Michaeline: The World of Your Story

 

A large young woman holding a saucer of tea. On the table is a samovar, watermelon, fruitcake, apples and grapes. Next to her, a cute kitty rubs her shoulder. Affluent and full of sunshine.

Boris Kustodiev’s A Merchant’s Wife’s Teatime from 1918 shows the kind of sunny August afternoon I wouldn’t mind living in forever. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m always a bit in awe of people who write intricate, dark, depressing stories like The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. They do such a good job, but . . . they have to live inside that world in their heads for however long it takes to write the book.

I guess that’s why I prefer to write things with ultimately happy endings. I have a good real life, and I’m content, but in a story, I can stir up just a little trouble, just a little drama, and then resolve it all with cake and a brighter future ahead.

I wonder how many people set their stories in the Now. When I write these days, I studiously avoid plagues, invasions of insects, racism, floods, global warming and riots. They may creep in, but they are not what I set out to write.

But even before these wild days came upon us, I rarely wrote in the Now. I mostly wrote in the near future and far future, and a little bit in the distant past (80 years or more before Actual Writing Time). I am not sure why . . . maybe because I’m still processing the Now, and am not sure what to write about it. The distant past just needs a bit of research, and the future can be fudged. I don’t trust my perception of things enough to write about the Now.

But that’s me. I think people may want to read things about Now in the near future; they’ll have a basic set of reference, and can compare their experience with the author. They’ll have processed things. They might take joy in what the author got right, and they might have a sneaky bit of schadenfreude for what the author got wrong.

What is your Now like right now?

I saw a fun game on Twitter by Amber Sparks, who Continue reading

Jilly: Independence Daze

Happy Fourth of July to the other Ladies, and to all American readers of 8LW. It’s been a year like no other, but I hope you found a suitable way to celebrate.

Here in Merrie England we’re also enjoying a very special weekend. The Prime Minister announced an easing of covid-19 lockdown measures, beginning yesterday, and suddenly all kinds of socially distanced fun and games are back on the cards.

Now that so many suspended activities are possible again, it’s been interesting to see which ones I’m desperate to return to and which ones I’ve decided can wait a little longer.

Home Visits
We’re allowed to receive visitors at home now, though outside is better and social distancing is de rigueur. We’re expecting an in-person visit from a real, live friend this afternoon. We’ll sit in the garden and keep our distance, but the idea of an in-the-flesh social interaction is thrilling. Humans are social animals, aren’t we? Zoom, Skype, and Facetime are better than nothing, but they don’t come close to a face to face catch-up. We’re expecting visits from another friend, maybe two, before the end of next week and I couldn’t be happier.

Restaurants
I don’t feel tempted to check out smart city center restaurants, but we’ve missed our weekly visit to the local Bangladeshi eatery. It’s part of the fabric of our neighborhood—everyone goes there. The food isn’t fancy, but it’s tasty and consistently good. The people who run the show are great—smart, hardworking, and kind. Dinner there is part of my routine, like taking a grocery delivery or writing a blog post. We like to eat early, when it’s nice and quiet. I’m looking forward to getting into that groove again.

Hairdressers
It’s been four months since I had a haircut. Normally I get fretful if I hit the five-week mark. I’ve been going to the same stylist and colorist for around 20 years. I’m good friends with both, and with many other people at their salon. My stylist is a great supporter of my writing. He loves to talk creativity and gave me the germ of the idea that became the elan stories. My colorist usually works with celebrities around the world and is a great person to quiz for the latest ideas, trends and insights.

I can’t wait to see them, but I’ve been checking up on the covid-secure rules for running a salon and don’t envy them the task of putting the necessary measures in place. They’ll be trying to do everything right, delivering their best work while keeping their staff and clients safe. Balancing a waitlist of demanding clients while keeping the salon half-empty and adhering to their long list of protocols. I’ve decided to give them a few weeks, maybe a month. If the salon has settled into a new normal by the end of August, that will do nicely.

