In which we’re still in Transylvania

Those of you who have the digital edition of THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST had a few special pieces of extra content written exclusively for you. Since it’s been a few years since the book came out (!) I thought I’d share with print readers a letter Theodora Lestrange, the intrepid heroine, has written to her sister back in Scotland…

From the Castle Dragulescu, Transylvania

 

My dearest Anna,

 

I hope this letter finds you and William well. As you can see from the heading, I have arrived! My trip was blessedly uneventful, although I think you would have remarked upon the oddness of the food and the unsavoury linen in some of the accommodations. But the scenery, Anna! How you would have marvelled at it, for it is quite indescribable, like something out of a child’s book of faery tales. The mountains do not rise gracefully as our gentler Scottish mountains do; these peaks are sharp and craggy, pushing like living things toward the sky. They are grey and often enshrouded in mist and fogs, and there is a wonderful atmosphere when the wolves begin to howl.

 

Have I chilled your blood? Good! For I mean to write a fearful novel, full of dangerous things that will make young maidens cower under their bedclothes at night, too afraid even to strike a light against the dark. It is wicked, I know, but what fun it will be to craft my monsters! And it seems that I shall have all the time I require to write without the distractions of helping to plan a wedding. Cosmina does not mean to marry after all. Her fiancé—although I suppose I should not call him so—the master of this place, has refused to marry her. On what grounds, she has not said. She only related to me that the marriage would not happen and that she herself is glad of it! I cannot imagine why. Marriage would have settled her here in the land that she loves so well, and I do not understand why there should be any objection to the gentleman himself. He welcomed me to his home in a uniquely Transylvanian fashion, and has been a most engaging host. Perhaps I shall use him as a model for my hero…oh, Anna, picture me now, nibbling on the end of my pen and canting my head to the side as I consider if he will suit my purposes. He is tall, as a hero should be, and handsome as well. But these things are trifles. Any fellow may be tall or handsome, these are accidents of birth. This particular gentleman has something entirely more diverting, Anna. He has secrets. What they might be, I cannot yet guess, but I can smell them, sharp as the smell of rain upon the wind. He has a great dog that shambles about after him, and a creature more like a wolf you have never seen! I could easily believe it his familiar, sent out to do his bidding upon moonlight nights…

 

How fanciful I become! Can you understand now how powerful a force one’s setting is? I have come to this place and instantly I am beset by plots and characters, plucking at my sleeve for attention. I want only peace and quiet and a pot of ink to spin masterpieces from my pen.

 

But enough of my trifles. I am eagerly awaiting news of the autumn fête. Have you finally secured the funds to make the repairs to the east wall of the rectory? I do hope so. It was very kind of Mrs. Muldoon to send half a dozen jars of her damson plum preserves for the auction, although I lament that she did not see fit to send any with me. I should have liked it upon my mămăligă at breakfast each morning! What is mămăligă, I hear you ask? It is a sort of porridge, but made with corn rather than oats, very hearty and nourishing, a type of peasant food that even the gentry are happy to have, for it is bracing here in the mountains and one wants filling food. There are all sorts of warming dishes and things spiced with peppers to heat the blood. You might enjoy them, although I suspect they would irritate William’s dyspepsia. I am sorry to hear it troubles him again. Has he tried a ginger tonic?

 

Do give my love to my nieces and nephews, and tell them if they are very good indeed, I will write them each a faery story for Christmas. And tell Edmund I will write one for him even though I know he shall be naughty.

 

Kiss them once and yourself twice and know that I am well and I remain as ever,

 

 

Your devoted sister,

Theodora

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In which it wouldn’t be October without THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST

Have you visited Transylvania lately, chickens? My only “vampire” book is THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST, an homage to the classic Gothic with a heroine who fears domesticity and a hero who might or might not be undead…

In case you haven’t checked out THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST, here’s an excerpt to entice you.

THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST
Theodora Lestrange leaves her comfortable home in Edinburgh to visit Transylvania at the invitation of her childhood friend, Cosmina, now the betrothed of a Roumanian nobleman. Theodora arrives at the Castle Dragulescu to find that nothing is as she expected…

After a long while, the road swung upward into the high mountains, and we moved from the pretty foothills to the bold peaks of the Carpathians. Here the air grew suddenly sharp, and the snug villages disappeared, leaving only great swathes of green-black forests of fir and spruce, occasionally punctured by high shafts of grey stone where a ruined fortress or watch-tower still reached to the darkening sky, and it was in this wilderness that we stopped once more, high upon a mountain pass at a small inn. A coach stood waiting, this one a private affair clearly belonging to some person of means, for it was a costly vehicle and emblazoned with an intricate coat of arms. The driver alighted at once and after a moment’s brisk conversation with the driver of the hired coach, took up my boxes and secured them.

He gestured towards me, managing to be both respectful and impatient. I shivered in my thin cloak and hurried after him.

I paused at the front of the equipage, startled to find that the horses, great handsome beasts and beautifully kept, were nonetheless scarred, bearing the traces of some trauma about their noses.

Die Wölfe,” he said, and I realized in horror what he meant.

I replied in German, my schoolgirl grammar faltering only a little. “The wolves attack them?”

He shrugged. “There is not a horse in the Carpathians without scars. It is the way of it here.”

He said nothing more but opened the door to the coach and I climbed in.

Cosmina had mentioned wolves, and I knew they were a considerable danger in the mountains, but hearing such things amid the cosy comforts of a school dormitory was very different to hearing them on a windswept mountainside where they dwelt.

The coachman sprang to his seat whipping up the horses almost before I had settled myself, so eager was he to be off. The rest of the journey was difficult, for the road we took was not the main one that continued through the pass, but a lesser, rockier track, and I realised we were approaching the headwaters of the river where it sprang from the earth before debouching into the somnolent valley far below.

The evening drew on into night, with only the coach lamps and a waning sliver of pale moon to light the way. It seemed we travelled an eternity, rocking and jolting our way ever upward until at last, hours after we left the little inn on the mountain pass, the driver pulled the horses to a sharp halt. I looked out of the window to the left and saw nothing save long shafts of starlight illuminating the great drop below us to the river. To the right was sheer rock, stretching hundreds of feet to the vertical. I staggered from the coach, my legs stiff with cold. I breathed deeply of the crisp mountain air and smelled juniper.

