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08 Jan Starting from Scratch


A lot has happened, and you know what? I’m just going to draw a line under it and start, as my dear mother used to say, from scratch.


I’ve put The Taste of Cloves aside for the moment. I will always love the sixteenth century—the Renaissance, that turning point between the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason—but fiction set in the sixteenth century seems to be “out” at the moment. Particularly if it’s set in England. More particularly if it involves Anne Boleyn in any way. So my dear Mary Talbot and her beautiful white hunting hounds and her anguished triangle with Harry Percy and Anne B. will have to simmer on the back burner for a while. What goes around comes around, and her time will come another day. Simmering often makes things better, after all.


In the meantime, I’m pecking away (another of my mother’s phrases) at a fabulous new project that’s not really like anything I’ve written before. Well, in a way I suppose it is, because I’ll always write about love and courage and beauty and the ultimate significance of the human spirit. But this has a contemporary setting (well, mostly contemporary—even the modern day always has underpinnings of history) and a distinctly Gothic flavor. It doesn’t have a title yet. We’ll see. I don’t have a lot of time to write these days, but I always have to have something to be working on. Something new. Something started from scratch.


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31 Jan Does Tempus Really Fugit?



Fascinating article about a new book by philosopher Brad Skow of MIT, describing something called the “Block Theory” of time. Muchly simplified, the idea is that we (and everyone and everything else) exist scattered in time, with the “spotlight” of our concept of “present” moving from one moment to the next but with all moments, past, present, and future, existing all at once in the fabric of spacetime.


Does Time Pass?


The fact that I’m interested in theories of time that allow the past and present to co-exist is a big hint that what I’m working on combines the past and the present!

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23 Jan A Silent House

The doggies are spending the day at the Canine Health Club, Day Surgery Center and Spa (aka the vet’s) to get their teeth cleaned, claws clipped, bloodwork done, and other delights. They got no breakfast this morning, and they were NOT amused. Hopefully all will go well and they will be home by dinnertime. But the house is unnaturally quiet without them. And how will I get my cardio without getting up to let them in and out a couple of thousand times a day?

I am presently re-acquainting myself with the third-person viewpoint. I’d never written anything in first person until I wrote The Second Duchess, and I found I really loved the sense of seeing and feeling and touching and tasting right along with Barbara and Lucrezia, and also with my beloved Rinette in The Flower Reader. But The Alchemist Prince is turning out to be a different animal altogether. There’s so much happening to so many fascinating people that there’s no way one (or even two or three) characters can be present for all of it. And I want it all—I can’t bear to leave any of it out…

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25 Apr Peeking Out

…and blinking in the bright light of real life…

Well, The Flower Reader is done. I’ve been unconscious for the past week. We’ve had storm after storm—thunderhail, lightningwind, windyrain, every combination you can imagine. Power on and off.

And I have the best idea for my next book…

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08 Jan The Flower Reader

My Scotland book has its final title at last: The Flower Reader. This was one of my top choices and I’m delighted—I think it’s intriguing and unusual, and it puts the spotlight right where it belongs, on my heroine Rinette Leslie, the girl who can read the future in flowers. I’ll probably have more to say about The Flower Reader next week.

Cressie is doing beautifully. She had another follow-up vet visit on Wednesday and Dr. Clawson (such an appropriate name for a vet!) pronounced her a champion healer. She’s still wearing her plastic bag (an invention of my own, of which I’m justly proud) and probably will be for another week at least, just to let the healing progress past the itchy stage. Here she is, “in the bag” and oh-so-bored with it all:

Boudin has been feeling quite left out, and so here’s a wonderful new picture of him as well, snapped by the Broadcasting Legend™:

In Second Duchess news, there’s a giveaway slated to start on January 15th on Goodreads. Twenty-five copies up for grabs! So mark your calendars to enter. And anyone in the Houston, Texas area—put a big red “X” on March 5th, because at 1:00 on that Saturday afternoon I’ll be signing at Houston’s iconic Murder by the Book bookstore.

