Thursday, December 13, 2018

What We're Writing: Lucy Burdette

LUCY BURDETTE: I’m working on the first draft of a book called tentatively The Happiness Connection. This isn’t a mystery, it’s women’s fiction, and I’m enjoying (most of the time) the challenge of figuring out how to move a plot along without any dead bodies. Of course, there can and should be secrets and twists to give momentum to any story, but this does feel hard and different. I’m used to murder and its aftermath propelling the characters and their actions.

I’m not finished with the Key West mystery series, but The Happiness Connection is a project I’ve been thinking about for ten years and really wanted to tackle. The main character is Dr. Cooper Hunziker, a new assistant professor at Yale who is in a battle for tenure with three other psychologists—and balancing the launch of her unexpected self-help book on happiness. Here she is meeting one of her competitors…

From The Happiness Connection by Lucy Burdette

A voice floated from the office next to mine as I passed by. A woman with straight brown hair and ivory skin pulled her door wide open. Behind her, I caught a glimpse of hanging plants and paintings in vibrant colors. The floor was covered with a gorgeous Dhurrie rug in earth tones, and the standard-issue office furniture had been brightened up with crafty throw pillows. Not much in common between this space and my small office decorated with stacks of unpacked boxes. 

“I’m Mary Morris. I was out of town when you came to interview. Assistant professor, first year, studying the effects of communication strategies on the spread of infectious and insect-born diseases.” She laughed and added: “In laymen’s terms, to trumpet the Zika or not to trumpet? That is the question.”

“Nice to meet you.” We shook hands firmly, sumo wrestlers sizing up the competition. “Your office is gorgeous,” I said. 

Gargoyle courtesy of Ang Pompano
“Don’t be discouraged about your cubby,” she said, grinning. “It may be smallish and a little dark, but add a few lamps and bright pillows and presto—cozy! Besides, I almost took that space. You’re the only assistant professor in the department with a gargoyle view.”

She fell into step with me, slamming the door behind her and widening her blue eyes. “Are you having a book party for The Happiness Connection? My god, woman, I have to be frank. I was floored when I heard they hired you. Yale professors don’t do pop psychology.”  She laughed again, the faint lines radiating from the corners of her eyes crinkling adorably. “I guess you didn’t get that memo.”

I backed away, stunned by that much honesty. In case you’ve been living in a cave or don’t read women’s magazines or watch Dr. Oz, the pursuit of happiness has snowballed into a much bigger deal than when it was first introduced in the Declaration of Independence. Even bigger than getting fabulously rich or looking youthful and leggy, according to the latest issue of Woman Alive. And, I, Cooper Hunziker, Ph.D, am about to become one of the gurus. The biggest expert in America, with a fresh slant on how to tackle the problem of happiness that could change every woman’s life, if you believe the hoo-haw sent out by my book publicist. (I wouldn’t.) 

I didn’t feel like an expert: I felt like a fraud.

LUCY: So if you are a reader of plain fiction without murders and crimes, tell us about one that you've read and loved over the past year. And if you aren't, I'm curious about why not?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What We're Writing: Rhys and Queen Victoria

RHYS BOWEN: I seem to be going back in time with my writing. After writing two stand-alone novels set in WWII, my next book, coming out this February, is called THE VICTORY GARDEN and is about the Women's Land Army in WWI.

However, my work in progress, actually only just started, is going to be about Queen Victoria and the time she spent in Nice. When I was staying in Nice a few years ago, actually writing Naughty in Nice, I was surprised to learn that Queen Victoria spent the winter there, during her latter years. I hadn't known this. An enormous hotel had been built for her--the Hotel Regina Excelsior. It stands on a hillside above the city with fabulous views. She took over a whole wing with a retinue of 100. She brought her own bedroom furniture and chefs on a private train from England.... however, she didn't want anyone to know she was the queen. (I think they might have guessed with a regiment of Highland pipers accompanying her). She told everyone to call her Lady Balmoral.

So the working title of my book is LADY BALMORAL'S CHEF. And it's about a young woman who cooks for the queen and there's a murder and a lot of intrigue.

This is how it begins:

Lady Balmoral’s Chef

Chapter 1

London, September 1897
If Helen Barton hadn’t stepped under an omnibus, I might well still be sweeping floors and lighting fires in that dreadful house in St. John’s Wood. But for once I had followed my father’s advice.
“Carpe diem,” was one of my father’s favorite sayings. Seize the day. Take your chances. He usually added ‘because that might be the only chance you get.”

He spoke from experience. He was an educated man, came from a good family, and had known better times. As a second son of the junior branch he could expect no title or property that went with it, and was sent out to India to make something of himself.  He had married my mother, a sweet and delicate creature he met on one of his visits home. It was soon clear that she couldn’t endure the harsh conditions of Bengal, so Daddy had been forced to bring her home to England.

