This is the time on Sprockets when we write

Brownie points for knowing the title reference. Yep, we are definitely going to be doing a monthly feature on writing. Might be my process, might be someone else’s. Might be a question from READER NANCY who has been suspiciously quiet lately. (I suspect she’s off doing fabulous things with her own work.) In any event, I thought we’d start with something that struck me recently when I was reading Dorothy Sayers: the power of a good opening.

I’m not going to flog SILENT IN THE GRAVE here. If you’re familiar with the opening line, you know how I feel about a hook. “Grab ‘em fast and hang on tight” is my motto. I like the opening lines of a book to reach out to a reader and say, “Oh, you were contemplating putting me down. NO WAY.”

And an opening hook is great. But then what? In STRONG POISON–the first Peter Wimsey book to feature the inimitable Harriet Vane–Sayers does something quite brilliant with the opening that I didn’t register until I picked it up again last month. THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS ARE A TOTAL INFODUMP. There is hardly a line within those chapters that isn’t giving you the complete backstory of how Harriet Vane came to be charged with murder. But it’s done so deftly and in such a distinctive voice because Sayers made the BRILLIANT decision to write it couched as a monologue being delivered by the judge in his summation to the jury.

He outlines everything–Harriet’s relationship with the deceased, what sort of person the victim was, the nature of their relationship, the method of murder, the evidence, the witnesses. We know ALL by the end of the second chapter, and yet it’s done in such a skillful way, we’re lured in to find out the rest. There are a few snatches of dialogue, just enough to show that some people find Harriet sympathetic, and others are ready to see her hang. We know her chances aren’t good, and because series characters we know and like believe in her, we are predisposed to root for Harriet to be acquitted.

BUT WE KNOW SHE WON’T BE. Neither is she convicted. Thanks to a hung jury, Harriet is retried, and it is up to Peter to sleuth out the truth to save her from the hangman’s noose. Peter’s growing feelings for Harriet ratchet up the stakes to impossible heights. It’s the ultimate test of his skills as a detective, as a man, and the reader roots for him just as much as Harriet. But it all goes back to the opening, the brutal, black and white litany of facts that seems to condemn Harriet. Because they come from an official source–and an ostensibly neutral one–we know just how long the odds are.

In any other hands, the infodump would have been unbearable, but because Sayers captures so perfectly the condescending, priggish tone of the judge, we lap it up. Ordinarily the infodump is something to be avoided at all costs, but this opening is proof that with enough skill and care, it can be done–and done brilliantly. (Pro tip: part of the reason it works so well is the repeated asides and bits of conversation Sayers layers in. There is ongoing commentary about how the spectators in the court are receiving the judge’s summation which is an indication to readers as to how THEY are supposed to receive it. Masterful.)

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Today we’re MAKING

So our third theme is “making”. Whether it’s food or something crafty, this feature each month will highlight an idea for puttering. Do you putter? I LOVE to putter. Puttering is not doing chores; it’s not a formal hobby. It’s messing around in a desultory way, attending to things that don’t have to get done, but make life a little cheerier–or at least easier.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not terribly fond of the kitchen. I don’t mind playing around in there, but OH GOD THE MEALS. Being responsible for meal prep for other people for years on end is just exhausting. With our daughter off at college, the husband and I resort often to healthy takeout–yep, there is such a thing, plates of cheeses and meats and fruit, frittatas–things that can be conjured up in minutes. If I’m actually cooking, I often throw meat in an iron skillet and finish it in the oven with a tray of roasted vegetables.

Occasionally when I’m writing, I find I lose track of time and neglect lunch–a deplorable thing. I don’t think skipping meals is a great idea EVER. But if I’ve managed to miss out, I compensate with a protein shake.

Yeah, I know. Gross. But these are DELICIOUS. And the work of seconds. In a blender toss a scoop of chocolate protein powder, two ice cubes, unsweetened almond milk, a dash of vanilla, a spoonful of dark cocoa powder, and–this is the kicker–a sploosh of heavy cream. I don’t know how to measure a sploosh. I don’t measure any of this. Pour the heavy cream for one Mississippi. That gives the shake a super rich note that makes it all ever so satisfying. Blend it all up until the powder is fully mixed, the ice cubes crushed. Now, I don’t advocate doing this often, but if it comes down to sipping this or missing a meal, then I’ll take this yummy chocolate concoction any time.

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Theme # 2

So today we get to talk about the second theme for each month–only I haven’t quite decided what to call it. Every other theme has a nice tidy gerund for a title (like yesterday’s “Reading”), but this one is proving elusive. Reminiscing? Revisiting? It will come to me. In the meantime, I can tell you that once a month I’ll be posting an entry about ancestors behaving badly–my ancestors, to be specific.

