In which Wolf Hall is coming

Did you know? I don’t know about your local PBS station, but mine is frothing about this one. I have been watching loads of PBS lately thanks to “Downton Abbey”, “Grantchester”, and the adorable “Great British Baking Show”. (Who knew I could care so much about a Victoria sponge? Which, if we’re honest, sounds like a queenly birth control device.) Anyway, they keep flogging Wolf Hall and I’m keen to start it. It’s gotten mixed reviews in the UK–viewership dropped off dramatically from the first week to the second–and I freely confess to not having read the book. (I started it…)

We still have something like four weeks to go before it airs, but here’s a snippet of something I blogged awhile back about Great Harry:

I’ve always been intrigued by historical puzzles, and the English royal family has had more than its fair share. The princes in the Tower, the royal imposters, the Casket Letters–I know that was Mary, Queen of Scots, but since she was of Tudor descent and her son inherited the English throne, we’ll toss her in there. One of the things that has fascinated me the most is the reproductive history of Henry VIII’s wives. I always thought it was remarkable that his womenfolk–wives and mistresses alike–had successful first pregnancies but multiple failures afterwards. (The single exception to this is the birth of Princess Mary to Katherine of Aragon.) Every other subsequent pregnancy for a partner of Henry VIII ended in miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal death.

And yes, I know Tudor times were not a rocking age for childbearing. Just the thought of the herb-laden fats they used to cram up…never mind. We won’t talk about it. But even accounting for the difficulties of childbearing at the time, Henry VIII’s partners were woefully unlucky and managed to be unlucky in such a way as to suggest a pattern. It has long been suggested that Anne Boleyn’s reproductive tragedies after bearing Elizabeth in 1533 were due to an incompatible Rh factor. Possible, but that fails to take into account the fact that her predecessor, Katherine of Aragon, had almost precisely the same reproductive experiences. Aside from the live birth of Princess Mary, her history is a painful list of the same afflictions that Anne Boleyn suffered.

So what do they have in common? Henry. The old chestnut about him having syphilis has been pretty well discounted by now, but I came across a riveting article that posits the theory that Henry carried a genetic condition that would have resulted in a pattern of successful first pregnancies, with subsequent pregnancies frequently ending in the death of the child and only occasionally producing a healthy infant. This explanation neatly covers the reproductive history of both of his first wives AND the birth of Princess Mary as the exception to the litany of failed pregnancies. As a fascinating side note, the condition may also carry a complication that can result in erratic judgment, paranoia, and delusions with the onset near the fortieth birthday–another pattern that mirrors Henry’s experiences perfectly. Is it possible to diagnose a man who has been dead for more than four hundred years? Not likely, but it is intriguing to find a possible solution that accounts for his transformation from beloved prince to vicious tyrant and for his many failures in filling the royal nursery.

And a bit of Tudor trivia to bore your friends with: in spite of the fact that Henry VIII took to wife four Englishwomen and both Spanish and German princesses, he and all six of his wives were descended from the Plantagenet King Edward I of England. (As am I. And about nineteen million other people. But still, it’s nice to know.)

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In which I am throwing everything out–but not you!

I love to declutter–LOVE IT. It’s something I usually embark upon just after the holidays. Packing up the decorations lends itself to tidying up all kinds of other things. This year I chucked out several hundred books and it felt AMAZING. (They went to our local library for their book sale.) I also cleared out loads of shoes and clothes; even the pantry got an overhaul. And I’ll tell you what: when I was finished, I felt light as a FEATHER. The energy in the house soared. If you find yourself feeling a bit stuck, throwing things out is the perfect remedy. I wrote this piece awhile back, but bears reposting because Gail Blanke’s book is a superb kick in the pants to get yourself moving.
I have never been able to wait for spring to overhaul the house. To me, the post-holiday doldrums offer the perfect time for pottering. It’s too cold to go out and usually dreary to boot. It’s the time of year when we feel bloated from too much holiday excess, both inside and out. Our cupboards and closets are groaning from holiday decorations, gifts, miscellanea. It’s the absolute best opportunity to meander through the house, taking a drawer or shelf at a time to organize and purge. It feels virtuous to throw things out or fill up bags for donations. (And honestly, after the holidays, it is lovely to have something to feel virtuous about, don’t you think?)