Daddy had received no help from the family but at last had fallen on his feet in a way and had held what was considered a prestigious position: he was a receptionist and greeter at the Savoy, London’s new luxury hotel.  His ability to speak good French and know how to mingle with crowned heads had made him popular at the hotel. He had patted the hands of elderly Russian countesses and arranged roulette parties for dashing European princes, for which he received generous tips. We had lived quite happily in the small town of Hampstead, on the northern fringes of London. My sister and I attended a private school. We had a woman who came to clean and cook for us. It was not an extravagant life, but a pleasant one.

            Until it all came crashing down when the demon drink overcame my father. He worked at an establishment where the alcohol flowed freely among the guests. He was invited to take a glass and it would be rude to refuse. So who would notice if he finished off a bottle?  His visits to the public house became more frequent. And one day he was found drunk on the job. That meant instant dismissal. He tried in vain to find another position but with no reference no respectable establishment would want him. We watched him sink lower and lower into depression and drunkenness. My mother died around that time. She was a genteel and sweet person who adored my father. They said she died of pneumonia but I think it was of a broken heart.
            We moved to a squalid two room flat above a butcher’s shop, with only cold water and an outside lavatory. Father occasionally picked up work writing letters for the illiterate, tutoring in French, but nothing that kept the wolf far from the door. And so it was, just before my fifteenth birthday, that he announced he had found a position for me. I was to leave the school that I adored and to become a servant, so that I’d earn money to feed father and Louisa and someone else would have to feed and clothe me. I was more than shocked. I was mortified. We might not be rich but I was from a good family. And the house to which I was sent was that of a nouveau-riche man who had made money in the garment business. His factories turned out cheap blouses for working girls. He and his wife were loud-mouthed and common.
            I pleaded with my father not to do this.
            “It’s only for a short while, Bella,” he said, patting my hand. “I promise you as soon as I’m on my feet again I’ll bring you home. Until then you are helping to make sure that your little sister does not starve.”
            What could I say to that? He always was a great manipulator.

I'm dying to get on with it, but holiday shopping, decorating and parties keep intervening. However I shall enjoy spending time with Bella Waverly, Queen Victoria and a cast of naughty and nice characters. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

What We're Writing: Hank's Big Reveal of The Murder List

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Well, wow, you all. Here's a moment. I'm second alphabetically, so today is my turn for what we're writing--and I am so thrilled! No one has seen this but my publisher/editor/agent types. So I'm crossing fingers and taking a chance. It hasn't even been through the proofreading stage yet, we're still in editing. Early days. Ish.

But THE MURDER LIST does have a cover! (Which we revealed on my newsletter--are you signed up for that? Many prizes will be offered soon! Click here. )

THE MURDER LIST:   Law student Rachel North will tell you, without hesitation, what she knows to be true. She’s smart, she’s a hard worker, she does the right things. She’s successfully married to a faithful and devoted husband, a lion of Boston’s defense bar. She's a rising-star intern in the prosecutor's office. Problem is—she’s wrong. And if she takes one false step in this cat-and-mouse game, the battle for justice will become a battle for survival. What is the murder list? Who is on it? And who is next?  

(And who is the woman on the cover? She will change everyone's lives.)
Now, just for you, here are the first two pages.

  We never fight. Not in the past six years, as long as we’ve been married. Not even in the months before that. It isn’t that Jack is always right or I’m always right. Usually our disagreements are about things that don’t matter, so it’s easier and quicker for me to acquiesce. Jack’s a lawyer, so he likes to win. It makes him happy. And that’s good.  But now on a Saturday morning in May, sitting face-to-face across our breakfast table in sweats and ratty slippers, we’re definitely on the verge of a real fight. This time, the fight matters. This time I have to win.

“I forbid it,” Jack says.

I burst out laughing—all I can think to do—because “forbid” is such an odd word.

“Forbid?” I say the word, repeating it, diluting it, undermining it. “What’re you gonna do, honey, lock me in the castle tower? You’re not that much older than I am. Come on, sweetheart. Get real. Have some more coffee. Read your Globe.

He doesn’t look up from the Metro section. “It’s absurd, Rachel,” he says into the paper. “That woman is evil. Plus, I can’t understand why you’d want to fill your brain with that kind of . . .” 

He shakes his head as he snaps a page into place, the newsprint crackling with his impatience. “Absurd. An exceedingly unwise decision on Gardiner’s part. And yours, too, Rach.”

I take a sip of dark roast to defuse my annoyance and to clear the looming emotional thunderstorm. I know his problem isn’t my summer internship in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office. Jack’s impatience with me is fueled by the headlines he’s reading, news stories that feature his name. Jack hates to lose. Especially in court. And especially to Assistant District Attorney Martha Gardiner. 

My new boss.