Dentists
Our dental surgery re-opened. Whoo! My husband and I have appointments next week for check-ups that were canceled months ago. The experience is likely to be weird. Our dentist is chatty. His practice is friendly and informal. It’s going to be strange to see him kitted out in PPE and talking through a visor. I like him a lot, but I’ve never before thought of a dental check-up as a treat. I snapped up the first appointment I was offered and am feeling ridiculously excited about it.

Travel
From today people in England are allowed to travel for pleasure and to stay overnight in hotels, campsites and B&Bs. That was a popular decision—yesterday there were huge tailbacks on roads heading to the coast and well-known beauty spots.

We’re also starting to relax quarantine rules for arrivals from various countries. Airlines are scheduling flights, and apparently optimists are rushing to book holidays before their children go back to school (in September, assuming that goes to plan).

I’ve always enjoyed travel, and dear lord I’d love a change of scenery, but right now I feel no inclination to buy a train ticket or book a hotel, let alone hop on a plane. It’s partly the health risk, but at least as much the knowledge that the world could change again in the blink of an eye and we could find ourselves stranded, far from home, possibly for a very long time and potentially uninsured. I’m glad we’ve taken some very special trips over the years, because I can’t see us straying far from home unless/until the dust settles, and I’m guessing that may take years rather than months.

It’s exciting to feel that we may be returning to a kind of normality, though as I’m watching the rest of the world I have a sinking feeling that this may just be a lull before the next storm. I hope I’m wrong.

So…how’s your weekend going? And have you noticed a change in your priorities during these crazy days?

Jilly: Getting Away From It All

It’s a holiday weekend here. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and we’re in limbo, waiting for the corona-crisis to be resolved or at least assimilated into our post-pandemic daily lives. Wherever you are, I hope you’re safe and well.

Usually around now people in the UK get the first inkling that summer is around the corner. That promises vacation, relaxation, maybe a change of scenery, perhaps a beach read or two. Except this year relaxation is not an option, and the scenery is depressingly familiar. Mr. W and I had tickets to visit San Francisco at the end of July for RWA Nationals. We expected to meet up with California-based friends and to enjoy a civilized meander down the coast with Kay. Clearly none of that will happen. We’ll be lucky if we’re allowed to hop on a train and visit friends and family outside London.

Many of my friends have reported increased cabin fever lately, and I wonder if at least some of it is down to the loss of that holiday promise, the anticipation of a treat or just the idea, the possibility of something new. Chez Jilly we’d have shared days and weeks’ worth of fun planning our road trip, investigating possibilities online, talking to Kay about places to stay, discussing landmarks to visit, imagining food and wine we might sample. Planning a vacay is like a free holiday-before-the-holiday, with only the good bits—no budget constraints, no sunburn, and no jet lag. I think being robbed of that fantasy is almost as bad as missing out on the trip itself. Continue reading

Jilly: Traditional treats, surprising skills

Another week, another Sunday. I’d swear the days are dragging, yet blink! and here we are again. I hope you’re still keeping safe and well as we inch toward the new normal, whatever that may be.

An unexpected upside of the current crisis has been a surge in demand for various niche businesses. Amid the general gloom and depression, it’s been lovely to see artisanal flour producers, needlepoint tutors, hen-keepers and the like enjoy an unexpected moment in the sunlight.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before that I’m a huge jigsaw puzzle fan. Jigsaws are traditionally regarded as a staid older-person’s form of distraction, but apparently in these stressful days of lockdown confinement they have seen a huge resurgence. Yay! Long may it last!

I always have a jigsaw on the go when I’m plotting a book. When I get stuck trying to figure out character arcs, world-building, turning points and plot holes, I take a time out with the puzzle and the challenge of identifying colors, patterns, and shapes seems to re-set my brain. According to the interwebs, this is because jigsaw puzzles Continue reading

Jilly: Planning for the Zombie Apocalypse

Have you been reading (or watching) much fiction over the last few weeks? What kind of stories did you choose?

