Well, happy February!

Goodness me, but January was productive. I finished rewriting A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING and turned it in to my editor–thank heaven! And I’m even more grateful that she loved it. She gave me some fantastic notes when I turned it in, criticism that I took to heart. I dug in on December 1, and with only four days off, I handed in the book on January 13–with approximately 90,000 new words. I ripped that book to PIECES and stitched it back together, eliminating some characters, blending another pair into one, and tightening the whole thing up. I packed in MUCH more action, pushing myself and the main characters much further than I originally expected. And it was a fabulous experience.

Here’s the thing–we gripe about the work and with good reason. It’s demanding stuff; it leaves you feeling like you’ve been through an emotional and physical wringer at the end of each day. I was deeply gratified when a pal who works on the editorial side of things recently mentioned that in the course of writing his own book, he found himself utterly and unexpectedly exhausted. Writing a book has been likened to composing a symphony, and that is apt. It challenges you on every possible level, and if you follow writers on social media, you will often catch the pungent whiff of our despair.

But it’s also BLISS. There is a tremendous rush that comes when you are making a book work, when characters and plot and dialogue and pace and prose all come together. It’s like doing ballet on a tightrope. It shouldn’t be possible, but there you are, pirouetting above the abyss, and you are unspeakably grateful that for just that little while you get to dance with the angels. Because you know it isn’t going to last. There will come a day when it’s back to pushing yourself to work to the deadline, meeting your obligations. Those are the days that discipline and your work ethic get you through, but what also gets you through is the glimmering possibility of more magical days when the click happens and you are humming along in that wonderful, mystical universal groove of creativity. So, while December and January were exhausting, they were wonderful too.

I still have about a day’s work of little tweaks to finish by the end of this week, but then it goes off to copy editor and I don’t have to think about it again for weeks. I also agreed to do a SECRET PROJECT that I can’t talk about yet–boo!–and I have planned a wee little secret project of my own that I can’t talk about either. Boo again! But they are fun things, and they mean more for you to read, so hopefully that will bring joy to your hearts.

While I was completely rewriting A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING, I wrote the proposal for Veronica’s third adventure which is currently in my editor’s hands, and let me just say I LOVE THIS potential book with inhuman devotion. It’s going to be great fun to write, so fingers crossed we get approval!

I also wrote February’s newsletter which will be going out at the end of this week, so if you haven’t already signed up, DO. The widget is just there —–>.  This one is chock-full of book recommendations, and we can never have enough of those, can we?

So, on tap for me right now is a ton of research and reading, perfect activities for chilly February!

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Career alternatives

Pootling through the archives, I found this post on a potential alternate career as a courtesan if I’d lived a few centuries ago…

So it occurred to me that, in a different time and place, the job of courtesan might have been a rather good career choice for me. Well, aside from the inherent unpleasantness of sex with people one might not find attractive, of course, but then all the best courtesans choose their protectors quite selectively, so let’s assume I would have been terribly successful and therefore prudently choosy. Courtesans hoarded their wealth in the form of jewels and information, holding onto pearls and love letters with equal fervor. Sometimes, as in the case of Harriette Wilson, those letters provided a genteel means of blackmail. (While Wilson, the scandal of Regency London, certainly offered to sell letters back to some of her gentlemen friends in exchange for her discretion when writing her memoirs, historians seem to think that the Duke of Wellington’s alleged reply—“Publish and be damned”—is likely fiction rather than fact. Pity. It does sound like something the Iron Duke would have said, doesn’t it?) But courtesans definitely had their eye on the bottom line, no indelicacy intended. They were often shrewd businesswomen, although some were woefully sentimental and ended badly. One or two, like Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s last official mistress, ended very badly indeed—her pretty head fell to the guillotine.

But if a courtesan had a generous protector and was discreet and loyal, she might carve out a very secure position for herself. The notoriously undersexed Madame de Pompadour, another paramour of Louis XV, kept a firm and dainty grasp on the king’s affections long after their physical relationship ceased. And, since wedded wives had the primary function of securing the family name into the next generation, the courtesan enjoyed the delicious freedom of knowing she would never face the pressure of providing an heir and a spare. By placing herself firmly outside the bounds of respectability, the courtesan also liberated herself from its noose. She gave up a good name, but in exchange she had far more freedom in arranging her own affairs—provided she was clever in her choice of protectors and managed them well. It might have been a precarious life, but it would never have been a dull one. Whether a devoted royal mistress whose charms were reserved solely for the king or one of the bright lights of the Gilded Age who flitted from bed to bed, the courtesan—perhaps even more than the queen—makes for the most fascinating reading in history.

