Meeting Agatha

One of the questions I get most–and dread most!–is “Who do you read?” I dread it because it isn’t terribly original to invoke Agatha Christie, but she has been the most influential writer for me. She is the ultimate in comfort reading, whether I’m trundling along the main road of St. Mary Mead (in Inch!) or sipping a citron presse with Poirot. And I’m STILL discovering Christie books that are new to me, which is an endless delight.

But what if you’ve never read her? Where to begin? Not to worry, chickens–I wrote a piece for the Life Sentence on Christie 101!

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I’m back!

Hello, readers! It’s been a whirlwind of a September, that’s for sure. I’ve buzzed all around, meeting readers, signing books, and I’m not finished. On Wednesday at 9pm eastern I’ll be chatting at Writerspace about A CURIOUS BEGINNING–come join me! Best part of online chats? You can wear your pajamas and no one will know…

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I am currently on tour to mark the release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING. Regular blogging will resume in October, but please drop by the blog every Tuesday and Thursday in September for posts from the archive. In the meantime, hope to see you on tour!

This piece originally ran in 2009.

Recently I ran across a quote: “I live like I’m always on vacation.” Now, the woman quoted was being profiled in a fashion magazine so the piece turned to how she dresses, but I admit I am far more interested in how she lives. I started pondering how I would live if I were always on vacation, and the picture is a seductive one.

1. I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff. In my day-to-day life, the details are what bog me down. On vacations, I move airily through the slowdowns, the breakdowns, the little annoyances because I am on vacation, and to loose my poise would threaten the entire trip, a trip for which I have spent lots of money and raised lots of hope. Mindful of the cost to both my wallet and my peace of mind, I let the little things go and put on a happy face when I have to deal with glitches.

2. I would be nicer. Because I’m on vacation, I’m conscious of being less stressed, and in turn, I’m nicer to everybody, including myself. I release my perfectionism and go with the flow more.

3. I would read more for pleasure. I never take work on a vacation with me, aside from the tiny flash drive that contains my last four novels. And that’s just a safety precaution; I never actually get it near a computer because I stay far, far away from computers when I’m on vacation and I never travel with a laptop. So vacations are my one opportunity to fill my bags with a combination of books I have loved and books I expect to love. (Somehow the Kindle hasn’t changed this at all. Because I had the Kindle battery die on me quite unexpectedly once, I always take a stack of books, usually cozy English mysteries.)

4. I would take more chances. When I travel, I often adopt a more devil-may-care attitude about things. I try new foods, I ignore the voice that natters on in the back of my mind trying to keep me safe and sedate. (You know the voice. She sounds like a prim little spinster and harps at you about eating your vegetables and getting your eight and a half hours of sleep every night.)

5. I would take more pictures. Well, alright, I don’t actually take pictures on vacation, but my husband does, and therefore vacations are documented. Everyday life should be documented too, slices of reality preserved in aspic. I have gotten better about this since I bought an iphone, but I could improve.

6. I would check my email, Twitter, and Facebook accounts less. On vacation I am completely focused on my family. I do not check my various social media accounts, nor do I attend to email. My family is my priority and my pleasure during vacations.

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Something about writing

I am currently on tour to mark the release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING. Regular blogging will resume in October, but please drop by the blog every Tuesday and Thursday in September for posts from the archive. In the meantime, hope to see you on tour!

This post originally ran in 2009.

As an aspiring writer, reader Heather was curious about my first experience with novel-writing. She wrote: when you started your first novel, how did it feel? Did it come easily? I am finding it scary and difficult, and I can only hope it gets better.

I wrote my first novel–not Silent in the Grave–when I was 23. I had just finished my first year of teaching and was feeling bored and restless when the summer came around. I had re-read Jane Eyre and decided to write something in a similar vein–mysterious, historical, with a nod to the Gothic. (I should point out that this was not just a whim. I had always planned that I would write novels.) Anyway, I sat down with a germ of an idea–no plot, no outline, no character studies–and wrote. I wrote every day for six or seven hours straight, something I’ve never managed to do since. My fingers would be stiffened into claws by the end of the day and my back would ache so badly I had to lie down on the floor just to straighten it out. But the experience of writing was brilliant. I loved it passionately. It was the first time I felt I really had the opportunity to let my imagination off the leash and see where it roamed. (I also learned the importance of backing up my work when I lost an entire afternoon’s writing to a power surge.)

At the end of six weeks, I had a book. I didn’t know what to do with it, of course, but I had a book. So I packaged it up and sent it off to a publisher who declined to purchase it, but who wrote a letter that began, “I think your writing is absolutely wonderful.” That was the first time I realized I could fashion a career for myself at writing. Of course, it was almost sixteen years before I actually saw a book of mine in print, but the experience of writing that first book was absolutely magic.

