Michille: Stages of Intimacy

With Valentine’s Day in the recent past and all the posts (not necessarily here) about love, intimacy and swiping right, I was reminded of an RWA session I attended years ago with Linda Howard in which she presented Desmond Morris’s 12 stages of intimacy as a means to build sexual tension in a story. It comes from his Intimate Behaviour (© 1971), which I looked to buy and couldn’t find until my good 8LW pal Kay gave me her copy a couple of years ago.

One mention in the book that I recently delved into is play-fighting as a stage of intimacy (Chapter 5: Specialized Intimacy). I’ve used that in my stories and, at the time, I didn’t consciously know it was one, or part of one. I’ve read it in other stories. At times, I’ve read it done well and others, I’ve started reading the sequence and rolled my eyes and blew past it because it was too cliché. Morris highlights the possibility that it could escalate into something that is far different from the initial idle start to the play-fighting. That’s when it gets interesting and can be useful in storytelling. Does something go a little too far, then retaliation, then pay back, facial expressions change, play-fighting changes to not playing, or into something else entirely. Is it violence or sexual foreplay?

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Michille: Happy Valentine’s Day

St. Valentine is thought to be a real person, recognized by the Catholic Church, who died around 270 A.D. It is thought that he was beheaded by emperor Claudius II for helping soldiers wed. There is some question about this as there was another St. Valentine who helped Christians escape harsh Roman prisons who was then imprisoned himself, fell in love with his jailor’s daughter, and signed his love letters to her “From your Valentine.” There are about a dozen St. Valentines plus a pope. The most recent saint was beheaded in 1861 and canonized in 1988, and the pope of that name lasted about 40 days. Odd history for a romantic holiday – a lot of beheadings involved.

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Jilly: Lighter Days Are Coming

Are you enjoying the holidays? It’s been a year like no other, but hopefully you’re managing to find a silver lining under all that cloud.

Over the last few days I’ve started to feel really energized. It’s not Christmas (bah, humbug!). It’s partly the prospect of a new year—I’m all in favor of putting 2020 to bed, and I love the idea of a fresh start, even if my rational self knows New Year’s Eve is an artificial construct. Mostly I’m super-happy because we’ve passed the winter solstice.

Last Monday, 21stDecember, was the shortest day and longest night of the year for people living in the northern hemisphere. In London the day was a tad short of 7 hours 50 minutes. Contrast that with the 12 hours of daylight we enjoy on the Spring equinox, and more than 16 hours on the summer solstice.

Long summer days are lovely, of course, but for me trends and momentum are more influential. At some subliminal level I notice when every day is a little lighter and longer than the one before, and I start to feel amazingly empowered and creative. Almost superhuman. It doesn’t matter that we’re still in winter, that the weather may be grim and the nights will be longer than the days for another three months. We’re heading toward the light 🙂 .

I’ve experienced this excited, fizzy feeling almost every year for as long as I can remember. I typically get ever more inspired and enthusiastic until May or June, sometimes right up to the summer solstice. Then my subconscious tends to down tools for a vacation and resists like mad if I try to start new creative projects in the fall. I always do better working on housekeeping and closing out projects, which is why I’ve chosen to edit in the autumn and publish in December.

All of which means that right now, time’s a-wasting. I need to roll up my sleeves and get to work on the next Elan Intrigues book, The Seeds of Destiny, or Annis’s book, ASAP. I’ve been thinking a lot about it over the last week or so and I feel ready to settle down and start writing.

I still have a little more housekeeping to finish up—I need to get The Pulse of Princes, my Elan Intrigues prequel novella, formatted and set up as a free download for mailing list subscribers. I have a few tweaks to make to my website. And of course I will enjoy the rest of the holidays, right up until New Year’s Day. But I can feel my energy building, and I feel excited to make a new start.

Happy holidays, everyone! I hope you’re looking forward to good times ahead 🙂 .

Are you a seasonal creature? Do you have a favorite day or time of the year?

Kay: Tis the Season for Reading

I don’t know about you, but I still have some holiday gift shopping to do. The boxes I have to send are sent, and last night I pre-gifted myself a set of six-oz. flannel sheets in a beautiful shade of blue. Yum! Just the thing to slip between on cold winter nights. But for the rest of my shopping list, I think I’ll buy books, purchased from my local independent bookshop, which carries a nice selection of new and gently used books. People are still staying home, and they need something to read. It’s a win!

