Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Will I See You at the Reunion?


A few years ago, my best friend from college and I stood on the threshold of a dorm room at our alma mater.  We surveyed the scene, and she said what I was thinking:  “It’s smaller, right?  It wasn’t this small when we were here.”  It was, in fact, that small.  The good news was that the prison issue sheets were so rough they exfoliated our skin while we slept.  When we ventured into the common bathrooms, my friend pulled back the shower curtain on one of the stalls and exclaimed, “Oh. My. Word.!”  If you knew my friend, you would know this was the equivalent of blue streak from a sailor. 
Coarse sheets and grungy shower stalls aside, I’ve attended all of my college reunions, every five years.  My attendance is partly due to my mom who attended the same college and is a firm believer that reunions are must-attend events.  Our reunions aren’t wild parties by any stretch of the imagination, but they are an opportunity to revisit college traditions, reconnect with friends, and interact with women who are sharing comparable challenges and experiencing similar milestones.  Both my mom and I have found that the relationships we had while at school are just one piece of reunion:  It’s the opportunity for new relationships that is an unexpected delight.

I have to admit, I haven’t made an effort to attend any of my high school reunions, and I wonder if they would be as fulfilling as my college events.  I somehow doubt it, but maybe I’m really missing out. 

I never miss my annual family reunion, which happens every summer.
  It’s just the immediate family, and as the grandkids get older, it has become more of a scheduling puzzle, but we try to do it just the same.  We squeeze a lot into a short span of time: a badminton tournament, a scavenger hunt, Uncle Doug’s steak tips on the grill, and a sleepover in Nana’s room.  And t-shirts!  We have a new t-shirt every year, which we wear around town during the scavenger hunt.  This prompts questions from strangers like, "Are you part of a sports team?"  No, but we're great at badminton! 


Your turn:  Are you a reunion-goer? Avoid them like the plague?  College, high school or family? 

ABOUT A DOG is Out Today or How Did I Get Here?

My editor: “You’re going to need to write sex scenes.”

Me: “That’s cool. I like sex.”

My editor: Blink, blink.

Me: “Aaaand that came out wrong.”

It was June of 2015. I was in NYC, shopping for a new agent. This go round I wanted to actually meet the agents under consideration. You know, make eye contact, check out the grip of their handshake, examine their office, the whole shebang. I had quit my part-time job the year before, as the writing thing was moving from hobby to career, and I felt like I needed to treat it accordingly.

While meeting and greeting agents, I also took the time to visit my editor in her lair. It was pretty cool to walk into the building, get through some intense security and arrive at the floor where my editor resided. There were a few things that were “off” however. Apparently, the latest merger was causing some serious restructuring to happen. As I walked through the offices, I noticed most of the staff were in the process of packing. Huh.

Several years prior, I had survived the personnel gutting that had happened in the city of Phoenix. I remembered what it felt like (awful) and I was beginning to have the same hinky feelings at my publisher’s office. The writers’ rumor mill had been grinding out tales of market saturation, and authors’ series being canceled, etc. and so forth for many months. I'd heard the rumors but didn’t take heed until I stood there amidst the boxes.

View from the top of the Empire State Bldg
on the same trip.
So, while enjoying the view from my editor’s window, I asked her point blank what else she felt I could write because suddenly the need to diversify felt imperative. She didn’t hesitate. She turned to her floor to ceiling bookcase and pulled five books that she then pushed across the desk at me.

“This. You can write this,” she said.

I looked at the pile. They were romantic comedies. Oh, the irony! You see my journey as an author began writing romantic comedies (one of my very favorite genres) for Harlequin back in the aughts. It hadn’t gone well. In short, I was fired. But if my editor, who at this point had been with me for thirty books, felt I could do this then…maybe? I decided to give the genre a go.

Life was happening pretty fast for me at this point. My oldest hooligan was starting high school, and I was in deep, deep denial. Writing a romantic comedy gave me an outlet for all of the feels I couldn’t dump all over him. After spending a month thinking about the plot and writing an outline, I wrote 450 pages in thirty days. Crazy, right?

