail over my head.

How about you? Are you an Easter Egg fan? Do you have any favorite examples?

Jilly: One For The Diary

This week marked the one-year anniversary of the UK’s first national lockdown. In late February 2020 Mr W. and I had lunch in a crowded London restaurant with a bunch of friends, celebrating a landmark birthday without a care in the world. A month later we couldn’t set foot outside our home at all without an approved reason.

The change was sudden and drastic. Like everyone else I know, we were more than a little shell-shocked.

I’m reminded of a night, many years ago, on vacation in the Himalaya. A group of us camped on a ridge, high above a vast plain. We had supper, sang songs, played word games around the campfire, and retired to bed in excellent spirits. Around midnight we awoke to a storm the like of which I have never seen before or since. The waterproofing on our tents was rapidly overwhelmed and a fast-flowing river sprang up under my sleeping mat. Fortunately we had some dry clothes in a sealed bag, because everything else was soaked. Staying inside the tent was grim but going outside was worse. The following morning we all sat silently on our saturated kit bags, bedraggled and bemused. Our guide, who’d doubtless seen worse, looked us over, rubbed his chin, and thought for a moment. “One for the diary,” he said.

The Year of Covid probably deserves a whole diary to itself, but a page is more than enough for me. Below are my current top ten entries.

  1. Don’t take today for granted. Life can change in a heartbeat.
  2. Lasting good can come from terrible catastrophes.
  3. Humans are social animals. Technology can connect us, but it will never fully replace face-to-face contact and caring touch.
  4. Humans are adaptable and innovative. It’s mind-boggling what we can achieve when we co-operate together.
  5. Our world is deeply interconnected. We can’t just fix bits of it and expect the whole shebang to work.
  6. Don’t mess with mother nature.
  7. For the writer in me: character is choice under pressure.
  8. Also, language is also adaptable and innovative. A new crisis will spawn new words and concepts.
  9. Further: everything, however grim or inspiring, is story material.
  10. And for the eternal optimist: nothing but good times ahead.

What would you record in your 2020-21 Covid Diary?

Elizabeth: A New Leaf

We seem to be in a changing-seasons mood here on the blog. Michaeline welcomed the equinox on Saturday, Jilly got us dreaming about travelling on Sunday, and Jeanne shared her visual spring fever just yesterday.

For me, the appearance of spring means giving the house a deep-clean and the garden some sprucing up while waiting for my lilac bushes to bloom. In this part of the country they only bloom for a few weeks–generally sometime between mid-March and Easter–and the recent rainy/sunny/windy weather seems to have them a little confused. Fortunately, today I saw that there are little leaves budding away and signs that the flowers aren’t too far behind, so my personal start-of-spring is almost here.

I can’t wait.

Though obviously, I’ll have to.

In the meantime, I’ve been looking for a little distraction to keep me entertained. I have a pile of unread books that could fit the bill, but none of them seem to be calling to me right now. I did interrupt my comfort re-reading the other day to finally read Beth O’Leary’s The Switch, and enjoyed it, but I didn’t really feel like picking up anything else.

Fortunately, the internet came to the rescue. Continue reading

Jeanne: Spring Fever

We’re getting an early spring here in southwest Ohio–days in the 50’s and 60’s–which is perfect for spotting nesting owls

Great Horned Owl

and for locating woodland ephemerals.

Winter aconite

Snow Trillium

Siberian Squill

So, although my second draft is lagging well behind where I planned and there’s always promotional work waiting for my attention, that’s what I’ve been doing.

Spring fever always makes me think of this poem:

I Meant To Do My Work Today

by Robert La Gallienne

I meant to do my work today—
   But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
   And all the leaves were calling me. 

And the wind went sighing over the land,
   Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand—
   So what could I do but laugh and go?

Elizabeth: Blast from the Past

I recently hooked up a spare television to an indoor antenna that is the modern-day equivalent of “rabbit ears.”  I can tune in about seven stations, four of which are various public television stations (PBS).  One station that comes in clearly in all its high-definition glory is the local CBS affiliate–which gives me access to the evening news and Late Night with Stephen Colbert.  The remaining two stations are a bit fuzzy; who knows how far those signals are travelling.  One station seems to run nothing but Perry Mason episodes–not my favorite–but the other runs a random variety of old game shows, which are definitely my catnip.