Martha Gardiner. The woman Jack usually refers to as “Satan in pearls.” He never laughs when he says it.

“Honey?” I soften my voice, knowing there are many ways to win. Law school is teaching me that.  “It’s only for three months. I’m required to do it. All the 2L students are, or we can’t be 3Ls. And then we can’t graduate. And there goes all that law-school tuition you’ve loaned me. Plus, we’ve planned the whole thing. We’re gonna be partners. You’ll get me on the murder list. And we’re a team. Your very own word. Remember?”

“Team? Certainly doesn’t feel like it. I thought you chose a side.” He lowers the paper, one inch, looks at me with narrowed eyes. “And not that side. Not hers.”

“But—” How do I handle this?  He pays the bills, at this point at least. As a student-- at 36, the world’s oldest law student--I have zero income. You’re my investment, he told me. I took it as a compliment. “But—”

“There are no ‘buts.’ Gardiner’s a predator. She maligns the law. Twists it. Corrupts it. Her every instinct is to destroy and defeat.” The newspaper barrier goes back up.

I can’t escalate this, so I’ll ignore the fact that prosecutors are supposed to be the champions of law and order. Jack’s oversensitive because Gardiner’s the one prosecutor who can beat him. My dear husband is not the most reliable narrator, though, and he’s probably exaggerating when he spins me stories about her disturbingly unfair and manipulative tactics. But Martha Leggett Gardiner is a touchy subject.

Jack’s frown, hidden by newsprint again, chills me. I’ve seen that same expression in the courtroom, and it’s never a good sign for the witness he’s about to interrogate. But I’m not his witness. I’m his wife.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It's a twisty triple triangle of domestic suspense! (I made that line up myself.) And I cannot wait for you all to read it.

It's coming August 20!  And you can pre-order now, just saying.   

Does it sound good?  (And tell us--what are you reading now? Anything great?)   

Monday, December 10, 2018

What We're Writing: Hallie's parachute jumpsuit

  • HALLIE EPHRON: Fanfare! It's WHAT WE'RE WRITING WEEK! I go first with this  condensed excerpt from CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR (August 2019, Wm Morrow) which seems utterly appropriate after last week's take-down of fashion trends (thanks, Julia!) 

Background: Emily Harlow is a 30-something professional organizer. She's filming a ritualized (see Marie Kondo) clearing-out of her own closet, keeping only those items that spark joy, when she comes across turquoise jumpsuit that brings back memories. A decision looms... 

PS: I really did have a turquoise "parachute jumpsuit" which I loved. I wore it so many times that I wore out the seat. Here's the only picture I can find: a headless me wearing it at my daughter's 7th birthday party.

CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR by Hallie Ephron - first ever peek
What have you held onto even though you know you'll never wear it again... though fashion trends go around and come around, so you never know!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Sunday Dinner: Couscous and Apple Cider Cake

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Two Sunday dinner recipes, since my couscous roasted veg dish is barely harder than popping a frozen pizza in. I've been eating a lot of couscous lately because 1) I love it and 2) it's even easier than pasta, which is really saying something. I had loads of winter veggies left over from the Thanksgiving shop (and the last CSA box) so I decided to use a bunch up. I also had walnut pieces left over, which made me think of a beautiful roast veg and walnut salad I had in California. The only thing I had to go out to buy was the Feta cheese.

Couscous with roasted winter vegetables

Cube assorted winter vegetables, toss in oil with some salt and pepper. I had two different squashes, onions, carrots, beets and brussel sprouts. Roast them until fork-tender.

Prepare couscous according to package directions. I cooked mine in chicken broth (also left over from Tgiving.)

When the veggies are done, toss them with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of walnut pieces and balsemic vinegar to taste. I was making enough to serve maybe two for dinner, and I used 2 tablespoons of vinegar.

Mix in the couscous, sprinkle with feta cheese. Eat quickly so you can get to the really good part of the meal: desert!

Joan Emerson (via Betty Crocker) provided us this recipe for Apple Cider Donut Cake, which made everyone drool in yesterday's comments section.

Mix together
1 box Super Moist™ yellow cake mix
3/4 cup apple cider
1/2 cup butter, melted
4 eggs
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Beat with electric mixer for two minutes.
Stir in 1 cup coarsely shredded peeled tart apples (2 medium)

Pour batter into greased and floured twelve-cup Bundt pan.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 35-40 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Cool in pan for twenty minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack.
Place a plate or waxed paper under the cooling rack.
Melt 3 tablespoons butter; mix together 1/4 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon.

Brush the cake with melted butter; use your hand to press sugar/cinnamon mixture up the side and over the top of the cake. Wait twenty minutes and repeat.

Cool cake completely; store loosely covered.

Sounds perfect for a cold winter night to me! How about you, dear readers? What are you cooking or eating today?