Heather, since you remarked that you’re finding it difficult, I’m going to offer a completely unsolicited observation: it is possible that you are allowing your internal editor too much of a voice at this point. Do what you must to shut her up. The first book–and most especially the first DRAFT of the first book–is just for writing. It’s for making mistakes and miscues, it’s messy. But the most important thing is to get something on paper. You can push and pull and lop and crop and make whatever you like of it once it’s THERE, but you must have something to work with. It’s like dressmaking. You have a length of gorgeous fabric, but it’s nothing until it’s cut and draped and pinned and sewn. But you will never have anything to cut and drape and pin and sew if you don’t get the fabric first. Reader Megan, I hope that answers your question about internal editors as well. You have to simply ignore and push through!

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Never too many Mitfords

I am currently on tour to mark the release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING. Regular blogging will resume in October, but please drop by the blog every Tuesday and Thursday in September for posts from the archive. In the meantime, hope to see you on tour!

This post originally ran in 2008.

I’ve been reading The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters and it is HEAVY. I just put it on my digital bathroom scale and this thing weighs THREE POUNDS. (That’s half a pound less than the state crown the Queen wears to the opening of Parliament each year. And yes, I did put the book on my head to see how heavy that actually is. My neck nearly snapped from the strain, so all I can say is either I am totally unsuited to royal life or the Queen has the neck strength of a plow horse. Probably both.) Anyway, I’m really only comfortable reading this book while lying down, my knees bent to make a bookrest. Unfortunately, it’s fabulous, which means I’m going to have to keep at it until I’m a broken woman.

Most books about the Mitford sisters are good, simply because the subject matter is endlessly fascinating. Six beautiful, talented, witty women with vastly different interests and no end of courage and determination, moving amongst the most intriguing figures of the 20th century–it’s a recipe for good fiction, except nobody would believe the Mitfords could possibly exist if someone had invented them. (Any time someone questions the eccentricity and spirit of the Marches, I always think, “Yes, but clearly you’re not familiar with the Mitfords. The Marches are TAME housecats by comparison.” I mean, Unity Mitford was a debutante who curtseyed at the English court and then took tea with HITLER, for heaven’s sake. And even Pamela, the least notorious of the sisters, was living independently and running her brother-in-law’s home farm when she was barely out of the schoolroom.)

I’ve enjoyed the biographies I’ve read about them, but hearing them speak to one another in their own words is much more immediate and revealing. The collection was edited by Diana Mitford’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte Mosley, and she did a divine job. Not only are the letters well-chosen, she has designated a symbol for each sister–a hammer and sickle for Jessica, a swastika for Unity, a quill for Nancy, etc. These symbols are bulleted at the top of each letter as a quick reminder of which sister the sender was. FABULOUS. Every editor of every collection of letters EVER should make note of this.

At eight hundred pages, the book is certainly not light reading, but it is compelling, and it is the perfect book to dip in and out of–if you can bear to put it down in the first place.

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Riding the hobby horse

I am currently on tour to mark the release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING. Regular blogging will resume in October, but please drop by the blog every Tuesday and Thursday in September for posts from the archive. In the meantime, hope to see you on tour!

This post originally ran in 2008.

On an increasingly frequent basis, I’m asked to answer biographical questions, which I dread like a peasant does a plague rat. I don’t mind discussing where I grew up or how I write; I’m an open book. No, the question I fear is What are your hobbies? Because I have none.

I have never been a hobby person. I dabble, certainly. I toy with something just long enough to learn the fundamentals, and then I’m off to something else. (That explains why I once crocheted an 80-foot long chain. I only know the chain stitch.) I have a hot glue gun, knitting needles, beads, embroidery floss, specialty papers, a digital camera, and a truckload of cookbooks, all of which have been used and quietly put aside. I have a madeleine pan from my Proustian attempts to make the perfect scallop-shell cookie. I have a box full of beautiful fabric that would make a spectacular quilt if only I would cut them out and stitch them together. And yet, still they sit.

It isn’t as though I didn’t have good role models. The women in my family didn’t view cooking or baking as a hobby–those were necessities for them–but they did sew, crochet, embroider, macrame, decoupage, collect stamps, keep horses or exotic poultry, and during one extremely trying phase in the 1970s, ARTEX. (If you don’t know the horrors of ARTEX, google it. I dare you.)