Last night I caught a double episode of the old “Classic Concentration” game show.

I’m not sure if you are familiar with the show or ever watched it, but it was a mainstay just before dinnertime when I was growing up.  I used to love being able to guess the puzzles–before both the contestants or my family members did.  The episodes must be from the 70s, and one of last night’s contestants (male) sported full fluffy styled hair reminiscent of Peter Frampton back in the day.  The prizes the contestants won were a bit of a hoot:  a “stereophonic” system, a “35m Camera” that looked like it would take both hands and a shoulder strap to hang on to, and of course, sets of “his and hers” matched luggage.  Sadly, one guest wound up with only an “ice cream set,” though she was a good sport about it.

I was just happy to have been able to solve the puzzles before the contestants, despite the station’s tendency to fuzz in and out.

So, you may be asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with writing? Continue reading

Jilly: I Want That!

Did you ever see, read, or hear about something and immediately think I want that for myself?

It happened to me this week.

Writing fiction is, for me, a joy and a privilege. I feel very lucky to have the resources to pursue my passion, and the time to build a successful indie author business on my own terms. The key word here being successful 🙂 .

Joanna Penn, in her book Business for Authors (How to be an Author Entrepreneur), suggests that it’s important to identify your personal definition of success, and to know how you will track and measure that success.

She offers some possible options:

  • I want to create something I’m proud of
  • I want to see my book on the shelves of a bookstore
  • I want to reach readers with my words
  • I want to sell x copies of my books
  • I want to win a prize and win literary/critical acclaim
  • I want to make a full-time living from my writing
  • I want to create a body of work that I’m proud of over my lifetime

The most important definition for me is the last one—to create a body of work that I’m proud of. I will feel I am on the way to achieving it when I have published my remaining Elan Intrigues prequel book and the five-book fantasy series that succeeds it. I guesstimate that may take me another five years or so.

I have an ambitious writing/publishing plan, but I never set myself an ambitious financial goal. I treat what I do as a business, and over time I intend to make it profitable, but that’s always been about being able to afford quality professional services to make my books as good as they can be. Necessities, if I’m to create a body of work I’m proud of. Not luxuries.

Until last Wednesday, when I saw this post on Ilona Andrews’ blog.

New Art from Luisa Preissler

The authors commissioned a family portrait of the Baylor sisters, the heroines of their bestselling Hidden Legacy series, and it is absolutely gorgeous. It captures the sisters and the tone of the books perfectly, and it includes lots of small details that make it extra special. I love it.

So now I have an extra benchmark of writerly success. I still want all the things I listed above, but I also want to make enough extra money from my writing to commission an artist whose work I really admire to create a portrait (portraits?) of my favorite characters. How cool would that be?

So how about you? Is there something you’d really, really like, not because it’s necessary or useful, but because it would feel amazing?

Elizabeth: Not a Romance in Sight

With the end of 2020 came the traditional surge of “Top Books” lists.  The first I encountered was was the New York Times “Top 10 Best Books of 2020,” in which the editors of The Times Book Review chose the best fiction and nonfiction titles of 2020.  Other than Barack Obama’s memoir (which had only come out near the end of the year), I had heard of none of the titles and, after reading the blurbs, I’m unlikely to investigate any of them further.  I’m guessing I am not the target audience of those book review editors.

No surprise – there was not a romance novel in sight on the list.

Next up was the “100 Notable Books of 2020” also by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.  I figured a list of 100 titles would cover a broader range of books.  My mistake.  After reading through it, I mentally renamed this list “98 books I’ve never heard of.”

There was one whole romance title on the list — Courtney Milan’s The Duke Who Didn’t — which also made the Washington Posts’ Best romance novels of 2020 Continue reading

Michaeline: Witness

You may already be journaling or writing daily, even through the daily crises and tribulations of 2020/2021. If so, good for you. Keep doing the good work!

If not, you might consider spending just 10 minutes today witnessing the world around you, and writing it down for posterity.

A lot of the best things I read in 2020 were the result of witnesses who saw, and told, the story of a time of trouble.

A woman in a dark room writing with feather quill and ink. She has a shawl around her shoulders, and a velvet slouchy beret.
Writing in times of darkness. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
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