Normally I like to linger in bookshops, but in This Year of Covid-19, I think lingering is not advised. So I went hunting for ideas so that I’ll be prepared when I get there.

The Library Journal has—among other lists—a comprehensive and interesting “best of” list of crime fiction (my favorite genre), but I have to tell you: there are a lot of books on that list that, were I compelled to make a selection based on available descriptions, I would seek out the cookbook department. This year I am unable to read or watch much that is difficult, violent, or suspenseful. And the adjectives for the various books on this list are “heartbreaking,” “high-octane,” “depravity,” “intense,” and “vigilante,” among many others that make me want to move along.

The book on this list that looked most interesting to me was Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden about drug activity on Native lands (dubbed “Native noir”), and there’s a cozy mystery (The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman) that doesn’t appeal to me but at least is not described as “depraved.” For those of you who enjoy a gripping read, the books on this list might be just what you’re looking for.

There’s also a seven-year-old boy whom I want to shop for, and I think I’ll look for a volume from the list that aMightyGirl.com recommends, called “Elementary, My Dear Mighty Girl: 50 Books Starring Mighty Girl Detectives.” It’s probably high time that he start learning that women hold up half the sky.

Another list I’m taking to the bookshop is BookRiot’s rather specific “7 Great Books by Writers of Color From the First Half of 2020.” This list has some titles that I find promising, starting with The Chai Factor by Farah Heron, a romance that’s described as “laugh-out-loud” funny, about a Muslim Canadian who’s on the verge of finishing her master’s thesis when she falls for Duncan, a member of the barbershop quartet now renting her grandmother’s basement. That sounds like something I’d write, in fact, and maybe I’ll just get that one for myself.

(And, for those of you who might be interested in checking out the efforts of the Ladies, here are the author pages of Jilly Wood, Jeanne Oates Estridge, Michille Caples, Justine Covington, Nancy Yeager, and me.)

I’m looking forward to a trip to the bookshop, because indie bookshops have been struggling through the pandemic. The American Booksellers Association estimates that one independent bookstore has gone out of business in each week of last year. (For a great graphic round-up of how a few of the indie bookstores are doing, check out this cartoon by Bob Eckstein.)

And for those who might not have a handy, local, indie bookstore to patronize—and if you don’t want to shop Amazon—check out Bookshop. It’s an online indie bookseller billing itself as the indie alternative to Amazon, and a chunk of its proceeds go back to small stores. It’s a bit of David to Amazon’s Goliath, but it might be worth taking a look.

What about you? Do you give books as gifts for the holidays? And if you do, what are you buying this year?

And to all of you—happy holidays!

Jeanne: Demonic Party Games

My work-in-progress, The Demon Wore Stilettos, is coming along well, with a target date for a first draft at the end of this year. It opens with Sam and Lil giving a party in Hell, along about 8,000 BC. 

Samael, the Demon of Pride, walked Lucifer to the front door of his apartment in the First Ring of Hell. “Thanks for coming.”

Lucifer was a short, skinny figure with leathery skin the color of sour cherries. In the two thousand years since he’d founded Hell, he’d shriveled, losing all resemblance to the bright morning star he had once been. Beneath the little horns poking out of the top of his head, his narrow face did not look happy. Behind him, his arrow-tipped tail swished angrily.

“Hell of a party.” He looked back into the cave, where the party was still in full swing. .

Sam’s quarters, like every other apartment in Hell, consisted of a huge cave sculpted from hardened lava. Near the back wall, a quartet of demons yodeled disharmonies while the audience pelted them with rotten figs. In the middle of the room, at a bar constructed from stalagmites and a slab of granite, a bartender mixed pus with boiling water for an endless line of takers, who shuddered as they slugged back the concoction and then got in line for more.

Around the room a dozen smudge pots burned, filling the air with sulfurous smoke. Several demons roasted wild boar sausages over the open fires while others, drunk on pus cocktails, tried to pee on the sausages. Here and there fights broke out when one of them was successful.

You all were so helpful in suggesting things that might go on in Hell’s daycare that I’ve decided to tap the hive mind for party suggestions.

What other kinds of activities might go on at a demon party? (Remember: this takes place approximately 8000 BC.) Hell often has technology before it shows up on Earth (because most technology is create in Hell) but not thousands of years before, so please stay within that constraint.