Just beyond lay a coach house and stables and what looked to be a little lodge, perhaps where the coachman lived. He had already dismounted and was unhitching the horses whilst he shouted directions to a group of men standing nearby. They looked to be of peasant stock and had clearly been chosen for their strength, for they were diminutive, as Roumanians so often are, but built like oxen with thick necks and muscle-corded arms. An old-fashioned sedan chair stood next to them.

Before I could ask, the driver pointed to a spot on the mountainside high overhead. Torches had been lit and I could see that a castle had been carved out of the living rock itself, perched impossibly high, like an eagle’s aerie. “That is the home of the Dragulescus,” he told me proudly.

“It is most impressive,” I said. “But I do not understand. How am I to—”

He pointed again, this time towards a staircase cut into the rock. The steps were wide and shallow, switching back and forth as they rose over the face of the mountain.

“Impossible,” I breathed. “There must be a thousand steps.”

“One thousand, four hundred,” he corrected. “The Devil’s Staircase, it is called, for it is said that the Dragulescu who built this fortress could not imagine how to reach the summit of the mountain. So he promised his firstborn to the Devil if a way could be found. In the morning, his daughter was dead, and this staircase was just as you see it now.”

I stared at him in astonishment. There seemed no possible reply to such a wretched story, and yet I felt a thrill of horror. I had done right to come. This was a land of legend, and I knew I should find inspiration for a dozen novels here if I wished it.

He gestured towards the sedan chair. “It is too steep for horses. This is why we must use the old ways.”

I baulked at first, horrified at the idea that I must be carried up the mountain like so much chattel. But I looked again at the great height and my legs shook with fatigue. I followed him to the sedan chair and stepped inside. The door was snapped shut behind me, entombing me in the stuffy darkness. A leather curtain had been hung at the window—for privacy, or perhaps to protect the passenger from the elements. I tried to move it aside, but it had grown stiff and unwieldy from disuse.

Suddenly, I heard a few words spoken in the soft lilting Roumanian tongue, and the sedan chair rocked hard, first to one side, then the other as it was lifted from the ground. I tried to make myself as small as possible before I realised the stupidity of the idea. The journey was not a comfortable one, for I soon discovered it was necessary to steel myself against the jostling at each step as we climbed slowly towards the castle.

At length I felt the chair being set down and the door was opened for me. I crept out, blinking hard in the flaring light of the torches. I could see the castle better now, and my first thought was here was some last outpost of Byzantium, for the castle was something out of myth. It was a hodge-podge of strange little towers capped by witches’ hats, thick walls laced with parapets, and high, pointed windows. It had been fashioned of river stones and courses of bricks, and the whole of it had been whitewashed save the red tiles of the roofs. Here and there the white expanses of the walls were broken with massive great timbers, and the effect of the whole was some faerytale edifice, perched by the hand of a giant in a place no human could have conceived of it.

In the paved courtyard, all was quiet, quiet as a tomb, and I wondered madly if everyone was asleep, slumbering under a sorcerer’s spell, for the place seemed thick with enchantment. But just then the great doors swung back upon their hinges and the spell was broken. Silhouetted in the doorway was a slight figure I remembered well, and it was but a moment before she spied me and hurried forward.

“Theodora!” she cried, and her voice was high with emotion. “How good it is to see you at last.”

She embraced me, but carefully, as if I were made of spun glass.

“We are old friends,” I scolded. “And I can bear a sturdier affection than that.” I enfolded her and she seemed to rest a moment upon my shoulder.

“Dear Theodora, I am so glad you are come.” She drew back and took my hand, tucking it into her arm. The light from the torches fell upon her face then, and I saw that the pretty girl had matured into a comely woman. She had had a fondness for sweet pastries at school and had always run to plumpness, but now she was slimmer, the lost flesh revealing elegant bones that would serve her well into old age.

From the shadows behind her emerged a great dog, a wary and fearsome creature with a thick grey coat that stood nearly as tall as a calf in the field.

“Is he?” I asked, holding myself quite still as the beast sniffed at my skirts appraisingly.

“No.” She paused a moment, then continued on smoothly, “The dog is his.”

I knew at once that she referred to her betrothed, and I wondered why she had hesitated at the mention of his name. I darted a quick glance and discovered she was in the grip of some strong emotion, as if wrestling with herself.

She burst out suddenly, her voice pitched low and soft and for my ears alone. “Do not speak of the betrothal. I will explain later. Just say you are come for a visit.”

She squeezed my hand and I gave a short, sharp nod to show that I understood. It seemed to reassure her, for she fixed a gentle smile upon her lips and drew me into the great hall of the castle to make the proper introductions.

The hall itself was large, the stone walls draped with moth-eaten tapestries, the flagged floor laid here and there with faded Turkey carpets. There was little furniture, but the expanses of wall that had been spared the tapestries were bristling with weapons—swords and halberds, and some other awful things I could not identify, but which I could easily imagine dripping with gore after some fierce medieval battle.

Grouped by the immense fireplace was a selection of heavy oaken chairs, thick with examples of the carver’s art. One—a porter’s chair, I imagined, given its great wooden hood to protect the sitter from draughts—was occupied by a woman. Another woman and a young man stood next to it, and I presumed at once that this must be Cosmina’s erstwhile fiancé.

When we reached the little group, Cosmina presented me formally. “Aunt Eugenia, this is my friend, Theodora Lestrange. Theodora, my aunt, the Countess Dragulescu.”

I had no notion of how to render the proper courtesies to a countess, so I merely inclined my head, more deeply than I would have done otherwise, and hoped it would be sufficient.

To my surprise, the countess extended her hand and addressed me in lilting English. “Miss Lestrange, you are quite welcome.” Her voice was reedy and thin, and I noted she was well-wrapped against the evening chill. As I came near to take her hand, I saw the resemblance to Cosmina, for the bones of the face were very like. But whereas Cosmina was a woman whose beauty was in crescendo, the countess was fading. Her hair and skin lacked luster, and I recalled the many times Cosmina had confided her worries over her aunt’s health.

But her grey eyes were bright as she shook my hand firmly, then waved to the couple standing in attendance upon her.

“Miss Lestrange, you must meet my companion, Clara—Frau Amsel.” To my surprise, she followed this with, “And her son, Florian. He functions as steward here at the castle.” I supposed it was the countess’ delicate way of informing me that Frau Amsel and Florian were not to be mistaken for the privileged. The Amsels were obliged to earn their bread as I should have to earn mine. We ought to have been equals, but perhaps my friendship with Cosmina had elevated me above my natural place in the countess’ estimation. True, Cosmina was a poor relation, but the countess had seen to her education and encouraged Cosmina’s prospects as a future daughter-in-law to hear Cosmina tell the tale. On thinking of the betrothal, I wondered then where the new count was and if his absence was the reason for Cosmina’s distress.