In my quest to declutter, I love to read about other people’s systems and rules. I’m fascinated by folks who declare they will throw something out every time they bring something new in, and actually stick to it! I am more spontaneous in my purging. I never discard an item just because something new came in, but I will happily get rid of a drawer full of things a week later. (Now that I have started watching HOARDERS it’s become even more satisfying to get rid of things.)

Earlier this week, I tore through Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life by Gail Blanke. It was superb. The principle is simple: throw away fifty things in two weeks. The catch is that like items count as ONE. (Which means if you decide to purge a magazine collection, good for you, but those hundreds of pounds of glossy pages that you hauled out to the recycling bin are still only one item.) The beauty of the system is that once you start weeding out the excess clutter, you weed out the bad thinking as well. It is just as much a self-help book as one about organization, and I found myself flagging page after page so I would go back and read certain passages over again. One of my favorites: There is no way it is. There is only the way you say it is. A beautifully succinct reminder that our reality is what we make it. Anyway, if one of your resolutions was to tidy up, this book is a must-have.

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In which I talk to y’all–all y’all

Every once in awhile, this needs to be repeated because I KEEP SEEING IT HAPPEN. Please, for the love of God, don’t let it happen to you. Use y’all properly. This piece will explain how.

I am an unrepentant Southerner. There are some things I deplore about our Southern culture, some for which I would fight tooth and nail. “Y’all” is among the latter. English is a peculiar language, a strange brew of disparate ingredients that don’t always meld perfectly. Sometimes, in our unholy alliance of Latin, Greek, old French, German, etc. we commit errors of omission. (I am particularly wounded by the brutally specific Germanic nouns that we seem to be lacking. Honestly, we have no words to even TOUCH “schadenfreude”.) Perhaps the most glaring lack in our language is a second person plural pronoun. Most other languages have TWO, a formal and an informal. And we, somehow, think we can get by with none. Silly us.

So we bodge together regional solutions, most of which are inelegant or unspecific. Except for “y’all”. It is clear, concise, and does no more or no less than it ought. And let the record show that it IS “y’all”. It is a contraction for “you all”, and therefore the apostrophe must be placed where the “o” and the “u” are lacking. Any attempt to place it between the “a” and the first “l” ought to be received with derision and a refusal to share the good chicken salad.

And the rules of using “y’all”, with apologies to Elle Woods, are simple and finite. The word is used when addressing more than one person. YOU ALL. You, collectively. You, each and every one, as a group and a whole. I thought this was self-explanatory, but twice recently I have hurled books across the room because the benighted authors–and their publishers–committed a colloquial atrocity and permitted improper usage. In one case a character looked at a single person and said, “I’m so glad to see y’all.” No, you aren’t. You are glad to see YOU. If there are two or more or you are referring to a collective to which your conversational partner belongs, THEN you use “y’all”. Otherwise, “you” is sufficient.

The second maddening example was a supposedly Southern character who looked at a group of people and said, “Are y’alls alright?” That particular book left a dent in my plaster because it got hurled. I mean, I hummed it. Even now, thinking of that line makes me go all Madeline Kahn–”Flames, flames, on the sides of my face…”–because it is so absurd. Y’alls. Honestly. There IS NO SUCH WORD. If you don’t get Southern speech, fine. No problem. Either learn it or write around it, don’t just make stuff up and think we won’t notice or care. We do care. Deeply. And we will think less of you for not caring.

We also might be tempted to do evil. Now, I’m not particularly proud of this, but it illustrates how strongly Southerners feel upon the subject of regional speech. Some years ago, I attended a Sisters in Crime meeting in a city that shall not be named. (It rhymes with Ban Dantonio.) We were all atwitter because an author we had heard of was coming to talk about her series. She was from a state that really won’t be named, but I will tell you it was north of the Mason-Dixon. Anyway, during the course of her chat, she proceeded to tell us about the new book she was writing that was set in the South around the time of the Civil War. Her characters were Southern, but they were drawn with neither affection nor understanding, and during that hour, she condescended more to us than I would have thought humanly possible. She indicated that we were all poorly educated inbred hillbillies with neither sophistication nor culture. And she even managed to suggest that we were entirely too backward to know what we didn’t know.