Anyway, it occurred to me that I was really tired of trying to make up hobbies for these interview questions, so the other day when I was perusing the library shelves, I made a dive for a book about choosing the perfect hobby. There was even a quiz to determine where my interests lay! I was painfully excited about this. Honestly. I really thought I would answer the questions and there would be a bright light of revelation as my perfect hobby was finally revealed.

Yeah, I failed the quiz. I’M NOT KIDDING. I called my mother to lament my failure, and her response was less than comforting. “Hmm…I can’t think of anything you’d be good at,” she said thoughtfully. (This from the woman who poisoned us all with Artex fumes. I had a headache from the ages of 5-8 thanks to her.) She is unfortunately correct. It’s not that I’m completely useless, but I lose enthusiasm rather quickly. I have friends who are knitters, fabulous knitters who can cable and do Kitchener stitch in their sleep, but I suspect I will always be a person who knits rather than an actual knitter–slow of hands and moving my lips while I read the pattern. I don’t have the patience to stick with something for as long as it would take me to become proficient. (Gemini, table for two!)

But I still have the problem of how to answer interview questions about my hobbies, so I flipped through the hobby book for inspiration. And now, when anyone asks what I do with my free time, I’m going to tell them falconry. Or storm chasing. Or puppetry. Or maybe I’ll just tell them the truth: I spend a great deal of time sitting on my bum, watching television, sipping tea, and daydreaming.

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I am currently on tour to mark the release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING. Regular blogging will resume in October, but please drop by the blog every Tuesday and Thursday in September for posts from the archive. In the meantime, hope to see you on tour!

This entry originally ran in 2009.

After I travel, no matter how short and easy a trip, I like to decline. I come home and instantly unpack, take a hot bath, and take to my bed with a pot of tea and some good chocolate and my loved ones. Even if it’s still mid-afternoon, I don’t feel like I have properly returned unless I spend the first day back in my nightgown with my husband and daughter snuggled up next to me while we watch old movies. It is nesting at its most extreme, and I usually extend it into the following day. That’s when I shove my travel clothes into the washer and take to the sofa with more tea and more movies. I might answer a few e-mails, but nothing strenuous is permitted, and I prefer not to go out.

It feels luxurious and wicked to be so indolent, but I’ve learned through trial and error that there is a crucial period of decompression after travel. If I rush back into everyday life, I make mistakes. I lose concentration, and I feel harried and breathless. Much better for me to slide gently back in. I might read something thought-provoking and delicious, like Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses or watch Chocolat. I might roast a chicken because it’s comforting without being at all difficult. And if I decide to peruse the web, Fortuna Bella’s blog, The Courtesan’s Corner, is just the sort of thing I would like to read. There are only a few entries, and regrettably, she seems to have stopped updating in 2006, but the archives are well worth reading. They are sensual and diverting–the perfect reading for a lazy afternoon.

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Taking care of you

I am currently on tour to mark the release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING. Regular blogging will resume in October, but please drop by the blog every Tuesday and Thursday in September for posts from the archive. In the meantime, hope to see you on tour!

This post originally ran in 2009.

Lately I’ve been talking to lots of women who are in desperate need of some self-care. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of the economy or the planetary alignments or just general busyness, but there is a great deal of putting everybody else first and it needs to stop. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care for the people and responsibilities in our lives. Far from it. I’m saying we have to care for ourselves first before we can manage caring for anybody else. (Remember your friendly flight attendant and the admonition to secure your OWN oxygen mask before you try to help someone else. If you fail to do this, you could lose consciousness before you are of use to anyone. Scary, no?)

More than once in the past few weeks I’ve talked to women who are burned out, burned down, and running on empty. They are taking themselves and all of their commitments so seriously they’ve neglected themselves and they’ve neglected FUN. And yes, I am prescribing a little frivolity, a little selfishness because I think frivolity is essential and a small amount of well-applied selfishness is an investment against depression and burn-out. If you give and give and give until the well is dry, what’s left to nourish and nurture you? And the worst part is, it’s insidious. We let our boundaries slip a little at a time–an extra e-mail here, a “yes” when we long to say “no” there–and pretty soon you are overbooked, overextended, overwhelmed. If anyone presented you a list of your commitments in toto, you’d think they were barking mad. “NO woman could possibly manage all of that,” you’d say scornfully. And you’d be right.

But things trickle into our lives piecemeal, and taken by themselves, none of these extra responsibilities seem so weighty. But when mountaineers climb Everest, they clip off everything that is not essential. Every extra label, unnecessary lengths of bootlace, blank pages from paperback novels. Why? Because it all adds up and because weight matters. We can only carry so much, so we need to make sure that what we carry is essential. It’s time to honor the wee small voice that says, “I need a rest,” and give her time to take a nap, to read a book, to sit and BE. I know women who are very busy being wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, executives, artists–but so many of them are neglecting to be SELVES.