My Link o’ the Week for writers: StoryFix from Larry Brooks. As Larry says in his subtitle: “Get it written, get it right, get it published.” A great resource, packed with energizing information.

My Link o’ the Week for historical fun: The page on Lochleven Castle in the Douglas Archives. I particularly like the sketch of what Lochleven Island would have looked like in the mid-1560s at the time of my story—the island today is much larger because the level of the loch has lowered. Lochleven! Just the word is embroidered with history and romance…

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04 Dec I-9

Random quote from my private journal:

I have three elements to my work—three strands. Writing, reading, and promotion. I should call it something other than “promotion.” Connecting. Making friends. Socializing. Heh. But that’s actually what it is. Getting out in the world. I could visualize all this as taking place in three settings—my sunny, private office, full of plants and inspiring pictures, where no one bothers me and I can write with the beagles curled up at my feet; a comfortable chair by a window with a tall glass of iced tea and a stack of books on the table beside me; and a busy, colorful marketplace rather like the wonderful old Olla Podrida in North Dallas, or Guadalupe Street in Austin, or Scarborough Faire down in Waxahatchie. Or a fantasy eastern bazaar. This represents kind of a progression of interaction, too—my writing room is completely private, while the reading nook is out in the house where other people sometimes wander by, and the worldwide bazaar is crammed with interesting people, some I know and millions I don’t.

My motivate-myself links of the week (which might help you motivate yourself as well):

The Willpower Engine: The Tipping Point of a Habit

Illuminated Mind: When You Have Everything You Need But Think You Don’t

Answer to question: what do the weird combinations of “I” and numbers mean in my post titles? It’s just shorthand for “Volume I, number 9.” I think I’ll start volume II with my first post in January.

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02 Oct Saturday Roundup

I like the “Saturday Round-Up” format. I may still occasionally post during the week if I have something special (like a contest) but other than that I think I’ll stick with Saturdays.

Just a reminder that the release date of The Second Duchess has been changed to March 1, 2011. Two more months to wait but for a really good reason. Can’t explain quite yet. Mark your calendars!

Reading this week: finished Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn. Simply wonderful, as have been all her Lady Julia Grey books, and highly recommended—a new and exotic setting, a crop of deliciously eccentric characters, and of course the working-out of the newly-married relationship between Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane. Boo gives it five aroos, and adds that he considers his profile quite as handsome as Mr. Brisbane’s. He’s also giving his “I am the Lord and Master” stare to Cressie, who’s trying to get into the picture to tell everyone to know how much she loves the gorgeous cover.

What I cooked this week: chili. Fall is here and it’s cooler and I just craved chili with a crusty baguette. I have three secrets to chili: flour, beer, and molasses. Sound weird? Read on.

First, I mix the spices (chili powder, cumin, this ‘n’ that) with a little flour (masa harina, or fine corn flour, preferred, but plain white flour will do in a pinch) and add the spice-flour mixture to the cooked crumbled beef before adding any other liquid. When I stir it creates a sort of roux which makes the chili deliciously thick. Second, a can of beer is the first liquid I add after the flour-spices mixture. Sometimes I just stop there for all-beef, non-tomato chili (the Broadcasting Legend’s™ favorite). Third, if I’m using tomatoes, I also add a tablespoon or so of molasses. You know how you sometimes add a little sugar to Italian-style tomato sauces, to smooth out the acidity? Well, molasses does the same thing for tomatoes in chili and it’s a deeper, richer flavor.

Wrist x-rays: no news. Pain is manageable but I really wish we could get this figured out and fixed.

Writing: Writing a book is damn hard work. That’s all I have to say about that.

And finally, I am the guest editor for the Autumn 2010 issue of Solander, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society. (This is a mostly honorary title and the real editors do all the real work.) Solander features interviews, articles, short fiction and commentary, and is the only such magazine in the world for enthusiasts of historical fiction. It is fantastic. To subscribe, join the Historical Novel Society today.

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10 Sep Playacting on Paper

Most writers will tell you they started writing stories as children, always knew they wanted to be writers, and identified with Jo in Little Women. My path to the writing life was a little more circuitous. (As is the story of my life in general. Heh. But anyway.)