And then she read us a passage from her as-yet-unpublished book. The first time she misused the word “y’all” a ripple ran through the crowd, silent but palpable. She second time, I felt the woman next to me suppress a sigh of satisfaction. The author proceeded to use it incorrectly more than a dozen times in the ten pages she read. When she was finished, we applauded and thanked her politely. And then we left. Not a single woman in that audience corrected her. I’m sure y’all will understand why.

(As a side note, I have had friends from other parts of the country who used “you-ins”, “youse”, or “youse guys” as their second person plural pronoun. Rock on, my non-Southern friends. I may not share your pronoun, but I will defend to the death your right to use it.)

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In which I need a set dresser

Every once in awhile I see a film I want to move into–and an actress whose film wardrobe I want to purloin. Those are the movies I leave feeling annoyed because that world doesn’t actually exist. AND I WANT IT TO. Here are a few of my absolute favorites, movies that influenced my style in one way or another:

*American Dreamer. If you haven’t seen this 80′s classic, do. At once. I love movies that feature writer-protagonists (go figure), and this one has the added deliciousness of being set in Paris. Imagine a Francophile Eloise all grown up and engaging in some international espionage and living at the Crillon instead of the Plaza. My favorite scene is the montage of Rebecca Ryan outfitting herself at the chicest boutiques–Mugler, Montana, Dior! You will never find bigger shoulder pads in any film.

*St. Elmo’s Fire. Another 80′s gem. I remember taking a plain white shirt and stitching the collar points to have the same effect as Demi’s. I actually had half a dozen of those shirts and wore them with brooches at the neck and cufflinks on my French cuffs. I also loved her glitzy little party dresses and her furs and faux jewels and crinoline! Ah, the decade of excess…

*Practical Magic. Updated Bohemian witchcraft chic. I love the flowy hair, the flowy skirts, and the tiny embellished cardigans. And black cats are always a superb accessory.

*Amelie. Utterly perfect French ingenue chic. The little skirts, tidy collars, lush colors, crocheted trims, saved from tweeness by the very masculine shoes. And that bob! Tres magnifique.

*Chocolat. Vianne’s wardrobe was as delectable as her chocolates. Ladylike and French, but always with a twist of something unexpected. The fitted waists and silk fabrics were wildly improbable for a chocolatier, but divine nonetheless. I also loved the little scarves for tying up her hair as she worked and the shawls for wrapping herself up against the chill of the town.

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In which there’s a little Valentine’s Day cheer

Head over to Kindles and Wine today to check out the Valentine Q&A featuring Jill Shalvis, K. Bromberg, Julie James, and Penny Reid! Oh, and I’m there too…

Kindles and Wine

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In which I am leaving on a jet plane

So I didn’t expect to be traveling any time soon–my release isn’t until the autumn and our trip to Europe isn’t until July–but husband has been logging LOTS of frequent flyer miles. He’s been gone three of the last four weeks on business, and during his last trip he realized he was supposed to fly home on Valentine’s Day. SUPPOSED TO. Instead, he called me up and said, “Book a ticket and meet me in New York.” And that’s what I did. I’m leaving today to spend the weekend with my guy in the Big Apple–the first time we’ve ever been to New York together in February, and the first time we’ve ever been there alone without business engagements! We have utterly nothing planned. No tickets bought, no tables booked. We are both recuperating from bouts of unwellness and taking a nice long weekend at our own pace suits us perfectly. I don’t even care if we have to have Valentine’s Day dinner at a hot dog cart. Whatever your plans this weekend, I hope it’s lovely!

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In which we’re pondering soap operas

A few of my favorite writers on Twitter regularly live tweet their General Hospital watching, and it always amuses me. I have a very soft spot for the soap operas of my youth. They were HIGHLY informative about various facts of life, as well as making it abundantly clear that a plot twist was a thing devoutly to be wished.

In honor of soap operas, here’s something I wrote about them awhile back:

They’re still around, right? I haven’t seen one in more than twenty years, but goodness me, we were a soap opera family when I was a child. I skipped kindergarten and have vivid memories of watching them with my mother. We were devoted to “Days of Our Lives” with some “The Young & the Restless” thrown in. I think for awhile we watched “Another World” and I know there was some time spent enthralled with “The Edge of Night”–hands-down the best soap opera title EVER.