I spent the first week of my enforced homestay on the sofa, re-reading Jenny Crusie. I picked Agnes and the Hitman, followed by Fast Women. Angry heroines, laconic heroes with just the right skill-set, a dazzling array of secondary characters, terrific dialogue, and murder. Just what I wanted. No softness, lots of snark and action. Edgy stories tinged with darkness and humor, and a heroine with agency who fights her way to a happy ending, for herself and everyone she cares about. Very cathartic.

Then last week, between obsessively reading the news and completing a fiendishly tricky jigsaw puzzle with an underwater fantasy scene featuring strange fish, steampunk machines, grandiose ruins and Pre-Raphaelite mermaids, I revisited MR Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts. Continue reading

Michaeline: Journaling

Old time romance comic cover: Sweetheart Diary. Carol has just received a letter and is holding her head in shock. Next to her is "My Diary."

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The first thing I have to say about journaling is that I suck at it. I can write in a little book about the minutiae of my life for a few days, and then I get inexpressibly bored. I’m lousy at conflict: anything I can’t minimize I’m very good at ignoring. Character development? I’m sure there must be some but I develop far too slowly. Plot? Ha! And let’s add in a sad lack of explosions, magical battles and strange creatures (aside from Yuta, the cat, who eats lettuce like a carnivore and likes a ride on the stationery bike) . . . you get a written record that’s far too boring for my tastes.

But while I feel my life isn’t worth the documentation, I admire people who keep a diary, and it seems to me that this coronavirus conflict is going to encourage a lot of people to do so. I might give it a whirl.

Here are a few ideas.

Japanese school children often keep a vacation diary in a special notebook. The top half of the page is a blank square, meant for drawing a picture. But, photos could be pasted there, or movie tickets, or anything. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. The bottom half is lined for the child to write in the details. The teachers often recommend the kid start with the day and date (it can help one keep track of days spent at home, where all the weekdays tend to blur into one another), the weather and temperature, and how the kid is feeling.

The three-line diary is an assignment I’ve given to my English learners. The idea is that anyone can write three sentences a day in English. If worst comes to worst, Continue reading

Jilly: It’s Grim, But It’s Not All Bad

 

Yesterday Michaeline shared the events of her week in rural Hokkaido, which began with a birthday celebration and ended with the coronavirus-related closure of schools, the declaration of a state of emergency, and a strong request that people should stay home.

Here in London the Sword of Damocles is still suspended, but probably not for much longer. So far there are 20 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 virus across the UK. Nineteen of those cases are people who have been abroad recently, but the latest one is a man who is the first person to be infected domestically. The source of his infection is currently unknown. He lives in Surrey, a populous area to the south of London, and attended his local doctors’ surgery before he was diagnosed.

We’re also starting to see precautionary measures taken by employers. Last week the oil multinational Chevron sent 300 staff home from its Canary Wharf offices after one of its employees, who’d spent the weekend ski-ing in Italy, became unwell. Media company OMD, which shares the same building, sent all its staff home after an employee who’d returned from Australia via Singapore reported symptoms. Transport company Crossrail, which shares a building with Chevron and OMD, sent all its employees home. And yesterday law firm Baker McKenzie sent home more than 1,000 staff from its Blackfriars office after a possible virus case was identified. Continue reading

Jilly: Victorian Tales of Terror

It’s that scary time of year.

The nights are getting shorter, darker and colder, at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere. We just passed Halloween (previously the Celtic festival of Samhain), when the barrier between our world and the realm of ghosts and spirits melts away and supernatural types return from the grave to threaten our orderly existence.

In other words, ‘tis the season for ghost stories and terrible tales.

We dipped a toe into the icy water here recently with our tag-team Scottish flash fiction adventure featuring the restless ghosts of tragic Alanis McLeish and her twin baby daughters (go here for Kay’s fabulous final instalment and links to the rest of the tale).

That tempted me to re-read Jenny Crusie’s Maybe This Time, her smart, scary homage to Henry James’s influential 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, complete with isolated, crumbling gothic setting; orphaned children; sinister housekeeper; and murderous ghosts. Thank heavens for the Crusie-heroine-turned-temporary-governess.