My family is crazy into genealogy. We’ve always had stories passed along, but things didn’t really get cooking until ROOTS. After that my parents made a point of chasing down the lineage on both sides. Luckily, we had cousins who were similarly afflicted, and I had my Colonial Dames and DAR pedigrees handed to me, complete. (I’ve since left both organizations. I’m also eligible for Daughters of the Republic of Texas and Daughters of the Confederacy but will not pursue membership in either.)

One of the interesting things to turn up in the research was the presence of what’s known as a ‘gateway’ ancestor. Simply put, this is an ancestor who opens up a documented lineage, usually to someone famous. Our gateway ancestor is a Revolutionary War colonel who is descended from the Plantagenets–not the later, Wars of the Roses, York v. Lancaster types, but the early ones. Our last royal is King Edward I, my 21st-great-grandfather. (The line comes down through his son Thomas of Brotherton.)

The lovely thing is that having Edward I in the chart means we can map out the lineage FAR beyond since his family is very well known. For some lines this takes us back to the 700s–an utterly bizarre notion when you think about it. To know who your family was for the past 1300 years is stunning. (This is where I should also point out that MILLIONS of people are descended from Edward I. The descent itself is not what’s remarkable, it’s the knowledge of it that is a privilege.)

And what sort of ancestor was Edward I? Depends on whom you ask. To an Englishman, he was “Longshanks”, the tall, intimidating soldier-king who reformed medieval administration and attempted to stamp out the rising power of the barons. To those north of the border, he was the Hammer of the Scots, a tyrant who interfered with their autonomy and stole the Stone of Scone. (And don’t even ask the Welsh…) Like most effective medieval kings, he was ruthless when it served him and capable of brutality he justified in the name of security.

But I’m more interested in Edward as a gateway to the ancestors–particularly the women–who came before. There were saints and concubines, queens and heiresses. Some were crowned, some were canonized, and some were executed. There are those who conjured crowns almost out of thin air, and those who slaughtered their enemies as easily as they changed their petticoats. Some met death in their beds after long and tumultuous lives while others encountered far more painful and dramatic fates. One burned her enemies alive in a church, another was the first recorded female prisoner in the Tower of London. Some eventually took the veil, some died in childbed, and some went on Crusade. An interesting crew, don’t you think? (I also have a few ancestors who were not famous but inclined to murder, bank robbery, horse thievery, and general mayhem. We’ll eventually get to them as well.)

But let’s circle back briefly to Edward I. He was born 729 years before me–to the day. He is buried at Westminster Abbey, and I realized that when I visit this summer, for the first time I won’t be just standing in front of a historic royal tomb. I’ll be paying my respects at a family grave.

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Today is a brand new day…

Today we kick off the blog changes, and it begins with a change in title format. No more “in which we…” That’s been around for a long time–ever since the original Blog A Go-Go, but it seemed like a good time to retire it. Today I’m revealing the first of the eight themes I’ll be blogging about each month. This one was the MOST REQUESTED, so it’s entirely down to reader demand–we’re talking about reading. That will be the blog tag for my book recommendation posts, so you can use that to search for any you might miss along the way.

Some general notes on book recs: I will occasionally (like today) flog one of my own on the grounds that if you weren’t a reader of mine, you probably wouldn’t be here. I will also occasionally (like today) flog a book written by pals, but again, if you like me, we probably have some overlapping taste, and you might well like theirs. Also, I’ll always disclose if I know someone, so you can take that into consideration if it matters. Just know that I won’t ever post something I don’t like. If it’s here, it’s because I read it and enjoyed it. So, the housekeeping notes out of the way, here’s our first entry on What I’m Reading!

*The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. I was DELIGHTED to be asked to contribute a recipe to this book, and even more delighted because they wanted a recipe from my novels. I gave them the recipe for March Wassail Punch, a potent libation that features in the Julia Christmas adventures. There are recipes in here from LOADS of your favorite mystery authors, and it would make a fabulous gift for a mystery lover who likes to putter in the kitchen.

MWA Cookbook

*Also recommended: THE ROYAL WE by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, better known as the Fug Girls. The Fugs and I have a long history of mutual love, and I was SO EXCITED when they sent me a copy of this a few months ago. I adored it. If you are a royal news junkie like I am, you will love it too. It’s a charming, touching, hilarious account of what happens when an average girl falls in love with a prince. (And the timing is delightfully appropriate since this month marks the wedding anniversary of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the arrival of baby #2.)

Royal We

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In which I say THANK YOU

To all the folks who have shared the news of Julia’s TV series on FB and Twitter, those who have emailed and messaged privately, and those who have commented here–THANK YOU! I knew readers would be happy, but the response far exceeded my expectations. So far over 20,000 people have seen the news on FB alone! I’m still working my way through reading all of the messages, and I wish I could respond to each and every one to share my gratitude. Thank you for your kindness, your enthusiasm, your delight–and thank you for caring so much about Julia!