I learned a lot about life from watching soaps. I learned about infertility, date rape, homosexuality, and evil twins. I learned that the villainess is always the one wearing fur with seventeen ex-husbands and that it’s surprisingly common for one’s marriage to be invalid because the priest wasn’t really a priest. I learned that blackmailers always meet with a sticky end and that complicated neurological procedures can be squeezed in between the ad for Mister Clean and the end of the hour. I learned that children grow from being toddlers to surly, troublesome teens in about three months, and that the newcomer in town is always someone’s long-lost heir. Come to think of it, I learned a lot about character and consistence from soaps, a lot about rising action and climax and conflict. And I learned never ever to believe that all the old copies of the will have been destroyed. Because there’s always another one that gets produced at the reading. I also learned that miscarriages will happen because of emotional shocks, mild poisoning, being thrown from a horse, and being hurled downstairs–all VERY good things to know.

And speaking of soaps, if you are interested in family sagas, you might enjoy the book I just finished–Wait for Me! by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. She is the youngest and last-surviving Mitford sister, and the book is riveting. It reads like a Greek tragedy, but with dollops of WWII and the Kennedys thrown in. It will be an easier read if you’re already acquainted with the Mitfords as the Duchess presumes a bit of familiarity with the family history. (And the pink foil on the spine of the book is just delicious!)

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In which I really, really don’t like scary movies

I don’t do scary movies. I love suspense–classic Hitchcock is my jam and I like classic horror like 1930s Universal and 1960s Hammer–but I don’t do slasher movies or overly gory things. I can barely sit through “Halloween”, to be honest. If I’m going to be creeped out, I want it to be something that doesn’t look like it could be happening to me RIGHT NOW OH  MY GOD WHAT WAS THAT NOISE FROM THE BASEMENT?

A few years ago I found “The Collector” on TCM and here’s what I thought:

So this morning I settled in to watch “The Collector”–1965–based on the John Fowles book. (Mea culpa, haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to how faithful an adaptation it is.) But goodness me, wasn’t it delicious? It helps that it was overcast and rainy this morning, suitably spooky for a movie about a disturbed butterfly collector who abducts the art student he believes he’s in love with.

I actually expected to cue through most of it and just pick up the gist of it, but I was completely sucked in. Terence Stamp was mesmerizing as the abductor–a tremendously complex character who ought to have been completely loathsome. But he wasn’t. There were moments when it was quite easy to forget what he had done and see him only as a wretchedly insecure, usually courteous young man. (Terence Stamp’s stunningly beautiful eyes didn’t hurt. I even got impatient once or twice with his victim, thinking, “Oh, my God. I know he’s clinically insane, but he sets such a nice tea tray and bought you such lovely clothes and it wouldn’t kill you to give him a little kiss.”) I would have thought that generating sympathy for his character would have called for loads of backstory either through dialogue or voice-over or tedious flashbacks. Not a bit of it. There is one brief dreamy scene that fills in some of the blanks, and the rest is entirely up to his behavior. It’s particularly telling that when the girl suggests he has brought her there to assault her that he draws himself up, clearly affronted, and insists, “I will not. I shall have the proper respect.”

And yet…there are wonderful moments where his struggle is apparent and he is chillingly capable of cruelty. In all, superbly done–and available on Netflix from what I am told. (If you do watch it, see if you spot the odd moments when he resembles Sheldon Cooper. If they ever remake this film, I think Jim Parsons is the perfect choice to play someone who can be simultaneously creepy and sweet.)

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In which we’re banishing winter bleurghs

Ah, February–the short, dark month full of blah. (I honestly don’t know anyone who claims it as their favorite month.) The glitter and warmth of the holidays are behind us, but spring seems SO far away. What we need this month is a toolbox of tricks for making the days seem a little brighter. Here are a few of my faves:

*Changing up the screensaver/wallpaper to something new–either a dazzling snowy scene or something completely the opposite: tropical beaches, spring flowers, baby animals. Just switching up the images you see on a regular basis can help boost your energy levels. While you’re at it, consider changing out some of the photos you have framed around the house or office. Pull out postcards from pals or vacation pics to freshen things up.

