30 August 2009

The coffee maker just barked

I'm staying at the Hampton Inn slightly east of the middle of Illinois and like every other hotel/motel I've ever stayed in, it has two major problems:
  1. not enough outlets
  2. the coffeemaker in the bathroom
The first is mind-boggingly. Hotel designers and architects know that people travel with computers, iPods, phones, curling irons, etc., but only put in one extra outlet in the bathroom and one in the bedroom, forcing us to crawling under the bed to unplug the single lamp in the room and plug in the computer.

Have you ever crawled under a hotel bed? Don't. Ew.

The second is equally baffling. Food and drink in the bathroom? Not unless I'm hiding, thank you very much (and every time I see the coffeemaker in the bathroom, I think of the Frasier episode where Niles and Lilith hook-up, and when Frasier comes to Lilith's hotel room the next morning, Niles and his eggs benedict hide in the bathroom).

The arrangement forces me to use the remaining plug in the bedroom for my coffee, carrying water to it one cup at a time to make coffee.

And as people who know me know, that's a lot of trips. In fact, the coffeemaker just "barked." Spewing out the last of the hot water as it gave up the ghost. Sadly, the coffee it made is not worth the sacrifice.

I guess that's the third thing all hotels have in common. The in-room coffee leaves much to be desired.

28 August 2009

Finding inspiration in all the wrong places

I sometimes get great, if somewhat odd inspirations from strange TV, particularly when I'm putting off revisions. If I know something is wrong with a scene or a character, but not what, a long walk or redirecting my attention for a few seconds usually helps me figure out the problem. Now while some authors clean house during those redirection moments, I don't.

I prefer off-the-wall TV to vacuuming. There's a gold mine of personality quirks just waiting to be found in those shows. For instance, the show "How Clean is Your House" is why I have at least one clean-freak heroine.

For a while, the show was strangely addicting, namely because I was trying to figure out why anyone whose house looks like the inside of a garbage truck would allow cameras and women in pink fuzzy gloves through the door. Or what if people came into your home all the time? Would you clean every day? Become immune to the clutter? The answer to those questions was Liza, the heroine of ANAM CARA who never met a dust bunny she didn't vanquish from her public house, The Knight's End.

For a while, the British show "Time Team" provided perfect fodder, too. The premise is a bit cheesy--think rescue archeology. But as the archeologists reconstructed life from bones found at digs, I learned much about fatal wounds. Unfortunately, it doesn't air in the States and the U.S. version doesn't offer quite the same fodder for a medievalist like me.

Lately, I've been finding slight artistic boosts in the ghost hunting, haunted travels shows that overrun the cable channels. I love the pseudo scientific explanations for the creepy crawlies, the psychics who "channel" long-past events and the unrehearsed reactions (i.e. screams) by the professional hunters who actually think they've actually spied a ghost.

So far the shows haven't inspired a ghost-hunting hero or a haunted heroine, but they don't require a lot of attention and are perfect for a quick four-second break while I focus on a problem. Mindless entertainment is often fertile ground for the seeds of a great story--at least that's what I keep telling myself.

27 August 2009

Voting yes for universal healthcare

Sometimes I wonder why so many people work so hard to keep jobs we hate. Let's face it, most of us are whores. We work for the money.

And yes, on occasional, we experience a few moments of professional satisfaction for a job well done, but mostly we take it without so much as a kiss or a complaint.

I know from experience--and so do many of my friends--that no amount of money is worth the stress that fogs our focus, raises our blood pressure and twists worries so tight we can't sleep. And we know that stress is cumulative, building in our bodies over time--like plaque in our arteries--until our health is compromised for the rest of our lives.

Yet, when I say that slinging hash in a tourist trap has more allure than putting on my work clothes, many of these same friends react with horror. "You don't really mean that," is the most common response, followed by, "Be grateful you have a job."

Really? Does that mean the prostitute should just be grateful that the john didn't actually kill her? Sure, it's work. But at what cost?

Sadly, when pressed, most people continue to work in soul-sucking environments because of insurance needs. Either they have a condition that could kill them without continued medical care or they fear bleeding out in the ER if an accident happens because they don't have insurance and...

OMG, did I just talk myself into supporting universal healthcare?

Let me think about it.

Yep, I did. The stress in my job is short-term (I hope) and will go away soon. But what about other people? What about those who don't see the end of the road? The poor? Chronically ill? Children? Regardless of circumstances, I don't think insurance, or lack thereof, should drive our choices.