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In which I have an announcement

So you know how for years people have been asking when Lady Julia was going to be made into a TV series and I always said, “I don’t know”? Well, now I do. I am THRILLED to announce that the Julia Grey series has been optioned by Barry Ryan at Free@Last TV! I’m sorry, I just had to put that last bit in bold because IT IS SO FREAKING FABULOUS. I know you’re going to have a barrel of questions, most of which I still can’t answer, but I’ll take a stab at what I suspect will be the FAQs:

*I have no idea/input about casting. (That’s entirely in Barry’s capable hands.)

*I don’t know a timeline. (It’s early days yet!)

*I don’t know about US television. (Free@Last plans to make it as a series for British television and hopefully sell it on to other markets–which means it’s entirely possible for it to end up here, but again–early days!)

*This does not mean more Lady Julia books. (At least not yet. Is it possible? Certainly, if the series gets made and goes gangbusters, I might have publishers knocking down my door to bring back the series. WHICH WOULD BE LOVELY. But at this stage, we can’t count on anything.)

And there’s the usual caveat that an option doesn’t mean a series is definitely being made. Production companies frequently purchase options of things they would LIKE to make; doesn’t mean they always get the opportunity. A million and one factors come into play in creating a TV series that actually airs and the process can go awry at any stage. However, Barry has an excellent track record of shepherding his projects through–his latest is the Agatha Raisin series by M. C. Beaton!

So, there you go, chickens–AMAZING, WONDERFUL, STUPENDOUS news! This deal has been in the works since last April and we just popped the cork a week ago, so it’s been a long time coming. I am beyond thrilled that I can finally tell you. Let the celebrations commence!

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In which WE BEGIN

Oh, chickens, do I have fun things in store for you! Last month I posed a question on FB and Twitter. I wanted to know what sorts of posts you enjoy the most on the blog, and the results were fabulous. Turns out you like them all. You want book recommendations, cool research tidbits, the occasional style shout-out. So you got it.

In the interests of making my life easier and ensuring you enjoy the blog, I’ve decided to take your suggestions for post themes and turn them into monthly features. We average eight posts a month so I chose eight different themes. Occasional months, like April, will give us nine and the extra one will be a wildcard. This month it means I get a chance to explain the changes and catch you up on what’s going on in my corner of the writersphere. I thought it would be fun if I unveil the features as we go this month, partly because I’ve decided to put a bit of a twist on a few of them. Our first themed post starts Tuesday! (Also, I’m opening comments back up. They will be enabled for two days only, then close because of the Spam From Hell, but at least y’all will be able to leave comments again. I only ask that you pardon the spam that does creep through–I don’t have time to moderate so we shall simply have to live with the untidiness of it all.)

As for bringing you up to speed, right now I’m currently in New York where I get to have lunch with my editor and feel very special indeed. The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity on the book front–I was lucky enough to be included in discussions of the cover and saw the proofs from the photo shoot in England. We also did the copy edits which are always grueling and SO necessary, and we’re worked on the book’s interior–a conversation I’ve never had before, but it was fascinating. (Publishers put an astonishing amount of effort into things like the font on the title page, line drawings, arrangement of previous titles, etc.) They were kind enough to solicit my input, so I had to think about that for the first time. Ever.

And more to the point–it’s time to start writing Veronica #2! I made a start at the beginning of March, but I don’t do well when I have too much time on my hands to work, and the universe stepped in to rectify that. We had an avalanche of unexpected happenings at Casa Raybourn–no one is seriously ill, but there were things to navigate and care to manage, and I find it’s better for me to do busy work and research at those times and ride it out until the waters are a little calmer. So, April is about digging into Veronica’s newest adventure, and I’m getting so twitchy that you don’t know her yet! September seems so far away sometimes, doesn’t it? I say that, but as the August 15 deadline for Veronica #2 draws near, I’m sure I’ll be whimpering in the fetal position wishing for a TARDIS. So it goes…

So, join me Tuesday when we start the new blog adventure! Also, this month’s newsletter goes out in just a few days, so be sure to sign up on the right-hand sidebar if you haven’t already–and this month’s contest is loaded on the contest page. If you’re a US resident, be sure to enter!

And finally–I don’t usually post on Fridays, but I WILL be posting tomorrow, a special bonus post. You’re going to want to read this one…

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In which we need scones

Which of course leads to the question, do we really NEED scones? Of course we do. This one has been trotted out before, but it’s been ages and they are too good to be left sulking in the archive.

It may still be soup weather, but I promise these scones would go equally well with a nice salad or some paper-thin salty ham. I just threw them together one evening when I didn’t have anything in the house except a few dry ingredients and a box of soup for accompaniment. The scones were by far the better part of the meal. They are loosely based on the divine Whole Wheat Cherry Scones in The Skinny.