Recalling myself, I turned to the Amsels. The lady was tall and upright in her posture, and wore a rather unbecoming shade of brown which gave her complexion a sallow cast. She was not precisely plump, but there was a solidity about her that put me instantly in mind of the sturdy village women who had cooked and cleaned at our school in Bavaria. Indeed, when Frau Amsel murmured some words of welcome, her English was thwarted by a thick German accent. I nodded cordially to her and she addressed her son. “Florian, Miss Lestrange is from Scotland. We must speak English to make her feel welcome. It will be good practise for you.”

He inclined his head to me. “Miss Lestrange. It is with a pleasure that we welcome you to Transylvania.”

His grammar was imperfect, and his accent nearly impenetrable, but I found him interesting. He was perhaps a year or two my elder—no more, I imagined. He had softly curling hair of middling brown and a broad, open brow. His would have been a pleasant countenance, if not for the expression of seriousness in his solemn brown eyes. I noticed his hands were beautifully shaped, with long, elegant fingers, and I wondered if he wrote tragic poetry.

“Thank you, Florian,” I returned, twisting my tongue around the syllables of his name and giving it the same inflection his mother had.

Just at that moment I became aware of a disturbance, not from the noise, for his approach had been utterly silent. But the dog pricked up his ears, swinging his head to the great archway that framed the grand staircase. A man was standing there, his face shrouded in darkness. He was of medium height, his shoulders wide and although I could not see him clearly, they seemed to be set with the resolve that only a man past thirty can achieve.

He moved forward slowly, graceful as an athlete, and as he came near the shadows of the torches and the fire played over his face, revealing and then concealing, offering him up in pieces that I could not quite resolve into a whole until he reached my side.

I was conscious that his eyes had been fixed upon me, and I realised with a flush of embarrassment that I had returned his stare, all thoughts of modesty or propriety fled.

The group had been a pleasant one, but at his appearance a crackling tension rose, passing from one to the other, until the atmosphere was thick with unspoken things.

He paused a few feet from me, his gaze still hard upon me. I could see him clearly now and almost wished I could not. He was handsome, not in the pretty way of shepherd boys in pastoral paintings, but in the way that horses or lions are handsome. His features bore traces of his mother’s ruined beauty, with a stern nose and a firmly-marked brow offset by lips any satyr might have envied. They seemed fashioned for murmuring sweet seductions, but it was the eyes I found truly mesmerising. I had never seen that colour before, either in nature or in art. They were silver-grey, but darkly so, and complimented by the black hair that fell in thick locks nearly to his shoulders. He was dressed quietly, but expensively, and wore a heavy silver ring upon his forefinger, intricately worked and elegant. Yet all of these excellent attributes were nothing to the expression of interest and approbation he wore. Without that, he would have been any other personable gentleman. With it, he was incomparable. I felt as if I could stare at him for a thousand years, so long as he looked at me with those fathomless eyes, and it was not until Cosmina spoke that I recalled myself.

“Andrei, this is my friend, Miss Theodora Lestrange from Edinburgh. Theodora, the Count Dragulescu.”

He did not take my hand or bow or offer me any of the courtesies I might have expected. Instead he merely held my gaze and said, “Welcome, Miss Lestrange. You must be tired from your journey. I will escort you to your room.”

If the pronouncement struck any of the assembled company as strange, they betrayed no sign of it. The countess inclined her head to me in dismissal as Frau Amsel and Florian stood quietly by. Cosmina reached a hand to squeeze mine. “Goodnight,” she murmured. “Rest well and we will speak in the morning,” she added meaningfully. She darted a glance at the count, and for the briefest of moments, I thought I saw fear in her eyes.

I nodded. “Of course. Goodnight, and thank you all for such a kind welcome.”

The count did not wait for me to conclude my farewells, forcing me to take up my skirts in my hands and hurry after him. At the foot of the stairs a maid darted forward with a pitcher of hot water and he gestured for her to follow. She said nothing, but gave me a curious glance. The count took up a lit candle from a sideboard and walked on, never looking back.

We walked for some distance, up staircases and down long corridors, until at length we came to what I surmised must have been one of the high towers of the castle. The door to the ground-floor room was shut. We passed it, mounting a narrow set of stairs that spiralled to the next floor where we paused at a heavy oaken door. The count opened it, standing aside for me to enter. The room was dark and cold and the maid placed the pitcher next to a pretty basin upon the washstand. The count gave her a series of instructions in rapid Roumanian and she hurried to comply, building up a fire upon the hearth. It was soon burning brightly, but it did little to dispel the chill that had settled into the stone walls, and it seemed surprising to me that the room had not been better prepared as I had been expected. I began to wonder if the count had altered the arrangements, although I could not imagine why.

The room was circular and furnished in an old-fashioned style, doubtless because the furniture was old—carved wooden stuff with great clawed feet. The bed was hung with thick scarlet curtains, heavily embroidered in tarnished gold thread, and spread across it was a moulting covering of some sort of animal fur. I was afraid to ask what variety.

But even as I took inventory of my room, I was deeply conscious of him standing near the bed, observing me in perfect silence.

At length I could bear the silence no longer. “It was kind of you to show me the way.” I put out my hand for the candle but he stepped around me. He went to the washstand and fixed the candle in place on an iron prick. The little maid scurried out the door, and to my astonishment, closed it firmly behind her.

“Remove your gloves,” he instructed.

I hesitated, certain I had misheard him. But even as I told myself it could not be, he removed his coat and unpinned his cuffs, turning back his sleeves to reveal strong brown forearms, heavy with muscle. Still, I hesitated, and he reached for my hands…

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In which it’s time to ponder Halloween

Oh, how I love this month! Usually I spend October wallowing in all things ghoulie and ghostie, but unfortunately I’m swamped in revision hell so I’ll have to resort to grabbing up the odd moment here and there to get into the Halloween mood.