So, what did it take to make a courtesan? One would expect tremendous beauty, but in fact, it was vitality and sensuality that mattered far more than a woman’s looks. Wives were often untutored in the ways of marital arts; enthusiasm was appreciated even more than symmetrical features. As standards of beauty have changed throughout history, the relative attractiveness of famous courtesans has altered as well. (Although I would defy anyone to look on du Barry’s wax likeness—“Sleeping Beauty”—in Madame Tussaud’s museum and not find her exquisite.) James II was said to favor one spectacularly ugly woman simply because she had stunningly beautiful legs. Mata Hari’s breasts were so diminutive she reputedly never took off the heavily jeweled vests she had created to cover them. And in the Gilded Age, the fashion was for women so plush and plump we would label them morbidly obese.

So, if perfect physical beauty wasn’t necessary, what was? It helped if a girl could lay claim to the following:

*A middle class upbringing. While a good number of royal mistresses hailed from the aristocracy, many were elevated from less exalted stock. When an aristocratic bride was expected to lie back and think of England while breeding up his babies, no doubt a nobleman would appreciate the more athletic charms of a woman of earthier stock. But although some doubtless enjoyed carousing with the lowest sort of prostitutes, few of them would have looked to the stews for a long-term prospect. A solidly middle-class upbringing would give a woman a merchant’s practicality for managing her business, a healthy appreciation for what her lovers could do for her, as well as the most necessary of the fundamental female accomplishments that a peasant girl simply wouldn’t have the time or opportunity to cultivate.

*Decent but not alarmingly good education. Bluestockings seldom made good courtesans. For starters, they were far too often inclined to get a healthy sense of their own worth and demand equality. A true courtesan combined a wide knowledge base with a good dose of common sense on how to succeed in a man’s world. She looked to her feminist sisters and saw how miserable their lives could be as they bruised their toes trying to kick in the door of male privilege. In the meanwhile, the courtesan simply powdered her face and slipped in the back door, collecting admiration and material wealth along the way.

*Lightness. The best mistresses had a deft touch, able to cajole a lover out of a bad mood or a bout of rage. She could burnish his clumsy quips to wit, broker a peace, and make her protector laugh all without stirring from her deliciously scented boudoir. If she was smart, she made friends and didn’t hold grudges. Her position alone would ensure she had enemies, but her behavior could blunt their arrows. A clever courtesan befriended everyone who could help her—on the way up and the way down.

*Sybaritic tendencies. A good courtesan was the best sort of hedonist, adhering to Epicurean principles of seeking pleasure in all forms and inflicting pain in none. She set a good table, offering the most delicious foods and wines to pamper her lovers’ palates. She gathered scintillating company to entertain and divert one another, often arranging for artists and musicians and poets to share their skills—and occasionally rewarding them with very special favors in recognition of their genius. She patronized the best establishments, dressmakers, jewelers, the makers of shoes and gloves and carriages, selecting what was best and most beautiful of their arts. She drove perfumers and coiffeurs to new heights, always eager to show herself to best advantage. And the most legendary of courtesans, developed a style all her own and stuck to it. Diane de Poitiers, long-time mistress of Henry II of France, dressed only in black or white, decorated her rooms in the same colors, and wore her crescent moon badge in diamonds in her hair. So smitten was he, the king even had this same crescent moon engraved in his armor and chiseled into the stone of his palaces along with their entwined initials.

And something else that didn’t hurt—family precedent. Harriette Wilson was not the only courtesan in her family, and once Louis XV discovered the delectable Nesle family, he made his way through four sisters in a row. His predecessor, Louis XIV, was sometimes entertained by the sister of his mistress, Madame de Montespan, when she was enduring one of her many pregnancies, and everyone knows the gossip that Henry VIII enjoyed the favors of Mary Boleyn before moving on to her sister, Anne.

In ferreting through my own family tree, I’ve discovered a long line of royal mistresses and concubines. From the mistress of Geoffrey Plantagenet to Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, from Poppa of Bayeux, the concubine of Rollo of Normandy, to Isabel de Beaumont, mistress of Henry I, there are at least a couple dozen pretty skeletons lurking in our family cupboard. And while I appreciate the many, MANY loyal wives and stalwart helpmeets populating the family tree, I have the greatest affection for the scandalous ladies who seized their fates in their own manicured hands and made things happen.

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What I do well

So when I talk about writing, I mention perseverance as being key to my success. I wrote for 14 years before I was published, and by that I mean, I WROTE. I wrote full novels; I tried to get them pubbed. (This was before the advent of self-publishing, and I’m not sure what my voyage would have looked like if I’d had that option.) So, keeping at something even when it’s not working out is obviously a critical part of my story.