The commitment to take care of yourself is the most important one–if you are untended, you will rebel, I promise you. You will grow crabby and impatient. You’ll eat for comfort. You’ll shop irresponsibly. You will snatch solace wherever you can find it, but it will not last. It won’t last until you make a permanent commitment to care for yourself properly.

We have all been there at some point. We have all neglected ourselves and overextended and resented it. The only cure is to withdraw, come back to ourselves, and take inventory of what is really important. And here are some resources to help; read one or two, read them all. Take what you can use and then put it to use, I beg you. Life is either far too short or far too long to be unhappy, don’t you think?
(Also, I think comments are fixed now. I’ve removed the captcha box, and we’ll see if that makes it easier for y’all to leave comments.)

Simple Abundance Sarah Ban Breathnach
Romancing the Ordinary Sarah Ban Breathnach
The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron
Vein of Gold Julia Cameron
Living Artfully Sandra Magsamen
Living a Beautiful Life Alexandra Stoddard
On Becoming Fearless Arianna Huffington
A Year by the Sea Joan Anderson
The Joy of Doing Things Badly Veronica Chambers
Hip Tranquil Chick Kimberly Wilson
Wear More Cashmere Jennifer Sander
31 Words to Create a Guilt-Free Life ed. Karen Bouris
Succulent Wild Woman SARK
Eat Mangoes Naked SARK
The Comfort Queen’s Guide to Life Jennifer Louden
The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women Gail McMeekin
Creating a Life Worth Living Carol Lloyd
Take Time for Your Life Cheryl Richardson

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Ah, neighbors…

I am currently on tour to mark the release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING. Regular blogging will resume in October, but please drop by the blog every Tuesday and Thursday in September for posts from the archive. In the meantime, hope to see you on tour!

This post originally ran in 2008.

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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Something about gratitude

I am currently on tour to mark the release of A CURIOUS BEGINNING. Regular blogging will resume in October, but please drop by the blog every Tuesday and Thursday in September for posts from the archive. In the meantime, hope to see you on tour!

This post originally ran in 2008.

More than one person has mentioned to me recently that they read my blog because I don’t complain. (I tried once. I wrote a scathing, shimmering, incandescently enraged blog entry last month when I was so angry I wanted to kick a few people with pointy shoes until the streets ran red with their hearts’ blood. But I got over it and it just seemed silly to leave the entry in the publishing queue when I was no longer wanting to torch their houses, bulldoze the remains, and salt the earth so nothing would ever grow there again. I jest!)

Anyway, in light of those observations about the character of my blog, I started thinking about the mood of this place and how closely it reflects what’s really going on in my head. I decided this blog is completely me, but me at about 80%. (I censor. A LOT.) But–without compromising the privacy of people who didn’t ask to have their personal lives hung out on the washing line of the internet–it is as authentic as I can make it. I really do muse about the things I write here, and I enjoy writing things that I think YOU will enjoy.

But more than that, I am acutely aware of the power of gratitude. (Warning: New Age feeling-type sentiments ahead.) I always believed I would be a published writer. Even as a child, I would practice my autograph or being interviewed by Barbara Walters because I knew those skills would come in handy one day. What I didn’t expect is that it would take me almost until the age of forty to get published. I was twenty-three when I wrote my first novel, and it was fourteen years until I got a book deal. Fourteen years of rejection letters and writing novels that nobody wanted. My confidence and my faith in myself as a writer were beaten so thin moths could have used them for wings. It was, simply put and without melodrama, a dark time.

It hurts to think about it now, so I try not to. But when I do, I am knocked to my knees by gratitude for what I have. My reality now is that every day I can walk into a bookstore and see my work, printed and bound and for sale, ready to go home with someone and hopefully give them a pleasurable escape from their workaday life. My reality now is that I get on airplanes and travel to wonderful places to meet people who believe in what I do and want to help make me successful. And my reality now is that every single morning, I turn on my computer and there is e-mail waiting for me from readers who say things like, I hope your well is ever plentiful and you always find joy in your words.

So that’s why I don’t complain here. This is the place where readers come to meet the real me, and what you find here IS the real me. But it’s the best me. I put on a pretty party dress and my dancing shoes because I know you’re coming and I’m happy to see you here. So thanks for coming, and thanks for appreciating what I do. Because without you, I am a girl with eight lonely little novels in a box under her bed, and I never forget that.

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