Elizabeth: The Power of Love

There was an article in yesteday’s New York Times that caught my attention.  It was entitled:  “If ‘Pain Is an Opinion,’ There Are Ways to Change Your Mind.”  The basic point of the article was that pain is not something communicated to our brains by “pain nerves” or some other specific source, but rather something that originates in our brain.

“All pain is real, no matter what is causing it.  But also, all pain is made by the brain in response to the information available to it.” ~ Lorimer Moseley, University of Australia

Really? Continue reading

Jilly: Impressed and Inspired

This week I read the opening pages of a terrific story by a new-to-me author. Sadly I can’t offer you a recommendation because the pages were a contest entry. I don’t even know the author’s name yet, though I’ll be checking the contest website when the finalists are announced.

I try to judge at least one writing contest per year—mostly because in the past I’ve received super-useful feedback on my own entries, but also because I learn a lot. It typically takes me four to six hours per entry to read the pages, decide on the scores, and write the comments. Many entries are by writers still in the process of learning the basics, but I’ve never read one totally without merit. The challenge is to identify and acknowledge the writer’s strengths, isolate the areas that require work, and make constructive, actionable suggestions without rewriting. It’s hard to do well but even if the pages aren’t my cup of tea it never feels like a thankless task. Whether or not the entrant appreciates my efforts, I get valuable food for thought and most of my insights are applicable to my own writing.

This contest is the first time ever I finished an entry in under an hour. Almost immediately I started reading for pleasure. Then I sipped my coffee and mentally wrote the rest of the book. After that I got to work, which mainly required a heartfelt but most un-judge-like squee. And then I set to thinking about what had made my reading experience so good.

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Jeanne: Too Many Buts, Not Enough Therefores

I recently read a book that didn’t quite work for me.

The writing was strong and the author did a masterful job of pulling all the diverse plot threads together, but something about the story somehow missed. It took me a couple of days of analyzing it to put my finger on the problem: too many buts, not enough therefores.

If you’re not a long-time follower of this blog, that phrase may not make sense to you. (It may not make sense even if you are.)

Let me explain.

The single greatest “Aha!” moment during my time in McDaniel’s Romance Writing Program was hearing Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about “but and therefore.” Here’s a short (2:14) video of the two men explaining this rule to a classroom of students at NYU.

Here’s an even shorter recap: When you lay out the arc of your plot, the individual events should connect to each other via “but” or “therefore.” Like this: 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.

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Jilly: Short Story–Challenge Accepted

The MacHugh saga continues 🙂 .

Last week I wrote a short story about Jordy MacHugh, the Canadian music teacher who inherits a derelict estate in the Scottish Highlands and decides to build an outdoor opera house by the sea.

Elizabeth continued the story and raised the stakes by introducing Jenny, a tourist from Kansas, who discovers twin babies in a basket, courtesy of the mysterious MacHugh Blessing Stone.

Maeve, the local seer, pronounces Jordy, Jenny and the twins a family, but as Jenny observes (via Kay) in Friday’s writing sprint, the whole setup screams Trouble with a capital T.

Read on to find out what happens next. Using the prompts from Friday’s writing sprint, our character(s) face a challenge. And the story includes the words equipment, belly, aimless, baffling, noise, bloke, fuzzy, clever, beekeeper, footwork, glass, dream, corduroy, setup, lump and artist.

Challenge Accepted

They couldn’t go on this way. Somebody had to make this village of dreamers face reality, and apparently that someone was Jenny.

Sunday service was over, and she emerged from the small stone kirk into the sunlit, postage-stamp sized churchyard. She settled the oversized wicker basket at her feet and chatted politely with the villagers, all twenty of them. They were kind and friendly, but their warm welcome wasn’t for Jenny herself. Not really. Her true value to them was as companion-dash-housemate to the new laird, Jordy MacHugh, and as carer for his adopted twin daughters.

“Swap you!” Moira from the But & Ben bistro, a vision in purple tweed and moss green corduroy, handed Jenny a covered basket and picked up the larger one that contained Elspeth and Isla, snug as a pair of bugs in their fuzzy romper suits. She deftly lifted the blanket and checked for rattles, nappies and all the equipment required to keep the twins clean, dry and contented for a couple of hours. Then she departed for the village at a brisk clip, offering Jenny a conspiratorial grin over her shoulder that said I know what you’re up to.

She didn’t. Nobody in the village did, and Jenny intended to keep it that way.

She’d fallen into her current role through a combination of her own aimless lifestyle and Maeve from the Pointing Dog’s fancy footwork. Now people were making assumptions. She had to unwind the setup with Jordy before somebody got hurt.