My new agent, who had signed me to be a mystery writer, got a manuscript dumped on her that she had no idea was coming. Surprise! The best part of this was when she read the manuscript and declared, “You wrote a perfect book!” This confirmed my decision to hire her, which actually came about because when I stopped by her office, she’d had cupcakes made to match the cover of my last book. Yes, that tipped the scale because details matter!

Annie the day I found her.
That surprise book is ABOUT A DOG, a romantic comedy based upon my own experience of rescuing a puppy (our Annie) who I had found tossed out in an alley, except the characters are younger, prettier, funnier, and a smidgeon less neurotic than I am -- but just a smidgeon. In a nutshell, it's about going home, shenanigans, stray puppy dogs, mischievous elderly aunts, big laughs, shared tears, hot sex, and falling unexpectedly in love. 

So, that's how I got here, releasing ABOUT A DOG to the world. It's pretty exciting. It was definitely a challenge not to shove a dead body into the middle of the book but I refrained. And now, as in all writing endeavors, I have to sit back and see how this new genre fits me. Am I fraught with anxiety? Yes, but it's the good kind. In the meantime, I've been noodling around a really cool idea for a YA...

Now, how about you, Reds? Do you have any genres that are lurking just beneath the surface, looking to get out? What would you do if your publisher told you they wanted to see something different from you?

To celebrate the release of ABOUT A DOG, let's have a giveaway! Leave a comment and one lucky person will be randomly chosen to win a signed copy of the book, a tote bag, and swag!  Good Luck!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

It's easy, amidst the picnics and the cook-outs, to lose sight of the real purpose of Memorial Day.  My own experiences with the day include marching as a Girl Scout in the annual town parade, bringing colorful baskets of flowers to place on the graves of loved ones, and topping the day off with a backyard barbeque.  I imagine this is how most Americans spend the day, a mixture of solemn remembrance and happy celebration marking the start of summer. 

I did a little research to add to my meager knowledge about the day.  As many of us know, Memorial Day is always the last Monday in May and is the day Americans honor their fellow citizens who died while serving in the U.S. military.  What many people don't know is that the day didn't start out as Memorial Day.   In 1868, after the end of the Civil War, an organization of Union Veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic declared that May 30th was officially Decoration Day.  The birth of Decoration Day coincided with the establishment of national cemeteries, a necessity to accommodate the vast numbers of casualties sustained in the war.  Citizens would decorate the graves of those they lost in the war, and over time, cities and towns joined the remembrances.

Eventually, Decoration Day evolved into Memorial Day, and the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed by congress in 1968 and established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May.  They also declared the day a federal holiday, which took effect in 1971.  This created a three-day weekend for federal employees, and essentially, the rest of us.

So tell me:  How do you spend Memorial Day?  Visits to remember those who served?  Parades and boating?  And for those amongst us who aren't Americans, is there a similar tradition in your country?

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Are You a Starter or a Finisher?

Jenn with s-i-l Natalie in Jan 2009.
That scarf came in handy!
JENN McKINLAY: About nine years ago, I decided I was going to learn how to knit. For reals, this time. I had tried it before but there was a lot of counting and some of the stitches were akin to deciphering a secret code, honestly, ssk, yo, k1, p2, what did it all mean? I had started so many projects over the years with great enthusiasm but then life would happen and I never finished them. I was a grand starter and had a bag stuffed with miscellaneous skeins of yarn and unfinished projects like the ribbing from a vest, half of a beanie, and a quarter of a potholder. It was ridiculous. 

Newly determined, I tried to pick projects that I thought might actually get finished. I started with the basic scarf and hoped the stitch was complicated enough to be cool and hold my interest but could be accomplished faster than an incoming ice age. Halfway through the first very long scarf and it felt like a journey without end. 

It became clear that for me, knitting (like writing) bogged down in the middle at a crossroads I think of as the choice between punching through to the bitter end or abandoning all hope. I chose bitterness and refused to quit. Through sheer determination, and several episodes of Sherlock, I was able to knit my way into the homestretch and finish my first scarf. I'm not saying it felt like giving birth or finishing a manuscript, but there were some marked similarities, most notably the cool "Hey, I made that!" feeling at the end of it. Yes, there were some dropped stitches and I did have to go back and fix the random error, usually by ripping out several rows of knitting but for the first time I could remember I didn't mind.