At the end of the day, most of us are willing to live with less stuff, and maybe even dumpster dive for dinner rather than work in place that slowly kills us, but few of us are willing to gamble with our health or our family's health in the short-term even if it means we saddle ourself with long-term, chronic illnesses.

22 August 2009

Passing on the gypsy gene

I'm in the middle of my first weekend trip with my 12-year-old niece, and she is a great traveling companion. She liked strolling through airports instead of waiting at the gate as much as I do, happily ditched our Day One itinerary to do a little shopping, and even steered me away from the temptation of the Apple store here in Charleston with a not-so-subtle reminder that this was her birthday trip not mine.

As most of you know, I'm happiest when I'm on the road. Something about throwing a few clothes in a bag, grabbing my passport and hopping on a plane or train (or even driving the POS Vue I own) makes my world right. It's an addiction, a deep, indiscriminate need for movement that I have no idea how to fight. A few years ago I went through a period where I didn't go anywhere for about three months. So when a client visit to Decatur, Ill., came up, I was ecstatic.

A few months ago, when my niece asked to come to Charleston, I was thrilled and a bit worried. What if she didn't like flying? What if she didn't want local food but insisted on McDonald's? Worst of all, what if she'd rather stay in the hotel room and watch TV?

Needless worries all. She packed for days before I gently showed her why she didn't need her entire wardrobe. She loved flying, although the moving sidewalks (people movers) were her favorite part of the Charlotte airport. She was so-so on Tommy Condon's but loved Jim 'N Nick's BBQ. And when we strolled past the fountain at the end of Vendue, she jumped right into the towering jets of water--not caring at all what it did to her hair. How many 12-year-old girls would do that?

After a late-night night ghost hunt (alas, we didn't find any) I woke this morning to blessed heat, humidity high enough to make even my hair curl, and a profound sense of "it's time."

I'm not quite sure what it's time for--time to pass on the luggage or time for major change?--but my thoughts and feet work together. The more I walk, the clearer my next steps become. So by the journey's end, I'm sure I'll know what it's time for.

In the meantime, the niece and I are going to the
aquarium, and then walk through the straw market. Or we may ditch the itinerary for the second day in a row and do something completely different.

18 August 2009

From secondary character to not-so-spunky heroine

Secondary characters are easy to love. Often they are my favorite parts of a book. They can be quirky, sly and blunt without repercussions. Their job is to say things that your hero and heroine never would and nudge the story into the tangled hedgerows where conflict thrives.

For example, in ANAM CARA, my heroine, Liza, is too determined to maintain control over everything within her sphere of influence to offer Bran and Aedan a place to sleep for the night. She knows minstrels are uncontrollable and suspects these two are worse than most. So her daughter, Tess, issues the invitation because it's the right thing to do (and because she's already a wee bit curious about the minstrel's younger brother, Aedan).

Tess also provides an outside point-of-view through dialogue to explain what Liza does and why.

When she asks if Liza shares a past with Bran because of the way he looks at her, Liza curtly replies, "I cannot control how a man looks at me, Tess."

Tess gets to reply: "You try. You try with your ugly hair, your constant glare and your sour demeanor, but you got me from somewhere."

There is a wealth of knowledge about Liza in that statement, even if it is filtered through Tess' eyes. But a plain-spoken daughter doesn't necessarily ascend easily to heroine status. Like Aedan, when I sat down to write TIES THAT BIND, I had to not only grow Tess up, but also fully flesh out her character. In the process I discovered something quite challenging: Tess is not her mother.

To understand the steps I needed to take to make Tess her own person, you need to know a little bit about her mother, Liza, and me, the writer.

I don't write spunky heroines. They are strong and stubborn and a little bit harsh. Life has battered the hippie-like optimism that heroines need to be spunky. In fact, my heroines often need to find hope and the gentle side of themselves before they find love (no Freudian analysis, please).

In Liza's case, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, she was Boudica in a former life. She's that determined, unyielding and capable. The downside of those traits? Domineering, stubborn, and controlling. She's a hard woman to befriend, but once you know her, there's no one else you'd want in your corner. The line that introduces her--"Of all the things Liza would miss when dead, being gawked at by strangers was not one of them" sums her up perfectly.