I playacted as a child. I sewed endless outfits for my Ginny doll (this was pre-Barbie, thank God, when dolls for little girls still looked like little girls) and played out stories with her. I acted out endless stories with paper dolls, plastic horses, and my poor hapless sister and friends. I loved wonderful adventurous and romantic stories (usually in some historical setting) and imagined them vividly, but didn’t think so much about writing them down. I did draw pictures. Most of my family was musical, and so I proudly proclaimed myself to be “artical.” It didn’t occur to me to imagine myself as “writical.”

For a while I actually thought I wanted to be an actress. (See evidence, right.) Then I got sidetracked into radio and started acting out stories with voices and sound effects in endless “slice-of-life” commercials. It was only much later that it seriously occurred to me to actually write down a story. And when I did, it came out as—well, playacting on paper. And that is what I’m doing, to this day. I act out the parts as I write, much to the amusement of the Broadcasting Legend™ and the puzzlement of the beagles.

And I wanted to be Beth in Little Women. Everybody loved her! I wanted everybody to love me! And anyway, what actress can resist a good death scene?

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18 Jun A Writer’s Code

Ran across this great blog post from Karen E. Olson, the author of the lighthearted, Las-Vegas-based Tattoo Shop mysteries. It made me think about how I would articulate a Writer’s Code of my own. Here it is:

1. Write every day. (Momentum is everything.)
2. Work alone. (Editor and agent are exceptions.)
3. Read widely.
4. Never lose your sense of gratitude and wonder.
5. In fact, just get over yourself in general.
6. Be discreet.
7. Be generous.
8. Mind your manners.
9. Have fun.

What is your writer’s code? If you’re not a writer, what is your personal code?

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12 Apr Arms and the Beagles

To whom do these lovely and mysterious arms belong? (No, not the Venus de Milo, silly.) Who is sitting on our couch playing with Cressie and Boo? Why, it’s Agent Diana, in town for a conference and here to spend some very intense time discussing The Silver Casket.

It was wonderful to meet Agent D. face-to-face for the first time. We devoured incredible prime steaks, exotic chocolates steeped in fruit and liqueurs; saganaki, spanokopita and tzatziki; and lovely cupcakes. Did we do anything but eat? Heh. Well, yes. We spent hours talking about The Silver Casket, books, The Second Duchess, books, the conference, books, promotion and bookstores, and oh yes—books.

Agent D. is now on her way back to New York after waving a sad goodbye to the beagle duo, and I’m on my way back to my hermitage to write up notes on everything we talked about…

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29 Jan Vale, J.D. Salinger

“If only you’d remember before you ever sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.” —From Seymour: An Introduction.

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27 Jan Intentionality

There aren’t really any unbreakable “rules” for writing—or for that matter, for life. But this is a good one:

Intend every word you write.

Its corollary for life-in-general, of course, would be intend every thing you do.

Harder than it sounds.

The blog post by Eric Cummings on intentionality (yes, there really is such a word) in writing that got me started thinking about this is here, on one of my favorite blogs, Write to Done.

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01 Oct Off to the Hermitage

My imaginary hermitage, full of silence, solitude, and good writing mojoI’m going to be out of touch for a while—I have some family matters to attend to and I want to do some deep writing.

At left, see my imaginary hermitage. Where else would I squirrel myself away but in an ancient stone cottage with a thatched roof? Can’t you just feel the delicious solitude and the silence, but for leaves rustling and an occasional bird singing? Fortunately it is also equipped with high-speed fiberoptic broadband internet.

See you in a few weeks!

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25 Sep Her Last Letter

Last week the National Library of Scotland offered a week-long opportunity for visitors to see the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots, written only a few hours before she was executed at Fotheringay Castle. For preservation reasons, the letter is put on display only rarely.

The letter is directed to her brother-in-law Henri III, the king of France, and dated 8 February, 1587. It closes with the phrase, “Wednesday, at two in the morning.” When you look at the images you can see blurry splotches, particularly on the first page. Was Mary crying? Or are the blotches the product of the many hands through which the letter passed after her death?