My impatience years ago, during those first few projects, made it not worth it to me to go back and fix things even though they bugged me, which led to my eventual quitting. Now a little older and wiser and more determined, I had the patience to  fix things. I wasn't rushing for an outcome so much as trying to make the best possible scarf, hat, what have you, and I knew it would take as long as it took and I'd be happier if I fixed the stitches that bothered me. It was worth the effort and time to make it right. Essentially, I evolved into a finisher!

Jenn's current project.
Since then, I've gone on to knit blankets, hats, pillows, bags, etc. It's my reward at the end of the day for getting my writing done. It also soothes me when the writing goes poorly. At least I feel as if I'm accomplishing something even if it's just another square on a blanket or maybe it's mastering a pattern that had been difficult and I finally get it. I love those light bulb moments!

So, how about you, Reds? Are you starters or finishers? How do you get motivated to finish a project when it's a struggle?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Mysteries for Readers who Don't Like Mysteries


Can you believe it?  There are actually readers out there who don't like mysteries?!

A friend, who falls into this category, recently asked me for some mystery/thriller/suspense suggestions, a mystery gateway drug, if you will.  I had a few ideas, but I thought, who better to make recommendations to a reluctant mystery reader, than the Reds and all of you?  Here are my choices.  What would yours be?

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is one of the greats of suspense fiction, and its ongoing popularity would suggest it appeals to a broad readership.  The creepy characters and setting and the beautiful prose are sure to delight those who usually steer clear of the suspense shelves.

I always suggest newbies start with A is for Alibi, but every Sue Grafton book is a treat.  Why would I recommend a novel featuring a private investigator to non-mystery lovers?  Because Kinsey Millhone is a knock-out character.  Readers become engrossed in the story, but Kinsey is the real draw.  Once you spend time with her, I'm convinced you'll make quick work of the whole alphabet.

The third book in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, Faithful Place is mesmerizing and transports readers to a small neighborhood in Dublin where everyone knows everyone else's business, and yet, dark secrets remain.  The sense of place is so powerful and the drawing of the familial relationships is so sharp, I dare any reader to put this one down.

So tell me Reds and readers, which books do you recommend to readers who (gasp!) don't like mysteries?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Garden Time

DEBORAH CROMBIE: April and May are gardening madness months in north Texas. We have to get plants in before blistering heat shrivels them--and shrivels the gardener as well. We spend so much time and effort getting things just right, then hope we can bear to go outside to enjoy the fruits of our labors!

Speaking of fruits of our labors, I made the mistake of mentioning to the lady at the feed store the other day that I'd been gardening like crazy. Wherefore she whipped out her phone and showed me her acres of perfectly tended vegetables. And told me that she would can everything they didn't eat during the season. I slunk away, tail between my legs. My vegetable plot is a half dozen rather sad plants in pots on the south side of the house.

My garden is flowers, mostly native perennials. To recover a bit of self esteem, I thought I'd share it with you. But upfront I have to say that a lot of the credit goes to my fabulous lawn service guy, Agapito, who, although he runs weekly mowing and edging crews, is a true gardener. He does the major digging and planting, the mulching, and this year, the re-graveling of the flagstone walkways and the re-laying of the patio. I just buy stuff and say where I want it. 

I do get some hard graft credit, from two months potting multitudes of flowers (and my few measly veggies.) And every day there is weeding and picking up, etc., etc., etc. My list of garden chores is endless.

In winter, I find it hard to imagine that the garden will ever be pretty again. Especially this year, as we had extended very cold weather, and we lost a lot of plants ($$$$!!!!) But the spring renewal and replanting results are glorious! I have insanely--because we still have rose rosette virus here, and I've lost nearly two dozen vintage roses in the last three years--planted NINETEEN new roses. Send them blessings.

Here are snippets, and I wish the photos came near doing it justice. The garden wraps all the way around the house, so I am just showing you bits of the front and the back. I would invite you all for a garden tour if I could! And tea afterwards!

Two of the three front berms.

Mealy blue sage in the foreground, with Turk's Cap (not yet in bloom), Red Velour crepe myrtles (also not yet in bloom), cannas, coneflowers, and Mexican sage.