Except. It’s a bit of a cheat. Yes, I kept at it. Yes, I wrote and I submitted, and I wrote and I submitted. But I would have written anyway. I’m always going to be making up stories because I always have. If you are a storyteller, it’s just what you do. You create narratives whether anyone hears them besides you.

I realized last month, that saying I am perseverant is only half the story. It tells you what I did right before anyone was paying attention. But what about after? What about the time since I’ve been published?

Here it is: my other strength is that I am not a perfectionist. As the adage says, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”, and I adhere to it. I work hard at my writing–VERY hard. I follow up details; I chase down references. I never knowingly let mistakes go to print. (They get in there but it’s never because I turned a blind eye to them.) But at a certain point, you have to be okay with turning loose of a book and truly LETTING IT GO. There will always be words you could have tweaked, sentences you could have stripped or embellished or massaged. But perfection is unattainable, and the quest for it is the surest way to misery.

Once I have done my best, I set it free and move on, and that is an extremely liberating way to live. I joke a lot about being lazy or a slacker, but the truth is, I simply refuse to exert myself to anguish over things I can’t change. The strange thing is that I never realized this about myself until last month, and I was rather surprised when I did. It’s not something writers tend to talk a lot about, but I think we should. If we’re not going to torment ourselves, we have to come to terms with the imperfection of our efforts.

 

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Creativity now!

Since I’ve been wittering on about process a bit this month, this post deserves a rerun. It’s very easy to get stuck in the midwinter doldrums if you live in the northern hemisphere. It’s grey, it’s gloomy, we don’t want to do anything but binge-watch DVDs and hibernate with cheese. Everything feels slow, like walking through treacle. But there are remedies…

Sometimes your creativity gets stuck, chickens. Like a pill you tried to swallow without water. It just sits there, uncomfortably present and yet not actually doing you any good. What’s the solution? Well, it is seldom TIME. You can’t just sit and wait for it to move on its own. You’d go mad. It would be distracting and possibly painful.

But you can help it along. Here are a few ways to shake your creativity loose and turn your writing on its head. This presupposes that you will be sitting down and WRITING YOUR WAY THROUGH THE DIFFICULTY AS WELL. I put that in caps so you’d know I felt shouty about it. Blocks have to be gotten through, not gotten around. I believe in using every possible tool to help you beat it down. Here are a few of my favorites:

*Get up. Get out. Once you’re done writing, get out of the house. This is the opposite of what I usually do because I am a lazy person, but it WORKS. Getting out of the house and interacting with people changes your energy. Sitting in your house can cause it to sit in one spot and stagnate. Free the chi, people! Go to the library to work or a coffee shop. Write in the park. Take a walk. Go shopping. Hit a museum exhibit. Whatever it takes to get you out of your rhythm.

*Brush your teeth with the non-dominant hand. In fact, do everything you can safely do with the non-dominant hand. This forces new neural pathways to be forged. (Actually, I’m not at all sure about that last bit, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?) It will shake you out of your routine and cause you to approach everything differently.

*Find a new way. Turn off your GPS and plot a new course to an old destination. If you always go the highway, take the city streets instead. If you always take a particular bus, see if there’s an alternate route on the subway. Try parking your car a block over and walking. Just do SOMETHING different.

*Wear a new color. Nothing beige. This should be self-explanatory.

*Do something childish, or rather childlike. Play with clay, with coloring books, beads or paints.

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I turned in A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING!

I hope. I’m actually writing these posts earlier in the month so I can clear my desk for the final push to the end of the manuscript and at this point, I can only pray I made my deadline.

In light of that deadline and the earlier post I wrote on impostor syndrome, I thought this post from January 2013 on the subject of CITY OF JASMINE was particularly apt…

Oh, chickens. Today is D-day, the date that CITY OF JASMINE is due to my editor. Before I was published, I always thought that deadline day would be a glorious orgy of joy, nothing but satisfaction and relief punctuated by a little tasteful intoxication.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is relief, to be sure, but it’s swiftly replaced by the mounting horror that the book is vile and you are a talentless human being who ought to be culled immediately from the pool of creative folk. There is the shaming certainty that nothing worse has ever, in the history of the written word, seen the light of day and that if your editor used it to warm up her shredder, she would be doing the world a favor.

