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: Obon and Japanese Ghosts

balloon flower, phlox, China asters, yellow lilies in two celadon vases

Here are the offerings for our home altar, all from our family’s gardens. (E.M. Duskova)

I’m writing a ghost story today in honor of Obon. Obon holidays usually take place in our area in the middle of August during the hottest part of the year. It’s believed that ancestors come home for a visit on Day 1, stay on Day 2, and return to the other realms on Day 3. People clean the graves in preparation, and get offerings of flowers, snacks and drinks ready for the home altars.

Usually, it’s a great time to catch up with families. Even though people are supposed to stay home during this time of Corona, we’ve had family over – opened the windows, disinfected the table and hoped for the best.

A small family altar with offerings of fruit jelly, Bireley's soda, water, and snacks. Candles, singing bowl.

This is the small altar for our family at the local temple. We brought offerings of flowers, fruit jelly, water, Bireley’s Orange Soda, and some cookies. The temple provides the candles and the incense. (E.M. Duskova)

Traditionally, ghost stories have been a popular part of the Obon season – it seems natural with the ghosts of the relatives coming home, but also the delicious chill you get down your back when someone tells a really spooky story is said to be a good way to beat the heat.

My husband has absolutely no use for ghost stories, and even dislikes dolls that look like they could rise up in the middle of the night and strangle an unwitting homeowner. So, we don’t tell ghost stories to each other. But still, ghost stories abound.

Here are some thrilling Japanese ghost stories as told by foreigners on the Gaijin Pot blog. https://blog.gaijinpot.com/true-japan-ghost-stories-from-gaijinpot-readers/ The story of the baseball boys (almost all boys in baseball club in Japan get a buzz cut) was very touching, but the last story from Nana about her hotel in Minami Senju was perfect – a fun ghost story that sent those refreshing chills down my spine, but didn’t creep me out. Which story was your favorite?

And for more about Obon, Continue reading

Jeanne: Sitting with Your Setting

Animal figures carved on steleSettings play a huge role in my demon novels. All of the books spend some time in my take on Hell, which is a cross between the fire-and-brimstone Hell described by the terrifying Baptist preachers of my childhood and the equally terrifying large corporations I worked for during my career as a software engineer, but each of them also has a more mundane setting here Aboveworld.

The first book, The Demon Always Wins, is set in northern Florida, near the ocean along the Georgia border. My eldest sister lives there, so I’ve spent several vacations in that area over the years. Much of the book takes place in a free clinic staffed by paid staff and volunteer doctors, similar to one I worked in as the office manager for eighteen months.

The second book, The Demon’s in the Details is set in Sedona, AZ. I’ve never had the joy of living in that beautiful place, but I did spend a wonderful week there in January, 2016, getting the lay of the land and soaking up atmosphere, before setting pen to paper (or fingertips to keys). Continue reading

Michaeline: Fourth of July

Older ladies sitting in the shade with their shoes off while others wade in the lake.

This is one of my favorite pictures of the Fourth of July — being with good friends in the summer heat, and just kicking off your shoes and relaxing in the shade. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

For Americans in the reading audience, Happy Fourth of July (fraught with meaning)! For non-Americans, Happy Fourth of July (random day, so why not be happy?).

I love the Fourth of July. It’s the day that the Continental Congress declared they were no longer subject to George III, and it’s smack in the middle of the long summer holidays from school that in my case lasted from the end of May to the end of August. My family had picnics, and sometimes family reunions, and always, always, always fireworks. There’s a streak of pyromania that runs in both sides of the family DNA, and we enjoyed setting off the mild fireworks that Nebraska allowed, then going to see the big fireworks down by the pond.

Things are different here in Japan. Fireworks are on sale, but aren’t really a big deal until mid-August in Hokkaido. The first of the summer fireworks shows start at the end of July. At any rate, much as I love fireworks, the dogs and the cows hate them, and they outvote me on this. We might do a smoke bomb or two or some wee sparklers, but that’s it at home.

Menu ideas for the fourth of July with an explanation of what the Fourth of July is. There is no "Republican," no "Democrat," on the Fourth of July -- all are Americans.

Here’s what an ideal Fourth of July looked like long ago — fried chicken for breakfast! And, “(t)here is no “Republican,” no “Democrat,” on the Fourth of July — all are Americans.” (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Back in Nebraska, being in the middle of summer vacations, Fourth of July wasn’t what you’d call an intellectual celebration. Oh, you learned stuff, that was sure. Fireworks are full of science and physics, and also about responsibility for your actions and consequences. Very educational, that. And of course, the mayonnaise-based salads could provide a health lesson, but my mom was very much in favor of lecture mode vs. the school of hard knocks (major concentration in food poisoning), and we never suffered from that.