If I WERE going to be celebrating Halloween properly, here are the books and movies I’d be enjoying:

Books

*Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

*The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

*The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

*Poems: Haunted and Bewitched (Everyman)

*House of Spirits and Whispers by Annie Wilder

Movies
*Practical Magic (yes, I know it’s a repeat from the book list but the movie is a totally different beast)

*Classic Universal horror top 3: The Wolfman, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy

*all Hammer horror, but especially any Christopher Lee Dracula film and The Gorgon

*Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey

*Corpse Bride

*Shadow of the Vampire

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In which we’re pondering sleep

Have you seen this article on two-part sleep? A history professor at Virginia Tech–Roger Ekirch–has discovered that our habit of sleeping a full night through is not exactly how our ancestors did it. From his research he’s determined that people used to sleep three or four hours, wake for a few hours, then go back to sleep until morning. He describes that interlude as a quiet time when folk might pray, check on livestock or sleeping children, have sex, or wander a little way down the road to gossip with a neighbor over a pipe. We’re so insistent upon getting our seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep that it’s become a billion-dollar industry. But what if we’re wrong? What if people who struggle with staying asleep embraced the two-part habit and used the time to putter quietly instead of ticking off the minutes they’re not slumbering? Ekirch blames the demise of the two-part sleep on the rise of electric lights, and I wonder what would happen if we returned to the soft glow of candlelight in the evening? I generally sleep quite well–a straight nine hours. But for those times I do wake in the middle of the night, this article is a welcome reminder that I’m not doing it wrong! What about you, chickens? How do you sleep?

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In which you probably see what I mean

About turning the blog over to Nancy. Here’s her response to Tuesday’s post, and today I’m answering her questions. This may go on for awhile…

I knew it. I KNEW you were going to say that. I suppose it’s the same for everything. The best advice I got was as a recent body work grad, if I wanted to be a good massage therapist, I’d get worked on myself often. Immersion is the best teacher. BE the ball! Supposedly a good way to learn a language is live where its spoken.

Do you think the similes you use is an automatic part of the voice you employ, or have you ever used them deliberately in order to get the reader to a specific destination?

Had to google deus ex machina. I think it’s a cheat. How can I work through the book to a conclusion if the author is hiding an ace in their sleeve? Sure, stories that use it can be a pleasure just to ride along on, *if* I know I can never possibly figure “it” out. In mysteries, it doesn’t seem fair. Isn’t part of the thrill in reading a mystery trying to figure it out? Just feels like the author wasn’t playing fair when they “deus ex machina” things up.

And symbolism! With my eyes beginning to peel open, I’m excited to go back and read your books yet again and look for symbolism specifically. Til now, I’ve kept far away from ‘analyzing’ literature as I think it pulls the fun out reading. Similar to what you said, I prefer to just be carried away and enjoy the “it is what it is” aspect of the work. Hope that makes sense. I do love to masticate for hours on a good poem though, in search of all the efforts/devices packed into a few lines. I just submitted my analysis of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”. Loads of devices crammed like sardines in 97 words. That there is some good art. Love it.

This was a great, great post-thank you!!

The deus ex machina is a bit of a cheat which is why readers tend to shake their tiny fists. (Whatever you do, do NOT point out to a lover of JANE EYRE that the fact that Jane wandered half of England and just happened to land on the doorstep of cousins she didn’t know she had is THE GREATEST COINCIDENCE IN THE HISTORY OF LITERATURE. Blood will be shed.) Readers get annoyed when things are solved too easily and the hand of the writer is apparent. In mysteries, it’s absolutely unfair to hide an essential fact from the reader, thereby preventing them from solving the puzzle. Some writers can skirt around this–Christie was brilliant at playing with this notion of fairness as evidenced by MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS and THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD. The first time through, a reader may feel cheated by her manipulation of the convention. But when you go back and reread, you realize she left the clues in plain sight–the definition of fair play. But because her choices were innovative, they weren’t immediately obvious to the reader. Brilliant.

As far as similes go, I don’t give too much conscious thought to them. So much of this writing gig is like driving a car. When you’ve done it a long time, you do things automatically that you aren’t even aware of doing. You make choices based on instinct, on muscle memory, on experience–and you don’t even know you’ve made actual choices. You just DO. And that’s a hugely unhelpful thing to say to someone, I realize. But it all goes back to the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. I’ve been reading mysteries for forty years. I shudder to think how many books that might actually translate to. And I’ve written WELL over a million words, most of them in service of mystery plots. Without stopping to explain that, “Okay, right now I’m going to take my foot off the brake and begin to accelerate while I continue to check my blind spot and monitor my speed and see if the car behind me is tailgating and watch my following distance,” I move forward, knowing what I’m doing.

And as far as symbolism goes, if you’re looking for it in my books, you will probably find more than I deliberately intended. One example that was quite intentional was the dream Julia has after *SPOILER ALERT TO THE DARK ENQUIRY NO SERIOUSLY STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW FINE THEN I TRIED TO WARN YOU* losing the baby in THE DARK ENQUIRY. She dreams of a garden where as she walks past, the flowers all close up. Then she closes the gate of the garden behind her and doesn’t look back. There was no clearer signal I could have given readers that Julia was never going to conceive again. I thought of that scene while I was writing SILENT IN THE GRAVE, and I always knew it was going to be part of the series, but it took five books before I could find the right place to insert it. I always knew Julia wasn’t going to have biological children, but that wasn’t something I could just up and tell readers.

As ever, great questions, Nancy!

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In which I may just turn over the blog to Nancy

Reader Nancy asks the best questions, y’all–seriously. Her university studies always seem to kick off great questions, and every few weeks she shoots me an email full of the most intriguing ones. I started to compose a response to her last one when it occurred to me that it would be fun to answer it here. So…here’s what reader Nancy wanted to know:
Did you ever struggle with grasping/understanding any literary devices(LD)? Are there any you love or loath to use or see? For that matter, do you use any on purpose? Or do you go back and read a manuscript of yours and go, “well I’ll be, there’s foil and mirroring”? Or is this all stuff you work through before you actually put fingers to keyboard? Do you have a list of most LDs and pick out which one’s you want to use?
The short answer to all of this is “kinda”. From a young age, I was shuttled off to advanced reading classes, and the result of that was learning the mechanics of literature pretty early on. I honestly don’t remember when I first heard words like “alliteration” and “foil”. They were just there. And because I read a lot–I mean a LOT–I absorbed the narrative structure even when I wasn’t consciously thinking about what the devices were. But between honors English classes, AP English classes, and an English degree, I soon learned EXACTLY what they were. And once you learn the devices in a classroom setting, what you keep looking for is writing that makes you FORGET the devices. When I find myself thinking, “Oh, check out that bitchen foil,” I’m usually not that engaged with the prose of a book. But if I get all the way through before looking back on the devices, that’s the mark of a book I really enjoyed.
The first books I read after picture books were mysteries–Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, then Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. After a few false starts, I decided I wanted to write a mystery and figured I needed several of those “how to” books to figure out the intricacies. Except that I already knew them. It turns out I had read so many mysteries, I understood the genre in a pretty fundamental way. I knew about laying clues, red herrings, playing fair, etc. (It’s a lot like wine tasting. For the longest time, I thought all white wine tasted basically the same until after two years of drinking nothing but pinot grigio, I ordered a glass and recognized the pinot grigio-ness of it. I had been exposed to it so often, that I got it, even if I hadn’t talked to experts or read articles or studied. But that glass made me realize I would know the difference if a waiter had brought me a Chardonnay instead.)
And yes, I do absolutely use devices, but even when I use them consciously I don’t always think of them using the traditionally accepted labels. I knew I wanted a foil for Julia Grey who would be a little more insouciant, bossier, more sure of herself. I wasn’t thinking “foil” when I created Portia, but I was certainly thinking of the purpose of a foil, if that makes sense. I wanted balance for Julia, someone whose shadows would emphasize her brightness.
The devices I use on a regular basis (off the top of my head) are: suspense, foreshadowing, symbolism, simile, and foil. I try to steer clear of the deus ex machina…
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In which I may have wrecked a reader

