Kay: A Writer’s Post-Election Blues

I watched some of the American election returns on Tuesday night, and since then I’ve been struggling to put words on the page. I’ve been upset and depressed and paralyzed. Writing is usually my stress reducer. What can I do?

Like many writers, I turned to Google. And I found a 1961 article by Philip Roth in Commentary Magazine. Philip Roth is not my favorite writer and 1961 seems like a long time ago, but political turmoil has always been with us, and his words resonated with me today.

“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,” he writes. “It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination.”

Some of his examples of a sickening and stupefying American reality seem quaint today. [following italics are mine]

“Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren?” Roth asks rhetorically. [Van Doren participated in the television quiz show scandals in the 1950s and testified before Congress.] “…Sherman Adams [President Dwight Eisenhower’s White House chief of staff, who lost his job in a scandal when he accepted an expensive vicuña coat] and Bernard Goldfine [guy who gave Sherman Adams the vicuña coat]? Dwight David Eisenhower [boss of the guy who took the vicuña coat]?”

Those crimes seem awfully minor these days, don’t they? Or maybe they seem like small potatoes only if what our current president has done in the White House upsets and sickens you. Roth wrote: Continue reading

Jilly: Community

How are things with you?

At least here we don’t have an election to stress about, but I spent a dismal hour yesterday watching our Prime Minister, flanked by his chief scientific and medical officers, presenting the powerpoint of covid doom 😦 . Later this week we’re heading back into a national lockdown that is scheduled to last for a month.

The government seems to be taking action now because that gives them the best chance of ensuring restrictions are lifted for the holiday season. I think that’s plain common sense, because even really cautious, rule-following friends of mine are planning family gatherings around Christmas and New Year, and to hell with the official regulations or the potential consequences.

I’m a grinch even in non-corona years, so being required to spend the holidays quietly at home with my husband, books, puzzles, music, wine, and long walks, is no hardship, but we are definitely feeling the lack of face to face interaction with our wider community. Not just our friends and family, but people we’ve known for years at our favorite restaurants, shops, hair salon, dentist, car service company, dry cleaners—all kinds of personal and professional contacts that may not be deep but are long-lasting and treasured relationships.

I was thinking about this recently as I re-read Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series (strongly recommended, especially the first three books). The author does a fabulous job of uniting the young rulers of three warring kingdoms. Over the course of the series they bond into one tightly-knit community strong enough to defeat the invasion of a powerful, predatory empire. It’s cleverly written and deeply enjoyable to read.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I think I read for community even more than I read for romance. Becoming part of a kind, strong, successful community, even a fictional one, gives me the warm and fuzzies. It’s not a complete substitute for real-life interactions, but spending mental time in that connected world leaves me feeling happy and empowered, and it lasts after I’ve put the book down. In our current situation that’s no small thing.

Most of my favorite authors are excellent at creating community. Ilona Andrews. Grace Draven. Loretta Chase. Jenny Crusie. Dorothy Dunnett. Georgette Heyer. Lois McMaster Bujold. Martha Wells’ Murderbot books. Our own Kay has a talent for writing community. Her heroines are people magnets and her stories are super-fun to read for the way all kinds of unexpected characters become part of a strong network of generosity and friendship. I hope I can do half as well with my elan stories.

What do you think? Is community an important element of your reading choices?

Do you think fictional communities can help people feel connected when we’re forced to narrow our real-world interactions? And do you have any favorite authors you think are especially stellar at creating that community buzz?

Jilly: The Urge to Hibernate

Is your productivity affected by the change in season?

We’re only a few weeks past the equinox, but to me it feels like winter is here already. The days are dark, gloomy, rainy, and cold. The covid figures are getting worse again. Social media seems to think we’re headed for another bout of heavy restrictions if not a full lockdown, and they’re probably right 😦 .

I’ll be thrilled to see the end of 2020, but the downside is I have a long list of things I want to finish before 31 December. Publish The Seeds of Exile, make The Pulse of Princes available for free download, write at least the first act of The Seeds of Destiny. Submit my taxes and deal with a boatload of other grim-but-necessary administrative chores.

I’ll get them done, because I hate, hate, hate to start the new year dealing with unfinished business, but right now I’m fighting myself every step of the way. What I really want to do is go to bed early, curl under the duvet, rise late, and spend the hours in between lolling on the sofa with a hot beverage, a box of Belgian chocolates, and a good book.

I might give in today, and gird my loins again tomorrow.

How are you doing?

Jilly: English Garden Romance

How’s your weekend so far? Are you glued to the news or ready for a respite from reality? If you’re currently self-medicating with The Great British Bake-Off or English property renovation shows, you might consider checking out The Garden Plot, a thoroughly English contemporary romance by debut author Sara Sartagne.

Full disclosure. I’ve known Sara for a very long time. I won’t embarrass either of us by saying how long, but back in the day we attended the same Derbyshire school and shared English classes. I lost touch with her later and had no idea she was writing fiction until we met again online in Mark Dawson’s self-publishing community.

Regular readers of this site will know I’m more likely to read a swords-‘n-sorcery adventure than a charming small town contemporary romance. I read The Garden Plot because it’s Sara’s debut and it’s set in a picturesque Derbyshire village. I’m reviewing it because I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Garden Plot is an engaging, low-stress, opposites attract romance between Sam, a left-leaning garden designer who’s struggling to keep her small business afloat, and widower Jonas, a wealthy, conservative, workaholic property developer who’s on forced sick leave as he recovers from a viral illness. Sam is commissioned by Magda, Jonas’s match-making teenage daughter, to revamp the garden of Jonas’s recently acquired country house and (with luck) revitalize Jonas too. High jinks ensue. Continue reading

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