Like everyone else around Liza, Tess learned early the futility of direct confrontation with her mother. Instead of being the defiant rock in the middle of the stream, she's the water that quietly goes around all obstacles. And because she's quieter, more easy-going on the surface, others are quick to remind her that she's "not like" her mother.

And unlike Aedan who spent five years drenched in wine, women and song, Tess spent the intervening years keeping secrets, experiencing loss and living with heartache. Midway through writing the book, I realized quiet, self-possessed, stubborn-but-sad heroines who don't openly stand up for themselves aren't the easiest for readers to identify with. Too often, we assume placid is the same as passive.

I tried to do a character make-over on the second draft, but true to form Tess stubbornly remained the same. The fault lay not in the character, but the writer. I needed that outside point-of-view. So I went to the person most likely to notice the changes in her: Aedan. Here's the passage where we get a sense of Tess:

Mirthless gray-blue eyes inspected her. She had no idea what he sought, but what he found tightened his mouth and his eyes darkened to the dangerous color of lay-grade pewter.

"You are wisp-thin and pale as a cloud."

As close as a linen shroud, his searching energy danced over her skin. Her heart jolted, fiercely hammering against her chest. She should run, push him away and race to wherever it was she would be safe and free of men.

"You barely feel solid."

She closed her eyes and shivered when his fingers touched her neck, skimmed her collarbone, stopped at her ribs. Internal heat followed the trail, and then pooled deep and low, making her feel as if she would boil away if he didn’t stop.

"You feel cordoned-off, nay, hidden." He spoke softly, as if to himself. He bent closer, his breath a whispering invitation against her mouth.


He drew away just far enough to allow her to breathe. His hand fell away, but her skin

still burned where he had touched her. "You do not feel right."

"That is nonsense. You have no idea how I should feel. It has been too long."

And throughout the story, Tess shows herself to be the perfect ballast to Aedan's more mercurial nature, culminating in what is one of my favorite scenes from the book because we see just how strong Tess is.

"Go. There is no gentleness in me this night."

"I need none."

Her declaration scraped against the dead, frostbitten portion of his soul, exposing raw, throbbing emotion. Aedan flattened his palm against the wood, seeing the dried blood splattered across his sleeve. He had washed his face and hands, but that was all. Looking down, he noted his tunic was ruined. "Bran is right, Tess. You should not be here. I am not a good man."

His declaration, perhaps the most honest of his life, fell lifeless at her feet. She ignored it and came to him, standing inches from him, waiting. His lungs clogged at what he saw. Her heart and mind were as clear as a fresh stream. He could sift her like flour in this moment, and she would let him.

Her trust shattered his heart. At the same time, the calmness that always seemed to ride the air around her wrapped him, slowing the torturous whir of his thoughts, quieting the itch to run murderous throughout the keep.

"Say what you came to say and leave."

"I will." Tess pressed her palm against his heart. The trembling tension in his body spiked. Grief swirled through him, catching in his throat and eyes. "Later."

He knew the tone, though he'd never heard it from her before. He'd sooner move the sea than change her mind. With the fluid efficiency of a falchion at close range, she loosened his bloodsoaked tunic and tugged it off.

"Rest," she said, and pushed him onto the bed.

He grabbed her wrist, held her at arm's length. "Tess, you are a grace from heaven that I

do not deserve."

"Does anyone deserve love and grace?"

With that, she stepped inside his guard and curled around him like a wood nymph comforting a freshly hewn tree. She was solid. Real. Warm.

I've come across a few other calm, quiet heroines in my readings, and I have much greater appreciation for them now than I used to. So, if you have a moment, leave a comment and tell me who your favorite not-spunky heroine is.

By the way, this blog is also posted at Lindsay's Romantics blog if you want to see what additional readers have to say.

15 August 2009

Guest blogging today

Hi, everyone--
Pamela Thibodeaux is spotlighting my book ART OF LOVE on her blog today. If you have time, please visit and leave a comment.

12 August 2009

Children ask the oddest questions

On a trip to Napa Valley this week, I ended up sharing an airplane row with two inquisitive, but fairly well-mannered little girls. Their earlier flight had been cancelled, so mother, daughters and granddaughters were spread across the plane.

After the initial “you’re not my mommy” look, the two relaxed, and then shared with me where they’d been (Virginia). Where they were going (home to Daddy) and what they did (visited cousins with whom they quarreled). I was asked to open stubborn candy wrappers, watched them devour my Fig Newtons and turned down several offers to watch Ratatouille with them.