Jeanne: Things to be Thankful For

It’s been a tough year for most of us, so when Eight Lady Michaeline suggested we each do a post this week that focuses on things we’re grateful for, it sounded like an excellent idea. Here are my gratitude items, in no particular order:

Dogtooth Violet
  1. Only one person in my family has caught Covid-19. My 14-year-old grandson got a very mild case. He only discovered this because he got strep throat and his pediatrician ran a Covid test when he went in for the strep. Although he lives in a household of five, he was apparently perfectly content to hang out in his room with his computer and his Playstation and call for room service as needed.
  2. In addition to staying healthy, my family has managed to stay financially afloat. Since this includes one daughter who is a waitress and another who owns an event venue, this is pretty thank-worthy.
  3. Last spring, authorities shut down my favorite place to hike. This was initially not a gratitude item because it happened just as the woodland ephemerals were coming into bloom. The great thing that happened from this disappointment was that it forced me to break out of my routine and discover a ton of new places to hike. (I took the pictures on this post at a couple of them.)
  4. Places that I love to hike got a lot more crowded. This wasn’t great for me personally, but it’s exciting to see families getting out into nature who weren’t doing that before. I have my fingers crossed that by the time this is over it will be a habit for them because people who love nature, protect nature.
  5. The lack of opportunities to travel this year created a different opportunity–to sit in my chair and work on my current book. Thanks to that extra focus, I expect to finish a first draft before the end of the year.
  6. Last, but certainly not least, I’m thankful for the other Ladies. Behind every successful author is a strong community, and I’m so grateful to have found this one.
Large-flowered trillium
Bluebells

Kay: Columbo—A Hero for Our Time

Peter Falk—wearing his own raincoat, a $15 thrift store find—as Columbo

Lately I’ve been mostly unable to read or watch new fiction. I’m not sure why this is happening now, although lots of people have mentioned that between the U.S. elections and the pandemic, all they can read is books they know the ending to and all they can watch is reruns of The Great British Baking Show.

One of the TV programs I’ve been catching up on is Columbo, starring Peter Falk. It’s showing up at my house on a rerun channel on antenna TV, although I’m sure it’s available from fine streaming platforms everywhere. Even though every episode is constructed exactly the same way (the murder is shown on screen at the beginning of the show, so it’s more of an affable “police procedural” than a “mystery”), so far, I haven’t tired of it. I never thought to wonder why until I read this wonderful cartoon in The New Yorker.

For those of you who don’t want to click the link, the cartoon’s author, Joe Dator, says he’s been thinking about why he’s watching Columbo reruns. His analysis is pretty good, I think. He points to how Columbo is a relaxing kind of hero: he’s not a fancy dresser—far from it!—and his partner is a rescue beagle. He doesn’t carry a gun, much less shoot one. There are no car chases or foot races. Columbo’s success is due to his work ethic, and he’s not cowed or awed by the wealthy and privileged suspects he interviews, who live in exclusive enclaves and consider themselves untouchable by law enforcement.

“Let’s just say,” Dator, the author, concludes, “that there’s a bit of comfort and wish fulfillment in seeing this humble public servant walk into sumptuous mansions and make arrogant jerks who think they’re above the law finally face the consequences of their crimes.”

The final frame is the back of a head sitting at a desk in the Oval Office of the White House. “Oh, if only,” Dator writes.

Isn’t that the truth? Where’s a Columbo when you really need him?

Well, right now he’s on COZI TV, and, yes, I’ll be tuning in.

Jeanne: The Sprint Room

A couple of months ago, in a Facebook group to which we both belong, a friend who lives in Melbourne, Australia posted a plea for help. She wanted to start getting up at 4:30 a.m. to write. Would anyone be willing to join a sprint room with her to help provide some motivation/accountability?

Since my own work-in-progress was progressing a lot more slowly than I preferred, my hand instantly shot up. Four-thirty a.m. Melbourne time is 2:30 p.m. Eastern. It wasn’t my “ideal” writing time, which is early morning, but I hadn’t been managing to sit down each morning, so I didn’t have much to lose.

We didn’t set it up with the challenges/prizes/back-patting that I’ve experienced in other sprint events I’ve participated in. (Thank God. I’m as competitive as the next person, but for me competition and creativity don’t mix.)

We started out using Zoom as our platform, but soon moved over to a Facebook room within the original FB group. Other than the occasional power or internet outage, that seems to work well. Over the next couple of weeks, various writers joined the sprints. Most quickly decided it wasn’t a fit for them.