This year might mean the smartest thing to do is stay home. My hometown had plenty of parking, and a lot of room on a wide, grassy hill, so maybe they’ll have a safe, socially distanced fireworks display. People could probably park at the old drive-in theater (if it’s still undeveloped) and enjoy the whole show from their cars and never leave the bubble.

But not every town has that sort of space (or small population). It’ll be interesting to see what kind of new traditions evolve to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Originally, I was going to write a whole blog post full of suggestions for a fun and educational Fourth. Watch a movie! Read some books! Play History Charades! Enjoy a traditional meal from your family’s heritage – because they were the people who helped build America. Enjoy a traditional side-dish from someone else’s heritage, because they made America the country it is today. Set an alert on your calendar for the next business day to make sure you are registered to vote, and to apply for an absentee ballot if you need one (you might really need one this year).

But then, I thought, who am I kidding? It’s the middle of summer. I’m going to arrange some flowers, have hot dogs for supper, set the alert on my calendar, and call it good. That’s probably good enough.

Michaeline: Mystery Architecture

A man either sinking or rising in a stage trap door with a woman being frightened. "Then let it be the kiss of death" reads the caption.

See? Trapdoors are not as cool as a bookcase that swings open at the push of a button or hidden lever. They are frightening, and not always reliable. I really do wonder what is going on in this play, though. Whiteley’s ORIGINAL Hidden Hand — do not be misled by false pretenders who come after. Or it WILL BE THE KISS OF DEATH! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been thinking about homes lately. If you followed the Friday Sprint Adventures of Porky Pie the Wonder Dog (summer of 2019; particularly episode five and six), you’ll remember the secret passage that leads from summer breakfast room to the gazebo by the creek. I just love a good secret passage! Built-in features like safes behind paintings, or a vault hidden in the floorboards really thrill me as a reader, and I like to incorporate them into my writing.

Two early influences were The Adventures of Scooby Doo, which often seemed to involve hidden passages or secret doors, and the Nancy Drew mysteries. There were little secret compartments in several of the books, if I remember correctly.

Attics were also great places for hidden treasure, or mysterious diaries, or even the odd prisoner of the house. To my great regret, I’ve never lived in a house with a proper attic. When I was a child living in Panama, I remember we were forbidden the attic because of the snakes, bats and other wildlife that might be up there. And, dear readers, I was NEVER tempted to explore.

The basement is usually where you’ll find the secret tunnels – it just makes sense to have them handy to the ground. You could hide the staircase and all, which will make your tunnel even more secret – people may not even suspect you have an underground component! But it’ll run you some money. Best to hide the tunnel behind the wine rack or cleverly disguise it with rutabagas.

I’m not a huge fan of the trapdoor. There’s just too much fiddly business – thrust aside the carpet, lift up the whole heavy thing, and then inelegantly scramble or crouch through the thing. Then after you’ve closed the door, you need an accomplice to put the rug back on properly.

But a dumbwaiter? Oh, I like those! You get in your dumbwaiter (which doesn’t necessarily have to be hidden, but could be), and slowly descend or ascend dramatically out of sight without ruffling your petticoats. Pop out into the third-floor ballroom, then make your way across the rooftops to freedom!

I may have been inside a little too much these days.

Jeanne: Hidden Factories

industrial buildingsRecently, we had a conversation on one of my author loops on applying Six Sigma/Lean Manufacturing techniques to writing. Apparently some guru will soon be teaching a class on using Kanban boards to increase author efficiency.

One of the Six Sigma terms I remember from my training back when I worked in the manufacturing sector was “hidden factories”—process steps that take time and resources but don’t add value as defined by the customer. For example, let’s say you have a coffee shop that puts a little paper doily on each saucer before placing the baked good on the plate. If the customer (not the waiter, not the baker, not the store owner) doesn’t perceive that doily as adding value to his bearclaw, that step is a hidden factory.

So how would the concept of hidden factories apply to writing? I’m just riffing but here are some things that authors put a lot of time into that don’t necessarily improve the quality of the book from the readers’ perspective:

  1. In depth research into careers/jobs held by characters.

This is definitely one of the reasons why it takes me so long to write a book. In The Demon’s in the Details, the protagonist was a painter. Since I’m not even a tiny bit artistic, or even crafty, I had no clue how artists view the world. She was, specifically, a muralist, and I didn’t know how artists go about painting murals. Continue reading

Michaeline: FKA twigs Inspires Me to Write Gorgeously

You’ve gotta see this! FKA twigs performs on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, and the performance is so layered and wonderful – stay for the dancing at the end.