Does this sound entirely mental? OF COURSE IT DOES. By the time we turn in a book, we’ve generally been sitting with it for a year. Sometimes less, sometimes more, but that’s a good rough estimate of how long it takes for an idea to germinate and be coaxed and later battered into fruition. That is a very long time to sit with these characters, to listen to their voices and understand their feelings. It’s a long time to puzzle out their paths, winding around dark corners and back again from the dead ends. It’s a long time to make the leap from possibility to reality, and it is painful to know that once you hit the “send” button, IT IS OVER. For better or worse, the book is out there, a shy orphan in a cold world, looking for a friendly face.

So, with the relief comes the horror, and then relief again. Why? Because no matter how bad this book is, you never have to write it for the first time again. Whatever happens, you have come to know these people and their story. Both of those might change materially in rewrites, but you have made a beginning. And nothing is so hard as starting off.

Wish me well, my darlings. I’m taking a few days to clear my head and read for pleasure and await the word.

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So you wanted to know about process

Okay, maybe not YOU, but a writer pal asked in December if I would write a post about my research process, and I said SURE. Here’s the most important thing to remember: I AM ALWAYS RESEARCHING. Everything I read, everything I watch on TV or film, everything I take in is fodder for work. Sometimes something I’ve read years before will rear its head and prove utterly perfect for inclusion in my current project.

But I suspect my writer friend wanted to know the specific, nuts-and-bolts type of process, so here goes:

*First I collect books and articles. It might be a LOT of books and articles. Titles are pulled from my personal collection, from libraries, and are purchased. In the case of A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS, I ended up with something like 80 books, sixty of which I bought. (That was a little excessive, even for me, but it required a thorough knowledge of the country of Kenya, cultures, flora, fauna, history, etc.) My collection of Victoriana grows with each book I write, but I am also constantly purging and eliminating titles which don’t prove worth the shelf space. I prefer hard copies to digital for research because information is encoded differently in the brain depending upon how it is processed. In spite of my preference, I often end up finding out-of-print books free for my Kindle which I can’t pass up–usually because a print version of the same book might be prohibitively expensive.

*Once I’ve collected the material, everything gets a read, and this is an ongoing process since often a book will lead to ANOTHER book. (By the way, people love to mock it, but Wikipedia is a great place to start, especially for timelines. I print out the articles I need and make note of the references at the bottom.) As I read, I flag whatever strikes me as pertinent to the work, marking it with a post-it and a penciled note directly on the text if I own the book. If it’s a library book, I photocopy the page and make the same sort of notes.

*From this point, the process diverges. If it’s a research-heavy novel with lots of technical detail, I will create an index of the material so I know exactly where to find what topics. If there are twenty or fewer books, I will remember where I saw what I wanted and just rely on that when I’m incorporating research into the writing.

*When the first draft is finished, I will skim the highlighted material to see if there’s anything I left out that I wanted to include. (Material that has already been incorporated is de-flagged and shelved.) Again, I will either make a ‘notes’ page of details I want to include and post it on my study wall, or I will rely on my memory. That takes care of draft two, and the book goes off to my editor.

*For the final pass, I will review the annotated material one final time and mark the manuscript with where any last bits should be inserted. Anything that is good but now feels like it just won’t fit this book is put aside for a future project. (Often, I find that if I haven’t worked something in by the last draft, it’s because it didn’t need to be there. If it feels at all forced, it doesn’t go in. Also, if it feels it would be wasted because it’s a really good bit but would get short shrift in this particular book, it gets saved for a book where it can shine.)

*Any good bits I come across when I’m between books will go into a file for future books so I don’t lose it.

In all, my process is haphazard and relies a LOT on the fact that I have a good memory. I have friends who would weep at my system, so I feel obliged to point out that this works for me, but your mileage may vary.

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Chatting about impostor syndrome

A few weeks ago, a Twitter chat started up in my mentions around the subject of impostor syndrome. I made the comment that I was very familiar with it, which interested–and quite possibly horrified–a writer who is newly-published. He believed that the feeling of not being good enough, that publishers are going to “find you out” and take away all your hard-won success, would go away at a certain point.

Except it doesn’t. Success is a combination of factors. Talent, timing, perseverance, hard work–all of these go into the cocktail. And they can also trip you up. There will always be someone you think is more talented, someone who seems to work harder, get luckier. So when you become successful, it’s all too easy to undermine yourself by second-guessing your arrival. It doesn’t help that it never quite feels as if you HAVE arrived. You’re always after the next rung on the ladder, not just because you want more but because most of us grow up with the cultural expectation of ACHIEVEMENT. I blame the Puritans; it’s hard to appreciate the concept of la dolce vita when your ancestors were hewing out a new country and sitting through six-hour prayer services. FOR FUN.