*Liberal use of citrus oils. I’m a BIG fan of grapefruit oil–I burn it in an oil burner whenever I’m in need of an energy boost–but any of the citrus oils will do. Lemon and tangerine are lovely, just mind the tangerine since it’s VERY orange and liable to stain. Check the label to see if your oils are safe to apply directly to skin. If not, dilute with sweet almond oil or grapeseed and add to the bath or rub onto your pulse points. Shake a few drops onto your HVAC filter when you change it. (I also do this with lavender which makes the house smell like a spa, but be cautious! A little goes a very long way.) Rub a few drops onto the top of an unscented candle just before you light it.

*Plants in every room. I have a notorious black thumb but I’ve found my perfect match–orchids. Yes, I know. They’re very fussy and I shouldn’t be able to keep them alive, but I do. Indirect sunlight, a few ice cubes in the pot each week for water, and that’s it. I have them in three rooms of the house, white and purple ones, and they are infallible for cheering up a place. I also bought a pot of mixed herbs from my grocery store, and while I killed off the thyme, the sage and rosemary are coming along beautifully. I popped it into a living room window with good morning light and turn it when I think about it. Bonus? It smells divine.

*Fresh candles. I put away the peppermint and pumpkin candles from the holidays and the autumn in favor of leathery and herbal scents. (The best candle I bought last year was from a company I can’t recall. It was titled “Leather Boots” and it smelled exactly like fresh leather.)

*Changing up pens. I’ve weeded out my drawers and pen cup, tossing out the dried up and nearly empty. I’ve refilled with fine-point markers in glorious colors and a set of pink rollerballs filled with black ink. Office supplies in general can be so DULL; I buy color whenever I can. (If you haven’t checked out Staples in awhile, DO. They’ve partnered with several designers to create what are almost mini-boutiques within the store–all full of files, notebooks, and other supplies in a range of gorgeous colors and themes.)

*Mixing up peppermint water. Everyone knows to hydrate in hot weather, but it’s also important to do it this time of year–when the central heat is reducing your sinuses to the Mojave. I add a drop of peppermint extract to a big glass of water to make it a little more interesting.


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In which Veronica has left the building

So, last week I turned in my revisions to A CURIOUS BEGINNING, the first Veronica Speedwell mystery, and then my editor responded with a quick list of tweaks–very small stuff which I insisted on making into BIG stuff by rewriting two scenes in a pretty major way and tweaking several others. I’ve never done this before at this late stage, but between having a very accommodating editor and a very limited time to world build before writing the book, I had a chance and I took it. The end result is that I LOVE this book. Editor agrees it’s much stronger with the changes and it’s off her desk and on to copy editor. PHEW.

There’s a lesson here about following your gut because these were scenes that kept niggling at me. I’d revise and say, “Eh, it’s fine.” Which means, of course, that it most certainly is NOT fine. Who wants to write ‘fine’? You want a scene you’re excited to share with readers, and a ‘fine’ scene isn’t going to cut it. That’s become my signal to dig VERY deeply into a scene and figure out what’s off.

In the case of this book, there were two main strategies I used to improve scenes that felt off. First, I changed up the character driving the action. (This goes back to the tip I shared with you from Phillip Margolin.) I put some action into the hands of my heroine which made her stronger and more decisive. But I also changed a few scenes to let my lead male–her sidekick–drive a little. I don’t want her to overpower him because he’s a strong guy. But she is a force of nature, and it seemed appropriate to have her push more of the story along. So I gave her free rein and it worked very well–much more in keeping with who she is.

The second strategy was to keep striking out back story and open discussions of relationship dynamics. Sometimes NOT knowing why a character behaves a certain way is the right choice–ESPECIALLY in a series. We have lots of books to explore these particular people, and having only hints at the start is tantalizing. The same goes for discussing the dynamics of their relationships. British Victorians would tend to be–and this is a gross oversimplification–a little more reticent on the subject of feelings than modern day Americans. It’s fine to let them just smooth things over without voicing their emotions and attachments and resentments and grudges. It can often be the root of future conflict. In this case, it was definitely better to stick to the adages about less is more and showing not telling. I’m a big fan of rule breaking, but it can be extremely helpful to revisit the rules to see if they are applicable.

This wraps up our discussions of revisions. Huge thanks to Nancy for prompting the last few entries!

I’ll leave you with this clip from Ira Glass offering some serious wisdom about taking your time with your process and being patient with your development as an artist. Some truly good stuff there.

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