Or not; probably too soon to tell. A few days ago I had an email from a reader who happens to attend the same university I did. She was wondering if I regretted going there–if I thought a more prestigious university might have been better. She’s weighing all the pros and cons of advance degrees for her aspirations in writing/academia, considering graduate schools on the east coast, whether to stay in Texas.

Now, this young woman unfortunately caught me when I’m on a rather pressing deadline. My new book is due to my new editor at my new publishing house on November 30. And if you noticed how many times I just wrote “new”, it’s because I want to stress how important it is for me to make a good impression here. This is our FIRST book together, and the last thing I want is to turn in something that makes them hyperventilate with horror that they just gave me a lovely 3-book deal. (And that’s why I’m also not sharing exactly where I am in the process. I don’t want my new editor infarcting at the thought that I might possibly miss my deadline because I have so much left to do BECAUSE I’M NOT, REALLY. IT WILL BE FINE.)

Anyway, if you know me at all, you know that tight deadlines mean  my filter is pretty weak. I tend to cut straight to the heart of the matter and let ‘er rip. So rather than explain in detail what my thoughts were in choosing that university, or why I deliberately let my GPA slip–true story; I’ll tell you all about it some time–I gave her the abridged version:

Short answer? Life’s a crap shoot. Do what you want and make yourself happy.

We overthink things way too much sometimes. We worry about other people’s opinions and having the right thing–the right car, the right degree, the right cola, the right phone plan. And it’s exhausting. So, occasionally, give some thought to sitting very still and asking yourself what would make you HAPPY.

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In which IT IS HERE!

Our last sleep until NIGHT OF A THOUSAND STARS! I’ve been so excited to share this one. I loved writing Poppy and Sebastian, and I hope y’all will have as much fun adventuring in Damascus with them as I did!  In case you missed the excerpt posted previously, here’s a sneak peek at the first chapter:

Chapter One

March 1920

“I say, if you’re running away from your wedding, you’re going about it quite wrong.”

I paused with my leg out the window, satin wedding gown hitched up above my knees. A layer of tulle floated over my face, obscuring my view. I shoved it aside to find a tall, bespectacled young man standing behind me. His expression was serious, but there was an unmistakable gleam in his eyes that was distinctly at odds with his clerical garb.

“Oh! Are you the curate? I know you can’t be the vicar. I met him last night at the rehearsal and he’s simply ancient. Looks like Methuselah’s godfather. You’re awfully young to be a priest, aren’t you?” I asked, narrowing my eyes at him.

“But I’m wearing a dog collar. I must be,” he protested. “And as I said, if you’re running away, you’ve gone about it quite stupidly.”

“I have not,” I returned hotly. “I managed to elude both my mother and my future mother-in-law, and if you think that was easy, I’d like to sell you a bridge in Brooklyn.”

“Brooklyn? Where on earth is that?”

I rolled my eyes heavenward. “New York. Where I live.”

“You can’t be American. You speak properly.”

“My parents are English and I was educated here—oh, criminy, I don’t have time for this!” I pushed my head out the window, but to my intense irritation, he pulled me back, his large hands gently crushing the puffed sleeves of my gown.

“You haven’t thought this through, have you? You can get out the window easily enough, but what then? You can’t exactly hop on the Underground dressed like that. And have you money for a cab?”

“I—” I snapped my mouth shut, thinking furiously. “No, I haven’t. I thought I’d just get away first and worry about the rest of it later.”

“As I said, not a very good plan. Where are you bound, anyway?”

I said nothing. My escape plan was not so much a plan as a desperate flight from the church as soon as I heard the organist warming up the Mendelssohn. I was beginning to see the flaw in that thinking thanks to the helpful curate. “Surely you don’t intend to go back to the hotel?” he went on. “All your friends and relations will go there straight away when they realise you’ve gone missing. And since your stepfather is Reginald Hammond—”

I brandished my bouquet at him, flowers snapping on their slender stems. “Don’t finish that sentence, I beg you. I know exactly what will happen if the newspapers get hold of the story. Fine. I need a place to lie low, and I have one, I think, but I will need a ride.” I stared him down. “Do you have a motorcar?”

He looked startled. “Well, yes, but—”

“Excellent. You can drive me.”

“See here, Miss Hammond, I don’t usually make a habit of helping runaway brides to abscond. After all, from what I hear Mr. Madderley is a perfectly nice fellow. You might be making a frightful mistake, and how would it look to the bishop if I aided and abetted—”

“Never mind!” I said irritably. I poked my head through the window again, and this time when he retrieved me he was almost smiling, although a slim line of worry still threaded between his brows.

“All right then, I surrender. Where are you going?”

I pointed in the direction I thought might be west. “To Devon.”

He raised his brows skyward. “You don’t ask for much, do you?”

“I’ll go on my own then,” I told him, setting my chin firmly. Exactly how, I had no idea, but I could always think of that later.

He seemed to be wrestling with something, but a sound at the door decided him. “Time to get on. My motorcar is parked just in the next street. I’ll drive you to Devon.”

I gave him what I hoped was a dazzling smile. “Oh, you are a lamb, the absolute bee’s knees!”

“No, I’m not. But we won’t quarrel about that now. I locked the door behind me but someone’s rattling the knob, and I give them about two minutes before they find the key. Out you go, Miss Hammond.”