The letter itself is remarkably cool and rational, the writing steady, the lines even. What was Mary thinking as she wrote it, in the middle of the night, knowing she would be taken to a scaffold and publicly beheaded when the morning arrived?

Readers and writers of historical fiction don’t always agree about how much of our art should be history and how much should be fiction. This, to me, is a good example. The letter remains; we know Mary wrote it. We have her words. We know something of what she did before and after she wrote it. But what was she truly thinking and feeling? Ah, now that is where the storytelling comes in…

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15 Aug ‘S wonderful! ‘S marvelous!

As the Gershwin brothers would say.

Wonders and Marvels

Anyone interested in history to the slightest degree must check out this site. Want reviews of wonderful new historical novels? Want to know what the Romans used for toilet paper? (You will be surprised.) Want to read about nose jobs in the Renaissance? (I have to work this into a book somehow.)

Wonders and Marvels is more than just a blog. It’s a “community for curious minds who love history, its odd stories, and good reads.” My kind of place.

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07 Aug The Time Traveler’s Life

I’ve changed the title of my site a bit. Here’s why.

Reading and writing historical fiction is the closest we can ever come to traveling in time. From my earliest days as a reader I loved stories set in “the olden days”—I loved Little Women and Black Beauty, Gone with the Wind and Forever Amber and the Angélique books, ancient Frank Yerby and Thomas B. Costain novels lurking in dusty library bookshelves like pirate treasure, my beloved Crawford of Lymond novels by the peerless Dorothy Dunnett. To this day I gobble up historical fiction with relish. Right now I am reading the mother of all historical novels (no pun intended), Eve by Elissa Elliott. It’s a beautiful and somewhat controversial book and a fascinating piece of time travel.

My life as a writer is a time traveler’s life. When I slip inside my characters and look out through their eyes, I’m away—in a Ferrarese castello, in a garden by the sea in sixteenth-century Scotland. I return almost reluctantly to the twenty-first century. I say “almost” because, for all the delights of the sixteenth century there are still modern necessities like clean hot running water, gleaming conveniences, air conditioning, and—of course—Ghirardelli chocolate.

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20 Jul Falling in Love

I love my new book, I do, I do!Starting a new book is kind of like meeting an interesting new person. You make small talk. You find out about each other. Maybe you go out for coffee, then to a movie, then to dinner at a special restaurant. You like that person more and more. Then all of a sudden you turn around and KAPOW! You’re in love.

I’m in love with The Silver Casket. It has everything—a wonderful heroine, a compelling cast of good and evil and funny and sad and mysterious and bright and dark characters, fabulous and bleak and beautiful historical settings in sixteenth-century Scotland, heaps of opulent intrigue, murder and courage, and a romance that both breaks my heart and fills me with passionate delight. How will I ever get it all out of my head and onto paper?

One word at a time. One word at a time.

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10 Jul Viewpoint Adventures

I wrote The Second Duchess in first person—actually, in dual first-person viewpoints. I deliberately chose to write Barbara in the first person because the book started out as a historical mystery, and in mysteries the first-person sleuth is more common than not. The book, of course, went on to become as much romance and “opulent intrigue” (a phrase used to describe Duchess by one of my crit group members, which I love) and character study as it was mystery, but Barbara’s first-person voice remained. Lucrezia, the second viewpoint character, sprang to the page in first person and never looked back.

That said—I am writing The Silver Casket in third person. It’s a bigger, longer, slightly grittier, more complex story and it needs a wider view. Even so, it’s hard to feel my way out of the close, heart-and-mind intimacy of first person and into the slightly more detached third person. Even a very tight, very subjective third person still means I’m looking over my character’s shoulder and not inside her skin. It’s disconcerting. I’ve found her—my lovely farouche floromancer Rinette—and I want to be one with her.

I suspect I will write the first few chapters both ways, and perhaps some strange combination of the two, until I find the right path.