Whole Wheat Cheddar Scones

2 cups white flour (I used King Arthur White Wheat)

1 cup whole wheat flour (King Arthur again)

1 T baking powder

salt (I want to say a heaping teaspoon)

1/4 t dry mustard (Why I had a tin of Coleman’s lying around I cannot imagine, but I’m sure it’s Nigella’s fault somehow)

palmful of dried onions (The true sign of desperate pantry cooking. I wanted fresh chives of course, but FORGOT there were some growing in the garden. So I used these dehydrated monstrosities instead, and they were actually fine. If you want a measurement, let’s say a teaspoon and a half.)

two eggs

1/2 cup milk (Okay, that’s a lie. It’s more like 3/4 cup. It depends on your flour. Start with 1/2 and keep adding until the consistency is right. You’ll want a little more milk for brushing the tops of the scones, and sour milk is excellent for baking.)

5 T butter

shredded Cheddar (A nice, sharp Cheddar, please. Two or three big palmsful.)

All of this will be much better if your ingredients are at room temperature. Preheat the oven to 450. Mix the dry ingredients, cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Add the cheese and toss to coat the cheese in the flour. Then whisk together the eggs and milk and stir into the flour mixture. Bring the dough together without overworking. Turn onto a floured board and pat into a circle. Cut into eight equal wedges. Place onto parchment-lined baking sheet, brush with milk. Bake for 10-15 minutes. YUM.

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In which reminders are useful things

I found this piece in an earlier blog entry, and I quite appreciated the reminder:

A day is not a long time. And yet it can change everything. Things that were going horribly awry can correct themselves, gently, without interference. Imminent disaster can be averted. Ships can be steered away from the rocks, and what seemed certain is suddenly a momentary shudder, a goose walking over your grave and then toddling happily away again. And one by one, each of the things that seemed to be hurtling out of your grasp, come quietly back, waiting patiently for you to notice how well-behaved they’ve become. If you move too quickly, you might startle them. So you breathe softly and make no hurried movements. Instead you relax, and give a little sigh of relief and recognition that whatever storm clouds gather blackly on the horizon, it only takes one great gust of fresh air to blow them to tatters. Nothing is as bad as you feared, and everything is better than you believed. It is a very good day.

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In which I’m talking neighbors

Neighbors make me nervous. We’ve had some lovely ones over the years and some not-so-lovely ones. Our current neighbors are delightful. We never hear from them, and even though I am highly suspicious about the new compost bed (come ON, that thing is 30×40 feet and bordered by 6-foot tall stockade fencing–it is not so much a compost heap as a BODY FARM), they are quiet and that is the most important quality in a neighbor.

Well, quiet and not creepy. The two can often go hand-in-hand, as I discovered in Texas. We lived across the street from a very sweet churchgoing couple. They were devoted to each other and their four children. They were quiet and thoughtful; the husband mowed the yards of elderly neighbors and the wife took them home-baked treats and pictures colored by the children. It seemed like they were too good to be true, and it turns out, they were.

After a few years of quiet domesticity, the wife disappeared, and the husband and children seemed unkempt and disheveled. It transpired that the wife had left the family for good to live with another man. Her pusher to be precise. Naturally, neighborhood sympathy fell heavily on the husband, but these things so often have two sides, don’t they?

On the day the wife had told her husband she would be coming around to collect some of her things, he got the children ready for school and put them on the bus. Then he sorted his wife’s clothes into garbage bags and stacked them neatly in front of the garage to await her. Above them, right on the garage door, he hung her wedding gown, a pristine white dress with an overlay of lace and an ENORMOUS SCARLET LETTER on the bodice. I’m not kidding. He had cut a letter “A” out of red felt and stitched it (alright, maybe he used Aleen’s craft glue) to the front of the dress.

It hung there all morning, swaying gently in the breeze. I know because I watched it. I kept thinking about him, sitting up at night, crafting his revenge–literally–and I was deeply horrified. (And wildly interested too, if I’m honest. It was the most riveting thing to happen in our neighborhood since an adulterous couple chose to park in the cul-de-sac around the corner for their noontime trysts. The mailman surprised them one day. Or they surprised him, I’ve forgotten now.)

Anyway, by the time the children came home, the gown was gone and the bags collected. I never saw who came and got them, or what the reaction was to the ruined dress. Only the wire hanger was left, twisted and limp as if someone had jerked the gown off of it in a hurry. The husband and children moved away shortly after and never heard of them again. Everyone blamed the wife for abandoning her family, but sometimes I wonder. A man who is capable of hanging out your wedding gown with a blood-red mark for the whole world to see might not have been the easiest sort to live with in the first place.

I’m just glad he didn’t keep a Body Farm…

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