After that initial burn-in period, the group settled down to four of us who show up most weekdays. I live in Ohio, another lives in San Francisco, a third in London and the original requester, as mentioned, is in Melbourne. We are all over the map and all over the clock. Fortunately, the person with the most challenging start-time is the person who requested it.

The two of us who live in the States often start early (1 p.m. my time) and the others join in later. We generally open by chatting for a few minutes (about where we all our with our various Covid-19 levels and restrictions, about things going on with friends and family, about challenges or triumphs with our WIPs).

Then we start a series of half-hour sprints. It’s entertaining to watch what happens as the afternoon progresses. With each iteration of timer going off, it takes each of us a little longer to return from where we’ve been (Paris, Eden (the planet, not the garden), the Principality of Caldermor, and, of course, Hell). We stare into our computer cameras and blink silently, confused by the relativity of time and loath to leave the Land of Imagination. Often, we lengthen the sprints for 45 minutes or even an hour to allow for greater spans of concentration.

Organizationally, it’s very loose. If someone needs to leave early, they slide away. If other priorities call, they don’t show up. If someone doesn’t show up for several days in a row, we’ll check in to make sure they’re okay, but there’s no pressure. The group is designed more for support and motivation than accountability.

In August, before joining this sprint room, I penned 5445 words. In September, 16257 and in October, 16,785. Having this camaraderie essentially tripled my word count. Another month like the last two and I’ll have a first draft. (Woo-hoo!)

What experience have you had with sprint rooms?

Michaeline: A Zoom Ghost Story

Girl in a painting, underlit by a golden glow
Kate was on the sofa, in a Zoom meeting with her boyfriend. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)


Katie had snuggled into her afghan on the sofa, her gray and black Tabby nestled under her knees, and her laptop perched on them. Pete was on Zoom and it was Halloween – exactly one year after the terrifying events of 2019.

“Babe, it kills me that you’re there alone,” Pete said.

Kate pulled the afghan a little closer to her neck, and Tabby mewed in protest. “Don’t you dare come over. You’ve got chemo on Tuesday.”

“But if you’ve got no symptoms . . . you’ve been so careful.”

“Pete, stop it. Sky tested positive five days ago.” And she wasn’t going to tell Pete about the fever that had sent her to the sofa. He didn’t need that as well.

“Jesus, Sky too? I thought it was only Jessie. This fucking year, I swear . . . .”

There was nothing Kate could say to that; fortunately, Zoom let her nod along in sympathy. It had been a roller coaster of a year – her high school boyfriend, Jake, had turned out to be a cult leader and raised seven demons of hell last Hallow’s Eve. She’d had to drop a hay bale on him to save the tri-city area, and in her grief and guilt, she’d hooked up with Pete at Christmas and was in love by New Year’s Day. Pete was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day (Friday, 5 p.m. – all the bad news in 2020 had dropped on Friday at 5 p.m.), and her mother died from complications of eye surgery . . . shot in the eye by a rubber bullet on the third of July, dead on September fourth.

Tabby crawled out from under the afghan and curled herself around Kate’s neck.

Pete said, “Hey, Tabby, Tabby!” Tabby looked at him, ears forward. She liked Pete almost as much as Kate did.

The Zoom crackled and spit, and Tabby launched herself off Kate, and cowered under the side table across the room. “Hey, Pete, your camera is off. Pete?”

No answer. Which was par for the course. With her connection, she lost her Zoom companions at least three times a week. The static, like an old-fashioned television on an empty station, was new, though.

“Katie, Katie, Katie.” A horrible sound, a man’s voice was heard through the hisses on the screen, vaguely reminiscent of somebody calling a cat. Only Jake had called her Katie.

“Pete, is that you? What’s going on?”

“Not Pete, Katie.” There was a long pause, and Katie felt chills going up her spine and down her upper arms in marching rows of goosebumps. “Pete.” This was almost spit out, like the person behind the Zoom camera had bitten into the pit of a cherry. Another long pause, and Kate sought to organize her scrambling thoughts, but they eluded her. They ran for all the corners of her mind, leaving nothing but a blank space and this snowy screen. “Why, Kate? Why me? Not . . . .” Kate was frozen. “ . . . you?”

Ideas suddenly flooded into her head. She frantically hit the trackpad, trying to close the window, stop the program. She pressed on the power button once, twice, three times, and the third time for a long 15 seconds. Silence from the screen for this minute, but as soon as her finger released the power button, an evil laugh issued through the hissing fog of the computer.