Within an hour, no question was off limits, including the perennial: “Are we there yet?” Before we got there, they introduced me to their mother and grandmother, and poked Daddy to point me out to him after we got there.

This is not unusual. Children and puppies adore me. I know that sounds terribly arrogant, but I’ve had both follow me across parks, through stores, out doors. Neighborhood kids have knocked on the door and ask if I wanted to come out and play. As one friend put it, “It’s a good thing you aren’t a kidnapper because you’re definitely a pied piper.”

Over the years, I’ve gotten used to. And it’s one of the few traits that I can say I purposefully gave to one my characters.

Generally, my characters are themselves, wholly formed individuals who just start whispering stories to me one day. But when Aedan—the hero of my upcoming book TIES THAT BIND—began telling me his story, he started at his lowest, darkest point. I found myself writing a hero who was selfish, careless and amoral. Not only was he hard to like, he was hard to read.

I knew he was more than that, but I needed a way to show it quickly without redeeming him too quickly.

So I gave him my way with children. In ANAM CARA (where Aedan first appears) I’d already established his way with animals, particularly dogs. So it was an easy step to make him a credible pied piper.

Of course I do wish I’d met today's traveling companions before I’d finished the book because I would love to know how Aedan would've reacted when the youngest girl leaned over and asked, “Will you tell my mommy I have to go poop?”

06 August 2009

A little excerpt from my first book

I'm feeling a bit uninspired today, so I thought I'd just post a book excerpt. I chat a lot about work and life, but I've realized not so much about the writing side of me. I'm going to try to remedy that.

This is an excerpt from ANAM CARA, featuring the first kiss between hero and heroine, Bran and Liza. Enjoy.

He let his fingers curve around her shoulder. The warmth of her skin through the linen of her gown brought with it the chill of the terror coursing through her. "Tess is in no danger today."

"You do not know that, just as you do not know if Anna suffered."

"I do. Trust me."

"Trust? I..." She frowned up at him, scrutinizing him with a wary expression. Her eye widened. "Ah, it has just come to me why I find you familiar. The former Lord of Duncarnoch, the one named Douglas. You are kin to him as Aelric thinks."

Bran forced himself not to suck in an uneasy breath as she spoke.

"He would visit my inn on occasion. He was as dark and wild as you are."

She exhaled for him because he couldn't, despite the desperate, clawing need to breathe. Denials, lies and accusations of lunacy crowded his tongue, but something in her desperate expression damned the flow of words. What good was there in deception? And the answer was unexpected. None.

"Aye. We were cousins."

"You mourn for him."


She touched his hair, delicately pressing an errant curl behind his ear. A stew of emotions spilled across her face, filling her eyes with tears. His fingers traced her jaw line. The firm ripeness of youth was being winnowed by time, a fate shared by all granted a full measure of days. The slow fading did not erode the beauty of her soul or drain the intelligence from her eyes. Tess, for all her glinting brightness, paled beside her mother. Even his dream woman couldn't compete with the reality before him. Liza had been pared by time and tempered by life until she possessed the strength and economical grace of a Byzantine sword.

Without seeking permission, he pulled her close. Her head tucked neatly beneath his chin. Gently, he pushed hair that smelled as sweet as wild heather out of his face and whispered words of protection over her brow. He waited for the sobs, but as he laid the charm, she only shifted until she pressed against him, the curves of her body fitting his. Her palm pressed against his chest, speeding the beat of his heart. He ran a finger over her hand. It was not the soft hand of a maid, but vitality radiated from it, and he knew it was a hand that would never flinch from grasping the truth. When she lifted her face, he pressed a kiss to her forehead. She sighed and brushed her lips against his, then rose to her toes and kissed him passionately.

Surprise slowed his reaction. At first she was only sweet on his tongue, the heady lightness of new wine, then the taste of her exploded in his mouth, rich and warm and full. The pulse of her blood hit his skin and pulled him backward through forgotten nights until the air roared around him.

From nowhere and everywhere, the seductive scent of honeysuckle crept along the air. The light held an unnatural shimmer. Warning crawled across his nape with icy fingers. As always, his first instinct was to fight, and as always, he opened himself to the slide.