Everything works for me in this video. You have a stark setting, but one where every component has a use and meaning – the long piano that leads to the pole, the bare stage for three performers with minimal light. You have tone – echoed in the lighting, in her voice, and in the tone of the instruments. You have a gorgeous costume that strips down to reveal not a beautiful butterfly, but rather the chrysalis that was hiding inside. And you have the dancing – ethereal and effortless (but any kid who has done a pull-up on the monkey bars knows how much muscle control must go into that “effortless” look).

All of it serves to reinforce the story: a person has loved, and has just lost (and hasn’t quite accepted it yet, or is gathering strength to try again).

It’s National Novel Writing Month, and even if you aren’t playing along, maybe you can spare a little time to add some layering into your work. If you are doing NaNo, then it’s all good – every experiment is word-count! As writers, we work with words, and can’t depend on fancy camera angles or pretty pictures. But the magic of words does mean we can create setting, tone, costumes and anything in the realm of our imaginations. So, take a risk when writing today – let your writing take on a tinge of poetry, or the color of the characters’ feelings.

Have fun!

Michaeline: Debate: How hot is summer romance?

1908 girl in a skirted bathing costume having fun on a dock while two admiring boys splash in the water below.

“Oh, how we would laugh at anything!” — kd lang, “Summerfling” (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Well, dear readers, do you like a romance set in the summer? There’s no denying that there’s nothing better than lolling on the sofa during a heatwave with a cold drink and an engrossing romance (unless it’s lolling on the sofa during a winter storm with a hot drink and an engrossing romance). But have you set your romances in the summer? Or do you have any favorites that involve sun and heat?

Here in northern Japan, we’ve been enduring 35C (95F) temps for more than a week, and Hokkaido is not used to this. We don’t have an air conditioner in our home, and none of my schools have AC, either. We’re on summer break, so when we’re not doing special classes, we’re in a government high-rise, and the summer code-word ever since 2005 has been “cool biz” – it’s an effort to conserve energy which includes shirt-sleeved business shirts, and also keeping the air conditioning on the edge of comfort – I’d guess about 27 to 28 C. (That’s 80 to 82F for the Americans playing the sympathy game at home.) The campaign got a boost after the energy crisis after the 3/11 earthquake, and was lengthened from May to October.

So, I can say for sure that in REALIA, the heat sucks. How about in Romancelandia?

Heatwave + Romance CONS.

It’s too darn hot, and Cole Porter recognized this way back in 1948. (YouTube clip from Kiss Me, Kate 10:55)

I’m pretty sure “Sweet summer sweat” is a fantasy trope. (“Hotel California” Eagles Live 6:48) Stuff STINKS during summer heat, and places stink, and people stink.

When the temperature rise, tempers get short. People get into stupid arguments, and it’s such an effort to be polite. It’s even more of an effort to apologize. If there’s a crowd of cranky people, it can easily turn into a riot.

Lack of appetite. For everything. Ugh.

Heatwave + Romance PROS Continue reading

Justine: Travel Inspiration

I’m currently jaunting about Barcelona on our annual family vacation and whenever I travel, I try to use the places I visit as inspiration for my stories. Today, we visited the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia (Basilica of the Sacred Family), which has been under construction since 1882 (and still not completed). While it’s breathtakingly beautiful, it’s a bit hard for me to imagine using in any of my books, given they take place in the early 1800s. Continue reading

Michaeline: Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Ships and Bicycles, Too

A history of transportation from reindeer through trains to the motorcar.

People may remain fundamentally the same, but as their technology changes, so does the form of their stories. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

There’s an old writing adage that says every story is either about someone coming to town (the mysterious stranger!) or someone leaving town (a quest! a quest!). But sometimes, the story isn’t about the arrival or the departure, but the journey itself.

Summer is the perfect time to write a travel story! You could set your story on a plane, a train or an automobile. Being trapped in a small space for a period of time promotes a sense of desperation . . . but by virtue of being in a MOVING space, you know the story is going to end with a release (let’s hope, though, that release isn’t a fiery crash! Although, it’s summer! It certainly could be. Disaster stories are popular. Look at the Titanic, or books about people who survived a plane crash in the Andes.)

Let’s take a quick look at five common modes of transportation, and what they could bring to your story.

First, the plane. You’ve got planes of all shapes and sizes to choose from, and more than 100 years of aviation. But they all fly above the common worries and fears of ground-bound folks. They get there fast, and there really is no escape (except by parachute, death or magic) until the plane lands.

The Dream Bible says to dream of airplanes is to dream about Continue reading