Yucca. zexmenia, yarrow, and skull cap in the foreground. The feathery tree is desert willow, adored by hummingbirds.

Red and purple salvia, guara, skullcap, Calla lilly, and winecup. And the ever-present coneflowers.
View from the driveway, which will be gorgeous when the Turk's Cap, acanthus, and Black-eyed Susans bloom.

The coneflowers in their bee-infested glory.

The front walk, with new Red Drift roses.

Two of my new David Austin roses, Lady of Shallot (which has yet to bloom) on the left, and Munstead Wood on the right.
The newly relaid patio!!! Thank you, Agapito!!! What a job that was!       
The patio with everything returned to its proper place.

Deck with pots, my haven.

And the new gas grill, the crowning touch!

We began this garden twenty-two years ago on a weedy, neglected ninety-year-old corner lot. It has grown and aged and evolved. Parts are unrecognizable from the original concept. I've learned, and the plants have taught me. Mostly, it is loved, not only by me, but by the birds and bees and butterflies. And, of course, the German shepherds, and my granddaughter, who is happy to pick the flowers, and can run on the relaid patio without tripping!

How about you, REDS and readers? Do you suffer from gardening fever? Are you growing flowers? Veggies? Or a tomato in a pot?

(I should add that I am always sore, and my nails are always FILTHY...)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Advice for a Happy Marriage

LUCY BURDETTE: John and I will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary next week. I feel so grateful to have a husband and a marriage that I can rely on for love, support, and lots of laughs. And that his kids, who were part of the package, have become my beloved family, too. Here we were on that day 25 years ago. #younganddumb

Every marriage has its challenges and heart of ours was probably negotiating a new relationship while becoming a stepfamily. Some statistics show that divorce rates for all marriages lie between 40 to 50%, with second marriages coming in at 60% or higher. There’s a reason for that—it’s hard! The kids have to cope with an upheaval in their lives, loss of their full-time parents, and two sets of rules (if they’re lucky and have both parents involved.) The divorced parents have to grapple with having contact with the parent of their children to whom they are no longer married, often for good reason. The stepparents have to face the reality that a peaceful, orderly life as they knew it has changed. I had been single for seven years when I married John—I had a cute little Cape Cod house, two cats who were always glad to see me and never talked back, and complete control over my schedule and my refrigerator. Making the adjustment was--ahem-- a challenge! #biggestchallengeever #notalwaysgraceful

At one point early in our marriage, we were advised to develop a schedule of positive reinforcement for the kids, where they earned points for things like picking up, cleaning the guinea pig cage, setting the table etc. And then let them choose prizes they could win once they reached a certain point total. We posted all this on the refrigerator. Molly's top choice was a big troll. 

One day John's brother and sister-in-law came over and Margaret noticed the list. In a perfectly flat voice, she looked at John and said: "But Roberta already won the big troll."

Thinking about what I’ve learned over this period of years, I wondered what I would have advised my younger self? #stillworkinprogress #advicefromme

1. If there is a choice, opt for being kind and generous. Corollary to that: How important is the stand you are taking right now? (See Still Working, above...) #channelDalaiLama

2. In tough times, remember the things that attracted you to this person. (Let’s assume for now that these were positive!) Are they still there? #worthfightingfor

3. Every day thank God and Universe for my John! #Lucy'sgotthebigtroll

What's your advice for a happy marriage or partnership?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Rhys on Downsizing

RHYS BOWEN: Hallie's post on Monday, on tossing out spices, herbs from her pantry touched a nerve with me. I am not planning to move or downsize or anything but I know I'll have to some day.
I have a good friend who has just moved into an upscale retirement community. She has a large apartment, gourmet meals, plenty to do, from lectures to yoga to concerts to trips to places of interest. I have to admit it does have its appeal. So I'm thinking... someday. If I were on my own, I might well do that.

And I have recently become fascinated with that show on tiny houses. I've tried designing a few tiny houses in my head but I'm always put off by having to climb a ladder to get to my bed. No way I'm going to do that in the middle of the night!