In a dizzying moment, he was lost, falling through nothing into nothing. Stars circled beneath him. Time slipped out of its channel and sluiced over him. He sank into the confusing, cold flood. Warmth cut the chill. It snaked over his hip and down one leg. He felt a hand and a chest, both slick and trembling. His chest or his hand? He wasn't sure. Terrified, he forced himself to look. His right hand still clasped a dagger. Blood coated hand and blade. Beside him, Liza's eyes were wide and confused, and Aedan lay at their feet.

No, not Aedan. Another brother. Another time.

Behind them, angry shouts and shrieks urged him to hurry. The rest was lost as the vision unraveled into a slurred tale of blood, mud and cold, bitter seas. Then grayness lifted, pierced by heat and light. Where was he? When?

In England, he reminded himself. He realized he was on his knees, Liza at his side. He tasted blood. He'd bitten his tongue.


He peered at Liza, barely able to focus for the unseen mace pounding his brain to pulp. "A moment," he whispered hoarsely, his voice as dry as the land around him.

"What happened?"

"I do no' know."

It was another half-truth, and he suspected she knew it, but time allowed no more. The dead called. The sheriff was on his way, and soon the inn would thrum with the curious, the sad and the gossips. The chance was lost.

03 August 2009

Why I will never buy another Saturn

I must confess. I am not a car person. I don't know a rotary engine from a V6. It doesn't have to be sleek or sophisticated, and it certainly isn't a stand-in for my sense of self.

I just want something that will reliably get me from A to B.

That's partly why I drive a Saturn. When it opened its doors as a "different type of car company," Saturn promised quality, affordability, and excellent customer service.

What the company forgot to tell us is those promises would expire within a few years.

When I bought a used, but new-to-me car in 1995, I researched Saturns and found nothing but good things about them. Some people complained the cars burned oil, but satisfied owners abounded. The cars were reasonably priced, were well-made and easy to maintain. Although its ties to GM concerned me, I eventually bought a 1993 Saturn SL that I drove without any trouble until 2005 when I bought a new used car.

Enter the 2002 Saturn VUE.

Foolishly, I trusted my brand experience with Saturn when I should have been suspicious of the parent company. Saturn was no longer a different kind of car company.

At first, the VUE was just buggier than expected based on my prior experience. Then it became a succession of small annoyances, parts wearing out before they should, etc.

Repairs have since become an avalanche of major issues. This year alone, I have spent more than $3,000 in repairs for odd things that should never go wrong on a car with less than 100,000 miles. Fuel sensors. Temperature sensors. Computer chips. Brakes and bearings. Drive train issues. Strange rattles, squeaks and a tire with a slow leak that no one can find.

And the mechanic just offered up a list for another $2000 in repairs, the bulk of that to replace a bearing in the drive shaft. He was incapable of explaining to me how a drive-shaft bearing goes bad. It's not like I jump railroad tracks with this car (that was the '72 Pinto and I didn't have to replace its bearings--or shocks for that matter).

It would be one thing I were alone in my car challenges, but discussion boards blaze with drivers who have chronically ill VUEs. Needless to say, when I buy a new car next year, it won't be a Saturn.

In the meantime, it's a really good thing I don't confuse my sense of self with my car. Otherwise, I would be a broken-down, expensive-to-repair POS whose only saving grace is I'm paid for. Now that might make me feel bad about myself.

02 August 2009

When did I become that woman?

I ran errands this morning. I needed to return a dress that was a bad impulse buy, pick up paper towels and grab some anti-wrinkle cream now that I am a woman of a certain age (never have figured out what that age is). And just as I stepped out of my car, I had an epiphany: I was one of those women.

No, not one of those women. The other kind. The type who run errands in lose-fitting sweat pants, old t-shirts and no make-up. Standing in Target's parking lot, I realized I was one pair of polyester stretch pants away from becoming the woman my high school friends and I swore we'd never be.

All I needed were the curlers in my hair.

How did that happen?

While I admit I've never been one to fuss over my looks--a spot of blush, some mascara and I'm good to go--I really don't want to bring teenage girls to whispers of "there but for the power of Smashbox go I."

I will never again want to go out looking like a refuge from Odd Lots.

But don't expect me to transform into a Housewife of Dallas, who won't go to the mailbox without full makeup and heels on. Not only would that be over-dressed for the mailbox, it would be overkill for Target. After all, I was the only one in the store this morning not wearing a baseball cap.

Wait, does that mean I'm the only one who showered and shampooed before venturing out? Heaven help me, but I hope I never become one of those types.