She slammed the laptop shut, and instinct prompted her to roll off the sofa, crawl under the coffee table, and her butt caught on it, so she crawled across the floor, bringing the table along with her. Part of her mind wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of it, but the other part was wrapped up in fear.

The ceiling fan dropped, glancing off the coffee table, and knocking the laptop off the sofa. It flew open, still a screen with her desktop, and a Zoom app of black and white static fuzz. “I missed you, Katie.” Another long 15 seconds of static. “Come with me.”

“No!” Kate screamed. She tried to back away from the damned computer, when the oddest thing happened. A new person had been invited to the Zoom. It . . . it looked like her mother’s Zoom name. She crawled toward the laptop.

Little chunks of plaster rained down upon her, but the ceiling fan had brought down most of it when it fell. She allowed the new person to join the call. It couldn’t be her mother . . . it must be whoever bought her mom’s old desktop.

Two windows of static, but the one with her mom’s name was pink, and less hissy. It sounded almost as though someone was playing a theremin, or an electric harp with only three high strings. Whoo-whee-woooooo. “Kate.” It was her mother, she knew it. “I’m here.”

“Noooooooooooooooo.” It had to be Jake. Kate began mumbling the spell her friend had taught her that Hallow’s Eve. “I won’t stand for you running around. I won’t stand for you putting me down. I am mine. I am mine. I am mine.” The hissing of static became more quiet, and then winked out . . . exactly like the old tube TV her mom had owned, not at all like the digital Zoom window. Pete’s dear face showed on the screen again.

“Kate, darling. What happened?”

“I . . . I’m not sure.” She could see her face on the screen, weirdly reversed as it always was on a Zoom call, but now covered with plaster dust. She wasn’t ready to throw the coffee table off her back yet.

“Kate, who are you talking to on the other screen?”

Kate looked at the pink screen, now pulsating with burgundy and returning to a warm, comforting color. She could barely hear the strains of the three notes. “Love you, Kate.” It was a low whisper, and another long pause, as if gathering the energy to say a few more words. “I’ll take care of him.”

And just like that, Zoom chimed and informed her that LindaT&J had left the call.

“Kate, are you OK? Dammit, I will come over.”

“No, it’s OK, Pete. I think it’s done. Stay on the Zoom with me for a little longer? It’s almost midnight?”

“Sure, Kate-my-dear. I’ll stay on all night.” Tabby picked her delicate way through the wreckage of the ceiling fan, and unerringly pointed her butt at the screen. Pete laughed and Kate giggled and pulled the cat under the coffee table. It was going to be all right. Somehow, everything was going to be all right.

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Jeanne: Your Worst Day

A couple of weeks ago my daughter recommended a documentary series on Netflix called Song Exploder. The show, which is hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, began life as a podcast. Each episode explores the creation of a single song with the songwriter. There are currently four episodes available on Netflix. The one with Lin-Manuel Miranda, discussing the creation of “Wait for It,” Aaron Burr’s song from Hamilton, was particularly fascinating.

There’s a lot of good stuff in it, including Miranda’s anecdote about being struck with inspiration while riding the subway to a friend’s birthday party. He arrived at the party, drank half a beer and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.” If you’ve ever had one of those “grab it now because it may not stick around” flashes of inspiration, this will resonate with you.

The bit that slammed into me like a subway train, though, was where Hirway talks to Alex Lacomoire, music director and orchestrator for Hamilton, about whether Aaron Burr (who eventually killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel) was a villain.

“He is a person who did villainous things,” Lacamoire says. I thought he was trying to sidestep the question until he went on. “If you are judged by your worst day, who would any of us be?”

Let’s hear that again: If you are judged by your worst day, who would any of us be?

Have you ever felt like someone took a metaphysical baseball bat and whacked you between the eyes? That’s what this statement felt like to me. The fact is, any of us, at our worst, is not particularly admirable. Even Jesus had that weird day with the fig tree.

One of the reasons Lacamoire’s question hit me so hard, I think, is because Lilith, the protagonist in my work-in-progress, is a villain in my first two books. Readers almost universally loathe her. I know she’s unlikely to sell many books for me but for some reason I feel compelled to tell her story anyway.

Because the converse of Lacamoire’s statement is, “If we were judged by our best day, who would any of us be?”