But then I look around my six bedroom house, each room filled with--well, stuff. And I ask myself what I would want to keep if I had to move to a small space. And the answer is "Not very much." Photos of the family, definitely. A Queen Anne writing desk.
A glass topped table filled with little boxes.
 My pride and joy that is a Gaugin numbered print (and I was thrilled when I saw its brother in the Gaugin museum in Tahiti). A couple of other paintings, but that's about it.

I have become less attached to things as I get older. I could easily give away all my furniture. Many of my clothes. Most of my books (except for my Agatha Christie collection and one each of all of my books). I'd probably have a hard time parting with my Agatha teapots, my other awards.

We were at our condo in Arizona this weekend for my grandson Sam's graduation. One of the reasons I love the condo is that it is only stocked with what we really need. Furnished from scratch. Nothing superfluous! While I was there I sat looking around me, thinking "I could let all of this go, apart from my adorable ceramic man from Mexico and a couple of Native American pots. But then would the Native American stuff even look right outside Arizona?

So I've vowed to start eliminating as soon as we return from vacation in Europe. I've already weeded out boxes and boxes of books but now the time has come for pictures and ornaments. My collection of paperweights that has not been taken out of a box for years. Ditto my Indian elephants. I will keep weeding out until I will become an Eastern sage, living with the minimum around me and meditating..... well... not quite.

So how about you? What would you hang onto if you had to downsize?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

All About Your Name

The Women of Letters logo
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Do you still write letters? I mean, letter-letters? It’s difficult for me, because my handwriting is so illegible, I honestly get emails from people saying “Thank you for your thank you note. What did it say?”

But the other day I participated in an astonishing event. Sponsored by Women of Letters, it’s an international program that asks women to write a letter on the topic of WOL’s choice, then read it out loud to an audience. 

I was thrilled to be invited. Until I heard their topic. We had to write “A Letter to My Secret.” My secret? It took a lot of thinking. And at some point, I was dismayed (?) to realize I have no real juicy secrets. I guess that’s a good thing—no, like, criminal record, or almost criminal record, no horrible encounters or crushing humiliating miseries. Any secret I thought of was—embarrassing. Or boring. Or embarrassing AND boring.

And then I got it. I would reveal—that I do not like my name.

Here’s a photo of us all on stage.

My letter began like this:

To: Whom it may concern:

Yes, I understand where you're coming from, completely. Because let me tell you, Whom, I never liked my name either. "Whom it may concern" works really well for you, and I wish I had thought of it. But I have had to make other arrangements

And then it went on:

It was 1963, remember. And it was bad enough being considered a farm girl when I wasn't, but what made it worse that was that my name was Harriet Ann.  Harriet Ann! 

When all the cool girls are Debbie and Linda, and you are nerdy bookie and unpopular, and named Harriet, it does not make for a pleasant junior high experience. In fact, when all I wanted to be was most popular, they voted me most individual. Harriet the individual. And they put my picture in the school paper upside down. They would not have done that to Debbie or Linda.

I could not understand why my obviously sadistic parents named me this. They tried to explain it, that it was a family thing, that my father, my biological father, was the music critic for the Chicago Daily News, and my great uncle Harry, or something like that, had introduced him to the music of Mozart. So they had, in gratitude, named me after him. Uncle Harry, not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Which would have been equally horrible.

I did my best, as geeky little Harriet, to overcome this name thing. Oh, you're saying, how about Harriet the Spy? She was cool. Yes she was, and had Harriet the Spy existed at this time, I would've been fine. And writing you about something else.  But there was no other Harriet except for Ozzie and Harriet. Ricky Nelson's mother? Are you kidding me?

It went on—we each read for about 8 minutes. (And I mentioned Harriet Vane, of course.) But wow, it was a memorable evening. 

I ended by revealing how I kinda like Harriet now.

Here’s another photo—this is me backstage with host Sofija Stephanovic, then Abeer Hoque and Callie Crossley,  then me, then Marianne Leone, Rose Styron and Claire Messud

And if you EVER get a chance to attend a Women of Letters event—we had a packed house at Oberon in Cambridge—please do. 

We’re not allowed to talk about what anyone else told—what happens at WOL stays at WOL. 

But people were laughing, and crying, and it was truly unforgettable. 

So Reds and readers—I won’t ask you to tell your secret. Not today at least. But—do you like your name? Have you always felt that way? What do you wish you were named?