So, the short answer is NO, this feeling that you might not be worthy doesn’t necessarily abate. You can cushion it with your successes; you can look at awards or contracts or bestseller lists and feel pretty good about yourself. Better, you can read a sentence you’ve written and LIKE it. And hopefully those good days will vastly outnumber the bad. But there will inevitably be bad ones too, days when you doubt yourself and your talent and everything you think. The important thing to remember is those days aren’t real. They’re products of your imagination. Of course, so are the good days. If you insist on listening to your mind when it tells you you’re rubbish, you have an obligation to listen on the days it says you’re a superhero. Because THOSE are the days that get you through.

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Extra post!

Just a quick bonus post to note that SILENT IN THE GRAVE is a Kindle Daily Deal–snap it up for 99 cents!

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More on fresh starts

When I finished off Tuesday’s post, I was nattering on about the fresh start of a new year. I don’t do resolutions, ever. SO MUCH PRESSURE. But I do take the beginning of a new year to do a casual evaluation of what’s going on in my life and what changes I can make to increase my happiness. (Sometimes I do the same at the start of each season or even month.)

So here’s where I’m making improvements:

*Drinking a ton of water. Minimum of 48 ounces a day, not including tea. The water where I live is fine, but not fabulous. (Unlike New York City tap water which is DELICIOUS.) We are on a well which is rather pure and perfectly healthy, but has a slight whiff of sulfur when you take it from the tap. This dissipates in just a few minutes. To gig up the taste factor, I put a drop or two of peppermint extract in each glass. It’s refreshing, bracing, and tasty. I’ve also been known to use rosewater, but that’s kind of an acquired taste. A breath too much of it and you’re guzzling a floral bouquet.

*Evening yoga. I’ve found the perfect relaxing routine for after my bath. It’s Rodney Yee’s Yoga for Beginners, and I use Colleen Saidman’s practice with inspirational commentary. It only takes twenty minutes and makes a huge difference in how flexible I am. (I am thisclose to getting my head on the ground during wide-legged forward bend…)

*Reading poetry and self-improvement. It’s easy to immerse myself in mysteries and research to the neglect of everything else. But these are the two categories that create the most change for me. Poetry makes me think more deeply, and self-improvement encourages positive thinking. I am invariably more satisfied with my life when I’ve got at least one of these on the go with my regular reading.

*Working out. Just writing that makes me queasy, but I’ve been doing HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts on the stationary bike and I don’t hate it. Every other day, starting off with 15 minutes, and I can watch Netflix while I do it. It’s over with so quickly, I don’t even have time to dislike it, and I’m already seeing improvements in my strength. This week should see me pushing the intervals to a more challenging level.

*Letting go of expectations. I know that I should meditate. I know I should keep a journal. I don’t really do either of these things except when I find myself tied up in knots. Instead of making a regular practice of them, I use them as needed as a sort of booster rocket. And that’s okay.

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Happy 2016!

Hey, readers, I hope your holiday season was stupendous! I’m back to live-blogging…sort of. The major revision of A PERILOUS UNDERTAKING is due January 15, and the proposal for the third Veronica book is due two weeks later. No pressure! (hollow laugh) Actually,  I woke up January 2 with the plot for the proposal pretty well roughed out–which was a complete surprise. I knew one or two elements I wanted to include, but my subconscious did me a solid and filled in the blanks. It’s a wonderful stew of things I’ve enjoyed researching since I was a teenager, so I’m VERY excited about putting together this proposal. While I’m trying to put these projects to bed, I will still be posting here Tuesdays/Thursdays in January and putting regular snippets on Twitter and Instagram. (It’s taken me a ridiculously long time to get around to Instagram, but I dig it. Now if I could just remember to take pictures…)

There’s also something TREMENDOUSLY EXCITING that I can’t even hint at sharing right now, but I will tell you this–progress is being made on the Lady Julia TV series. I hope you have more news to share soon, but at least you know THINGS ARE AFOOT.

Also, today is newsletter day–hope you got yours! And if you have a book club, be sure you check out the monthly contests on the Contest page of the site. We’re giving away a full book club set (8 copies) of various books throughout 2016.

It seems weird to be writing 2016, but here’s a confession: I never once got comfortable with 2015. I don’t know why; I just had some sort of block against it. The year did not start well, and the first half of it was consistent challenge. Things eased up midway through, but I think by then I had already decided that 2015 and I were going to just have to tolerate each other. From September on, things were very much better indeed. Still, when the holidays popped up and the year drew to a close, I had a much stronger “good riddance” feeling about 2015 than I have in quite a while. I stalked Target until my favorite planners were put out on November 1 just because I was so happy to anticipate the new year! I do like a fresh start…

 

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