The laird-come-lately let himself out of the side door that led to the organ loft, bell-tower, and Maeve-the-Beekeeper’s rooftop hives. Jordy was Canadian—an incomer like Jenny—but you’d never have known. It was baffling, but from his curly red-gold hair to his Sunday best kilt, he belonged in the Highlands. He smiled at Jenny and she swallowed her nerves down deep into her belly, where they burned worse than Moira’s infamous loganberry liqueur.

“What’s that?” Jordy raised an eyebrow at the covered basket.

“A picnic. I thought we might walk out to the lighthouse.” Jenny tried to sound casual. “Moira said she’d watch the twins for the afternoon.”

“Fine idea.” He was even starting to add a Highland overlay to his transatlantic drawl. He treated her to another easy smile that faded to a concerned frown as he met her eyes. “Right. Let’s go.”

He settled the basket on one muscular arm, offered her the other, and they strolled out of the churchyard and along the cliff path that led to the lighthouse.

“What is it?” he asked as soon as they were safely alone. “Problem? Can I help?”

“No. Yes.” Jenny dropped his arm and turned to look out to sea. High in the cloudless sky a mob of bright yellow-headed gannets plummeted at high speed, one after another, toward the glass-smooth ocean. “We need to talk about the twins’ future. To find the right person to care for them after I’m gone.”

For a full minute there was no sound but the waves below the cliff, washing gently against the rocks. Then the scuffing noise of a basket hitting the turf.

“Gone?” Jordy echoed. “What do you mean, gone?”

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Jilly: Short Story–The Laird’s Legacy

I loved Elizabeth’s short story Hands Off! using last week’s Writing Sprint prompt words.

That excellent tale inspired me to try a Highland-based short story offering a nod to Jeanne’s recent trip to Nova Scotia and using this Friday’s prompts: a character who found something unexpected, incorporating the words basket, symbol, siren, bottle, freewill, baby, future, confusion, absurdly, little, grabbing, aroma, banana, vision, identical and robbery.

Here goes!

The Laird’s Legacy

“As you can see, we’re jam-packed…” Moira Douglas gestured to the dining room behind her. The But & Ben was rarely full in high summer, let alone in early October, but tonight every family in the village was there, trying to look casual and hoping Moira’s home cooking and smooth talking would persuade the visiting Canadian where Charlie the Solicitor Advocate’s carefully worded suggestions had failed.

Jordy MacHugh smiled politely. He had to duck his head to get through the doorway but now he stood tall, blocking the entrance. It was an assertive sort of politeness, worthy of his long-dead ancestors, masters of cattle raiding and border robbery. “The Pointing Dog had a kitchen fire. They had to close for the evening, so they sent me over here. They promised you’d feed me.”

Of course they did. There was a lot of him to feed, and while he’d reportedly made fast work of a full Highland breakfast complete with porridge and black pudding, that was eight hours ago. Since then Charlie had walked the incomer all the way round the boundaries of the McHugh property with little more to fuel them than a packet of oatcakes and a flask of coffee.

Right on cue, Jordy’s stomach rumbled. “I’m starving hungry, and it’s a twenty-mile drive to the next village. Can you please squeeze me in somehow?”

“Well…” Moira drew out the word like a siren call. “There’s a table in the kitchen. You could sit there and chat to me while I cook. The food’s the same.”

His face lit up like the aurora borealis on a clear winter’s night. “That’d be great. Thank you.”

Moira seized the advantage. Continue reading

Jilly: Short Story–The Naked Truth

I had so much fun playing with Elizabeth’s Friday writing sprint words last week that I decided to do it all over again. So here’s a warm, sunny short story about a character who was featured in a newspaper, using the prompt words bikini, flirtation, blowtorch, confidential, parcel, baptism, excuse, dishonest, lump, warning, needle, heavenly, twisted, mindless, fake and sky.

The Naked Truth

Juliet Indigo left the shelter of her thatched bungalow and strolled down the beach to the water’s edge. It was hard to look nonchalant while wearing nothing but fake tan, but she gave it her best shot.

She’d brought a bikini for this mission, more in hope than expectation. It was hanging in the secure lockers provided at reception, together with her phone, her flip-flops, her toiletries and her travel bag. Undercover Island promised its visitors absolute privacy and enforced that guarantee by stripping them of all their possessions on arrival. Juliet had stalked, starkers, through a scanner before being escorted to her bungalow by an equally naked butler.

She was unclothed, unarmed and entirely incommunicado. The only upside was that Alpha Lima, the agent she’d been sent to meet, would be similarly stripped down. There would be no weapons, no backup, no cameras, no notebooks. No innocuous-looking parcel or fully loaded thumb drive. Just a one-time face-to-face no-witness exchange of super-ultra top-secret confidential information.

For her first solo mission, this was a baptism of fire. With a blowtorch.

A warning prickled the nape of her neck Continue reading