Without a further word, he shoved me lightly through the window and I landed in the shrubbery. I smothered a few choice words as I bounced out of his way. He vaulted over the windowsill and landed on his feet—quite athletically for a clergyman.

“That was completely uncalled-for—” I began, furiously plucking leaves out of the veil.

He grabbed my hand and I stopped talking, as surprised by the gesture as the warmth of his hand.

“Come along, Miss Hammond. I think I hear your mother,” he said.

I gave a little shriek and began to run. At the last moment, I remembered the bouquet—a heavy, spidery affair of lilies and ivy that I detested. I flung it behind us, laughing as I ran.

 

 

“I shouldn’t have laughed,” I said mournfully. We were in the motorcar—a chic little affair painted a startling shade of bright blue—and the curate was weaving his way nimbly through the London traffic. He seemed to be listening with only half an ear.

“What was that?”

“I said I shouldn’t have laughed. I mean, I feel relieved, enormously so, if I’m honest, but then there’s Gerald. One does feel badly about Gerald.”

“Why? Will you break his heart?”

“What an absurd question,” I said, shoving aside the veil so I could look the curate fully in the face. “And what a rude one.” I lapsed into near-silence, muttering to myself as I unpicked the pins that held the veil in place. “I don’t know,” I said after a while. “I mean, Gerald is so guarded, so English, it’s impossible to tell. He might be gutted. But he might not. He’s just such a practical fellow—do you understand? Sometimes I had the feeling he had simply ticked me off a list.”

“A list?” The curate dodged the little motorcar around an idling lorry, causing a cart driver to abuse him loudly. He waved a vague apology and motored on. For a curate, he drove with considerable flair.

“Yes. You know—the list of things all proper English gentlemen are expected to do. Go to school, meet a suitable girl, get married, father an heir and a spare, shoot things, die quietly.”

“Sounds rather grim when you put it like that.”

“It is grim, literally so in Gerald’s case. He has a shooting lodge in Norfolk called Grimfield. It’s the most appalling house I’ve ever seen, like something out of a Brontë novel. I half expected to find a mad wife locked up in the attic or Heathcliff abusing someone in the stables.”

“Did you?”

“No, thank heaven. Nothing but furniture in the attic and horses in the stables. Rather disappointingly prosaic, as it happens. But the point is, men like Gerald have their lives already laid out for them in a tidy little pattern. And I’m, well, I’m simply not tidy.” I glanced at the interior of the motorcar. Books and discarded wellies fought for space with a spare overcoat and crumpled bits of greaseproof paper—the remains of many sandwich suppers, it seemed. “You’re untidy too, I’m glad to see. I always think a little disorder means a creative mind. And I have dreams of my own, you know.” I paused then hurried on, hoping he wouldn’t think to ask what those dreams might be. I couldn’t explain them to him; I didn’t even understand them myself. “I realised with Gerald, my life would always take second place. I would be his wife, and eventually Viscountess Madderley, and then I would die. In the meantime I would open fêtes and have his children and perhaps hold a memorable dinner party or two, but what else? Nothing. I would have walked into that church today as Penelope Hammond and walked out as the Honourable Mrs. Gerald Madderley, and no one would have remembered me except as a footnote in the chronicles of the Madderley family.”

“Quite the existential crisis,” he said lightly. I nodded.

“Precisely. I’m very glad you understand these things.” I looked around again. “I don’t suppose you have a cigarette lying about anywhere? I’d very much like one.”

He gestured towards the glovebox and I helped myself. As soon as I opened it, an avalanche of business cards, tickets, receipts and even a prayer book fell out. I waved a slip of paper at him. “You haven’t paid your garage bill,” I told him. “Second notice.”

He smiled and pocketed the paper. “Slipped my mind. I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

I shoveled the rest of the detritus back into the glovebox, and he produced a packet of matches. I lit a cigarette and settled back then gave a little shriek of dismay. “Heavens, where are my manners? I forgot to ask if you wanted one.”

He shook his head. “I don’t indulge.”

I cocked my head. “But you keep them around?”

“One never knows when they’ll be in demand,” he said. “How long have you had the habit?”

“Oh, I don’t. It just seems the sort of thing a runaway bride ought to do. I’ll be notorious now, you know.”

I gave the unlit cigarette a sniff. “Heavens, that’s foul. I think I shall have to find a different vice.” I dropped the cigarette back into the packet.

He smiled but said nothing and we lapsed into a comfortable silence.

I studied him—from the unlined, rather noble brow to the shabby, oversized suit of clothes with the shiny knees and the unpolished shoes. There was something improbable about him, as if in looking at him one could add two and two and never make four. There was an occasional, just occasional, flash from his dark eyes that put me in mind of a buccaneer. He was broad-shouldered and athletic, but the spectacles and occupation hinted he was bookish.

There were other contradictions as well, I observed. Being a curate clearly didn’t pay well, but the car was mint. Perhaps he came from family money, I surmised. Or perhaps he had a secret gambling habit. I gave him a piercing look. “You don’t smoke. Do you have other vices? Secret sins? I adore secrets.”

Another fellow might have taken offence but he merely laughed. “None worth talking about. Besides, we were discussing you. Tell me,” he said, smoothly negotiating a roundabout and shooting the motorcar out onto the road towards Devon, “What prompted this examination of your feelings? It couldn’t be just the thought of marrying him. You’ve had months to accustom yourself to the notion of being the future Viscountess Madderley. Why bolt now?”

I hesitated, feeling my cheeks grow warm. “Well, I might as well tell you. You are a priest, after all. It would be nice to talk about it, and since you’re bound by the confessional, it would be perfectly safe to tell you because if you ever tell anyone you’ll be damned forever.”

His lips twitched as if he were suppressing a smile. “That isn’t exactly how it works, you know.”

I flapped a hand. “Close enough. I always had doubts about Gerald, if I’m honest. Ever since he asked me to dance at the Crichlows’ Christmas ball during the little season. He was just so staid, as if someone had washed him in starch rather than his clothes. But there were flashes of something more. Wit or kindness or gentleness, I suppose. Things I thought I could bring out in him.” I darted the curate a glance. “I see now how impossibly stupid that was. You can’t change a man. Not unless he wants changing, and what man wants changing? The closer the wedding got, the more nervous I became and I couldn’t imagine why I wasn’t entirely over the moon about marrying Gerald. And then my aunt sent me a book that made everything so clear.”

“What book?”

“Mrs. Stopes’ book, Married Love.”

“Oh, God.” He swerved and neatly corrected, but not before I gave him a searching look.