Maybe This Time whetted my appetite for Victorian horror. Click here for an interesting feature in Atlas Obscura explaining why the Victorian era was such a boom time for scary stories. It seems to be linked to the rise of the periodical press which fuelled a demand for genre fiction, combined with a period of rapid technological advancement in which things which had previously seemed impossible suddenly became real and normal.

Then yesterday, with uncanny serendipity, I found Victorian Tales of Terror, a recently republished anthology of carefully curated period fiction edited by Hugh Lamb. There are sixteen spine-chilling stories by famous (Dickens, de Maupassant) and little-known authors, male and female, English, European and American.

Continue reading

Jilly: Uglycry stories

Do you enjoy books and authors that make you uglycry?

I’m currently participating in an online workshop offered by Jeanne’s RWA Chapter (Central Ohio Fiction Writers). It’s called Inside Out: Crafting Your Character’s Internal Conflict, taught by Linnea Sinclair. So far, so very good—the class is challenging me to dig deep into my characters’ innermost selves. It’s also making me think about how best to use the discoveries I’m making to tell the kind of stories I want to tell.

This week Jeanne, who is also taking the class, raised a question about her WIP. One of the other students offered a suggestion that brilliantly fits the heroine’s situation and is so gut-wrenchingly powerful it would hurt my heart to read it. I know this kind of storyline makes a book unforgettable. I believe it would earn reviews and might potentially win awards. I think it could make lifelong fans of readers who seek out this kind of emotional torture and the catharsis that follows when the heroine triumphs and everything turns out okay after all.

That’s not me. I find that the emotional distress of the tense build-up makes me feel miserable long after the relief of the satisfying resolution has dissipated.

I’m still scarred by the ending of Gone With The Wind, and I last read that when I was a teen 😉 .

Or take Loretta Chase (love, love, love Loretta Chase). I happily read and re-read Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion, and all her Carsington family books, over and over. Those books pack a powerful emotional punch, but the story momentum always heads in a positive direction, and humor balances the serious undertones, so I never feel distressed. I can relax and enjoy the ride. Conversely, her first Dressmaker book (Silk is for Seduction) knotted my heart in my chest. The writing is brilliant. The black moment is one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read, and it made me uglycry. Continue reading

Jilly: Menu Gourmand

In romance there are basically two kinds of series. The first, which Nancy discussed last Monday, focuses on a community: a family, or schoolfriends, or regimental comrades. In this kind of series, each book tells the love story of a different member of the community. It works really well in historical romance.

The other kind of series follows the adventures of one couple over multiple books and is a natural fit with fantasy and urban fantasy. That’s what I’m busy writing.

At its best, this kind of series is like a tasting menu from a really, really good restaurant. Delicious, ambitious, and not to be attempted by the faint-hearted.

  • Choose your cuisine.
  • Decide how many dishes you plan to offer.
  • Each dish should stand alone as a tasty, balanced, harmonious whole.
  • Every course should be delightfully different, offering contrasting flavors and ingredients but in a cohesive style.
  • The menu should flow, offering a natural progression leading the diner from piquant to savory to a delightful sweet finish and possibly some perfect petits-fours.
  • The content of each dish should be perfectly judged, leaving the diner neither over-hungry, nor sated too soon, but wanting more until the final satisfying conclusion.
  • The sum of the whole should be greater than each of the parts.

To whet your appetite, click here for the Land and Sea tasting menu from one of my favorite restaurants, The Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye.

In literary terms, this kind of story is exemplified by Dorothy Dunnett’s Scottish Historical Lymond Chronicles, or Karen-Marie Moning’s Celtic urban fantasy Fever series, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife books or more recently by Ilona Andrews’ Hidden Legacy trilogy.

This is what I’m aiming for: something a little different, offering fine local ingredients combined with flair and executed with skill. If I get it right, hopefully my Menu Gourmand will be mouth-watering, memorable, and a treat worth saving up for 🙂 .