“I’ve shocked you.” Most people had heard of the book, but few had read it. It had been extensively banned for its forthright language and extremely modern—some would say indecent—ideas.

He hurried to reassure me. “No, no. Your aunt shocked me. I wouldn’t imagine most ladies would send an affianced bride such a book.”

“My aunt isn’t most ladies,” I said darkly. “She’s my father’s sister, and they’re all eccentric. They’re famous for it, and because they’re aristocrats, no one seems to mind. Of course, Mother nearly had an apoplexy when she found the book, but I’d already read it by that point, and I knew what I had to do.”

“And what was that?”

“I had to seduce Gerald.”

This time the curate clipped the edge of a kerb, bouncing us hard before he recovered himself and steered the motorcar back onto the road.

“I shocked you again,” I said sadly.

“Not in the slightest,” he assured me, his voice slightly strangled. He cleared his throat, adopting a distinctly paternal tone in spite of his youth. “Go on, child.”

“Well, it was rather more difficult to arrange than I’d expected. No one seems to want to leave you alone when you’re betrothed, which is rather silly because whatever you get up to can’t be all that bad because you’re with the person you’re going to be getting up to it with once you’re married, and it’s all right then. And isn’t it peculiar that just because a priest says a few words over your head, the thing that was sinful and wrong is suddenly perfectly all right? No offence to present company.”

“None taken. It does indeed give one pause for thought. You were saying?”

“Oh, the arrangements. Well, I couldn’t manage it until a fortnight ago. By that time I was fairly seething with impatience. I’m sorry—did you say something?”

“Not at all. It was the mental image of you seething with impatience. It was rather distracting.”

“Oh, I am sorry. Should we postpone this discussion for another time? When you’re not driving perhaps?”

“No, indeed. I promise you this is the most interesting discussion I’ve had in a very long while.”

“And you’re still not shocked?” I asked him. I was feeling a bit anxious on that point. I had a habit of engaging in what Mother called Inappropriate Conversation. The trouble was, I never realised I was doing it until after the fact. I was always far too busy enjoying myself.

“Not in the slightest. Continue—you were seething.”

“Yes, I was in an absolute fever, I was so anxious. We were invited to the Madderleys’ main estate in Kent—a sort of ‘getting to know you’ affair between the Madderleys and the Hammonds. It was very gracious of Gerald’s mother to suggest it, although now that I think about it, it wasn’t so much about the families getting to know one another as about the viscount and my stepfather discussing the drains and the roofs and how far my dowry would go to repairing it all.”

I stopped to finish unpinning the veil and pulled it free, tearing the lace a little in my haste. I shoved my hands through my hair, ruffling up my curls and giving a profound sigh. “Oh, that’s better! Pity about the veil. That’s Belgian lace, you know. Made by nuns, although why nuns should want to make bridal veils is beyond me. Anyway, the gentlemen were discussing the money my dowry would bring to the estate, and the ladies were going on about the children we were going to have and what would be expected of me as the future viscountess. Do you know Gerald’s mother even hired my lady’s maid? Masterman, frightful creature. I’m terrified of her—she’s so efficient and correct. Anyway, I suddenly realised that was going to be the rest of my life—doing what was perfectly proper at all times and bearing just the right number of children—and I was so bored with it all I nearly threw myself in front of a train like Anna Karenina just to be done with it. I couldn’t imagine actually living in that draughty great pile of stone, eating off the same china the Madderleys have been using since the time of Queen Anne. But I thought it would all be bearable if Gerald and I were compatible in the Art of Love.”

“The Art of Love?”

“That’s what Mrs. Stopes called it in Married Love. She says that no matter what differences a couple might have in religion or politics or social customs, if they are compatible in the Art of Love, all may be adjusted.”

“I see.” He sounded strangled again.

“So, one night after everyone had retired, I crept to Gerald’s room and insisted we discover if we were mutually compatible.”

“And were you?

“No,” I said flatly. “I thought it was my fault at first. But I chose the date so carefully to make sure my sex-tide would be at its highest.”

“Your sex-tide?”

“Yes. Really, you ought to know these things if you mean to counsel your parishioners. The achievement of perfect marital harmony only comes with an understanding of the sex-tides—the ebb and flow of a person’s desires and inclinations for physical pleasure.”

He cleared his throat lavishly. “Oh, the sex-tides. Of course.”

“In any event, Gerald and I were most definitely not compatible.” I paused then plunged on. “To begin with, he wouldn’t even take off his pyjamas when we were engaged in the Act of Love.”

The curate’s lips twitched into a small smile. “Now that shocks me.”

“Doesn’t it? What sort of man wants a barrier of cloth between himself and the skin of his beloved? I have read the Song of Solomon, you know. It’s a very informative piece of literature and it was quite explicit with all the talk of breasts like twin fawns and eating of the secret honeycomb and honey. I presume you’ve read the Song of Solomon? It is in the Bible, after all.”

“It is,” he agreed. “Quite the most interesting book, if you ask me.” Again there was a flash of something wicked as he shot me a quick look. “So, was your betrothed a young god with legs like pillars of marble and a body like polished ivory?”

I pulled a face. “He was not. That was a very great disappointment, let me tell you. And then it was over with so quickly—I mean, I scarcely had time to get accustomed to the strangeness of it because, let’s be frank, there is something so frightfully silly about doing that, although you probably don’t know yourself, being a member of the clergy and all. But before I could quite get a handle on things, it was finished.”

“Finished?” he said, his hands tight on the steering wheel.

“Finished. At least, Gerald was,” I added sulkily. “He gave a great shudder and made an odd sort of squeaking sound.”

“Squeaking sound?”

“Yes.” I tipped my head, thinking. “Like a rabbit that’s just seen a fox. And then he rolled over and went to sleep just like that.”

“Philistine,” he pronounced.

“Then you do understand! How important the physical side of marriage is, I mean. Particularly with a husband like Gerald. One would need a satisfactory time in the bedroom to make up for—” I clapped a hand to my mouth. He smiled then, indulgently, and I dropped my hand, but I still felt abashed. “Oh, that was unkind. Gerald has many sterling attributes. Sterling,” I assured him.

“Sterling is what one wants out of one’s silver. Not a husband,” he said mildly.

I sighed in contentment. “You are good at this. You understand. And you haven’t made me feel guilty over the sin of it, although you mustn’t tell anyone, but I don’t really believe in sin at all. I know that’s a wicked thing to say, but I think all God really expects is a little common sense and kindness out of us. Surely He’s too busy to keep a tally of all our misdeeds. That would make Him nothing more than a sort of junior clerk with a very important sense of Himself, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“Oh, I know you can’t agree with me. You make your career on sin, just as much as anybody who sells liquor or naughty photographs. Sin is your bread and butter.”

“You have a unique way of looking at the world, Miss Hammond.”

“I think it’s because I’ve been so much on my own,” I told him after a moment. “I’ve had a lot of time to think things over.”

“Why have you been so much on your own?” he asked. His voice was gentler than it had been, and the air of perpetual amusement had been replaced by something kinder, and it seemed as if he were genuinely interested. It was a novel situation for me. Most people who wanted to talk to me did so because of my stepfather’s money.

“Oh, didn’t you know? Apparently it was a bit of a scandal at the time. It was in all the newspapers and of course they raked it all up again when I became engaged to Gerald. My parents divorced, and Mother took me to America when she left my father. I was an infant at the time, and apparently he let her take me because he knew it would utterly break her heart to leave me behind. He stayed in England and she went off to America We’re practically strangers, Father and I. He’s always been a bit of a sore spot to Mother, even though she did quite well out of it all. She married Mr. Hammond—Reginald. He’s a lovely man, but rather too interested in golf.”

“Lots of gentlemen play,” he remarked. His hands were relaxed again, and he opened the car up a little, guiding it expertly as we fairly flew down the road.

“Oh, Reginald doesn’t just play. He builds golf courses. Designing them amuses him, and after he made his millions in copper, he decided to travel around the world, building golf courses. Places like Florida, the Bahamas. He’s quite mad about the game—he even named his yacht the Gutta-Percha, even though no one uses gutta-percha balls anymore.”

He shook his head as if to clear it and I gave him a sympathetic look. “Do you need me to read maps or something? It must be fatiguing to drive all this way.”

“The conversation is keeping me entirely alert,” he promised.

“Oh, good. Where was I?”

“Reginald Hammond doesn’t have gutta-percha balls,” he replied solemnly. If he had been one of my half-brothers, I would have suspected him of making an indelicate joke, but his face was perfectly solemn.

“No one does,” I assured him. “Anyway, he’s a lovely man but he isn’t really my father. And when the twins came along, and then the boys, well, they had their own family, didn’t they? It was nothing to do with me.” I fell silent a moment then pressed on, adopting a firmly cheerful tone. “Still, it hasn’t been so bad. I thoroughly enjoyed coming back here to go to school, and I have found my father.”

“You’ve seen him?” he asked quickly.

“No. But I made some inquiries, and I know where he is. He’s a painter,” I told him. I was rather proud of the little bit of detection I had done to track him down. “We wrote letters for a while, but he travelled extensively—looking for subjects to paint, I suppose. He gave me a London address in Half Moon Street to send the letters, but he didn’t actually live there. You know, it’s quite sad, but I always felt so guilty when his letters came. Mother would take to her bed with a bottle of reviving tonic every time she saw his handwriting in the post. I didn’t dare ask to invite him to the wedding. She would have shrieked the house down, and it did seem rather beastly to Reginald since he was paying for it. Still, it is peculiar to have an entire family I haven’t met. Some of them kept in touch—my Aunt Portia, for one. She sent me the copy of Married Love. When I came to England for the little season, I asked her where Father was. She promised not to tell him I’d asked, but she sent me his address. He has a house in Devon. He likes the light there, something about it being good for his work.”

“I see.”

“It’s very kind of you to drive me,” I said, suddenly feeling rather shy with this stranger to whom I had revealed entirely too much. “Oh!” I sat up very straight. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Sebastian. My name is Sebastian Cantrip.”

“Cantrip? That’s an odd name,” I told him.

“No odder than Penelope.”

I laughed. “It’s Greek, I think. My mother’s choice. She thought it sounded very elegant and educated. But my father called me Poppy.”

Sebastian slanted me a look. “It suits you better.”

“I think so, but when I was presented as a debutante, Mother insisted on calling me Penelope Hammond. Hammond isn’t my legal name, you know. It gave me quite a start to see the name on the invitations to the wedding. Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Hammond cordially invite you to the wedding of their daughter, Penelope Hammond. But I’m not Penelope Hammond, not really.” I lifted my chin towards the road rising before us. “I’m Poppy March.”

NOATS

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In which we’re living like it’s vacation!

No, not really. It’s more like organized chaos with looming deadline, an imminent release date, and more obligations than you can shake a stick at, to employ a worthy southern idiom. But I dug this piece out of the archives as a reminder that it’s good to slacken the grip a little too, don’t you think?

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 a smartphone, but I could improve.

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In which I love the notion of retreat

I have a thing for nuns. It’s partly the glorious black and white habits of yore, partly the fact that they always seem beautifully tranquil–at least in my highly idealized version of them. Here are a few musings on contemplative withdrawal:

love the idea of retreat, don’t you? Particularly at this time of year when there is so much to do, to be, to make. The notion of simply withdrawing and being small and still and quiet is alluring. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much in the holiday spirit this year, but sometimes that carousel of activity whirls a bit too fast for me and I long to jump off. And that’s when I start looking up convents online. I’ve always liked the idea of nuns, dating to when I saw an episode of “The Bionic Woman” where Jaime went undercover at a convent and wore a habit. (I LOVED the habit. The flowing, austere black and white–no wonder Coco Chanel claimed to have been forever shaped as a designer by her early years in an orphanage. Probably not true, but a good story, no?)

Anyway, that episode set me on a career path until my mother sat me down and explained that if I became a nun I couldn’t wear makeup, couldn’t have any boyfriend besides God, and that–perhaps more to the point–we weren’t Catholic. So I gave up my dream of taking the veil, which let’s be honest, was really just about the VEIL itself.(Why did those go out of fashion? Veils are CHIC.) But even though I turned my ambitions elsewhere, I still remembered the cool silence, the long polished hallways, the lack of chatter at meals, and decided that convents would still be an excellent place to go and enjoy a bit of repose.

I keep imagining a peaceful place with a quiet room, a stack of books, and no interruptions, perhaps with a bit of plainsong in the background. Of course, this is a hopelessly outdated and naive picture of convent life. I have since toured the convent where the nuns at my daughter’s school live and it’s nothing at ALL like I pictured. There are no floor-sweeping black habits or herb knot gardens or vows of silence, and it occurs to me that I might like a pedicure or massage during my retreat so a spa is really the best place for me. I wonder if I could find one that enforces silence and pipes in a nice bit of medieval chant?

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